Thoughts on study of history of taste
After posting about the relationship between poetic taste and the institutions over the past ten years, I thought to summarise the results. The posts are under labels history of taste, exclusion, anti-modernism, statistics, among others.
summary of results.
We will start with the most basic figures and with the maximum position of sedition. This wins by being the most critical and having the most potential to change the set-up. We will consider later whether it is valid and livable.
One, poetry is a marginal art. Few people consume modern poetry. Response: if it is so unpopular, the people in charge don’t have the mandate to be in charge. It is like the committee of the MCC after losing a test series to Ireland.
Two, the developmental process and reinforcement. If we look at Allott’s Penguin anthology (1962 edition) and see that 39.5% of the poets included had studied at Oxford university, that gives us a strong hint that take-up of higher education is significant in the developmental process which led someone to write significant poetry. Young people are taught to write about poetry in a certain way, in sixth forms and at universities, and it is likely that this affects their aesthetic reactions too. So the dominant taste has institutional backing. It is hardly surprising if the young people who missed out on those classrooms, being the bulk of the population or of any year-group, should not share those tastes. Poetry would have to be obvious and self-explanatory, not just conforming to values which English teachers admire. Poetry is a game in which winning behaviour has been defined by institutional bias.
Study of the ”inclusion lines” of anthologies is generally rewarding. It recovers something which poets are fascinated by and which editors have invested great and enduring effort in. There is a basic ambiguity – the editor spends all day including people and the bar full of dissident poets wants to claim that they spent all day excluding people. This ambiguity is fundamentally unresolvable.
Three, the development of the dominant taste.
Shifts in time show that the dominant taste is not timeless and not directly linked to objective reality. Arguably, it is the outcome of struggles between rival groups, decided by a wider “response community” with interest and expertise. With a little effort, we can trace poets who were popualr but then disappeared. We can even trace “candidate cliques” who tried to stage a take-over of taste and failed.
Because modern poetry is largely consumed by the most educated group, other groups have to be considered as the excluded. A shift in the way poetry is presented (in magazines and on the radio, for example) would change the status of poetry by appealing to part of the non-participating audience.
Four, the status of outsiders. There is a central taste, and a large number of other ways of writing poetry are consigned to outsider status. In a different set-up (after firing the existing managers) these other styles would also be able to freely compete for centre stage.
Five, the role of empathy. People empathise with the poet, to read poetry, and so converge on existing poetry and on the existing people who read poetry. This sounds benign – perhaps poetry wouldn't work if empathy didn’t work. However, it is also conservative. Dissidents may have a bad time and simply disappear or fall silent. We surely want to recover dissident poetry – which may be the most interesting material, artistically.
The denser the solidarity of a culture-bearing group, the more variant trajectories there are which were never followed. The diversification of poetry since 1970 (to take an arbitrary point) is related to the coherence and conservatism of the literary world prior to 1970.
Six. Theory of a separate female taste. Specifically, the feminist version of the literary process says that institutional support imposes values quite different from the institutional ones, and that there is a separate, female and feminist, scale of poetic merit, which would inject a phalanx of female poets into the “top 100 poets”.
Seven, the idea of progress – that at a certain moment a new style arrives and every existing style becomes obsolete, provincial, fit for the junk shop. This sounds like the voice of a dominant group tearing up everyone else’s assets. It is the supreme moment of exclusion. If we see the proposal that “poetry plus Theory = good” and ”non-theoretical poetry = bad”, we are bound to suspect that this is a way to eliminate rivals. All the same, innovation is what we all want.
Now I plan to go through the same points again, in more detail.
One, poetry is a marginal art. Song lyrics have the status of poems by any reckoning. It is normal to listen to songs, in our society. If it is not normal to read modern poetry, the key must be the lack of music. Poetry without music is an economically marginal taste. Everybody else rejects printed poetry because it lacks music – this is very easy to analyse. It is the minority who enjoy print who ask for analysis. This would presumably take the form of “cognitive sociology” – some cognitive patterns are attractive to a minority, who are fluent in them. There is a background to this, presumably in terms of both innate ability and acquired skills. The aesthetic pleasure presumably follows that dual ability. I am hesitant about all this, because I don’t have the academic background needed to research this kind of issue, and I am not aware of available research that would hand me the results.
