Wednesday 31 August 2022

Patrick Fetherston

Patrick Fetherston (born 1928).

Natures of all sorts. (Tetralith, 1973). [57 pages in double column, so 114 columns] Fetherston is an interesting figure because he was already doing something avant garde in the 1950s and persisted into a new world. But actually that continuity is deserted, nobody inhabits it. I never heard his name mentioned although I saw his name in catalogues and possibly saw him at ALP book fairs. Fetherston's book is a (non-)translation of a poem of the 1st century BC, De rerum natura, [on the nature of things] by T Lucretius Carus. Lucretius is writing about what we would now call science. (He does not credit this very clearly.) I should record that my father was a historian of science so my childhood left me with some knowledge of that history and with feelings about how terrific good popular science was and how badly written much science writing was. I would recommend The Fabric of the Heavens [1961], by Toulmin and Goodfield, as an account of what early science found and what questions it was asking. I read “Natures” because I read a review in a 1973 issue of 2nd Aeon which said it was good. (“massive poem that takes a cosmic view of the world, creation, death, nature itself. Mimeo format.”) Finch seems not to have noticed that it is a translation of a poem from the 1st century BC or that its ideas are very very old.

Fewer elements
in mind than in body
and fewer still
with mind-with-body symmetry.
Not always experienced:
the slack on the skin of a miner
after a day at the face;
the pulchrific dust on a woman's cheek;
even nightmist (the heaviest kind).
Where the plexus of neural fibre
doesn’t always respond
to periscopic follicles,
should the stimulus to faint
be transmitted?
Your mind wants to live
more than your temper does.
Were I to prove
self was (in agony) subject to death
I‘d prove at the same time
mind was dying and temper dying
- for all that WANTING. (s.70)

There is something here. But the sum is a book in 128 parts of which none works as a poem. (Temper must mean physical body. This is not very clear.) The passage is firstly about the difference between the world being perceived and what the mind succeeds in perceiving. The last few lines pursue the disobedience of the body: the body wants to die and the mind does not. So the poem includes also perception and the human body.

Fetherston uses a simple vocabulary. The attitude is that if we are dealing with direct sense experience and removing myth then using the simplest possible language is appropriate and will yield the truth. However, when one observer shares knowledge with other people the vocabulary they use is crucial, and the more shared terms they have the more knowledge they can transfer. F’s primitive lexicon limits what he can record and certainly destroys most of the information in Lucretius. Lucretius was writing for an audience which was certainly familiar with the terms he used (Latin translations of Greek philosophical vocabulary, to a large extent) and that shared background is not only central but is what Fetherston destroys. Take the word “clinamen”, which Toulmin and Goodfield write so helpfully about. This records the early idea that there was an original body of water which was the cosmos; that it flowed; and that in the flow a swerve caused some part to separate out and become solid matter. This speculation is based on someone watching a flood and seeing silt fall out of the water and imagining that matter originated from such a process. The Idea explains why there are many different substances which compose the cosmos. They have differentiated out. Fetherston does not get this idea over intelligibly. (“Fractionally, a body in motion/ may, deprecating its motion,/ swerve.”) He has lost the original poem while stubbornly building a book built of unlearned language.
F seems to have no notion of the verse line. I can't see even one good line in this book. Another approach might have been to say “if I can write one good line then at some distant point I might be able to write a second one”. F does not seem to have the notion that a section of 30 lines might be made up of 30 good lines. In a sense he isn't writing poetry at all. Isn’t even planning to do that. Lucretius’ original Latin poem is written in rather sonorous and magnificent hexameters. If someone saw a page of Fetherston, it is hard to see why they would want to read another one. The language is wooden and its texture is unpleasing.
I can see that the rule of going back to the simplest language and building up knowledge from the elements is related to other avant garde projects. But F’s poem is very generalised and its rather basic vocabulary use limits the amount of information that is being delivered – and traps the poem in generalisations. The rule is to feign ignorance – there is so much information available, in 1973, in New Scientist for example, which he just scraps to go back to the basics. The choice of De rerum natura is not an obvious one, but we can compare Mottram's poem Local Movement (reviewed in the same issue of 2nd Aeon) which starts from a 17th C text, written in Latin, by William Harvey, about the movement of animals and so about what desire is, as shown by what a creature moves towards. It is fair to say that Fetherston departs from his source and introduces some 20th C ideas.
I understand that F published with Stefan Themerson (Gaberbocchus Press) in the 1950s (Day Off, 1955). I am doubtful that this twilight world of 50s avant garde affected what happened after 1965. It was not forceful or attractive. There never was a point where nobody in England was interested in the avant garde. Their main interest might be receiving new work from Paris or Milan or Berlin, but they didn’t vanish or turn into cats or something. Galleries had shows of modern art and there were people in England who bought the paintings. There was Herbert Read. But the good stuff was hard to find – cultured teenagers in England might encounter modernism in the form of something which didn’t work properly and which put them off. There was a typical moment, I think, where one of these teenagers encountered, later, perhaps aged 25 or 30, abundant modernism, in the form of a Paris museum perhaps, and saw their notions of art collapsing. This was good, but one after-effect might be a dislike of being English, in fact a whole theory of what englishness meant, which cast the Island as a fortress of ignorance and reaction. Fetherston was Scottish, possibly (he uses the word “havering”), but anyway this distrust meant that the local connoisseurs just weren't interested in a local avant garde. “English wine, English modernist painter. Just say no”. Basically his work is unattractive and although he was eager and persistent he just didn’t enthuse people.

