Tuesday 27 November 2018

Ken Smith and cold hard facts

Further thoughts about Ken Smith

(addition amplifying part of "Affluence")

I attended a talk by John Goodby (9 November 2018) in which he brought up three aspects of Smith: the frequency of the word “stone”, the problem of masculinity, and the hesitancy or indeterminacy In his work. This was at a “celebration” (or book launch?), in Leeds, where several of the people I spoke to didn’t seem convinced of the merits of Smith.

The next day, I looked at The Poet Reclining (the 1989 Selected) and counted 100 uses of the word “stone” (or variants, e.g. “stony”) in the first 120 pages. This does seem like a serious problem, and we have to address it.

Smith’s first book was called “The Pity” and has a poem called by the same name which describes someone being made to watch while the Kuomintang political police garotte his wife. (This was Mao Tse-Tung, and his first wife.) As he watches he feels the pity drain out of him: “instead of blood I watched and saw the pity run out of me”. This is a central poem, and what we see as the story of The Poet Reclining is that the heart which has had all the pity squeezed out of it becomes a stone, and all the stones in the poems come from this original loss of pity. Mao told this story as part of a positive development process, a step towards political wisdom. We have to ask whether the stone is a heroic state, and attractive, or a barren substance, the deposit of pain and endurance. This is also the question of whether Smith’s poetry, with its simple and repetitive language, is attractive or bleak. The stone is both the thing which Smith hates for its cruelty and the thing he most identifies with, and sees as most authentic. Porter Wagoner sang a country and western song about "(Who taught who) the Cold Hard Facts of Life", and the stones, obviously, are these "cold hard facts of life". Is feeling cold and hard actually a feeling?

Towards the end of the volume is a poem, 'Fox in October', about the character Fox – detached from the main bulk of Fox Running (a 1980 long poem held to be Smith’s major work). It is about 80 lines long and includes the phrase “He forgave” 20 times. The problem isn’t just about re-using the same image, it is about direct verbal repetition – and this is a consequence of a neglect of the power of syntax, a shunning of the devices of language that relate things to each other, qualify them, find a pattern in them and conduct an argument. This connects to a wider subject of the use of parataxis, which affects a number of Seventies poets and deserves extended study. In Smith’s case, it represents a dislike of abstraction.

If you consider that hills are made of stone, the stones represent hills and upland ground. In England, this is mainly found in the North. The stones are a symbol of the North (and a negative of the “softness” of the South, home of alluvial lowlands and of literate culture). In Anglo-Saxon, many names include the element “stan”, or stone. They are all male names. Stone is a male substance, and a symbol of people seen as harder, stronger. They have rugged faces, with bones larger and more prominent, big jaws, and gravelly voices.

I don’t want to get into the topic of indeterminacy. Robert Sheppard has published extensively on this, it was the subject of his doctoral thesis so he has been working on it for thirty years or more. His books on the subject cover a lot of ground and are basic to the understanding of modern British poetry. I just want to observe, first, that you can be indeterminate and still not be writing good poetry. Robert has so much interest in it that he has re-defined it as the goal of style, instead of being just a feature. Secondly, that it is decisive for Smith. When he writes about masculinity, the hesitation and uncertainty in his poems remove the possible thesis of an aggressive masculinity. Rather, his appeal is inseparable from masculine features like courage, terseness, even ruggedness, but he has withdrawn from the hero figure so common at mid-century and is even casting doubt upon that figure. Heroic figures inevitably win victories – they excel their opponents. Hughes’ voracious beast-figures constantly destroy other creatures, the weaker ones. Smith’s heroes never win.

Is using the same word 100 times repetitive? Of course. And this repetitive solution is a symptom of preceding decisions which blocked development and constrained a repetitive question and a repetitive answer. Smith has resort to myths which produce even simpler verbal contexts.

