Sunday, 18 December 2022

Souvenirs duméziliens

Souvenirs duméziliens

Bernfried Schlerath’s critique of the man (“G Dumezil und die Rekonstruktion indogermanischer kultur”, 1995-6, in the magazine Kratylos) leaves virtually nothing standing of his work (which covers 17,000 pages, as Schlerath points out). There is an exception – he says that GD produced good work on the Mahabharata, on the basis that he accepted the text in its own horizon, not smashing it apart to find doubtful tatters of a horizon a thousand years older.

In around 1976, as a student, I was intrigued by the ideas of Georges Dumézil and read at least a few of his books in order to find out what those ideas were. He was comparing highly disparate Indo-European texts in a way which was exciting even if his interest was not in the texts but in archaic scraps and tags which pointed back to some lost horizon a thousand years before the texts. When I was 19, that was possibly the only area in which I knew unusual things – things which very few people at the university knew anything about. That was actually a stimulus, it could have meant that I could write poems which people found new and unfamiliar. But at the same time it is a moment where introversion develops into obscurity – you could write a poem which people flat-out didn’t understand, even when every statement was plain! So that moment of branching out on your own, ceasing to be a schoolboy, was also a moment of fatal danger.

I never wrote any poems on dumézilian themes. That is potentially another part of disaster. Why couldn’t I shape it into poems when I was so enthused by it? But, artistic conscience prevailed. If you are seized by numerous intellectual enthusiasms, you repeatedly have the opportunity to write poems which nobody actually understands.

I think at one point I said to myself, European culture was like the culture of illiterate tribes at the Indo-European stage, whereas now it is very different; if we recover the IE stage we can re-unite Europe with the tribal stage, with myth, with whatever is non-Western. That idea on its own is great. And that is why I was interested in Dumézil when I was a student. But Dumézil’s project was deeply frustrating. And to be honest, what you can recover of paganism in Northern or Western Europe is frustrating, altogether. And the changes since the arrival of literacy, or the arrival of Greek culture, or what you will, are too total. There is no transition. You can’t go back and you can't present something deeply archaic to a 20th C audience and have them recognise it. It is alien and exotic to them. Actually the retrospective gaze produces results as fragmentary and questionable as Dumézil’s, you have the shadow of something within a text whose real organisation is different and much more modern. My belief is that all the Indo-European societies went through profound changes connected to migrating and to becoming literate. The archaic stage never had any writing and the reflections of it in later written texts are fundamentally altered, nostalgic, uncomprehending. That is true for all the IE languages that made it into writing! The route from 3000 BC to Irish people writing legends down in 800 AD is huge and involves possibly four or five complete ruptures, cultural revolutions. And the Christians who controlled literacy had no wish to record the pre-Christian society, it was a night which they were waking up from, in their eyes. The Indo-European thing doesn't give you sociology. Any ancient text gives you rags of what was there a thousand years before its own horizon. If you put these rags together you get nothing at all. They don’t knit together. Not at all. What does hold together is the phonology, but you can't write a poem about that. Or so I suspect. I think archaeology inspires much more confidence.

This was a project which was fundamentally going nowhere. But studying anthropology, naturally through the works of anthropologists and not those of Dumézil, was a transformative experience, even if I can't make explicit what I learnt or even glimpsed.

There was a key experience with Dumézil which was about two frames of reference collapsing into each other, or superimposing on each other. So he writes a book which involves Irish, Latin and Greek texts simultaneously, as if they were part of the same cultural terrain. I found this genuinely exciting each time. Actually the incongruity, the surreal moment almost, is what provides the excitement. If you actually fitted those cultures together it would stop being exciting… but where you superimpose them and they flow into each other and it doesn't make sense and is producing quite unpredicted shapes, that is exciting.
The recovery method involves destroying a text in order to see elements in it which may be a thousand years older. These elements may be what the text, in its full flourishing, was hiding, or may simply not be there at all. Analysis can mean a claim to see the invisible. To be literal, everything in a text written down in 1000 AD has the date of 1000 AD. And in a text every element is bound and grasped by every other. Dissolving the text is not realistic.

I have just come across a note with a quote from Michael Herzfeld. My note says “idealisation of Greece and the act of social anthropology are both ‘a physical location and a discourse through which the moral segregation of the West from the rest of the world was effected.’” This seems to imply that if you cast Europe as acting out the legacy of Greece then you can exclude Europe from the gaze of anthropology and continue the idealising deception which you have already carried out by subtracting Greece from any gaze but one of adoration. You are allowed to carry out anthropology as long as you don't carry it out in Europe! This does point us back towards a project in which you would recover barbarian Europe as the true history, and focus on the illiterates, and the peoples who had customs but no lawyers, as the inventors of the European legacy. The early investors in the fonds européen.

Herzfeld, a social anthropologist, has done fieldwork in Greece and written extensively on the self-deception involved in the project of gathering Greek ethnology. Persistently, scholars selected traits which reminded them of Classical antiquity and threw away traits which were common with Turkish culture, even if that meant losing most of the evidence. So you couldn't compare Greek ballads with Turkish ballads – that would be a Lose. Whereas finding a fragment of Classical memory in a ballad would be a Win. In the sentence I quote Herzfeld is linking this self-deception with a wider self-deception of Europeans about themselves. And this is a pervasive problem of turning a critical gaze on the European middle class when that class has produced the gazer and will form the market for which the gazer will, if all goes well, produce published work.

H is suggesting a realm of ethnographical knowledge which has been thrown away in pursuing the project of idealising Greece and then turning Europe into the reincarnation of Classical Greece. This realm may not exist, since the key to anthropological knowledge is field observation and that is not possible for past societies. What we have instead is documents, and what emerges from a critical gaze at documents, in archives and so on, is history – which we already have. Within works of history are chapters about “society”, that is about (relatively) unchanging structures which resemble social anthropology at a distance.

Dumézil knew a lot about Caucasian languages, including non-IE ones, and produced work on the Ossetes, a people situated in the North Caucasus, so on the edge of Europe (near the Caspian Sea) who speak an Iranian language related to Persian (Farsi) and also, it is thought, to unrecorded languages like Scythian and Alan. (Non-recorded in a relative sense, since we do have some personal names and short inscriptions that may preserve those languages, slightly.) These were the Iranian languages of Eastern Europe. D’s proposition was that the Ossete folklore, recorded in the 19th C by scholars like Vsevolod Miller, preserved narrative structures which had descended intact from the Indo-European period, say the upper 3rd millennium, closer to 3000 BC than to 2500 BC. Roughly 5000 years. This is a ludicrous proposal and one quickly realises that Dumézil needed it to be true rather than knowing it to be true. Of course it is fascinating to learn about this rather obscure people and their vivid folklore (dealing with the Narts, heroic figures who do resemble gods in legends from peoples who still had gods as opposed to being, like the Ossetes, Moslems). The idea that the most profound and undamaged European symbolic utterances are to be found among this marginal people – poor, mountain-dwelling, warlike, Moslem – is moving and touching. Dumézil needs folk-tales collected in 1880 to be unchanged since 2500 BC, and this may well remind us of the need of scholars, travelling in Greece in 1820, to find something (more or less anything) which reminded them of Antiquity and which had descended, virginal, miraculous, from 500 BC. Men who put great stock in books wanted entire communities to be like books, preserving patterns which had been recorded in them centuries ago.
I said “descended intact” but of course the idea was that the “symbolic elements” had evolved to produce a puzzle, esoteric and convoluted, which a scholar of genius could resolve and demonstrate the continuity of the familiar in the unfamiliar. Call for Professor Dumézil!

