Thursday 16 May 2019

you should read George Szirtes

George Szirtes
(addendum to the ‘Affluence’ work)
This poetry is photographic and oblique – unemotional descriptions of odd and elaborate events. Some of it is more like curious ceramics than poems. He deals with the artistic debate of the time when he was studying and being formed by ignoring them – certainly a solution and one with fascinating outcomes. The exotic quality defines a restricted range for the poetry and it doesn’t feel as if there is an equally vital goal or attraction pulling it all. The poems are elegant but not very committed. Szirtes (b.1948) made a debut, it would seem, in a volume of Faber’s Poetry Introduction in 1978 – a time when a large number of new poets regarded Faber as part of the conservative and corporate world which was about to vanish.
Quoting Szirtes may be misleading, because his style has quite avoided the impulses of “simplify and repeat” which could end up with a work which can be exhibited in short quotations (and makes its points quickly and crudely). The cumulative effect moved away from, or past, most poetic impulses. The aggregate was profoundly attractive and by being stable created an emotional place which created a following, a company to be found in that place. It would not invite mediagenic poets. Szirtes generally uses rhyme, and regular line-lengths to support that; this is probably more to do with Hungarian cultural politics than the English kind:
In the glass you see anatomies,
Bacteria and germs in broken places.
You see the future in slivers and shards
Faint, farcical, lobotomies.
I try to discover my disease in traces
Of tea-leaves, life-lines, livers, tarot cards.
(from ‘Border Crossing’)

Some poems record an old pain like a shell worn by the ocean, and recall the Soviet ‘fraternal’ invasion of Hungary in 1956, the mass deaths and the loss of freedom. In fact Szirtes was a political exile as a child. The poetry has a delicacy and passivity which may be a reflection of past aggression, a step away from old front lines. The lack of overall patterns may be a mirror-image, a negative image, of the Marxist style in which everything is teleological, everything is chained into one vast monolithic pattern – this is a guess but it may also lead us to seeing why Szirtes’ poems express freedom by not being like other Szirtes poems and capturing, when the weather is right, sensations that are quite unfamiliar.
The lack of intent is what makes the poems so decorative but also makes them inconclusive. At times the poems take on a life of their own. The detachment allows a peculiar elegance of diction:
[O]utside, a rusticated, vermiform
ebullience; outside, a cluttering
of pediments, pilasters, pargeting,
embroidery; outside, the balconies
expand in their baroque epiphanies,
their splendid Biedermeier uniforms;

outside, the casement windows under rolls
of stonework, rough or smooth or both [.]
(from ‘The Courtyards’)

