Monday, 3 May 2021

Sydney Goodsir Smith

Lost texts

I was looking recently, and found that my old website,, has disappeared.[this was a temporary blip "An automatic security update has banged the doors shut." not sure whose security was threatened, but it is now back up] It contained really a lot of texts about British poetry, some of which I have copies of and some of which I don’t. A good moment to say farewell, really. Some of the texts relate to a chapter about Scottish poetry which was part of the original 'Failure of Conservatism' in 1993, when it was not yet called that. I cut it when I rewrote the book (in 1997?) and somehow it never floated into any of the later volumes. I had spent a lot of time studying Scottish poetry at a time when I did not know how to write criticism, and when I did learn how the Scottish material belonged to an older stratum of my mind and was not at the surface. This is a flaw in the “Affluence” work. So I am releasing here two sections, only, of that mid-90s work. Dare I say that I got better at literary criticism after this?

Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-75)

After doing the linguistic work to get through the surface of his poems to the artistic conception, one is bewildered to find so little. Under the Eildon-Tree (1948) is the first book of the Scots Revival other than MacDiarmid's which one can call excellent. Eildon-Tree can be seen as a regression to sixteenth century modes, that is before Scottish literature was taken over by the English language, with an ideological covering taken from Graves. It writes in archetypal terms to express total preoccupation with a situation, with the story, and distance from mere reason. It is wonderfully effective. It can be compared to Sorley MacLean's great lyrics, in Gaelic, from about the same time.
Smith, with his themes of world politics, Scottish social morality, love, and dissipation, his glittering style and braid Scots, looked like a major poet. Close examination reveals otherwise. The English-Scots divide has often been a divide between respectable and uproarious: Smith, although from an educated family, and an academic by trade, was exceptionally keen to associate himself with the latter. His belief in the charm of the unrespectable life is quite misguided; in poem after poem he describes drunkenness, low company, and joviality, as if they had some intrinsic fascination. Peter Trudgill identified, in analysing his research on the use of dialect in Norwich, negative prestige: speakers saw the use of socially lower forms as something desirable, a way of asserting virility, sturdiness, or solidarity; Goodsir Smith is relying on negative prestige in this sense, writing from the howff. The effect of this palls very quickly, because the poetry lacks other levels of expression and development to keep our interest ablaze. Since he was not a native speaker of Scots, but acquired it in adult life, it may perhaps express a fantasy for him, a persona rather than a whole man. He comes on in the character of a larger-than-life roisterer such as Richard Harris or Richard Burton have been labelled by their publicists:

Ah, stay me wi flagons, dochter o'Sharon, comfort me,
Hain me, compass me about with aipples!
Cool this fevered spreit with seven-frondit docken,
Flagons, marjoram, green fields, Salome!
Belling beakers, let them be til my hand! Dance!
The corn be orient and immortal barley greit
Stay me, shore me up thir rue-I-ends, ye cedars o'Lebanon!
(Seceders o'Raasay, what say ye?)
Slocken my drooth with pippins, Hebe!
Rosemary, bed me, sort my place of biding, sain me,
Entreat me kindly, temper this tuneless carillon,
This cracked and untrue campanile, O Venezia, greenest isle!
- Black Rose of Shalimar, white hands, come cherish me
And hap me haill, my soul, with hairtsome companie,
Licht unflichtering of this lichtless airt!
Fetch tumblers, dear buffoons, carnalitie
And Mammon's blythsome Bridal-Sang...
-Venus Merrytricks, mix you the drinks!

(from: 'Kynd Kittock's Land')
[hain: hedge. spreit: spirit. docken: dockleaves. thir: those. rue-I-ends: possibly ruins? regret later? slocken: quench. sain: bless, cure. unflichterin: unfluttering. airt: place. hap: wrap.]
This is flavoursome, rollicking, yet it lacks movement, and it's too much of a cento, the ad lib blustering of a drunken actor recalling Falstaff's lines, an exercise in pastiche following rules we all know already. This character goes back, not to Villon, but much further, to the Goliardic poems. Kynd Kittock was a giant in a poem by the 16th century poet Dunbar. The swollen torrent of words feels like largesse and relish for life. The periphrases are not truly modern, but do not lack in force: Merrytricks is Latin meretrix, a whore (hence Mammon's bridal). A young girl, indeed, is being debauched. No doubt she is wearing Shalimar perfume. The campanile (bell tower) in Saint Mark's Square, Venice, is high and thin and must stand in for a phallus here, although this one seems 'untempered' and off the vertical. The campanile collapsed altogether in 1902 -'the atmospheric disturbance almost capsized a steamer on the lagoon'. It was raised up again, and the reference is evidently to an erection being revived by the efforts of the poet’s companion. The seceders are fundamentalist Protestants, abstainers. Bell beakers, swelling outwards, were Bronze Age vessels, quite likely filled with beer. He simultaneously attributes to the rough life qualities, of degradation, sexual exploitation and cynicism, and fundamental, unhealing despair, which destroy its appeal: he cannot persuade himself that Edinburgh Bohemia is carefree and brilliant in the way that Montmartre, at least in mythology, was. This coarseness of low life must rub off on Scots itself, which he seemed to be proud of. He believes that sex and alcohol (perhaps, too, being working-class) yield moments of higher truth, but just what is this truth? Short of turning into an Abstinence Tract, concerning repentance and redemption from the Pit of drunkenness, his work becomes an explanation of how his wastrel ways prevented him from eventually writing his great works. He died young after what one can only describe as a slow decline. One must admit that the language of the passage quoted, in its sheer remoteness from real speech, is a triumph of the imagination. The pastiche was inseparable from the revival of a language not used for 'high' poetry since Jacobean times. Claims that Scots was the authentic language for Scottish poetry seem to bounce off this language which is blatantly inauthentic, the product of alcohol and literary memories.

