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.