I am inclined to shift the frame slightly and to posit that the issue is about how Europe views the Balkans as a whole, with the implication that Greece is part of the Balkans even if most Greek politicians would denounce that idea. The Balkans are part of Europe and also where the self-idealisation of Europe halts and evolves into something like horror. This is mixed, as writers like Maria Todorova (as well as Herzfeld) have reminded us, with the attempt of Balkan intellectuals and “civic society” to imitate Europe and, repeatedly, to reform away customs which were not European enough. As has been argued rather convincingly, nationalism was something missing in the Balkan 18th century which reforming activists introduced to the region to make it more European (and less Asian?). So the “ethnographical gaze” might start here – and, for example, specifically in the work of Herzfeld on Greece – and move on to Western Europe. He argues that Greece since the late 18th C has been trying to create a mirror, both of Europe and of Classical Greece, in order to please Europeans. The interaction between the Greek government and the Troika, with an arsenal of figures, or fake figures, is only the latest example of this. The Greek government hires Goldman Sachs in order to facilitate its entry into the European Union, passing the tests of fiscal probity, by creating figures whose immaculate fakeness passed every test of fiscal improbity. The attempt of the EU to impose democracy on the Eastern European accession tier can be seen as a similar exercise – a clash of academic reason and unwritten customs. And Greek tax returns can be seen as colourful “magic realism”.
But the ethnographic project is still open. Tom Harrison returned from fieldwork in Melanesia to set up (in 1938) an anthropological study of Britain – Mass Observation, “the study of ourselves”. The results were extremely interesting. Perhaps one day Herzfeld will study Lancashire.

There is one thing by Dumezil which I am not sceptical about, and that is Le problème des centaures. The material he is dealing with involves quite a bit of Polish folklore… it is fascinating and he doesn't disintegrate it in analysis. So Indo-European studies are exposed as a branch of antiquities. And I had an idea that I could use folklore in poems. And in fact dumézilian ideas, from Centaures, do turn up in one poem – ‘Twelve Days’ (in Savage Survivals).

I have just been listening to radio programmes about Vaughan Williams and his collecting of simple folk material, in Yarmouth, which he could develop into orchestral music. This concerns the relationship of folklore and literature; it suggests the possibility of the enucleation of Indo-European themes, simple like any oral literature, into “modern” literary forms in periods which had states and towns. I suspect that the process, musically or otherwise, is mainly new information being added, not the repetition of archaic and bound forms. Dumézil was slightly younger than the “nationalist” composers but still old enough to have absorbed their ideas and seen simple tunes as the basis of a national music, or literature. This is the ruling idea behind his search for impossibly ancient themes crouched at the base of classical literary texts. Somehow from within Livy’s history of Rome you can recover a folk tune which is 2000 years older and which Livy was apparently unable to alter.

Friday, 16 September 2022

The hangman ties the holly

The hangman ties the holly: Canadian mythological poets in the 1950s

When we read Anne Wilkinson’s poem:

Her coral remains lie
Where fishes keep their watch by night
And move transparent fans
In hollows of her delicate drift-bones.
From ivory pelvis spring
Her strange sea changeling children;
In sockets deep with six lost layers of sight
The sea fans open.
(‘Virginia Woolf’)

- we are bound to think of Apocalyptic poetry. Wilkinson was Canadian. She wrote a book called “The Hangman Ties the Holly” (1955), a title reminiscent of 40s English poetry in its paradox and parody. Evidently there was some influence of the main Forties English style in Canada. The question is whether this affected a few poems only (so Wilkinson wrote in a mythical way about a death by drowning, without that implying that she would use the same style for any other topic) or whether the idea of personal myth affected some Canadian poets at a deeper level.

The start point is two unanswered questions from the Forties research impulse which followed David Mellors’ overwhelming 1987 exhibition. First, what echoes of the Apocalyptic thing were there in the rest of the English-speaking world? and, secondly, given that the claim about Apocalypse that it vanished like an apparition around 1950 sounds like factional propaganda, how did the movement develop in the 1950s?
The big picture of the 1940s is the detachment of the English speaking world from England as the centre of literary taste. This coincides notably with the re-facing outwards of US policy to become the doctrine of the world’s dominant power, and responds to the controversial and spookily avant garde quality of Apocalyptic poetry in England. The more emotive it was, the less it sounded authoritative and metropolitan. It is interesting that this detachment of the USA was parallelled by rapid anti-English re-orientation in Wales and Scotland – old mantles of authority had simply broken up in rags, and decolonisation was the public music that everyone could hear.

What happens if you remove the world crisis from the “world soul” which the prophetic insight of Apocalyptic poetry is expecting to be listening to? and what, further, if you remove the irrational and confusing quality of style, which so many interested people objected to during the 1940s? The outcome might be something which retains personal myth and a reliance on intuition rather than documentary, which is serene and wrapped up in its mythical world. It would be a myth of serenity and fulfilment, as opposed to paranoia, crisis, the image of Nazi power across the narrow sea. In the Ur-text, the Book of Revelations, we remember the horror-film passages, but the text itself is mainly not about those, it contains a whole range of strange scenes. If you see the course of the world, that could include a wealth of scenes which do not belong in a horror film. The 1950s were an era of returning prosperity and, outside big exceptions like Korea and Indochina, peace. Canada was at peace. The realm of poetic myth could be as diverse as the realm of the original Greek myths, or also as the world of fairy tales, which was closer to the powers of Western secular poets.
Part of the Forties scene was an interest in the ballet and Romantic painting, intact worlds which recalled an era of peace (and of wealth, at least for a few). Part of the poetry scene of the time was an approximation to this realm, a blurring of borders. James Kirkup is an example. So in the 1950s you might find that poetic myth looks like a ballet – something graceful, entranced, aestheticised. In fact, the move away from the activity of States, and so of armies, navies, and so on, could lead directly to this sort of idyllic and small-scale setting. Further, the release of the Unconscious, a move bound to bring decentralisation of art, could unleash a swarm of graceful and decorative dance-like scenes, as opposed to something from a horror film or a war film. The Unconscious contains endless variety, and that was the initial point of unclasping its lid.
We can think about this by looking at products of the early 1950s: Under Milk Wood, the dramas of Christopher Fry, Eithne Wilkins’ Oranges and Lemons. They are more to do with whimsy, decentralisation, comedy, riotous decoration, and much less to do with international politics and the twilight of the gods. But it is credible that this is the direction which the Forties scene went in, and so that we are looking at a development rather than a collapse. People were not writing war poems, full of burning buildings, in an era of peace and victory.

This is the context in which we can look at a group of Canadian poems of the 1950s and ask whether their exploration of personal myth might be part of an emotional connection to England and English poetry. One framework for this might be a wish to have a Canadian thing which moved off in a different direction from US poetry and so pioneered a territory which was not already owned by someone else. Another might be the example of Dylan Thomas. Possibly recent British poetry was acceptable as a model because British political power was evaporating so fast that dependence was not the interpretation which would occur to relevant people. The poets in question are Wilfred Watson, Daryl Hine, and Anne Wilkinson.

Northrop Frye reviewed Wilfred Watson’s Friday’s Child (Faber and Faber [British Book Service], 56 pp., $2.00) on publication, saying it “is typically formal poetry, mythical, metaphorical and apocalyptic, using religious language because it is impossible to avoid religious language in poetry of this kind. The expected influences are present: Hopkins (notably in “I Praise God’s Mankind”), Eliot, the later Yeats, and more particularly Dylan Thomas, the most exuberantly apocalyptic poet of our time. (There are two poems on Thomas, an “Admiration” and a “Contempt”: the latter seems to deny the apocalyptic element in him, which I find incomprehensible, in spite of the great eloquence of the poem itself.)” (Frye, in The Bush Garden)
This draws the frame inside which this essay has to navigate. Frye is clear that Watson was influenced by the Forties English (or Welsh!) thing; Watson clearly stated, on the cover of one of his books (if I am not mistaken) how much he disliked the Apocalyptic movement. It looks rather as if he had been influenced by Thomas but saw this as a weakness, a social disadvantage. That might propose that Canadian poets, maturing in a certain ten-year period, might simultaneously have been influenced by poets such as Barker, Thomas, or Raine, and have felt a need to moderate that influence and pursue their own direction quite energetically. Watson wrote:

Emily Carr

Like Jonah in the green belly of the whale
overwhelmed by Leviathan 's lights and liver
imprisoned and appalled by the belly's wall
yet inscribing and scoring the up rush
sink vault and arch of that monstrous cathedral,
its living bone and its green pulsing flesh -
old woman, of your three days anatomy
Leviathan sickened and spewed you forth
in a great vomit on coasts of eternity.
Then, as for John of Patmos, the river of life
burned for you an emerald and jasper smoke
and down the valley you looked and saw
all wilderness become transparent vapour,
a ghostly underneath a fleshly stroke,
and every bush an apocalypse of leaf