(I was told a story about Goodsir Smith's 'long decline'. He had a good job as theatre critic for a reputable paper, which kept him in funds without an excess of effort. One night he was so drunk he fell out of a box onto the floor below. This would not have gone so badly if he hadn’t been recognized, a cultural prominent. He lost his job. Naturally this is not Hard Fact. There is a good treatment of Smith in Christopher Whyte’s book Modern Scottish Poetry.
Black Rose of Shalimar, white hands is probably a reference to a long forgotten “kashmiri Boat Song”: pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar. I have a recording of this sung by Rudolf Valentino.)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006)

Finlay's contribution to poetry as such is slight, but attention should be drawn to it nonetheless: The Dancers Inherit the Party is an engaging volume, wholly unpredictable, exploring new ideas and cutting short the instant they cease to be interesting. His career as a maker of objects and graphics falls outside our strict limits, but despite that represents a possible way out, of both paper and public invisibility, for poetry.

Finlay first crosses our field of vision in 1945, in the memoirs of Derek Stanford, in whose company of conscripted, but non-military, labourers he served. At that time he was more interested in painting than writing poetry; Stanford records him having organized a student revolt at his art school — something ahead of its time in 1944. Fascinatingly, Stanford reports Finlay's enthusiasm at that time for Le rappel a l'ordre, by Jean Cocteau, a 1926 book promoting the neo-classicism which was such a feature of the French scene in the 1920s, and after; it was variously associated with homosexuality, stage design, Picasso, the resistance to Picasso, Surrealist painting, etc. Subtitle, "pour un classicisme vivant". Finlay later produced a postcard pack called Rapel. Finlay's vision, as developed in the 1960s, is specific, if ramified: a Classical garden whose ornaments recall the stern Republican virtue of the early years of the French Revolution, of Robespierre and Saint-Just; themselves massively influenced, in their oratory and legislation, by the idealized virtues of Republican Rome, codified by the Senatorial opposition to the 2nd century BC rise of dictatorship, a form of monarchy and arbitrary rule; a political theory taken fully fledged from an even older tradition, that of Greek civic virtues, brought to a rhetorical peak in the cult of Tyrannicides, men of exemplary virtue who assassinated, even at the cost of their own lives, the destroyer of republican freedoms. The most martial, traditionalist, ascetic, and indeed communistic of the Greek republics was Sparta. This was thought of as rustic and archaic, as well as being Doric, which is why we associate the tribal name Doric with those qualities: rusticity is also central to Finlay's project. We can see that his discourse is one of considerable complexity, even though it uses graphic and very familiar symbols, such as the Doric column.
Various scandals have attended his career; a strike organized at art school; one with his attack, in the late Fifties, on the repressive attitude of aged and distinguished Scottish poets who controlled literary patronage in Scotland; one with the local tax authorities, who assessed his Little Sparta garden at a generous rate, and then presented him with a thumping and annual rates bill; they refused to classify it as an art gallery, which attracts rates exemption. Later there was a feud with the Scottish Arts Council, leading him to the slogan 'the Arts Council must be destroyed', I'm not sure what the casus belli was; his allies are called the Saint-Just Vigilantes, after a notoriously pristine, inflexible and purely idealistic orator of the French Revolution. Then there was the scandal about his contribution to the centennial of the French Revolution; an employee of his demanded top billing, the inclusion of his own work in the show, maximum publicity for himself, etc., and when this was not forthcoming, he denounced Finlay as a pro-Nazi because various weapons and machines of World War II featured in his interpretation of recent history, as well they might. Amazingly, the French authorities were frightened by this puerile piece of gangsterism, and Finlay was removed from the celebrations. (Details of this are in relevant issues of Art Monthly, and in PN Review no. 62, for 1988).