The jacket of Reclining quotes Charles Boyle saying “many (of the poems) have the harsh simplicity of Anglo-Saxon or other oral verse.” To get with this, we have to get with a formation of taste. I mean by that a coherent group of people for whom certain public statements hold true, which holds assets which rise or sinks in value with the passage of time, which seeks a certain kind of poetry and encourages poets to write it. A review of a 1960 book by John Holloway says “The poems display a sensuousness, a feeling for tangs, hardnesses, distances, for the muscularity of nature.” The cover of the 2018 Smith Collected also says the poems are “muscular”. This formation shares, roughly, a belief in terseness and gruffness as masculinity and authenticity. Writing in stone is especially good because of its rigidity and, if vertical, erectness. Anglo-Saxon style features are admired because they are irreducible, terse, and, obviously, highly masculine. I suppose that in the 1960s reviewers explained what they wanted and poets tried to give it to them. The end of the age of ideology left reviewers clamouring for poetry about objects and physical work. A point of cliché-fixing might be the section of Briggflatts (1966), where the poet says, rather sententiously, that his message must be carved in stone because anything else is too soft. This equates poetic significance with stoniness. Descriptions of objects are admired and either introspection or abstraction are seen as anti-poetic: language has to stay with the concrete even if human beings flourish in feelings and ideas. This formation includes an admiration for the working class, seen as authentic because its members deal with objects and physical problems demanding strength. They take part in struggles. (This version has a male-only working class and they work only in demanding physical jobs.) Their distaste for abstraction correlates with a lack of abstract values like wealth, and of cultural capital. This line flourished in Stand, which Smith co-edited in the Sixties, and in the North. It flourished, from 1979, in publications (and jacket texts) from Bloodaxe Books, whose founder seems to have been much stimulated by Smith (their first book was his Tristan Crazy). It took on Bunting as an anti-abstract poet but rejected everything else about modernism. Later, it took on Smith and Pickard but rejected all the rest of the New Thing of the Sixties and Seventies, as brilliantly located and defined by Mottram. In fact, it discarded Mottram’s message as a whole.

This version of terseness could evolve into dumbing-down. That is the way you end up going when you discard ideas (as middle-class nonsense, or whatever). I think that some ideas have arrived since Anglo-Saxon times. In linguistics, a word is correct because a speech community accepts it as such, and in poetry we have to accept the power to legislate of social formations, small communities. The “objects are more authentic than ideas” party have had their successes, over the past fifty years. The cover of the 2018 Collected says that Smith inspired “an entire generation”; I am uneasy about this, and not only because Smith’s ideals are generic. This line wasn't exactly new in 1966, with Briggflatts, and it hadn't got any newer by 1975. It was not equipped to become the new poetry of the 1980s.

The ordeal is a significant image for Smith. Mao’s political education through torture is just the most striking version. Obviously, the more like a stone you are, the more you can bear an ordeal. Fox Running is effectively the tale of an ordeal – in this case torture by sensory deprivation and cognitive dissonance (“gaslighting”) rather than physical pain. Quite probably, the poet sees the workers and peasants as the most meritorious people, because they have suffered the most and so acquired the most merit. I say probably – but as the poems do not tolerate abstractions they don’t really tell you. It just feels like he sees history as an ordeal.

The really difficult thing to explain about Smith is how people enjoy his work when it is so repetitive and underdeveloped. I can point to folk music (including blues). Folksong is also repetitive, stylised, and without introspection. And we do like it. But these options limit the possibilities for development. This is where Fox Running happens – a breakout into a more complex form which could not be sustained without taking the linguistic fabric apart and modernising it.

Smith’s characters rarely seem to have any influence over their own destiny. This accounts for the lack of dialogue and reasoning in his poems – that kind of behaviour is just irrelevant, it doesn’t influence anything. We have to speak of a sociological group who are so gripped by poverty that they do not take part in the political process, and this is why they see the world as made of stones, unable  to be influenced. Smith gives a voice to people who don't vote and don't read a serious newspaper because they feel that change would not affect them and politics will always leave them behind. This is what gives his work authenticity: genuine poverty and genuine endurance. You can read his poems while having left-wing feelings, but the poems are terrifyingly apolitical, they don't believe that things have causes or that reason will explain why. They echo a world of people who do not have political hopes, and whose wealth is negligible. The readers of poetry are not within this world, but they respect its voice. That voice is organically expressed in folksong, which does not believe in causality but only in fate, not in human reason but only in grief and joy. Smith’s poems have some of the appeal of country and western, where the dullness of the language expresses the low status of the players and the authenticity of their testimony. All his objects are inexpensive ones. We can answer the question now – once you have piled up assets like {gruff, authentic, Northern, hills, Anglo-Saxon, hard, rugged, physical, working class} a significant fraction of the audience have already surrendered.

I thought to look at a poem by John Holloway, in pursuit of the fan-base of the word “muscular”. Here is one from his 1965 volume, Wood and Windfall. It is about stonecutting:

The severe sense: face
Without message, rebuffing from inward. Once
For an hour I watched the master mason lettering.
And the blade at its dry rising,
Coming out in a puff
As he butted the haft with a birdswing lightness
But a birdswing boldness. The feather and chip of the script
Flowing in a flutter: variety, gaiety,
A trickle of flowers down the stone in
Brightness, a lightness…
Made also this garden [.]
The last two lines are a bit obvious:

A spare, linear, elegance: message from
The chisel.

Sounds like that stone-cutting brag in Briggflatts, doesn’t it? But as it was published the year before ‘Briggflatts’ this is not influence – it’s just the kind of thing reviewers were asking for, in 1965. My impression is that Holloway was a much better writer than Smith, that his poem creates a series of unique moments through words modulating each other and Smith grimly repeats the same moment. As for sensuous – Holloway’s poem is sensuous and Smith’s aren’t. He never has a voluptuous attitude towards sensation: his poems are de-aestheticised. In a sense, they aren’t poems. But Smith has that authenticity, gruffness, bleakness. People like his poems and apparently don’t notice the repetitions.