Evidently, this is an apocalyptic poem. Jim Keery included it in his Apocalyptics anthology, and this is not a puzzling choice – no matter what Watson said. John of Patmos was the author of the original Apocalypse. It does not imitate the pattern of the source because it does not adapt the myths sufficiently into a new myth. The supernatural narrative appears as a tidy comparison for the activity of a real person, Emily Carr (1871-1945). It is “personal myth” in that way. If we look at the images, we see apocalypse, but if we look at the grammar we find something organised and tidy. This is noticeably an equivalent for an Emily Carr painting which has a realistic and rather tidy depiction of a row of totem poles, products of the Canadian Pacific province which embody mythical beings and may record myths, even if their primary significance is to identify a clan and its property.
Watson also wrote:

Then nor Any day nor
Any moment neither
But now — ever and ever
It was, and the Garden of Eden was
The day before. The first
Love of the world, the curst
First marriage poured
Into my veins its heaven.
And centuries of birds sang laughter
Into my heart of rafters
Till the tomb egg broken
A bell rang and swung its thought
(‘Love Song for Friday’s Child’)
The imagery is, basically, apocalyptical, and even mandatory for an apocalyptic poet. If you don’t think an apocalyptic poem looks like this, you are wrong. I am not saying that Watson didn’t work out this poetic theology on his own, just that he reached the same field of resonating images that the English poets did. (I understand his later poetry was quite different.)
I am less interested in locating an echo of the English avant garde in Watson – if the poetry is just an echo then this is of scarce interest – than in finding how the fascinating theories of the group (initially in Leeds, we understand) worked out in a situation less marked by haste and hysteria than wartime Britain. My impression of the three core Apocalyptic anthologies is that the poetry is unfinished, disfigured by haste – people just didn’t think they were going to live very much longer, and they couldn't wait. It is quite rational to think that the movement would reach maturity in the decade 1946-56 (roughly!), and that poems from that period would be the ones of most interest for a connoisseur of poetry looking back in a more leisured era. That moment of fruition didn’t happen in Britain – enemies of the New Romantic style took over too thoroughly and hit too hard. We have evidence that editors had decided, around 1950, not to take any more poems in that style. This gave rise to the question, already mentioned, about the later development of Apocalyptic poetry as something located in a body of missing evidence. I think Jim Keery and I disagree on this, but my impression is that the style flickered out when the pressure of war and international crisis abated. There was an upsurge when Dylan Thomas died, as so many people wrote “farewell Dylan” poems in a style imitating his that you could possibly produce an anthology of them. Patrick Anderson, in Canada, produced what may be the best. People loved Thomas, and loved ‘Under Milk Wood’ (broadcast after his death), at that moment. But the 1950s went on without a School of Dylan raising its artistic level to a pitch you could call significant. The dirges were a farewell in two senses. But, this is an open question. There is a surviving problem of obscurity, poetry that got written but not published (or, published in an amazingly marginal way). Then, there is the problem of sensibility, that poetry sensitive to the state of the world (the world-soul, I almost said) would look totally different in 1955 from how it looked in 1943. Then, there is the question of the style flourishing in somewhere like Canada – free from the ideologues and hate-peddlers of the London and Oxford (Oxfordshire) hot-pots, and benefiting from serenity.
A guide to which way the wind was blowing may be Dorian Cooke’s ‘Fugue for Our Time”, which I understand was written at about New Year’s Day 1950. Cooke’s poetry is still largely unpublished, and we understand that Peter Manson is planning a collection of it. The story is that Cooke had a book ready for William MacLellan to publish, and MacLellan never managed to bring it out. Manson's search for the (possibly) surviving typescript is the stuff of literary legend. However, ‘Fugue’ did come out, in 1951, from a Communist Party front publisher called Form Books. Cooke (1916-2005) was the youngest of the original Apocalyptic group, in Leeds, and wrote some of the most extreme, and least successful, material in their group anthologies. However, ‘Fugue’ is a striking contrast to that material, being a metrically highly organised, closely argued, poem about the state of the world in 1949. I take it that this is a development of the original concerns, rather than a path out of them, and that this reformed manner was likely to be the vehicle for Apocalyptic poetry of the 1950s. Cooke ceased publishing at that point. I describe this because, if we are going to look for connections between the Canadian poets and the Apocalyptics, we should look at “Fugue for our Time” (or late Thomas) rather than the more frantic material from the time of the military build-up, the expansion of the Third Reich, and the Fall of France.

Frye remarks: “In our day, however, the primitive tendency has been reached through a further refinement of sophistication: “modern” poets use myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic imagery just as “modern” painters use abstract or stylized patterns. In Canada, the Romantic nineteenth-century traditions are reflective and representational: “modern” poets have unconsciously bridged the cultural gap with the Indians, just as the painting of Emily Carr bridges the gap in British Columbia between a culture of totem poles and a culture of power plants.”
This suggests that the drive towards the unconscious was bound, in Canada, to lead to a re-imagining of myths of the First Peoples. This was a nationalist programme which also meant turning one’s back on Europe. It follows that impulses which in the abstract precisely match the Apocalyptic idea in Britain would, in Canada, culminate in something Canadian – where the link to Surrealism or Apocalypse was only theoretical, cooled by an ocean, and not really worth investigating. (The extensive use of indigenous material, including myths, eventually led to a complaint by Indigenous writers or others that this was appropriation. Part of the appeal of myth is that it is free, it belongs to you when you deploy it in poems.)

The Apocalyptic thing involved decentralisation. The State was suspect because of its links at every level with the war machine. Rejecting the machine meant a rejection of the Enlightenment, in favour of myth; but inevitably also meant a rejection of the State and of its processes. Humans were no longer similar to each other; everything was personal. The new mythic discourse had also to reject the standard myths, being the Christian legend of salvation and the Greek mythology. Their “classicism” and Victorian aura condemned them. But folklore had bypassed the Enlightenment and was evidently decentralised. It offered a language which Forties poets could master without simply becoming neo-classicists. A key to the Apocalyptic plan to revive myth is that they were using it creatively – the Victorian apparatus and its costumes would be discarded, to be replaced by a newly invented set of symbols and events, straight from the unconscious. These new stories had not benefited from thousands of years of sophisticated polishing by such compilers as Ovid: they would be coarse. Folklore fits into this as a sort of myth without sophistication or overlay; it is a much better source for invented myth than, say, a Mannerist painting with a full range of visual rhetoric. So a title like “the hangman ties the holly”, with its echoes of popular song (of an older time) is an example of personal myth – not yet ennobled and sublimated. It is a line from a poem called 'Carol’ –

I was a lover of turkey and holly
But my true love was the Christmas tree
We hung our hearts from a green green bough
And merry swung the mistletoe

We decked the tree with a silver apple
And a golden pear
A partridge and a cockle shell
And a fair maiden

No rose can tell the fumes of myrrh
That filled the forest of our day
Till fruit and shell and maid fell down
And the partridge flew away

Now I swing from a brittle twig
For the green bough of my true love hid
A laily worm. Around my neck
The hangman ties the holly

This is a wonderful poem and its sophisticated manipulation of a folk idiom, from songs we all know, is distinctive. (The laithly worm was a loathsome dragon in a Yorkshire folk-tale, or possibly ballad.) The links with an Apocalyptic style are almost invisible, but there are moments in Wilkinson poems which do show a link, however transformed: Free from cramp and chap of winter
Skin is minstrel, sings
Tall tales and shady
Of kings of Nemi
(“The Red and the Green”)

