Sunday 31 May 2020

Armoured in arrogance

Armoured in arrogance

There is a collection of stray essays (and questionnaire replies) by the art critic Harold Rosenberg which includes a piece on “The avant garde”, 1969. He says “Seeing particulars in the perspective of their historic outcome, the avant-garde has brought into being the arrogant notion of the utterly worthless. Works, actions, persons, whole races for whom the future has no use are cast upon “the rubbish heap of history”, and the sooner they are gotten rid of the better. The elimination of historical discards is a necessity of sanitation, and the ability to recognize this necessity and the courage to respond to it are among the qualifications of the future-building elite. As the personification of the advanced forces of time, the avant-garde is thus obliged to adopt ruthlessness as a moral principle, the ruthlessness dramatized by Raskolnikov in eliminating the old-woman pawnbroker as a “human louse”.” (The book is Discovering the Present, 1973)
This has a lot to do with the idea of the “British poetry revival”, actually with its external history. There is no doubt that people adopted this “street cleaner” role as members of the avant garde. There is no doubt either that the momentum built by Mottram, in his 1974 “catalogue” and in other statements of the Seventies, excited people, and that individually they accepted the role of being the star actors of history. Other people, who were ascribed the role of being obsolete and irrelevant, were less convinced by the proposal. The elite were self-validating and they collectively owned a kind of camera which took photographs in which most poets did not appear. These photographs were supposed to be capturing the Future, but when the Future arrived it looked nothing like the photographs.
I have been exercised by emails (from Riley P and Nolan K) saying that the British Poetry Revival never happened. When further details arrived, it emerged that they were not denying the existence of the 46 poets whom Eric defined as the “revival”, nor their importance as creative artists, but rather that they were rejecting the momentum and specifically the self-validation of younger poets (those emerging after 1977, to put it crudely) who were encased in arrogance. So there really isn’t an issue about whether the British Poetry Revival happened. What is at issue, for them, is the validity of avant garde “street cleaner” arrogance and its consignment of everybody else to a rubbish-heap (and eventual landfill). We don’t need to investigate this in order to write a book about poetry in the 1970s.
The Rosenberg piece is useful because it proves that the “blinding arrogance” behaviour was present before Mottram got involved with publicising modern poetry and so that it was just part of an ideology which was perfectly available to students in 1969, and other times. Various books sold the idea of modernist destiny. Jeff Nuttall was much more immersed in it than Mottram was. Herbert Read published, between the 1930s and the 1960s, many books in which this idea was available, and these were the books students were likely to read. Read was not fanatical, but he was willing to publish surveys of 20th C art in which only modernism was deemed worthy of coverage. Nuttall taught at arts colleges and had this idea, that nothing had happened in the 20th C except modernism. By the time a 19 year old could define themselves as a Dadaist and get course credits at art college for the intellectual quality of their Dadaist year’s work, something essential had changed. How many art students had defined themselves as Dadaists and surrealists in 1969?
I had a long and fruitful email exchange recently with a poet who can be categorised as ”mainstream” (broad as that term is). He remarked how, whenever he encountered inmates of the experimental scene, they always started proceedings by assuming that he was incredibly stupid, unconscious, unable to understand his own situation; whereas they were Cup Bearers of the Future. This is a long-term problem. I suppose the idea that he could read their work and point out artistic flaws in it didn’t even occur to them as a possibility. He just didn’t have voting rights.
I doubt that I need to go over the terrain trying to find out if the published poets were arrogant. I just don’t need this result to evaluate the poetry, which exists outside the limits of the personality and was always expected to do that. I have to observe that the “alternative” scene, as it has existed, not very stably, since 1977, has involved a lot of people who created very high-intensity work. You could even say that high expectations of oneself were the predisposing factor which let them execute this work. Anyway, it is the work I am interested in and not the wattage of their self-regard.
It may not be incredibly productive to pursue these questions of definition at length. However, I have produced a book about the Seventies in which the idea of the British Poetry Revival plays a central role. Obviously the descriptions of individual texts are more important, but the “overall geography” is also part of the story I tell. I am expounding this argument on my blog page because I want it to be available as a reference – and so I can leave it out of the book.
As for the landfill, I have always defined myself as a historian, so I regard landfills full of old art as the land I harvest from, not as junk. Rosenberg has a brilliant description of the difference between a museum and a junk shop, which says that they are buildings containing the same kind of commodity. (“The difference between the museum and the junkshop is reverence.”) When I started with all this, it was the “alternative poets” of the 1970s who were on the market as junk work, while numerous available critical surveys simply passed over them in silence.
The foreword makes it clear, with a rather brilliant obliquity, that Rosenberg didn’t want a collection of this kind and scarcely saw it as a book. All the same Rosenberg was a nonpareil as cultural commentator. The introduction (recycled from a 1972 symposium in Partisan Review) says “The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Today’s aesthetic vanguardism is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, by state arts councils, by museums, by industrial and banking associations[…] The art-historical media have become thoroughly blended with the mass media and with commercial design and decoration under the slogan of community art programs.” Ouch!

