Thursday, 14 September 2023

beautiful feelings

“beautiful feelings” – more themes

It is a question whether there is any influential person in the present time, or one whose ideas I should be reporting. I began thinking about this while looking at copies of Poetry Review which I had acquired in order to read up their reviews. I had an issue from 2008 and the feel was of reviewers discussing works by influential people and being deferential to them, and artistic stimuli not being much present or decisive. So I don’t discuss anybody influential in my book... I was wondering if any of these people, working at the TLS or at famous publishers, actually have any influence, apart from the obvious one of pressuring people to be more conformist. But that leaves out the issue of people being influential by the quality of their ideas, and not because they have a job which gives them patronage. (Or because they have a seat on the board of the Poetry Society and have the power to fire or appoint editors of Poetry Review.)

I think one of the prominent features of the 21st century scene is that there are no influential figures. It could be that there are people influential within particular cells of poetry and it is a question of isolating cells small enough for this power to be detectible.

There is a review by Fiona Moore in a 2016 issue of PR talking about the “Best British poems of 2015” anthology (edited by Emily Berry) which correctly points out that there is a shared Tendency in the poems chosen (like, 10 out of 71 maybe) towards erotic poems by women, and that this is related to a tendency in the USA called gurlesque and indeed that this idea was mediated by Roddy Lumsden, who pointed out to various poets that this was a workable idea. The name relates to “burlesque”, which in US theatre talk means not “comic/ parodic” but “striptease”. The poets involved are not actually girls, that too is a word which involves innuendo. I dedicate a whole chapter to the poets in that anthology and it was the dropping of inhibitions which struck me. Of course what the inhibitions were driving off stage is very complex and unfamiliar, and trying to confine it to a single idea is misleading. Googling “lumsden + gurlesque” produces 4 hits, although there are many more hits which do not show the two words within one sentence. It shows Amy Key saying “Five years ago I pitched an essay to the editors of a new edition of Gurlesque – an anthology of women poets that was central to Roddy Lumsden’s teachings. I wanted to use the essay to highlight Roddy’s incredible influence on a generation of UK poets. [...]The updated edition of the anthology however, never seems to have happened, so for what its worth I’m publishing it here, because this story is really important to me. The writing in the essay is a bit awkward and I wouldn’t write it in the same way now – its almost five years old – but I’ve left it as is.“ The US anthology came out in 2010, was edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, and featured Chelsey Minnis. When Kay says “generation” I think she means maybe 2% of an age group, and the distinction between “generation” and “tiny cell” is one I especially want to bring out. “Back in London, Roddy ran two weekly poetry workshops. In one of his classes, sometime in 2006, he introduced three poets totally unknown to everyone in the room: Chelsey Minnis, Brenda Shaughnessy and Matthea Harvey. He told us these poets were loosely known as ‘gurlesque’ writers. I can’t remember who was in the room, but around this time a few of the names I mention above were in this group with me. It was common for the poems Roddy brought to class to be taken apart—this happened most often when we were looking at work from UK poets, ones that might be defined as mainstream.“ So first we hear “generation” and now it’s one poetry class in an institute doing evening classes in Covent Garden, London. It does occur to me that there is a country outside London. This looks like a significant transmission process, Lumsden did something significant even if he hadn't invented the idea and didn’t have the skill to write poems in that style. I am doubtful about the firmness of the link between "gurlesque" and the poems in Berry's anthology.
I am facing the possibility that there might be 100 identifiable cells and that I would have to crawl through a lot of detailed evidence to identify the influences which flowed into the cell or also flowed outwards from it. To be honest I think it is better to deal with particular books close-up and leave out the question of what they are sequential to.
I don’t like the word Gurlesque, it is too close to striptease, but I would go for the word “derepression”; that is the long-term thing, continuously since the 1960s, and it has given us not just a landscape with thousands of poets but also a bewildering range of styles. If people are not conformist, then tracking influences is relatively unproductive and frustrating. That 2015 anthology gives generous space to the chosen poets to comment, and none of them mentions Gurlesque or anything like it. I found an interview with Berry about the anthology which also does not mention Gurlesque. I am grateful to Fiona Moore for pointing out the context and for observing that the editor of the series in which Berry’s anthology appeared was Roddy Lumsden.

I think someone can become influential by first of all recognising that there is no avenue for being influential on a large scale. Once they accept that the “cell” is the largest unit in which they can change the melody, they can be effective. Diversity of taste has discredited the older critics of poetry who set up a rigid ideal and became significant because they owned it. That makes you look authoritative, whereas if you recognise diversity as the sound of the time, you appear not to know anything of any value. All the same the credible critics or experts are the ones who accept diversity, that is the small size of any nameable patch. John Berger is the most tyrannical and irrational critic I can think of, someone charged up with the Stalinism of the 1950s. There were others, too. But it is hard to think of anyone like that operating today, and in fact there has been a shortage of Authority figures emerging since the 1970s. People don’t want to hear that kind of aggressive tone. I link it with territoriality, someone like Berger thought they owned the landscape and that enabled them to lay down the law. I suspect that it works in two ways, that the great range of creativity today is possible because people like that have fled into the wilderness, and that the diversity also disproves any rigid and generalising theory and discredits the would-be Commissars.
Lumsden included notes on the 85 poets in his 2010 anthology ‘Identity Parade’. The notes are really bland and passive, tending to reproduce the poet's publicity lines rather than stating anything precise. Even though he admits to copying the model of Lucie-Smith's anthology, he has none of Lucie-Smith’s ability to sum poets up. Obviously there are benefits from not being exact and analytical. In the end you could learn from Lucie-Smith how modern poetry works, but there is nobody you can learn that from today. The possibility of making a living these days comes from teaching writing classes and workshops, and that role works much better if you are passive and receptive. Encouraging students and not imposing any dogma on them. I think this is now the style of “experts”, and you can have many people being very grateful to a former teacher without subscribing to any position which they stood for. This is something to emphasise….you have plenty of people who are friendly and amenable to ideas, who want to be liked and whom you end up liking. I don’t know how to paint a picture of this, but it is certainly why you have the scene being mobbed with people who want to be poets. Also, the key ideas don't have owners.

