Monday 17 May 2021

Sheenagh Pugh

Sheenagh Pugh (1950-)

I really can’t remember reading her selected poems, I think I liked them but didn’t find them outstanding. I have lost my notes. Upsetting. I am following up things I missed, and I have been reading some pretty weak poetry… have to say I enjoyed reading Pugh as a rest from that. It seemed worth getting the books again (both the Selected Poems, 1990 and 2009, this time) and investigating just to keep the record complete. The information I found was that she had a pamphlet out in 1977, Crowded by Shadows, and followed this up with a full book, What a Place to Grow Flowers, in 1979. Another dozen books have followed. The Anglo-Welsh thing is not a source of ideas in her work – she grew up in Birmingham and, although she has generally published with Welsh firms, she has ignored the Anglo-Welsh conventions.

A lot of the poems are in rhyme, which also implies (mostly) regular line lengths. I looked at rhyming poems in the 70s and 80s, it seemed to be an issue. Also it lends itself to counting, which could give you a indicator for change over time. A lot of them were assonating. I didn’t know if this was subtle and effective, or a compromise. Pugh seems to like off-rhymes.

Involve him wholly, and no other partner.
Circled in his arms, he acts out the caress
of the words; lets his hands wander on his shoulder,
under his shirt… step by step he betrays

all the trade secrets; make the audience watch
the truth about all those who love in rhyme.
There never is a partner you can touch;
whoever writes the words, they are for him.

I can't qualify this accurately. I am not sure the rhymes make any difference to the artistic impact. Then, they are weak: watch/touch doesn't really ring, neither does rhyme/ him. They are very unemphatic as a decoration. The rhymes are consistently weak, so this must be a conscious preference. After a while, full rhymes would clash with the verse. I think the pattern of near-rhymes must reassure the poet that the work is finished and organised. So the match betrays/caress is significant. It doesn't seem like a rhyme at all, but the context of many similar harmonies means that it must be counting as one. To sum up, s matches with a z sound (the voiced equivalent of s), and an ei diphthong rhymes with an e, the first component of the diphthong. There is no text-book that says this is a rhyme. There was a rapid decline of rhyme in the Sixties, so the use of rhyme was tied up with political (or theological?) disputes about the status of the new Sixties culture. People were fed up of rhyme at that point (notoriously, the same people who were irritated by rhyming poems enjoyed pop songs with rhyming lyrics). This is not necessarily a way of getting to the heart of a poet, or any poet. There was a revival of rhyme in the years around 1980 – as a way of restoring the past or maybe of fending off criticisms about jettisoning the artistic past. A lot of those restorative rhymed poems weren’t very good. The formalism wasn’t very expressive. With Pugh the method seems self-effacing… the lines are neat and the rhymes are easy to miss.

Because I have read the Faber Poetry Introduction volumes, I can see that there is a resemblance between Pugh writing a novel in a poem and some of the things in the 70s issues of those anthologies, where Andrew Motion’s “incomplete narratives” may have been the initial examples. (They are in volume 3.) David Harsent also wrote poems which which seemed to summarise novels. There is a sort of echo of George Mackay Brown in some of Pugh's poems (Brown was also taking sagas, a kind of early novel, and detaching events from them to make poems). This is the harvest from reading lots of 70s poetry, but the traces of these models in Pugh's poems are pretty thin, she is an original poet and her poems are highly finished. A poem I liked particularly was ‘Stonelight’:

Each stone happens
in its own way. One stands
true in a house-wall.

Anger quickens another : it flies,
fills a mouth with blood.

Shaped and polished, one shines
in the eyes of many.

One seems inert, earth-embedded;
underneath, colonies are teeming.

But the best are seal-smooth,
and the hand that chose them

sent them skimming, once, twice,
ten times over the ocean, to the edge
of sight, and whenever they bruise the water’s skin,
an instant is bruised

into brightness. The eye flinches. When they sink,
if they sink, the light they left

wells out, spills, seeds itself, prickling
like stars, on a field that never takes
the same shape twice.

This is all about objects, which may be a distraction for a poet so interested in people. Actually it refers indirectly to people, raising walls, throwing stones at each other, and so on. I like it partly because it is about stones flying and giving off light (on water they splash), which are not things you expect stones to do.
I could make an attempt to define the core of the poems. If you think about Flemish paintings, a lot of them are religious, and they show either martyrdoms or contacts with the divine, such as the annunciation. These moments are profoundly atypical, and that is the basis for choosing them as subjects of representation. If you think about Dutch paintings, you are typically seeing domestic scenes, which are realistic in the sense that what they are showing is present to the senses – not divine or lethal. The scenes are usually tranquil, and they are often typical – a scene which you could often have seen repeated. This opposition can shed light on Pugh – her poems are like Dutch paintings in the features just described. There is a moment when the critic Christopher Whyte remarks that Mackay Brown's work aestheticises violence – explanations for this vary but it is certainly violent death is at the heart of Brown’s idea of art, the way he selects moments to describe. Pugh very rarely describes deaths – although there are memorable instances for the sailor René Bellot, died searching for Franklin, and a soldier in Napoleonic service who was buried at Vilnius in Lithuania. So a death every hundred pages, maybe. Pugh’s poems are profoundly probable. They create a likeness of the world of the senses, and of the world that empathy discloses to us. They don’t deal with saints, heroes, hysterics. At the core, the poems consistently present a credible likeness of something, and that something is always probable.
My impression is that the poems do not imitate the voice of the characters and also do not imitate the voice of the poet – which would get in the way of hearing the characters. The function of establishing a situation and relationship between people is so central that expressive mimesis is forced to the edge. The qualities of lucidity and exposition reach alpha while the quality of expressivity stays at gamma. The voice is inventive but neutral. We don’t seem to get further as we go through 150 poems - we don’t have a fascinating personality to recover. There is no ideology (to use the terms of the time). However, the poet is more interested in writing about other people than in creating a monument to herself.
The density of output points to creative stability. The poems give the impression of stability and credibility and the continuity bears that out – underpinning the political judgements. A limited interest in experiment goes along with plausibility and conviction. Pugh does not have the casino belief of some people back in the Seventies, that in an immensely improbable event the familiar could be replaced by something completely unfamiliar, and that a radical discontinuity would erase present life to replace it with something which the participants could not foresee. That attitude went along with verbal paradoxes and sleights of hand, which Pugh does not deploy. Her poetry relies on what is probable: the scenes are easy to imagine because she evokes what is probable at each point. Her Left view of politics is convincing because we must find the probable more likely than the apocalyptic. Governemnt is based on data series, but not in the way a casino is.

If there is a central thing about Pugh, it is probably an interest in the autonomy of the characters she is describing – the priority is to satisfy our curiosity about them, but before that there is a valuation of them and an interest in their situations. An ethical stance is inevitably the point of departure for this, and this is the steady signal which we lock on to as we read. It could be annoying if the poet used the characters to make moral points – which would be what the reviewers picked up on, giving the poet marks for upholding conservative moral values. There was really a lot of that, in those decades, and poets tried to pass tests rather than to write good poems. Another feature which I could count, and graph, is the smug concluding quatrain. Pugh never writes one of those, as far as I can see. Pugh does not think she knows all the answers and apparently does not think preset answers actually exist. This was actually what was agitating conservatives, at the time.
The neatness may be an aesthetic in itself... I am not sure about this. All the poems are beautifully clear but the ideas didn’t seem to be enhanced by the regularity of form. Pugh didn’t spend the 80s talking about how dangerous radicalism was. Her poems are liberal and empathetic. She rarely sets up situations in which there are two possible outcomes and one is more just than the other– an elementary device of tension. This choice contributes to the stability of the poem; we empathise more because the situation seems real, rather than being a set-up to put over a pre-existing preference, political or moral. We focus more on the people as people. Yet, when Pugh talks about social arrangements, she always favours the powerless – tyranny comes over as widespread and evil. Many poets, in the 70s, saw society as unstable and about to lose itself in radical change – Pugh does not show Britain as being like that at all. The future is not an imminent and wonderful thing. But, this stability allows us, once again, to identify with the characters, and to see their predicament as deep and continuing. Pugh depicts the logic of events without seeing the outcome as admirable.

