Tuesday 7 December 2021

A Scottish alternative?

On a lowered beach: Scottish alternatives

An email arrived suggesting an issue of Angel Exhaust about alternative Scottish poetry, to go with the issues we did on similar themes in Wales and Scotland. I have been thinking about this and also about why we didn’t do such an issue 20 years ago. The upshot is that I am going to write a blog about the matter, instead of actually producing a real publication.
The key to why there was no Scottish issue 20 years ago, after some discussions about it, was a conversation with Robin Purves and Peter Manson. I asked them how many shops in Scotland stocked Object Permanence, and the answer was “none”. It was obvious that there was no alternative sector in Scotland. Not only would no shops sell our possible Angel Exhaust, but there was no set of paths along which we could find alternative Scottish poets, so that we would probably go to press having missed significant and important people. A little magazine with no resources has to find downhill paths and this project was clearly an uphill struggle. (Another version would be that Object Permanence was the alternative sector. But they only ever published one Scottish poet.)
The reason why there is no ‘alternative sector’ corresponding to the one we found in England and Wales is mainly that the status of the Scots language is too hot a topic. The whole of Scottish literature is an ‘alternative’ compared to the anglo-american mainstream, yet the difficulties of writing in a dialect which is never used in schools are such that poetry in Scots is persistently sub-literary and reluctant to deal with abstract ideas. The result, over a hundred years now, has been an increase in the status of the language, much more interest by the primary sector of the schools system, a few academic posts, and a cluster of poets writing intelligently in Scots – but not writing something critical and innovative in the terms of Angel Exhaust readers. Like Scottish politics in general, this area is unstable and evolving.
When the email arrived, my reaction was that I knew nothing about Scottish poetry in the past 25 years. That was not a final answer, but it did suggest that we needed a native informant, or several, before such an issue could be assembled.

Clearly there is a sector of innovative poetry in Scotland. But, where John Goodby and Lyndon Davies found 38 ‘alternative’ poets for their Welsh anthology (Edge of Necessary), you obviously couldn't find 76 radical Scottish poets (i.e. for a population double that of Wales). Scotland did not have a counterpart to the deluge of formal innovation that happened in England in the 1970s, and even the second half of the Sixties. The reasons are interesting. And actually, there was an equivalent, if only on a smaller scale. Edwin Morgan, DM Black, Alan Riddell. But, it would be ridiculous to push this sector out of existence.I don’t really get the geographical basis for the poetic pattern, but I think the alternative thing was much weaker in the North of England than elsewhere, and so that it wasn’t “area-saturating” but dispersed and full of holes. Maybe the Modern thing could only capture people who weren’t already committed to something else, such as the nationalist thing or the Language Question.
I have Christopher Whyte’s book Modern Scottish Poetry. I guess I have read it three times... anyway it has classic status. I say this before noting that I jotted down in my copy a list of poets he left out: Joseph Macleod, TS Law, DM Black, WN Herbert, Alexander Hutchison, Walter Perrie, Frank Kuppner, Peter Manson, Peter Davidson. I now have to add Alan Riddell, whose work I encountered later. This list would give an outline for an alternative anthology of Scottish poetry. However, the rule is that little magazines deal with new poetry and preferably with unpublished poetry. A little magazine is inhibited from producing an anthology in which key poems are fifty years old. And the magazine-buying audience has limited interest in that sort of backward look. I should emphasise that Whyte designed a one-volume work with 20 poets, and that his omissions do not imply that he disregarded these other poets.
Some Scottish poetry of the past 20 years is exhibited in the anthologies The Smeddum Test, Aiblins, and Be the First to Like This. The first collects poems in Scots entered for a particular prize. The second is political poetry after the result of the 2014 Independence referendum; the title means “perhaps” and the theme is unused possibilities. The third is more like a generational anthology; a lot of the best poems are people who are not Scottish (but were resident there at the moment of the anthology).

I wrote about the language issue in Scottish poetry but forgot to include that chapter in my seven-volume work on poetry 1960-97. I wrote a draft of volume 1 in 1993 and that included the Scots material… the book eventually came out in 2003 with a new design which omitted that chapter. I then forgot to add it in to any of the other volumes. It is on my website www.pinko.org.

Whyte is quite critical of Sydney Goodsir Smith. There is an issue with authenticity which Goodsir Smith’s theatrical and highly coloured diction raises, not just for Whyte. The objection to English rule is that it distorts what is naturally there, in dependencies like Scotland. Something similar applies, in a more abstract realm of critique, to domination of the Scottish broadcast and print media by anglo-american commodified output. This shifts emphasis to unaltered Scottish reality, linguistic or otherwise, which is altered for the worse by processes overlaid on it. A return to the natural is success. This implies that literary processes, producing unnatural and enriched language, are a failure and to be rejected. However, if people are used to discussing adult topics in English and only mundane and domestic topics in Scots, it is unnatural to discuss serious topics in Scots. After the Reformation, Scottish priests normally preached in English, because of the prestige of the King James Bible and, before that, of reformed theologians in England. It is likely that even in the 17th century the middle class were speaking English, albeit with the well-known local accent or burr. So serious poetry in Scots is artificial and not at all naturalistic. Goodsir Smith’s diction is quite unrealistic, but it is broad enough to sweep the problem of realism aside. He worked as a theatre critic and this helps to explain his exaggerated but also expressive diction. Whyte dislikes this but we have also to ask whether linguistic naturalism allows poetry to exist at all. Nationalism bases itself on the imagination of a state of affairs which does not exist, and which is only accessible to idealistic speculation. It is credible that only exalted and non-democratic language can convey nationalist ideals. Goodsir Smith is not only involving unexplored possibilities but actually writing in a way which is unexplored and unheard-of.
As Whyte points out, the middle class in Scotland have for a long time spoken English, and Goodsir Smith’s family origins make it certain that he never spoke Scots when growing up. His exercise in writing poetry in Scots is artificial. But, this is a double-barrelled gun. If you apply rigorous naturalism, not only can you not discuss ideas in Scots, but also you cannot allow middle-class poets to write in Scots. I think we have now got the nub, of why “alternative” poetry has not done well in Scotland. Naturalistic writing in Scots is too formulaic and predictable, and artificial language meets with widespread hostility for not being authentic and for indulging in foreign practices.
The prevalence of English in Scotland is a reflection of the hegemony of the South in the last 400 years, and this is not much moderated by the related influence of American (since at least the late 18th century). This is true but it does not instantly tell us of beneficial effects from rejecting all the ideas of the last 400 years which were mediated by books written in English.

I have spent much time in the past ten years attempting to learn Scots Gaelic and, more recently, Irish Gaelic too. The collapse of the land-owning superstratum which had patronised high-grade poetry led, in both countries, to the decline of poetry into something much simpler, a folk practice with notable similarities to folk song. (The land was still owned in big estates by great families but there were large-scale shifts of ownership and the new dominant tier had limited interest in Gaelic, of either kind.) Literary Gaelic after 1750 is quite rare, and so a learner is likely to get involved in things like folk-tales. In fact, my interest in that part of the world has involved me in an interest in folk literature and so an unconscious acceptance that it is possible to have an intellectual interest in the voice of the people.
There are some similarities between the Gaelic trajectory and that of poetry in Scots and in Welsh. Having said that, I can see that it would take a book to explain exactly what the similarities and differences were. Things work differently in different societies. Hoping not to get called out on this, I want to suggest that literary and educated poetry can act as a depressant on folk and oral activity, that England has an unusually crushed and depressed tier of folklore (as collectors found in the 19th century), and that the vigour of recorded folklore in both Gaelic dialects is a thing of wonder.
This is a basis for talking about the importance of folklore in Scotland, although my feeling is that the respect for folk-song and dance, and so on) has produced crucial weaknesses in Scottish poetry, leading poets away from modernity and towards a diction which is compatible with folk-songs but not with abstract ideas. It has been a kind of warm cloud which disguises from people the fact that a poem or a volume is actually crap and sub-literary.

Note on the language problem
The decline of Scots was sociologically led, and as the upper classes of society began to speak English the semantic domains which were normal in Scots began to wither and contract. Drummond of Hawthornden may have been the first poet to write in English, but there is evidence that texts were being written in English already before the union of the two countries under one king in 1603. Over hundreds of years, Scots became a sociologically and cognitively incomplete language. It did not express the full life of society. We have to emphasise the power of sociology over speech behaviour, and of normal speech behavior over poetry; someone who sets out unilaterally to repeal the unconscious legislation of a society may end up being acknowledged as a genius, and may write poetry which is embarrassing, incongruous, off-pitch, and in the end unnatural.

The essential difference is between unambitious, oral type poetry, and ambitious, intellectual poetry which incorporates ideas and the realm of intellectual prose in general. This is what MacDiarmid insisted on. So we have to be careful in identifying what was written under the influence of M. Probably, the “Lallans renaissance” did not start until the 1940s; it had taken that long for a group of young poets, inevitably nationalists, to come along who admired M enough to take on his ideas. Poetry was being written in Scots during the 1920s, but it was banal and quite contemptible with MacD’s ideas. During the 1930s, we find William Jeffery (yes, he was David Kinloch’s grandfather) write intelligently in Scots, but only a few poems. They are collector's items. Instead, it is around 1940 that we see a group of university-educated poets (Douglas Young, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Maurice Lindsay, etc.) take up the idea.
For working-class Scottish children, the gap between the way they speak and the language they have to write school work in or read books in, is wide and confusing. This affects their performance in tests and disadvantages them in the academic struggle – the start of all the other disadvantages. This is undeniable, there is no point denying it. So it has been inevitable that the “alternative”, in Scotland, has been tied up with the language question. There is a second part to this. MacDiarmid's big argument was that the semantic range of Scots had to be extended very radically in order to produce significant literature. Poetry had continued to be written in Scots throughout, but his point was that it had been anti-intellectual, based on popular song, sentimental, and really sub-literary, ever since Drummond of Hawthornden started writing in English, around 1610. MacDiarmid lost his campaign...writing in Scots since 1950 or so has been pervasively in a sub-literary style. The poetry has followed the restriction to limited cognitive domains which the language itself is kept to. The moments when poets other than MacD used Scots in an ambitious, or 20th century, way are few but charged with vital significance. What strikes me, looking at catalogues, is how much of the recent poetry in Scots is directed at children and the school system. It connects with that traumatic moment for seven year olds when they realise that what they speak isn’t English. It favours things like nursery rhymes and folk tales which are mainly oral, are palatable for seven year olds, and are closed off from the world of literature for adults. My impression is that teachers in the primary sector are very keen on this kind of thing, and that the relevant poets spend a lot of time actually in the classroom. They can make a living in that way.