In the book I talk about Anthony Mellors’ use of Wilhelm Müller's poem “Der Leiermann”, set to music by Schubert. I was also impressed, just now, by the use of Donovan's song “Hurdy gurdy Man” as the ominous soundtrack music to a key murder scene in David Fincher’s film “Zodiac”. Leier is a hurdy gurdy, obviously. In Donovan's lyric (to this distorted, intense, rotating psychedelic song) he talks also of “roly poly roly poly roly poly man”. I saw a reference a few days ago to a roly poly landscape. Aha – it refers to something rolling (not just to someone carrying a lot of fat). The ‘roly’ must refer to the handle of the hurdy gurdy being turned round and round. This is what causes the strings to vibrate.

Maybe if I collected stories from 100 different poetry writing classes I would have the history of poetry in the last 20 years. And that would be Success. OK, maybe I am doing the wrong kind of work. But I don't think ONE story from ONE writing class is the story of a generation.

“The RED CANDLE PRESS, Britain’s longest established formalist poetry press, was founded in 1970 by Dale Gunthorp and M. L. McCarthy, without financial capital but young and feisty enough to take on the intolerant and dictatorial prose-gone-mad poetry Establishment - it really was the Establishment then - on behalf of verse and sanity.” (ML is “Len”, apparently.) I read this website in 2023 so it seems they are still going 50 years later. (More looking digs up “After the October 2010 issue of the magazine, publication of Candelabrum was suspended indefinitely.”, but the press is still going.) It is striking that people who reject modernity do not boast about being conservative and reactionary. Not just here, they always present themselves as rebels. If you are still a beleaguered minority after 50 years it may be that you are simply unresponsive to modern art, as opposed to being about to bring about its final defeat and exit from the scene.

A problem has emerged in the shape of a curve. The figures I have (from forays into the British Library catalogue) have the following percentages for women poets (of single-author collections):

2000 38.4%
2010 36.1%
2019 41.9%

The expected upward drift is not there. Evidently the percentage was rising during the Nineties:
1990 29.5%
1995 32.2%

but on this quite extensive evidence it has also seized up after the new century started. I was really surprised to see this. I would have expected the movement to stall, not at 50%, but somewhere in the 50s. I can do another crawl-through of the data, but I can't see corrections affecting this basic contour. Of course the basic catalogue entries give you names and you have to guess what the gender is, which leaves a region of uncertainty, perhaps 2% of the names. One can look these up one by one and resolve some fraction of them, but that is very tedious. Anyway the percentages do not shift much if you carry out that exercise.
I can’t interpret this curve. I analysed the titles listed by the Poetry Book Society, for a 5 year period 2017 to 2022, and in that set 55% of the poets were women. I also can't analyse why this is different from the ratio in the complete data (which in theory would include also Bad Poets).
A question would be if the increase of women poets has meant a decrease of male poets. No, because the overall count of titles has increased steeply and so both shares have been growing at the same time. It follows that 40% in 2019 actually means more poets than 40% in 2000. However, it is surprising that the moment of “50% of poets publishing are women” does not seem to be close.

It is interesting to compile these spreadsheets and work through them, cleaning up the data. The titles give you a glimpse of how the poet sees the poetic world. Aesthetic response is based on actually reading the poems and I would probably not know more than 4% of these poets. They number in thousands. Looking at the whole mass of poets gives you a different perspective. It may be that you would find two radically different histories if you looked at "400 poets earnestly publishing" and "200 effective and ambitious poets", and write two different books about them.

Sunday, 27 August 2023

John Ash

I found out yesterday that John Ash was dead. He died almost four years ago (so less four months). I didn’t even know he was dead. I really liked his poems. I realise now that he published two books during the 21st century, which I haven’t read. There is a note by Michael Schmidt on-line which records that he had returned to England in 2015 but minus his “living archive” and as he couldn't even type there are major problems in recovering his late work. (“He left Istanbul having abandoned all his possessions – books, manuscripts, records, paintings. It seemed they were irrecoverable, though in the last few weeks Carcanet has begun assembling an archive of his letters, poems and other writings [.]”) There will be a Collected poems, I guess that is still in the works. I don’t feel compulsive about the possible lost poems (from say 2010 to 2015?). My feel is that he had worked out how to sound the same in every poem, so it doesn’t matter too much if you have a collected of 300 poems or 500 poems. The way that the “John Ash voice” is a role he played is connected to how well the poems go over and how much you can play at using that voice while reading them. He had that combination of Bohemian lifestyle, economic vulnerability, and a work ethic when it came to poems. I recorded that the volume (two books in one volume, allegedly) Anatolikon/ To the City was 140 pages long. Clearly he had a shoreline on abundance.

There is a moment of fertile excess here, which is the amazing number of serious poets who were born in 1948: as well as Ash, Denise Riley, Grace Lake, Brian Catling, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, David Harsent, Peter Didsbury. It is surprising how few of these are still around– we do have their works though. The direct cause for the spike in creativity must be the student uprising in 1968, so that the idea of a new society became convincing and poets wrote thereafter from inside that idea. The spike must also be an artefact – there were three year-groups at university in 1968, not just one, and people didn’t always start or end university “on time”. Also, the people who became vital poets were not necessarily even at university in that year. I think it sounds a bit superficial to consider student radicalism in terms of producing fab poets rather than looking at the bigger idea of entering a new society and living there. Corbyn was born in 1949 and is part of this wave. Partly channelled by Corbyn, a new upsurge of student radicalism has made an electoral impact and may also have produced a new generation of poets.
Ash evidently fell into a certain disarray, towards the end of his stay in Istanbul, if he couldn't even transport his personal possessions home. Similar disarray was a feature of the lives of at least one of the poets mentioned. Their commitment to poetry may have been accompanied by a refusal to “get a proper job” and a mortgage: dropping out, then. To recite the obvious, the radicals who got academic jobs made things better for students and actually changed a key institution.
The other point often made is that poets who became academics became cultural bureaucrats bound to defend the institutions and their own positions, and that their residual wish to write radical poetry has failed because it was in contradiction with the circumstances of their everyday lives. I have a friend who makes this point to me too often.
In general I find that over 55 years since 1968 too much has happened, too much data has arrived and it doesn’t fit into any known pattern. People didn’t just fulfil ideals. However, the poets of that generation are on my mind because they took fascinating positions and had a symbolic role because of their ability to dramatise the issues and live them out.
I should add that I don’t have the biographical details of these poets (or at least not all of them). What I do have is the legends, the rumours. The legends exist because the poets made significant gestures, their messages were startling and yet did not have the flaws that big gestures usually do. Formulating these signs was to some extent outside the poems, in another way was the basis for the poems, the ground on which they rested.
If you drop out you are intentionally not supporting the institutions. That indifference may be mutual. Someone like Ash needed the institutions to hold him up. It is apparent from Schmidt’s brief account that Ash was phoning him every morning after his return from Turkey. This shows that there was an institution which supported him and that it was Carcanet as a body and Schmidt in particular.