So Spring affects us directly through the skin and our inner state is seasonally buoyant. The kings of Nemi are the subjects of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which offers a link, persistently, between myth and folklore. Folklore in fact offered a safe space where poets could work on mythical material without the oversize implications of writing myth. The theme of the poem is quite close to “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”; the red is the blood which circulates inside the body of a human, and the green is the vital force of vegetation. The poem says that the power of the natural world is inside humans, and that art can reflect this more or less boundless vitality and growth. The Golden Bough is about vegetation myth as the basis for most folklore: the king dies and is resurrected just as the wheat is harvested and yet grows again. So the skin is released from winter and metaphorically blossoms; it sings for spring, and so Spring is the motive for songs. (The tall tale is shady because it is like a tall tree, and that tree must be the one on which the Golden Bough grows. But a tall tale is also a myth.)
My feeling is that these poems show how “personal myth” could work in poetry, so shorn of wartime paranoia and of prophetic trumpet tones but coherent and integrated. The unpopular features of the Apocalyptic thing were verbal awkwardness, a lack of logic and consistency, and a tendency to exaggerate. These features could be fixed. So if we are looking for reflections of the style in the 1950s we should start by looking for poems which have shed these features. Wilkinson may be the supreme example of this, since her poems are graceful before anything else. So when Wilkinson writes about “the green artery” of plants, that is very much like “the green fuse” of the flower in Thomas’ poem, she uses imagery like Thomas’ rather consistently, but her style sounds quite different. More generally, personal myth needs to be discreet in scale, because your personality is not inherently gigantic. Another feature of the 1950s is a more oral style, where the folk manner simplifies the poem and makes it closer to an audience. This is audible in Thomas, in Fry, and in Eithne Wilkins, as we mentioned. It bestows lucidity. So we may think that the answer to how Apocalypse developed in the 1950s is work by Kathleen Raine and Anne Wilkinson.
Daryl Hine wrote a pamphlet called “The Carnal and the Crane” in which the title comes from an 18th C Christmas carol. (Several editors have supposed a 14th C original, which we don’t have.) My supposition is that the poems in this 1957 publication (he was twenty-one!) do present personal myth realised through folklore and do resemble some other poems of the time which used folk material. However, Hine was a prolific poet who had almost nothing to do with Apocalypse in the course of his career. A link with Christopher Fry is thinkable. I couldn’t find references to the carnal and the crane (two birds, one eats red meat and one eats fish) within the text, although the longest poem is about King Herod and the Three Kings, and the Carnal is a Christmas song which is about the Journey into Egypt and so partly about Herod. The Herod material is in a poem 13 pages long called “The Return from Unlikeness”. Hine does show “a lack of logic and consistency” and paraphrasing his Christmas poem would be difficult. It is irrational at some deep level, and in the irrationality is the personal element, masked and yet elaborate:

Remember that you thought me beautiful
and praised the muscled flesh above the bone,
the angle of the head, and used to call
my skill the body’s silent falconry
that could release and call the falcon home.
I’m hunter, hawk and hunted, and I shine
in the apocalyptic landscape as I shone
amid the simple views of Arcady.
(The speaker is Alexis, one of the gay shepherds from an eclogue of Vergil.)

I am really not clear what the unlikeness is and what the players return to. The whole could be gay love poetry with a New Testament nativity play superimposed on it. But the buried material resists surfacing much as the overt content resists being unwrapped and discarded.

I regret that I don’t like Hine’s later work as much as this 1957 pamphlet. Perhaps that is because I am more interested by the past. And perhaps he just liked Auden too much.

James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles is certainly personal myth, certainly fuses entirely with folklore material, and certainly from the 1950s. Is it Apocalyptic? not for a moment. It sounded fascinating when Frye reviewed it (in his annual survey of Canadian poetry, for 1958), and is fascinating to read. It is like a comic ballet, with geese instead of swans. It is more like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (with its hoe-down) than like George Barker. It fits neatly into a pattern of Canadian poetry about Christmas – all the characters are Michaelmas geese, and Christmas is for obvious reasons the end-point. A summary I grabbed from the Internet is:
The title of A Suit of Nettles was inspired by a German fairy tale. Seven suits of nettles are woven by the sister of seven brothers who have been changed into swans. When the time comes for the seven swans to put on their suits of nettles and regain human form, the arm of one suit is not finished. Consequently one brother always has one swan’s wing instead of an arm.
The poem, like Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, is a sequence of pastoral eclogues, one for each month of the year, but here the dialogues are not between bucolic swans, they are between Ontario geese! Although the goose-eye view is bound to be somewhat restricting there is much carefully observed detail about farm houses, spring in a small pond, summer in a pasture and the small town Ontario Fall Fair. […] Here is a poet who believes in merry invective. (I don't know who wrote this. Uncredited blurb to the 2010 edition)
“The poem has a seasonal cycle, associated with a rotating children’s ride at ‘an ordinary small town fair in Ontario with its sideshows, ferris wheels, prize animals, freaks, and merry-go-rounds.’”
I enjoyed Reaney’s Ontarian pastoral.

Far away red far away
Red as fire
A fox
Flash and transpire

I met a green woman
Her feet were paths
Her eyes were bunchberries
Her arms green laths
Her tongue a mushroom
Her teeth white violets
Her nose an owl feather
Her eyes like cressets

Did I touch her?

All pulse-wage since
And this place
Holds my heart in a bottle
Of pathpace

I suppose that pathpace is speed of movement and the speaker is trapped, so that his energy is bottled up. The garnishing refers to child support payments. Reaney’s poetry is eccentric, rural, archaic, folksy, quaint, but highly wrought and convincing. There are quite extensive references to The Golden Bough, just as in Wilkinson.

I was excited by comments in Northrop Frye’s essays on 50s Canadian poetry but on examination the connection with British Apocalyptic poetry is not really there. The use of folklore and even folk-song in poems by Wilkinson, Hine, and Reaney is interesting but has other sources and is not simply an extension of fashions on this side of the Atlantic. I found these poets fascinating.
A guess that Canadian poets reached personal myth by means of folklore proved right, although Frye’s admonition about Canadians accessing Native Peoples’ mythology to fill the gap left by Christian and Greek myth had more scope. Reaney, Hine, and Wilkinson do not show any evidence of using “First Peoples” myth, and instead we are seeing people of English (or anglophone, anyway) stock using English folklore. Evidently folk singers, and eventually folk clubs, thrived in Canada. We all know what that led to.
I subscribe to an online library which has quite a lot of Canadian poetry from The Porcupine’s Quill, including 50s poetry, and which does not display at full size on my PC. This halted the essay and it did not really recover. After efforts using the screen grabbing tool I was able to recover a text of James Reaney which I could blow up and read, but it was time-consuming. I hope to access poems by Jay Macpherson and others as time allows. The idea of personal myth in the 1950s would still repay further attention.
It is fair to mention a thread that is just lint. Robin Skelton was a genuine Apocalyptic poet (Patmos and other poems, 1955) who went to Canada. However he was not in Canada during the 1950s. And he wasn't a high-powered poet. I don’t think Canada needed Skelton, and I don’t think anyone took him, as opposed to John of Patmos, as a prophet of times to come.
Even pre-drop Jim Keery has pointed out flaws in my understanding: "I’ve got those lines by Hine, for the obvious reason (I think the second ‘shine’ should be ‘shone’) – but nothing else of his – and ‘liked Auden too much’ is a direct hit, I think – for a start the land of unlikeness is from his Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being – ‘He is the way./ Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;/ You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures’ – ugh – which is where Lowell must have got his title, though Land of Unlikeness came out in the same year, 1944, and it’s a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions: ‘I realized I was far away from Thee in a land of Unlikeness’ – it is a great phrase!"
So there we are. Further dredging reveals that the phrase was taken by Augustine ("regio dissimilitudinis") from Plato's dialogue "Politicus" (the Statesman). "Beholding it in its troubles, and being anxious lest it be racked by storms and confusions, and be dissolved again in the bottomless abyss of unlikeness, he takes control of the helm once more." The "land" has been taken to be either the captivity in Egypt or the wandering of the Holy Family to Egypt, which we see in Hine's poem.

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Michael Roberts as Machiavel

The free ticket

The starting point is a consideration of a dataset of thousands of 20th C poets. Most of these had no careers, they do not feature in the anthologies. This greyed out background makes us think more about what is special in the trajectory of the poets who did get selected, who do feature in a trawl of anthologies. Part of this is a sense of Time – being able to see the history of literature and to place yourself on a time-line, and so work out what style is appropriate. I previously discussed the issue of why one person decides what Now is and another doesn't, but we are not going to get into that again. Samuel Hynes titled a book "the Auden generation" which conducts itself as if only four poets had debuted during the 1930s. Surely "generation" implies everyone, and that would include several hundred people (even if "emerging" was not something they got round to).

I noted that mid-century poetry was dominated by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. This is based on standard anthologies. The ratios point to assimilation to modern culture as part of a biographical process, and as source of both content and formal insights to support poems. Clearly, also, the anthologists picked good poems, and the sociological background is incidental to that. My feeling was that almost all the poets who were completely ignored wrote in out of date styles – they lacked a sense of Now. My feeling was also that this sense comes very quickly when you socialise with other people who read modern poetry, because most readers have a strong sense of the “out of date”. Poetry is not different from clothes, films, popular music, painting, etc. in this respect. To recover why some poets grasped what being out of date meant, we would look at social groups and not specifically at individuals.