This is simply a detail from a complex poem about old buildings, evidently in Central Europe, quite likely in Budapest. The Biedermeier style flourished around 1830 and part of the emotional music is surely the contrast between the bleak and blank monumental ideals of Stalinism and the twirls of the early 19th century. Perhaps Hungarian Stalinism was becoming more similar to the post-Napoleonic autocracy in Hungary, in the era forever associated with Metternich. 
I wrote “unemotional” but this statement is not quite right, and the key might be that it avoids emotional peaks or that it describes major events obliquely. Many of his poems are acts to secure continuity between two countries and two parts of a family. A big theme is family history and the lack of ringing artistic climaxes is because a family does not reach conclusions in an operatic way, and its nature is in daily processes continuing over thousands of days rather than in big scenes. The poems mentioned are visibly part of a much larger verbal flow of family history which does not belong singularly to George Sz., as opposed to all his relatives. Quite a few of these seem to have died in 1944 and 1945, presumably as part of Himmler’s genocide project. The history of Hungary in the decades leading up to 1956 and the departure of Szirtes’ family saw a large amount of persecution and totalitarian posturing – the poet is not, obviously, interested in writing marching songs either for the Hungarian Right or for the Marxist dictatorship which succeeded Horthy. But also, he is not interested in refuting these oversized and over-loud ideas. He is very attentive to his relatives, and this founds the attentiveness which his poems show generally. We can notice that family history is more truthful, or flecked with errors of a smaller scale, than those ideas of the State and the people, but Szirtes is also not using his narratives to argue against the State, not explicitly anyway. The details are there to evoke a larger whole, which it would be over-dramatic to attack directly. People sometimes want poems about England, and even more so ones about eastern Europe, to lead them to sociological conclusions. Szirtes evidently does not think literature is there to nourish sociology. If he writes about a train, it may have 1000 people on it, but they are not part of the story of the train – they are part of their own separate stories. To some extent, writers since 1956 have existed to undermine the overload of grand sociological truths which the 19th century had produced and which were ever more different from what real humans thought or experienced.
Biedermeier was an era of lost hope and very detailed political censorship, in Central Europe, in which intimacy and family subjects took over art. (Bieder means something like "pious but dim".) The word is always used in a pejorative way, but the era (roughly 1815-48) did produce some art, even if ideals could not be described. Perhaps Biedermeier could be seen as a phase of rehearsal for writing poignantly and convincingly about intimacy and personal life, preparing for effective intimate art under another Central European tyranny, that of the Warsaw Pact satellites a century later. Szirtes' lack of interest in Marxists is interesting – it is as if they were so stupid that intelligent people could not even mention them.
A peak seems to be the 1986 volume “The Photographer in Winter”. A poem “The Child I Never Was”, about attempting to be English, includes the description of a composite face made out of things which reflect life near the North Sea – a pun, because the painter who made faces out of vegetables and so on in trompe l’oeil, was Arcimboldo, many of whose Mannerist canvases hang in museums in Vienna, near Hungary. He worked for Rudolf II, whose court was in Prague, and who was also King of Hungary. A 1989 statement by the poet quotes a 1985 statement initially, as “a central conflict between two states of mind. These I called [in 1985] ‘the possibility of happiness’ and ‘apprehension of disaster.’ The early poems in The Slant Door made repeated references to pictures, often paintings, as points of arrest between these states. Sometimes the setting would be domestic, other times exotic. The effort would often entail conflating the two.”
Another theme that recurs is depictions of paintings. The silence and liberation from time which that implies are qualities which point directly away from the implications of family history. The contrast may be a reason for Szirtes’ artistic success.
The statement quotes a poem “North China”, and a line “The great fantastic trains, like twists of barley” – I am guessing that this should be “twist of barley sugar”, a piece of confectionery familiar to people my or his age, produced (extruded?) as a stalk with spiral fluting along it – a kind of column with such fluting is referred to as “barley-sugar columns”. The fluting may actually be ice because the setting is a city in north China where the temperature sinks to 50 degrees below zero. The ice would be shaped into that dynamic and specific shape by the forward rush of the train – if that is not going too far.
The title ‘Transylvana’ refers probably to ‘Transylvania’, the land beyond the forest, and the poem is likely to be about a visit to his mother’s home town, Cluj (many other names!), which is now in Rumania and always was in Transylvania.
If you analyse all the poets who made debuts in the 1970s (something which took place during my specialist project and which may be hanging over us), it seems that Szirtes is an isolate; he was solving problems which other poets had not addressed. His 1989 list of favourite poets is open but does not show obvious influences (except Brodsky perhaps). I have found it hard to identify immediate predecessors, or rivals. It is worth thinking about Didsbury or even Kuppner. Encounters (1999, ed. Zsofia Zachar), an anthology from the English-language Hungarian Quarterly, is helpful in giving the background to the family history in question.
I didn’t get Szirtes’ artistic idea until this week. This is sort of stupid of me. I just didn’t read his poetry enough. There are problems relying on anthologies, because editors leave out many brilliant writers, because the showcasing often doesn’t work, but also because I read them and didn’t react to the evidence they offer me. I admit that Szirtes was present in anthologies I did read, such as Firebox and New British Poetry. I guess it was my brain which was absent.

Monday 6 May 2019

the Tudor conquest of Ireland, few survivors

Theme: unsuspected bad news about the homicidal effects of the Tudor and Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Melvyn Bragg radio programme last week was about the Irish famine in the 1840s and one of the distinguished contributors mentioned a famine in 1740-1 which 'proportionally' killed as many as the events in the 1840s. So just a glimpse and then they whisked on. This and the one in the 1690s were famines I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Obviously there are complexities, and the question is why you have 40 good years between famines, but the link between taking 90% of the land away from the Catholics, so that you have a concentration of land in a small number of families, going with a large number of people having no land at all and living on very low incomes which left them with no wealth reserves as well as no rights, and enormous numbers of people being simply destitute after one bad harvest, seems cast in bronze. But the landholding structure comes directly from the British connection and was the result of legislation.

I don't get why there is so little emphasis on these events (and on the
late Elizabethan famines). It's not clear to me why historians pass them over (although there is a new big-scale series of volumes out so maybe they get more into it). The mentions I saw were incredibly brief.