Tuesday 26 May 2020

The British Poetry Revival - revisited

The British Poetry Revival - revisited

I wrote about the idea of a British Poetry Revival, identified as running from 1960 to 1974, in a post in March 2020. I included a list of all 46 of the poets whom Eric Mottram mentioned in his original definition, in booklets for two weekend conferences, one in 1974 and one in 1977. (The latter was more specifically about “Inheritance Landscape Location”.) It is a fundamental idea for my book (as yet unpublished), “Nothing Is Being Suppressed”. I have an investment in it. And yet -

>>The idea of a British Poetry Revival is now cast in wet cement as proto-dogma: it is a load of old malarkey of course, but you already knew that...<< (from my learned colleague, Kevin Nolan).
What’s more, Peter Riley also claims that they didn't exist. He emailed me to say “At present I am writing a section saying that the “English Poetry Revival” of the 1970s never took place.” I believe this came out in his column in the Fortnightly Review, in 2018. This doesn't match with the chosen period of “1960-74”, and it sounds like he is leaving the Sixties in play because he made a debut in the Sixties.
If you look at the list of 46 poets, it’s clear that there was an overwhelming mass of poetness in that time, 1960-77, and it was even more so if you add 30 or so who came on the radar soon after and also belong with the ”Alternative”. It’s just a fact. It would be easy to pick out the weaker poets. Seems kind of churlish. I concede that there was good poetry a-happening in the 1950s. As for the non-alternative poets, they weren't solid dreariness as Eric thought, and I have given time to explaining how good 70s poems by Peter Levi and Anthony Thwaite were.

After discussion, I think that there may be other reasons why my colleagues who reject the BPR don’t actually reject the idea that there was a huge poetic momentum from 1960 to 1974, that the 46 poets represent a huge mass of vital work, and that they were responsible for large-scale innovations. Or even, that the innovations changed the rules, and that this change was accepted by one legion of poets and rejected by another one, so that the geography of poetry was split, from then on, on those lines. Actually, the disagreement is about something quite different. It relates more to the period after 1977 (for which large-scale generalisations are missing). And, it relates to the sense of inheritance which some younger poets felt – including some, perhaps a few hundred, perhaps only a few dozen, who had very little talent. Like, the idea of Inheritance justified them in being blindingly arrogant. Like, they don't think anyone else exists. Like, it fitted them into a grand narrative in which they were inevitably the winners (and they didn’t have to engage in self-criticism or in wondering how their self-regard translated into the reactions of other people). Like, the idea, of “progressive” poets around 1974, that they were ahead and The Future, mandated a vision which was very different from The Future as it actually manifested, and in which we are all forced to live. We’ll skip the rest. I don't like the genealogy which says “there is a modernist legacy and I own it and this means I'm right all the time even if my name is Lawrence Upton.”

There is another point which Riley makes, that the “alternative” weren't very coherent or self-similar and the mainstream also weren’t very coherent or self-similar, so that you can efface the differences between them and pronounce that there Was No Difference and so the British Poetry Revival never happened. I think this is a failed line of argument dictated by a desired conclusion and not by the evidence. It is clear to me that there was an opposition between the centre of each group, and that this opposition was clearly perceived by observers at the time, and that there are quite a few statements, by anthologising or otherwise, which exclude one of these two groups in a quite consistent way. For example, Faber did four volumes of “Poetry introduction” between 1969 and 1978, showcasing 33 fairly young and unpublished poets, and of those 33 only one is also in Mottram’s list of 46. This level of coherence points to there being, really, two separate groups. You can't just make it go away. This is so even if you notice that the 33 aren’t interchangeable (and the 46 aren’t either).
I spent last night re-reading Eric’s 1974 statement. The concept is that he is describing something real and outside himself, not being a connoisseur describing personal preferences like a wine critic. So he effaces the fact that the choice of poets reflects his personal feelings. This allows him to leave out the oral poets without comment. No Adrian Mitchell, no Brian Patten. It also leaves open the possibility that the poets he liked were all unconventional but weren't similar to each other. So do all lines which diverge then converge on each other? hardly so. So, I don’t think you can find any set of features which would group all the 46 names together. But you could find four or five different sets of features which would group them into four or five different clusters.
To return (tediously): this does not equate to saying that there was no British Poetry Revival.

I can’t conceptualise that period without the BPR as an organising frame, or ‘dogma’ as Kevin would say.
Peter’s biography is that he is an “alternative” poet who has moved over a long period towards the mainstream. This could attract accusations of compromise, from the Inquisition of “avant garde poetry”. Publication by Carcanet was the climax of this. My feeling is that he moved towards the audience, and this is what artists are supposed to do. He probably has thousands of readers, via Carcanet and shearsman, and they are all happy to read him. His dislike of the BPR concept is part of a much larger cultural critique, which deserves to be read as a whole, when that is possible.

The objections to the “BPR” concept are definitely focussed on the period after 1990, and apply to the history of arrogance, the charter of entitlement, the stratosphere of self-validation, in that period, and so not in the Seventies. They completely bypass the conservative power block as it existed in 1970, and the obstacles which new-style poetry had to overcome to reach publication or legitimation. It may not be agreeable to remember those guys, but if you want historical accuracy you have to remember them – in detail.