I think the shared element between these poets is derepression. Ash wasn’t political but it occurs to me that he was the first English poet whose style, whose voice, was consciously gay. I am worried about this because he started in the late 70s and it seems as if there should have been lots of such voices prior to that. (I can cite Dunstan Thompson but after all he was American, and moved here after having become a poet.) Perhaps more research is needed.

Someone posted on Facebook this week about reading Ash’s poems and enjoying them. He also didn’t know Ash was dead. Found this out from comments on his post. I think Ash dropped off the radar and it must have been because he lived in Turkey for 20 years.

Sunday, 13 August 2023

Macleod at the BBC

Macleod at the BBC Joseph Macleod (1903-84), a rather marginalised poet, published A Job at the BBC (1945) after leaving them. It is rather paranoid but documentation now coming to light has suggested to several Macleod scholars that he was right to be suspicious. He describes the firm as being run by people with no official title or job, and these people also censored his scripts and prevented him from workng.

I don’t mean to upset you further, Andrew, (and it upsets me greatly to recall and write this), but I found out a great deal when I went to the BBC Written Archive at Reading in 2007. I was only 27, so I reckon I could have pushed a bit more if I’d gone at my present age - but I was quite pushy and maybe my youth helped extract that little bit extra information. The Head Curator, a lady in her 60’s, was remarkably abrupt and clipped in her speech with me from the get-go. She knew exactly who Macleod was and what he was “about” she told me. She showed me a set of files from the early period of his employ and was strangely reluctant to show the ones from 1943 onwards. I photographed a great deal of it with my digital camera, as surprisingly I was permitted to do, but I’d brought it just in case. When I got up to leave, having seen the scandal of Macleod’s being bundled out of the BBC due to his accent and leftish leanings by the then Director General Lindsay Wellington and also the surprising (and, bizarrely, later super-famous as (not the best) Oxbridge boat race commentator) thorn in Macleod’s side - Head of Presentation, John Snagge - I mentioned the scandal of 1945 and how Macleod had clearly had been swiftly removed from his position after reading Churchill’s election defeat, to which the strict curator replied very defensively and I thought even aggressively- “Macleod was NOT removed. He RESIGNED!” I decided not to argue - though the papers I’d just seen and photographed showed a mighty row took place before he departed. 
(email from James Fountain, author of the only book about Macleod)

I have just copied this from the BBC website:
"By that stage [1985], a policy of flatly denying the existence of political vetting - not just stonewalling, but if necessary lying - had been in place for five decades.
As early as 1933 a BBC executive, Col Alan Dawnay, had begun holding meetings to exchange information with the head of MI5, Sir Vernon Kell, at Dawnay's flat in Eaton Terrace, Chelsea. It was an era of political radicalism and both sides deemed the BBC in need of "assistance in regard to communist activities". These informal arrangements became formal two years later, with an agreement between the two organisations that all new staff should be vetted except "personnel such as charwomen". The fear was that "evilly disposed" engineers might sabotage the network at a critical time, or that conspirators might discredit the BBC so that "the way could be made clear for a left-wing government"."
Macleod had sympathies with the Soviet Union (publishing three books about Soviet theatre) and his problems with BBC management almost certainly related to his uncertain security status, rather than anything else.
His book does not mention a purge of leftists already on the staff, in the later 1940s, but I hear persistent rumours that this is what took place, even if MI5 had been vetting new recruits since 1935. The radically changed conditions of the Cold War brought more polarised attitudes towards hapless staff members. Presumably this had not happened when Macleod was writing his 1945 memoir – the Cold War had not then begun.
My feeling is that the archivist reacted so extremely because she knew what James were looking for and because she had had other people looking for evidence of the same process. Because the process had occurred and it is of considerable interest.
What upsets me is the ability of a large organisation to cover up new ideas and opinions and then to cover up the fact that a cover up had taken place. Suppression was itself suppressed from the record. So meetings that never got minuted, people in vetting jobs that aren't shown in the organogram or in a job title, decisions hidden behind fake “performance issues”. The frame itself is not visible even though it is the restriction on what is visible.
James also mentioned the yawning gap between the coverage by the British media of Middle Eastern politics and what had actually happened. This brought us to a new theme – Robert Fisk, writing about the great war against the truth, is dealing with the large scale, but the BBC coverage of what happens in Britain can only distort subtly, because the audience have the means of comparing the broadcast with the reality. So we as cultural historians are tracking subtle distortions. We are directed at the small scale. This is our situation. But perhaps long practice has also given us the ability to detect what was never entered into the record. The skill we admire is that of detecting the frame and seeig where the cut-off is.

Sunday, 30 July 2023

Feathers on Glass

To my great excitement Shearsman are putting out my new book of poetry, With Feathers on Glass, in the next couple of weeks. This is the first new book since 2006 so this is a big event for me. (Some of the poems came out in magazines.)

The title refers to the use of feathers, sometimes, for painting on glass (Hinterglasmalerei). A blurb follows: “The original idea of “Feathers on glass” was to get close to folk art. After a long period attempting to learn Gaelic and Welsh, this new poetry is saturated in folk-lore and myth. The paintings are a distribution of cultured art motifs to rural households, patterns copied onto glass with feathers or brushes made of marten-hair. They are an expression of humility towards the illiterate. The idea of cultural difference being the effect of distribution technology was illustrated by the peddlers who carried the glass panes around the villages of central Europe. The interest in shopping follows a previous and prolonged interest in manufacturing and production, completing the sequence. Reminiscences of childhood and the wreck of the great High Street department stores around 2020 combine in a personal mythology of grand motifs and elaborate ruins.
This is a new start after a long period of silence and begins with an inventory of concrete facts around the poet, in his home in Nottingham, close to where he grew up. One theme is defeaturing, the recreation of court and metropolitan art forms in a simpler manner. Radiant messages broken up by distance. A statue park around The Mall allows for a re-enactment of the history of the State.‘Tautology’ is a poem about neuroscience as something setting out to replace self-awareness as an account of how the mind works. It gives a history of the self as a block on perception, behind which an intact world hides. Where the claim to omnipotence of the ego is ruined by the cosmic impartiality of light.
‘Dr Mabuse meets Dr Marcuse’ tells an adventure in which the famed theorist of de-repression and ‘one dimensional man’ faces the more famous super-villain of Weimar cinema, and they struggle for the future of California and its beaches.”