I was looking at Irish history as an ancillary to studying the language; the question of what exactly you are learning, with the standard language as reformed in the 1930s, is not straightforward. Sources on Irish society prior to “an Concas” (the Tudor conquest and colonisation) are utterly frustrating. It's as if sociological information only emerges from contracts, law-courts, and (by extension) politics. There are no cases recorded for Gaelic law
and it's been suggested that judges didn't actually use the law-codes when making decisions. There is a link between anglicisation and Catholicism, quite simply, in that Henry VIII grabbing all the land of the monasteries in England was intimately related to him asserting
feudal suzerainty in Ireland and claiming the ability to take land away from unruly vassals and re-grant it to (English) vassals. More specifically, the Gaelic lords had sequestered all the land once held by Irish monasteries and an inquiry under Henry got into this because he wanted to repeat the grab of monastic land over the water, in Ireland. The assertion of royal power over this (basically stolen) land destabilised the legacy relationship between the Crown and the Gaelic lords. Wars followed. Over a century or so, they were the losers in a way analogous to the Catholic Church in England. The 1530s are the pivotal moment.

So the cycle of famines predates the introduction of the potato? (from a correspondent)
cite: “The famine of 1740–41 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in food losses in three categories: a series of poor grain harvests, a shortage of milk, and frost damage to potatoes.[4] At this time, grains, particularly oats, were more important than potatoes as staples in the diet of most workers.”

OK, but it wasn't colder in Ireland than in, say, Yorkshire (or Germany). The difference is in poverty and in links of "vertical solidarity" between the higher orders and the low. So the question of land distribution is still basic.
One type of famine is related to rules of warfare in a pastoral society. You start by driving off your herds to hidden or remote pastures so that the enemy, thought of as a field army trying to occupy territory, can't get at them. But over say five or six years the "hideout" pastures get bitten down and your herds perish. Then the people perish for want of milk and so on. This happened in Libya, several times, and in Ireland certainly in the 1590s (Mountjoy) and the 1650s (Cromwell's lieutenants). The field army doesn't massacre people, they die of hunger.
This wasn't true either in the 1690s or 1740. (The 1690s saw a cold shock in Northern Europe and a famine in Scotland too.) The 1690s famine followed a war (Williamite, the “war of the Two Kings”) and was probably made worse by it.
Two points. One, were there famines in Ireland before An concas. I don’t know. Two, obviously Ireland was never all-pastoral and grew lots of oats. However, standing crops can't be hidden from organised armies who have cannon and so on. (I am guessing that the “refuge pastures” were in open woodland, in hill country, perhaps in dry patches of swamps. They were secret, obviously.)

There were two separate famines under Elizabeth – in the 1580s in Munster and around 1600 in Ulster. The second was not directly due to land grabs by English settlers, but to the effects of war. However, the scale of the revolt in the Nine Years’ War was due to a new national awareness, brought about by the sight of English settlers, since the 1530s, backed by the Crown taking large amounts of land (in Munster) and destroying the Gaelic way of life. This was the only thing that could unite the Irish lords. It is also true that Mountjoy, the English army commander, recognised that he could not crush guerrilla forces except by starvation, and that he destroyed standing crops and so forth as a means of warfare. The famine at the end of the Nine Years’ War was partly due to his concept of economic warfare. That famine was directly related to English aggression. The famine in Munster was due both to land grabs and to warfare.

The feudal theory of homage stipulated that all land was held from the monarch, and that an individual tenant-in-chief could lose the land for acts of disloyalty to the Crown. I think this applied throughout Europe, anyway there was no body of law which held that Henry VIII couldn’t seize land from vassals who defied him. That would apply to all the Gaelic lords of Ireland – they didn’t pay tax or accept the verdicts of royal courts. It was like another world. But, there was a terrifying growth factor in this situation – the more Irish land the Crown seized as “suzerain”, the more disaffected Gaelic lords there were, and the more likely other Irish lords, allied to them, were to rise against the crown to protect the status quo. But, the more these land-owners fought against the crown and defied the courts, the more reason the Crown had to seize the lands of all of them – to bestow them on vassals who were, most probably, English. The new settlers were likely to be people with cash, so that the Crown could defray the costs of war by taking fees from them. This process escalated and was incredibly hard to halt until the whole Gaelic realm had been seized, dispossessed, redistributed to foreign but cash-rich lords.
My problem with reading about this is “disembodiment”. I can’t go back into Irish history without being present, but that presence is unavoidably Anglo-Scottish and this destroys my ability to justify being present at all. I read a little history to back up studying the Irish language (which I began in 2016, I think). What the historians show is just appalling.
It shouldn’t be so difficult – Irish is just one more European language and shouldn’t be less international than, say, Russian or Greek. It is part of the European cultural legacy. I did a degree (or, part II of a degree) in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic back in 1977-8, so I have been involved in Celtic studies for all this time, mostly on the back burner while I studied other things. I found that degree course almost completely frustrating and it left me with numerous questions, a few of which I have found answers to over the last 40 years. It is difficult to get into Gaelic and Welsh literature, even at the level of asking what kind of language a text is written in and what audience it was directed at, without slipping into questions about social history – and so, with hardly any delay, into the history of imperialism.