Friday, 2 April 2021

Nothing is being suppressed

Nothing is being suppressed: Progressive art or subsidised freak-out?

My book on poetry in the Seventies is close to being released, and I am getting agitated.
The publisher is busy getting permissions to quote from the excessive number of quotations I have used. This is a slow process. If someone causes difficulty, I will delete the section on them and insert somebody else… this is quite stimulating for me, there is so much I had to leave out.
The book discusses 16 poets whom I have never published on before. This tidies up some outstanding lacunae, but inevitably the research phase led to me uncovering still more poets of the time, and there was no room left for them in the book. Most of these are discussed in messages on this blog, mostly during 2019. I have just realised an omission - I describe the origin of "procedures", used to make poems, in conceptual art, but i never discuss the "proceduralisation" of music, big in the 1950s but probably going back to Schoenberg in the 1920s. very hard to draw the line between art and music as source. Possibly not worth the effort. You have to omit something, in the end.
I am going to release some passages that didn’t get into the book. These are statements by other people which I found especially interesting.

A few more words on Sorley MacLean’s poem “The Cave of the Gold”, which I write about in the book.
The legend sited (also!) in Wester Ross:
"From the car park at Opinan, follow the cliff top path, north towards the headland called Sron na Carra. Some 300 yards before the headland an iron stake and a cairn mark the position of Uamh an Oir. The origin of the name has been lost, but parents in the area used to tell the children a tale similar to the Piper of Hamelin, that long ago a Piper led a party of children into the cave and they were never seen again, and if children went alone to the cave the same fate would happen to them.
It was probably a story born out of the need to keep the young and unwary away from the cave, for it is tidal and can only be reached at mid to low tide. Visitors will need to carry a light if they wish to explore the short right and longer left hand branch. It is said, if you listen quietly you can still hear the Piper far away.
There are three Caves of Gold in the area. One on the north east shore of Loch Maree [Ardlair Cave?], the third on the south side of Liathach above Torridon is said to be linked to the Cave of Gold at Opinan, for those who know the way."

An English version of the legend has been made into a poem by Mike Blackburn, ‘The Drummer Boy of Richmond” (in The Ascending Boy, 1999). Following all the variants is mind-blowing but not helpful for reading the poem, which is focussed and only uses the cluster of themes which interested MacLean. You could possibly find 1000 variants.
Eric Mottram wrote in the catalogue to a 1977 conference:
"As official British culture shrinks in response to the pressures of British economic and political decline from the raving days of Empire and Influence, the twenty-one poets of this conference expand and develop in a scene which is both local and international.
Environmental perception, then, depends on where a poet is both physically and mentally– in his cultural imagination – and where he sees himself potentially – in the past, present or future locations.
Geographers make mental maps of space preferences (the terms here are taken from Mental Maps by Peter Gould and Rodney White, Penguin 1974). We form images of place from reading, television and conversation as well as from direct contact. Romantic Nature has become perceptual geography. Scenery, climate and cultural and educational diversity determine a family man or woman’s choices, or lack of them. […] A sense of orientation is both geographical and cultural. Maps have been made of the mental topography of environments in terms of stress, fear, pleasure, security – especially in urban areas.

Information surface shows configurations of where we are: visible and invisible information environment, or what David Sten calls invisible landscape, which shapes image and behaviour (Gould and White, ibid.)—a poem moves between finding procedures for complexity and procedures for simplicity: to what extent does human behaviour seem complex because of the complexity of the information environment in which men and women are embedded; invisible stress surfaces pattern our lives. As a child, aged 5 to 12, the local area was mapped for me as two woods separated and different, the place where a dog leapt out at me from a house gate, two bus-stops, a row of shops, the library (an early Victorian house in its own grounds), school (several miles, the first by foot, the second by bus or bike), and the nearby town (a bus-journey to a street market on Saturday, and cinemas) – and further to Crystal Palace football ground, and further still, London, where father went every day and we visited as a treat. I never went abroad until, aged 18 and in the Royal Navy I travelled by cruiser to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our map of perceptions and preferences changes with age and opportunity. A poem emerges from the poet at the intersection of visible and invisible locations; of information-transmitting sources, of political and social pressures of his position and condition in historical process."

Was this actually happening? Probably not. It’s part of the music of the time.
When I was going through archived newspapers of the time, I thought Nuttall wasn’t interested by what he was reviewing, but Peter Porter was very attentive and perceptive. It was a pleasure to dig up all his reviews. he says several times that he can't follow the poetry because contextual information has been left out. This is a valid point, always, but it just tells us that there had been a long period in which poems were deadened by being restricted to what was explicit, with the implicit being distrusted as "rhetoric" or "ideology", and a feature of the Seventies was just relaxing and giving the implicit its head. Immediately, the verbal shape of the poem seems very small in a big forest of the implicit. You can't describe landscape directly - there is too much of it - but you can learn how to manipulate the implicit so that space emerges as something silent and all-capacious around the small line of verbal sounds. We are approaching the point where the difference between poetry and prose, after the practice of regular metre has been abandoned, turns out to be the manipulation of the implicit. The implicit is both silent and foregrounded.
A basic act in political activity is distrusting the unstated as a hiding-place where collusion between the rich, also between government and the rich, goes to be out of sight. So you insist on explicit criteria. This is actually very bad for poetry. 70s poetry flourished in a sheltered space where the implicit could be allowed to broadcast its signal, without disputes over rights excluding it from culture. Maybe that is what the book shoud have been about.

"Looking at the ‘public memories’ of Bloodaxe and Carcanet encourages us to think that modern taste has given up on poetry so the shopper benefits from assertive contexts which form centres of attraction and offer a net of social reinforcement. The Underground was actually one of these. The public history of poetry is possibly the history of these “identities” as literary institutions. The process of focussing and forming preferences is wrapped up with the process of selective forgetting, since every focus creates an area of dimness around it. The “identities” are not just categories, they actually contain information and can be studied as cultural objects. They replace what used to be known as genres, and they possibly offer debut poets a model for successful poems and also a way of identifying what the market likes. The substance being generated is unstable – it keeps growing. People get further and further into what they like. So parts of the cultural field move further and further apart from each other. Bearing this in mind, we can come back to the idea of style blocs, accepting that the principle of falsifiability applies to categorisation as to other proposals of fact."

a note on context. When Dreams of the Dead was published in 1977, Peter Porter wrote “The people in David Harsent’s new poems seem to have moved into George MacBeth’s world. There is an opulence of drinks on terraces; the silences between lovers (a Harsent speciality) are in luxury hotel suites; a great deal of travelling goes on. […] I wish I could fit plots to the assemblages of lyrics which make up [two long poems]. ‘Dreams of the Dead‘ consists of lyrics dated from 30 April to August 23, yet the progress of the story does not reveal whether it is the dead who are dreaming or whether the poet is entering the lives of dead persons. A huge plot [...] has been lost somewhere: all we have are its lyrical highlights. I am sure Harsent is going in the right direction.”
Porter says this but I think the omission of information is deliberate and part of a strategy of tension. The characters are trapped in a pipe of incomplete information. The loss of resolution means that alertness climbs and climbs; the lack of answers to basic questions about safety means that tension can never be released. It is hard to define this because we do not have access to the unedited text and because the effect of the omissions is not explicit. The sense of threat is impalpable and the plot is never explained. Anxiety and triumph are inexplicit figures. The method is profoundly original in poetry. It may resemble the specialist narrative style of cinema based in violence and risk – where editing which withholds vital information makes the sense of a present threat escalate. Speculation about risk is what sucks us into the heart of the poem. The lack of perspective traps us there. The title echoes a moment in the poem, refers to the culture of dead artists, but is not a central theme. The poem does not add a wind-down which would explain the story and dissipate all the tension. It immerses us in menace, foreboding, and a sense of fate gripping the protagonist and leading him pitilessly through a story. His conscious reactions have no effect on the story. Peripheral details develop an unnatural vividness because of hypervigilance, a displacement of anxiety into an object which offers no resolution. Dreams is something profoundly original which to my knowledge has no successors. Its scale is an exit from the poetic limits of the time, creating an entire narrative. But the narrative is reduced to its essential structure – uncertainty, the vacuum that draws us in.