It is clear that MacDiarmid's project failed. Scots is an alternative but it is not producing poetry we can get involved with. The discourse never says that MacD failed, it is a taboo theme. People are not as interested in international importance as in the question of social mobility.
The attempt to reach out to children under 11, to encourage them to do creative writing in their own dialect, is a way of salvaging them for the system in a way which strengthens the system and actually weakens resistance. The proposal is not to have children writing exam answers in Scots, which has never happened. After winning them over, the education system offers them a complete diet of English. This pattern does not lead to a widening of the social scope of the Scots language. Instead, it stays in the playground.
The modern scene sees both poets who are under strain because they speak English but write in Scots, and writers under strain because they speak Scots but write in English.

There is that macaronic poem by Drummond, around 1610:

Nymphae, quae colitis highissima monta Fifaea,
Seu vos Pittenwema tenent, seu Crelia, crofta,
Sive Anstrea domus, ubi nat haddocus in undis,
Codlineusque ingens, et fleucca et sketta pererrant,
Per costam et scopulis Lobster manifootus in udis
Creepat, et in mediis ludit Whitenius undis :
Et vos Skipperii, soliti qui per mare breddum
Valde procul lanchare foris, iterumque redire,
Linquite Skellatas botas, Shippasque picatas,
Whistlantesque simul fechtam memorate bloodaeam,
Fechtam terribilem, quam marvellaverat omnis
Banda Deum, quoque Nympharum Cockelshelearum,
Maia ubi Sheepifeda, et solgoosifera Bassa
Swellant in pelago, cum Sol bootatus Edenum
Postabat radiis madidis et shouribus atris.

A really creative use of language, and satire on the existence of various registers of language. But he wrote almost all his work in English.

Mike Hart used to buy the poetry for Compendium Books in Camden High Street, which was a basic resource. I used to prevent him from working by chatting to him, bad really. On one of those occasions, he told me about the poetry scene in Glasgow around 1967. People had got the idea of pop poetry from the Liverpool thing. So they read their poems in imitation Liverpool accents. Logical.

Charles Lind told me an anecdote about Sydney Goodsir Smith, as theatre critic for The Scotsman, attending a performance while drunk and falling out of a balcony into a lower balcony. Subsequently he lost that job, since the whole theatre had seen this happen. I looked on the internet and found a range of ingenious alternative explanations of this event, none of which I find credible. I don’t really like his poetry, but on reflection I find it has a theatrical quality which is low on authenticity but solves certain problems by being broad and exaggerated, and so just lurches beyond the question of linguistic authenticity.

I have quite a few issue of Lallans, the magazine of the Scots language movement. It used to annoy me by throwing out literary standards. But on re-reading I am more optimistic. There is a splendid poem in shetlandic dialect on MacDiarmid's geological threips:

On a shingly beach at Linga Grieve hed
his wilderness experience: wrat his epic
at owsed da wash o culture, da swittle o ideas.
Only da stons apö da ayre were irreducible.
Da briggistanes o Sodom man a shiggled
tae der very atoms wi da weicht o wirds:
wirds fa dae skröf o sciences, geology
an fae a teet at testaments, a nod at Norn
an odd conglomerate.

Man, I doot if dere’s a raised beach
onywhaar on Whalsa. (Da Nordern Isles were
relatively droonded i da Late Devensian,
no raised. Wis glacio-isostacy a wird too far?

Christine de Luca declares, in her poem, that there are no raised beaches on Whalsay and MacD wasn't standing on a raised beach at all. Interesting. MacD lived in a house called Sudheim (south home) which was corrupted to ‘Sodom’, not sure I believe that. Anyway, this is Purely Fabulous and justifies the cost of the North Atlantic.

Friday 3 December 2021

An Impartial collection
(part 2 of previous post)

O’Tuama quotes an account of a Great McCarthy by a “spy” (spiaire) around February 1729:
“that he has been struck and inhumanly pursued by a milesian prince of a drunken and extravagant character, commonly called McCarthy Mór… as being a person who lives extra legem and matters not indictments nor any other prosecution.”
This is memorable because it is so forthright, but it is hardly likely that the person being described would describe himself in the same terms. Being robust does not also mean that something is the last word. Are we to take it that self-awareness is always wrong, and that it is the employment of the historian to puncture and disperse this self-awareness? Indeed, O'Tuama quotes O’Rahilly’s funeral eulogy on this McCarthy, which is not much of a character sketch but does present him as the soul of the old order, which is passing out of view with his death, in 1729. (‘Milesian’ means that his family reached Ireland with the milesian invasion, in mythical prehistory, and not with any later group of ships.)
The interest is in the superimposition of two views of the same thing. Two is not the upper limit. Superimposition, and the abandonment of the single robust narrative line, are so central to what makes life interesting for a modern historian that they are not going to go away. They will continue to be the staple of historical research, and not just in Ireland. It’s just that this way of opening up the past is never likely to upset the underlying pattern of “bad government, foreign government” which is familiar to pupils in secondary school.

O’Tuama suggests that O’Rahilly’s depiction of Tadhg O Croinin was influenced by the figure of Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ novel. It is hard to avoid the reaction that this would cast the McCarthy landowners as Don Quijote figures – with O’Rahilly’s bardic poetry corresponding to the unreal and exalted chivalrous romances which Don Quijote read. It is notable that Sancho was sane and saw the world as it is.
O’Tuama quotes a 1922 history of the McCarthy family which I tried to access in an on-line version which had been scanned in such a way as to make it unusable. I did randomly pick up this bardic account of the high life at Dun Togher, around 1625:

Their strongholds were filled with beautiful women, and quick-slaying cavalry viewing them; mirth, drunkenness, playing on harps, poems, songs, bards, and the bacagh shouting and roaring, and soothsayers were at their feasts; there too were gamblers in mutual discord, and large-bodied vagrant gluttons contending.
This very castle was the building where O’Rahilly set one of his poems, ‘An file i gCaisel an Tochair’. (Bacach comes from Latin baculus, staff, and probably means beggars, unable to walk properly; although the editor is unwilling to use this translation. The poem is about generosity so the beggars are a natural part of the picture.) The bard is Donal na Tuile. This portrait probably does concur with Tadhg’s understanding of himself. By 1700 the castle was in the hands of another family. A tag of verse states that this Tadhg died sheltering in a slit of the mountain, after his lands were forfeited.
According to Colm Lennon, Togher means a causeway through a marsh.

I found some irish texts on-line and extracted this O'Rahilly poem. the translation dates from 1900, I think.

IV. GILE NA GILE. The Brightness of Brightness I saw in a lonely path, Crystal of crystal, her blue eyes tinged with green, Melody of melody, her speech not morose with age, The ruddy and white appeared in her glowing cheeks. 5 Plaiting of plaiting in every hair of her yellow locks, That robbed the earth of its brilliancy by their full sweeping, An ornament brighter than glass on her swelling breast, Which was fashioned at her creation in the world above. A tale of knowledge she told me, all lonely as she was, 10 News of the return of Him to the place which is his by kingly descent, News of the destruction of the bands who expelled him, And other tidings which, through sheer fear, I will not put in my lays. Oh, folly of follies for me to go up close to her! By the captive I was bound fast a captive; 15 As I implored the Son of Mary to aid me, she bounded from me, And the maiden went off in a flash to the fairy mansion of Luachair. I rush in mad race running with a bounding heart, Through margins of a morass, through meads, through a barren moorland, I reach the strong mansion — the way I came I know not — 20 That dwelling of dwellings, reared by wizard sorcery.
They burst into laughter, mockingly — a troop of wizards And a band of maidens, trim, with plaited locks; In the bondage of fetters they put me without much respite, While to my maiden clung a clumsy, lubberly clown. 25 I told her then, in words the sincerest, How it ill became her to be united to an awkward, sorry churl, While the fairest thrice over of all the Scotic race Was waiting to receive her as his beauteous bride. As she hears my voice she weeps through wounded pride, 30 The streams run down plenteously from her glowing cheeks, She sends me with a guide for my safe conduct from the mansion, She is the Brightness of Brightness I saw upon a lonely path.
THE BINDING. O my sickness, my misfortune, my fall, my sorrow, my loss ! The bright, fond, kind, fair, soft-lipped, gentle maiden, 35 Held by a horned, malicious, croaking, yellow clown, with a black troop ! While no relief can reach her until the heroes come back across the main.

‘the fairest thrice over’ refers to James II, the Stewart king, and the heroes over the sea are Jacobites in exile. "Brightness of Brightness" is just an intensifier, like "king of kings" in the Bible and in related Christian texts. It is there applied to concrete nouns and not abstract ones. Another poem:

I shall shave the bristles, I shall crop the nails Of the snub-nosed, wheezing hangman, The scarred fellow, scabbed, loud-voiced, spiteful, Shorn, sole-spotted, stumbling. 65 From the top of his head, in which droves of vermin are wont to be, Covered over, gathered together in foul lumps, To the soles of the club-footed fellow, who is stiff-necked, Aged, hollow-voiced, gnawed. I will tear the ragged wretch, who is planed, poor, 70 Vicious, into wounded bits ; The starving miser, the hangman trickster, The powerless cripple full of reptile spawn. A fellow full of vermin, of running eyes, a dirty gaunt wad, A fugitive vagabond is the liar, 75 A slender hunchback, a greasy swallower, Who swallows every rubbish into his greedy maw. I will gnaw the feet of the villain caitiff, Branching, broken, wounded ; And his two hard heels on which are chilblains, 80 Holes and scorched cavities. Crooked nails made of iron Are covering and shield for his fingers ; And his two shanks, sprained, broken, scalded, Peeled, seared, full of scars.

I shall peck at his knees and the junctions of his nerves ; Which will take from the wrong-doer his power of walking, And his two hips like a pair of bare boards And his waist tawny and feeble, His rotund belly hung above that ; 90 As a cess-pool, wide-arched ; A brutish, greasy, greedy maw, Has the curlew of the false teaching. A narrow breast, slender, bristled, yellow-skinned ; Eyes of a thief dim of sight ; 95 Hair of a he-goat ; back with two ridges, Yellow, bulging, putrid, rough. An ignorant clown, a stroller deserving of the gallows, An old burned stalk from the sea-side, A wretch of odious manners, a conceited simpleton, 100 A harsh enemy of the Irish nobility. A pecker at a small potato, a trifler about the house, A scraper of the greasy pot ; A scabby wretch, a raw-boned ragged fellow. A shameless simpleton of consumptive coughing. 105 His throat emits a storm of wind Which sickens thousands into dire pain The surly carcass from which comes a stench Through his rough open jaws.