Subjectivity comes out in the choice of landscapes– in a whole series of poems set in the Arctic, related to the Franklin expedition. (Actually it is two sets, at pages 61-66 and 98-116 of the Selected Later Poems.) British poets have the habit of seeing such high latitudes as a product of the imagination, or as a scenery for imaginative expression. An early example is JF Hendry’s Marimarusa, not published until 1973 although it was composed around 1947. Another Forties poet, W.S. Graham, wrote about the Antarctic (probably) in Malcolm Mooney’s Land. The Franklin poems follow poems about Iceland in her 1979 book. It may be indicative for Pugh that she spends most time on Lady Franklin, Franklin's widow, who denied the status of widow in order to manipulate public opinion, back in Britain, to raise funds for search expeditions to find his crew and bring them back alive. Lady Franklin did not sail to Northern Canada. Pugh ignores spectacular polar landscapes in order to write about the character’s need to mix grief with practicality, and the need to market grief and convert it into a media story – unheroic but also original themes. Pugh seems at this point to be avoiding the transcendent, the superhuman scale.
The translations in the 1990 Selected are from German. One is from a poem by the Swiss poet JP Hebel, and deals with the idea that the city of Basel will one day be a ruin inhabited by wild animals. This reminded me of the modern Swiss poet, Hermann Burger, whose Kirchberger Idyllen are also an imitation of Hebel in some sense. I really liked Kirchberger Idyllen.
Conclusion? This is significant poetry and in an ideal world I would extend "Nothing is Being Suppressed" to include it. But, there it is. I couldn't write about all the significant poets writing in the 1970s. As for my notes, I think the Search function fails for a certain category of text files. And I have a few thousand files in that format.

Tuesday 11 May 2021

metal detectorists

Metal detectors snouting and snuffling

I was very impressed by the story of the Staffordshire Hoard (of Mercian goldwork) being found by a metal detectorist, and archaeologists subsequently saying that they should co-operate more with detectorists and give them more credit. I saw a magazine for detectorists in WH Smith’s. OK, I thought, this should be interesting. They have limited education, they didn’t get free education at university, they work for a living, maybe they should be accepted as part of a wider intellectual community interested in the past.
Then, I saw a copy of this magazine on-line, on a site I subscribe to which has lots of books uploaded by people. 60 million documents, according to their write-up. So it’s like You-tube, only for books and papers. Anyway, I downloaded this issue of “Treasure Hunting”. I was expecting it to be full of articles about archaeology, and I was interested to see what questions they asked which made it different from a mainstream archaeology magazine. WH Smith has 3 of those, so you can buy those just by walking into Smith’s. But, I was amazed by what I found. The detectorist magazine has no interest in archaeology. The articles are about the first-person experiences of people who use metal detectors, and have no discussion of the meaning of the finds. It is completely about finding treasures, that is where the interest stops. So you would expect reviews of books and exhibitions ...but they don’t run any of those at all. This implies that their readership don’t want to read books, or even visit museums showing large numbers of “treasures”. No, they are too busy walking up and down muddy fields. It follows that the magazine has no actual archaeologists speaking in its pages at all – not even as book reviewers. One corollary is that the hobbyists are not attracted by how much professional archaeologists know, and they don’t. They don’t have to feel themselves as a sub-cultural minority, defined by ignorance. Another one is that there is no trickle of academic ideas into this anti-academic world – they are not even reading reviews of the books, let alone the books. But they don’t feel inferior to the academics. Their focus is incredibly egocentric – they aren't much interested in objects which other people own, because the focus is unswervingly on objects which they own.
It is important to read Paul Barford’s blog with its critical view of detectorists and other looters:

Barford refers several times to “object-centred archaeology”, which sadly exhausts itself detailing the history of objects rather than the history of a past society. This is also a way of thinking about the people who read ‘Treasure Hunting’ – they can focus on objects but their interest vanishes when you address any other topic, because they have no interest in abstractions at all. Barford is interested in using physical evidence to think about symbolic behaviour. A potsherd is part of a pattern. So, if someone asked “we have the very first coins in Britain, made for kings of south-eastern tribes and following Gaulish models, what does this tell us about social changes, moving from a society which doesn't need coins to one which needs thousands of them?” – but they wouldn’t be able to pose a question like that and wouldn’t understand the answer if someone pronounced it. As a consequence, they don’t feel that a Renfrew or a Hodder is superior to them. They aren’t interested in the things which intellectual archaeologists can do. They are playing a game in which developing ideas doesn’t count as winning – but finding Tudor coins certainly does. Detecting and collecting isn't even archaeology, it is several levels below “object-centred archaeology”. A coin is primarily a symbolic object, you would think. Or is it primarily a shiny thing?

OK, some of the people who buy “Treasure Hunting” might also buy “British Archaeology”, so their limits are not the same as those of the magazine.
The detectorist set seem to dislike abstraction. They are really happy talking about the details of their ground scanners, and like the objects they dig up – while becoming uncomfortable whenever the discussion moves away from solid objects. It is not simply distrust of the people who own abstract ideas, it is actual discomfort in dealing with ideas at all. So they don’t overlap with the ley-line gang, who have limited interest in physical evidence but are in love with imaginary ideas, and the spirituality of past ages. So they are both against “official archaeology”, but they possibly don’t overlap at all – they just don’t have the same interests. There must be a difference between people who believe everything, no matter how untrue, and people who don’t believe any abstract ideas at all, even if they are true. I couldn't find even one mention of an archaeologist – but there was a photo of a table where someone sat to identify finds, obviously an archaeologist but not named, he was there only to act as scorer, recording that a detectorist had won, and their find was really old.
I was impressed by a photo of finds. They included a broken part of a “Celtic” (Iron Age?) terret ring, in La Tène style – something incredibly beautiful even if it was only an inch across. The patterns just aren't ones you would find today. And there were several pages of photos from an antiques auctioneer, so paid for as ads but still worth looking at. I don’t know why the same ads don’t appear in British Archaeology, maybe their readers don’t want to own artefacts. So there was a photo of a La Tène sword – crunched into a sort of Z shape, but a real one, you could have it for about £5000. Amazing.

This looks to me like two completely different ways of consuming information. The cognitive practices which let someone process a largely abstract story, or data pattern, and enjoy it, are communicated by education, and there is a large pool of non-educated people who don’t share those practices, who regard them as effortful and unrewarding. They become pleasurable because you are fluent in them, you have a smooth experience with few stumbles. This is the “take away” for thinking about poetry – there are many different ways in which people consume information, and modern poetry is divided into factions based on the preferred cognitive patterns. If you don’t wish to own ancient artefacts, maybe you are parting company with a large number of other people. And maybe they can’t enjoy modern archaeology.