So the story of the period may be the reaction against poems in which everything is explicit towards poems where the implicit is everything and is the element which the poet is most interested by. Porter ticks people off for not including enough information, but this is part of the new style rather than carelessness. To be more exact: prose makes every line of knowledge explicit, poetry leaves most things implicit, and this is now the difference between prose and poetry. And so it contains poetry's raison d'etre.

Another idea which there wasn't room for:
"There is a package of (alpha male, wisdom, responsibility, experience, generalisations, ethical superiority) which older poets saw as their commodity number one and which readers reacted against. A focal problem was the poem which has some concrete information and then at the end packages it up in a moral generalisation, so something like ‘people should be nice to each other’ or ‘you can’t trust the powerful and connected’ or “isn’t he a bit like you and me" or even ‘it wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels’. I am wondering whether this kind of poem really exists. Maybe the idea of the smug closing quatrain is more of a Fear Symbol and less of a real, dreadful, thing. An older generation of readers were asking moral questions of poets, and poets were giving clear and resonant answers to these questions, which since the 1960s few people have been asking. I thought to look at Poetry Dimension 2, a reliable reference source for conventional poems of the time, which was 1972. I counted 57 poems of which 15 have a lurch into generalisation and lesson drawing at the end, or close to the end."
This doesn't add so much, because it describes the 50s-style poetry which is absolutely not what we want to remember about the Seventies. I just like counting, in the end. It's interesting that it is only 15 and not the whole 57. Also, the "new poetry" was (in one view) writing about Abstract Ideas the whole time, and not waiting for a lurch into generalisation in the last quatrain. The old-style poetry comes across as far less fluent in ideas, and this is why its wisdom is unconvincing and unsatisfying. Arguably, the new poetry is making generalisations about culture throughout the poem. Anyway, the smug final quatrain was something which older poets were Very Proud Of, and they must have been indignant that it was stigmatised and ridiculed by a younger generation. However, I think it has vanished altogether - younger mainstream poets also saw it as stigmatising, and this is something you can check in the Faber "Poetry Introduction" series.
This feature can be counted, in a way which many observers could agree on. The smug final quatrain is there, it’s not a theory. But the change in poetry probably exhibits itself in 35 features at once, it is an absolute change of aesthetic. Looking at a single feature, however plain and visible it is, does not give us the historical truth we are looking for.
I want to say that the “conclusion” is important because it follows a poem of local and particular data, which connects with the poet as a body which receives sensations, and it is the connection between the empirical poem (local) and the reader (on the plane of generality). It is where the poem stops being empirical –and the merely empirical poem can be frustrating.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

vanity presses - figures

I have been doing catalogue work, which involves crawling through lumpy data with the goal of counting how many poetry books were published in a given year. Something which comes up, to the point of distracting attention from the overall goal, is vanity presses. As you look at large amounts of data, it becomes obvious that a big share of the “gross output” is from presses which asked the author to pay and which barely tried to sell the books. This is discouraging – the big story is “2700 new titles in a single year”, as Randall Stephenson points out, but the possibility that 500 or 800 of these are vanity titles must affect the clarity of the picture.

It would be nice to think that vanity publishing belonged to an era when the industry was very conservative and people were afraid of starting up small to micro publishers, and that the realm of frustrated poets had declined or disappeared. This does not appear to be true. The idea that there were many people who wanted to be poets, but had no understanding of other people who liked poetry, and no ability to connect with magazines, readings series, etc., only in a repressed state of society, where people failed to act on their deepest impulses, does not hold true. The poetry world is still an “inside” surrounded by outsiders.
I got a book about poetry publishing by someone so stupid that the idea of their producing a book was ridiculous. One valid moment - he gets prices out of vanity presses as part of a sting operation. Yes, they want your money! The book I am looking at is by Jonathan Clifford and he contacted 11 publishers in this dubious area. One of them wrote back asking for an “author’s contribution of at least £3,500 with an average being in the region of £5,500”. This is representative of the whole group. So, the publisher has to pay for the printing costs (in the region of £1250) out of this, but the rest is pure profit. The author would get some cash refunded if someone buys a copy of the book, but that is fairly unlikely – at least outside the author's friends.
I did a catalogue search for the most assiduous vanity publisher, in the British Library holdings, and came up with 6906 titles. That is over several decades, and maybe half of that is poetry books. This sector involves a lot of people. The only interesting point is that they are outsiders – if they had friends in the business, they would know that bookshops, reviewers, etc. avoid books from these twilight publishers. The route almost guarantees invisibility for your work. Most likely this ignorance of the business goes along with ignorance about taste – if you don’t know people who buy and read modern poetry, your chance of grasping what modern poetry really is is restricted. Why would you pay five grand to get your book published, when a convinced publisher will do it for free? My assumption would be that vanity press writers produce bad poetry, based on psychological ignorance. I have to concede that I am not going to read a few dozen “author funded” books to check this out.
I don’t think poetry is a secret world, you just have to turn up to readings or classes and hang out with the people you meet there. This is why it has been an open world, since the 1960s; I can imagine there weren't many readings groups in the 1950s. It is baffling how there can still be people who find modern poetry impossible to find and mix with, when the ways of getting involved are so numerous (and so cheap). I can see that as at 1961 there were many frustrated people, because the number of titles coming out was genuinely low, but with the arrival of dozens of small presses in the Sixties it would seem that the frustration should have been burnt up – part of a general “derepression” which affected every aspect of national life. I am assuming that if you mix with other people, read recent poetry, listen to readings, listen to what people say about what they like, you will have enough empathy to understand the whole situaiton and to know how to write poems. Everyone knows poetry is about empathy. If you can't figure it all out by deploying empathy, you probably can't write good poems anyway. The outsider is the person in the room who doesn't grasp what everyone else is thinking and feeling. The information flow is there, but not there for them.
The overall picture is that, yes, 2000 poetry titles are coming out in a given year. Acquiring expertise in a field so large seems like a hopeless task. But visibly, people are in love with the idea of being a poet. And whatever defence works people may try to set up, the floodgates are open – the business is wide open, to an incredible extent. Any theory of exclusion crumbles in face of the publication figures – it is not compatible with the facts, as you can collect them just by logging onto the British Library catalogue, for free.
I don't want to name names, but aimlessly sculling around this swamp has produced three poets whom I take seriously and who started out by using either full-on vanity press or half-way (the publisher Outpsts). Analysing these cases might reveal a situation more complex than just being an outsider. Possibly, someone might be too busy to haggle with publishers - and go with Outposts because it was economical in use of time.

Friday, 12 March 2021

heimat films 3

Heimat 3

The musical ‘The Sound of Music’ is based on (at least) two 1950s German films about the Trapp Family and can be seen as the über Heimatfilm. Bliersbach records that it failed commercially in Germany because by 1965 the conventions of such films had become unpopular with the public. (There are obvious problems in selling a musical in a country that speaks a different language.) In fact, if you watch “The Sound of Music” and any of the filmings of ‘Heidi’ (original novel by Johanna Spyri 1881) you have got access to the vital features of Heimatfilms.