Eric did rope in 7 people who debuted before 1960, which is kind of stupid if you think poetry was dead in 1960. But, a re-reading of his 1974 text shows that he associates ‘revival’ with ‘performance’ - the ‘viv’ bit of the word comes from live, live readings. There was a boom in poetry readings in the Sixties. He isn’t saying that poetry was dead and had to be brought back to life.
Noticeably, Eric left out WS Graham and JH Prynne. It’s striking that out of 46 names only one is female — OK, it’s fascinating to critique that inclusion list, but that just underlines how compelling the whole configuration is, how robust the generalisations. I can see that that Faber series picked up Jeffrey Wainwright, George Szirtes, Jeremy Hooker, and David Harsent – poets whose work I admire. See this blog for the details. Another email (I will leave this one anonymous) says “On the other hand, I think Peter’s gist is that the monolithic, quasi-academic notion of “progress” — i.e. one single line from A to Z with markers along the way — is also untenable. It’s untenable in the mainstream, which has a habit of leaving out swathes of good poets who don’t fit the preferred narrative; and EXACTLY the same thing happens in the Alternative scene for (these days) very similar reasons. I’d argue that there’s a bit more of a factor of being “hip”, being part of the in-crowd, with the Alternatives, though I see similar things in the mainstream.” The mainstream is a large landscape in which paths are replaced by dishonest and factional publicity releases. Certainly it produces good poets, and certainly you have to take a hike to find them. The mainstream is much stronger than I thought in 1992.

Eric didn’t like women artists very much. Or the 1950s. He was a gay guy in the 1950s, it’s a familiar story. He was in revolt. He was a very clever guy, he found vehicles for his feelings – the American avant garde and the new wave of British poetry. He built these very elaborate structures which were simultaneously part of his inner world and part of the outer world. Brilliant, really. Maybe he went too far. Actually, a lot of those poets were brilliant, too.

I heard a rumour (at the launch of his Collected) that Ken Smith disliked all the BPR poets except Pickard and Nuttall. And himself, of course. Irrespective, there was still a Critical Momentum of Pure Poet Power. I wrote that Ken Smith thing down because it seemed so screwed up. There was a pattern. Smith missed it. He wasn’t in tune with other people in Eric’s generous category. But I don't think that disproves the existence of the group. It just shows where the lines are. In around 1980, Astley was Ken Smith’s biggest fan, and it is quite likely that he talked to Smith & Smith said, forget about the poets Mottram likes, they’re too abstract and up in the air. And that is where Bloodaxe found its direction. There is a link with Jon Silkin and Stand, which Smith co-edited, there is a line which goes back to Leeds and the 1950s and Silkin, and that is the prehistory of Bloodaxe. (I spent a day in Leeds at the launch event for Smith’s Collected. It was very interesting what people said about local poetic memories.) I’m not sure this is all true, it’s a reconstruction.

The question of “female poets of the 1970s” needs a lot more work. My guess at this point is that Eric’s idea of originality involved being a follower of Olson, having modernist legitimacy – so in fact inheritance was a key factor, which must reduce originality by most reckonings. He would have had to redefine his ideas of legitimacy to include women poets – who were certainly around by 1977, if less so in 1974. Anyone coming back, in 2020 or later, is going to have to undertake that re-definition. The flip side is that radical female intellectuals who had an interest in literature were likely to regard Olson and the Black Mountain colony as ridiculous and pointless and embracing unpopularity. It would follow that they were also less likely to be excited by Mottram’s roster of New Poets and by the social / ideological atmosphere around them. This is a vital critique of the BPR, not a mode of failure. If you could wander through that weekend event in 1974, you would probably have found that 80% of the audience were male. So where were the women? Elsewhere. I think that (1977) thematic title of inheritance and landscape bears re-analysis – because men and women understand those two institutions in quite different ways. ('Location' is less emotive.) If you say "reproduction and territory" you get a glimpse of what is at issue, and why it is so divisive.
There are critiques to be made of the BPR from possibly six different directions, and these critiques would be of great interest. However, you can only get into all that if you initially accept that the British Poetry Revival was a reality.

I have just done a very slow reading of Mottram’s June 1974 text. He is reluctant to describe the poetry he favours. He attacks Anthony Thwaite’s essay, published a few weeks earlier in April 1974, about “The Two Poetries”, which is more confident about describing the two areas, as he sees them. Eric frequently describes the established poetics, the kind he dislikes, as being restrictive, authoritarian, rigid, etc. It must follow that he regards the poetry he likes as overflowing set forms, that he sees it as being spontaneous as opposed to regularising the poem by reference to the concepts of other people, and to settled artistic or behavioural norms. He sees the staff of publishers as imposing control, and feels that this inevitably imposes restrictions on poetry, and that good poetry happens in the alternative sector because it lacks such structures. If we look at Thwaite, he describes one of the two poetries as being reflexive, academic, based on close reading; and the other as spontaneous, unreflected, immediate. There is clearly a deep resemblance between what he says and what Mottram says. I don’t think Mottram's attack on him is well founded. I must say I found Thwaite's essay quite brilliant.
Where you have poetry which is austere, elaborately composed, intellectual, recording complex intellectual processes, it is unreasonable to apply the word “spontaneous” to it. It is also unhelpful. You can say that any poem which breaches conventions, traditions, and norms is breaking inhibitions. That does not also mean that it is unreflected – that it is the product of a first draft rather than an eighth draft. “Inhibited” is not a useful adjective here.
another interesting email "He’s [Riley] been kicking against the traces for a while over the pieties of the English alternative scene (and it is English, isn’t it? it’s not really a BPR….), and I think he may be disappearing too far down the track. Correctives need to be applied to some of those pieties and unchallenged assumptions. The BPR was after all something of an embattled club, in some cases deliberately embattled by a refusal to engage sensibly with anyone outside its self-appointed boundaries. Some people inside the club are over-rated, without doubt, but most of the significant figures are in print and have substantial retrospective volumes of their work." 
And a thought – there never has been an anthology of the 36 original British Poetry Revival poets. The catalogue, on sale for 3 days in 1974, included poems, I believe. But you can't pick up a book that contains all those poets. This is bizarre. My guess is that if you did one now you would inevitably add half a dozen women poets and scrap some of the less interesting list poets. To do otherwise would be to deify Mottram in a way he would have laughed at. It is bizarre that the original essay stopped being available after 3 days and that a connected anthology has never existed. I think that when people talk about the BPR they invent a personal list of the poets concerned – so that discussion between two people has been largely pointless.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Christopher Middleton