I have been reading about the early history of the Mormons, in particular Joseph Smith’s early career as a treasure finder. He had a kind of lens or mirror which would look through all the layers of the earth and find treasure hidden beneath them. So – an early model metal detector. His device came from German folk culture, the so-called “Erdspiegel” which was allegedly used by “Venetians” coming to South Germany to look for ores (or treasures?). Treasure hunting is actually older than archaeology.

The label here may breach rules about how to label. I have labelled this as "exclusion", because it belongs to a theme of which other parts deal with cultural exclusion. But the area involves also people who don't participate in culture because they dislike reading books and don't want to acquire abstract knowledge. The issue for poetry is "willing non-participants", isn't it, less than "failed participants". Even if low-prestige poetry has a physical existence and is easier to write about. I am interested by the distinction between "people who believe irrational ideas about the Past" and "people who don't read books or go to museums". I am not writing "a history of cognitive practices" but I can see that you can't write the history of poetic taste without getting into that area, big time.

Thursday 6 May 2021

Origins of Germanic

When writing arrives, we find Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, as discrete language groups. Since they undoubtedly started out as being the same, the question is what breaches of structure and origins of structure brought about the divisions. If you look at a page of German and a page of Russian, as they are today, they are certainly very different. Since there are three Indo-European groups in Northern Europe, we are entitled to ask why it is exactly three, and not one or eight. Peter Schrijver, a professor at Utrecht, has published Language contact and the origins of the Germanic languages (2014). This contains a set of radically original theories on the influence of bilingualism and phonetic interference, which I expect we will be debating for the next hundred years. For him, the breach between Indo-European and Germanic is the impact of a phase of bilingualism in which a Balto-Finnic language influenced local Indo-european.
Indo-European has no double-length (geminate) consonants but Germanic does have them. This is an innovation. Schrijver describes in Finnish a set of alternations in consonants depending on the level of stress of the preceding syllable. This can affect which consonant is heard, but is often also an alternation between a sound and zero. Finnish has in fact two sets of rules affecting consonants, rhythmic grading and syllabic grading. (The first affects odd syllables, so first and third ones.) Thus it has a rich set of variations in the consonants of syllables other than the first one. Schrijver takes this arrangement and points out that in Germanic we have some alternations which can be explained as grading:
*dūb- Old Norse dúfa ‘to immerse’
*dubb- Norwegian dubba ‘to stoop’, Middle Dutch dubben ‘to immerse’
*dūp- Dutch duipen ‘to hang one’s head’
*dupp- High German düppen, Norwegian duppa ‘to nod’
*duff- Faeroese duffa ‘to bob up and down (of a ship)’
*dump- Norwegian, English, Danish dump ‘hole, pit, pond’ East Frisian dumpen ‘to dive’

This word-group will be familiar to those who read substrate studies, in the journal NOWELE and elsewhere. (If I am not mistaken, this table was compiled by Frans Kuiper.) It is popular in discussions of the so-called “geminates language” and some of the words show geminates. The study of it was rather frustrated by the fact that it was definitely an Indo-European root (meaning “deep”, and instanced in Sanskrit) although its final consonant behaved in ways which were, strikingly, non-Indo-European. Schrijver has offered a good explanation for this – Germanic arose as the product of Indo-European being spoken, 3000 years ago, by a population which had Balto-Finnic speech habits. That means they had “old stock” words which were, however, subject to Balto-Finnic patterns of variation as concerned consonants at the end of syllables.
The other “geminate” group which keeps cropping up is (in English) stub-stump – stock (and, probably, “stem”). I don’t have a view on the rather puzzling variations within this group, but consonantal gradation seems to offer a solution.
The variation in consonants in Finnish is correlated with syllabic stress, and there is a biomechanical reason why unstressed syllables coincide with weakened consonants. This means also that vowel gradation would be, in an Indo-European language, occurring in the same pattern, so that different ablaut grades would appear with different consonant grades, in words from the same stem.
It is not instantly clear to me why the same word, in the same case, should end up in different (but related) languages with different grades and conditioned by different syllabic grades. I do not get why the words would not all have the same consonantal grade. However, this is a genuinely new idea and I feel that it will open up new routes for Germanic etymology. As appears from the back catalogue of substrate studies, this class of words is rather small. (Although one scholar claims the total is several hundred words, while denying that there is any substrate influence involved in the first place.) I would like to mention at this point the word dumble. This refers to the low ground around a stream and is used locally to me – for example, Lambley Dumbles, two miles away from me. It appears that this means deep in the sense of a hollow stream, which has worn a deep bed between high banks. (Or, low-lying pasture which is flooded seasonally.) Thus dumble actually means deep (or low). Dump is originally a pit – again, it means a “deep place”, and originally often meant a pit in a river bed, a patch of deep water. The contrast in the word ending between dump and dumble is the kind of thing which Schrijver is talking about.

Schrijver’s book also deals with Insular Celtic languages, as part of the structure within which he explains the shifts which differentiate Old English from closely related Continental dialects of Germanic. He states that Irish was identical with proto-Welsh as late as 150 AD and was the speech of migrants from Britain to Ireland at that date. “it seems safe to say that an Irish arrival in Ireland close to or in the first century AD is much easier to unite with the linguistic evidence than an arrival around, say, 500 or 1000 BC.”

Thus he posits Gaelic as the product of a late migration from Britain. As follows, the language which the Anglo-Saxons encountered, on disembarking, resembled Gaelic (as well as Welsh). But recently, Ranko Matasovic posited that there was a period of bilingualism around 400-600, connected with Irish invasions of Western Britain, which produced an assimilation between the two languages, so that the most obvious shared features between the languages (lenition and compound prepositions) are actually late, and their separation was much earlier. I am having difficulty balancing these two views. Matasovic does not propose a social mechanism for the spread of these features outward from the bilingual zone, on the Western shores of Britain, to the whole of Ireland (and the whole of Wales and Cornwall). It is certain that these features are not part of the inheritance of the Insular languages, so it must follow that the two languages innovated in parallel – attaching this to a bilingual zone is perfect. Since we actually have a credible bilingual zone, connected with Irish settlements on the “yonder” side of the Irish Sea, the theory is rather robust.

I am attracted to elements of Schrijver’s idea. If you look at the map, it seems unlikely that anyone would colonise Ireland directly from Spain, Aquitaine, Normandy, Holland, etc. Further, the Atlantic is a large and stormy sea. But, migration from England to Ireland looks easy, even for people with limited sea technology. Meanwhile, we have exactly two Celtic languages in the British Isles. It is attractive to link this duality with two large islands, separated by the Irish Sea. So, a pattern in which speakers of an ancient Celtic language started in Gaul, colonised Britain, and then colonised Ireland from there, and their language community split into two parts, separated by the sea, and the two parts evolved from unity into exactly two languages, sounds pleasing even if it is hard to find concrete evidence that it was like that.

