Saturday, 19 June 2021

The academic taste 1936-98

Technical post with supporting data

Note. This is a piece of analysis necessary to support other posts. It is analytical rather than giving new information about lost or misunderstood poets. The theme is simply that the "British Poetry Revival" was a product of the (modern) system rather than something from an island wilderness somewhere.

Without re-running a rather angry debate, let me suggest that Eric Mottram’s values were academic, effortful, highly literate, meritocratic, and so forth. He detached poetry from Pop culture rather thoroughly. The question whether he is a breakaway or rather continuing the line of Allott which a generation had absorbed in the 6th form. Eric’s definition of the ”British Poetry Revival” could be the fourth standard-setting anthology, successor to Roberts and Allott. If we break poetry into academic poetry versus other kinds, the Alternative as defined by Mottram belongs clearly with the academic kind. His values are meritocratic and favour abstract ideas. It is possible to argue that he staked out a position which bypassed a large subset of the Alternative scene, and that the total legacy of the Underground includes values which meant nothing to Eric. Repeatedly he asked for poetry to need work, and for readers to invest the needed work and not be lazy. He had a vision of consumer culture as being completely relaxed and undemanding, and he rejected this altogether. This is a meritocratic approach to culture. He sounds quite similar to many other academics of his generation in worrying about leisure being effortless.
Let us look at what Roberts says in the introduction to his 1936 anthology. “... and a poem is equally confusing if it takes into account greater complexities of thought and intricacies of feeling than the reader has ever noticed. It unsettles the mind – and by the mind I mean more than the conscious mind; and the reader expends the energy he originally brought to the poem in trivial irritation with the poet. […] in so far as the poet is a good poet, the situation will remedy itself. [...]perhaps their recognition of the new element will be accelerated by his writing. But in either case they will welcome the way of speech which makes them articulate. […] Sometimes his writing is significant primarily for only a few of each generation as when it is evoked by some remote place or rare experience or an intricate thought which few can follow. [...] his writing has a value over and above that of its immediate appeal: he has added to the possibilities of speech, he has discovered evocative rhythms and image-sequences unknown before. In a good poet a change or development of technique always springs from a change or development of subject-matter. [so] we must also discuss content[.]”
This belief in innovation is obviously close to the criteria which Eric Mottram was applying. It is difficult to see a breach as having occurred between Roberts and the British Poetry Revival. Actually what Roberts evokes had become the main line of British poetry. We have to speak of editors compromising with a more colloquial style, rather than Mottram’s idea being an innovation or deviation. He could pick up 36 poets because the system had produced those 36 poets. Roberts starts by describing a crisis, the economic crisis present in 1936, which directly affects poetry. It brings about a crisis of self-awareness which draws with it a crisis of style. Taking on modern poetry also involves a personal crisis for the reader, or this is what Roberts implies. It is hard to see that there has been a crisis continuously from 1936 to 2021. I think the proposal is more “we only become conscious in moments of crisis, our normal state is one of serenity and routine thoughts”. This is interesting – maybe it is also true that “poetry is not at all points in a stage of wiping out its past and embracing the radically new, most years are ones of stability and serenity”.

A check shows that, of 36 poets whom Eric defined as the British Poetry Revival in 1974, 3 had studied at Oxford and 10 at Cambridge. This suggests that he was not reacting against the academic taste. It allows us to claim that his poets were innovative, that they were critical thinkers and oriented against literary and political doctrine, but not that they were “outside the system”. Sociologically, he was favouring male poets and highly educated poets, and the same arguments that can be levelled against Allott (in 1962) can be levelled against Mottram.
The question of what values opposed Mottram’s favoured poets to (some) other authoritative critics in the 1970s is not at all simple. I am going to bypass it, while observing that it is not as simple as “Left versus Right” or “Establishment versus Outsiders”. In fact, it is logical to see Mottram's roster as the successor to Roberts, Allott, and Lucie-Smith. It is anomalous to favour those three while rejecting Mottram’s choices. It is an inconsistency which the passage of time is likely to wear down and smooth out.