Domhnall is he, the hated of the neighbours, no A remnant without the power of making a single poem ; Sinister son of Donnchadh, large-skulled, husky, Jealous, churlish, nerveless. Decrepit is the lean withered creature, faded of foot, Crooked, a grease-sweating object ; 115 He is deceitful, destructive, quarrelsome, vicious, Cunning, contentious, cowardly. He looks like a monkey, frightened, when it goes In anger running against the side of a wall ; Or like a rat running through a cellar, 120 Hotly pursued by strong cats. Ye poets of Munster, ban ye This yellow-skinned clod ; A noisy little bard, put cards beneath him, It is plain that it is madness he has written against me. 125 It is not proper for the learned ever to listen to Lays from a mouth which does not compose smoothly ; It is a shame for the nobles of a fair proud land To write praise of his poems or his verses. [in his black hair are strong nits, and ashes, 130 And active crooked-legged vermin ; A forked comb tears the lumps Which gobbles the guest with a noise as of a bell.

His hair may be compared to that of the demons On the brink of darkened Acheron ; 135 Brian O'Brosnaghan, a slothful churl, The worst fish on the Kenmare strand.] THE BINDING. A poor, empty, wretched miser, a withered branchlet, Starved hangman of porridge in a crooked mouth, An ill-shaped wretch, who barters his friends for a very trifle, 140 It was he who made, unawares, an attack with his tongue on Aodhagan Fionn. [Domhnall, son of Donnchadh, the long-necked fellow of grinding teeth, The corrupted sluggard of the goats, who does not speak justly ; Also, as I hear, empty was his lordship Until through the rabble of Dromann, you burst, you old remnant.]

I suppose 'ceangal', or binding, means a final stanza which ties the themes up.

Saturday 27 November 2021



I am reading Sean O’Tuama’s Fili faoi sceimhle, which means “poets in terror” (literally under, but I think this is just an idiom where the languages differ). He writes about two poets whom he regards as being the most significant to write in the Gaelic language since the 17th century, Egan O’Rahilly (c. 1670-1729) and Sean O Riordain. This is an opportunity to talk about the topic of revisionism in Irish history, not something I have deep knowledge of but which interests me a great deal. I am reading his book because I have a negligible knowledge of Irish Gaelic and well-organised, rational prose is something that doesn’t stretch my abilities beyond their limit.

Revisionism is something that started in the 1930s, which is when the professional training of Irish historians started. The values of historians, as an academic and international profession, included sobriety, preference for objectivity in the sense of not taking sides in the politics of the past, preoccupation with source analysis, preference for exposing the biases of source texts over identifying with their standpoints, and a wish to judge events in terms of how they appeared to participants rather than of how their eventual consequences, perhaps centuries later. Because the teleological bias of previous generations of historians had been nationalism, the new academics made a habit of squeezing nationalist bias out of the stories and looking at how it all appeared after you had done that. Indeed, rewriting stories to leave out the nationalist message, and finding new interpretations with apparent ease and as a rapid result of doing that, was the bread and butter of European historians over several decades. I say “European” because the nationalist emotion was very attractive to historians from other regions, in just those decades, and it is surely a problem to write the history of decolonisation without accepting nationalism as the direction of travel of most regions (becoming, after difficulty, “nations”) in what were, as at 1940, European overseas empires. In 1940, there were quite a few books around which told the story of Ireland in nationalist terms. These were mostly not written by professional historians. Some of them wanted to judge all Irish people, since 1169 AD or so, in terms of their attitude to English rule, and how far they had given up all other interests in life in favour of anti-imperial struggle. This preconception was spread into things other than books, for example songs, poems, speeches, and newspaper articles took them for granted, and presented the conclusions without re-examining the basic narratives. After the foundation of the Free State, these conclusions were part of the public universe of speech. The “revisionists” were simply historians who were interested in the processes of source analysis, and of reconstructing the past, rather than in nationalist piety. They also very much improved the factual basis of Irish history, by reading the source documents and recovering new facts.
As I understand it, the argument about revisionism entered a new phase in the 1970s. The activities of the Provisional IRA were unacceptable, after a certaian point, to the majority of academic historians in the Republic. They became aware that their acceptance of a nationalist view of Irish history (from, let’s say, 1532 up to 1923) coincided with the PIRA’s instrumental use of the past, however much blurred. This forced a reappraisal of their own work. A version of collective history in which the Protestants weren’t all bad, and acquired the right to be Irish after, well, a hundred years or so, and in which getting over shared tragedy was the healthiest reaction to it, became more attractive to them, as a group. But, in writing new work which engaged with that, they either lost view of the centrality of land forfeiture, dispossession, and famine, or at least induced mighty anxiety in other historians that they might do so. This anxiety gave rise to the debate on revisionism. This is described in two books of essays, Interpreting Irish history, edited Ciaran Brady, and The making of modern Irish history, edited D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day. I think it is fair to say that the debate was at its peak a generation ago.

There is another group of historians we have to consider, and that is ones who sympathised with either the British government or the Protestant Ascendancy and are not minded to analyse the Gaelic viewpoint on affairs because their social commitment prohibits that. A variant on this is people who write about Irish history without knowing Gaelic – I feel that, as Vincent Morley (for one) has pointed out recently, writing Irish history without reading the Gaelic documents is an exercise in fiction. This is not revisionism as I understand the term, but the virulence of the debate was partly due to the presence of some quite dubious publications with which the genuine revisionists could, unfairly, be associated. If the proposal was, in reaction against PIRA massacres and torture schools, to rewrite Irish history from a pro-British point of view, then one could be wholeheartedly against it. But, this was not actually the game that people were playing.