Schrijver’s method is based on the shapes of phoneme structures. This reduces any language to 30 or 40 phonetic elements, which occur in rows and can be conveniently recorded or memorised. The sound which change in any period of history are even fewer. Patterns can be recognised in these simple datasets which are distinctive and rather objective. He relies absolutely on this method. Of course language contact also shows up in vocabulary, but he barely uses this as evidence. So, someone else will have the task of seeking the postulated chronologies in vocabulary, and seeing whether the ideas are confirmed by it. Of course vocabulary is very extensive and demands much more time and more pages.
He states that Irish is uniform in early manuscripts, whereas Welsh is dialectally differentiated. This is a basis for arguing that Irish was homogeneous in 600 AD (when manuscripts start), and so a recent arrival from overseas. I am very surprised to hear that there are dialect differences in the scant records of mediaeval Welsh, so far as I know the opposite is true and there is a “national” language for literature which blanks out any regional differences. To be sure, Wales is not all that large a place. The poems supposedly written by Taliesin and Aneirin, in a sub-Roman 6th century, have come down to us in a form indistinguishable from standard Welsh, although archaic; linguistic differences would be pure gold, to a scholar, but the editors of these texts do not point to any such differences. Of course we only have late and normalised manuscripts. No, my suspicion is that Old Irish is standardised because scribes were taught to apply rigid standards, and this is connected with the wish of the Church to see holy texts transmitted in a way which did not even suggest that human fallibility applied to them. They learnt to write Latin without personal variation and Irish without such variation. Of course literacy spread outwards from the Church, which initially used writing for Latin texts. It does not follow from consistency in spelling and vocabulary that Ireland was a linguistically uniform space.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed

Scottish and Welsh poetry in the Seventies

I realise that having got to the end of a book about Seventies poetry I haven’t included a section on either Welsh or Scottish poetry. I am not clear why this is. Nor does anything clever occur to me now. I may owe the reader for this chapter. I haven’t written it. I have been working on a spreadsheet which shows 100 people writing good poetry during the 1970s-irritating because it just isn't possible to manage a book which marshals 100 different characters.

I am going to start with a comment about the geography of taste. Poetically, the ‘British Poetry Revival’ was much weaker in the north and western regions of the island (although this is partly the effect of local nationalist critics concealing the evidence). If you take the 46 names in Eric’s two statements on the “Revival”, then in 1974 24 were resident in the South and five in the North. (This needs qualifying – it is based on my personal knowledge, which may be wrong in one or two cases.) Similar figures, still for 1974, show Wales, four; Scotland, four. You rapidly come up with the conclusion that Modernity was mainly happening in the South. Game over. If you apply the values of Eric Mottram to Scotland and Wales, you find them to be backward – plucky amateurs who lost the game. My feeling is that we need to look at this a bit differently if we want to recover the real story of poetry in the Atlantic regions. There is a celebrated quote by Hans-Werner Henze where he reports a German music critic saying “Henze puts the clock back” about his new composition, and Henze is asking forcefully where is this clock and can it be put back at all. I am sure there is a clock – more accurately, dozens of clocks for different elements of the linguistic structure of poetry. And I do think poetry can be out of date, we can rapidly find poetry which is out of date and there is no appeal possible. But I also think that the direction of modernity has been different in different parts of the island, so that there is a geography of taste. That is even before we start to find out that the political basis, in terms of what the electorate cares about and wishes for, is different, and that the elements of language which poetry is, after all, based on, are different in Wales and Scotland from what they are in southern England. I just don't like this “game over” sound. To complicate matters, I don’t think that modernity was equally present in the North of England. I know there are famous exceptions, but they are thinly spread. I realise why people prefer not to discuss this – it is likely to arouse rage and resentment. You are talking about deprivation, about wonderful things being available to some people and not others. This is divisive. And, I can’t get very far with this because the spadework has not already been done, the data isn’t in order. But, if you accept that the “outlying“ areas were also the most Labour voting, and the most opposed to the ruling class as embodied in the city of London (and Whitehall and Westminster), then you might guess that dissidence was being expressed in the “periphery” – but that it was taking a different poetic form, and probably not the one sanctified by Eric and by influential commentators in the USA. So actually we are going to do better if we use a different clock, a different set of standards, in different regions of the country. Maybe I should have described the literary scene in half a dozen cities – evoked the conversations those people were having, the things they saw as threats, the issues they argued about and explored in compulsive detail.
One way of describing the radical surge of the 1960s is that nationalism moved from being a student craze, in Wales and Scotland, to become credible to the whole electorate, and mainstream in electoral politics. So it was much more successful than the counter-culture or New Left in England. This transition was taking place quite rapidly during the 1970s. There was a radical current throughout the Western world in the ten years 1965-75, connected with the collapse of European empires among other things. ‘Peripheral nationalism’ had been on the rise since the mid-sixties, and not just in Britain. The constitutional situation was unstable during the 70s due to the electoral success of nationalist parties, and this exerted a kind of gravitational attraction on writers. Radicalism in Wales and Scotland tended to take the form of nationalism rather than a ‘counter culture’ and the politics of the personal. Decolonisation was on the minds of students, if not of the political elite. The current among Welsh students and literati took the form, quite often, of linguistic nationalism which affected the Welsh university quite strongly. The experience of losing identification with the existing power structure, of no longer feeling protected by it, of becoming aware of collusion and malice and self-preservation as the classic behaviours of an elite at the top of society, of seeing economic interest behind canonised texts including works of history, of feeling illusions lose their grip, was felt by apprentice nationalists as well as by apprentice socialists or feminists. The basic course of learning how a modern society, essentially capitalist and more or less militarist and imperialist, works is one which could be followed in Bangor as much as in Camden or Leeds. It’s wrong to think that the peripheral nationalism of the 70s was simply an unreflective continuation of positions acquired in childhood, or that it did not involve intellectual excitement or genuine analysis. (After devolution, devolution became of much less interest to poets.)
Because the radicals were electorally successful in the “associated nations”, the gap between them and the average voter was not wide. The wish not to alienate the voters had the effect, arguably, of making the nationalist thinkers cautious about any more radical critique. Also, success was likely to resolve the problems which were inspiring people –devolution could be attained and so sink down to the level of fact. It may sound perverse to say that attachment to impossible ideals had a benign effect on the “outside” Left in England, but we may be seeing at this when we look at the most radical poetry in England. It did not necessarily have any counterparts in the ”associated nations” or even in the provinces. It could arrive at a point of rejecting society as it stands but being “autonomous” and removed from any really possible social order or social reform. Thus “politics” would be an element wholly inside the autonomous art work, to be manipulated in a way similar to rhythm or semantic fields.


Scottish poets working in the Seventies would include WS Graham, Alexander Hutchison, TS Law, Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, David Black, George Mackay Brown, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Christopher Salvesen, Alistair Fowler, Alastair Mackie, Alan Riddell, Walter Perrie. I might have to list Kenneth White, Tom Leonard, and Liz Lochhead as well, although I would be happy not to read their poetry. I tend to forget Riddell, but when I got hold of a copy of his book of concrete poetry, Eclipse, I just said “wow”. Hard to anthologise but very high on the slopes of the poetic mountain. D.M. Black is on a high point, writing the mythical narratives which will peak with Gravitations. Kenneth White is an eccentric exile, writing in a way which is either cosmic or vacuous. Ian Hamilton Finlay is the captain of the concrete poets, both extremely simple and notably avant-garde. George Mackay Brown is at the peak of his powers, writing poetry which is naive and artificial at the same time, using the real Orkneys as a setting for his highly imaginative narration of an ‘archetypal’ view of history derived from Edwin Muir. Peter Davidson did a couple of pamphlets, embarrassingly enough I have never read them, but we have to mention them. JF Hendry published a book (Marimarusa), although it is doubtful that he was writing poetry. We should also mention the five poets selected in Macaulay’s anthology Nua-bhardachd Ghaidhlig: Donald MacAulay, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, Derick Thomson, George Campbell Hay. This list of poets is overwhelming, and maybe that explains why I can’t make meaningful generalisations. At this point I will give up and quote parts of an essay called “Iodine and fish-boxes: an alternative theory of Scottish poetry”. This dates from roughly 20 years ago and would have accompanied an anthology, which after some effort simply veered off the road. Peter Manson and Rob MacKenzie had vital inputs into the project.