Christopher Middleton (1926-2015)

I have been re-reading some of Middleton's work as part of trying to study the poetry of the 1970s. The background is seeing his work over a forty-year period (maybe slightly more) and not having any intense memories of it, at the end. This is unfair because there is an exception, a reading he did in Cambridge for CCCP. Certainly the selected poems (111 Poems, 1983) is a work one should read, a major point within the poetic field. One of the possibilities, if you keep on consuming culture at a great rate, endless books, paintings, and pieces of music, is that insofar as you are getting what you want, you will become profoundly satisfied; you will be satiated; and you will stop being dynamic, as a poet, and become indifferent to the next thing that happens and the next thing you say. Everything becomes the catalogue entry for "an objet from the Middleton Collection" and nothing is a poem any more.

The most stretching works are, I think, the ones which explore a work of visual art at length. One of these is “Anasphere: le torse antique”. This was published as a pamphlet in 1978. The reference is to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften.
(from Neue Gedichte)

(which is archaic not antique) but also to Middleton’s own torse (torse 3, 1962), where the jacket defines this as a “developable surface”. Why is the torse titled in French? Rilke saw this Apollo in the Louvre, so the label would have been in French. The root is twist and a torse is a point developing a plane which can be twisted to create new surfaces and new interiors. I couldn't find an existing meaning for anasphere, not in the OED; a firm by that name is dedicated to “analytical and atmospheric instrumentation”. I speculate that the source might be the word anamorphic, which means “a distorted projection”. These can return| an optically clear image from certain points of view. There is a famous example in a painting by Holbein, where a flattened oval shape reveals itself as a skull from a certain angle. So anasphere could mean a sphere which is subject to flattening and stretching and is subject to special optic conditions. This sounds slightly like a torse.

Profit motive melts the poles
Paris drowning, Bombay

–it’s slightly embarrassing to see that someone could identify global warming in a poem published in 1978. The poem is partly about love, a sexual partner, but its span of themes is so wide that it is hard to find a focal point in it. This might refer to a shifting geometry, a figure whose centre shifts as it evolves through time. (Alexandria is already underwater, that is the port area of classical times is now below the waters of the Mediterranean and was the subject of very elaborate recovery of evidence by diving.) Another passage is:

One hundred thousand horses
Toppling off the crag were chopped into food
For the hand that peeled leaves of laurel
Out of the flint core
Now in a field of old rain goofily like a fortress
A red horse was planting his hooves
– Look how it is to stand here

This is an “easy one”, an open goal, as we can instantly recognise that it is about a Palaeolithic “bone deposit”. The horses were presumably “panicked” and directed into rushing off the cliff, where their carcasses could be recovered by the hunters. ‘Like a fortress’ I have no idea why. “Old” rain – standing water? Rain is always new but then it stops being rain. I have just been reading about the tiny leaf blades, Evan Hadingham uses that phrase “laurel leaves” and his suggestion is that they were produced because they are beautiful and not to do work. They were Solutrean. “Some of the spearheads were so wafer-thin that they would undoubtedly break if pressure were applied to them, and these must surely represent items of prestige or exchange rather than practical hunting weapons[.]” A quote grabbed from the Net is “crafting laurel-leaf blades that were so thin as to be translucent.” (Hadingham, Secrets of the Ice Age, 1980) ‘Anasphere’ was published by Burning Deck in America in 1978 and in a book from Carcanet, in England, in 1980.
I can't summarise ‘Anasphere’, it feels like a serial poem – the images succeed each other and don’t form a centre. I said it was a poem about visual art, but that may be wrong, even though the title describes an optical procedure and a (damaged) Greek sculpture. A note says that themes in two sections were drawn from Arthur Waley's translations of ancient Chinese shamanic poems. This is not promising, obscure even if you happen to be heavily involved with contemporary Chinese shamanism. So, I don't really get 'Anasphere'. The use of a word that has never existed is justified by the development of feelings you have never had before – that seems fair.

The cover of 111 Poems has Guy Davenport describing the poems as like a beautiful butterfly's wing “where agility, colour and designs cooperate with an obvious purpose but in total mystery’. This is beautiful prose but leaves us in mid-air – if the poems exist in total mystery, what is happening in our heads as we read them?