Two, the developmental process. Reinforcement.
If we look at Allott’s Penguin anthology, and see that 39.5% of the poets included had studied at Oxford university, that gives us a strong hint that the developmental process which led someone to write significant poetry follows and parallels the process which led them to take-up of higher education. (If we add in Cambridge, the figure is about 60%.) These are not two independent processes, they are strands in one more complex process. Since the dominant taste is the one supported by the English syllabus and the way exams are marked, it is reinforced by the management in 6th forms and at universities.
While we may be looking at poems written when the subject was aged 30, the process involves sensitive stages in adolescence: in order to pass exams at age 18, the subject had to follow a certain path from age fifteen on. That path must have included study and much reading, probably also attendance at a selective school, which involved contact with teachers who had the time to interact with pupils (especially gifted ones), and who themselves possibly had access to the elite culture. Quite possibly they were among the people who read modern poetry.
For an 18 year old, the act of writing a poem is likely to recall previous acts of writing school work for the approval of teachers. This is an aspect which people like to suppress, as part of leaving chilldhood behind. Actually, the teacher is the original reader, the original window through which you could see how other people reacted to your words. I am speculating that people who wrote poetry have positive memories of that experience, that the teachers generally had said to them “yes, very interesting”. Pupils are likely to reproduce the cognitive behaviours which teachers rewarded. I suspect that this is a buried stratum of verbal awareness, that learning how to be a poet reprograms it to almost non-existence. But approval is certainly motivating. It is not surprising if people who write good poems had earlier on been good at passing exams. Self-confidence may be the most precious resource. The system does produce 18 year olds with swelling self-confidence.
Successful pupils acquire a strong sense of approval for conforming to the dominant rules (which become dominant in this way). A completely different scale of values could be accessible if this reinforcement were interrupted, or if someone deliberately made an exit from them.
We can speak of an inside with no outside. That is the most pessimistic model. We could also speak of the memory of pleasure. As a reader you converge on the good poetry which actually exists. As a poet you congregate on the audience which actually reads poetry. These processes are profoundly pleasurable and pleasure is the most powerful reinforcement. Of course the prevalent system of values reproduces itself. Approval and pleasure are hard to separate – it is inorganic to separate them, at least completely. Consider someone who writes poetry, radically original indeed, which nobody enjoys. That is not very pleasurable. After a while, such poetry is likely not to get written. And this is where the bit about “an inside with no outside” might actually be true.
Three, the dominant taste.
British poetry has evolved rather rapidly over the past hundred years, and for this to happen it was necessary for the scene-makers not just to teach people what literary values were, but to reform those values, periodically, and inculcate new ones. Anthologies are a convenient way of studying these shifts, although they are not the things which make the shifts occur.
If you look at the series of three widely read anthologies – by Michael Roberts in 1936 (the Faber Book of Modern Verse), Allott in 1950 and again in 1962, and Lucie-Smith in 1970 – it is valid to regard them as victorious in the struggle over taste; they both take advantage of the victors and consecrate them. It is simple to show that there were thousands of other poets who do not show up in their contents lists and did not reach a susceptible audience of school pupils or students through that medium. (I discussed this through looking at a 1938 book by Herbert Palmer which presents the case against modernism in some detail.) It is likely that those three anthologists shared the same heritage, the later two massively influenced by their predecessor (or predecessors, respectively). Roberts left out several dozen quite well-known poets, ones whom Palmer discusses. if you look at those moments where taste has been decisively influenced, it is hard not to think that the outcome could have gone in several different ways.
Looking at sociological categories finds that the victorious poets tend to be male and Oxford graduates, but tends to bypass a more obvious qualification, that the editors were looking for a certain process of intellectual liberation, of “mastery of language”, and that this is what the victors had actually delivered. This is a diffuse quality, but could include an appearance of having reached the outside of conventional knowledge. Or of filtering naive self-consciousness through the findings of science (possibly including sociology?). Or of freedom from prejudice and common sense.