Being committed to the Scottish tradition is not uniformly a source of joy. Often it involves getting a parcel of books, by post, from the Scottish Poetry Library, and reading on to find all the books brain-damagingly bad: timid, monotonous, arrogant, predictable, populist, an insult to reason, sentimental, bullying, conservative, and in all humiliating for a patriot. […] We want to say that even if Gaelic culture has been oppressed it is still possible for someone writing in Gaelic to be artistically corrupt, milking the applause from the kind and indifferent audience. We want to say that a society which reduces its own symbolic realm to reality is losing one dimension of culture, and is eroding the possibility of freedom. That restricting the songs to the ones that everyone can sing is not the best thing for everyone. That there is a flavour of Blairism in Scottish cultural managers, saying: everything to the Left of me is immoral and has no right to speak.

We find a common reliance on limited-stimulus fields and on boundary-free spaces. A simple test of success would be the ability to combine these, and to produce something which simultaneously has a three-dimensional reality and embodies an abstract idea and the possibilities of thought. [...] An example of a limited-stimulus field would be an object, on which focus is kept, preventing camera movements. This might apply to one of Finlay's art objects, with its ultra-simple text. The field without boundaries could be the sea, moorland, the sky, virgin snow, falling snow, or the polar ice, for example. […] The boundless space is part of a "pair" with bounded space, it carries a memory of the political; in which its existence points to the alienated nature of daily division and struggle.

[…] With such a small literary audience (and no interest from outside Scotland), the Scottish poet suffers a pressure to converge on secure and identified tastes, to avoid disappearing altogether.
Every starting poet is faced with a landscape which is only apparently infinite (since it is full of objects which represent limits and powers of attraction), and only apparently frozen and fixed (since language and human psychology conceal immense possibilities).
A lot of the support for Scottish poetry has been predicated on nationalist positions. That is, the reader is doing the poet a favour by reading something he or she doesn't really enjoy, wants to use the poem as a weapon (to replace English influence?), and wants the poem to include "typical events" which are recognizably Scottish, which demonstrate Scottish superiority (to England), distinctiveness, and abidingness. It is a bonus if the poet uses no words or ideas which have arrived since 1707. Needless to say, no-one who follows these sullen imperatives has the slightest hope of artistic success or sociological truth. […] This border of the unstable and uncontrollable is a searching test for poets: they either switch the noise out, and turn inwards, or take it as a torrential source of information and therefore of verbal possibilities.

The concept of the avant-garde, and the whole theory of history, change, and prestige which accompanies it, fails to meet Scottish conditions.
The use of folksong in Scottish poetry has been uniformly disastrous; it's hard even to remember a time, back in 1800 or so, when the two could speak to each other. There are resources hidden in the folk culture. [...]We say this to give a context for saying that the folksong is the deadliest enemy of the Scottish poem, and that no-one who fantasises themselves back into a previous century is going to create anything worthwhile. There is room for a writer both to be Scottish and not an imitation folk artist. We wanted to exhibit the unused resources of the folk culture, and in particular to show its amorality, its preoccupation with sexuality and communal violence, its phantasmagorias, its word-plays, its liking for horror, the splendours of its language; but the material is too familiar, and too overlaid by orthodoxy and sentiment.
Prolonged contemplation of the simple, pure, and non-discursive forms of concrete poetry raises alarming memories of the simple, pure, and non-discursive forms of the folk song. It is unreasonable to define the one as sheer authenticity and the other as sheer inauthenticity (with the two exchanging places for different readers). Both are 'limited-stimulus fields'. Scottish concrete poetry has had a lot to do with the sea and fishing-boats. Owing to the deformations of national culture, modern Scottish poems are often missing a dimension–or even two.

MacAulay's Gaelic anthology includes five literary poets, sometimes known as the ”famous five” (an coignear cliuiteach). Arguably, one could describe the ‘modern’ poets as literary rather than oral. Donald Meek said ‘We need to remember that the traditional culture (dualchas) was behind everything, and that there were spiritual bards in the neighbourhoods all though the century: poets like Eachann MacFhionghainn in Bernera, and Catriona Domhnallach in Stamhain.’ The ground rule for the anthology we just mentioned was therefore that only poets who wrote in modern, 20th century, ‘European’ ways were included. Another anthology, An Tuil (The Wave), much more recently, ignores this rule and includes a mass of work by the poets of traditional or folk style. It is a large-scale book and is edited by Ronald Black. This may indicate a growing acceptance of folk arts by the reading audience. It is obvious why MacAulay (and others) picked out those five and left the “village bards” behind, but defining what the difference is is not at all straightforward.


I think we have to make the basic point that Wales is a country where poetry is important and England is one where poetry is unimportant. In Welsh-language poetry, we have the rise of several currents. First (and I did cover this in the book) you have the revival of classical meters, made institutional in the magazine Barddas and the society Cymdeithas yr Iaith. This is important, but we also have to notice the colloquial-sloppy-youth line, also made official by a series, Y Beirdd Answyddogol, from the nationalist press Y Lolfa. Thirdly, you have the line of Welsh free verse which is the most experimental thing around, and which although it tended to lose out to the nationalist-conservatives and to the colloquial students, produced a lot of the poetry which we find interesting and valuable today. It is baffling that there are three different currents to look at, but this is just a symptom of Welsh-language poetry being in an exceptionally vigorous state. I looked at one annual anthology, Cerddi 77, and is just a very good book. So none of the currents was, really, central.
For the Answyddogol, let me quote from a review (translated) of the retrospective anthology of the series, in 1998:
“The origins of the series, anyway, carry us back to the sunny days of 1976, the world of contemporary song in Wales was one infectious boiling and the national movement was facing the challenge of the referendum and the broadcasting campaign with eagerness. Truly, the poems chosen for the first volumes of the series are full of 'Lifeitis', that period Robat Gruffudd talks about, with the train of the revolution rushing past along the slopes:

Do you remember that night
when we raised two fingers to the world?
when we swore an oath
we would never confess...

But in the shadow of the explosion of 1979 the thick of the series is to be located. From the melancholic studies of Sion Aled (1979), to the challenging élan of Ifor ab Glyn (1991), we hear the echo of the painful attempt of Iwan Llwyd in his collection Gwreichion (sparks) to sing the new Wales into being in the face of the bankruptcy of the old Wales. And perhaps that one sign of the process reaching high tide is the decision of Robat Gruffudd to wind the series up? On the literary level, in any case, we have gone past the polarisation of standpoints which was so noticeable in the discussions of the seventies. Indeed, if polarising opinion, responses and standpoints was the effect of the series in the first place, there is no doubt that one of its chief after-effects immediately was leading to the destruction of poles of that sort in the world of poetry.” …
“After all, the series was militating all through its life against conventions like 'standards' and 'taste'. For this reader, it shows that a good number of striking poems have been dispensed with, especially so in the case of Lona Llywelyn Davies and Steve Eaves.“
(I couldn't determine who wrote this piece.) This makes the interesting point that the “centre” for these young poets was the lyrics of Welsh-language pop music (of the time), something which the English audience is unlikely to have a grasp of. This description evokes among other things why this movement is not to be described as avant garde or underground – although it was clearly a breach with inherited poetic values. The jacket of the anthology says “In the period 1976-1996 Y Lolfa published 25 volumes of “answyddogol” poetry, all of it raising two fingers to the Establishment in Wales: the KKK (the Welsh Arts Council, initials CCC) the royal eisteddfod, Barddas, the joint education council, and the Kremlin of Books. Not to mention the Labour party and the Tories, and the University of Wales – and many a trendy member of Plaid Cymru.” A spontaneous response might be that these are people who find adult life boring and comprehensible. (I think ‘Kremlin’ refers to the Books Council, Cyngor llyfrau.)
Llwyd's book on the sixties doesn't even see this movement coming. Answyddogol means 'unofficial' but is also a genuine mediaeval term, as the books on poetics refer to bards who have not passed all the bardic exams and so have not qualified. For the 1980s movement, the implication that metrical poems were official was close at hand even if inaccurate. Rather more basically, swydd means 'a job', as well, and the series could also mean the unemployed poets.  Y Lolfa represents changes in the scene but stands for a kind of poetry closely related to Brian Patten, Roger McGough, Danny Abse, Liz Lochhead, Adrian Mitchell, etc., rather than modernity of style. The assertion about ignoring literary standards is not merely a gesture but a literal summing up of what the series was intended to be.