In the 1960s (1961-7), he edited Poor.Old.Tired. Horse., a magazine of Concrete poetry, which in his hands had a certain daft wit and charm; the genre appears to have produced memorable work in Scotland, and Germany, but not in England, where it fell victim to egomania and Messianism. So far as I can tell, Finlay got involved in the Concrete thing very early in the 1960s. Görtschacher, in his wonderful book, gives an account, based on letters from Finlay, of some of Finlay's designs, for the cover of a poetry magazine in 1972: "The area on the cover [of Littack 2] is set out like a page in a herbal book. On the lexical level, there are, with the exception of the magazine's name (...) only two words. The 'Gourd' is in fact an aircraft carrier [cucurbita meaning 'vessel' and also 'gourd']. The left-hand shape is the aircraft carrier, which is based on the WW2 Japanese carrier Shinano, seen from above. The curly growths are the curious configurations of the oceans, which become growths of the 'gourd'. The sectional illustrations show the interior of the 'gourd', and the aircraft are depicted as seeds. (...) The cover for Littack 3 consists of three black tanks with green camouflage, with which the magazine is equated. The immediate idea is that beauty or order is something which rests upon a willingness to fight for their survival. The word 'Arcadia', printed in green, relates to [Poussin,] Arcadia has always been associated with the idea of death. (...) For Littack 4 Finlay adapted the idea of 'Kill Rings', (the title of the cover), that tanks carry a record of their kills in the forms of rings painted on the guns, by treating each issue as a 'kill'. (...) The cover 'Tribals', i.e. the plural of 'Tribal Class Destroyers', for Littack 5 acknowledges the visual pun on the relationship between the way that certain native tribes ornament themselves, and certain warships 'camouflage themselves'. (...) On the V2 rockets, which the Germans used to bombard London with, are messages (...) for Lord Goodman, Chairman of the Arts Council at the time, and Ronald Mavor, the former Scottish Arts Council Director. The idiom Finlay availed himself of refers back to the WW2 habit of chalking personal messages to the recipients on the bombs. (...) 'Ya bass', a Scottish version of the French 'à bas', is the best known of the Scottish gang warfare slogans and could be encountered on walls in Glasgow." (WG p.628). We may recall that the origins of Concrete work were in industrial design, which is what Max Bill was really interested in; it was to do with putting information on tin cans and packages in the most effective and economical way; logograms were invented, in Vienna, for a very similar purpose, and the aircraft markings which interest Finlay so much are an excellent example of this theory put to practical use. Advertisements, and magazine layouts, certainly resemble the best examples of Concretism, because the people who design them went on the kind of course which Bill designed. Finlay differs totally from most Concrete poets in having something to say: not a gobbledegook know-nothing antinomian, he wants a rational and perfectly formed message to reach us, and realizes that mixing visual and verbal means, and drastically simplifying wherever possible, is the most effective way of doing this. Finlay has chosen the end of the eighteenth century as his special period, but still his is basically an Enlightenment project: he does conceptual art because he is capable of conceptual thought. His designs, indeed, use the methods of propaganda: because this is a language developed by the best brains in Europe, over thousands of years, for maximum efficiency in getting information across to large numbers of people; repossessing this wealth is a first step to repossessing other kinds of wealth.
(I think Finlay designed the covers but got someone else to draw them.) (sources: Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay, A visual primer; Stephen Bann, exhibition catalogue; special issue of Chapman, circa Oct. 1994.)

At the time, I probably saw the difficulties of both poets as part of the language problem in Scotland. Finlay could barely write sentences, Goodsir Smith wrote essentially in pastiche. Today I am guessing that the difficulties were due to their personalities, not a vast collective destiny. I should have learnt a lot more about Concrete poetry before writing off the English version. On the other hand, the point that people designing aircraft markings were also graphic designers, and solving some of the same problems that Concrete poets were, still holds true. We live in a visual environment saturated with the work of graphic designers. Actually, the display inside a cockpit is also a piece of graphic design – an answer to the problem of putting complex 3D information into indicators which the brain can absorb very quickly. And we now live in front of computer screens which are instances of graphic design even if they can also put up texts or films.
Whyte’s book does not even mention Hamilton Finlay – his verbal poetry is not strong. But his work in ideograms, or graphics, however you care to put it, is a form of poetry. Why Finlay was incessantly involved in rows, starting in 1944 as Stanford recalls, is unclear, but he wasn't someone you would want as an ally.
Lucie-Smith’s anthology does not include any concrete poetry – a decision which remains surprising, since he had produced at least one anthology of visual poetry. Maybe somebody said no. He says at p.321 that visual poetry needs a different rhythm from verbal poetry and does not fit well into the same book. No doubt he is right, there is a different "scanning pattern" needed, and no doubt this applies also to criticial appreciations. Visual poetry needs a different set-up from verbal poetry (and no doubt works well with graphic design books or exhibitions).
Littack [lit + attack] was a waste of time, a movement which attacked everyone else for not being vitalist enough but had no cargo. It was frantically carrying nothing to and fro. Anybody can be bored and resentful. That doesn't produce the culture which we want to remember decades later. The suggestion in issue 2 (at p.84) that everything had gone wrong in the past 20 years, this in 1972, was ludicrous but did convey a sense of brutality and self-regard which summed the magazine up. If they missed all the 36 poets surveyed by Eric Mottram two years later (as the Revival), that shows a truly remarkable lack of knowledge and ability to respond. The heir to this legacy was the magazine Acumen.

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