Nothing is being suppressed: Progressive art or subsidised freak-out?
My book on poetry in the Seventies is close to being released, and I am getting agitated.
The publisher is busy getting permissions to quote from the excessive number of quotations I have used. This is a slow process. If someone causes difficulty, I will delete the section on them and insert somebody else… this is quite stimulating for me, there is so much I had to leave out.
The book discusses 16 poets whom I have never published on before. This tidies up some outstanding lacunae, but inevitably the research phase led to me uncovering still more poets of the time, and there was no room left for them in the book. Most of these are discussed in messages on this blog, mostly during 2019. I have just realised an omission - I describe the origin of "procedures", used to make poems, in conceptual art, but i never discuss the "proceduralisation" of music, big in the 1950s but probably going back to Schoenberg in the 1920s. very hard to draw the line between art and music as source. Possibly not worth the effort. You have to omit something, in the end.
I am going to release some passages that didn’t get into the book. These are statements by other people which I found especially interesting.
A few more words on Sorley MacLean’s poem “The Cave of the Gold”, which I write about in the book.
The legend sited (also!) in Wester Ross:
"From the car park at Opinan, follow the cliff top path, north towards the headland called Sron na Carra. Some 300 yards before the headland an iron stake and a cairn mark the position of Uamh an Oir. The origin of the name has been lost, but parents in the area used to tell the children a tale similar to the Piper of Hamelin, that long ago a Piper led a party of children into the cave and they were never seen again, and if children went alone to the cave the same fate would happen to them.
It was probably a story born out of the need to keep the young and unwary away from the cave, for it is tidal and can only be reached at mid to low tide. Visitors will need to carry a light if they wish to explore the short right and longer left hand branch. It is said, if you listen quietly you can still hear the Piper far away.
There are three Caves of Gold in the area. One on the north east shore of Loch Maree [Ardlair Cave?], the third on the south side of Liathach above Torridon is said to be linked to the Cave of Gold at Opinan, for those who know the way."
An English version of the legend has been made into a poem by Mike Blackburn, ‘The Drummer Boy of Richmond” (in The Ascending Boy, 1999). Following all the variants is mind-blowing but not helpful for reading the poem, which is focussed and only uses the cluster of themes which interested MacLean. You could possibly find 1000 variants.
Eric Mottram wrote in the catalogue to a 1977 conference:
"As official British culture shrinks in response to the pressures of British economic and political decline from the raving days of Empire and Influence, the twenty-one poets of this conference expand and develop in a scene which is both local and international.
Environmental perception, then, depends on where a poet is both physically and mentally– in his cultural imagination – and where he sees himself potentially – in the past, present or future locations.
Geographers make mental maps of space preferences (the terms here are taken from Mental Maps by Peter Gould and Rodney White, Penguin 1974). We form images of place from reading, television and conversation as well as from direct contact. Romantic Nature has become perceptual geography. Scenery, climate and cultural and educational diversity determine a family man or woman’s choices, or lack of them. […] A sense of orientation is both geographical and cultural. Maps have been made of the mental topography of environments in terms of stress, fear, pleasure, security – especially in urban areas.
Information surface shows configurations of where we are: visible and invisible information environment, or what David Sten calls invisible landscape, which shapes image and behaviour (Gould and White, ibid.)—a poem moves between finding procedures for complexity and procedures for simplicity: to what extent does human behaviour seem complex because of the complexity of the information environment in which men and women are embedded; invisible stress surfaces pattern our lives. As a child, aged 5 to 12, the local area was mapped for me as two woods separated and different, the place where a dog leapt out at me from a house gate, two bus-stops, a row of shops, the library (an early Victorian house in its own grounds), school (several miles, the first by foot, the second by bus or bike), and the nearby town (a bus-journey to a street market on Saturday, and cinemas) – and further to Crystal Palace football ground, and further still, London, where father went every day and we visited as a treat. I never went abroad until, aged 18 and in the Royal Navy I travelled by cruiser to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our map of perceptions and preferences changes with age and opportunity. A poem emerges from the poet at the intersection of visible and invisible locations; of information-transmitting sources, of political and social pressures of his position and condition in historical process."
Was this actually happening? Probably not. It’s part of the music of the time.
When I was going through archived newspapers of the time, I thought Nuttall wasn’t interested by what he was reviewing, but Peter Porter was very attentive and perceptive. It was a pleasure to dig up all his reviews. he says several times that he can't follow the poetry because contextual information has been left out. This is a valid point, always, but it just tells us that there had been a long period in which poems were deadened by being restricted to what was explicit, with the implicit being distrusted as "rhetoric" or "ideology", and a feature of the Seventies was just relaxing and giving the implicit its head. Immediately, the verbal shape of the poem seems very small in a big forest of the implicit. You can't describe landscape directly - there is too much of it - but you can learn how to manipulate the implicit so that space emerges as something silent and all-capacious around the small line of verbal sounds.
We are approaching the point where the difference between poetry and prose, after the practice of regular metre has been abandoned, turns out to be the manipulation of the implicit. The implicit is both silent and foregrounded.
A basic act in political activity is distrusting the unstated as a hiding-place where collusion between the rich, also between government and the rich, goes to be out of sight. So you insist on explicit criteria. This is actually very bad for poetry. 70s poetry flourished in a sheltered space where the implicit could be allowed to broadcast its signal, without disputes over rights excluding it from culture. Maybe that is what the book shoud have been about.