To analyse this, my urge is to go back to Michael Roberts’ anthology New Signatures, 1932. Evidently, this defined the way to write as legitimated by Allott (in his Penguin anthology) thirty years later. It was the way Allott himself wrote. It showed a style which people could copy. It was the winning ticket. So, what we are looking at is a population of a few hundred people who wrote poetry in some other way and didn’t make it into Allott’s 1960 version of the contemporary. New Signatures was the key to legitimacy – it was a public document, widely reviewed and presumably on sale quite widely. It was really obvious at the time that this was the style which was going to dictate the pace for everything else. So why did most poets starting in the 1930s pass by this style? Roberts “mentored” the poets who picked up the Legitimate style from his exhibition of it– but only a minority were willing to do that. There is a free ticket but most people don’t go along to pick it up. A quote –

The sun, a heavy spider, spins in the thirsty sky.
The wind hides under cactus leaves, in empty door-
ways. Only the wry

small shadow accompanies Hamlet-Petrouchka-
Chaplin across the plain
the wry small sniggering shadow preceding, then in train.

(A.S.J. Tessimond, at p.101) Maybe a lot of poets didn’t like this style. Oxford was full of bright kids but it can’t be that everyone else wasn't bright. Maybe the key thing is the capacity to imitate – you have 19 year olds with a honed ability to imitate. They see a style and just pick it up. It is theirs. Meanwhile hundreds of other 19 year olds can’t imitate the new style. It’s like being unwilling to put on a new fashion in clothes. “I’m not wearing THAT.” The message only reaches those who are destined to receive it.
Roberts also did the Faber Book of Modern Verse, which jettisoned most 20th C poets, even the famous ones. In 1936, if you virtually memorised Roberts' anthologies, that equipped you to write Modern verse. I am just asking why some people didn't do that and still tried to write poetry. In 1960, Allott is effectively repeating Roberts' decisions, setting them in stone. This becomes the story of poetry 1930 to 1960.>br> Maybe there is a minority of poets who see style as detachable from their personality. Studying literary history makes this realisation inevitable. That detachment may be the basis for choosing a style and so choosing the right style. This is still speculative – so, to speculate again, maybe any (arts) university course will grant the same realisation.
Tessimond worked in advertising. This also sheds light on the question of poetic fashion. To write ads, you have to have a sense of what is up to date. You also have to be flexible rather than stubborn, other-directed rather than preoccupied with your own feelings – again, this may suggest the personality type of someone who is able to acquire a new style. So we are positing not just a social scene in which everyone is interested in modern poetry but also the kind of person who is able to assimilate new verbal patterns rather than just stick with what they were doing before. Fairly obviously this might correlate with creating verbal environments which other people can go inside and feel released and at home in.
I think that arriving at a university and a town where you don't know anybody is a big shock and often sweeps away previous attitudes, which is a moment that makes room for the adoption of a new style. A new career in a new town. I also think that a high-powered university gives you a double stimulus; whereby the whole set-up is telling you that you are destined to be the best, but both your teachers and your peers, who are competitive with you, are being very critical of you, and that testing process is necessary to high-flying universities. In poetry, being self-confident on its own leads to prolix and dull poems, and pure criticism produces people who never complete any poems at all. The balance is the key.
I don’t want to state that the Oxford set-up is perfect. Clearly there are people who come out of it with an excessive self-confidence and sense of entitlement; and others who come out furious after close contact with people who are too talented, and with others who eagerly confirm that you are the lesser talent and they much prefer several other poets in your year. Larkin has left a record of how angry he was with Sidney Keyes for being more talented than he was, and how crushed he was by being left out of a book (Eight Oxford Poets) which featured better poets his age. (The editor, Michael Meyer, turned him down.) We are not talking about a set of perfect outcomes. All the same, if you are designing an environment for novice poets, you probably want that combination of self-confidence and vigorous criticism. Facing rivals who are not only super-gifted but also super-competitive may not be a benign experience. It can leave burn marks. All the same I think one of the common features in unsuccessful poetry is how unselfcritical it is – the poet may have a good time writing it but they are not asking if it is any good. The ones who are going to make it all have that ability to focus on their weaknesses.

Inventing a style which other people can use is another topic which we can go into at another time. Special gratitude is due to people who do this – Auden is a prime example. Eliot produced poetry which people couldn't imitate, that is another matter. Dylan Thomas certainly produced a hundred imitators.

This post tacitly accepts that most good mid-century poetry came from a sociologically very narrow group of people. It is hard to accept that, but if you want to devise environments which facilitate novice poets then it is helpful to look at examples of success. The post is quite narrow itself, and we should also recall what happened a bit later– as Wolfgang Görtschacher has documented, the Sixties saw a terrific rise of interest in poetry at the new universities, and it is possible that every university had a poetry scene of some kind. So the Oxford-Cambridge dominance was washed away during the Sixties. I think it was easier to go from three centres of poetic endeavour to 30 than from zero to thirty. I think it’s good that there were some centres of excellence in 1950 and better that there are now a whole lot. And some centres of insolence. And probably some centres of indolence, too.

In the 1970s, we still have figures from the 1930s setting the rules – Roberts, Auden, Grigson, Allott. (Even though Roberts died in 1948.) I looked up Eight Oxford Poets and they were Keith Douglas, Gordon Swaine, John Heath-Stubbs, Michael Meyer, Roy Porter, Drummond Allison, J.A. Shaw, Sidney Keyes. The year was 1941. They were all twenty.

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Patrick Fetherston

Patrick Fetherston (born 1928).

Natures of all sorts. (Tetralith, 1973). [57 pages in double column, so 114 columns] Fetherston is an interesting figure because he was already doing something avant garde in the 1950s and persisted into a new world. But actually that continuity is deserted, nobody inhabits it. I never heard his name mentioned although I saw his name in catalogues and possibly saw him at ALP book fairs. Fetherston's book is a (non-)translation of a poem of the 1st century BC, De rerum natura, [on the nature of things] by T Lucretius Carus. Lucretius is writing about what we would now call science. (He does not credit this very clearly.) I should record that my father was a historian of science so my childhood left me with some knowledge of that history and with feelings about how terrific good popular science was and how badly written much science writing was. I would recommend The Fabric of the Heavens [1961], by Toulmin and Goodfield, as an account of what early science found and what questions it was asking. I read “Natures” because I read a review in a 1973 issue of 2nd Aeon which said it was good. (“massive poem that takes a cosmic view of the world, creation, death, nature itself. Mimeo format.”) Finch seems not to have noticed that it is a translation of a poem from the 1st century BC or that its ideas are very very old.

Fewer elements
in mind than in body
and fewer still
with mind-with-body symmetry.
Not always experienced:
the slack on the skin of a miner
after a day at the face;
the pulchrific dust on a woman's cheek;
even nightmist (the heaviest kind).
Where the plexus of neural fibre
doesn’t always respond
to periscopic follicles,
should the stimulus to faint
be transmitted?
Your mind wants to live
more than your temper does.
Were I to prove
self was (in agony) subject to death
I‘d prove at the same time
mind was dying and temper dying
- for all that WANTING. (s.70)

There is something here. But the sum is a book in 128 parts of which none works as a poem. (Temper must mean physical body. This is not very clear.) The passage is firstly about the difference between the world being perceived and what the mind succeeds in perceiving. The last few lines pursue the disobedience of the body: the body wants to die and the mind does not. So the poem includes also perception and the human body.