The structural contradiction of the unofficials was that the only market which was interested in reading in Welsh was devoted to nationalism, but that the informal verse threw away the most distinctive feature of Welsh poetry and in so doing lost the feature which would allow it to compete with informal verse from England or America. Thus, these poets were writing against globalisation in a form which was unmistakably the product of globalisation.
I am having difficulty in talking about modernity in Welsh-language poetry, partly I suppose because the domain of freedom is so extensive once you wander into it. The major figure was Euros Bowen, with his highly complex and experimental variant on the traditional cynghanedd, and he is the single figure who is likely to attract international attention, with the experimental quality being the air travel ticket. However, it is noticeable that Welsh people are not wildly enthusiastic about his poetry. It is ambitious and in a way inorganic. He was moving to a simpler style during the 1970s. There was a group of non-traditional poets who were very productive during the decade.

There is a comment by Alan Llwyd on the formal renaissance of the 1970s, in the foreword to Trafod Cerdd Dafod Y Dydd, written 1982:
“This period is an exciting one in the history of the poetic art and in the history of Welsh poetry. Plenty is heard about the formal renaissance, excessively much indeed, until some of us have begun to hate the term. Since some critics and poets want us to be in the middle of a formal renaissance, at once people went ahead to put the 'new movement' to the test, for the sake of making it scarce. After all, if I may cynghaneddu a proverb, 'There is a reaction to every movement'. Wales is not fond of success, or splendour, or excellence; she is practised of old in being inferior, servile, and the pride and dedication of the poets of the renaissance are not at all to her liking. She is too fond of grumbling and complaining, often in the name of nationalism. Fake nationalism, or perverted nationalism, milk and water, is what this nationalism is that wants to drag everything good in Welsh down into the depths.“

What we seem to see is that the dumbed-down verse of the unofficials has, over time, been defeated and pushed aside by the neo-conservative revival poetry. What is reported is that the polarisation of the 1970s has died down considerably, and that Wales is unlike every other country in western Europe in the dominance of highly formal, regular verse.

Anglo-Welsh verse
Conventionally, Welsh poetry in English is divided into the First Flowering (connected to the magazine Wales as edited roughly between 1937 and 1945 by Keidrych Rhys) and the Second Flowering (starting around 1962 and supported by the newly arriving flow of arts subsidies). Doubts have been raised that this second wave actually produced good poetry. Certainly the political impetus was more significant than the artistic talent. They wanted ”typical” poetry which would promote nationalist views by praising truly Welsh values and yet showing that Wales under English influence was a degraded place full of diminished people. Unsurprisingly, this wish to be typical produced a literary dogma in which anybody who wrote differently was simply pushed off microphone. In the 1970s, you have a fairly distinct new generation of Anglo-Welsh poets who have nothing to do, artistically, with the Second Flowering. We could cite Peter Finch, John James, Paul Evans, Iain Sinclair, Ralph Hawkins, Phil Jenkins. You have survivors of the 1940s – Glyn Jones (b. 1905) and Roland Mathias (b. 1915) are no longer at their artistic peak. They do have formidable back catalogues, though. You have Emyr Humphreys, who produced Ancestor Worship, a really fascinating long poem which is not, I would say, behind the implication of worshipping ancestors, that you are following ancestral ways in a stupefied daze. Humphreys was a veteran of the 1940s but was a novelist who took to poetry late. You have the “second flowering” guys like Meic Stephens, Tony Conran, Raymond Garlick. They have limited artistic firepower. You have Robert Minhinnnick, a much younger poet who is writing at this time in a realistic and ”regionalist” style which he is very skilled at but which has built-in artistic limits. There is a wave of younger poets in a mainstream style, of whom we need to mention also Sheenagh Pugh, Mike Jenkins and Nigel Jenkins. You also have the magazine Second Aeon, edited by Finch, which is the top counter-cultural magazine in Britain. Also, you have a cluster of concrete poets, encouraged by Finch and published, often, by Second Aeon.
There is a Glyn Jones interview where he reports a count of the poets active in Rhys’ magazine Wales and says that by the 1970s only one third of them were still writing. (Or was it, one third still continued in the 1950s?) The point was about the dearth of resources and the simulating effect which an ambitious magazine had on people. I can't remember the details, it may have been MP Ryan’s interview. I suspect that the people who had given up are part of literary history, part of the evidence we have to collect to get the real picture. We can just mention Lynette Roberts as one of the poets who wasn't writing poetry in this decade. Conran produced a volume called Spirit Level which is very mixed, he was going through radical changes in his style and only parts of the book are successful. (Confusingly, this is credited as selected poems 1956 to 1968.) I do admire his willingness to experiment, but it is frustrating trying to describe a book like this. He produced another book called Life Fund which unfortunately I haven’t read. [I bought it and realised I actually had read it before] I suppose the fairest description is that he had a basic idea of what to write, which was poems for events like weddings, and this didn’t work; he abandoned it after roughly 20 years; and while he was having difficulty expressing what mattered to him, he got fascinated by ideas which were really peripheral, and put a lot of formal energy into them because he had spare energy. He had a cultural critique but didn’t at this time write culture-critical poems. One of the poems is called ‘Space’, and deals with the contrast between the equable grid of space with recession and perspective, linked by him with the Renaissance, and the space of folk art, in which each object has its own space (and there is no recession to show distance).


The idea of writing a poem about this is intriguing, and this poem can be compared with Edwin Morgan. His poems are genuinely unpredictable. Take this poem about an ‘Hourglass’:

In the mutable sand
Where may hands build?
Palace and tower
Headlong topple,
Gulf and vortex
Ebb at the altar
Furnace and forge
Rust and flake,
Drilled to a gap
Of inflexible stars;
The loom is a cobweb world.
The cogwheel spins
In seething tides;
The bales are spilt,
The bullion taken
To coral banks
And lobster's yard.

This is clearly linked to Metaphysical poetry, it is not wholly modern, but it goes through twists. It may date from the 1950s – the labelling is not clear on that.

I seem to be owing the scene a chapter about Wales and Scotland, possibly also about cultural activity in the north of England. I can see that adding Northern Ireland to the story would give a fuller picture. I never started to do this, because I am doubtful about my ability to grasp Irish poetry (for various reasons I don’t have that feeling about either Scotland or Wales).