"Looking at the ‘public memories’ of Bloodaxe and Carcanet encourages us to think that modern taste has given up on poetry so the shopper benefits from assertive contexts which form centres of attraction and offer a net of social reinforcement. The Underground was actually one of these. The public history of poetry is possibly the history of these “identities” as literary institutions. The process of focussing and forming preferences is wrapped up with the process of selective forgetting, since every focus creates an area of dimness around it. The “identities” are not just categories, they actually contain information and can be studied as cultural objects. They replace what used to be known as genres, and they possibly offer debut poets a model for successful poems and also a way of identifying what the market likes. The substance being generated is unstable – it keeps growing. People get further and further into what they like. So parts of the cultural field move further and further apart from each other. Bearing this in mind, we can come back to the idea of style blocs, accepting that the principle of falsifiability applies to categorisation as to other proposals of fact."
a note on context. When Dreams of the Dead was published in 1977, Peter Porter wrote “The people in David Harsent’s new poems seem to have moved into George MacBeth’s world. There is an opulence of drinks on terraces; the silences between lovers (a Harsent speciality) are in luxury hotel suites; a great deal of travelling goes on. […] I wish I could fit plots to the assemblages of lyrics which make up [two long poems]. ‘Dreams of the Dead‘ consists of lyrics dated from 30 April to August 23, yet the progress of the story does not reveal whether it is the dead who are dreaming or whether the poet is entering the lives of dead persons. A huge plot [...] has been lost somewhere: all we have are its lyrical highlights. I am sure Harsent is going in the right direction.”
Porter says this but I think the omission of information is deliberate and part of a strategy of tension. The characters are trapped in a pipe of incomplete information. The loss of resolution means that alertness climbs and climbs; the lack of answers to basic questions about safety means that tension can never be released. It is hard to define this because we do not have access to the unedited text and because the effect of the omissions is not explicit. The sense of threat is impalpable and the plot is never explained. Anxiety and triumph are inexplicit figures. The method is profoundly original in poetry. It may resemble the specialist narrative style of cinema based in violence and risk – where editing which withholds vital information makes the sense of a present threat escalate. Speculation about risk is what sucks us into the heart of the poem. The lack of perspective traps us there. The title echoes a moment in the poem, refers to the culture of dead artists, but is not a central theme. The poem does not add a wind-down which would explain the story and dissipate all the tension. It immerses us in menace, foreboding, and a sense of fate gripping the protagonist and leading him pitilessly through a story. His conscious reactions have no effect on the story. Peripheral details develop an unnatural vividness because of hypervigilance, a displacement of anxiety into an object which offers no resolution. Dreams is something profoundly original which to my knowledge has no successors. Its scale is an exit from the poetic limits of the time, creating an entire narrative. But the narrative is reduced to its essential structure – uncertainty, the vacuum that draws us in.
So the story of the period may be the reaction against poems in which everything is explicit towards poems where the implicit is everything and is the element which the poet is most interested by. Porter ticks people off for not including enough information, but this is part of the new style rather than carelessness. To be more exact: prose makes every line of knowledge explicit, poetry leaves most things implicit, and this is now the difference between prose and poetry. And so it contains poetry's raison d'etre.
Another idea which there wasn't room for:
"There is a package of (alpha male, wisdom, responsibility, experience, generalisations, ethical superiority) which older poets saw as their commodity number one and which readers reacted against. A focal problem was the poem which has some concrete information and then at the end packages it up in a moral generalisation, so something like ‘people should be nice to each other’ or ‘you can’t trust the powerful and connected’ or “isn’t he a bit like you and me" or even ‘it wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels’. I am wondering whether this kind of poem really exists. Maybe the idea of the smug closing quatrain is more of a Fear Symbol and less of a real, dreadful, thing. An older generation of readers were asking moral questions of poets, and poets were giving clear and resonant answers to these questions, which since the 1960s few people have been asking. I thought to look at Poetry Dimension 2, a reliable reference source for conventional poems of the time, which was 1972. I counted 57 poems of which 15 have a lurch into generalisation and lesson drawing at the end, or close to the end."
This doesn't add so much, because it describes the 50s-style poetry which is absolutely not what we want to remember about the Seventies. I just like counting, in the end. It's interesting that it is only 15 and not the whole 57. Also, the "new poetry" was (in one view) writing about Abstract Ideas the whole time, and not waiting for a lurch into generalisation in the last quatrain. The old-style poetry comes across as far less fluent in ideas, and this is why its wisdom is unconvincing and unsatisfying. Arguably, the new poetry is making generalisations about culture throughout the poem. Anyway, the smug final quatrain was something which older poets were Very Proud Of, and they must have been indignant that it was stigmatised and ridiculed by a younger generation. However, I think it has vanished altogether - younger mainstream poets also saw it as stigmatising, and this is something you can check in the Faber "Poetry Introduction" series.
This feature can be counted, in a way which many observers could agree on. The smug final quatrain is there, it’s not a theory. But the change in poetry probably exhibits itself in 35 features at once, it is an absolute change of aesthetic. Looking at a single feature, however plain and visible it is, does not give us the historical truth we are looking for.
I want to say that the “conclusion” is important because it follows a poem of local and particular data, which connects with the poet as a body which receives sensations, and it is the connection between the empirical poem (local) and the reader (on the plane of generality). It is where the poem stops being empirical –and the merely empirical poem can be frustrating.