A point of departure for us was the observation that the majority of society is happy to consume poetry in the form of songs. Excluding song from poetry, by some act of definition, is an effort too great to be worth attempting. The anomaly is consuming poems without music. This is something which only a minority, in Western societies, undertake. A credible proposal is that the ability to do this involves cognitive practices, or preferences, which correlate with higher education –and that success in higher education is made possible by acquiring them.
Secondary proposals are that the development of 20th C poetry has been directed by a need to exploit this musicless space – both by developing the possibilities which are latent inside it and by avoiding the qualities which fall flat without music (and the atmosphere which music lends). And, that there is a line of four statements which track the history of this “high quadrant” of taste, namely Roberts, Allott, Lucie-Smith, and Mottram. Roberts defined a modern taste partly by eliminating 50 to 100 poets (who were otherwise popular) and the three successors did not resurrect any of the poets he had struck out – part of a consistency of line of a very dramatic nature.
The poetry in question is secular, fluent in abstractions, attracted to crisis, critical, and attached to Enlightenment values. Applying the findings of science to self-awareness is a particular feature of it. A belief in the value of acquiring knowledge is fundamental. This often involves dissolving inherited knowledge. It is reasonable to associate these values with higher education and with cognitive practices which are obscured by music. The distantation from music, or from song, is not accidental.
If I could inject just one example it may make things clearer. I have just been looking at a chat site where people were talking about films. The topic of “worst films ever released” elicited answers which mentioned “Zabriskie Point”. I really like this film. My guess is that the problem is because it shows exact documentary scenes in order to raise doubt about American society – the state of aperture in which one can have new ideas is the location of pleasure for the intended audience. But, some cinema-goers find that state anxious and frustrating. I am inclined to say that they equate entertainment with constant gratification, what you offer a fractious five-year-old child. So there is a wide separation between people who enjoy that state of doubt and people who find it unpleasant. This is a big clue to why poetry based on abstractions exists, and why some people don’t like it.

The 36 poets listed by Mottram are not all writing the same poem. The range of subjects and styles is immense. But it is possible to speak of fundamental, initial conditions. It is also right to speak of an audience formed by reading this poetry, and for whom the poetry exists. One initial condition is that the gap left by the abolition of inherited forms of gratification is huge. Poetry which goes halfway into the new space is going to fail, not filling this gap. The situation favours poets who take on the new emptiness wholeheartedly – who write poetry native to this realm rather than having nostalgia for conditions which cannot be found there. Developments are not random, they are adjustments to the laws of the new space. Often this involves an acceptance that abstract thought is central, and removal of finished ideas, of information (we could say), which would inhibit such thought by removing the objects it could have worked on. I said that the consistency between four major statements of the contents of the modernist realm was astonishing. This means that the differences are small enough to be peculiarly enlightening and to repay close examination.
Comparisons between Mottram and Lucie-Smith suggest that Eric just narrowed the scope, to produce a specialist anthology. After all, half (19/36) of Mottram's poets are already there in Lucie-Smith. If you look at the poets whom Mottram left out, it becomes obvious that Mottram was systematically favouring the academic taste – complicated, ambitious poems with insider knowledge of European styles, belief in critique, openness to abstract ideas. And, relatively, limited interest in biographical poems about personal feelings. Love poetry is not on the agenda. His preferences are meritocratic.
I suspect that the precision of these comparisons sustains the basic thesis – that, despite the profound differences between roughly 160 poets appearing in the four selections described, there is an underlying shape which guides the four editors. A shape which tolerates 160 different poets cannot be ultra-specific.

Lucie-Smith includes 30 of Allott’s poets – although moving on by a whole generation and losing the first 27 years of Allott’s time-span. Essentially, Lucie-Smith accepts Allott’s version of the post-war period. Allott leaves out Charles Causley, at his most productive in the 1950s. Lucie-Smith was surely right to re-enlist Causley. His similarity to a folk style (i.e. to traditional songs as they might have been sung by sailors, sober or not, at the time he was writing) makes him marginal to a modernist editor – so “good but it doesn’t really count”.

Of poets in Allott, I am amazed that Lucie-Smith left out Kathleen Raine – she wrote so many compelling poems. But, in the context of an overall tendency which is secular, it was consistent to drop her over the side. Raine went on to write a thorough critique of the modernist thing. Having been married to two modernist poets, she was in a good position to to do that. She had seen it being set up, in the group around the magazine Experiment around 1930, run by students whom she knew very well. Her definition of the entire set of what modernism had blanked out, subjected to unobserving, is useful for getting the geography straight, even if the theses, drawn from the Counter-Enlightenment, are unconvincing. It is understandable that Lucie-Smith should omit her. She would have omitted him. Empson, in the Experiment offices, had put stress on exact analysis of feelings, with a background belief in materialism, the chemical basis for what happens in the mind. This is intertwined with Close Reading of poems. The two have been responsible for a great deal of English modernism. And Raine rejected these ideas, even in 1930.

Lucie-Smith includes very few religious poems – although, of poems published in his period, they were surely a high percentage. Rhyme, religion, disbelief in abstraction – all these were features of women’s writing, in the lost mid-century era. So the poor showing of women in Lucie-Smith’s book is structurally given, it isn’t a question of individual preferences emanating from him. He includes Peter Levi's poem about a pope – but it is in fact critical of religion, subtly attacking Pius XII for not protesting about the Holocaust. It is critical and about politics, so avoiding the features of religious poems which secular people object to.