I acquired Walther Killy’s book on German kitsch and found two excerpts from Ganghofer included in it.
Bliersbach records that the first showing of “Grün ist die Heide ” on German TV was in 1980, and 15 million people watched it. This is remarkable, but it is also interesting that this top film of the 1950s had never been televised before. The pattern seems to be that these films were dated but popular in 1951, wholly dated and no longer being made in 1965, and then super-popular in 1980 (and apparently ever since). I enjoyed “Grün ist die Heide” and this is actually a good film, despite certain limits. It definitely lapses into Nazi feelings, at around minutes 80 to 90, a scene where Silesians gather, wear regional costume, and listen to a sentimental song about how German Silesia (the Riesengebirge district) is. (Silesia was quite a linguistic mixture even in 1756, when Friedrich II grabbed it.) The lack of dialogue is actually part of why this scene is sinister. Upper Silesia, part of Germany as at September 1939, was transferred to Poland as part of the post-war settlement, with ethnic Germans having to (or, choosing to) leave. Quite a few of them went to Lower Saxony, which is why they appear in a film set on the Luneburger Heide. They don’t get to express their feelings – once again, this is a film with no peasant characters. They are probably peasants, they get on screen, but they don’t get to speak lines. At one point a character declares how obsolete she finds the Wandervogel romanticism of Hermann Löns. This is bizarre in a film based on a Löns story – but perhaps it is not based on the Löns story, but only named after a song by Löns, which is sung over the opening titles. All the same it is a bit like having a super-hero declare how childish and imperialist he finds super-hero films. (One story is that the scriptwriter had already written the script for a Löns adaptation under the Third Reich, and updated it in 1951 by adding a few songs, actually by Löns, and the story about the refugee ex-landowner.)
The writers I dug up tend to identify “Heide” and “Der Förster vom Silberwald” as the two key Heimat films, and they both have a character who is trying to get over the effects of losing their home in a region no longer ruled by Germany.
I said the Heimat genre is non-political. It is worth pointing out that there was a flourishing genre of war films during the Fifties – almost all accentuating German heroism and the loyalty of the ordinary soldier as opposed to the ones truly in authority. People who regretted the end of the Third Reich could go and watch these films – this was not the function of Heimatfilms. Bliersbach counts 224 war films made between 1948 and 1959. This is an astonishing number. It is a reasonable assumption that none of them have the Waffen-SS at centre stage, record the Army shooting ten civilians for every German killed by partisans, or show the Army rounding up “Jewish Bolsheviks” before handing them over to the ”experts” of the SS.

I am reluctant to link Heimatfilms to poetry, but there is really no doubt that the Heimat idea is pervasive in German (or Central European?) culture and that it is a structure of feeling which pre-existed the films and which finds expression in many different forms. This is obviously true even if it doesn't fit into the political programme of people who want culture to be a way of deceiving people, so that it is not about their real feelings, and they can be liberated from it by undermining and destroying culture. So if we take the relevant volume (10) of Hanser’s social history of German literature, applying to 1945-67, we find the chapter on post-war poetry is titled “the magic of the intact. nature lyric after 1945” and having as its first section “’Beautiful nature’– on the history of an escapist theme”. Obviously that line of poetry matches the Heimatfilm, even if it is not the kind of poetry you would generally find people reading in English translation. There is a key phrase "heile Welt" (an intact world, the world which you believe in if you have never been disillusioned) which comes from a Lehmann poem (probably), is always applied to nature poetry of the ten years after the war, and is applied with monotononous regularity to Heimat films.

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Heimat films 2

Heimatfilm 2

In “Das Posthaus im Schwarzwald”, the setting is apparently 1905 but elements of the costumes and so on seem to come from a much earlier time. The female lead is the holder of a postal contract, that is for local public transport (post-coaches) as well as the mail and a coaching inn. A prince (nephew of the reigning Grand Duke of the local petty kingdom) is annoyed with an unfaithful actress and decides to take a holiday, incognito, at the coaching inn. He falls in love with the postmistress. She is played by Christina Görtner, who is a terrific singer, pretty, and a non-actress. The prince does not sing, apparently cannot act at all, and looks like a model in a fashion plate. At about minute 60, the Grand Duke dies and bequeathes the dukedom, unexpectedly, to the nephew in question. This means that he cannot marry the postmistress, who after all is not of noble blood. The last half hour is about star-crossed love, sacrifice, duty, noble regret. And this passage actually is kitsch. The high feelings don’t convince in a musical comedy. The two leads can’t act and they can’t express the emotions required. And the first part of the film showed the prince as a collector of actresses, so the idea that he would fall deeply in love with this rural beauty is just inconsistent with what we have already been shown. This story line seems to have been borrowed from quite another film – presumably one of the films about Crown Prince Rudolf, of which at least one was made during the 1950s. But, in the end, I don’t think Heimatfilms are usually kitsch– this is an exception. One of the texts I looked at quotes a “rule” of writing Heimat films: people are never in charge of their own destiny. (Actually, “To want to take decisions yourself is a breach of the rules in the world of Heimat films.”) This comes from an Internet text which we can no longer access. Anyway, it is suggestive. The saleable element of these films is not their relation to rural life but the sense of comfort and irresponsibility which they are all flooded with. If you look at You-Tube playlists, one of them has 266 different films on it. It is evident that quite a few of these are not “rural films”, and that the label speaks to the potential audience as a promise of uncritical cheerfulness irrespective of geography.
One of Eliot’s characters says “in the mountains, there you feel free”, which is the premise of quite a few of these films. He has one passage set in a hotel by the Starnberger See, south of Munich, which also involves a refugee (stamm aus Litauen), and a second passage set in mountains during a drought. “The road winding above among the mountains”, surely Görtner sang that one. Is “The Waste Land” a crypto-Heimatfilm? More research needed.

When I looked at the Heimat novel, quite a few years ago, I was interested in the fact that one of its founders was Jewish; Berthold Auerbach (1812-86), author of Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten (4 vols, 1843 to 1854). We can't bypass the fact that Heimat films never have Jewish characters – a clear-out which is uneasily reminiscent of a more brutal clearing up of the ethnic pattern in Germany. The audience probably thought that Jews were not part of rural German life – which isn't even true. The films didn’t want to show diversity, or outsiders, or the possibility of being outside the community. Their audience actually wanted to lose consciousness of themselves as something separate from a group, and sociability.
A feature of the few films I have managed to watch is incompetence and forgiveness. For example, in Das Haut Hin (1960, probable non-Heimatfilm but on a Heimat playlist), the Peter Alexander character starts by going to a sauna, as preparation for a key oral exam. He is studying zoology so as to find a solution to the phylloxera louse (Reblaus) problem in his aunt’s vineyard. The sauna attendant simply fails to wake him up at the agreed time, and he misses the exam, and is exiled (relegiert) from the university. His aunt throws him out. So this is an example of banal incompetence which we often see repeated. More vitally, the films show repeated forgiveness for incompetence– endlessly. They go against the productivity ethos which is the central story of West Germany and its hard-working inhabitants. The film gets some laughs from the aunt not knowing what relegiert means, and at first thinking it is a brilliant result. Managerial types either do not feature in Heimatfilms, or give up ordering people around and merge into the cheerful and vague group identity. Calling them anti-authoritarian would be misleading, except so far as comedy is always about arrogant people. You would have to invent a category of “uncritical and conservative anti-authoritarianism”, which just isn't very useful.
The texts indicate that the Allied authorities classed Heimat films as “unbedenklich”, innocuous, in 1947. This was to do with licensing films – entertainment films set in villages did not pose a threat of Nazi mobs roaming the streets. So a high proportion of people making Heimat films, at the higher levels, directors and scriptwriters, had been active under the Third Reich, and (at least) acceptable to Dr Goebbels. After significant unemployment between roughly 1945 and 1950, they were ready in 1950 to do something lucrative but inconspicuous. The theme of “forgiveness” in the scripts may be connecting with the director wishing people to forgive and forget his filmography. It is conspicuous that the films are neither anti-Nazi nor anti-communist. If the Weimar system broke up, in its last years, into communists and Nazis, a simply “restorative” cinema would have connected with one side or the other. But Heimatfilm doesn't connect, it is all about forgetting. (I left out the conservatives, who de facto supported Hitler but who would have included quite a few monarchists.)