O’Tuama remarks that one McCarthy friendly to O'Rahilly rented part of his former family land from its new owner, but that the high rent was disadvantageous for him, and that showiness (scléip) of lifestyle was no longer available to him. This also meant that he could not patronise a house poet or poet in the way which Gaelic landowners had done since the early Middle Ages, if not before. The question of high rent repays our attention. The conquest of Ireland in Tudor times was driven by the need to acquire land; new settlers arrived, in several counties, and expelled the native Irish from their land. The settlers were productive, in some ways, but were also producing for sale or export. They removed their land from the supply of the nutritional needs of the native population. Colonisation meant land shortage, which got worse with time. The shortage of land kept rents high. The rural people outbid each other to get land, as tenants, and this meant that they could not also build up reserves – cash, possessions, stores of food, stocks of animals. As modern economists have shown, the people who die in a famine are the ones who lack funds; there is always a market in food for those who can afford the high prices which follow shortages. So a countryside of households with no reserves is set up for famine. The famine of 1741 was just a rehearsal for the more appalling events of 1845 to 1850. Now, it is generally agreed that the solidarity of the (Catholic) Irish population in wanting Home Rule and the expulsion of the English, around 1900 to 1923, was a consequence of Famine in the 1840s. This was a mass death event, it was not just a collective memory but the dominant one. But if you track back the whole series of Irish famines, going back to Munster in the 1580s, it seems that the land shortages and high rents were direct consequences of the original Tudor re-taking and settlement. The collapse of British rule followed logically from flaws in the land regime set up by the Tudors. While apparently solid, it was a fragile settlement of affairs and the pattern of rural poverty, distrust of the government, uprisings, and famines which began under Elizabeth persisted thereafter. So the “grand narrative” which links the establishment of English rule (outside the district around Dublin) to its eventual breakdown and the establishment of the Free State (later the Republic) exists in reality and is the most natural pattern which disengages itself from the sources. It is not a projection of intellectually biased politicians of the 1940s, or any other time.
If you superimpose the nationalist vision on the deeps of history, you conclude that people who weren’t agitating for independence were wasting their lives. But, as independence did not come until 1923 (arguably, 1948, when far-reaching constitutional changes were enacted and the link to the Crown was severed), you also conclude that even the people who sought freedom were up until that point, wasting their time – ending in frustration. This does not work as a view of history. People certainly led their lives, and achieved at least some of their goals, even when they couldn't vote. You can’t write history from a functional standpoint, based on the end goal, in which you ignore what people did in their lives and what they wanted to do. This is a way of making history vanish. And anyway, life isn’t simply a waste of time.
O’Tuama points out that O’Rahilly drew on poems by Godfrey O’Daly from the 14th C (he died in 1387), as part of the local (aristocratic) culture which he had internalised, just as it was drawing to an end. And Sorley MacLean draws on O'Rahilly in his long sequence of poems Dain do Eimhir, written in the 1930s. So the question whether Gaelic cultural memory was interrupted can be answered directly, just by looking at those three poets.
I do not find revisionism sympathetic. But, I have seen a few of the older books, and it is clear to me that the scholarly style of history which began, or at least took off, in the 1930s has been endlessly productive of new stories and new facts, and so clearer understanding. In fact, if you grasp the nationalist interpretation in 6th form, as I did for some reason, then fifty (!) years later you definitely want new interpretations, to avoid simple staleness and repetition. You read books to acquire new information, not to re-chew the knowledge you already have.
O’Tuama describes the history of the land-owning families in the district of Kerry where O'Rahilly came from. As he observes, the poet gives descriptions of members of the McCarthy family whom he could not possibly (ni moide) have known. He carries out the ancient bardic role of legitimating land-owners, but his voice is raised for a pattern of overlordship which had ceased to be while he was still in his youth. Just as he writes in an archaic poetic language, a standard which people were moving away from, so also he deals with significant political change by recording cultural memory of the system before it changed. His poems are notably conservative and critical. The story of his district is largely that of the decay of the McCarthy family. In 1688, Parliament had legalised the change of dynasty whereby William of Orange became king and James II Stewart ceased to be king. This followed a coup d’etat which was successful in England but barely so in Scotland and Ireland. So full-scale war followed in Ireland, the so-called War of Two Kings. The theory of feudal land-holding was that the king owned all the land, outright, and that he distributed it to his subjects on the basis of loyal service. If they failed in that service, for example by armed uprising, subversion, treason, he could straightforwardly take the land back – they had forfeited it. The War of the Two Kings saw the McCarthys collectively come out for King James and fight as Jacobites. The defeat of James saw them forfeit their estates. The Great McCarthy was in prison and then in exile, and many other branches of the family lost their land held as tenants, as they were expelled or simply unable to pay the rent demanded of them. Nearby, the arrangement was that Nicholas Browne, the Jacobite landowner, should not benefit from his estates during his lifetime, but that his daughter should keep them – and she was married to an MP and banker named John Asgill, an Englishman: “in 1703 he bought the forfeited estates of Sir Nicholas Browne (2nd Viscount Kenmare in the Jacobite peerage), who was living abroad in exile, for the term of Kenmare’s life. He himself had married Kenmare’s eldest daughter, who had been brought up as a Protestant.” (History of Parliament, on-line) Their offspring would inherit the land. This obviously resembles the arrangement whereby William of Orange, closely related to the Stewarts, would become king, reigning with his wife (and cousin), who was the daughter of the previous Stewart king. O'Rahilly, put simply, records the time when Brownes and McCarthys were in power over the whole district, and discusses every change as a loss and a deterioration. He wrote a prose satire on two characters, Tadhg Dubh O Croinin and Muircheartach O Griofa, who were the land agents (aidhbheardaithi) put in over the Browne lands. O’Tuama records them as being sued by Asgill for £1000 in rents which they had collected and not passed on to him. He uses the word faslaigh, upstarts, to record O’Rahilly’s view of them. It looks as if the beneficiaries of the shift of power were these two figures, local godfathers, who exploited the unsteady conditions of the time and throve in them. We could write the history of the district with them as the heroes and events interpreted from their point of view. This is the line of modern history – shifting viewpoint to find a new story. O’Rahilly sees it as his duty to praise the wealth and power which was present at 1680 – and refuses to give credit to the wealth and power of those in possession as at 1720. This is inconsistent – if you follow wealth and power, it is irrational to scorn the New Men. In fact, it is not rational to praise inherited wealth and to detest acquired wealth. This amounts to invalidating and even repressing a key historical process. O'Rahilly had a formidable knowledge of genealogy, mainly McCarthy genealogy – this qualification and sanctified knowledge may have steered him away from accurate political perception. Naturally the two godfathers had no genealogy, or none that bards were willing to take cognizance of.
O’Tuama records that one Lord of Muskerry (another McCarthy) went to live on an island in the Elbe, near Hamburg, and lived by selling the timber of ships that were wrecked there. One could retell this story from the aspect of his success in a new profession, inquiring into his marketing methods, his clients, the kinds of wood he salvaged, and so forth, but really this is perverse. The story of his life is one of exile and dispossession, the loss of the society which he grew up in, and he must have been aware of this. Not everybody saw the world in nationalist terms, or even in political terms, but when we see so many people either losing their land or fleeing the country altogether, and the role which the government and the laws played in that, we can be sure that those individuals knew what they had lost and knew that the British government had been the agent which brought the loss about.
O’Rahilly seems barely to have left a small area in South Munster during his life, but he wrote aislings, dream poems in which a beautiful woman appears to him who is Erin and who speaks for the woes which Erin is suffering. These poems rise above the praising of local nobles and of their wealth and feats, which bardic poetry recounted so many times, they are about the fate of Ireland, and it would be perverse not to call them nationalist poems. (They are also Jacobite poems, but O'Rahilly had Erin in mind more than James III.) The Tudor conquest forced Irish people to see their country as a whole, as its condition was so much affected by the incursions of the English; and as a result we have people writing nationalist poems. World views shift, but there is a natural link between a nationalist around 1720 and a nationalist in 1921, or in 2021 for that matter.
I find it problematic that O’Rahilly was lamenting, not just the situation he had lived in, but the situation prevailing before his birth – he was fixing memory in verse, and had acquired memories fixed in verse by his predecessors, certainly not from print but either from manuscripts or from oral recitation. But, to be honest, this thriving of memory beyond the personal is necessary to society, and makes it possible to reflect – to capture the process of change, and so, it follows, to think about politics. He was patronised by the Brownes, Jacobites in defeat, but they had arrived as English land-takers in the Elizabethan colonisation, and their vast lands had been, around 1550 or 1560, lands of the McCarthys. When he remarks that the land of one Browne inheritor had once belonged to the McCarthys (“o shiuil Sir Val i gceart na gCarthach gcaoin’), he is referring to a state of affairs prior to 1588, i.e. a hundred years before his own birth. That is, he is summoning a kind of historical awareness similar to what we might claim, today, about O’Rahilly who lived three hundred years ago. I think the key is formal language: wrenching a moment into poetic form makes it permanent, and then the use of writing makes it possible to bring that moment back. The form is literally rigid, but we could also use the word ‘stable’. O'Rahilly was learned in collective memory rather than simply conservative. The decline of the McCarthys was thus a long-term event, and it is more accurate to take the long view than just one moment of dispossession. Because the land-holding system of an older Ireland saw everyone as the retainers of the local great family, either as tenants or as household members such as bards, the destruction of the great family meant the destruction of the niches in which everyone else lived. A whole new society came along. O’Rahilly is not just recording the economic annihilation of the McCarthys and of O’Rahilly, but a much larger social process in the history of Kerry.

I had difficulty with the word aidhbheardaithi. I think this may be a Latin word, “adverted” as in “inadvertent”. A land agent is advertent of the owner’s interests just as an attorney is “attourned” towards them. Just learn another 5000 words, I tell myself, and you can actually read this language. Someone from Munster is Muimhneach, in the plural Muimhneachan. So 'Moynihan' means 'person from Munster'.

Thursday 11 November 2021

Audrey Beecham

I was reading a novel which I picked up by chance in an Oxfam shop and stumbled across more references to the Western European colony in Tangiers and Fez, and found this might shed more light on Audrey Beecham’s 1957 poem ‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’:

I am tired land and poor
I am the pattern to which the winds have rubbed me
My nails are sharpened by the sea to knives:
I know not ships – though their forests have known me-
Nor the softening fleshes of long-lost lives.

Piracy has played beneath my skylit eyeholes.
Men were enslaved to pass their lives in pain.
Monkey tribesmen clustered on my shoulders
Many times enriched my dust with richest rain.
(‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’)

The “Barbary coast” is originally simply a coast where Berber is spoken. (Tangiers is on the Atlantic.) The "enslaved" part refers to the staple of the corsair economy, that is slave-raiding; their ships were propelled by oars manned by slaves, usually (or in legend) European. The corsairs had their homes in Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers. In a previous post, I discussed this poem (the title poem of her 1957 book The Coast of Barbary) and speculated that it might refer to (female) homosexuality, and that the locale might be a reference to a fairly dense group of gay exiles, in 1957 but also ten years later and for a few years before 1957, in Morocco and what was at one time the “international zone”. Beecham published only two volumes of poetry, the one mentioned and one in 1979 (re-issued 1980) called A Different Weather. This is the background against which we can propose that Beecham set a poem, about the curse of being gay and about being alienated and dissociated from a social role generally, in a real place, and that “Coast of Barbary” refers to the expat colony on the coast of Morocco (and, doubtfully, in other Mediterranean cities). "The Coast of Barbary” is the title of a section of 14 poems in the book. The linking theme is likely to be the image of a coast as the ego, in the guise of a welcoming terrain where the proposed lover would make landfall and choose to linger. The poet is like a bay welcoming ships in and offering them fruit and sweet water. A poem about the Fortunate Isles makes this image sharp: these islands are found in the western Mediterranean, or past the Strait but close by. Yet we do not seem to have reached them. Instead, the poet offers a hostile shore, defined by captivity and infertility; and this is the Barbary Shore. This is how that phrase can be extended to all fourteen poems. The novel is A Smell of Burning, 1963, by Margaret Lane (although I rapidly went on to read Lane’s 1968 novel The Day of the Feast, also set in Tangiers and Fez). Lane says there were lots of Europeans living in Tangiers, and refers, briefly but rather pungently, to the prevalence of gays in their number – she remarks that the third question asked about any new arrival was whether they were gay. She also shows one of her characters being accosted by a ten year-old male prostitute in Tangiers, although this scene takes place in French, to shelter the susceptibilities of English readers. This confirms what one would glean from books by William Burroughs and Rupert Croft-Cooke, that there was a group of expats living there, numerous enough to provide interesting society for each other, and that some portion of this little group were gay and had either been prosecuted for related activities back in Britain or had simply chosen to live in a city where the police were not much interested in policing the morals of European residents.
A tourist website lists these artists as having lived in Tangiers: 'Matisse, Emily Keene, William Burroughs, Paul et Jane Bowles, Bernardo Bertolucci, Josep Tapiro, Antoni Gaudí, Camille Saint-Saëns, Eugène Delacroix, Mohamed Choukri, Federico García Lorca, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Pierre Loti, Roland Barthes, Jean Genet, Mick Jagger, Jack Kerouac, Paul Morand, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett... Tous ont vécu à Tanger. De coeur ou de naissance, tous sont des enfants du pays.' This leaves out Juan Goytisolo.
Tangiers was under international control because in an era of collective hysteria European powers had been very keen to prevent any single power from controlling the strait between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Another site I stumbled on describes many Republicans as having fled to Tangiers, a zone under international control, to evade Franco, as the new dictator of Spain. However, it points out that Franco occupied the Zone from 1940 to 1945, presumably to inhibit the political activity of these inherently anti-Franco individuals. This may be the source of the literary colony in Tangiers and it may not. I am also curious about the equally hedonistic expat colony on Ibiza, which was there in the 1930s and also had problems with Franco. John Harlan Hughes remarks “At the time of the novel, there were roughly 60,000 inhabitants: half European, half Moroccan Muslims and Jews.” (That is, his novel, set in 1942.) I understand the correct term is Tangerino (to say "Tanjawi" is more pretentious). The “international zone” reverted to Moroccan control in 1956, the year of Moroccan independence. The Europeans will have been mainly Spanish and French nationals and engaged in trade or in government posts; the western European dilettanti or sexual outlaws were just a smattering. But the police were still tolerant – surely the law did not allow someone to pick up a ten year-old boy, or the boy to solicit clients, but in practice this might rarely lead to an arrest. A character in one of Lane’s novels gives as reasons for living in Morocco the lack of income tax, the servants, the climate. By “servants” we understand that incomes derived from Western Europe had a high purchasing power in Morocco, due to exchange rate anomalies and also low wages. The character does not mention “tolerance for gay sex”.
Up to 1956, Tangiers was a boom town, possibly because the international control commission was lax, exchange controls were absent, and there was a low tax regime as well as a "clean" administration. Also because of smuggling into Spain, which had steep import duties as part of the Fascist policy of autarky and import substitution. There was a construction boom in the 1950s. It was not a low-rent town and was not the classic "town in decline" where drop-outs go to live in crumbling properties for minimal rents. It was full of businessmen. (Ibiza, at least in the 1950s, was a very cheap place to live.) As a prosperous town on the edge of extensive rural poverty and under-employment, its prosperity could also be accompanied by a large group of people without money – the classic "high rent, low wages" town. It was a European town in which half the inhabitants belonged to the Third World. After 1956, the "free port" privileges were abolished; Spain moved away from the policy of autarky after 1960; anyone who had capital left to set up somewhere else. But, the Northern European colony in Tangiers were not doing much business – they lived on remittances from the home country. As a group, they lacked the work ethic – so that problems of how to occupy leisure were unusually prominent. Croft-Cooke, in contrast, worked incredibly hard as a writer living off his royalties, but he still enjoyed an abundant social life, as he describes. (His memoir of the time is The Caves of Hercules.) He lived in Tangiers for fifteen years – after coming out of prison in England.
It has been claimed that Croft-Cooke was the first writer in England who actually went into print asserting that he was homosexual. There might then be a history of homosexuality as a status, separate from people simply living out their wishes and being with and for others. A tiny part of this history is also within the history of poetry... I feel bad that I haven't written that history. You can't take writing which is secretive and ambiguous and reduce it to documentary.
Beecham presents the Coast of Barbary as a curse. But is this Tangiers? against this idea, we have to say that the sources do not mention gay female expats as a feature and they were not doing anything illegal in Britain, so that exile would not seem to be an imperative need. Further, the tolerance which someone like Croft-Cooke found would make Tangiers a benign place to live, if you were gay and cultured, where you could attend gay parties and act out a gay sensibility without worrying who would disapprove. It was a way of being true to yourself. This “Barbary shore” was hardly an accursed place to be, and people would not have gone to live there if it had been. But, on balance, I find it likely that her poem refers to exile in Tangiers and is about the curse of being born gay. It is personal symbolism and we have to accept that the personal symbolism of a 1957 poem may have vanished over the edge of what intelligence can recover sixty years later.
Lane’s novels (which I found compelling reading) also describe the arrival of what, in 1963, was a new social group – the drop-outs. A review of her describes them as “derelicts and dilettanti”, although she is always less judgemental. These people were already there when the Rolling Stones visited Morocco. Lane portrays a whole ecology of people who had no purpose in life – they have no ambitions (although meeting similar people in cafes was always a priority). Their characters are invisible because they are so inactive. They are like the “new society” of students except that they are not willing to study anything. They are connected to the rise of a “counter culture”, although that involves a level of effort which is alien to them. The role of drugs and sexual freedom was also influential. They are anti-Western almost by default. The hippy lifestyle is not based simply on dislike of English life but also on immersion in a concrete alternative on Ibiza and in Morocco. And this is all an anticipation of the new poetry. Being “non-Western” in British poetry is linked to Camden Lock market and its stalls where people returning from Morocco sold Moroccan artefacts as a way of funding their next trip to the Strait. The abandonment of a work ethic allows artistic endeavour to take centre stage. It leaves a negligent serenity in which any surviving attention is given only to details either of subjective perception or of verbal style. It was a counter-balance to the academic influence: simply describing ideas produced something which was not poetry. The poems had to have human beings at their heart, and those humans could not simply be preoccupied with commuting, office life, and the mortgage.
The connection between the middle-class expats and the “drop-outs” is intriguing, even if Lane as usual shows us a fascinating contact zone without descending into mere reportage. We can contrast Beecham’s flat-out hysteria with the blank apathy of the Tangiers hippies. Beecham represents the frustration they were saying No to. They refused to start the chase.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Hugh Creighton Hill