At this date his poems feel like the internet itself – the sense of endless available images, flowing off in all directions, is the melody his poetry gives off. That was the feel of a great library, or a museum, when he was being formed. I am getting a feeling that his poems are like Mottram’s, that same feeling of images flashing up and of being swept along with them, recognising some and being baffled by others. Middleton created a voice on the page, the poems don’t tear apart under the pressure of contrasting sources. He was just more calm and more cunning than Mottram.

Let’s think of Middleton as aesthete. There are too many precious objects. He lacks drive – his emotional security is never threatened. Maybe the collection bestows security on him. He has extraordinary skill and adaptability. He can't get excited– the work just rolls on. The Collected contains 350 poems but is not complete – there are other books. There is no climactic work, no book stands out. Looked at closely, all these poems are perfect. But there is a channel which is switched off or unused. It may even be the process of perfection which has attenuated the poems.
La Morena’ (at p.376) was the one I liked. He read it at Cambridge in about 2006, maybe twenty years after he wrote it. It is a great poem. It is about sexual feelings, so that the poet is inside the poem. It consists of 31 couplets, all very similar to each other – the camera remains stable during the poem. No tricks. Its power is its monotony but it is the only monotonous poem he ever wrote. It may resemble 'Holy Cow', at p. 146.

The lack of enthusiasm is part of the sophistication. It puts everything behind expensive glass. He re-creates himself all the time but it doesn’t feel like he is surprised. He doesn't seem to care that he wins. Maybe the poems are too expensive for us. He owns them already. We can’t get into the poems because they are Art and too much part of some exquisite collection. It’s his collection of precious objects, not mine. I guess this is the point. It’s too much like a museum and not enough like someone talking. The infantile process of mimesis isn’t happening – the poems aren’t giving off subjective messages which would trigger a mimetic response. ‘Chanel always now’ (from a 1975 book) is dedicated to Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayrocker, two Viennese poets married to each other for a long time. This may be a hatch, because the style of the poem is arguably a homage to Mayrocker, a run of her style of tiny flakes which when scattered in large numbers create a pointillist picture of micro-transitions. It is amazing that Middleton can take such a style, something intricate and exotic, and produce something which is finished and volatile, nostalgic and bizarre. The “hatch”, the entrance hatch, is that if this poem is founded on a response to Mayrocker, almost a dialogue, then others may be too –and he is undertaking a long-term conversation with other super-cultured people. He has that power which is either warm, and based on artistic empathy, or cold, and based in technical knowledge of language which is too detailed for most poets to take in. It would be hard to do a homage to Middleton because his poems are not recognisable. The level of repetition is spookily low – again the skill and good taste, but they can also be part of detachment. How detached can we be while being involved? Some of the poems are so good – but he keeps on shifting theme. (A note says the Chanel poem is based on a collage of bits of a Vogue article.)

After listening to a Internet talk on art history by someone (also a poet), I think a key fact about Middleton is that he lives in the world of ideas, abidingly, but has no thesis. The talk went from dynastic Egypt to Harry Thubron, but had a constant theme. Middleton is always talking about culture, but he doesn't like a sense of risk so he doesn't want to set up an unproven but exciting hypothesis. I can see that this would draw focus away from the specifics of any artwork he talks about. But there is an anomaly here – most poets either have the wish to project their personalities, or they have a thesis to prove. Middleton has neither. Well, we shouldn't underrate serenity.

I am really sorry that I never wrote a satisfactory description of Middleton. I was unable to think clearly about him while he was alive. I didn’t feel right about his work. I was a germanist and he was so much the top germanist and the top translator. I don't think the account in my book Failure of Conservatism is very good. It gets into an essay by CM (a great essay) and avoids close comment on the poems. Let’s try one poem 

Southern Electric Teddygirl

And less dull than I, gazing,
Since ribs with mackintosh plates
(Belt on the ninth hole) must make,
For ease, one vertical
Brief tube, topped by a face
Eye-staring at a moon 
So Pomona, worn thin by fish and comics,
Hair yet
Bushes of torchlight
Bounding over hills through whose glades
Cool surf burrows
Here knees and nose going
No particular way
Back, insistent, toward
Algae, plasma in pools that Pomona inched
Her million years from, now
Leaning back, on springs,
She peers for huts flash by,
Blinks with blued condescending
Eye slides over roof seas
And yellow skies that roar,
Recrossing the ankles
Her winkle-pickers bruise, to resume
Into Orpington
Her airy trail.

This may come from the late fifties, and Teddy boys then had girlfriends. Southern Electric is probably a south-eastern railway (Brighton, Portsmouth, and London) and he sees the teddy-girl on a train. Pomona is the goddess of fruit, named after apples, and somehow the teenage girl is involved with this goddess. It is possible the train is going through orchards. Somehow the time-frame goes back a million years and the girl makes a journey of that amount of time. The girl reads comics because “public opinion” was concerned at the time that teenagers read comics and not books. This poem feels like the 1920s to me, with the arbitrary and shocking montages of disparate things, which however produce a plausible and maybe satirical surface, flowing smoothly. Middleton may be the genuine heir of the Modernism of the 1920s. It is key for his poems that they don’t just take an artefact and give a literal description of them, but usually take more than one artefact, then think about both of them together – something we can do if we are in a museum and form abiding images of the exhibits we see. If he was just describing works of art, it would be much simpler. He is never flat-footed.