1928 was a bad time to be born as a British avant garde poet. However, partly thanks to Eric’s milestone collection of names as the “British Poetry Revival”, we can see that there were modern-style poets who had been born in the 1920s: Edwin Morgan, Christopher Middleton, Christopher Logue, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Charles Tomlinson, Matthew Mead, Gael Turnbull. And Eric himself, of course. They were closed out in the 1950s.

He published under the imprint tetralith, I wonder what that means. It means “four stones” so maybe just a rebus for “feather stone”. “Fethwar” is a possible prehistoric form of “four”.

If you want to know about the universe, I recommend Carl Sagan's TV series, “Cosmos”. This covers most of what Lucretius was writing about. The pictures are helpful, we find.

Tuesday 30 August 2022

a shop window on recent poetry

I indulged myself and copied down a 5-year series of titles from the fabulous PBS web page. I gathered 1150 titles. This is certainly a luxury experience, things being offered for your pleasure in senseless profusion. It is more than anyone can take in and so it is like marrying a millionaire. The luxury aspect is also that I am not obliged to buy any of them – I am free of responsibility and that is a wonderful feeling. Do they actually read all the books or do they let publishers put up all the books they choose to? what is this a window on?
Retailing is actually the selective principle – we are not seeing a sensibility, even a repressive and partial one. A package of pamphlets has just arrived - the address label has the publisher's name in one corner- so the PBS don't keep a stock of thousands of books, instead when you order through their website they pass the order on to the publisher for fulfilment. So "a shop with no stock" and no losses.
I checked and out of 74 names in the classic 2014 anthology Dear World 52 do not appear in this PBS series. Why do this check? Because poets have a fear of being left out it; is like children being afraid of the dark. So as we gaze in fascination at the 1150 titles displayed on the PBS pages, we have to ask whether we are leaving space for the ones who are being left out. And, obviously, those 52 names from Dear World can only be a visible marker for a much larger group of poets we are not seeing. The qualifier for the PBS list may be simply that the publisher is willing to pay the PBS fee (or, accept the share they take as virtual retailer). So perhaps we are seeing 1150 titles out of 1800 that actually mattered. Gulp.
The jacket of the 2011 anthology The Salt Book of Younger Poets announces that these are the “poets who will dominate UK poetry in years to come”. Evidently that hasn’t proved to be so – the number of poets on the market is just too large. The fifty poets in that volume, incredibly gifted as a collective entity, are only a fraction of the poets achieving success in the world of 2022. To extend that thought – nothing dominates the poetry world, there is no “generational sound” and it is difficult for anyone to claim that some style, or some individual, is the Sound of Now.
I do have a feeling about the scene and it is roughly that the problems which wrecked most English poets a few years ago, the absurd fantasies and inhibitions, have been resolved and that there is a whole world of poets who have just walked out of that conservative and repressed situation. At one level, that abolishes my stock in trade – the critique which we, collectively, voiced in the 1990s does not need to be voiced any more, because everyone has realised it is true and has moved on.