Smith's interviews disclose events in 'Fox' which just aren't there in the poem – out of his linguistic reach. I feel that the weakness of Fox is in expressing ideas – Smith is so keen to reduce things to images that much of the plot is unclear. The images lack definition. The main character cannot articulate his feelings. The lack of definition makes it hard to say anything conclusive about the poetry but also makes it hard to find bottom when you are in the middle of the poem. In fact that is one of the core sensations when reading Smith: underdefinition. The only source of information on the situation wasn’t very communicative. Even at the end, you haven’t got very much. But as we saw, there is a poetic sympathy group which wants to define this inconclusive result as a victory. It is like a film with no soundtrack: it turns out that the range of clear visual equivalents for feelings is limited, and people do better expressing their feelings through words. We are used to being told that stupid poetry is good because it embodies femininity. About 90 times a week, actually. But here it looks as if we are being asked to ignore the artistic weaknesses of some work because the writer, via gruffness and rigidity, etc., is linked to masculinity. The masculinity is not explicit but we can’t explain the popularity of the poetry without it. What makes Smith work is a sense of doubt about being gruff and macho. What holds him down is the unwillingness to talk about ideas or feelings.

I mentioned that 'Fox in October', which should be the climax of the work, repeats the phrase "He forgave" 20 times. What is he forgiving? the main poem does not describe Fox as being resentful or say why he was angry with these 20 people or groups of people. Smith's grip on language wasn't flexible enough to let him establish that information. So the forgiveness is puzzling and underdefined. The repetition is a sign that the poet's verbal powers are inadequate. Actually, 'Fox' took him to his limits, and even if quite a lot of it was beyond his powers it is a vital poem because he had gone to that site of overstretch.

John also spoke about the influence of “deep image” poetry in Smith, and an essay by Robert Bly was cited (by another speaker at the event) as being annotated by Smith, as a statement he valued. Evidently, the reliance on images, such as stones, is typical of folk-songs. Such songs notably lack abstractions or introspective statements, they prefer symbolic images. Smith’s use of legends in poems can be seen as an extension of this folk-song style. The poems about heroic Amerindian figures (“The Sioux cleared from Minnesota”, etc.) are notable for using simple and primal images, and lacking sociological detail. The poet has very few concepts in common with the subjects, so concepts are thrown out. What remains is simple if emotive. It also resembles the writing in numerous Fifties Westerns in which Indians are major characters, so Broken Arrow, Taza Son of Cochise, etc.

The blurb for the new Collected advises us "Ken Smith (1938-2003) was a major voice in world poetry, his work and example inspiring a whole generation of younger British poets." It does not say which generation this was, and the phrase might actually mean "inspired Neil Astley". Astley founded Bloodaxe Books and their debut with Smith's Tristan Crazy was an important moment. I feel that Smith’s example has been used to cover up a line of weak poetry, where abstraction is chopped out as unpoetic and every situation is simple. He may even have helped to get this poetry going – as an editor of Stand in the 60s and as an adviser to Neil Astley. Of course Bloodaxe located a market for the style which they isolated, they made that market happy, but of course this style deserves to be critiqued, like other ideas, as a proposition about what poetry is. You can write poems which exclude abstractions, but you can't define the poetic as "that which is without abstractions" and you can't define modernity as "the exclusion of abstractions". There is an “interest group” which is simply wrong about how poetry works and where it should go. In about 1973, there was a whole world of advanced poetry in Britain, and Smith was wrong to overlook most of it and just go for the poets who were afraid of abstraction. This approach is still wrong. In Smith’s poetry, it is throughout possible to read the simple style as damage: the groan of a heart which has had the pity squeezed out of it. I do not believe someone telling me that this music of damage is what we want, what makes us happy, the destination we should be travelling towards.

As an aside, I think John and I agreed that Ranter is an imitation of Fox Running, which is what Neil Astley felt when Ranter was submitted to him. What convinced me was the stuff about radio. There is a page about shortwave radio in Fox. There is mention, at three points in Ranter, of characters communicating by radio – a completely unexpected event since they are all in the Middle Ages. It is logical for Fox to have insomnia, since his days are unused; and in the Seventies normal radio switched off at midnight, so that insomniacs used the shortwave (VHF) to pick up broadcasts to fill the night. He listens to Radio Moscow and the American Forces Network. In the added poem, ‘Fox in October’, we hear “his ear to the radio noise/ out at the last edge of the little we know,/ in the dark of the planetarium". Radio waves run through your house without really having any connection to you. Radio telescopes pick up "noise" at the edge of the detectible, Fox is leading a life without picking up meaningful signals, where his brain is losing pattern. The whole of Fox Running is about disconnection. The indifference of cosmic, interplanetary noise to humans is the final extension of Fox’s inability to connect with London, to find a job, friends, or a home. The radio imagery is much more deeply and structurally embedded in Fox than in Ranter, and therefore looks like an undigested and unnecessary stray, or intrusion, in the latter poem. Incidentally, David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts (1955) also has someone listening to VHF broadcasts in the middle of the night. It was just part of insomnia. Like Fox, he is afraid of nuclear war. Smith adds the detail about ambiguous noise picked up by a defence detection network as possibly starting a world war.