He several times wrote poems or groups of poems purported to come from a persona, so WV Balloon or Saul Pinkard. This did not work well, in my view. He changed all the time as a poet but was unable to project into an invented character. He had intricate designs for the lens through which a poem sees its material, but that is distinct from creating characters.

The internet shows debate about two artefacts allegedly dredged up in Mobjack Bay, Virginia, off Chesapeake Bay, which are Solutrean and allegedly support a marginal theory that Palaeolithic men came to North America from France when the Atlantic was frozen. You can or could buy these flakes for $20,000.
This is the kind of entangling & fascinating junk you find if you surf the Net. Adjacent posts cast doubt on the provenance stories (of which more than one is in circulation). There is a book about the “migration from France” idea, which I saw in a bookshop but avoided buying.
The theory has been somewhat popular with people who wanted to believe that the land of the USA wasn’t originally the property of Native Americans. Andy White was posting in 2015 and is a touch sceptical about the “frozen Atlantic” stuff and indeed the whole world of woo. I believe Dennis Stanford is the archaeologist who connected North American flints with Western European ones. The book was Across Atlantic Ice and I will not be buying it anytime soon. The flints in question don't appear in the Eastern United States, which is why ones from Virginia would be worth many dollars.
Other Net sources show people not agreeing that the super-thin blades were for show only.
It has been pointed out to me, by people more learned than I, that Tiny Tim was singing about the ice-caps melting already in 1968.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Keith Jafrate, a brilliant 80s poet

Keith Jafrate

I have been reading poems by Keith Jafrate recently and I have to concede that this is a major omission from my critical work on the period (1960-97) and that I don’t understand why I didn’t know about him. I guess my dependence on anthologies was always a weak spot, but given how abundant the oral record is in interested circles, and how many people I hang out with, you would think that the gaps would get filled in. At least for vigorous and exciting poetry, which this is.

Jafrate is an original writer. He doesn’t fit into any of the self-promoting groups (the phrase is unkind but poets do enter public consciousness as human rafts, they cling together and give each other buoyancy). I am reasonably sure that he was part of the cultural thing of the 1970s, which implies that he was born somewhere around 1950. He seems to have made a career mainly as a jazz musician. This leads to two guesses (valid at this point). First, his creativity was based on something outside poetry and not on learning/buying into the verbal projects of contemporary poets. Secondly, his poetry is led by a sense of emotional identity, a cultural style, rather than one internal to literary history. His base seems to have been Huddersfield and its region and he helped run a literature festival at Huddersfield (at some point). If I am right (bad memory), there was some kind of link with a publisher named Smith/Doorstop (in Sheffield) which also runs a magazine called The North. A note says that he comes from London but has lived in Yorkshire since 1980.

Based on a second-hand books catalogue, I have identified some books by Jafrate.
Finding Space, Published by Rivelin Press, Bradford, West Yorkshire (1982, 31 pp.); In Heaven, Published by Stride, Crewe (1984, 64 pp.); War Poems, Published by Slow Dancer Press, Nottingham (1987); Jump, Published by Nottingham, Slow Dancer Press (1988); Timeless Postcard, Published by Smith/Doorstop Books, Huddersfield (1994, 79 pp.); Letter from home (Word Hoard, 2011, 20 pp.).
The main work which converted me and impressed me is Songs for Eurydice, which came out from Stride in 2004. A note inside the book credits part of the ‘Song of Orpheus’ section (part 7 of the book) to a commission in 1994, and this may correspond to a publication listed by the British Library catalogue as The song of Orpheus, London : Slow Dancer, [1996?]. (The town should be Nottingham! This is a cataloguing error!)
The Amazon list shows two other publications, not available and with no details listed. Keep walking, by Robert Furze and Keith Jafrate | 1 Dec 2000 Currently unavailable.; Birdsong, by Keith Jafrate and David Pitt | 1 Jul 1997 Currently unavailable. As an aside, the BL catalogue omits several publications, and should not be taken as a definitive record for small press poets. No, you have to go on searching.
I started reading his work because of a poem I saw (in 2019) in an issue of Tears In the Fence. (David Caddy gave me an armful of back issues when I visited Stourpaine. So I have lots lying around, which I read constantly, and if you want recent Jafrate poetry it may be in TITF. This issue was no. 32, summer 2002.)
I have seen three of his books. Finding Space is self-possessed but not intense. It is an autobiographical moment about an English person living in New York for a year or so. This may actually be the debut, stylistically, but that may be just because I haven't found any earlier work. Timeless Postcard is much more developed, it is still autobiographical but it has that urgency and lack of inhibition, it’s not so cautious. It is organised as ten long sections about living, maybe living in a place. One part recalls life in London:

mauve, mauve orange, umber, the sky’s flat darkness over London, bleach-grey streets, houses, their minute idiosyncrasies wiped out under the tall lights, their gardens without tallness, their versions of gate, none of this observed except as a flatness to pass by like a fox, searching for the waste of these lives hidden in thousands, lives that have retreated from the empty stadium of night, where we wait outside the Baptist church which resembles a huge bungalow in liver coloured brick
(from the poem ‘Timeless Postcard’)