I had to compile a new Selected poems in 2017, which I found difficult, as you might expect. Thirty years of writing. But as a result of the difficulty I got interested again and began having ideas, so the first sketches for Feathers were in about September 2017. I then wrote a lot of poems and I was nervous about the effect and about dividing the poems into two books. I wanted that division to be perfect before going into print. So this delayed things. I don’t really want to get into why I stopped, back in 2005. It had to do with “The Imaginary In Geometry” being very difficult to write and then not getting reviewed when it came out. I felt it was a climax. When it was time to start again, I felt that it was just too difficult and anyway I couldn't do better than “Geometry”. But a whole set of things changed in 2005. My job in London vanished (it wasn’t on the new corporate organogram) but I got a new one in Nottingham. I moved to Nottingham which is about 13 miles from where I grew up, in Loughborough. I think part of the pattern was that in London I was under strain the whole time, the environment was insecure and competitive, and I didn’t belong there. This was very stimulating, in its way. When I moved to Nottingham it was going home and I wasn't under strain any more. What changed, later, was that I acquired a house with a garden, I acquired a cat who liked the garden, and then I retired and didn’t even have to go into the office any more. So I felt united in a new way. I was happy. And this was the basis for new poems. I wanted to write about this and a series of poems set in my garden seemed to be the way forward. What I discovered, hidden under an aggressive elder hedge, was a sink with cockle shell (and snail) decoration: obviously an ornament in imitation of a Grotto. This was naive art in my own back yard. I was very happy with this. It connected to the paintings on glass. The centre had sent something out to the periphery and visibly this was me, I had reached the periphery and had only vague ideas of what was happening in the world’s cultural metropoleis. I had a long relationship with naive art which came to a head with reading Harald Szeemann’s book Visionäre Schweiz. Szeemann just filled me with enthusiasm, like a jug. The shells of the decoration referred to the distant sea, and by an obvious shift they could be referred to the tides, stirring in obedience to the Moon. There was the glimmering of a poem here. The idea was to record the feelings I actually had and to use the processes of naive art to bring them into words. He quotes “a way of thinking that shows magical-animist traits, without sharp separation of fantasy and reality” and in which “the way of thinking and acting is pre-logical, concrete, with symbols, compressions, dislocations; objects are perceived as animate”. Another source was a document called the Papyrus Jumilhac (known to me from a description rather than directly) which relates to a single nome (province) of Egypt, the 18th, but sets all the great myths locally, in terms of the hills and waterways of that province. So everything happened here. The gods shrink to local scale. They are small enough to be seen in a garden. This reinforced the idea but it was already there, really. So this is “personal mythology”, written as folklore rather than myth. I really liked, also, a painting by Gerhard Altenbourg called "Ich-Gestein", or "I-ore"; the geology of an attachment to your home.
Szeemann was an exhibition organiser and essayist. He did all kinds of things but one of them was to bring naive artists, of whom Switzerland seems to have produced quite a few, right up against modern artists (of the 60s and 70s, usually) and erase the boundaries between them. So his exhibition catalogues were sacred texts for me. I also have catalogues (bulletins) from the annual exhibitions of naive art at Bratislava, edited by Štefan Tkač, a Slovak art historian. He had to rename the events “Insite” (= in situ), because the Party did not accept that any citizen of a communist country could be called Naive. No, they were all enlightened. So he could have the exhibitions as long as they were called something else. There was also a 1964 book about peasant artists in Yugoslavia by Oto Bihalji-Merin, which the library here gave away for about 50p. A wonderful book. This is actually where I got interested in painting in glass, I suspected that the paintings he illustrates were influenced by an older Catholic tradition in the Hapsburg realms, although after investigation I don’t think that's true. (Bihalji-Merin is categorical about this.) Someone called Hegeduśič went to teach art to villagers, in Croatia, in around 1929, and glass was one of the media he used. It is significant to me that these historians were all European; Swiss, Slovak, Serbian, this appeals to my abiding ideals.
For the first five years I had no money – the pension was about 20% of my previous salary. So I wasn't going anywhere. I was already there. This was really the end of alienation but also of events: every day was empty and I had to fill it. Everything was very simple and the poems could only record what was there. My gestures were magnified: unconscious fantasy was audible because there was no other sound to make it unclear. The poems started with images, or clusters, which I found significant, and used “pre-logical” means to develop this primary material into more elaborate structures. I am not sure how this fits in with the ethos of Alternative Poetry. I suppose the direction was prescribed by the lack of the autobiographical themes which I had written about in previous books – so falling in love, being rejected, conflicts with an employer and with the business system in general. I had reached a stage in life where that music had stopped playing. The new direction allowed me to connect with what was happening inside me and so to write a new autobiography, even if the themes seemed esoteric.
The poem most about glass painting is called “Paintings on glass”. This mentions the Peace of Westphalia. The story is that the paintings, aimed at modest households, were originally of saints. Protestant households were not interested in buying these. The producers reasoned that the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, had been the basis for free and unpersecuted religious activity for Protestants in Germany. The envoys to the peace discussions had faces and you could make paintings of them. They were undoubted representatives of Protestantism as a secular and political interest, a community. (The design is a few decades younger than the Peace, around 1700.) So you could produce stylised paintings of them and sell them to Protestant households, to decorate their front rooms. This does mean something to me, because a large print (from a painting from a photograph!) of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 was a feature of my grandparents’ home. It was later a feature of my parents’ home, although it was not in the front room. This is continuous with the glass paintings tradition, although I am not aware of any significant art being produced in this line. That 1843 photograph (a composite of many photographs, I believe) is significant in the history of photography.
Having reached the point of retirement I was doubtful about the value of learning anything more. It was hard to explain how it would equip me to lead the rest of my life. I went on studying Welsh and Scottish Gaelic and impulsively added Irish Gaelic. I found this difficult because there was so much of it I didn’t know. But it was wildly stimulating. I was drawn to these languages, old and dwelling on the periphery of Western Europe, because I was also on a periphery and because I felt close to my ancestors – the effect of age and simplifying life. It was like withdrawing into my garden. I was getting closer to what was fundamental, intact although buried by everything less stable and more superficial.
It’s hard to change your style after sixty. It is no good thinking that when you open your mouth something different is going to come out. More probably what you hear is just what was there before, but more developed, bonier, more essential and less distracted by graces and trills.