The texts refer to these films having a “function” of integrating the refugees into modern life. Just to clarify, the settlement at the end of the Second World War meant some 12 million Germans fleeing Eastern or Central Europe and resettling in West Germany. They were a factor in any political or cultural scene, just by numbers. The ”economic miracle” involved building homes for them all to live in and jobs for them all to do. It was an era of “forced savings” and of many people living in camps while they saved up to move into a flat. I am not sure about the “function”, because Heimatfilms are obviously designed to make money, not to fulfil some political doctrine, and the West German government was not in charge of the film industry. But, the representation of a Heimat to 12 million people who quite literally had lost their Heimat is part of the story. Some of the films show refugees starting out unhappy and reaching integration during the film. Commentators usually point out how artificial the geography of the Heimatfilm is. The films are always either set in the Alps, or in the Lüneburger Heide, or in the Black Forest. As this implies, these are not films recalling how great life was before 1937 in Mazovia, or East Prussia, or Silesia, or anywhere outside the 1946 borders. That would have been revanchism, and while I suspect you could have sold a lot of tickets like that, the Heimatfilm really is non-political, and this just wouldn't fit in a Heimatfilm. (Provinces then in East Germany were also not eligible. Really, you get the impression that film crews were falling over each other in the Black Forest, in around 1956.)
The areas chosen were not densely populated. Most migrants to the cities came from the densely populated rural regions, quite obviously! The regions chosen were picturesque, and the suggestion is that there chosen because they were holiday destinations. They were unspoilt because they were not very suitable for agriculture, often full of forests and mountains, and so they were not usually “home” at all. As Kristina Kaiser points out, most of the population couldn't afford a holiday, at the start of the 1950s. They could see posters and postcards. And Kaiser points out, again, that the colouring of the films resembles postcards. It is vital that some of the characters wear “Tracht”, regional costume, which was not in fact daily working wear in the regions.
The author quantitatively most exploited in Heimatfilm is Ludwig Ganghofer (1855-1920), not someone much read outside old films.
Thomas Elsaesser has said that the Heimatfilm is the only genre which was actually originated in Germany, and this is much quoted. I am not immediately convinced by this, partly because these films were not of export quality, and so they were not visible even to film fans in cities in other countries. I am quite aware that there is a “non-export sector” in every country, and that I am unable to make generalisations about this sector – cinemas in London show films by intellectual directors which were often not even popular in their home countries. So you could probably locate Russian, or Swedish, Heimat films, with a bit of effort. And this is much easier via You-tube. Also, you could argue that either the Expressionist film, or the horror film, were German inventions.
I was disappointed by how few films actually have peasant characters. A high proportion of the films are about characters who are simply in the country on holiday, and this could also be part of the “Urlaubs-Welle”, the “holiday wave”, which saw numerous films set in a Mediterranean land– Capri seems to be favoured. One function of the “economic miracle” was to destroy the popularity of the Heimatfilm – advancing prosperity coincided, in the Sixties, with a loss of interest in such films. The idea of a holiday in a warm country, and by a warm sea, was competing with the idyllic break somewhere in the Alps. Girls appeared in bathing costumes rather than in Tracht.
“Posthaus” has a supposed plot about the post coach being replaced by buses using the internal combustion engine. This is a State contract, so the prince has a role in allocating it. On his holiday, he takes with him Dr Haberle, a poet who also drinks rather a lot. He dresses up in a suit of armour and then witnesses a dance rehearsal by two very long-legged dancers – practising to please the prince. They are obviously nightclub dancers and obviously of the 1950s, so they have nothing to do with the Black Forest in 1905. They do get to do five dances. The poet pretends to be the prince to protect the latter's incognito so that he can woo the postmistress without her realising he is a blue blood. The poet gets to give speeches, receive loyal addresses, finally the dancers come and do a striptease for him because they wish to become official court dancers. He enjoys all this. This all may be a parody of the pretension of some German poets, wishing to displace the small-scale autocrats of 19th C Germany by becoming miniature autocrats. Stefan George impersonating a prince, that is instantly credible. The poet is played by Gunther Philipp, who is in most of the films I have watched so far – not a great comic, but better than most of the films he is in. The Internet shows him as having made 147 films – part of a whole world which we don’t see, I doubt any of these films got released in Britain or could be classified as a “good” film. Like the blonde shikses, he is there to make us forget how bored we are with the film and its plot. I was hoping to write that the Heimatfilm shows a shift towards stories about peasant characters and away from a preoccupation with small-scale Courts, and court officials of whom the writer is one, in one way or another. But, “Posthaus” exactly disproves that, I don't think there are any peasant characters, the coach service is a State contract, the dancers want a court appointment, and their uncle is a schnapps brewer who wants to be “schnapps seether by appointment to his majesty”. So, minor court intrigues. Of course this is an alternative to capitalism, and sidelining the whole world of productivity and performance measurement is key to the Heimat film feeling. Literati who were involved in court life were a feature of 17th and 18th C German language literature, that is one of the main reasons why we can't read their works any more.
Literally, you could have found monarchists in West Germany in 1955 (and, more so, in Austria). The Bavarian variant (Bayerische Heimat- und Königspartei) got 0.8% of the vote in the 1950 elections. But it was all a bit theoretical, it had a dream-like quality for most cinema-goers – court life was picked because the plots could be borrowed from older works, and mainly because it was completely unreal to the audience. It was part of avoiding politics. We have to add that it was an excuse for elaborate costumes. Chocolate soldiers, playing-card monarchs. If you look at an anti-progress doctrine in Heidegger, let’s say, or amongst the Greens, that is really a long way away from Heimatfilms. They are just entertainment. 'King' in Bavarian is "kini". In “Posthaus”, the dancers discover that Dr Haberle has been pretending, and that they have unsheathed their not very rural striptease for him in vain – but they don’t express any anger. This is partly to do with their limited range as actors, but more deeply part of the “forgiveness” aspect of these films, nothing has any consequences. In fact he goes to jail for impersonating royalty, and they visit him in jail.
It is quite hard to devise a script in which nobody says anything intelligent during the entire story, but maybe that is what a lot of consumers would prefer. A central point about these films is that they were a site where typically someone intelligent points out that what some quite stupid people enjoy is rather stupid, and this isn’t as helpful as you might imagine. They sum up “affirmative culture”. I am thinking more of a ten-year holiday where we don’t criticise affirmative films, and instead possibly try to enjoy them. I don’t really want to replace art with critical analysis.
But, of course, we have to admit then that the people who made the films were intelligent and, it follows, manipulative. The films are nothing like naive art even if they present naive characters. In fact, the films are a contact line where intelligent and culturally sophisticated creators came into contact with a very large audience of whom a high proportion were nothing like sophisticated. This is essentially benign, although I think that populist phases of Weimar culture and Hollywood were more creative and more benign.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Heimat films

Wo der Wildbach rauscht

There is a Kling poem in his Tyrolese series which has fragments about WODA WILBA and WODA WILBA RAUSCHT which I found completely baffling. Someone (I think it was Ulf) told me it was a blurred version of “Wo der Wildbach rauscht”, a 1956 Bavarian Heimatfilm. Which I watched quite a lot of on You-Tube yesterday. So I am acquiring knowledge of 50s kitsch. I read that 300 Heimatfilms were made during the 1950s (German or Austrian). Kling’s poem actually refers to the opening shot of the film, he is describing a forested hillside and you are supposed to visualise the title and opening sequence of the film, showing a rapid and deep mountain torrent (the Wildbach) flowing down. I was told while living in Edenkoben that there is a channel, the Bavarian one, which shows a Heimatfilm every Sunday afternoon. I got the impression that this had been true since the 1950s (German TV began in about 1952, national transmission from 1954). But ‘Wildbach’ was the first Heimatfilm I have ever watched.

band (rauscht), ein rauschen da
untn; ein weisses, das, tannenbe-
pelztes rauh WODAWIL… WODAWILBA, rau
chende massive (eingenebelt), breitere na-
tur; WODAWIL!, NATURBREITE GERADEZU!
(‘schwarzgelbes stirn’)

A book summary links the genre with “germandom, blood and soil, and kitsch”, and this is the hill we have to climb. I only watched the first half hour of ‘Wildbach’, but my impression is that it is a good film. I had trouble with the dialogue because it is in dialect (most probably, very highly modified to reach an audience outside the region) and my education did not include Bavarian. Part of the set-up is that it is a (fictionally?) complete peasant society, so that everyone speaks the same dialect. (There is one Italian character.) This means that dialect-speaking characters sound natural, they are not forced into a culturally inferior position by the intrusion of people speaking the standard language, who would immediately seem to have better contacts and wider knowledge of the world. I just can't imagine a rural English film which would not have the gentry as part of the set-up. I don’t think you can find an English film which is purely in dialect. I did wonder if the Heimatfilm prefers the Alps because the low surplus possible in a cold climate and (probably) rather leached, hill soils did not permit the rise, historically, of feudalism and a parasitical landlord class. So, linked to the freedom of the Swiss people. This is just a guess, and anyway I read that such films are also set in the Black Forest and Luneburg Heath (near Hamburg). A link with landscape painting, so that the visual and landscape component of the films is very important to their appeal, is more likely.
The plot of ‘Wildbach’ is briefly that there is a rich peasant, Muralt, in love with a farm girl, who however prefers to marry Lorenz, son of the village mayor. There is a plank bridge (Steg) over the mountain stream, and in a fight with Muralt Lorenz falls off it and drowns. Muralt then goes to prison for twenty years, innocent of murder but not helped by witnesses. On release he vows to destroy the village by cutting down the trees which hold the steep slope together. Without trees, it will be swept away and allow the torrent to sweep the village away towards the plain. There is another fight, he falls into the stream but is rescued. Regina, a village girl, is disclosed as his illegitimate daughter. New facts emerge. He forgives the village and there is reconciliation.