Evidently the poets whom Mottram collected, and the rest of the Alternative sector who came along a bit later, would not have accepted that there was a shared Alternative agenda. They would have defined themselves as in revolt against that, and other things.

Crisis theory sustains the idea of constant historical progress. In fact, it may be that the idea that “every year most of the art of the past collapses and loses all meaning” is incredible unless you believe that there is a constant, unresolved, social crisis. If you accept that consciousness is normally only there for a few minutes a day (as at least some textbooks say), then someone might induce a crisis in order to prolong consciousness – because they feel that they are so intelligent that they win if legacy knowledge is useless. Even if other people associate it with anxiety, frustration, discomfort, etc. Are we really in a constant state of crisis? Certainly modernist art does well in a situation of crisis, and certainly the idea that art itself is in crisis appeals to some people and not to others. Highly intellectual art possibly has handicaps, but also a competitive advantage during a cultural crisis. Peter Fuller wrote that book “The crisis in modern art” - once you accept the truth of the title, then you need to read the book. I must say, I wasn’t aware that modern art was in crisis in 1983. Crisis and the obsolescence of tradition are complementary ideas. Maybe they're both wrong.

I have been looking at Sean O’Brien’s anthology The Firebox, which covers the years 1945 to 1998. How does this relate to past anthologies? Well, And 29.4% of his poets went to either Oxford or Cambridge. I did a count of how many poets from Lucie-Smith’s roster re-appear in O'Brien's. The count is 29. Given that his book covers almost 30 years after Lucie-Smith’s book was published, and so closed, this is a strikingly high level of overlap. The conclusion is that he has accepted Lucie-Smith's version of the post-war decades – and so that the sequence is Roberts– Allott – Lucie-Smith – O'Brien. O’Brien does not rescue poets whom Lucie-Smith had thrown off the boat. This is in line with the acceptance path which goes from Roberts onwards. We are looking at a consensus.
What is this telling us? We spoke of a modernist quadrant which includes free verse, secular views, the rejection of English nationalism, Enlightenment values, a belief in social progress as those values abolish rigid tradition, and finally graduate poets. My impression is that almost 100% of O’Brien’s poets are graduates. The university link is fundamental, to a point where it is never discussed. It is true that he has cut down on Oxford and Cambridge – the educational apex has widened, dramatically so. The interest in montage, by contrast, has faded out. The role of cultural criticism has also weakened (although it may have been replaced by something more diffuse and more consensual).
Snippet biographies no longer reveal details of a poet's educational status – people are too anxious about the meritocratic system for this to be neutral. So I can’t tell if any of these 126 poets missed out on university. It would be interesting to see further information on this. Yes, maybe they aren't all graduates. They are pretty close on it, as a group. (Causley and Roy Fuller did not go to a university. Interesting – one was a teacher, one a lawyer. It is hard to think back to the 1930s when that didn’t imply graduate status. No, they required vocational training. So poets born before 1930 are relatively unlikely to have attended university.)

O'Brien's selection is even more secular than Lucie-Smith's. It is noticeable that he does not reinstate Kathleen Raine – my impression is that he has closed out the line of “New Age spirituality” which Raine founded, not everyone’s taste but surely part of the big picture. I am speaking about "university taste" while avoiding a definition of it. That offers difficulties. However, Barker, Raine, and Causley clearly represent what university taste dislikes, and that may be a glimpse of its boundaries. If we're lucky.
I have a note saying that in 1950 there were 25 universities in Britain. Rather obviously that expansion meant that the poetic world could no longer be dominated by two or three of them – and that the graduate world was going to grow so huge that it could take over the literary world almost in its entirety. The apex was going to grow much wider but also much stronger. I don’t think there is much doubt that the influence of Close Reading and so on has diminished – anything monolithic and doctrinal has been steadily criticised, if only because the number of people involved in higher education has made the unspoken assumptions too obvious for people not to be aware of them. Graduates used to be a group so small and envied that they were homogeneous, that just isn’t true when there are several million of them. However, if everyone has gone through the mill of writing essays about poetry, most of them for two years of A-levels and then three years of Eng Lit at university, that is bound to have an effect – producing shared assumptions and blind spots. The four anthologies discussed are a site where you can gather information on the blind spots. The key factor may simply be approval – certain reaction patterns are so rewarded by teachers, and locked into anthologies, syllabi, and so on, that they come to seem natural. And continue to carry their burden of pleasure. Pleasure, approval, empathy – these are the conservative forces. And someone who is weak in these areas is unlikely to get far in the creative arts.

No comments:

Post a Comment