Monday 3 May 2021

Sydney Goodsir Smith

Lost texts

I was looking recently, and found that my old website,, has disappeared.[this was a temporary blip "An automatic security update has banged the doors shut." not sure whose security was threatened, but it is now back up] It contained really a lot of texts about British poetry, some of which I have copies of and some of which I don’t. A good moment to say farewell, really. Some of the texts relate to a chapter about Scottish poetry which was part of the original 'Failure of Conservatism' in 1993, when it was not yet called that. I cut it when I rewrote the book (in 1997?) and somehow it never floated into any of the later volumes. I had spent a lot of time studying Scottish poetry at a time when I did not know how to write criticism, and when I did learn how the Scottish material belonged to an older stratum of my mind and was not at the surface. This is a flaw in the “Affluence” work. So I am releasing here two sections, only, of that mid-90s work. Dare I say that I got better at literary criticism after this?

Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-75)

After doing the linguistic work to get through the surface of his poems to the artistic conception, one is bewildered to find so little. Under the Eildon-Tree (1948) is the first book of the Scots Revival other than MacDiarmid's which one can call excellent. Eildon-Tree can be seen as a regression to sixteenth century modes, that is before Scottish literature was taken over by the English language, with an ideological covering taken from Graves. It writes in archetypal terms to express total preoccupation with a situation, with the story, and distance from mere reason. It is wonderfully effective. It can be compared to Sorley MacLean's great lyrics, in Gaelic, from about the same time.
Smith, with his themes of world politics, Scottish social morality, love, and dissipation, his glittering style and braid Scots, looked like a major poet. Close examination reveals otherwise. The English-Scots divide has often been a divide between respectable and uproarious: Smith, although from an educated family, and an academic by trade, was exceptionally keen to associate himself with the latter. His belief in the charm of the unrespectable life is quite misguided; in poem after poem he describes drunkenness, low company, and joviality, as if they had some intrinsic fascination. Peter Trudgill identified, in analysing his research on the use of dialect in Norwich, negative prestige: speakers saw the use of socially lower forms as something desirable, a way of asserting virility, sturdiness, or solidarity; Goodsir Smith is relying on negative prestige in this sense, writing from the howff. The effect of this palls very quickly, because the poetry lacks other levels of expression and development to keep our interest ablaze. Since he was not a native speaker of Scots, but acquired it in adult life, it may perhaps express a fantasy for him, a persona rather than a whole man. He comes on in the character of a larger-than-life roisterer such as Richard Harris or Richard Burton have been labelled by their publicists:

Ah, stay me wi flagons, dochter o'Sharon, comfort me,
Hain me, compass me about with aipples!
Cool this fevered spreit with seven-frondit docken,
Flagons, marjoram, green fields, Salome!
Belling beakers, let them be til my hand! Dance!
The corn be orient and immortal barley greit
Stay me, shore me up thir rue-I-ends, ye cedars o'Lebanon!
(Seceders o'Raasay, what say ye?)
Slocken my drooth with pippins, Hebe!
Rosemary, bed me, sort my place of biding, sain me,
Entreat me kindly, temper this tuneless carillon,
This cracked and untrue campanile, O Venezia, greenest isle!
- Black Rose of Shalimar, white hands, come cherish me
And hap me haill, my soul, with hairtsome companie,
Licht unflichtering of this lichtless airt!
Fetch tumblers, dear buffoons, carnalitie
And Mammon's blythsome Bridal-Sang...
-Venus Merrytricks, mix you the drinks!

(from: 'Kynd Kittock's Land')
[hain: hedge. spreit: spirit. docken: dockleaves. thir: those. rue-I-ends: possibly ruins? regret later? slocken: quench. sain: bless, cure. unflichterin: unfluttering. airt: place. hap: wrap.]
This is flavoursome, rollicking, yet it lacks movement, and it's too much of a cento, the ad lib blustering of a drunken actor recalling Falstaff's lines, an exercise in pastiche following rules we all know already. This character goes back, not to Villon, but much further, to the Goliardic poems. Kynd Kittock was a giant in a poem by the 16th century poet Dunbar. The swollen torrent of words feels like largesse and relish for life. The periphrases are not truly modern, but do not lack in force: Merrytricks is Latin meretrix, a whore (hence Mammon's bridal). A young girl, indeed, is being debauched. No doubt she is wearing Shalimar perfume. The campanile (bell tower) in Saint Mark's Square, Venice, is high and thin and must stand in for a phallus here, although this one seems 'untempered' and off the vertical. The campanile collapsed altogether in 1902 -'the atmospheric disturbance almost capsized a steamer on the lagoon'. It was raised up again, and the reference is evidently to an erection being revived by the efforts of the poet’s companion. The seceders are fundamentalist Protestants, abstainers. Bell beakers, swelling outwards, were Bronze Age vessels, quite likely filled with beer. He simultaneously attributes to the rough life qualities, of degradation, sexual exploitation and cynicism, and fundamental, unhealing despair, which destroy its appeal: he cannot persuade himself that Edinburgh Bohemia is carefree and brilliant in the way that Montmartre, at least in mythology, was. This coarseness of low life must rub off on Scots itself, which he seemed to be proud of. He believes that sex and alcohol (perhaps, too, being working-class) yield moments of higher truth, but just what is this truth? Short of turning into an Abstinence Tract, concerning repentance and redemption from the Pit of drunkenness, his work becomes an explanation of how his wastrel ways prevented him from eventually writing his great works. He died young after what one can only describe as a slow decline. One must admit that the language of the passage quoted, in its sheer remoteness from real speech, is a triumph of the imagination. The pastiche was inseparable from the revival of a language not used for 'high' poetry since Jacobean times. Claims that Scots was the authentic language for Scottish poetry seem to bounce off this language which is blatantly inauthentic, the product of alcohol and literary memories.

(I was told a story about Goodsir Smith's 'long decline'. He had a good job as theatre critic for a reputable paper, which kept him in funds without an excess of effort. One night he was so drunk he fell out of a box onto the floor below. This would not have gone so badly if he hadn’t been recognized, a cultural prominent. He lost his job. Naturally this is not Hard Fact. There is a good treatment of Smith in Christopher Whyte’s book Modern Scottish Poetry.
Black Rose of Shalimar, white hands is probably a reference to a long forgotten “kashmiri Boat Song”: pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar. I have a recording of this sung by Rudolf Valentino.)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006)

Finlay's contribution to poetry as such is slight, but attention should be drawn to it nonetheless: The Dancers Inherit the Party is an engaging volume, wholly unpredictable, exploring new ideas and cutting short the instant they cease to be interesting. His career as a maker of objects and graphics falls outside our strict limits, but despite that represents a possible way out, of both paper and public invisibility, for poetry.