I have to mention politics. These films are apolitical. The problem is that they are uncritical. West Germany in the 1950s was profoundly split, in the way people interpreted the recent past and the beckoning future, and anyone making a popular film would have cut out any apolitical scenes to avoid alienating half the audience before even starting. So we are not facing right-wing politics, concealed Nazism, ‘blood and soil’ ideology, attacks on city life. The issue is only that critical ideas are rather interesting in art, and uncritical art can often make us feel sleepy. As a matter of fact, the moment of German culture we are capturing here is “bright 15 year old comes out of cinema and thinks ‘that was a really stupid film, there is a whole world which such films fail to deal with, and I am actually going to live in the latter’”. All the Germans you are going to encounter because they write novels, political works, intelligent film scripts, etc., went through this moment. But, lots of other Germans never had this golden moment, or at least if they did it didn’t discourage them from watching Heimatfilms. The book summary I read points out that, even if the genre went into a big decline after 1965, it reached improbably high audience figures on television, and in fact still does. The audience moved away from cinemas but that does not necessarily mean that the nation (and the Swiss and the Austrians) collectively gave up on “affirmative culture” and began reading Adorno and buying rock albums.
I noticed that there is a film “Grün ist die Heide” and that this is (probably) based on a story by Hermann Löns, a Heimat writer of the Second Empire who volunteered for the Western Front and was killed there. He did have those militarist-nationalist links and was clearly part of the current which later became Nazism. This is alarming. There was a heimat movement in around 1900-1914, it involved ideas of being anti-urban which quite clearly included being anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment and anti-Semitic, and it included a theorist named Adolf Bartels (1862-1945) who has a very doubtful political record. But, it doesn't follow that they owned the word heimat, or that any rural and nostalgic art in the German-speaking realm is significantly post-, or with, that movement in the era of the “drive for world power” (Griff nach der Weltmacht). This is a key question in writing about Heimatkunst. If you think back to the era of The Female Eunuch, (I may be showing my age here), Greer frequently refers in it to a work on “women” by Plöss and Bartels, which claims the widest knowledge of “women” and finds against them in every instance. It is by the same Bartels! It (Das Weib in der Natur- und Volkerkunde) is atypical and extreme, so Greer is not being totally candid in also presenting it as typical of male resistance to female authority. Using it as a guide to opinion in England and America is an eccentric move. But the Plöss and Bartels book probably is wrong about everything. Bartels was willing to translate his feelings of territorial defensiveness, against the rise of women and trade unions, into explicit ideology. It does not follow that writers of Heimat fiction, around 1910, actually needed him or agreed with his political positions. And there was a line of peasant realist fiction 60 years before Bartels tried to take the movement over.

If you actually go to Germany, you find that there are lots of parts of culture which never get exported to countries like England, and that for example the local “art” films you can see in English cinemas are watched by very few people, and there are whole realms of cinema that never get imported to Britain. Watching “Wildbach” is part of a not very well directed programme of trying to find out about popular culture.
My view of kitsch is that it involves grandiosity, the pretention to cultural height and formal powers which it does not possess. It may be that kitsch only happens when religion seeps into art, in a degraded form; this is what Karlheinz Deschner has argued. Heimat films are noticeably unpretentious, and for that reason I am doubtful that the word kitsch is correct. They may actually be unambitious, predictable, averse to ideas, “affirmative culture”, and in some cases badly acted. In “Saison in Salzburg” there is a hotel (“Zum schönen Reserl”), and in the atrium there is a polychrome wooden statue of a saint, I didn’t figure out which one. Importing this religious art into a secular story could be kitsch. But, it doesn't work that way – it’s just something you would expect to find in a rural hotel in Austria, a local artefact. Folk-baroque, I think you say. It’s just realistic décor, and the film isn’t kitsch.
In the 1950s, these rural films are clearly one of the typical cultural forms of West Germany (and of Austria and Switzerland). But in East Germany you also have officially favoured fiction which deals with idealised simple characters, in stories which avoid the political differences actually existing in the country. I haven’t worked out the relationship between the two forms of idyll.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Homo balcanicus

Homo balcanicus

Peter Handke won the Nobel and is from the South-east. To be exact, he is half Slovene and half Austrian, from a border village where both languages are (or were) spoken. Other Balkan writers who won the grand Nobel are Herta Müller and Elias Canetti. It is noticeable that both of them wrote in German and went into exile in the West at quite an early stage in their careers. There are filters, it is presumably hard to translate a Balkan original into a Western language, and the Swedes can only read such languages– probably German, and English. But a feeling pervades that they got the Stockholm accolade because they weren’t wholly Balkan – they were halfway to being non-Balkan. Handke deserves credit for his efforts to interpret the South Slav world to the rest of Europe.

I read an anthology of travel writing about the Balkans in which the introduction pointed out with some asperity that all the writers included had passed thorough the target areas briefly and that none of them had had command of any of the local languages, so that their interactions with the locals were stylised or non-existent. What they came back and wrote was theatrical and able to reach a wide public essentially because it was not weighed down by detailed information. The travellers saw the locals through a mile-thick lens of diminished reality. The reports, even at the length of books, were effectively a joke based on ethnic stereotypes. All western nations participated in this joke, and as time went on the validation came from other westerners rather than from direct injections of local knowledge. This situation changed eventually, with someone like Edith Durham in the early 20th C, but even then much of what was published was based on very questionable basic data. This gave me a twinge – I certainly had acquired a full equipment of Western stereotypes about the Balkans, but I had a feeling that the book was destroying the information I already owned rather than giving me new and solid information, as an asset.

Using the on-line site Scribd, which has sixty million books and papers uploaded by enthusiasts (misguided or not), I have done a little reading to open up a different view of the Balkans. A different view, emerging from what I have just read rather than from deep personal knowledge, is that the south-east is much like the rest of Europe, although in other ways resembling the ex-colonial part of the world – states founded by armed revolt against local empires, with civil wars following rapidly on the convulsions of liberation.

Paschalis Kitromilides has written a series of papers about the ”Balkan mentality” which start out from the idea that in about 1780 there was no such thing as Balkan nationalism. He gives a close analysis of texts of the period, rather rare, in which there is a sense of “homeland”, home town, but the writers have an essentially international view of politics – they identified with the whole of Orthodox Christendom. So the nationalism was part of a local awakening – the literate part of the population awoke very suddenly to a new world, like someone who had been in jail for 50 years. (Arguably, 350 years.) There were very few local books which were not spiritual, saints’ lives and so forth. There was a deluge of books available, from modern printworks – all of them Western. So the nationalism, as a new factor, came from the West, and it predominated because the West was so preoccupied with nationalism at that time. The French Revolution looked, close up, more like a convulsion of French nationalism than like the enactment of noble Enlightenment ideas into legislation. Imitating France meant invading your neighbours.