Without re-running a rather angry debate, let me suggest that Eric’s values were academic, effortful, highly literate, meritocratic, and so forth. He detached poetry from Pop culture rather thoroughly. The question whether Mottram is a breakaway or rather continuing the line of Allott. Eric’s definition of the ”British Poetry Revival” could be the fourth standard-setting anthology, successor to Roberts and Allott.
Two obvious lines which Roberts rejected are nationalist poetry and the rhetorical style. These vanished from history. In several posts I investigate them. The conclusion is not that they should be resurrected. (I do not investigate the decline of religious poetry, arguably more important.)
UKIP as a form of anti-modernism. The attack on liberal elites which took off around 2010 (arguably), included a negative version of high culture, as the “liberal elite”, and this is a moment where the hegemony becomes visible. English Nationalist poetry had been part of the cultural hegemony between around 1890 and 1920; there are questions around its demise around 1920 and why it has never come back. This shift is a stain, a way of tracing of where the consensus is. I discuss this under labels “UKIP” “anti-modernism” “right-wing poetry”.
There is a question whether the modernist revolt, as canonised by Roberts’ 1936 anthology, is actually the same as the taste “institutionalised” by the rise of English Literature courses at universities (which didn’t exist prior to 1920). This is problematic. Certainly, Eng Lit students in the 1950s were expected to read Eliot and Auden. But the details are problematic.
2a, statistics. The posts include a series which argue about numbers. The initial project was to define selectivity: so if Lucie-Smith selects 85 poets it is of interest to establish that there were possibly 3000 published poets he could have taken on for his survey of the span 1945 to 1970.
Listing out all the poets publishing (in long spreadsheets) is tedious but does highlight how many people get left out. Most probably, there are gatekeepers and they do not read all the poetry published. Rather, they rely on advice from other gatekeepers, an intelligent system which is good at picking up talent. But it is easy for the system to miss poets, either because they don’t play the poem-submission game hard enough or by sheer accident. The shared values of the gatekeepers are the hegemony, in plain sight. If you find a list which shows 906 books of poetry being published in 1977, you have to ask: how would you design a system in which an “intelligent filter” would sift through all that poetry? when the people taking part aren't being paid to do it?
Three, links of poetry to higher education
I have not written about this because it is too pervasive. It is likely that the poetry audience consists mainly of graduates, that the number of poets active has increased in line with the number of graduates in the population, that the proportion of female poets has risen in line with the proportion of females in the total set of graduates. Further, that the proportion of poets from ethnic minorities (BAME) is increasing in line with the number of ethnic minority graduates.
In this concept, the poetry audience is necessarily changing because the demographics of the graduate cohort are changing. Much of the debate around poetry is actually about how fast the changes should be, and what its attitudinal or doctrinal implications are.
The Sixties saw an expansion of the elite, with a great increase in the number of students in higher education. Evidently poetry expanded too, socially and stylistically. What it did not do was get away from the predominance of university study as a “Qualification” of its writers and readers. This is a statement which can be flipped over – I am aware that people have very firm opinions on both sides of the argument. It is true that publishing a book makes knowledge available to anybody who picks the book up. It is true that the point of universities was to share and disseminate knowledge. You can't find fault with that. However, if you measure it is also true that the new students tended to come from middle-class families –and that, during the Sixties, the great majority of them were male. If Allott did an anthology for Penguin, the product was a paperback on sale for a few shillings (6/- in 1963) which would be on the shelves of any bookseller. This must have been an example of making culture available to everybody. That is the only possible description. He spends many pages of the book explaining why each poem is good, and exactly how good it is. That is designed to heighten accessibility. It tells you what you are looking for, it shows you what you are missing. He tells you not every poem is unattainably great. This is frank and democratic. What is less certain is how many readers actually wanted to read rather sombre analytical prose en route to artistic pleasure – in fact, we can see this as a hurdle, a selection factor.