Friday, 21 July 2023

Jack Lindsay

Jack Lindsay

am reading Bernard Smith’s book of essays about Australian art (mainly), The death of the artist as hero. He includes three essays about Jack Lindsay (1900-90), a marginal figure who I suppose has some role to play in the story of British poetry.
In about 1976 (??) I bought a copy of his 1945 pamphlet Perspective for Poetry in a bookshop in Loughborough. It was published by a Communist Party publisher although the packaging carefully does not mention any such affiliation. As if it represented freedom of thought. The pamphlet completely failed to impress me. It seemed like conscious mediocrity, someone who was desperately afraid of taking up a position and was unable to say anything original. I read now that he published 160 books. This sounds like the biography of a hack. If you have such difficulty developing new ideas, then signing away your soul to the Party is attractive because you can just go on writing up unoriginality for ever and a day.

He was responsible for the series of Key Poets pamphlets around 1950. Andy Croft writes about this in his excellent cultural history of the Communist Party. They were really good. It wasn't a good time for British poetry but he had come up with a whole row of fascinating poets. As Croft records, the Party leadership ended the series because they didn’t want to be associated with something middle class like poetry. This is, I think, one of the reasons why poetry in the 1950s ended up in such bad shape. I have to emphasise how good Lindsay was at doing this. Good editors are rare.

If you summed up Lindsay’s message, it would be “art has something or other to do with society”. And maybe “just give in to the Party and study the thought of the First Secretary and you will be free”.

His original project was Australian nationalism, with an emphasis on culture. Without having many details, I think that what he did was unsuccessful but that that brand of nationalism had a long way to go, from its start, and that anything dating to around 1920 seems shallow from a modern perspective. All the same it was a fertile idea around 1920 and he deserves credit for having this interest. Smith doesn't say what he contributed to Australian nationalist thought. Obviously I am reading Smith’s book because I want to know what is specifically Australian and how a cultural programme developed in the 20th century. This was Bernard Smith’s life project, I suppose. He records Lindsay converting to Marxism around 1937 and that seems to have been the end of his Australian nationalism. He records Lindsay buying a cottage from which the previous owner’s library of books on the history of religion had not been cleared. He spent a year in 1933-4 reading these in a consistent way and thought about the long-term history of human symbolism or spirituality. The outcome was A Short history of culture (1939). Lindsay certainly had that deep perspective:

Can we draw conclusions from this shamanistic stage, which will bear validly on the later developments of the creative function? I believe we can. Though specialisation breaks up the shamanistic experience, and though the simple yet intense unity of personal and collective experience cannot be maintained, the basic element survives.

(Perspective on Poetry)

The interest in shamanism is very early in 1945, and the perspective which links something as old as shamanistic rites with 20th C poetry is dizzying. But these sentences are saying nothing at all. I believe he is getting the “Tatars as shamans” material from a 1936 article by Nora Chadwick in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which has those words in its title. (Most Tatars are Moslems and do not practice shamanism.) It may have been the write-up in The growth of literature (by Chadwick and Chadwick), in fact. Chadwick (N.) says “Shamans are a class of professional religious and intellectual men and women in North and central Asia”. Can I record my doubts that Lindsay had actually read poetry from the Altai Tatars, even in English. And I am certain that Chadwick had not done any fieldwork – not among the Tatars in the Altai mountains, not anywhere. It is all a version learnt through prose, probably several stages of prose. This may be why what Lindsay says is so colourless. And, the Altai is an incredibly long way from north-west Europe. Why should societies in that plateau region of Central Asia be ancestral to societies of north-west Europe, or why should their artistic forms have any bearing on artistic forms in Wales, England, etc.?
If there is any connection between Central Asian shamanism and the shores of the North Sea, it would be amazingly interesting. But Lindsay does not identify any such connection.
I suspect the underlying idea is that ancient societies (in some millennium or other!) had collective art, and we have had individualistic art since about 1580, which is part of Alienation. And if we advance to Communism, we will again have Collective Art, and we will stop being alienated. And we will all vote for the same Party, there won’t be another. Lindsay isn’t quite this stupid. But he doesn't explain why individualistic art, since the advent of reflexivity in the Renaissance, has been so good. Or why Soviet art is so bad. (George Thomson's Marxism and Poetry, also 1945, also published for the Communist Party, follows this line of argument. It is more interesting than Lindsay but even more at odds with the known facts. Thomson dismisses all English poetry since the 16th century for not being collectively created.)

Chadwick says that Siberian and central Asian shamanism (together) are “among the most influential and interesting” of creative illiterates. OK, that is certainly interesting. Had she read all the others? If we jump ahead a bit, Ted Hughes read vast amounts of ethnographical literature (in translation) and recycled its motifs in a modern English style. The area is fascinating. Smith at pages 289-302 of his book talks about links between “White Australian” artists and “Black Australian” artists, an area of equally great fascination which is quite outside my visual experience. The essay is called “Cultural convergence”.

Chadwick says that her revision of the story is because “we have been dependent for our impressions on the reports of travellers” but she does not say what information she has except the reports of travellers, of Tsarist date. She specifies that she has never seen the performances nor learnt the languages their texts are composed in. Her main source is the ten volumes of VV Radloff’s collection (in Russian and German translation). It is certainly inspiring to learn that there is a whole range of literature outside the “European” models, and the possible connections with early artistic creation in north-west Europe are tantalising, but the writings of the Chadwicks are not illuminating. It is like reading a history of the symphony by someone who had never heard one. I have just read the 1936 paper and to be honest it has nothing to do with Eliade’s romantic version of shamanism. So Lindsay is thinking of Chadwick’s high/religious concept and not the image we have today.