I think one key feature of this is how it is organised to keep the eye moving, how it doesn't want to reach flatness (a dead halt) or the equivalent of that, in a generalisation. The goal is not knowledge, as an asset, but to seize the next moment of experience, the next frame. It follows that this poetry is not interested in the educational assets of abiding knowledge, theories about culture and sociology; rather its goal is within itself and its centre is within itself. Studying sociology may reduce the pain of living in a healing or protecting way, but minimising the value of what we suffer personally; but also makes poetry impossible, because it dismisses what is atypical.
Eurydice is a long poem (135 pages) with a remarkable sweep.

here is a body without language
weaker than a bird
colder than a bell
the body pretends to wait
somebody moves it
the body dances
shivering and waiting
dead names the size of buses
pass the body travelling
from continent to continent
take a Tom Cruise
use a Madonna
smoke The Whales
Coke washes whiter

the body rolls in fire
execrating curtains
gates and climbing plants
telephones the talking clock
and curses it
the body saves cities
writhing like a fish in the dust
somebody locks it up
somebody finds its language
to sentence it

What I think has the jazz touch is its serenity – the writer is perfectly at ease and the poem generates its own time. There is no feel that we are moving towards an end, but there is never a sense of time being short. This is what a musician in unscripted music has, I guess, that the music always is in the present and cannot run out. This is the feeling of freedom, I think, it pushes you into uncertainty, perhaps risk, but also into being liberated from behavioural structures, and from authority, and verbal or psychological routines which constrain your freedom. I find this more to concentrate on than anything structural, the poem doesn't so much have a plot or an argument. Having pointed to this serenity, I have to qualify that by saying that it contains an instability, that Jafrate is deeply discontented with the society around him and its compromises of experience of organic life, and the natural reaction of the poet is dissidence and revolt. The title page kicks off with a quote from Buenaventura Durruti, not a poet but an Anarchist military leader (in Valencia) during the Spanish Civil War. What I like about work like Timeless Postcard is that the political dissent isn't based on abstraction, on books consumed in solitude, but on life being lived, and on the contrast between authentic existence and the compromised version which he sees around him. Eurydice says:

madness of numbers
madness of tongues
un stylo the children whisper
m’sieur un stylo
give me a pen
to unlock the stone
the builder imprisoned by percentages
the house on wave’s hill
your face its lamp

in this poison land
on a humpback bridge
alone with the cooling towers
sieved acres
coffee-dark and black
gulls and bulldozers
chunks of water left in pits

If political change is going to debouch into a new life, it has to start with knowledge of a life that we can actually lead (and not an abstruse book by Adorno). One problem with writers is that their political imagination tends to devise more books rather than a new life, one that you can inhabit.

I am depressed that I began studying modern British poetry seriously in 1992 and didn’t read Jafrate until 2019. There is a conversation of the committed (the converted?), and you wait for the conversation to bring you information. It is like walking out on a beach every morning and picking up driftwood. Or bits of plastic, I suppose. Jafrate's publishers have mainly been in a tight geographical space: so Huddersfield, Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham. This suggests that face to face interaction is a key, and there is a geographical aspect to taste because waves of formation & identification attenuate as they spread. So I didn’t hear about Jafrate (even though I live in Nottingham now) because I was in a different network. I searched so many anthologies but none of them had Jafrate. Actually, he may be in Northern anthologies, from Smith/Doorstop for example, which I didn’t read. I am unused to thinking about writers I don’t know – usually going to a reading by someone is a key moment, it means I know who that person is, in some undefined way. I guess I am not strong on abstraction but am strong on empathy; I don’t get the crucial things just from the printed page. I don’t feel ready to sum Jafrate up, not now.

The poetry is mainly paratactic – it does not use syntax to make plain an argument, a set of relationships, which are nonetheless present in the fabric of the text. He does not draw conclusions at the end of poems. Emotions are also not signalled, for the most part – they are implicit. These features of technique link Jafrate to a number of poets who wrote in the 80s, and many who debuted in the 70s. It is reasonable to think that you can guess when he was born by the way he writes. I don’t want to make too much of this, because it is the affective and subjective contents of the poems which count. Actually, it is because so many people in the Seventies, or in the 15 years after 1968 (if you like), felt in a certain way about politics, alienation through work, the distribution of wealth, etc., that Jafrate does not have to explain himself formally - he participates in a collective sensibility, so in “solidarity within dissidence”. If he dissolves causality, that may be because he wants to go to a place at the edge of socially agreed coding & overlay, where there is no knowledge. Freed from finished explanations, we can start to construct new causal patterns, which would also allow us to fulfil our desires more directly – with fewer institutional hindrances and entanglements. The less the poet offers categories and judgements, the more space there is to think about how society came to be. I don't have direct confirmation that this is why Jafrate writes the way he does, but it does seem like a possibility. Again, it is easy for us to take in this kind of poetry, because other poets also shared these ideas (and shared in their development). I guess "Fox Running" might be somewhere in the prehistory of "Songs for Eurydice".