One part of the Balkan stereotype is that Westerners try to find out what the facts are and are frustrated because any piece of regional politics involves three factions and these three have as many incompatible versions of what actually happened. This applies, for example, to what language is spoken in a region or how many people live there. So to deal with Balkan affairs is to become Balkan. This has some truth, but it is also true that westerners are disproportionately interested in disputes between countries, which may lead to wars, and so that areas where local experts have given very clear and detailed narratives and descriptions do not surface – and, do not get translated, and then do not contribute to the stereotype. The question is whether the West is more objective about western processes – reading accounts of the Second World War from, say, England, France, and Germany might give you the opposite conclusion. Of course there is a level of Western scholarship which rises above these things – but that is also true in, say, Serbia or Bulgaria, and anyway the most austere western scholarship is not what you are most likely to find in the bookshops.
Arguments about territorial claims are like relatives disputing a large and desirable legacy. No-one is at their best in that situation. The dismemberment of (Hapsburg) Hungary in around 1919 and 1920 was just such a legacy. People got carried away by the joy of acquisition and the delights of polemic. Hungary lost 60% of its territory. Serbia apparently doubled its extent (after losing the war, in effect). People got excited about this at a moment when people in France or Britain or Spain were not getting excited. However, a few years before, another rush for undefended territiories, the scrabble for Africa, had swept the West away. Over several decades, writers in the West were quite preoccupied by this unearned acquisition of wealth. Nationalism at home took on outrageous forms as a reflection of the land grab in other continents.

As for Macedonian, the status of the language is genuinely interesting if you are a linguist. Arguing about its relationship to Bulgarian or to other South Slav languages is therefore not eccentric or obsessive. It is certainly strange to read about someone writing an article in Macedonian and sending it to a newspaper where the editor translates it into Bulgarian because to publish an article in Macedonian would give it the status of a language (and so impugn Bulgaria's eventual claim to annex Macedonia to a new Greater Bulgaria). Haarmann’s classic 1975 account of European languages (67 of them) says that the first printing press in Macedonia was founded in 1838 in Solun, by Theodosius Sinaitskii, and he launched a weekly newspaper printed in Macedonian, Greek, and Yiddish. Some problems with this! For “jiddisch” we should surely read “ladino”, the Spanish-derived language used by the Jewish community of Thessalonica. And, the town ‘Solun’ is ‘Thessalonika’, older English form “Salonica” (and standard German form Saloniki). My guess is the reference book is wrong here.
Of the hundred or so writers from south-east Europe you are most likely to read, based on translations into Western European languages, none are nationalists (this might withstand checking, but let us move on). The legend of committed nationalists is based on summaries in reports by western journalists. Obviously, there is a very limited market for a nationalist writer from, say, Serbia or Rumania, in the West. Those translations don't exist. The question, then, is how important that current of nationalism, with ethnic pride and matching disparagement of neighbouring peoples and their institutions, actually is.

Kitromilides gives a very astute analysis of the so-called Balkan Sprachbund. All linguistic scholars agree that there are features of grammar which appear in most (never all) languages associated in the Balkan regional group. Irrespective of ancestry, there is a shared grammar, actually parts of a shared grammar, present in all the regional languages. It follows that there has been extensive bilingualism in the past. In a village, a man from language A would marry a bride speaking language B, and even if the children grew up speaking language A only, they spoke it with habitual patterns which unmistakably came from language B. This variant has, in each case, contaminated, or brilliantly tinted, the standard language of the area. It is striking that the mixed dialects did not remain confined to border villages, mocked by all the other speakers, but spread their influence to become standard Bulgarian, standard Serbo-Croat, and so forth. Border dialects are in some cases more mixed than these standards, with their Balkan-regional features. In that village, everybody had cousins who spoke a different language. Political nationalism based on language was poorly suited to the facts of Balkan society and had, certainly, not been the principle observed by Balkan people over the thousand or so years prior to the anti-Turkish rebellions of the early 19th century. The bilingual villages were the product, probably, of constant migration - over time, any static community would end up speaking the same language. There are quite similar patterns in folklore, where material seems to have diffused across the entire area, no doubt as a direct product of the bilinguals, readily able to re-create a ballad or a tale in their second personal language. How do you get from a region of bilinguals to a region of nationalists?
I have not seen, in many descriptions of this Sprachbund, an account of when its features emerged and spread. None of the reports mention Old Church Slavonic (geographically, this is Old Macedonian) so I presume that the translinguistic regional features had not emerged at the point when OCS was standardised and written, as a vehicle for translating liturgies, sermons, scriptures, and so forth. (This was the 9th C AD.) When I refer to past bilingualism, that is possibly misleading – actually there were numerous bilinguals in the “present”, say 1900 to 1980.

The essays I read are less strong at explaining the civil wars in the region, and the ethnic nationalist discourse which has incited and justified them. Over a 200 year period, the ethnic wars are confined to specific bands of time, and these were aspects of a general crisis in the region. That is, the crisis could be the surge of optimism involved in the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, as well as the panic induced by aggressive advances and invasions by neighbouring states. The phases in question are the Yugoslav civil war of the first half of the 1990s and the Balkan War period of 1905 to 1912 (although some earlier wars took place between the Christian nations of the area). The popular nationalism which was a reaction to crises of that kind was not also the basic political culture of the whole 220 year period.

The sources suggest that nationalist intellectuals, the type represented by Milosevic, are a minority within each Balkan country, and that temporary political conjunctures give them the opportunity to exercise influence with the wider population, and with parts of the elite, so that their rather ill-nourished ideas briefly become national policy. Certainly most of the books I have read by Balkan writers are highly informative and not particularly nationalist. A proportion of the material deals with linguistics and cultural traditions, themes which also appeal to nationalists, but that is because I am interested in languages (and, secondarily, in literature and cultural forms). The language pattern of the south-east is especially interesting, and you certainly didn’t have to be a nationalist to be interested by the relationships between neighbouring languages, or between a “standard language”, new or not, and the speech variants of the peasants or the urban populations. The economics of the western media mean that a writer who makes a market, say Dubravka Ugresic, is repetitively asked to write about nationalism – this is what Western audiences want to hear about the inner life of Serbia, and Ugresic is always being asked to write about it – even though Ugresic certainly isn’t a nationalist and does not read modern history in simple nationalist colours. Editors want Balkan writers to produce articles about “the Balkan question”. As if Egypt produces cotton and the Balkans produce yard after yard of nationalism.

The Second World War was not a Balkan civil war, but we have to look at the exaggerations of the satellite fascist state in Croatia and its genocide against the Serbs, agreed to be very closely related, ethically, to the Croats. Milovan Djilas has analysed the build-up to this. He identifies a papal and Hapsburg crusading drive into the south-east, over centuries, which was primarily directed against the Ottomans but which acquired a second direction, against Orthodox Christians, with time. So, the border between Rome and Byzantium happens to run between the Croats and the Serbs. The Croatian alignment with Italy, and with the Power which Vienna had become associated with, led them to define the Serbs as the enemy – and their conversion, or massacre, was a continuation of a Europeans crusade. Again, the share of the West in this repays attention and perhaps criticism.

If we lose the inherited image of “homo balcanicus”, that opens the question of filling the gap with substantial and validated knowledge.

The interest in uncovering a whole realm of disinformation about the south-east of Europe is partly that it sheds light on a similar realm in the outer north-west. It is difficult to get very far with Celtic Studies without realising that fantasy projections onto the area, mainly from the 19th and 20th Cs and mainly from the “developed” nations nearby, cover the whole era, land and sea, in invisibility.

The Balkan area was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and its sociology is presumably derived from that long-term historical experience, and from the drama of exit from it. But millions of other Christians were ruled by the Byzantines and then by the Ottomans as their political heirs, and we have to ask if a “Balkan culture”, once identified, would also apply to Christian communities in Egypt, northern Iraq, Palestine, and other places.