Fetherston uses a simple vocabulary. The attitude is that if we are dealing with direct sense experience and removing myth then using the simplest possible language is appropriate and will yield the truth. However, when one observer shares knowledge with other people the vocabulary they use is crucial, and the more shared terms they have the more knowledge they can transfer. F’s primitive lexicon limits what he can record and certainly destroys most of the information in Lucretius. Lucretius was writing for an audience which was certainly familiar with the terms he used (Latin translations of Greek philosophical vocabulary, to a large extent) and that shared background is not only central but is what Fetherston destroys. Take the word “clinamen”, which Toulmin and Goodfield write so helpfully about. This records the early idea that there was an original body of water which was the cosmos; that it flowed; and that in the flow a swerve caused some part to separate out and become solid matter. This speculation is based on someone watching a flood and seeing silt fall out of the water and imagining that matter originated from such a process. The Idea explains why there are many different substances which compose the cosmos. They have differentiated out. Fetherston does not get this idea over intelligibly. (“Fractionally, a body in motion/ may, deprecating its motion,/ swerve.”) He has lost the original poem while stubbornly building a book built of unlearned language.
F seems to have no notion of the verse line. I can't see even one good line in this book. Another approach might have been to say “if I can write one good line then at some distant point I might be able to write a second one”. F does not seem to have the notion that a section of 30 lines might be made up of 30 good lines. In a sense he isn't writing poetry at all. Isn’t even planning to do that. Lucretius’ original Latin poem is written in rather sonorous and magnificent hexameters. If someone saw a page of Fetherston, it is hard to see why they would want to read another one. The language is wooden and its texture is unpleasing.
I can see that the rule of going back to the simplest language and building up knowledge from the elements is related to other avant garde projects. But F’s poem is very generalised and its rather basic vocabulary use limits the amount of information that is being delivered – and traps the poem in generalisations. The rule is to feign ignorance – there is so much information available, in 1973, in New Scientist for example, which he just scraps to go back to the basics. The choice of De rerum natura is not an obvious one, but we can compare Mottram's poem Local Movement (reviewed in the same issue of 2nd Aeon) which starts from a 17th C text, written in Latin, by William Harvey, about the movement of animals and so about what desire is, as shown by what a creature moves towards. It is fair to say that Fetherston departs from his source and introduces some 20th C ideas.
I understand that F published with Stefan Themerson (Gaberbocchus Press) in the 1950s (Day Off, 1955). I am doubtful that this twilight world of 50s avant garde affected what happened after 1965. It was not forceful or attractive. There never was a point where nobody in England was interested in the avant garde. Their main interest might be receiving new work from Paris or Milan or Berlin, but they didn’t vanish or turn into cats or something. Galleries had shows of modern art and there were people in England who bought the paintings. There was Herbert Read. But the good stuff was hard to find – cultured teenagers in England might encounter modernism in the form of something which didn’t work properly and which put them off. There was a typical moment, I think, where one of these teenagers encountered, later, perhaps aged 25 or 30, abundant modernism, in the form of a Paris museum perhaps, and saw their notions of art collapsing. This was good, but one after-effect might be a dislike of being English, in fact a whole theory of what englishness meant, which cast the Island as a fortress of ignorance and reaction. Fetherston was Scottish, possibly (he uses the word “havering”), but anyway this distrust meant that the local connoisseurs just weren't interested in a local avant garde. “English wine, English modernist painter. Just say no”. Basically his work is unattractive and although he was eager and persistent he just didn’t enthuse people.

1928 was a bad time to be born as a British avant garde poet. However, partly thanks to Eric’s milestone collection of names as the “British Poetry Revival”, we can see that there were modern-style poets who had been born in the 1920s: Edwin Morgan, Christopher Middleton, Christopher Logue, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Charles Tomlinson, Matthew Mead, Gael Turnbull. And Eric himself, of course. They were closed out in the 1950s.

He published under the imprint tetralith, I wonder what that means. It means “four stones” so maybe just a rebus for “feather stone”. “Fethwar” is a possible prehistoric form of “four”.

If you want to know about the universe, I recommend Carl Sagan's TV series, “Cosmos”. This covers most of what Lucretius was writing about. The pictures are helpful, we find.

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

a shop window on recent poetry

I indulged myself and copied down a 5-year series of titles from the fabulous PBS web page. I gathered 1150 titles. This is certainly a luxury experience, things being offered for your pleasure in senseless profusion. It is more than anyone can take in and so it is like marrying a millionaire. The luxury aspect is also that I am not obliged to buy any of them – I am free of responsibility and that is a wonderful feeling. Do they actually read all the books or do they let publishers put up all the books they choose to? what is this a window on?
Retailing is actually the selective principle – we are not seeing a sensibility, even a repressive and partial one. A package of pamphlets has just arrived - the address label has the publisher's name in one corner- so the PBS don't keep a stock of thousands of books, instead when you order through their website they pass the order on to the publisher for fulfilment. So "a shop with no stock" and no losses.
I checked and out of 74 names in the classic 2014 anthology Dear World 52 do not appear in this PBS series. Why do this check? Because poets have a fear of being left out it; is like children being afraid of the dark. So as we gaze in fascination at the 1150 titles displayed on the PBS pages, we have to ask whether we are leaving space for the ones who are being left out. And, obviously, those 52 names from Dear World can only be a visible marker for a much larger group of poets we are not seeing. The qualifier for the PBS list may be simply that the publisher is willing to pay the PBS fee (or, accept the share they take as virtual retailer). So perhaps we are seeing 1150 titles out of 1800 that actually mattered. Gulp.
The jacket of the 2011 anthology The Salt Book of Younger Poets announces that these are the “poets who will dominate UK poetry in years to come”. Evidently that hasn’t proved to be so – the number of poets on the market is just too large. The fifty poets in that volume, incredibly gifted as a collective entity, are only a fraction of the poets achieving success in the world of 2022. To extend that thought – nothing dominates the poetry world, there is no “generational sound” and it is difficult for anyone to claim that some style, or some individual, is the Sound of Now.
I do have a feeling about the scene and it is roughly that the problems which wrecked most English poets a few years ago, the absurd fantasies and inhibitions, have been resolved and that there is a whole world of poets who have just walked out of that conservative and repressed situation. At one level, that abolishes my stock in trade – the critique which we, collectively, voiced in the 1990s does not need to be voiced any more, because everyone has realised it is true and has moved on.

This looks like an invitation to shut up.I am going to review three or four books a year even if the total of significant books is 240. "Mission accomplished- but the beat goes on."

The next corollary is that the Alternative scene which I and we saw as the exit from a depressed mainstream did not win as the mainstream lost. We thought there was only one opposition, unified as a conscious anti-principle, but there were a hundred ways out of the post-Movement shipwreck. I suppose in retrospect that the good thing for cultural critics, in the Eighties or Nineties, was moments of realising that the orthodox route of an avant garde exit was surrounded by dozens of other routes, less travelled and certainly less theorised. The scene was in fact not going to experience a re-run of the modernist revolution of the 1920s or of the flourishing of the American avant garde in the 1950s. These views gave an overall framework which apparently explained everything but which was in some ways impervious to the impact of new facts. In electoral politics, it was obviously the Labour Party which replaced the Conservatives in government, and which aggregated very disparate forces of opposition; this pattern could not be simplistically transferred to the sphere of cultural politics. (At this point it is not Labour which is the “natural” force of opposition in every region, so for example Scotland and some parts of Wales have a different “natural” centre-left choice. Back in the Nineties, I was enthusiastic about books like Sharawaggi, or by Frank Kuppner (A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty) or John Hartley Williams, which did not fit into the preset values of the Official Alternative, and as an editor I was frustrated by those preset values.
I think the old Mainstream lost power because it had an inherently weak position, based on the weak poetry it produced, and because there were many other arts which showed poets what art could do. It wasn’t humiliated on the field of combat by an Alternative which was barely visible in the retail outlets and libraries. To pursue that, I don't think the Alternative was defeated in quite the same way, but I am unclear what its status now is, for example whether it still has coherence as a theoretical identity. I don’t know what its critique of the poetry being written today is. You can set up as a rule that “all rebel poetry is the legacy of other rebel poetry” and so that “unconventional poetry published in 2022 reflects the glory of the heroes of 1972 who actually invented it”. But, is it really true that the “repressed” reproduces itself? or is it rather true that Official poetry is so bloody boring that it has generated 1 new rebel every day since 1960? The old Alternative was rather boastful about Legacy, to the point where it became an obvious dogma and mainly revealed insecurity and even a sense of defeat. I was reading Sophie Robinson’s “Rabbit” last night… a contemporary classic, I think, something obviously strong and captivating and subjective. It is not something that the Mainstream could take on. But is it indebted to the British Alternative? I very much doubt this. It is indebted to Frank O’Hara, in a minor way (65 years have passed!). Robinson mentions Tracy Emin at one point.
One of the vital moments in that 1962 Allott anthology is where he will only print Geoffrey Hill’s poems if Hill provides an explanation of what they mean. So Hill is forced to come clean and write a commentary. When Hill says “I may have been thinking of John Foster Dulles’ view of God as head of Strategic Air Command”, that is astonishing. My point… yes, there is one… is that culture was run (in 1962) by Cold War Christian Conservatives, and there was a whole poetry world made in their image. Hill was being sarcastic about it. That system was against creativity and it was bound to shipwreck. Even if it was still in power in the 1980s. We are seeing 100 varieties of poetry now because poetry is going to be like that as soon as the central models are unplugged. And it isn’t a re-run of anything. There is no overall framework.
To talk about fairness, we would have to consider, not just the 1150 titles in the shop window, but as many again which were published but didn't get into the shop window. So, 2300 titles. It is apparent that nobody in the scene, so nobody in management, read all those 2300 titles. But, fairness would involve exact knowledge of all the poets and their merits. So the system floats on a layer of unfairness, underneath everything. But, if some irritated poet says “you are guilty of not reading my book”, what am I guilty of? The discourse around poetry involves guilt tripping, all the time. Everyone has a grievance. It looks as if the more books come out the more unfair things are. This is ridiculous! The temperament of the scene is irrational abundance based on floating unfairness. The “management”, for what it’s worth, has produced a set-up in which a flood of titles is coming out, in which thousands of poets are having their wish come true in the sense that their book gets published. I think it is hard to attack this outcome.
More work has extracted the fact that the 1150 titles come from 970 different poets. Groan. Who are all these people?