Four, the status of outsiders
essay on folk-song and poetry (label “folk song”). Actually a naive style being used by the educated. what we see is the excluded layers of language being recuperated by accepted poets. This process of recuperation was taking place throughout the 20th century – it is not something with unexploited potential.
One proposal is that the unsophisticated poetry at any point is soaked in styles which had once been dominant and which the centre had defined as out of date.
The research led me to get very interested in vanity press poetry. If you look at all the books published in a given year, it becomes obvious that a large number of titles are produced by poets you have never heard of – and publishers who never get a book reviewed. You have found the vanity press world. If you ask why people don’t know how poetry is written, don’t know how to get publishers interested, don’t know why people would like their poetry – that might answer the question of how do (other) people find out how poetry is written, what style is possible in the year we are actually living in, what the poetry audience wants. That is, looking at the outside of poetry illuminates what the inside is.
Poring over spreadsheets with thousands of titles, I have noticed some exceptions to the rule that vanity press poets have no careers because they do not understand how the literary process works. I can see at least four poets who started with vanity (or, obscurely, “semi-vanity”) presses who went on to achieve some fame – and, to be egocentric for a moment, writing poetry which I am familiar with and enjoy. (names withheld). I don't have exact data on how some rather subterranean publishers operated– but my impression is that, in the four decades I am concerned with, 20% of titles came from vanity presses who made the author pay, and possibly rather more than that. Sending out poems to many magazine editors gives those people the chance to reject you and prove you wrorng. Not all poets are up to this. Maybe we have to rethink, and maybe poets who use vanity presses are not so dissimilar from everybody else. Sending your poems to 100 magazines is rational, but maybe not all fledgling poets are that rational in how they go about things.
Five, the role of empathy
It is legitimate to ask “why is this good taste”. Poetry is a profoundly social activity, everything converges. It is likely that your taste has been influenced by your teacher at school, by your friends as a student, by the anthologies you read as a teenager, by the theorists you read. There is a lock and key arrangement here – you acquire the accepted taste and then you find yourself perfectly equipped to read poetry which actually exists. In fact, you may well converge on what exists – if only because converging on what does not exist is pointless.
This is most cogent when we ask why most of the educated audience ignores modern poetry. The real audience acquired taste by face to face contact, to some extent. People who missed out on this probably don’t have the poetry-reading habit. It follows logically that they have not been influenced or programmed. In theory they could, as a body, represent a hundred kinds of poetry that nobody is writing. This remains a theory because they do not participate and we cannot acquire information about their reactions.
Possibly 0.01% up to 0.03% of the adult population read poetry as part of their normal cultural intake. So, wondering about the people who seldom or never participate has a large area to wander through – although almost no data is available to support any speculation. It is natural to hypothesise that this 0.03% resemble each other – they are attracted to the social activity around poetry because they find it easy to converse with the people who are taking part in that activity. Further, we would guess, taking part in that life causes them to converge further – as they share the same experiences, they become more similar. Actually, the more empathetic people are, the more they become similar to the other people who they interact with – poetry demands empathy, and empathy makes you share feelings and attitudes.
There is a paradox here. Someone who is bad at empathy may find poetry irritating, for staking the whole game on empathy. They may be unable to enjoy it, because empathy delivers the information which could clause pleasure. So we may have a route-map in which people who lack empathy are missing from this territory, and people who are strongly empathetic come to share the dominant values because their inclination is to share and understand other people's feelings and wishes.
Six. Theory of a separate female taste. Evidence is lacking. I have never considered this. The question of a new aesthetic is separate from the question of political agitation and legal reform or equal pay, practical issues. I am uncertain how to approach this. Various posts describe female poets omitted by Allott and Lucie-Smith and argue for their restoration. Label “mid-century women’s poetry”.
Seven. The idea of progress in art, and of reflexivity making art the subject of art. See label “historicism”. 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 was applying. It is difficult to see a breach as having occurred between Roberts and the British Poetry Revival. Actually what Roberts evokes is 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.
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”.