I am reading the Alexiad of Anna Comnena. (Written in the 1130s and 1140s? The ediiton is unclear.) This is part of being in lockdown, I am reading all the books stacked up in the house which I never read before. This isn’t quite the first Byzantine book I have ever read, but it is certainly close to the first. It connects to our theme, as the campaign being described, in the 1080s, takes place in the Balkans – Robert of Sicily is attacking Dyrrachium, which is now in Albania, and the fighting is in the hinterland. It is hard to see any connection between the ruling class which Comnena describes (her father was the Emperor) and recent Balkan politics. Some of Michael Herzfeld’s papers talk about “crypto colonialism”, which, expansively described, is the idea that politics in Greece (and perhaps neighbouring countries) are specular, a mirror of the interests of the western agencies, which are unnaturally influential and which the locals are all too impressed by and anxious to please. So the Greek debt crisis would be a western crisis in which the Greeks are only spectators. This is not very convincing. However, Comnena’s book gives embarrassing confirmation. Her portrayal of Byzantine politics is dominated by the invasion of the Franks, or the Normans (a question of terminology). Robert and Bohemond land at Dyrrachium with an army recruited in Apulia and Lombardy, led by a Norman ruling and military class, with the intention of reaching and seizing Constantinople. A key unit of the Byzantine army is the Varangians, composed at this point mainly of exiles from Anglo-Saxon England, fleeing from a different but related Norman invasion. Greek nationalism of the period 1780 to 1830 (roughly) can be interpreted as a response to Western ideas and funding rather than as a pure expression of ingrained Greek patterns, inculcated at the mother’s knee and shared by the entire nation. For Herzfeld, modern Greece works like a colony of the West, even though legally it was a province of a Turkish Empire which liberated itself, and the westerners were offering help and admiration. Greeks are caught between an ideal (in which they are the continuation of a Classical Hellas which itself is seen only as an ideal) and a reality in which they are a halfway house between Europe and the Middle East. The fatal entry of Greece into the European Union and the Euro zone is a product both of a wish to have been “the first Europeans” and of self-deception and reams of fake figures. I suppose that unrealistic debt expresses a relationship, and both creditors and debtors are part of the drama; but I am less sure that this expressed domination or admiration.

Are Balkan intellectuals more nationalist than their western European colleagues? I don’t see a standard measure. I definitely avoid English nationalist historians, or journalists, and they make me feel rather ill. But, if you look at the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph, for example, it is arguable that a nationalist reading of history is still basic for them, and for their readers, and that their views on current events are firmly based in that reading of the last 5 centuries or so. There is that whole stream of English nationalism which you would have to measure, and which doesn't form part of my cultural diet. I possibly get it when I read military history, which I admit to doing. I relate more to the use of “operational research” in the Second World War than to the patriotic aspects. I don’t have a measure by which Croats are more or less nationalistic than English or Scottish people. My guess would be that educated people from south-east Europe know much more about foreign cultures than the literati in Britain normally do, because they know that the share of their country in world culture is fairly small, and that knowing about ideas in France, America, Germany and so on is a vital asset to them – something which they must have to gain the esteem of their peers. That is, intellectuals from south-eastern Europe know more about western Europe than vice versa.

I have left out the other influence, that is the flow from Russia and the Russian Communist Party. Most of the Balkan countries were attempting to imitate the Soviet system from about 1944 up to 1990. This is just not going to attract so much interest, partly because the model is irrelevant after 1990 and partly because the model is so dreary in the first place. But you can't just blame the West. You are bound to raise the question, “why can’t we give up foreign ideals and just act out who we are?” But, as soon as you say that, you are a nationalist. That is what being a nationalist means.

I spoke of nationalist writers not reaching the West. Without conducting a survey of the translations, by now impressive in their scope, I would hazard that Sikelianos and Kazantzakis, certainly available in English, were nationalists as well as being major writers.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Further notes on “Nothing is Being Suppressed”

Further notes on “Nothing is Being Suppressed”

These are some more peripheral notes to a book on British poetry in the 1970s, which is going to come out in 2021.

A question which puzzled me is, Why isn't 70s Alt poetry political? I took out a lot of stuff about politics because I couldn’t find evidence linking it to poetry.

I think the sense that everything was arbitrary was conducive to a conclusion that the present state of society was infinitely arbitrary and so infinitely unstable.

Also, at some level the belief in free association as the core condition of the poems must have equated to a belief in social and moral freedom.

The lack of discussion of current affairs in poetry (or at least in the poetry I find interesting to read) is a sign that poetry was looking at other scenes than the churn of day to day politics. I asked if you could find out about the 1976 governmental resort to the IMF, for an emergency loan, and couldn't find any mention. Similarly, you can’t find out from poems that there were four prime ministers during the decade. Poetry may be interested in variant ways of organising society, but it is not interested in what the government or the balance of payments is doing. So it was pointless for me to write several chapters about politics.

I think we have to imagine a hidden stratum A which contained ideas of transformation and widened experience, and of which poetry and radical politics were two separate developments. A9 and A27, we could call them. The two developments didn’t contradict one another, but the politicos didn’t necessarily have anything interesting to say to poets (or even understand 20th C poetry). The goal of radical political change was to reach a new state of mind, and this state would have been vacuous and useless if it hadn't already existed in the here and now. Representing it was what 70s poetry was doing, I think, but to be enjoyed rather than, primarily, as a call to arms. Politicos tended to want people to think the same thing and feel the same thing, at the same moment, and poets weren’t into this in any form. If the project is to make your own life unpredictable to you, so that consciousness will be switched on at every moment, it doesn't make sense to imagine uniformity, and this undermines the sociological knowledge which accepts that people are predictable, as the basis for generalisations which then become the charter for political theories. All that knowledge dissolves if people are acting in a liberated way.
A “figure” common to much of Alt poetry is the experimental landscape, in which the reader/ candidate is dissolved out of their everyday self and put through a series of tasks, or perhaps tests, which call on unused talents and unused areas of psychological knowledge. The nature of the tasks is not obvious, and the nature of the solutions has to be worked out. By going into an environment like this, the reader gains the sense that where they are is not binding on them, and acquires strength in dealing with the unknown. This relates rather directly to the way daily life is conducted, and to transformation and liberation. Groups can change but individuals can also change on their own – in the “society of the artwork”. I suspect some readers feel that they fail the tests – or do not want to start them in the first place.

I think that 70s poetry aimed for a stable state of high association, the mind ringing as if a musical instrument. It was a stable state even if the pattern of symbolic links was changing all the time. This state was the goal, rather than a set of preset outcomes in some didactic programme. It is the same for all the poems (and this is a notion of what the Era Style was).

If you compare the alternative poetry of the time to the traditional poetry, it becomes clear that being anti-authoritarian, and challenging knowledge structures which support authority, are two vital features of the former, distributed throughout the entire text. This is clear without being explicitly said, for the most part. But it connects to dissolving your own acquired and repeated reactions, rather than to the case of a specific strike, a specific factory closure, or whatever real issue is being argued about in the political world. The “thrill” of modern poetry was missing from the legacy poetry, and it feels like this thrill was, therefore, to do with the anti-authoritarian thing. Something I didn’t bring up in the book was how the new poetry could seem like a mockery when in your own life was, due to functioning in a job which demanded repetition and predictability as parts of efficiency, free consciousness was unavailable and even dangerous. For me, writing poetry made endless freedom to create patterns available, but daily work entailed the opposite and was clearly going to be an abiding necessity. It would have been, still is, ridiculous to renounce artistic freedom because economic success means becoming functional. My suspicion is that effective patterns in government and law follow the line of economics in demanding simplicity, predictability, efficiency. They are not the domain of freedom.
I found it difficult to chisel out specific political messages from the poetry I looked at. I concluded that if I described a great deal of poetry, at length, then the reference of each poem to political ideas, possibilities, contradictions, or even (exceptionally) facts, would reveal local facts from which the overall pattern would emerge; and I didn’t have to engage in tortuous explications of symmetries between complex shapes in either sphere of activity.

Peter Porter’s poetry reviews in the Observer turned up a lot of names I hadn't heard of – he had a wide intake. He refers at one point to someone not in the book he was reviewing – VC Horwell, he wonders what she’s doing. Horwell was “Veronica Horwell”, and she was in Faber Poetry Introduction 1, in 1969. She stopped then, I mean she may have published some poems decades later, but she wasn’t a full-time poet. She was, or is, a lifestyle journalist, you can actually make a living at that. Take this poem ‘The Jug’:

The jug squatted on the table:
Given by a girl from Bethnal Green
With three lovers and an analyst.
But the jug was found on a farm.