Hugh Creighton Hill 1906-82

I ordered Hill’s 1954 pamphlet (Some propositions from the universal theorem. Artisan 4 Spring 1954; The Heron Press, Liverpool) from a bookseller but it never turned up. I was disappointed. It seemed a moment when the set idea of the 1950s could be dissolved and re-drawn. Hill (born 1906) had published a book in the 1920s and hooked up with Migrant in about 1960. He seemed like someone who had never given up on modernism – a proof that you don’t have to compromise, perhaps. So I was excited to get his 1980 selected poems, from Migrant (”A soundproof gesture”). I was disappointed. I guess 'soundproof' means "no-one was listening".
I love the idea of someone who had got turned on to modernism in the 1920s and who never gave up. But if that someone was never very productive, the music you hear is about inhibition and artistic frustration and the sound of liberation doesn't come through. As it turns out, Hill published 3 books up to 1930. But he excludes them from his Selected so I have never seen what is in them. I guess 24 is too young, you can’t write complex and advanced stuff until a bit later in life. It’s sad, he didn’t publish anything further until 1952. If he published 3 books in 4 years, then published roughly 1 page a year for the next fifty years, it sounds as if he had seen his own style and then didn’t like it. He did a 1968 pamphlet with Tarasque, Simon Cutts’ set-up, here in Nottingham.

The poems aren’t bad. Actually, the 1950s ones remind me of Joseph Macleod. This is rewarding, it help to make my idea of Macleod more secure. There was a sound of a certain time and Macleod was part of his generation rather than just being solipsistic or perverse. His 50s poems are about triangles – that idea of basing poetry in geometry, which you absolutely find in Macleod and Read, and which seems so puzzling today.

Black as god’s bachelors the night
without even a moonface behind
spreading unrepresentative clouds,
mutters prayers for departed day
dead as an island under soldiers.

Too late. Perhaps a silver virgin
could have averted this gloom?

Too late. Maybe the astrologers’ risk
proves too high for the underwriters?

Meanwhile, another death: death
not only to day and the devil of light,
to leaves, cheeks of apples, dahlias,
wreaths enraptured with spiders,
but also, also, to the comic sins of mongrels,
mechanical efficiency, the lapsing love
parading in graceless nudity among
ecstatic day-dream corridors,
and possibly (alas?) to the final pleasure,
solipsistic benefits of mystification.
(from ‘Triangle in a semi-circle’, in the 1954 pamphlet)

This actually could be Macleod (who links astrology and actuaries in a passage in 'Foray of Centaurs'), and I feel sad that there isn’t more like this. It evokes possibilities. A retrospective selection then closes the possibilities off – you can see where they run out. This is a strange poem and I especially don't see how the motif of a triangle in a semi-circle fits in. The "deaths" could mean simply disappearance from sight, as the moonless night sweeps everything out of visibility.

It is interesting that Hill connected with Migrant. The modernist thing had apparently gone dormant for thirty years, the channels had closed because no information was flowing down them, but still he found Migrant in 1960. He was still stirred by the idea of poetry. The flip side of it is that not writing fails to alter the 1950s; it isn’t really an advance on writing weak poetry and being published and upholding the mediocre literary set-up. You change things by rejecting the conventional and releasing your energies in the uncharted realm. The works have the subversive force. Just being sceptical doesn't do it. Hill was too sceptical, too weary. I like the idea that there were people who had seen Eliot and Pound as the Big Thing in 1930 and who had been simply been indifferent to all the poetic waves from then until 1961. Not a completely wrong attitude. You need there to have been people who saw Auden as a big downhill slide, a lapse from modernism, not an advance at all. They represent the honour of the system. So you aren’t just awarding prizes to mediocrity the entire time.
Maybe there were twitches of opposition in the 1950s and maybe that Hill pamphlet was one of them. Migrant didn’t have a cluster of brilliant writers – but they had Roy Fisher, and that is enough. Fisher was writing away throughout the 1950s, maybe we have to see his unpublished poems as the honour of the 1950s. (Actually, they did come out in magazines. Later, he decided not to take them and publish them.) What was ‘Artisan’? It was closely linked to Heron, anyway. Heron did two pamphlets by Vincent Ferrini so I suppose there was already a link with Olson – the other Gloucester poet. Their impress says “Liverpool and Gloucester”, so just possibly this means Gloucester Massachusetts and the co-publisher was Ferrini. Maybe the people at Migrant saw these publications and made inquiries.
The South Bank poetry library re-opens after COVID lockdown and I go there again to find books on the margins of my historical work. Hoping to be proved wrong, I suppose. But the books I dredge up don’t prove me wrong and don’t call for the conclusions to be rewritten. I have also been extracting pamphlets by Koef Nielsen and Pete Hoida, among others. Which don’t change the picture… it’s just a way of collecting more evidence.

Sunday 24 October 2021

The Norwood Hermit

Nothing Is being Suppressed: footnote

I spent a morning reading up about a story which appears in ‘Place’ (pp. 253-55 of the collected edition) and have to correct my (unpublished) account of it in ‘Nothing is being suppressed’. I had supposed that there was a link between Samuel Matthews taking firewood from a wood which had owners, and him being killed. But the text does not say that, and now that I have looked up various accounts of his life (and death in 1802) I see that there was no connection.
His life as a hermit living off odd gardening jobs is connected with the enclosure of common land near Norwood, which Fisher records a few pages earlier. But that was in 1806, after his death. Also, reading the sources (for what they are worth) shows that he was not living on a common, but in a wood owned by Dulwich College. The wood is still there.
The whole passage is hard to understand because Fisher directly reproduces Matthews’ conversation (from the printed sources) and Matthews had suffered an untoward cerebral event which had partly deprived him of the power of speech, or perhaps of the power of reason. I should say that the very strange language in this section is exact quotes from Matthews, usually ones found in the sources. However, people remembered tags and scraps… not entire conversations, and contexts. He obviously had difficulties (due to brain damage after an illness, the 1803 pamphlet tells us). People were struck by his speech. The informants knew that his speech was “incoherent and sometimes quite unintelligible” and then tried to reproduce stretches of it. The problem is obvious. “stars fight stars fight I see’um” may be a prophecy of war, based on star gazing. Or it may not. These are pioneering records and we would like to know a lot more about his aphasia, if that is what it was. I think the theme may be that dropping out of society changes your language, and that the language of Place (and other underground poems of the time) is mutated because it is written by people who do not believe in capitalism. Chris Torrance is mentioned on the page before the Matthews section starts… Torrance had a job as a solicitor's clerk in the Sixties but gave it up and dropped out to live in a cottage in the Neath Valley (off the road and without electricity or running water, anyway that is the description I was given, it is not a documentary!). So the theme is “dropping out”, however distant the examples are which Fisher juxtaposes. Matthews is recorded as having an uncanny power of predicting the weather, and the same story is recounted about Torrance. A small detail… the poem on page 252 describes remains of Palaeolithic date, in Britain, and in the Matthews section he mentions a “hunter”. The sources do not show Matthews was hunting for food so my guess is that this hunter is a stray from the Palaeolithic. Matthews is in touch with the past because he lives in the wilderness.