Lindsay issued in 1927 an anthology of Bedlamite poetry from the 16th and 17th centuries. I like to connect this with Logue’s Bedlam poems and Sean Bonney’s poem about Tom O’Bedlam (in Blade Pitch Control Unit). I like the continuity over 70 years. The link has to do with the idea of the world turned upside down, radical critique being like someone whose perceptual framework is truly mutated and illegal. It has to do with altered perceptions. I see that the chorus of the primary Tom O’Bedlam poem has “Bedlam boys are bonny”, which is probably what attracted Bonney to it. Lindsay’s book had musical settings by Peter Warlock (who was the father of poet Nigel Heseltine).

I am reading Lindsay's Selected Poems 1935-81 (a copy turned up at a sale locally) but it is not very good. I have been thinking recently about poems by Jack Beeching and EP Thompson – who were also in that British Communist milieu around 1945 and 1950. I think Beeching was a friend of Lindsay. But I don’t think Lindsay got involved with Thompson's “opposition” magazine, the New Reasoner. He stayed in the Party. Anyway, Beeching and Thompson need to be taken very seriously as poets. There was a Left poetry in the 1950s. It doesn't need rehabilitating, you just have to read it.

Thursday, 13 July 2023

beautiful feelings (count of)

(Continuing series of posts on a book, not quite finished, on poetry in the 2st century)
I trawled poetry titles from the British Library catalogue to get a count of books published by an individual author in a given year. I did this for three sample years: 2000, 2010, and 2019. The result was a list of 3181 poets who published a book in one of those three years. The overlap of names for 2000 and 2010 was 8% and the overlap for 2010 and 2020 was 5.8%.

I was interested in the complete count of poets over 20 years. If we decide that 1000 authors were added in each year the total would be 20,000 for 20 years. But evidently as you add more and more years you find the same names coming up and the yield of “new” authors falling off steeply. So that figure must be far too high. But then we have 3000 actual names for the three years we sampled. It sounds as if 8000 (the figure I developed in an earlier project for the period 1960-97) is too low. That holds, also, because the count of titles in each year has risen steeply since 1990.
I wish I had the energy to trawl up more years. But I don’t. It is tiring work and the checks are tiring.

So it looks like 8000 is too low and 20,000 is far too high. I am suggesting 10,000 as a possible total for the authors who published one or more books of poetry in this 20-year period.

This number may have its uses. It does not allow us to measure the frustration of people who were stuck outside the door and didn’t manage to become one of the 10,000. It does suggest that the business is eager to produce books and that the doors are open, or rather the walls have been knocked down and you don’t need a door.
I had another list of books published in 2019 and a cross-check showed that 40% of that list were not recovered in the BL trawl I had done. This is interesting. Maybe there are deep problems with the completeness of any recovery I have access to. The gap is probably partly to do with publishers forgetting to send copies of books to the BL and partly with the BL cataloguer not adding a label to show that they are poetry. A third problem is possible but I have no idea what it would be.
It is apparent that most of these 10,000 poets (if that is the true figure!) don’t get much attention. But it is also apparent that there are quite a few people who don’t get published and who show up as readers at Open Mike events. Stannard and I have been discussing this phenomenon recently. They may not have enough poems for a book, in fact, but it is safe to say that they experience a certain frustration and that they might write more if they got more attention and kudos.
A guess might say that most of the people who read modern poetry regularly want to be poets themselves. This is democratic and suggests a scene open to talent. But there is also a certain admixture of frustration to admiration in the process of being a successful competitor. Poetry has a magnetic attraction which quite a few thousand people feel; not all those people reach the position on stage, the role in the cast, which they would ideally like to have. I am not saying this is unstable, or that the people who compose the scene want to subvert it.
I became interested in these themes while reviewing Fiona Sampson’s book Beyond the Lyric, which must have been in around 2009. Sampson says that about 200 books of poetry were being published each year. If we take that to mean books by individual authors, the true figure was around 7 times that much. Sampson had a vision of a small intimate community, where a few figures had Expertise and were able to nurture the talented (and confused?). This is a powerful vision but what emerges from looking at the true figures is a large scene without intimacy, where most people are invisible and feel excluded, and the possibility of “expertise” is greatly in question. This is a more depressing vision. Raising the curtain on larger numbers of Outsiders may be honest but it also brings a problem to our attention. Sampson as editor of Poetry Review was probably reading more poetry submissions than any other editor, at the time, and I am sure that she wanted to nurture people – this is what shows up in the book. But as the reader for PR she must have seen that there were thousands of poets hoping to get in and that the door was not open for all of them.

This is a point where we can talk about "gatekeepers". It is literally true that one person can prevent you from publishing in Poetry Review and from reaching the audience which you think is your right. But there are 200 poetry magazines and you can try any of them. If you don't like the magazines, you can publish on the internet. So the idea of one single gate is vacuous. Actually, if 200 people turn your poem down, it may be a bad poem. Result - a gatekeeper is actually someone who spends much of their time reading bad poems. This is not a privileged and enviable condition.

It sounds perverse if you have thousands of people who want to be on the inside of a group and they are all left on the outside. I think rather that those people constitute the thing which has an inside and also that they are all on the inside. The intimacy is created by poems and it is empathy which places you on the inside of it. If you can’t deliver that then you are going to be stuck.
This is getting to be personal opinion here, but my guess is that if you don’t enjoy the whole process it is your fault. The more empathetic you are, the more you enjoy other people's feelings, including those of success, the happier you will be inside the poems. If you define it as a contest which you want to win, it will not be enjoyable and you will not understand the real point. Furthermore, another guess is that deep empathy with the rest of the scene is the basis for writing effective poems, and that if you are competitive and frustrated then you will be unable to write poems that other people like. My impression is that the aggression is all concentrated in the outsiders and unsuccessful. They (or some of them) see it as a struggle for territory whereas the people engaged in editing see the space as collective, belonging to everybody. Just that empathy is the central value and the aggressive interfere with that.

This may be the moment to expose my wish for ten different writers to produce a book on modern poetry from ten different standpoints. This would certainly relieve the invisible pressure on me to be universal in my coverage, which I cannot bring about. Sampson’s book baffled me because it hardly ever overlapped with my own feelings. I finally concluded that the reason for this is that what happens to her inside a volume of poems is quite different from what happens to me, in the same book, with the same sequence of words. That answer is satisfying but it just leaves us with the suspicion that what I write does not expose, or predict, to people what they will feel in the poem. So the goal of criticism cannot be attained. All the same if you take Sampson's book and mine that leaves only another eight mutually incompatible (and reinforcing?) works to go.