In its melon belly
Pregnant by generation of windowsills
Hummed June afternoons in lazy basses;
Whistled the crystal skylark of ice;
Danced the syncopated patter of rain.

An adman stole my jug
Or bought it
Spilt its liquid on his cigarettes,
Poured out its glories on dairy ice cream.

A frugal man who wasted nothing.
When empty he used it for a prop
For a pine kitchen selling prime pork pies.


This is such vivid writing. If a jug can be so interesting, a poem can too, but only if written by someone intelligent. She is fascinated and detached about the jug, and that is certainly more than most poets can manage. It is irritating to think that she stopped then. But it’s not tragic – people only write poetry because they have nothing better to do.
That Faber series includes 4 issues between 1969 and 1979, and they contain 33 poets. Born in the 1940s, roughly. They could stand as a “new generation of the mainstream”. It is usual to compare young Alternative poets with middle-aged mainstream poets, but you get different results if you drag that younger generation of the mainstream onto stage. There is a technical problem, that Faber captures them at the start of their careers – the Introductions are not their best work, you would have to locate their first book, or perhaps their second book. Still, it’s clear that in the 70s you have a generation of Alternative poets and a generation of new conventional poets, and they don’t overlap – and maybe their readerships don’t overlap. David Perkins speaks of the pessimistic 50s generation as dominating British poetry for thirty years (he was writing in 1987) – well, maybe the industry didn’t want to make room for younger poets. I am doubtful about “dominating”, but I would concede that part of the history of the time is a progressive crumbling of the eminence and credibility of poets like Larkin, Tomlinson, or Gunn. The Faber series shows a stage in that – their poets just aren't interested in the Fifties style. (Or, 80% of them aren't.)

Having written about Sorley MacLean's poem "The cave of gold", I feel obliged to cite Ronald Black's review of it, which yields all kinds of ideas I hadn't seen at all:
"MacLean’s ‘Uamha ’n Òir’ (‘The Cave of Gold’) appears at first to have been one of his late poems. It was written, or at least reworked, in the 1970s. It refers to a very old legend which was found in pretty much every part of the Highlands and Islands where a cave on one side of a hill or mountain was believed to connect with a cave on the other. The legend always has it that a piper marched into the cave at one end, that he could be heard playing his pipes far underground, and that the sound stopped halfway, but that his dog appeared out of the cave at the other end with its hair singed off, revealing that his master had come off the worse in some encounter with evil. In this case the cave is explicitly stated to be in Dùis MhicLeòid, ‘MacLeod’s Land’ in Skye, and the people involved are MacCrimmons. There are basically three sections — one which describes the original legend, one which tells how another piper tries his luck in the same way, and one which draws a conclusion. The poem may be approached as history, as biography, as autobiography, or as a combination of these. As history, the first section presumably describes some early MacCrimmon, and the second describes Dòmhnall Bàn, who was killed in the Rout of Moy in March 1746. As autobiography, the first section presumably describes the poet as a young man, the second the poet in his maturity. In Dòmhnall Bàn’s case the cave becomes a metaphor for foretold death, suicide even: chaidh a’ ghalla ’na cheann / ’s ’na chridhe, ‘the bitch went into his head / and his heart’.
The poem is extremely difficult, and in this we are not helped by the poet, who was habitually economical with punctuation and whose translations were notoriously over-literal. As an experiment, I will present five stanzas of the poem, all except the fifth in three different forms: first the original, with my own punctuation added; then MacLean’s translation; then my own translation, done in my usual style, which I would describe as offering a modicum of rhythm and explanation. I have chosen these stanzas because they contain almost the only hard evidence for the subject-matter in the form of two references to the blind catechist Donald Munro (1773–1830), a one-time fiddler who not only gave up playing the instrument after his conversion but is said to have gone around making bonfires of bagpipes and fiddles wherever he found them. I begin in the middle of the first section, in which the poet expresses wonder that anyone should wish to leave such a paradise as the old Land of MacLeod, but admits that the motive is greed for the gold rumoured to be in the cave[.]"
What other things did I leave out?

I can’t record a debate about poetics which didn’t occur. But, in the cause of nostalgia, let’s pick up a few voices from the time. Nuttall was reviewing “alternative” (then called “small press”) poetry for the Guardian from 1979 to 1981, and I was able to pick up some of these reviews from on-line copies of old Guardians.
Jeff Nuttall: “If there is one characteristic which indicates a main line of development in contemporary British poetry it is the technique of making a poem from disparate material. Poems made thus derive their impact from contrasts built into the structure of the poem itself rather than from references to other things. The effect of the poems springs not from what is being said but from the way in which the various things being said react on each other. The dynamic achieved may be muted as in Paul Brown or it may be violent as in Barry MacSweeney’s Odes. […] The power of perception underlying political conviction and impeccable professional accuracy in this work is stunning[.] The technique of disparity has its roots in Zurich rather than in Black Mountain College. In a sense, to give the poem’s structure pre-eminence over its subject is exactly the opposite course from allowing what is to be said to find its own form spontaneously as it does in speech.[…] The “breath line” as Olsen called it ranges from athletic rhetoric to asthmatic squibs of observation to artfully tailored work in regular stanzas.” [September, 1979]
Nuttall, again: “Art is misunderstood in this century because what is its main aspect, cultural sabotage, is treated as entertainment. The fireworks are Molotov cocktails. Uneasy applause follows the burst of machine gun fire from the podium. […] Delirium, real, emulated, or contrived, is a main tool of the poet. Syntax is dismantled either as a result of, or as a means to, delirium. Paul Matthews' essay, The Grammar of Darkness, ranks with […] as a statement of the reason for this. “If I define the universe as meaning we must realise the paradox in this: a poetry of hints and riddles, no longer just in the sounding. The silence too is recognised. 'A frog jumps in', and we listen to the ripple of it long after the words have died away. A poetry with hollows in it, pause and hiatus, to admit the universe. Form always merging, never fixed, formed and chaotic at the same time, allowing for interventions. A language turning into music, playing between sense and nonsense, (they both limit the language). A poetry which has come to the end of itself (and so come close to its beginnings). Thrown back into the crucible.“ (November 1979)
The gap between what Matthews says and the gloss that Nuttall puts on it is very surprising. My impression is that Nuttall had little interest in the poetry he was reviewing. Sometime in 2019 I went to an exhibition about the influence of the Bauhaus, at the Contemporary gallery here in Nottingham, and there was a section on the art course at Leeds Polytechnic which mentioned Nuttall. This may advise us. He was a teacher of rather arrogant late adolescents, very alert about stylistic distinctiveness and daring, and he had to compete with them to avoid being written off as a “compromised adult teacher” figure. And he did compete with them. They regarded Modernism as a gold standard, especially the more anti-bourgeois element of it. So he had a set style of extremism. His descriptions, just quoted, are heroic, but they have little to do with English poetry. His view of the time is not worth writing up, as one of the competing versions, because his interest in what he was reviewing is so limited. He is remembered as a good teacher of “general culture” for art students. The Telegraph did an article on this course headed “Progressive art or subsidised freak-out?”
I don’t think 70s poetry was “cultural sabotage”. Is culture the sabotage of culture? I met Paul Matthews in 2019 and he promised to send me a copy of The Grammar of Darkness. I knew he wasn’t going to send it to me. I didn’t try to ask him “what was it like in 1974”, because it was obviously a major effort to roll back 45 years. It was one of those moments in Dorset when you don’t get a breakthrough for your book. That quote from his essay sounds like hippy language. Students in 1979, still in the punk era, would have hated that. But the quote is very interesting. The tone is serene and empathetic, and this is what I like in 70s poetry. Nuttall's reviews were my first glimmering that small press poetry existed. It was something the media didn't cover. But since the publications he described were not in the bookshops, or in the Poetry Library, I couldn't access them. I really reached that poetry about ten years later.