He was a hermit, but in a wood quite near London and certainly close to densely inhabited land, with villages. He lived on his wages as a gardener and ate mutton and bread; he was not someone living off the land five miles away from Charing Cross. He went to a pub called the French Horn and drank porter. I mention this because he was quite a celebrity and this is why there are numerous stories about him which made it into print. A vagrant would not normally have a pamphlet published about his life just after he died. Local historians went round the pubs collecting stories, or something quite like that. It was the era when the Noble Savage was fashionable, and members of the gentry came to visit him possibly because they saw him as a savage who was within easy reach of Dulwich. The sources say that he was given permission to live in the wood by the Master and Wardens of Dulwich College, and the dialogue between him and one of those wardens may have connected with patronage from the upper classes, rather than eviction.
Anyway, there is time for me to fix this before the book goes to be printed. For the sources, if you google "samuel matthews norwood" you will see several of them.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed

Pentimento 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed is currently advertised on the Shearsman website as being out in October, but in fact it has been delayed by the permissions seeking process, and will not be out until April 2022.

I signed off the text late in 2020, but the delay has inevitably led to further thoughts about the period (the book is about poetry in the 1970s). I say in the introduction
Victor Turner remarks, about a tribe in Mali: "A fascinating historical and diffusionist problem is posed by the close resemblance between Dogon myth and cosmology and those of certain neo-Platonist, Gnostic, and Kabbalistic sects and 'heresies' that throve in the understory of European religion and philosophy. One wonders whether, after the Vandal and Islamic invasions of North Africa and even before these took place, Gnostic, Manichaean and Jewish-mystical ideas and practices might have penetrated the Sahara to the Western Sudan and helped to form the Dogon Weltbild. The Gnostic sequences of 'archons', arrayed as binarily opposed androgynous twins, have affinities with Fon and Dogon notions. (...) It is possible that adherents of such persuasions filtered or fled through the centuries to the Niger region and as bearers of a more complex culture exercised influence on the beliefs of its inhabitants."

The point I am making is about the counter-culture’s vision of itself as sinking out of sight and permeating the margins of a dominant media culture. However, there is an important qualification to be made about the quality of Turner’s sources. The information about the Dogon derives from the work of Marcel Griaule (and his pupil Germaine Dieterlen), and other anthropologists have shown that these myths are not part of a wider Dogon culture and are unknown to other Dogon informants. In fact, it seems that Griaule’s informants invented the myths during interviews, under very detailed prompting from Griaule. There is a detailed 1991 paper by Walter van Beek (available on the internet) which explains the problems with this material. So Turner’s proposal about mythic themes reaching West Africa carried by exiles from the eastern Roman Empire does not seem likely to be true. The point about the counter-culture still holds. I have to admit that I know nothing about the Fon, and that Griaule did not publish about them.

The idea of a mythology being invented by one or a few people, in a moment when an illiterate culture is meeting literacy, or in other conditions of breakdown and loss of boundaries, is not quite unique to the Dogon. It is likely that the narrative of the Lenne Lenape (also known as the Delaware Indians) published by Constantine Rafinesque in 1836 was invented by Rafinesque. It is true that the text is in the Delaware language and an invented Delaware script, which would have taken great effort. The situation is not clear, and is not clear for any of the remarkable texts which belong in this category (or apparent category). The Delaware were never numerous, dwindled as the British settlers gradually took over their land, and part of the picture is the almost complete absence of surviving Delawares who could have validated Rafinesque’s text. The level of creativity involved is disturbing, but we just have to accept that these powers of affabulation are present in some individuals and in some cultural contexts, and that politically valid myths are more rigid and the act of memorising them inhibits people’s ability to invent themes and persons. In fact, the context where a story is known to many people, and these other witnesses will correct you if you are wrong, is the inhibiting framework, and the creativity starts exactly where that context is missing. Macpherson's Ossian tales seem to fit into this category (his first few efforts were translations but it seems that he began inventing after that point. (Details on Rafinesque in Stephen Williams’ book Fantastic Archaeology.) Blake can also be seen as a mythological forger.
Some odd astronomical facts which appear in the responses recorded by Griaule have led to a lucrative series of Däniken-like paperbacks describing how the Dogon were visited by creatures from outer space, who imparted the astronomical knowledge to them.
It may be that information collected by social anthropologists is genuine tribal lore, shared by many people in the culture in question, but it may also be that interview subjects make things up to please the anthropologist, and that some parts of “anthropological knowledge” are more systematic and more rich in symbolic meaning than is really the case. Griaule set out to demonstrate the complexity of a “tribal” culture and pursued this goal at the expense of careful controls on the interview situation. As for the postulate that there is knowledge which is known to initiates, and not to the majority of the population in the district or the village, this is a minefield. It sounds like anthropologists claiming to understand a society better (and to recognize more layers of symbolic analogy) than the members of that society.
Just to recap, I am not saying that the mythic tales which Griaule collected are not examples of human creativity, or that they were not produced by Dogon informants. I am just saying that they did not exist in traditional Dogon lore. Creativity is the striking thing about them, and I am in favour of that. His publications are answers, not narratives, and the matching narratives (or songs?) do not exist (or have never been found). The only texts are in French.
It is only fair to say that the responses printed in Current Anthropology, the periodical which published van Beek’s paper, show that there is no consensus among anthropologists in favour of van Beek, and about the status of the interviews which Griaule carried out and the information he gleaned from them. However, Dirk Lettens had published, already in 1971, a very long book which denounced Griaule’s reports as fabrications unconnected to the culture of the area. Griaule’s publications told some of the most fabulous stories in the whole anthropological record, and it is fair to say that this fact inspired a lot of anthropologists to go and do field work in Mali and among the Dogon. It seems that none of them found stories and myths resembling the ones that Griaule reports on.

Let me post up here some material which there was no room for in the finished book.

At a late point in the project, I realised that Faber had published four volumes of Poetry Introduction in our period (dated 1969 to 1978), and that these offered a list of 33 young poets who could be read as a version of what was happening in the decade. Exactly one of these names re-appears in Mottram’s “top tips” of 46 names – already a sign that we are dealing with a different view of the world. Crudely, we can define this group as the continuing mainstream of the Seventies, a current moving forward in its own time as if the Underground didn’t exist and as if the rules hadn't changed. This would actually give us a fifth bloc (and the count of genres, or marketing concepts, is bursting its limits). Certainly these early poems are not the best way to get at what was vital in each poet, and we would do better to look at 33 first books (or, even better, second books). Two of these 33 names were Jeremy Hooker and David Harsent.

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

Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant

Jeremy Hooker published Soliloquies in 1974. The theme is the phallic figure of a giant,180 feet tall, an outline in white chalk revealed by cutting away the grass turf hiding it. The date is sometime in the late first millennium BC, and the site is at Cerne Abbas in Dorset. The chalk ground also contains flints. Because the chalk is the product of a sea bed, and the detritus of shelly creatures on it, some of the poems are about the shore. A poem lists objects found near the hillside:

A reindeer bone carved
in the reindeer’s likeness.
A chalk phallus.
A lump of chalk
with heavy curves
bearing the image of woman.

A necklace with blue beads
of Egyptian faience, black ones
of Kimmeridge shale.
Cannon ball
A phallus carved on the church wall.
A statuette of the Virgin.
(‘Found Objects’)

The concept is heavily influenced by John Cowper Powys and David Jones, whom Hooker had written about. As in The Sleeping Lord, the chalk giant is not so much a person as the tutelary deity of a place. The catalogue style of this poem is notably rapid and assertive. The lumps of mineral are portable and can be held in your hand, but also continuous with the land itself. The materials are endlessly evocative and the relations between them are compelling – like a grotto set with shells and stones. Hooker sees the giant as a symbol of the common people, as opposed to the monks who lived at Cerne Abbas (means Abbot’s), and celebrates the people of the area:

This is the ship of England, carved from a single oak. Her master is the navigant of the obscure passage, a hard-headed merchant with a fabulous map. He descends into the pit, and wrestles with the furnace. His labours are wrought in iron.
(‘The Giant’s Name’)

The collocation of giant and solitude is not sociable, but it opens the way for something superhuman – something which transcends the personal and advances into the terrain of myth. The soliloquist has preoccupations beyond the human:

The rest is illusion
Illusion with talons hooked through my bones.
It is an anchor
From the bottom of the sea,
It is fixed in the floor of the sea
Like an axe-head fast in a skull.
If I could move it, the world would shift.
(from ‘The Giant’s Shadow’)

The chalk comes from the bottom of the sea, and the passage seems to be about the real nature of the chalk and the illusory one of the image which it forms. The force of the poem comes in part from eliminating the human voice – we are not being led around by a tourist, talking about scenery, but the poem is wholly given over to the giant, an irrational force whose senses are wider than and incompatible with ours. The theme could even be the whole chalk land, covering much of the south-west, the floor of the Channel, and even northern France beyond. The voice which speaks is crucial; it is nailed to the giant’s physiology like a picture painted onto the awkward surfaces of a flint. This comes out of the existentialist preoccupations of mid-century, where constricting the world of a poem to the unstable space in and around a body failed for sociological reasons – the human subjects were too sedate and conventional. As David Wevill bypassed this, in poems like ‘Birth of a Shark’, while keeping the physiological density, so Hooker’s poem retains the giant’s ‘point of view’ as its constraint, its horizon. A place could be defined as a zone from which everywhere else is invisible.
Considering two poets from the original Poetry Introduction 1, of 1969, allows us to reflect on the continuing strength of the mainstream. But it also suggests the intensity of underlying historical changes – in several key ways, these two poets resemble what was happening in the Alternative world, and have abandoned the allegiances of the Movement. Their ‘elective past’ connected them to essentially lonely and peripheral figures such as John Cowper Powys, David Jones, and Ted Hughes. They have the charge which makes the underground appeal to me. Without breaking the rules of grammar, they were writing radically unfamiliar poems, original at every point.