Saturday, 27 August 2022

240 titles? are you kidding?

Notes on PBS exercise

The Poetry Book Society has a quarterly page of Suggested books and when I captured the lists from 4 quarters (so a whole year), for 2021 and 2022, I acquired a set of 237 poets active in that year. That is a lot of books, isn’t it.
I combined this with a previous set of 255 names derived from a cluster of 8 anthologies which came out around 2010, and which all dealt with new poets (a shifting term, of course). The extent of overlap could give us a vague view of what the total number of significant poets might be, who were working in that ten or fifteen year period.

So that overlap is the first question. The next is how on earth I can assimilate this bulk of product.

The total number of poets from that earlier exercise who appear in the Suggestions for 2021-22 is 17. So the other 238 did not re-appear in the new list of suggestions. What happened to the 238? Are we seeing a huge turnover and short-lived careers? an obsession with youth? This is good news for the bored consumer – the flow of quite unfamiliar products is rapid. This connects with a theme of my writing in the Nineties – namely tedium with the mainstream, which was excessively conservative, banal, and unambitious. That mainstream has been effectively swept away. I would argue that this justifies my editorial stance at the time. But, the issue has lost all urgency with time– which is what you hope for when you see something going wrong. Am I now someone without an issue?

Obviously, I am only looking at one year, so if you took a five-year run then more of the names from 2010 would surface. The data do not say whether most of those 250 names have simply left the business. But the lack of overlap leaves me nonplussed. So the total from the two lists is (255 + 238 less 17) = 476. This might be a “catchment area” for the whole period, 2010 to 2022, but a glance at the way we collected the names suggests that the real catchment area is probably double that and perhaps quite a lot more.

The total of names from 2021 who do not show up in my set of earlier lists is 222.

In the Suggestions, I counted 23 poets from an older era. This is subjective because it depends on my memory. But it is a very low number, so what we seem to be looking at is a frantic rate of replacement – the PBS selectors are keen on younger poets and there is a torrent of talented new poets rushing towards their observation post. Fantastic! How can you criticise this?

The figures suggest that there is a verdict on the poetry of the past, so of the period say 1970 to 2000, which is utterly favourable – people have an image of Being a Poet and they want to go and inhabit that image. It is a Yes vote. Maybe all those struggles were not in vain. But, that wish to be a poet does not necessarily mean you have much interest in the work of other poets (and certainly does not mean that you have a deep interest in the poets who were doing it between 1970 and 2000).

The Suggestions are on a website which is, obviously, a commercial facility. The PBS has a stock of books and is selling them through their website. That indicates that they flag up books which they expect people to buy. But more likely the publishers propose books which they think are saleable and the limiting factor is the fee which the publishers have to pay. There is a process whereby the PBS selects books for their subscription programme (you pay an annual fee and get four free books), but probably the selectors do not read 300 books to do that. And many other publishers did not want to pay the fee.

My project on British poetry started at 1960 and ran until 1997. So I am pondering the interval between 1997 and now. Can it really be 240 books a year for 20 years? OMG. All the same that is a plausible figure if you wanted to describe that era. To me it seems an intractable problem. I am reviewing two or three books a year.
It seems extremely difficult for a critic to develop an overview of the scene, because the numbers are as I have described. Already the 250 poets in that 2011 exercise were too many for me to deal with except by helpless hand-waving. A generational anthology seems almost too difficult to compile. In this context, the annual anthologies (Best Poetry Of 2011, and so forth) and in fact the PBS lists, are vital resources, even if not ideal as surveys. And the PBS website is a very convenient place to buy books. A luxury store.

I am uneasy about operating with these figures, because obviously that is reducing poets to parts of a featureless quantity and they all want to be unique, and to stress their uniqueness.
A lot of the discourse around poetry at the moment relates to exclusion and diversity. But, if you have a list of 237 significant books during a year, you are going to miss out on most of them, even 90% of them. Being left out is basic because it is anchored in the volume of publications. I am doubtful of its force as a theme of debate. It seems to me that if fifty poets swim within view of the camera then fifty more are drifting off camera and into invisibility. It is hard to process this in terms of guilt and neglect.

I asked “what happened to the 238?” and this would be a line of research. Is there a pattern whereby people peak with their first book, after years of endeavour, and then drop out rather than write a second book? I could spend a few days on the internet searching for this pattern, but frankly I am not willing to invest the time. Another question would be if the dropping-out is actually a decision of their audience; so that readers are identifying quite intensely with poets of exactly their age, and as they become culturally less active there is less of a market for the “date-stamped” poets. This would be a result of ever more rapid cultural change, so that the market is chronologically segmented, and there are generations of maybe five years who feel very distinct from older people, and in turn seem tired to people younger than them. This is a bit speculative – all the same it is curious how the promising poets of 2010 seem not to be on the map in 2022. So the pattern may be a huge number of poets with a very brief phase of attention for each one. But this is probably just one pattern among many.

I should point out that the count was actually 320 titles, but I did a crawl-through and removed Irish and American poets, etc. This was because I wanted a clearer, narrower, image. In reality the market is reading those poets, obviously. The starting-point has to be that all those titles are excellent - investigation might impair that theory, but we must start from a blank point where we know nothing and, yes, all 320 titles are bursting with great poetry.
Saturation could be a problem. I am wondering if there is a syndrome of saturation, frustration, and declining response levels. Maybe this abundance gives rise to radical resistance - and so to mechanisms of defence. So if someone refuses to read conventional poetry, that may be a response to overload. Conservatism is another clearly defensive line - a moment where distinctive features of "personal taste" also have a neurotic component. I don't want to overload my input channels - reviewing 3 books a year seems quite feasible. I am hoping for the next two to be delivered this morning. **

Thursday, 18 August 2022

A forgotten attempt to document women’s poetry

Winter Were: a forgotten attempt to document women’s poetry
Theodora Roscoe, Mary Winter Were, compiled by, Poems by Contemporary Women; Hutchinson, 1944 75 pp.
“Includes poems by the compilers, Vera Brittain, Clemence Dane, Viola Meynell, Vita Sackville-West, and others.”
Do not pronounce this “winterwear”.
I have never heard of this anthology but I was trying to check if Were was British or not and the title came up in a catalogue. 29 poets. None of it is any good… a forgotten book. There are 60 pages actually of poetry. It is kitsch. Wartime schaltz. There is one exception… a poem by Sylvia Lynd which surprisingly enough I quoted in a post elsewhere in this blog, a few years ago (August 2010). It is about a flycatcher… not about the war, not pseudo-religious, not rhyming; full of concrete details. It is about a bird… and light on its feet, rapid, sudden in movement.

