Thursday, 29 April 2021

farewell to Anthony Thwaite

Anthony Thwaite

It is with sadness that I record the death of Anthony Thwaite (1930-2021). I wrote about his work (in The Council of Heresy and Fulfilling the Silent Rules) and I admired it a lot.

The person who broke the news to me talked about him editing the CIA Monthly. True enough – Thwaite was literary editor of Encounter for twelve years. My initial response was “...because it connects to Thwaite's links to Encounter. I have been reading Stuckenschmidt's memoirs and he mentions Nikolai Nabokov about 30 times - so a lot of his visits, conferences, etc. were funded by the CCF and so by the CIA- but Stuckenschmidt was an admirable guy. The people Henze is attacking made some amazing avant garde music happen in the Fifties. I doubt Encounter ever published any avant garde poems, but I suspect that they published a lot of good poetry. 
The CIA policy behind the CCF was to strengthen the soft Left and to promote "quality" but non-political culture. This wasn't so bad and I can't detest Thwaite for being in there. what was he doing... reading poems and sending cheques to poets. not asserting falsehood.”
The fact that you have to go forth and defend him already says that he was making a terrible mistake. The Encounter job seems to have been 1973 to 1985… but the big exposure of CIA involvement in culture followed an article in Ramparts magazine – in 1967. Conor Cruise O’Brien had given a lecture remarking on why Encounter was “so congenial to the prevailing power structures” in 1966. And Spender and Kermode resigned as editors, citing the CIA link, in 1967. This is the context when we see Thwaite signing up to Encounter in 1973.
I have just been reading about the musical events organised by Nikolai Nabokov in the 50s and 60s – in Stuckenschmidt’s memoirs. Nabokov was totally involved with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, no debate, and he was a strong anti-communist (as Russian exiles tended to be), the funding for those concerts was coming from CIA-linked foundations. But the music wasn't anti-communist … that is a ridiculous claim. Frank O’Hara, in the 1950s, organised some European exhibitions which were equally CIA-linked and intended, by the funders, to make an argument for American freedom as opposed to communist regulation of art. Those operations involved CIA people who were quite congenial to people like O’Hara and who grasped the merit of Abstract Expressionism (as opposed to any other strand of American art).

It is fair to say that the elements of the CIA which subsidised culture, during one era, were sympathetic to the soft Left, and that the rise of the New Right led to the discomfiture of those elements and the termination of their arts policy. It has been speculated (in Lobster, I think) that the information which reached Ramparts was leaked to them by distinctly right-wing elements in the CIA with the intent of discrediting and freezing out the liberal/ Left CIA staff who liked to work with people like Stephen Spender. The articles in Encounter started out from a centre Left point of view but always seemed to regard as a grand moral triumph the decision to walk out of that position and say what was “congenial to the prevailing power structures”. “Feel proud because you abandon your principles for the sake of patriotism.” The thing which didn’t show up, when I was reading it as a student, was that it was, mostly, for the sake of the next pay-cheque. But, be fair – the Right at that time was the Monday Club and the National Front, and there was no link between those real right-wingers and the prose material in Encounter. It was a false flag operation, not a right-wing magazine. My guess would be that the poetry in Encounter was completely non-political – part of its facade as a general arts and current affairs magazine. There is an anthology of "Encounter, the first ten years", 562 pp., 1963. I don't have it but I doubt you would find anything noticeably right-wing in it.
Did the CIA give up funding Encounter? This is a story which many people have spread… none of whom have credibility as witnesses. Most probably its later funding came from anti-communist tax-deductible foundations as directed by CIA culture experts.
There may have been a political poem in Encounter. I used to see the magazine in the mid-70s, there was always a copy in the junior common room. I remember reading a poem by CH Sisson which talked about a line of Russian tanks in Thuringia. Other articles counted 27,000 Soviet tanks and remarked ominously that they were only 3 days’ march away from Paris. This was striking, but the latent message was “give up trying to make Britain a more equal and open society because you have to fight the Cold War every day”. This didn’t add up, and Sisson wasn’t ever a persuasive figure. He just wanted to make your flesh creep. It was nearly 50 years ago and I’m not even sure that poem was in Encounter.