I am going to quote from the piece in Tears in the Fence 32, which may not be in any book:

how to push sun along these hills
that is trapped in tiny chambers used
to hammer levers that turn gears in
tiny repetitious detonations
of wealth
like mountains of pennies of energy
burnt to gas to
tiny grey
unseen clouds erased shadows
hoards we cannot gather
cannot spend
how to unravel the meadow of work
woven into any machine
how to begin again
life for life
to each according
to need
from each
according to ability

a boy passes through the graveyard walking two greyhounds
the high trees fill and seethe
clashing dancers armoured with fish
the wind wants to shift everything
lift everything
(title is ‘neither created nor destroyed’, which is presumably a definition of ‘energy’)
Apologies for not reproducing offsets from the margin, which this text editor silently removes. One section of Eurydice is titled ‘Cerne Abbas’ a reference certainly to the Chalk Giant, whose image is reproduced on the cover of his 1994 book (Timeless Postcards). This giant hillside figure is the subject of a book by Jeremy Hooker, Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant. The interest is possibly that of facing a post-Christian cultural landscape and wanting it to be full rather than "empty", as Christian ideologues wished it to be. Recovering what Christians had destroyed was part of populating a new land, one full of myth rather than just sociology. We have no idea what the narratives around the Giant were, in the Iron Age, so you can invent any myth for him to go through, and no-one can fault you.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

J. F. Hendry footnote


Many of you will be familiar with that passage in The orchestral mountain (1943) where JF Hendry says
A bird’s wing is broken into their current.
Across cerulean heights
Staring the dark and fivefold continent
The infinite allotropy of her spirit
Eludes me still. Her voice
Wanders on the wind with no wit in it.

Speak! Speak to me, o aerophyte!

-which is moving but baffling. (The pronoun “their” may refer back to “oceans of the air” in line 1, which would have currents.) The book is a longer work (maybe 800 lines) about the death of his wife, Theodora. Theodora Ussai was a Slovenian-American and died as the result of a bombing raid on London. The detail is that she was traumatised by the raid and killed herself. "The coup d’etat and Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia took place two days before she died", according to Jim. “phyte” is an element appearing in numerous compounds meaning “plant”, so “aerophyte” means “plant that grows in the air”. The notion of the aeroplanes and the bombs being in the air, living in the air, is easy to grasp, but not Theodora as a being of the air.
This has been clarified by a photograph which Jim Keery sent me. It shows Theodora in a pilot’s outfit of the time. She was a pilot. It is a terrific photograph, the clothing needed for planes in those days (unheated and extremely cold once you got high up) has the virtue of being a perfect signal of itself: she can’t be anything else but a pilot. She looks radiant – the clothing, with the leather helmet and so on, is unfeminine but asserts intelligence, physical courage, self-reliance, mastery, in a striking way. The garb is free from ornament, but its functionality is very visible and very assertive.
You could say that she looks down on inherited female roles from the height from which an aeroplane looks down on the inherited landscape thousands of feet below it. The poem says
Nerveless, her fingers of rime
Banish the sun that shone
Bronze on the hero’s climb.

The rime may be the cold of high latitude in an unheated plane, and the "hero” is likely to be Theodora. The figure in the photograph is heroic, no less. The climb relates to a plane ascending, but may also be an instance of the ”mountain” in the title. Indeed, it could be that the mountain is the column of air beneath a plane high in the sky, and that orchestra is the sound, of the motor, prop, and winds rushing past, which would be in a pilot’s ear. Is that true? Hendry’s verse texture is always suggestive but not dense enough to allow us to be sure. Where we stop guessing is an index of the poem – it is good up until that point. 'allotropy' is a kind of phonetic mirror image of 'aerophyte', the motive for choosing these words is acoustic and not only semantic.
The dust jacket tells us that “The theme of this new elegy is also death”. “Orchestral mountain” is a possibly meaningful phrase; as from a mountain we can see a great variety of sights, so in an orchestra we can hear a great variety of sounds. But it is not a strong phrase, as titles go it is not the best. It suggests the weaknesses which we actually find in the poetry. The subtitle, “a symphonic elegy”, is also high-flying but not cogent. It is symphonic in that themes keep repeating, but it is a mood that lasts for 50 pages rather than something highly organised and, indeed, composed. The poems do not fall in a particular order, they do not progress as the book moves on.
The poem keeps repeating a theme of winter.
I shall always come to find her here
forever among the debris of winter.

In this half-world, this cataract of water
Where the elements of vision are dissolved,

An ocean pours into the hold of summer
Whose hopes with ours are ripped and shelved.

(I wonder if the oceans shelving near a coast are like hopes approaching shore?) The hold defines hope as a ship (as we say, "when my ship comes in"). The situation where an ocean pours into the hold is a ship struck at the waterline by a torpedo. This may be the cold of great height, where Theodora spent some of her time. It may also be death, as he describes memories and says

Flowing together into the last cold sea
They loop the living and the dead like necklaces.

The phrase about hopes means they are "ripped (up) and shelved", i.e. postponed. The sea reminds me of Marimarusa, a long poem about the polar ocean (the name means ”dead sea” in an early form of Celtic), which Hendry wrote in 1946-7 but which was not published until 1977. As orchestral does not distinguish one mountain from the others, so in general Hendry does not want epithets to focus associations, he does not want to describe objects more accurately but to open up association into a state of general suggestibility. He does not want to remove any possibility from play. Accuracy is not part of his project. Something similar applies to the forty parts of the long poem, they do not qualify each other. The photograph helps but raises a point that if his long poem contained more photographic moments it would work better. It presents a state of being emotional rather than a series of emotions linked to situations (and to other people’s states of mind).

There may be a merging between the realm of the upper air, which is extremely cold, and the Arctic ocean. I am wondering if this is related to the ice imagery in the poetry of WS Graham, Hendry’s contemporary.