Thursday 25 June 2020

Joseph Macleod, 'Earthscape'

Joseph Macleod

Work continues on Macleod. James Fountain’s work is coming out as a book from Waterloo. I read much of his archive, in Edinburgh, in the very cold first week of January 2001. I realised recently that there are some other poems which aren’t in the Macleod archive in the NLS. While looking in New Verse for something else I was disturbed to find in issue 3 a 1934 Macleod poem, 'Earthscape', which was not in the archive. It is one of his best. I think he tended to type single copies of poems and send them to magazines, so that if they were published the magazine kept the typescript and Macleod retained nothing. Slightly alarming if you want to be a Macleod expert! For the moment, it seems that the body of texts we have is incomplete.
This is the poem:


they are excavating under the briars of paestum
a parian fragment of an old Goddess:
tackle is hoisting
the earthy torso up.
the season is nearly over
and russet roseleaves in recognition
deserting hips and sere bedeguars
sacrifice themselves
in libation Upon her.
she is Cold as they prise her up:
they are forcing her out of season:
for spring is her time, whoever she,
spring is her time to return
not this,
unrecognised by spade or diggers
another to join many
a goddess evading collection,
her Return from death to antiquity
the fall of a crabapple is pointing
like a single bell.

on sard hard edge of a distant mountain
a drab clad man
is he sitting? standing?
too minute for a thick finger to indicate.

walls of a harem in a narrow street
are peeling open:
corner of a house on the opposite side disclosing
half a group of women, looking:
as thirsty enclosed cattle look
on boats that row up and down a river:
with large round eyes
on orientals thronging the streets
merchandising without wine
obedient to books their authors have forgotten.
the stripes on the feminine clothes
Swing to the distant rock:
but the Scale is incommensurate.

miniature parables
to the sun does he compose?
among the stars hymenopterous mysteries?
and humbly lay his forehead on the rock?

heraldic Light is quartering the escutcheon,
how Dare we call this sunlight pitiless?
tenderly it warms the chilled widowed,
only in daylight the tortured wife has peace,
gently it revives dim philosophers,
compensates exhausted gunners
moleminers and batclerks
and trousered savages knowing only
that something has changed in the world,
who cluster to carry in annual procession
a mutilated image of a virgin.
through men's provinciality
she Returned from her virginity
to fulfil herself in vain.

her open eyes are not fixed on her child any more
nor question heaven any more
but Rise to the receding mountain.
is he a Demiurge?
a steward of the heavenly bodies?
their banker, telling each how its account stands
and where at any hour it ought to be?
away from him an eagle and a fulmar
are swinging: they will cross
over the valley
hillside woods where jays fight
finches flash in honeycomb leaflight
badgers freshen warrens
bees lie crazily with careful orchids
and lonely oxlips.
over vetched fields they will cross
and jackdaws playing with rooks and performing plovers,
watermeads in which
blue herons fish and rushes flower,
just visible roofs of a country town:
too High for little eyes to se:
for they are getting rare now
and were beautiful.

he does not see them.
to know everything he has made himself Astigmatic:
two men on two rocks
disregarding two landscapes
slightly superimposed.

where his height meets level ground
is a quiet Group.
twisted aluminium and torn matter
an aeroplane stands with its tail erect
and crushed nose
driven deep in earth.
from the silence, from the suspense
is made the recognition of Death.
the workers from the jam factory
shocked and astonished, Watch:
navvies have come to Watch
with hops and wheat in their bellies:
respectful reporters chase away
bran-fed inquisitive pullets, and Watch:
vegetable sheep and potato pigs
come up to watch:
and the sleepless sun pours down.

the bulk of the corpse-to-be
balances the bulk of the old earthgoddess.
Many goddesses, Many women,
little richness in barren Apices:
but brown Earth is an honest Plinth
that underlies
and is replenished by the sun.

I, as I painted this
becoming conscious of foliage
on my breast and back and shoulders,
paint in the bottom corner
as symbol and signature
the Hands that have touched me.