I wrote about Thwaite’s travel book on Libya in a blog in June 2012. He didn't write political poetry, in my view, but he had a long-term interest in Libyan and Japanese cultures and wrote persistently and empathetically about them. There is a volume-length interview with him, handily titled “Anthony Thwaite in conversation with Peter Dale and Ian Hamilton” (from Between the Lines). There is another serious interview by MP Ryan, included (in part) in Ryan's doctoral thesis on modern poetry.

I was sad to see (in Eric Homberger’s obituary) that Thwaite had gone through five publishers in twenty years – because four publishers dropped out. This is an aspect of capitalism you don’t hear criticised so often these days – that it produces a culture of total instability and fragmentation. Obviously, if someone writes poems (over a period of decades), the poems don’t deteriorate, and the cultural scene should preserve them and so acquire temporal depth and self-awareness. Literature needs to have books stay around, even if some people have the attitude that the past should disappear and old poets be forcibly silenced. Enitharmon added some stability. My whole career as a critic has been trying to take data in, in the first place, and to prevent the erasure of memory, thereafter.

Thwaite played a role in my career – because, when I went in for “depolarisation”, Thwaite's poetry was my way out of a dissident ghetto, and my evidence that I was sensitive to a broad spectrum of poetry. This was much to my advantage – you could say I was manipulating his work to support my own credibility. Guilt is front and centre here – for 20 years I had an opinion of Thwaite without having read his stuff. Mottram detested him, and I just took what Eric said to me as gospel. When I actually read Thwaite, starting in around 2003, I really liked his poetry. Pretty stupid of me, actually. It was suggested to me that I would like Thwaite because we were both big Browning fans. And this was a correct guess, that is why I liked his work and I am a big Browning fan. When Thwaite issued New Confessions, in 1974, I thought it was just a rip-off of Mercian Hymns. That is what it sounded like. But I didn’t know that Thwaite's Letters of Synesius preceded Mercian Hymns. So the order is Letters of Synesius – Mercian Hymns – New Confessions. Yes, all three deal with the 20th century and with late classical or early mediaeval (! take your pick) theologians. The modern aspect is only silently there in “Synesius”, it is not as radical, or as montage-led, as ‘Hymns’. But Hill and Thwaite sound like each other because they were born at the same time and belonged to the same church and studied at the same university.

There is an issue of Aquarius in tribute to George Barker where Thwaite has a long autobiographical piece recounting how he was a total Barker fan in his teens and went to London to visit the man. What he came out with was distinctly un-Barker like, but he treasured the memory.
In 1974, Thwaite published in The Listener an essay called “The Two Poetries” which sums up the whole scene. This is one of very few essays of the last 50 years which says something worthwhile about the poetry scene as a whole. A few weeks later Mottram published his “British Poetry Revival” essay for the poetry weekend at the Polytechnic of Central London and it was obvious that Thwaite’s count was wrong. He divided the scene between serious, solid academic poetry and excitable, spontaneous student or youth poetry. Eric’s essay described an intellectual and innovative poetry which was neither of those, and gave 36 examples of poets practising it. Thwaite’s point about cultural factions not talking to each other still impresses. His account of either side is remarkably fair. He points out that young people could write convincing essays about conservative poetry, for the purpose of getting good marks, while having no artistic reaction to it and certainly not enjoying it. The reason why students got so interested in thinking about how literature related to social ideology, power relations, and (even) propaganda, was that the texts they were studying left them cold. Hardly a secret!
As I went further into the “mainstream”, I looked at excellent poetry by Thwaite, Geoffrey Hill, John Holloway, Harry Guest, and Peter Levi. There was a large and over-visible stratum of “Oxbridge graduates of the 1950s”, who took a lot of flak for being boring and conservative. But you had to sweep away the foreground and look at the good poetry… and a completely different picture emerged. The stylistic values which were so irritating when people preached about them were convincing when used by highly talented poets. Eric was right to be enthusiastic about his chosen 36 poets but wrong to think that the other side had lost its artistic power decades earlier.

No comments:

Post a Comment