Wednesday, 21 June 2023

beautiful feelings (again)

Interval. June 2023. I think the text has stabilised but I keep going back and making small changes. I have been looking at Fiona Sampson’s 2009 book “Beyond the lyric”. I listed the poets she discusses in a spreadsheet. 70 poets of whom none features in my 2023 book. Ulp. There is a major problem in having a conversation about poetry… everyone is isolated, just in different ways. It is so hard writing a book in this situation. A check shows she has 50 words about Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who had only done one pamphlet at that stage. And she gives one sentence, condescending and abusive, to Robert Minhinnick. So I do write about de las Rivas and Minhinnick; there is a tiny overlap. So she has 70 poets… I have 80… how many good poets are there who are missing from both lists? No rewrite is going to raise my text into a non-polarised space where it speaks for everyone. My feeling is that you want ten different books about new poetry, written from ten different standpoints. I am happy to have written one from my standpoint.

Brian Vickers has said “it will be clear that the so-called ‘critical revolution’ was the work of a small group of writers, and has been followed up by a relatively small group of readers and publicists. The great majority of scholars, critics, book reviewers, journalists, general readers, teachers, and students have remained unaffected by the forward march of critical theory, as it has advanced from Paris to Baltimore, and from New Haven to Cardiff.” (Vickers, Appropriating Shakespeare, 1996 ed., p. 92) It is striking how little influence Theory has on contemporary poetry. I would struggle to explain why I was discussing theory, if I injected it into my book. But there is a qualification - I have just been writing how the absence of the author’s ego, at least of the lyric ego, is one of the hallmarks of Alternative poetry. Vickers reminds us that Barthes and Foucault made the death of the author fashionable, in two essays of 1968 and 1969. Foucault referred to “the archaeology of knowledge” because that means silencing the voice of the text, in order to look at its material features, just as the archaeology of a building describes it without reference to the notions of the builders, in an era before writing. So there could be a connection, that would lead to an entire class of texts. I am not going to get into this because I don’t think the connection is clear enough. There would be too much disagreement. I am not sure you could get a roomful of people to agree on what the “lyric ego” is or whether it is present in a given text. Neither Foucault nor Barthes uses this phrase. Maybe we can imagine a prose book written from the standpoint of Grand Theory and one written from the point of view that performance poetry is it and poetry on the page is obsolete.

Have just acquired (from Oxfam) a copy of The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, originally 1951. This is an account of bomb design and of 617 Squadron of the RAF, a unit specialising in dropping super-heavy bombs on targets not vulnerable to lighter bombs (such as 2000 pounders). The relevance of this to my book is that I discuss UKIP and a sector of opinion alienated from modern culture, and The Dam Busters is a great apex of the patriotic and optimistic kind of story which that sector want to hear the whole time. I would have written about this kind of story, and the group feeling it embodies, if I had more space. We don't have any "UKIP culture" but evidently their voters would respond to 'The dam busters' and it shows us what they want to hear. Of course it seems incredibly out of date now, and I would be hard put to find something from 2021 which embodied it in the same way. Ford and Goodwin's excellent book about UKIP, and about the voters who supported them at various times, analyses the patriotic, and occasionally xenophobic and racist, attitude and asserts that it is prevalent among older voters and the most unchanged parts of society, and is visibly declining – as younger people are much less interested by that kind of feeling. Those two politologists are also astute about the victim status of the UKIP voters – it does seem that education is the great agent of modernisation, so that people with limited education are living in a “pre modern” version of the world, and, as follows, are also the ones with the lower incomes and the lowest prospects of economic improvement. In fact they are also concentrated in certain parts of the country which could be characterised as in decline. Their problem is being collectivist but anti-government. Ford and Goodwin point out that they need help from the political system and that the feeling of being sidelined and ignored is part of their generalised resentment of modernity. I do agree that they need help and that the political system is there to increase equality, not steer a course away from it. As a group, they are intensely uninvolved in poetry.
Last week saw wide press coverage of the bursting of the Dnipro dam by the Russians (probably!) on June 6 2023 and declarations that breaching dams without regard to civilian deaths by drowning etc. should be considered as a war crime. No mention, during this flap, of the breaching of dams near the River Ruhr, on May 16/17 1943, by 617 Squadron – so was that a war crime or not? If you cause a flood in the most heavily industrialised part of Europe you are going to drown some of the civilians in the housing sited near the factories, also dense. I am looking at Max Hastings’ website which claims that some 1400 civilians died, downstream, as a result of the dam bombing. Wikipedia says 1600 civilian deaths of whom 600 were German. The prohibition on dam destruction goes back to a 1977 amendment to the Geneva Convention.
I should be honest here and admit that I read Paul Brickhill's book when I was about 11. I can't be more precise but that would make it around 1967 and it was probably in the PAN-books edition which I now have another copy of. So I am disappointed if his account shows discrepancies and omissions. If you were a boy in the 1960s you got really a lot of World War II hero stories. I am quite sympathetic to patriotic voters who still want to live inside that kind of story. However it wasn’t genuinely up to date in 1967 and it has not become more up to date since. Brickhill was Australian and this was possibly the first time I had read a book by an Australian. He was part of a fighter crew and was shot down (over Tunisia) and spent much of the war in a German POW camp. I am inclined to give his book classic status – it is very well written and a lot of it had stuck in my mind, 50 years later. I say this also because I think the 1955 movie is a bad film, messing up the same narrative material. Brickhill wasn’t paralysed by patriotic cliches. It is hardly a secret that he would have liked to be on that mission on the night of May 16. It is highly plausible that his account of what the fliers felt would have been recognisable and convincing to the fliers themselves. I have not read Hastings’ book (“Chastise”) but his website says about the 1400 dead “At least half were not Hitler’s people, instead his foreign slaves, almost all women, drowned in the Biblical flood- the Möhnekatastrophe, as Germans call it- unleashed by the bouncing bombs.” Wikipedia says they were “French, Belgian, Dutch and Ukrainian prisoners of war and labourers.” Brickhill does mention civilian casualties (at p.97) and says there was an ethical problem. He says most casualties were civilians and most were not German. Hastings quotes Guy Gibson as expressing similar doubts, possibly in his book Enemy Coast Ahead. (Gibson was killed in September 1944.)
I don’t want to undermine Brickhill’s book; I am more interested in pointing out to modern readers what values it embodied and what state of mind its readers were seeking out, and still are. They are not false values. The cover says it is “one of the three or four most enthralling and inspiring war books yet published”, and I would think that is accurate. If I wanted to attack war propaganda I would have picked a different book. Another goal is to identify something missing from the poetic offering of the last 100 years: the simple patriotic and heroic narrative, with damage inflicted on an enemy who is without virtue. I don’t much want to read such poems, I simply want to point out that they are not there. Wikipedia advises me that Brickhill undertook The dam busters under a commission from the Air Ministry. So this was not the free market but a residue of wartime sponsorship by the State. This probably allowed him special access to documents and to the living witnesses. It may also account for the narrow focus – he wasn’t interested in the event as a whole, for example the slave labourers working in Ruhr factories and housed downstream from the dams. The documents record what senior RAF officers had an interest in. He doesn't seem to have interviewed any groundcrew – well, this is starting to sound malicious! Let’s admit that the exciting quality of the narrative is due to its restricted focus. Dealing with a historical event from the viewpoints of all concerned may wreck any literary qualities... to be honest I can't think of any poem that brings off this feat. Martin Middlebrook brought off a revolution by writing a book about the Hamburg raids in a way which included German flak units, German air forces, and above all the civilians on the ground, or in the firestorm. Most books about the Second World War do not try to do this. It was published in 1980 – but collective memory had been fixed decades before.
In POW camps which only contained aircrew, Brickhill must have heard a thousand stories about flying missions, and the consequence is that his narrative of the actions of the aircrew in 617 Squadron is authentic. This is something which no later historian is going to match, and this is where theory is not going to undermine an account: Brickhill reproduces what it felt like to be in a bomber squadron in the 1940s. He does not use heightened language, which makes it difficult to classify his work as propaganda; in film terms, he leaves out the music (the “Dam Busters March” became a standard piece of music for brass). Even in 1965 it was getting hard to reproduce the idiom of 1943 accurately. In a sense, you can't update Brickhill.
I don’t see any way I can insert this into my narrative, but I find it compelling. Poets are not usually writing about collective experience. I think the old-style belief in English destiny, the one we have just described, wants narratives to be biased, so that events are only evaluated from the point of view of English success, and the reader or listener does not have to worry about re-evaluation of some heroic feat. They don’t want some new perspective, it holds no benefits that they want. I think there is some kind of a copy of this in the nationalism of other ethnic groups – it has been taken up by “identity politics”. Some parts of the scene want the components of patriotic history, but want to adapt them to produce a different kind of approval and idealisation. You can separate “critical” and “uncritical” writing.
I think you could describe the status which ethnic minorities (so second- and third generation immigrants, for the most part) as being part of a generous national story, so with the warmth and density of Second World War stories where the audience is unified in its bias and remembering details of what someone does. This gets very complicated but I can say that I am trying to write a national story of poetry which has that warmth, that ability to credit achievement, that collective feeling, and that capacity for accurate memory. You can’t make people feel at home by retreating into a purely critical state. People want to be part of something.
Brickhill is good about listing Australian, Canadian, American members of 617 Squadron. But everyone was White – that is just how it was.