Finlay first crosses our field of vision in 1945, in the memoirs of Derek Stanford, in whose company of conscripted, but non-military, labourers he served. At that time he was more interested in painting than writing poetry; Stanford records him having organized a student revolt at his art school — something ahead of its time in 1944. Fascinatingly, Stanford reports Finlay's enthusiasm at that time for Le rappel a l'ordre, by Jean Cocteau, a 1926 book promoting the neo-classicism which was such a feature of the French scene in the 1920s, and after; it was variously associated with homosexuality, stage design, Picasso, the resistance to Picasso, Surrealist painting, etc. Subtitle, "pour un classicisme vivant". Finlay later produced a postcard pack called Rapel. Finlay's vision, as developed in the 1960s, is specific, if ramified: a Classical garden whose ornaments recall the stern Republican virtue of the early years of the French Revolution, of Robespierre and Saint-Just; themselves massively influenced, in their oratory and legislation, by the idealized virtues of Republican Rome, codified by the Senatorial opposition to the 2nd century BC rise of dictatorship, a form of monarchy and arbitrary rule; a political theory taken fully fledged from an even older tradition, that of Greek civic virtues, brought to a rhetorical peak in the cult of Tyrannicides, men of exemplary virtue who assassinated, even at the cost of their own lives, the destroyer of republican freedoms. The most martial, traditionalist, ascetic, and indeed communistic of the Greek republics was Sparta. This was thought of as rustic and archaic, as well as being Doric, which is why we associate the tribal name Doric with those qualities: rusticity is also central to Finlay's project. We can see that his discourse is one of considerable complexity, even though it uses graphic and very familiar symbols, such as the Doric column.
Various scandals have attended his career; a strike organized at art school; one with his attack, in the late Fifties, on the repressive attitude of aged and distinguished Scottish poets who controlled literary patronage in Scotland; one with the local tax authorities, who assessed his Little Sparta garden at a generous rate, and then presented him with a thumping and annual rates bill; they refused to classify it as an art gallery, which attracts rates exemption. Later there was a feud with the Scottish Arts Council, leading him to the slogan 'the Arts Council must be destroyed', I'm not sure what the casus belli was; his allies are called the Saint-Just Vigilantes, after a notoriously pristine, inflexible and purely idealistic orator of the French Revolution. Then there was the scandal about his contribution to the centennial of the French Revolution; an employee of his demanded top billing, the inclusion of his own work in the show, maximum publicity for himself, etc., and when this was not forthcoming, he denounced Finlay as a pro-Nazi because various weapons and machines of World War II featured in his interpretation of recent history, as well they might. Amazingly, the French authorities were frightened by this puerile piece of gangsterism, and Finlay was removed from the celebrations. (Details of this are in relevant issues of Art Monthly, and in PN Review no. 62, for 1988).

In the 1960s (1961-7), he edited Poor.Old.Tired. Horse., a magazine of Concrete poetry, which in his hands had a certain daft wit and charm; the genre appears to have produced memorable work in Scotland, and Germany, but not in England, where it fell victim to egomania and Messianism. So far as I can tell, Finlay got involved in the Concrete thing very early in the 1960s. Görtschacher, in his wonderful book, gives an account, based on letters from Finlay, of some of Finlay's designs, for the cover of a poetry magazine in 1972: "The area on the cover [of Littack 2] is set out like a page in a herbal book. On the lexical level, there are, with the exception of the magazine's name (...) only two words. The 'Gourd' is in fact an aircraft carrier [cucurbita meaning 'vessel' and also 'gourd']. The left-hand shape is the aircraft carrier, which is based on the WW2 Japanese carrier Shinano, seen from above. The curly growths are the curious configurations of the oceans, which become growths of the 'gourd'. The sectional illustrations show the interior of the 'gourd', and the aircraft are depicted as seeds. (...) The cover for Littack 3 consists of three black tanks with green camouflage, with which the magazine is equated. The immediate idea is that beauty or order is something which rests upon a willingness to fight for their survival. The word 'Arcadia', printed in green, relates to [Poussin,] Arcadia has always been associated with the idea of death. (...) For Littack 4 Finlay adapted the idea of 'Kill Rings', (the title of the cover), that tanks carry a record of their kills in the forms of rings painted on the guns, by treating each issue as a 'kill'. (...) The cover 'Tribals', i.e. the plural of 'Tribal Class Destroyers', for Littack 5 acknowledges the visual pun on the relationship between the way that certain native tribes ornament themselves, and certain warships 'camouflage themselves'. (...) On the V2 rockets, which the Germans used to bombard London with, are messages (...) for Lord Goodman, Chairman of the Arts Council at the time, and Ronald Mavor, the former Scottish Arts Council Director. The idiom Finlay availed himself of refers back to the WW2 habit of chalking personal messages to the recipients on the bombs. (...) 'Ya bass', a Scottish version of the French 'à bas', is the best known of the Scottish gang warfare slogans and could be encountered on walls in Glasgow." (WG p.628). We may recall that the origins of Concrete work were in industrial design, which is what Max Bill was really interested in; it was to do with putting information on tin cans and packages in the most effective and economical way; logograms were invented, in Vienna, for a very similar purpose, and the aircraft markings which interest Finlay so much are an excellent example of this theory put to practical use. Advertisements, and magazine layouts, certainly resemble the best examples of Concretism, because the people who design them went on the kind of course which Bill designed. Finlay differs totally from most Concrete poets in having something to say: not a gobbledegook know-nothing antinomian, he wants a rational and perfectly formed message to reach us, and realizes that mixing visual and verbal means, and drastically simplifying wherever possible, is the most effective way of doing this. Finlay has chosen the end of the eighteenth century as his special period, but still his is basically an Enlightenment project: he does conceptual art because he is capable of conceptual thought. His designs, indeed, use the methods of propaganda: because this is a language developed by the best brains in Europe, over thousands of years, for maximum efficiency in getting information across to large numbers of people; repossessing this wealth is a first step to repossessing other kinds of wealth.
(I think Finlay designed the covers but got someone else to draw them.) (sources: Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay, A visual primer; Stephen Bann, exhibition catalogue; special issue of Chapman, circa Oct. 1994.)

At the time, I probably saw the difficulties of both poets as part of the language problem in Scotland. Finlay could barely write sentences, Goodsir Smith wrote essentially in pastiche. Today I am guessing that the difficulties were due to their personalities, not a vast collective destiny. I should have learnt a lot more about Concrete poetry before writing off the English version. On the other hand, the point that people designing aircraft markings were also graphic designers, and solving some of the same problems that Concrete poets were, still holds true. We live in a visual environment saturated with the work of graphic designers. Actually, the display inside a cockpit is also a piece of graphic design – an answer to the problem of putting complex 3D information into indicators which the brain can absorb very quickly. And we now live in front of computer screens which are instances of graphic design even if they can also put up texts or films.
Whyte’s book does not even mention Hamilton Finlay – his verbal poetry is not strong. But his work in ideograms, or graphics, however you care to put it, is a form of poetry. Why Finlay was incessantly involved in rows, starting in 1944 as Stanford recalls, is unclear, but he wasn't someone you would want as an ally.
Lucie-Smith’s anthology does not include any concrete poetry – a decision which remains surprising, since he had produced at least one anthology of visual poetry. Maybe somebody said no. He says at p.321 that visual poetry needs a different rhythm from verbal poetry and does not fit well into the same book. No doubt he is right, there is a different "scanning pattern" needed, and no doubt this applies also to criticial appreciations. Visual poetry needs a different set-up from verbal poetry (and no doubt works well with graphic design books or exhibitions).
Littack [lit + attack] was a waste of time, a movement which attacked everyone else for not being vitalist enough but had no cargo. It was frantically carrying nothing to and fro. Anybody can be bored and resentful. That doesn't produce the culture which we want to remember decades later. The suggestion in issue 2 (at p.84) that everything had gone wrong in the past 20 years, this in 1972, was ludicrous but did convey a sense of brutality and self-regard which summed the magazine up. If they missed all the 36 poets surveyed by Eric Mottram two years later (as the Revival), that shows a truly remarkable lack of knowledge and ability to respond. The heir to this legacy was the magazine Acumen.