(This is on-line with the whole of that issue of New Verse at a site called I am not making any claim to copyright of the poem. As it is missing from the Selected Poems, it seems likely to evade notice altogether, which is why I am including it here.)
The poem makes an equation between this statue emerging from the earth and a flier crashing to his death and plunging into the earth. Like is exchanged for like in a kind of balance. It goes on to describe the state of the observer - who finally sprouts leaves in a transformation, the usual punishment for a mortal who observes a goddess too closely. The perspective bent by squinting strain mirrors the precipitous path of the aeroplane, downwards. The Virgin, carried around in procession, is a middle term between the buried statue and the pilot. the "hands that have touched me" may refer to a type of icon known as "akheiropoieton", not made by (human) hand. As I pointed out, what may be the most successful poems are scattered in magazines and don't show up if you go through all the folders in the archive. Describing the work entire is not tractable as he was simply too prolific - between the visible and the invisible. I can't wholly approve of the move into documentary. The reasons are excellent but I wish he'd gone on with the modernist style.

I located an essay by Macleod in Little Reviews Anthology for 1949. Bearing in mind that ‘Adam Drinan’ was a pseudonym for Macleod, check out what he says about Drinan: “Writing in English, George Bruce and Adam Drinan from the East Coast and the West respectively, rediscover the traditions of their people in a style that is simple, accurate, vivid and deep. George Bruce's output at the moment is small, but he is always alive and compelling […] Drinan is more graceful. He explored such relics of Celtic forms and rhythms as have survived the onslaught of the Presbyterian Church. But he is also a Marxist, and his awareness of to-day never allows him any indulgence in Celtic Twilights. He has a faculty for translating into poetry the light, colour, people and living conditions of the islands and the West Coast; and it is significant that his poems, as I have been told, have been read to and approved by Kintyre fishermen. Also significant is the rumour that his forthcoming volume of poems is about the London blitz.”
The blitz poems must be “The Macphails of London”, a typescript of which is in the National Library. The anthology reprints material from little magazines, in this case from ‘Anvil’, a miscellany edited by Jack Lindsay, which suggests a link to the Communist Party. This would explain the name Anvil, linking poetry with virtuous metal-workers. The essay is titled “Poet and People”, and despite the links with communism and Scottish nationalism it avoids dogma, even if it doesn’t really answer any questions about the nature of poetry. Macleod had close relations with both the BBC (he worked for them for eight years) and the Party, and while those relationships with authoritarian and centralized organizations were likely to crush creativity, this is not certain and he did produce some good work in that period. He wrote a whole book about his disillusion with the BBC and its loyalty tests, but I have yet to see an equivalent document about the Communist Party. Quite possibly Lindsay and the group around him weren't a pain to work with, and the BBC were more oppressive with loyalty tests, political dossiers, personnel people vetting dossiers, etc. James Fountain has detected Macleod’s name on the list of “crypto communists” which George Orwell produced in 1948. There was a BBC purge of left-sympathising employees in the later forties, although Macleod had resigned in 1945 and I don’t think he was part of a purge at all. The purge is part of oral memory but I haven’t seen anything about it in print. Released MI5 files don’t describe internal BBC procedures and probably only capture a fraction of the process.

Tuesday 23 June 2020

Uaran faz

Uaran faz

I have written (this is in ‘Breach and Exit’, should it ever come out) about Eddie Flintoff’s poem, ‘Sarmatians’ (1978).

eyes on the far horizon
to still newer distribution-plains, uaran faz,
under the green edges and ridges of the Caucasus,
whose peaks we named as we passed, Elbatiy Hokh
the Squatting Mountain, Aday Hokh, Grandfather Hill
out of Asia across the lush hush of Russia,
the crane crossed Ukraine, numinous and luminous Rumania,
below the carboniferous Carpathians, across the flat Banat
westwards across the wastelands, up into polar Poland
along the long frozen strand of the cobalt Baltic.

The poem describes the migration of a tribe, of Iranian language, from the Caucasus to France, in about the 4th C AD. I am interested in one aspect of the poem. It includes words in the language of the migrants. However, we don’t have any records of the Sarmatian language. Personal names don’t get you very far, although they do support the “Iranian” classification. I guessed that he had used the Ossete language, since the Ossetes live in the North Caucasus (within Europe, technically) and speak a language directly related to Alan and, less so, to Sarmatian. I have just spent some very idle time surfing the Net to check this. I started with Abaev’s grammar of Ossetian. At p. 9 we find khokh, mountain. So for ‘hokh’ read ‘khokh’. Both mountain names are Ossete, and further surfing uncovers an article in the Alpine Journal for 1936 where someone has visited both peaks. The names are identified as Ossetian there so it looks as if Flintoff used Ossete and my guess was right. I haven’t traced “uaran faz” but it is credible that it is Ossete.
Another atlas entry has: Gora Uilpata is a mountain in North Ossetia and has an elevation of 4646 meters. ... Russian: Гора Уилпата; El'badty-Kokh; Gora Adaykhokh; Mt'a Uilpat'a ...