The theme of this new material is the pervasive quality of radical innovation – poets not associated with “the Alternative” in institutional terms nonetheless writing very strong poetry which was impressively innovative when compared to the still prevalent 1950s-style conservative poetry. So continuing work is weakening the basic thesis of the book (about the power of Alternative poetry) by adding evidence which points in a different direction. People would have found this confusing. Chapters discussing all 33 of those Faber young poets would have confused people, although I did think about writing them. Other work is turning up poets I hadn't read, like Jeremy Hilton, Pete Hoida, and Ian Seed. Ian has produced terrific poetry in the past 20 years, the fact that he was publishing poetry already in 1974 is unsettling and I have not been able to assess this early work. I also could not find room for this piece about a wonderful poem by George MacBeth.

Slogans, masks, astrology: Lusus

Lusus is subtitled “a verse lecture” and comes in 42 parts, or about 780 lines. Lusus means game, and the theme is play; the poem soars in minimal form over the whole extent of human culture. MacBeth was always a dandy, and this theme allows ideal scope for that refusal to step into an emotional role. Narcissistically, but entrancingly, he shows us a private gallery of game players: D’Annunzio, Isaac Babel, John Cage, Demosthenes, a film by Godard, Hemingway, Walter Raleigh, Erik Satie, Jacques Soustelle, Tyrtaeus, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lusus obviously deals with an intellectual topic which MacBeth felt close to and had a peculiarly deep understanding of. He serenely surveys the huge range of domains where the idea of a game yields propositions:

Areas: war-
games, game theory, role-

in psychiatry (hysteria
as malingering
etc.), genetic
codes, use
of models in economics,

aggression in monkeys, Games

People Play

The short lines are against speech contours but signal lightness of touch: the poem does not move fast because it is contemplative. We cannot derive the information waiting for us unless we slow down. As MacBeth says in section 13, the model for lineation was A.R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year, where all the lines are narrow because he was typing it on a till-roll.
The poem is a list of schemas. How much poets dislike these! They might calm down if they saw a schema as a form of game, where formalism and separateness allow lucidity and, at the right moment, withdrawal. At one point MacBeth (paraphrasing Roger Caillois) groups games, in general, into four domains: jousting; roundabouts (ilinx); roulette, or chance; and mimesis (imitation). Ilinx, Greek for dizziness, is “the most difficult”; it is “orgasms, death-throe, or rock’n’roll.” It appears as a convulsive whirling, high energy and evading the opponent’s senses, and yet not out of control. Could we apply this to poets competing with each other? It is correct to say that a computer program is like a game: it is a model, governed by rules. The phase of computing history when a calculating engine was built, by Johnny von Neumann, to run iterations of a thing called the Monte Carlo simulation, was key to developing the atomic bomb (and the computer industry). It wasn’t quite gambling but it did deal with probability. Von Neumann was later the founder of game theory.
The primary source is clearly Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens, or “man the player” (1938), a comparative cultural study which was one of the first attempts to define general traits of human behaviour, outside a religious framework. It was published in 1972, but MacBeth had already gone a long way into ludic poems: in 1964, a play of his was produced at the Establishment, a satirical night-club, in which the characters, following a nuclear disaster, are confined in a Paris Metro station and pass their time playing a game called “Fin du globe”. Details of a play-through of the game are given in his poem ‘Fin du Globe’, published in A Doomsday Book. Politics is permeated by symbolic activities– the codes which players have to follow bring it towards the game domain. Huizinga began as a student of South Asian languages, and the permeation of daily life by ritual is what led him, decades later, to the idea of homo ludens. MacBeth takes us into an alternative universe made of glass, where things that were soft become rigid and things that were opaque became transparent. The puzzle of how, in a modern western-type society, there can be an apparent complete lack of applicable rules, and yet there are rules which people follow to structure their behaviour in complex ways, limits accurate description, including of poems. The idea of game can get us closer to this. The theme lends itself to a poem because it lacks purpose. The subject matter is already aesthetic – lifted out of function.
We can compare Lusus with set procedures in poetry. The combination of rule-sets and advancing into the unknown is curiously like games. The extent of the unforeseen in such art can be defined as risk. The odds are not well formalised. The properties of the unpredictable are of great interest. This domain asks for set procedures to avoid the no-go situation of being unable to move or even to know what the state of play is. MacBeth went to Oxford and worked for the BBC and so has been written out of the history of experimental poetry; he was in the original John Matthias anthology of 1971, but when Mottram came to draw up his extended list he struck out some of Matthias’ poets, and one of them was MacBeth. I just want to observe that this was a poor decision. There is a fairly large Collected from which Lusus was excluded. In this way Lusus has disappeared from view and is a crux for the proper evaluation of a decade in which institutional critics went into denial mode. It is quite probably a masterpiece, a moment of genuine self-awareness, evoking anthropological depths at each point without ever lapsing into technical language. It is worrying how the whole column of ludic poetry, so brilliant over the last 35 years, has debouched out while the pioneer has been buried without ceremony. To reiterate, MacBeth was writing game poems in 1964. One game in Lusus was invented by MacBeth and friends, and a play-through is described in ‘The Crab-Apple Crisis’, in his Collected Poems.
33 says:

a rule is a player
in a code, having
its role,

fulfilling it,
according to a rule
in another

code, and so on
infinitum. The rule
moves at its own speed,
in a vacuum. It

creates a code or
a war when

merge. Collide. Out
of the rules
moving, the

structure of
possibility erects


Fuller and d’Arch Smith ran the Atlantis bookshop, and may have funded their poetry series, including Lusus, by selling fin de siècle occultist books to rock musicians.

I regret not finding room for this material in my book. But the process goes on. I wrote, earlier this year, a long essay about Harry Guest, a poet at his peak in the 1970s. I simply hadn't got the Guest story until this year. It’s crowd-out, there are always too many poets and the stage is over-full.

Monday 6 September 2021



I attended (2-4 September 2021) the Tears in the Fence poetry weekend at Stourpaine (Dorset) and had conversations with three genuine Seventies poets – Paul Matthews, John Freeman, and Jeremy Hilton. I didn't raise the stakes by asking searching questions, but the conversations were very informative. The bookstall had a copy of Hilton’s book Metronome (copyright 1976 but dated 1974 on the title page), on sale at the original price of 50p. I scarfed it up. Try this:

the amphetamine geometry
(partial eclipse of the moon June 4 1974, 2300 hrs)

in white of daughter
o shrouded belly
o spaced-out membrane
like a child a shy lurker
my gypsy grind my gin
my painter see this sprung sky
moon trapped
I void my whelks’-hut
summer looms
from among stars
a craft
we star-gaze we sail
o microscope ocean
coterminous tangents
herbal welsh-wind, border
-light scatter in creamy-faced
moon the last wake is the
final sleep
clear-air crustacean, clouds
are mauve islands hitch up
slow burner moon to low
antares’ scorpion
sounds of birth thrust thru
reedy notes in full-leaf ash or
poplar back against twilight
cries coral

Pretty good, actually. (I apologise that this compiler will not accept left indents.) The title page credits conversations with Ulli McCarthy and Chris Torrance, and you can see Hilton’s language merging with theirs, in some way, as part of the voice speaking these poems. Metronome has affinities to Ulli, and also to parts of The White Stones – like “Frost and Snow, Falling”, the poems about the influence of sunlight on climate, and of climate on social forms. I asked Jeremy if the title referred to the cosmos, as the source of time, and he confirmed that and said also that it referred to the seasons, part of the rotation of the earth and so of its relationship to the universe. It’s cosmic, man. Metron is “measure” and “nomos” is law (or governance), so the title means “regulation of time” (rather than referring to a sort of timer). The poems record a shift from winter and snow to summer. We don’t see a great deal of change, the emphasis is more on harmony with the cosmos as it changes. The book has a quality of lassitude; it has almost no emphases. Everything is smoothly linked, as if in a trance. It is as if the poems had no outside. This does seem to be a quality of a sector of Seventies poetry. I can’t explain all the meaning, for example I suppose there is a link between “crustacean” and “whelks’-hut” but I can't see what it is. A whelk is protected by a shell but in an ocean which is moved by the tides (and so by the gravity of the moon) – is Hilton comparing this with the situation of humans, protected by their structures but still moved by cosmic tides? I am not sure. (Scorpions are related to spiders rather than to crabs.) Key images are not isolated, emphasised, and explained – the evenness of the text is the quality sought for. The book certainly has as a theme change and connection to the Time of the cosmos, but titling or prominent words referring to this are not present. Possibly, a strategy of repelling the expected attempts of conservatives to reduce the events in the poem to recognisable categories, and so to familiarity, and so to dullness, has led to the specific style of these poems. Reviewers try to force scenes and whole poems into categories – they become describable – but also banal, just a variation on something we have already seen. Recognition means we have not got the thing we were hoping for. Metronome is unlike any other Seventies book and is not just part of a genre.
Antares, a red star, is the brightest star in Scorpio – known also as Alpha Scorpii (or Cor Scorpionis).

I guess my book (Nothing Is Being Suppressed) is getting closer to publication. I have stopped adding to it (at least a year ago) but I am still collecting information about the Seventies. The first draft was there in March 2017, but I have been working slowly on the same themes for the past four years. More Hilton:


winter is kept & broken
squalls break the upturned
red soil, mists return -
in the midnight of cold stars
frosts salt the orchards
duped to bud by
lengthened daylights. ‘the
burst or revival is over the ploughland’
rumble sound of outlaws & armies
who trudge the dull east -
the clocks are shut, the peat
is sacked, seeds of Libra sifted
into a knowledge beyond the stiff reeds
the careless friendship of virgins & children
is there but one future? the rivers
still flow the same direction
through the hawk-inhabited hills

‘in the wide silence
Andromeda westering’

I guess "burst" is the Spring bursting, so like cloudburst but made of heat and light, as days get longer. I was impressed by a CD called “English weather” which went back to around 1970-71 and recovered a group of related music makers, almost a genre – focused around flutes and mellotrons. The CD identifies a style which to my knowledge has never been described before, certainly marginal to the music scene as a whole. It is almost painfully evocative of the time. The editors (Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs from the band St Etienne) do not mention the Moody Blues, but surely they defined the flute/mellotron thing and had a huge hit in 1970 (“The Question”) which everybody in the business knew about. Anyway, I like this approach to the Seventies, of identifying a tiny area with inner coherence, and tracing the artefacts that belong inside it. I don’t have a label for the thing that Metronome belongs to, but it isn’t something completely isolated, the poet had a right to feel that the target audience would recognise the implicit gestures. Sinclair's “Red Eye” probably fits inside the same micro-genre. How many micro-genres there were, is hard to say.