Does progress take place? I don't find this question to be soluble. If you see an editor, or a little group, say that the poetry they favour is the definitive style of the moment, you are bound to suspect that this is simply a tactical weapon to shove every other kind of poetry off stage. However, innovation is always possible, and it may be that something vital is happening in a small area of poetry, in any given year. This possibility seems to have become much less prominent since the 1990s, as the diversity of poetry is just too apparent to everybody – people no longer believe in a “leading edge”.
I have tried to remove judgements from the above text. In this conclusion, I will relax that a bit. I want to point out the problems with poets rejecting external criticism, and how they will bend any line of argument to support their belief in themselves. It is now popular to criticise society, or the literary world, for not being perfectly set up to admire a particular poet, i.e. the poet who is speaking. So, “if history had run differently then you would have liked my work. Therefore it is my right to ask for re-programming to take place. Your right to enjoy your own taste or to dislike my work is thus removed, I refuse to accept it.”
I am not keen on this line of reasoning. Readers get into poetry to acquire an experience. If you invalidate the judgements of good and bad which are integral to that experience, you invalidate experience altogether. Nobody is going to bother with poetry in this climate of opinion. Taste follows someone’s biography but I am sceptical that you can invalidate either one. Poets need to accept the validity of public opinion and of the people who buy their poetry. When your poems are rejected, rather than criticise the hegemony, write better poems.
If there is some idea in linguistics which I picked up as a student in 1976, it may well be that someone disproves it in 2021. I can think of specific examples. So I could have been wrong for the whole of that time. I expect quite a few things which I read in 1976 were actually untrue. I don't think this applies to poetry appreciation in the same way.
I have been talking about three classic anthologies because it is certain they were influential. If we looked at badly constructed anthologies, the influence is less certain, and we might be scrutinising the stupidity of one editor, rather than seeing a real part of the cultural landscape. But, obviously, there are some pretty bad anthologies around. Poetry With an Edge is an anthology which does not convince, either by the quality of poets included or by the arguments and assertions about the quality of the poets. However, it only a sample from one publisher- it is not a standard anthology and nobody supposed that it was. The flaws it shows are not, straight away, flaws in the scene as a whole, rather than local and meaningless ones. The underlying point of the contents list, that this publisher was signing more new poets than any other one, is conviction because it is true.
Gesturing towards that crowd of the rejected does not at all tell us that we want to read them all. Excursions into the Greyed-Out Material (the redacted names, you could say) highlight the act of exclusion but do not invalidate it. I think Roberts, Allott, and Lucie-Smith did incredibly well in finding the good poetry. Of course it is compelling to dig up poets they passed by. But mostly they got it right. It is interesting to see how Roberts left out Edward Thomas, but Allott, following Roberts scrupulously for the most part, put him back in – even though Allott’s anthology technically starts in 1918 and Thomas died from the blast wave of a shell in 1917. What I find difficult is “reversing figure and ground”, so that their choices would seem invalid.
If we suppose Lucie-Smith considered 400 poets to assemble his volume with 86 poets, the possible data about why each of the others was rejected is very voluminous. Unfortunately it is not on record. We could use it only after making it up. That is actually two problems, volume and invisibility. The process of criticising anthologies has to sail round these problems. It is certainly easier to look at the winning poems, which we can read – but that means leaving out the process of selection. Silence is too important to be passed over in silence.
When New Lines came out, crystallising the Movement as a standard of taste, there was a symposium in Essays in Criticism in response to it. That gesture shows how important the anthology was. But, if you read the symposium, nobody in it likes New Lines very much. So, the Movement was not the hegemony. There is a hegemony but it embraces a whole range of central standards and individuals, so that you can never look at it directly. If we consider that Allott was a “normative” editor, you have to take on the fact that he selected 86 different poets. They are extremely different from each other. He probably thought he was covering the spectrum, and this is what all gatekeepers think.
I have not read any vanity press publications, although logically that should be a source of information on the exclusion process. I mentioned four people whom I know to have used paid-for publications and who later emerged as significant poets – since I have read their work, that is useful if low-grade information about that greyed-out sector.