So Uilpata is a more disseminated form for local (and Ossete) El’badty Khokh.

The alpinist (Heybrock) reports charnel-towers – claims to have found 3 towers still in use (and full of bones). These were for exposing the dead (“sky burial”), and it was a Zoroastrian practice (so the locals were not Moslem). It links the Ossetes to a wider Iranian world. He cites two local river names in -don. (Don means 'river’ in Ossete, according to Abaev, and philologers have linked this to rivers like Danube, Don, Dniepr, Dniestr. The names would come from a wider north Iranian speech community, not Ossetes in the narrow sense.)

I will admit to knowledge of Sarmaten, unbekannte Väter Europas by Reinhard Schmoeckel. This claims not only that Sarmatians reached western Europe (which is uncontroversial), but that their influence made the West what it is. Hmmmm. I do not buy this, but it would be great if someone found a Charnel Tower in Yorkshire and linked it to Sarmatian cavalry-units defending the Empire against the Picts. I saw a stray reference to village names in Germany recalling the Sarmatians in forms like Sormen, Sohrmen. They were near the Limes, where Roman soldiers would be settled as colonists. I haven’t checked this out so it may not be right. Another unchecked source connects French place-names, stretching north-east of Paris, SampignySermaiseSermoiseSermiers, with Sarmatians, and AlaincourtAlland'huy, Aillainville with Alans. This does not suggest dense settlement - a village is only called "sarmat ville" if the people in nearby villages are NOT Sarmatian.

'Sarmatians' is a terrific poem.

Monday 8 June 2020

male-female ratios shifting in poetry?

Comments on statistical work on male-female ratios in publishing

Intro. This is an interim comment on work I am doing using spreadsheets and processing data from the British Library catalogue and Poet’s Yearbook (chiefly).

The data point to women occupying about 18% of single-author titles in 1974/5 and about 30% in 1990. This is the story we were expecting to hear and it shows the impact of feminism. Feminism has to be taken in a very broad sense, involving people who were not very politicised and very diverse areas of activity. It is hard to see that figure of 18% without analysing it in terms of frustration and an unnatural imbalance in a field of culture which was, essentially, akin to conversation and open to anyone who can talk convincingly. For context, I recently saw a figure stating that 63% of English candidates at A-level were girls. A wider cultural or educational context suggests that you would expect a high proportion of poets to be women.
Analysis of the figures for 1960 suggests that women were responsible for about 30% of titles. (Excluding anthologies and so on.) This suggests that their share went rapidly down during the 1960s.
It is possible that the new cultural world of the sixties was more male-dominated than what preceded it.

The data I am using for 1960 comes from the BL catalogue. They have a tag or label for “English poetry” but this was hardly in use in 1960 and so I have identified their holdings by other means, which are clearly unsatisfactory. This base data is not of good quality. I did find about 248 poetry titles for that year.

We are apparently seeing a downward shift in the share of women during the period 1960-75, so an era of cultural liberation. The numbers don’t account for this shift but we can make some speculations. So, we could connect it with the expansion of university education, being something like 80% male. (A classic "incomplete community".) Poetry is ecologically linked to the university world, so had scenes in university towns even if these were open to anyone interested (and many of the participants had graduated or dropped out from courses), then that would account for a growth in the male share of poetry. The increase in the share of females among students came much later (but also affected the poetry world, most likely). Alternatively, we can posit that women poets were less interested by theoretical approaches to poetry, including modernism. Also, that they were more likely to be engaged in Christian poetry, which sank in prestige very rapidly during the 1960s. Both these things are also connected to the university world, with its typical secularism and belief in the power of theory to deal with rapid change and to control it.