I bought the book because I was surprised to see an anthology with this criterion and to be honest I thought that Trevor Kneale had broken a duck with his 1973 anthology of 41 women poets. There was an anthology called The Distaff Muse (1949), by Clifford Bax and Meum Stewart… there was a copy in my family home, I am not sure if my mother or my grandmother bought it. My grandmother had lots of poetry. But ‘Distaff’ goes back to the Middle Ages, in fact it starts with an excerpt from a Middle English poem called The Flower and the Leaf which has no author but which at least one historian thought might be female because of its sensitivity to flowers, textiles, and fine shades of colour. Is this scientific? who can say, but when I read this as a teenager I found it very provocative because I just didn’t have a view of what was feminine and what wasn't. So actually this level of “primary object choice” could be terribly important, I could see that, but I couldn't process it. George Saintsbury said “Few would lay much real stress on the argument that The Flower and the Leaf must have been written by a woman because“ etc. etc., and, yes, Saintsbury taught my grandmother, at Edinburgh.
I did get a copy with a dust jacket and the dj says "In these pages, the love of nature and husbandry, inherent in English women, is very evident, while motherhood and the spiritual side of life are not forgotten." A lot of the poems are about birds or flowers (and, yes, either a flower or a leaf is a common subject). The conclusion from reading Roscoe/Were in isolation is that women were concentrated in the conservative and artificial and pious realm. You can rescue them by rejecting modernity, so bold language and secular values, but actually public taste has gone decisively in that direction since 1944. Or, you can reflect how there was no “overview” of women's poetry at the time, it wasn’t carefully documented and so you could have an anthology which leaves out the best dozen or so women poets doing it at the time. ("This is the only collection of poems written entirely by women.") That is, this is a useless source and one of a category of low-grade sources. That is, recovering early or mid-20th C women’s poetry is tricky and we may have a long way to go in it. Perhaps Deryn Rees-Jones has said the last word.. and perhaps there is more to uncover. So
They looked at Death,
and with him nonchalantly passed the time of day,
he paused bewildered – said beneath his breath
“Immortals these”, and laid his scythe away.
(Susan D’Arcy Clark)

- yes, this is kitsch. Patriotism plus spirituality – it is just a No. There was a time when people really had trouble separating religion from the well-being of the British Empire. This was not benign for poetry. Was the Empire mainly about money? yes.

A number of the poets are credited as belonging to the Society of Women Journalists. It looks as if a lot of the poems are based on expertise in journalism… so the poem always has a very firm idea of what feeling you are supposed to have. A box with “your feeling here”. They start with the conclusion and are reckless about methods. The authors have no interest in poetry as such - certainly not in technique and the conscious history of style. The themes are usually patriotic and spiritual -connected to Church and State, actually. The poems fit inside the authority structures and are indeed authoritarian in approach – they don’t start with doubt or follow through with evidence. It seems other contributors were involved in organising war work and reached the anthology through networks of such Top People rather than through networks based on an interest in poetry. It is significant that women began to control parts of the State, as men were away at war and also because the State was doing ten times as much as it had before 1939. These were nurturing organisations and there is visibly a link to feminism as it developed in the 1970s. So, committees running organisations that weren’t making war and weren’t making profits. This is an interesting model. However, being an important person does not inevitably lead on to writing important poetry.
Clemence Dane lived from 1888-1965, and we have to ask how contemporary? Based on the Internet, some of the authors were suffragettes of WWI vintage and some were gay. They do get credit for this. However, it doesn't look as if many of them were primarily poets. One of the compilers was born in the 1880s and it looks like the concept is “contemporary in 1910”. Stylistically, all these poets were out of date, and evidently quite a few people in 1944 were still writing Victorian poetry. Rapidly, we move on to the prior question, “how is it that Now is owned by a minority and many poets who are alive and writing are not Now and do not co-own what Now is?”. I am unwilling to answer this although numerous of my posts (label “history of taste”) investigate it. Anthologies by Michael Roberts, K Allott, and E. Lucie-Smith, over 35 years, document the notion of Now! which was victorious.
It is apparent, all the same, that some people wanted to consume poetry but found modernism puzzling, alienating, and unpleasurable. The new regime included printing and offer for sale of poems in whose course it was possible to fail… so separating an elite, with Close Reading skills or modern ideas or whatever, from another reading public which regarded Tennyson and Housman as the standard. So in the Thirties, and up to 1944, there were people who wrote completely non-modernist poetry, and they were part of that “market segment” which disliked modernism. However, tracing the “social biography” of this segment does not remove the fact that these poems are no good. Dorothy Wellesley wrote some good poetry, but check this -

He is not dead, nor liveth
The little child in the grave;
And men have known for ever
That he walketh again:
They hear him November evenings,
When acorns fall with the rain.

Deep in the hearts of men Within his tomb he lieth,
And when the heart is desolate
He desolate sigheth.
(“The Buried Child”)

This is just kitsch, again. And why is it in 16th century language? I guess the claim is to be spiritual, by using the language of the Prayer Book and the King James Bible. We may also think of the radio serial “The Shadow” (“who knows what evil lies within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows”). Looking closely at Palmer’s 1938 Post-Victorian Poetry shows that, while he has a vocally anti-modernist position, he does not present any gifted anti-modernist poets from the previous ten years… traditional poetry has sunk and gone to the bottom of the lake. It has unchained the inner kitschmeister. I don’t have an explanation for this. So we have “the rise of modernism” and “the failure of conservatism” and these are two quite separate stories, involving two separate groups of people. The crisis has two aspects, and I only have the history of one side, who were mainly Oxford graduates as it turns out. Close Reading did discourage students from writing kitsch.

There is a party of the defeated, with Resentment as its stock in trade. Palmer actually sets out their market offer, as it was in 1938. So of all the frustrated poets, some are “alternative”, experimental, and so on – but probably 95% are stuck in conservative attitudes and reject “advances in taste” as well as being unable to build those advances into their own practice.
Elsewhere, “Clemence Dane is the ‘invisible woman’ of British 20th century culture: a prolific and popular writer and artist, described by her great friend Noel Coward as ‘a wonderful unique mixture of artist, writer, games mistress, poet and egomaniac.’” And she was the model for Mme Arcati in his play Blithe Spirits. Her poetry is no good. It seems she was gay and a feminist, as well as making pots of money.
It would be nice if reading bad poetry bestowed on you knowledge of the history of bad poetry but that is just a vain hope. This is a really bad book but it is futile to think that it is an X-ray of women’s poetry at the time. I very much doubt this and clearly there were quite a few good women poets who just don’t feature here. That is the difference in the 1970s – there were people who wanted to be experts in women's poetry and created that expertise by effective and persistent work, the bureaucracy of culture (if you like). A good anthology is the result of years of preparatory work (and not just contacting people you know as fellow-journalists).

I have never heard any of my fellow fans of Forties poetry mention this anthology, and I don’t feel inclined to share it with them. It clearly isn’t a window on exciting processes. Unlike Rexroth, for instance, and his great 1948 anthology. I have just noticed that, out of 9 female poets in that anthology, none are in Lucie-Smith. A check… Rexroth was collecting “new” poets, so all his selections should fit into the frame of “1945 to 1970”, which is the frame Lucie-Smith uses. This tells a tale about the instability of taste. How your career can float away from you. Of nine female poets in Rexroth, three never got a book out. Eithne Wilkins was one. I am glad to say that someone is doing a book by her. We heard details about this at the Apocalyptics conference in Sheffield earlier this year.
Of 6 female poets in Allott’s Penguin anthology, only 3 are still there in Lucie-Smith’s Penguin anthology, 8 years later.
But, what about the hot new poetry of 1470? "The narrator sees a company of ladies and knights arriving, dressed in white and wearing chaplets made of various kinds of leaf. The knights joust with each other, then join the ladies and dance with them in the shade of a laurel tree. Then a second company arrives, this time dressed in green and ornamented with flowers. They perform a bergerette, a dance-song, in praise of the daisy, until they are overcome first by the oppressive midday heat and then by a storm. The company of the leaf, safely sheltered by their laurel, courteously come to the aid of the company of the flower drying their drenched clothes over improvised fires.

And after that they yede about gadering
Pleasaunt salades, which they made hem eat
For to refresh their great unkindly heat.

OK, this doesn’t exactly sound macho. Since when do men make salads. Further “The great philologist Walter Skeat accepted Bradshaw's judgement, and spoke of the poem's "tinsel-like glitter…which gives it a flashy attractiveness, in striking contrast to the easy grace of Chaucer's workmanship“ - this sounds so much like what men always say about women’s poetry that it is an argument for female authorship. Could we define this as “ the first musical” and insert Jeanne Crain or Ruby Keeler into it? There was a musical called "Hooray for Daisy" in the 1950s, but I think it was about a cow rather than a daisy.