I briefly attended an evening of the Nottingham Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago. The evening was in a pub where I spend a lot of my time anyway. I arrived an hour before the event started, since they started very late. I left after about 80 minutes because I was finding it hard to equate being drunk with being angry – I was used to being happy in that pub but I wasn't feeling happy. The level of poetry was infinitely low and after studying the brochure I felt that I was facing not only an evening of “open mike” idiocy but a whole weekend of it. This was not quite true, since one of the people reading for five minutes each was Sonya somebody, who writes poems about mathematics and is genuinely interesting. I heard a full set from her at the event last year. I didn’t catch her second name but I am sure it is in a notebook from 2022. The event was sponsored by a local brewery and while I like their beer I have been told that there was no central planning and that all the events were “pop-up” events, where people made up schemes and submitted them for inclusion. The brochure shows a great lack of names I have heard of and a lack of descriptions of poetry: the poets are not the appeal and no claim is being made that these are artistic forces and offer a memorable literary experience. Instead the stress is on open mike, on workshops, and on access for the socially excluded. Access to what? Poetry is being removed from the equation and the feeling of being vaguely drunk and feeling a vague bonhomie as if in a pub quiz is the big offer. The event does not offer name poets because they do not expect anyone to have heard of the names. The poets offer workshops teaching poetry because they are afraid that nobody is able to concentrate for half an hour while listening to poetry. The compere at the event I attended was like the quizmaster in a pub quiz. There are good poets in Nottingham but none of them was in this set of performances – again due to a lack of central planning. Someone could have planned an event with the good local poets but in practice no-one did. I am not sure, but my impresion is that almost nobody was travelling from outside Nottingham - so no travel costs. The bearing of all this on me is that I don’t want to go out and research “performance poetry” because it’s boring – and that the audience at these events has no ability to concentrate and is not conceivably going to read a serious prose book on poetry. It is pointless writing about anti-literary poetry because its audience is not going to read your book.
I have a negative vision whereby I am at an event where most of the audience is there to get their open mike spot and they don’t care to listen to anyone else’s poetry. And, high-achieving poets are eliminated and the outcome is four days of open mike events.
One positive result of attending open-mike events is realising that the poems are rarely autobiographical – as predicted by the “solipsistic banality” theory expounded by Ross Cogan. The likely subject is more likely humorous and connected to something already in the media, so that the audience are already familiar with it. This minimises the information transfer. Writing about personal experience requires the audience to make a certain effort. I think the line of vacuous poems about personal experiences belongs to the page rather than to the live venue.
I am sure that there are cultural things which are pleasurable without being worth analysing. For example, yesterday I was messaging Tim Allen about a 1961 record called "Johnny remember me" which certainly wasn't a good song. It offers pleasures of nostalgia. If you can remember 1961, dimly. But I am not trying to offer a 330 page book with serious analysis of John Leyton. Or of the "Dam Busters March", either.