I suppose that the question of how to forget about the women poets of mid-century, or alternatively how to remember a small share of them who possessed qualities which were (bluntly) atypical and modern, is the most sensitive for historical work on modern poetry. I have recovered 64 titles by women from 1960, out of 214 single-author collections. I have to say that none of them is otherwise stuck in my memory – they all disappeared. (There are exceptions, a book On a Calm Shore by Frances Cornford- I do know who she is, and Creatures and Emblems by Kathleen Nott.) After spending entire days stuck in this rather grey catalogue material, I have developed a sensitivity to vanity presses – firms who regularly turn out dozens of titles but who never publish authors who (subsequently) make careers. The poetry business was allergic to this sector and it is a fair guess that titles from such firms were stigmatised, they would never get reviewed, would not get read by possible anthologists, perhaps even that bookshops were “onto them” and wouldn't stock such titles. An amazing proportion of those 64 titles are “vanity publications” (about half, in my estimation) and there is no possibility of defining 1960 as a benign period for women poets which was disrupted by male arrogance arriving in the form of existentialism, jazz poetry, structuralism, academic modernism, and so on. A yardstick is the 1960 anthology “45-60”, (edited by Thomas Blackburn), which has 5 women poets out of 40. This is an excellent anthology, hard to improve on; but it doesn’t have anything like 30% women contributors. My guess is that in 1960 women were concentrated in conservative and low-prestige genres, they were often resorting to vanity presses which were an exit rather than an outlet, they were frustrated and not insiders. This is just not benign. Feminism rejected the whole cultural system, and that included most of these rather puzzled women poets. If you consider “Poems by a singing housewife”, by Victoria Mabel Bellamy, you may suspect that it didn’t do much at the time and isn’t going to catch the eye of any retro-anthologist trying to broaden our view of the past. I counted 35 publications, in 1960, from a single press which does not have the highest reputation (and is still going).

My impression is that the Sixties (the version which started around 1965, actually) saw an eclipse of the importance of vanity presses, being replaced by “small to micro publishers” driven by enthusiasm. This activity was linked to live readings and so to an audience – it wasn’t cut off like the frustrated and provincial poets of a slightly earlier time. But this re-connection was also tied to the student world – so to youth culture, to the prizing of abstract ideas, and to modernism (which students were expected to like). This meant that the poets who had been using vanity presses in, say, 1950 to 1965, didn’t have the cultural assets which the new world wanted. They weren’t groovy enough. Their lot was to remain frustrated and without prestige.
See previous posts for discussion of women poets active in the 1950s, such as Audrey Beecham, Lynette Roberts, and Kathleen Nott, who reached high artistic standards before being effectively forgotten. They do not feature in Blackburn's anthology.

As a note to help those struggling with slippery sourcs - the Poetry Book Society used to issue an annual checklistof titles (some of which are on a shelf in the Poetry Library). Their count for 1960 is 131 titles. This is quite different from what I dredged up from the British Library catalogue. However, if you throw out the vanity press titles, the two counts match up. So the PBS figures are good. This allows us to measure a gap - 131 titles in 1960, 906 in 1978. This looks like an explosion, doesn't it. 1960 just wasn't a very exciting cultural moment. Low output, low quality.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

from the lips of a cobra

Lips of a cobra

Jim Keery sent me an unknown Peter Yates poem which includes this passage:

This dark prince triumphs on the siren coast;
And in his coiled and cobra sting
The Eve kiss haunts us

This (‘The Double Door’) dates from 1954 and so is too late to have been included in his last book, of 1951. It is also missing from his 1983 Selected. The date is significant if one recalls (as who does not?) the 1944 Maria Montez movie, Cobra Woman. The poster for the film included the phrases “Pagan witch or weird woman of Rapture? ...Temptress of Terror quicker on the kiss than on the kill…”
Cobra, kiss, temptation. This shows yet again that New Romantic poetry overlapped with cinematic melodrama. Montez is one of few Hollywood stars to have entire films constructed around her screen persona – films which just wouldn't have got made if she hadn't been there. They are extreme films – most Hollywood films were based on existing novels and could at a pinch have substituted one of several stars. But without Montez they would never have started “Cobra Woman”. And all her films are like that. Cobra Woman has two characters played by Montez (offering value for money) but there was only one Maria Montez. Can we dream of an anthology of New Romantic poetry read by Maria Montez?
Siren coast? I see the good lady starred in a film called “Siren of Atlantis”. Dunstan Thompson wrote a poem called “Prince of Atlantis” - this is one of the ones I haven't seen, only seen the title in a catalogue. Do the works overlap? was Thompson the Maria Montez of poetry? is the film based on the Thompson poem? These are the questions that must be answered.
Thompson's poem ‘Lament for the Sleepwalker’ has these lines:

There, while jackals scream, Lord Vulture,
Wing caged in crystal, sings his subtle airs
Of praise; recalls how orchid adders hissed
Above the crypt when lion and lover kissed.

 so lord- adder- kiss. Not quite cobra. This is from his 1947 book (named after the quoted poem). As snakes have no lips, they can’t really kiss.
(This follows a previous post on poetry and 40s cinema.)