Tuesday 3 August 2021

selection of poets

A network of connoisseurs; legitimated errors

This is a text about rules or methodology, which needs to be there for reference but doesn't talk about individual poets or poems.
If you start with a list of 6000 poets (active 1960 to 1997), an initial suggestion would be to read all of them. So you discount this because probably 90% of them are tedious. This gives away the fact that you have limited faith in your subject. However, reading the whole lot would kill a normal person. So a second suggestion would be a non-selective sample, where you take the list you have developed and take every tenth row, and read that one. But actually, the method I followed was based on anthologies. I read a lot of anthologies (maybe 50, in the end) and chose the poets on the basis of poems I liked in the anthologies. This gives you a sample of maybe 500 poets.

Could there be problems with this method? First, reading a couple of poems can give you a wrong idea about what the poetry feels like at volume length. Secondly, your reactions may not be perfect. The more fascinated you are by one style, the less time you have for the others– and the easier it is to miss something of real interest. Sadly, the same applies to editors. In reading through sheaves of poems, they may simply fail to react to something. If you are in love with a style (or even a subject matter), their responses may not predict yours. They don’t have the same “weakness”, or partiality, or need.
A recent case was where someone recommended a group of four 80s poets to me, names I hadn't heard before. I ordered a 1985 book by Stephen Oldfield and, yes, it was very good. I checked back and found that I had seen his poems in an anthology. But the ones in the anthology were unimpressive – a matter of presentation. Some editors can't select good poems over bad ones. Conclusion: poets you dismiss after reading a dull anthology may actually be very good. I haven't checked out the other three yet, but a trip to London should allow me to do that at the Poetry library. I wrote about 160 poets, but in fact that left out George Szirtes and Stephen Oldfield, so the likelihood is that I am still missing some good poets.

The port of entry for poems is the doormats of editors. (Today it’s all email, but I am thinking of a timenow at circa 1970.) Poets who actually want to get published send envelopes full of poems to editors, mainly magazine editors. The editor reads it all through. An editor recently described to me how he reads about 600 poems every month, as they come in. So 7000 a year. The total had gone up sharply during the lockdown, so it was maybe 1000 a month in that period. But he accepts maybe 120 poems a year. Clearly, he rejects the others. I am terrifically grateful to him, and to many other editors, for doing the spadework and locating the good stuff.
In a second process, some poets go on to produce books. I haven’t surveyed the field, so I can’t be dogmatic. I think magazines are normally the gateway to a book. The typescript may have a covering letter which lists all the magazines who have published the poems, that is a proof of quality. But it could be less mediated. A poem wins a prize, the poet attends a creative writing class, they do a public reading... any of these could stimulate the publisher into action. Or stimulate a friend of the publisher, whose advice they respect.
I am speaking of a social network based on connoisseurship. It is an intelligent network… individuals inside it distinguish good art from bad, they exchange ideas, they store information, they accept advice from other people in the network. Also, they accept people into the network based on critical evaluation; those whose evidence is perceived as bad do not acquire influence. This self-criticism protects the quality of the network. I am definitely thinking of it as something fallible, but one has to admit that the editors/ advisers are eager to gain credit for finding new poets, and that it is multiple – if it fails to accept a new talent at one point, that talent can gain entry at many other points. There is no crucial point of failure, there are gateways everywhere.

My work on British poetry 1960-97 is based on this social network as the source for which poets I need to read. The poets I read came primarily from anthologies. This approach could fail, and I can give reasons for failures. Connoisseurs cannot judge poems they do not read, so poets may never even have been considered by the compilers of anthologies. The system can forget, so that a poet who was active in the 1950s might have fallen out of visibility by the 1970s. The system is sectorial, and poetry relevant to one editor may seem like “modernistic junk” to another. Sectors may lack resources, so that what would have been key anthologies never come out. Difficult poetry may simply perplex an overworked editor and get passed by. Poets may fear rejection too much to submit their work persistently, or after an improvement in technique. They may not understand the system well enough to send work to the right places. The market may be saturated – to put it brutally, 50 good poets arrived and the retail channel only took on 10 of them. (However, the sector of anthologies should take care of that, at least for someone like me who reads anthologies.)

A line of testing is offered by the gap between book publishers and anthologists. I think we probably have 6000 poets who released at least one book in my period 1960-97. I am sure most of those never appeared in the anthologies I looked at. The count in anthologies is less than 1000, maybe less than 700. This means that the publishers are not supporting the conclusions of anthologists. There could be a number of reasons for this, but we have to concede that the anthologies may not be based on reading everything and that one part of the “intelligent network” may actually be blocking out signals from another part. To be concrete, my belief for studying standard anthologies that they repeat the judgements of the predecessors and do not venture out into areas which the predecessors shut out of view. Michael Roberts defined who was modern in 1936 and poets he left out haven’t been picked up by later anthologists. Crucially, this is not true for Edward Thomas: Roberts left him out but other editors have included him. That was a rescue operation, the system can be proud of it, but it is an exception. New anthologies take a receptive view of the newer generation of poets but do not go back 30 years to look for legitimated errors. I cannot think of an external source for measuring system effectiveness, but we do have the internal one. Most published poets do not get anthologised. Somebody is not getting it right – or, one part of the system is invalidating another part.
Magazine editors are reading an awesome amount of unpublished poetry. It would be nice to think that this process meant that everything of high quality rapidly became visible to the “network of connoisseurs”. However, it is quite possible that someone writes terrific poems and they get published in a magazine and then nobody reacts at all. They did't read that magazine. They were busy.
I can see that, if we look at one era-spanning anthology (The Firebox), which contains 126 names, it omits 81% of the poets I have written about within my ‘Affluence’ work. I worked with a group of 15 anthologies of around 1985-95, for an exercise, and I have recorded details of them. The details allow me to say that 50% of the poets I have written about are not in those anthologies. I rely on anthologies, it follows, while finding them all defective. Obviously I have other sources of information, but the conclusion is that all sources are riddled with omissions, not that there are independent or complete sources of knowledge.
Under certain circumstances, the collaboration of experts is not going to correct local errors but actually amplify them. If the individual components are flawed, it is perverse to say that the whole is unflawed. Even though the experts are correcting each other's errors, it is unreasonable to think that the final outcome is perfection.
I am doubtful about the merit of reading large amounts of poetry. Appetite is the key thing. If your appetite gets satiated, you can't take the poetry in. This is simply a useless process or pseudo-process. Normally a critic or editor arouses my appetite for a poem and then I read it. This works really well. I suppose poetry in an agreed genre is easy to take in; it is original poetry which requires sensitivity. Anyway, there was no point in reading hundreds of books quickly. I have read a lot, but over 20 years. Nobody read all those 6000 poets.
I have not discussed the effect of consensus among the connoisseurs ending up as conformity. This is just too hard to measure. If all editors agree in disliking something, it probably is no good. I like some not very popular poets, but this may not be a breakout and win. It may be just me writing criticism which is useless for the reader. Consensus between the poet, me, and the reader is certainly the goal. Art is a social thing.
When I say “network”, I choose the word because it implies parts being knotted together, flexibility, and being able to trawl things up (or, store information). But also, something genuinely made out of holes. Obviously poets fall through the holes. If the experts between them only read 1000 out of the 6000, the intelligent network does not have intelligence about the other 5000.

We can imagine that after 6000 poets got published there are another 6000 who never got published and are hanging around just outside the gates, looking famished. I can't confirm this. Maybe people who were blocked in 1970 are part of the published category by 1980. I simply don’t know.

Anyway, my initial set of poets to read is based on the anthologies and the critical intelligence embodied in them. Of the poets I read, I then wrote about the ones I found interesting to read. Writing about something uninteresting is a chore. I also read a lot of magazines and hung out with other poetry fans a lot, trying to acquire information from them.
Having read this over, I feel I should add something more. There is a game being played by poetry connoisseurs where they win by finding good poets whom other people don’t know about. We don’t need to explain it to see that people are playing this game, and that this is how they win. This is why circulation of info about good poetry is very rapid and why people are willing to spend long evenings searching through bad poetry to find the good stuff. Another rule is that people don’t like reading bad poetry. Editors are willing to read lots of weak poetry coming in ‘off the mat’, but the suggestion “you should read twice as much bad poetry!” does not usually meet with a warm welcome. I didn't mention reviews, but after all the effect is pretty much the same whether the method is a review, a poetry magazine, an anthology, or a conversation in a bar. It's always "Look at this, Andrew!" and it always draws on a network of connoisseurship.
Another key concept is that of hatred of authority. People don't like being turned down. If you are a magazine editor, you can quite easily send out 1000 rejection letters. All the people who receive those letters will dislike you. There is a pool of hostility towards editors, as the people who turn some poets down and validate others. This can extend from disliking the editors to disliking anyone successful in the poetry world. So success becomes proof of guilt. So the energy animating the poetry system has a "negative field", the energy of resentment and desire to overthrow all judgements. The negative energy may even be the larger quantity – it just isn't focused. The people who do the rejecting are also carrying out the steps that give someone reputation and success, you can't really separate the two.

There is something else I need to add. Not all witnesses have equal standing. If a poet votes for themselves, their evidence does not have the same standing as that of a connoisseur who is recalling their feelings about poetry by another person. The network is composed of messages, bits of information of various lengths, and each one has a coding to show its origin (like an IP address). Different origins have different levels of importance and credibility. A great deal of information in the “poemosphere” is publicity and promotion and has very limited value. It is a retail business like another. The inequality is fraught with problems. However, let me point out that, if you want new information, you need someone who has such information, and someone who has spent time reading unfiltered typescripts, in from the public, possibly has it. In fact, work is the basis for being a good witness. Unpaid work, normally. What the perky rebels in the long grass will point out, barely a breath later, is that the choice (or: evaluation) of witnesses is as complicated, and fallible, as the evaluation of poets. Certainly people who are full of resentment are bad witnesses, because they are psychologically off balance. Does it follow that the people closest to the sources of legitimation and validation are the best witnesses? absolutely not. There probably is a problem with conformism and orthodoxy. People who don't accept what the business is telling them to consume probably do have something vital to offer.