Addendum. I got hold of the 2019 Smith Collected (having declined to buy it at the launch) and read the 370 pages which aren’t in The Poet Reclining. My feeling (and this goes back 20 years, roughly) was that his initial stylistic decisions had left him limited room for deployment, and that later books would just represent iterations of the well-worn process. This is basically what we find, but there are some moments when Smith outruns his own inured habits and produces something memorable. One is a group of Italian poems (at pp. 424 to 426) where the landscape stops being dull and menacing and covered in wreckage, as in most Smith poems, and becomes somewhere pleasant – agreeable – where testing and evaluating sensation becomes interesting. So he gives up being Ken Smith and it’s very jolly. The other is a group at pages 462, 476, and 511 where he writes scholarly poems, based on reference books. These are about chickens, hats, and the Romance word for “goat”, respectively. The one about hats starts with a dedication to “JHW”, and it is reasonable to think that this refers to John Hartley Williams and that these three poems are “guest appearances” where Smith copies Williams’ style and produces something distinctively different from his run of the mill yarns. There is an issue with injecting this style; Smith’s run of the mill poem relies on saying “nothing ever changes” and “you like my poem because it never changes”, but the Williams poem-idea involves saying “everything changes all the time” and “consciousness is too archaic and slow to deal with the real, shimmering complexity of the universe” and “our brains can’t recount the complexity of the minute that has just passed”. So pursuing this line would undermine Smith’s stock in trade. The willed pessimism and rigidity of his characters start to look like a habit of mind, a block on needed perceptions, rather than a searing insight into anything outside the protagonist’s mind. I wish Smith had explored this idea further – written a “post-modernist” work. He is not in the premier league of poets writing about byways of learning, how great learning demolishes generalisations (and rigid psychological stances based on them). Fox Running (with 'Fox in October') represent his moment of maximum ambition and experiment.

His poems set in other countries don’t work very well because he always sounds the same and it is like a character actor who plays the same role in 100 films, irrespective of whether they are taking place in Detroit, Morocco, Bucharest, etc. So an expansion of scope, linked to trips to Croatia, east Germany, Portugal, etc., does not take place. With the former Warsaw Pact countries, it is a known feature of their history that they were formerly dictatorships and that the dictatorships collapsed around 1990 or 1991. The new scene was at least partly filled with new parties, voting processes, and a new civic activism by eager citizens. Smith totally fails to register this. He never even refers to it. So the question is, what does he register. The imperatives of the basic Smith poem involve exclusion from power, weariness, numbness, dull rage. This pattern is too stable to allow him to register the return of democracy and the disappearance of a world of secret policemen and literary hacks. It arouses the reflection that achieving stability might be more basic, in an early organism, than detecting change in the outside world. This raises another question. Someone said, at the Collected launch, that Smith had little time for any of the “British Poetry Revival” poets except Pickard and Jeff Nuttall. Leaving out the other 43, that is. And someone said that, late in his life, he had little belief in left-wing politics. This connects with the pessimism of his poems – his characters are unable to imagine change. There is little in his poems about politics – it is as if an almost total distrust of abstractions included the ideas that affect legislation and public affairs. So the gap between Smith and the other poets favoured by Mottram, back in the Seventies, was that Smith did not want to imagine a different way of ordering society or a different way of organising language. Smith had the stoicism to endure failure but not the susceptibility to imagine or bring about success. He certainly disliked authority, but that is not the same as resisting it. (This information may not be wholly accurate or deal with changes of attitude.)

There is a very good poem at p.472 called ‘Interrogating the egg-timer’, where the narrator is a glass egg-timer and the development is genuinely surrealist and unpredictable.

I think it is a mistake to read the whole collected poems in a block. They are too repetitive, the limits imposed by Smith’s initial postulates or unquestioned, structural, rules are too obvious and too restrictive. But his persistence connects with the basic strength of the gestalt, the song he endlessly hears. There is a kind of comfort in the predictability – you don't have to concentrate, after a while, to get the meaning, because you already know what it is going to be. Like folk-song, his poems benefit in compression from this narrowness, almost sterility, of formal variation.