This looks like an invitation to shut up.I am going to review three or four books a year even if the total of significant books is 240. "Mission accomplished- but the beat goes on."

The next corollary is that the Alternative scene which I and we saw as the exit from a depressed mainstream did not win as the mainstream lost. We thought there was only one opposition, unified as a conscious anti-principle, but there were a hundred ways out of the post-Movement shipwreck. I suppose in retrospect that the good thing for cultural critics, in the Eighties or Nineties, was moments of realising that the orthodox route of an avant garde exit was surrounded by dozens of other routes, less travelled and certainly less theorised. The scene was in fact not going to experience a re-run of the modernist revolution of the 1920s or of the flourishing of the American avant garde in the 1950s. These views gave an overall framework which apparently explained everything but which was in some ways impervious to the impact of new facts. In electoral politics, it was obviously the Labour Party which replaced the Conservatives in government, and which aggregated very disparate forces of opposition; this pattern could not be simplistically transferred to the sphere of cultural politics. (At this point it is not Labour which is the “natural” force of opposition in every region, so for example Scotland and some parts of Wales have a different “natural” centre-left choice. Back in the Nineties, I was enthusiastic about books like Sharawaggi, or by Frank Kuppner (A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty) or John Hartley Williams, which did not fit into the preset values of the Official Alternative, and as an editor I was frustrated by those preset values.
I think the old Mainstream lost power because it had an inherently weak position, based on the weak poetry it produced, and because there were many other arts which showed poets what art could do. It wasn’t humiliated on the field of combat by an Alternative which was barely visible in the retail outlets and libraries. To pursue that, I don't think the Alternative was defeated in quite the same way, but I am unclear what its status now is, for example whether it still has coherence as a theoretical identity. I don’t know what its critique of the poetry being written today is. You can set up as a rule that “all rebel poetry is the legacy of other rebel poetry” and so that “unconventional poetry published in 2022 reflects the glory of the heroes of 1972 who actually invented it”. But, is it really true that the “repressed” reproduces itself? or is it rather true that Official poetry is so bloody boring that it has generated 1 new rebel every day since 1960? The old Alternative was rather boastful about Legacy, to the point where it became an obvious dogma and mainly revealed insecurity and even a sense of defeat. I was reading Sophie Robinson’s “Rabbit” last night… a contemporary classic, I think, something obviously strong and captivating and subjective. It is not something that the Mainstream could take on. But is it indebted to the British Alternative? I very much doubt this. It is indebted to Frank O’Hara, in a minor way (65 years have passed!). Robinson mentions Tracy Emin at one point.
One of the vital moments in that 1962 Allott anthology is where he will only print Geoffrey Hill’s poems if Hill provides an explanation of what they mean. So Hill is forced to come clean and write a commentary. When Hill says “I may have been thinking of John Foster Dulles’ view of God as head of Strategic Air Command”, that is astonishing. My point… yes, there is one… is that culture was run (in 1962) by Cold War Christian Conservatives, and there was a whole poetry world made in their image. Hill was being sarcastic about it. That system was against creativity and it was bound to shipwreck. Even if it was still in power in the 1980s. We are seeing 100 varieties of poetry now because poetry is going to be like that as soon as the central models are unplugged. And it isn’t a re-run of anything. There is no overall framework.
To talk about fairness, we would have to consider, not just the 1150 titles in the shop window, but as many again which were published but didn't get into the shop window. So, 2300 titles. It is apparent that nobody in the scene, so nobody in management, read all those 2300 titles. But, fairness would involve exact knowledge of all the poets and their merits. So the system floats on a layer of unfairness, underneath everything. But, if some irritated poet says “you are guilty of not reading my book”, what am I guilty of? The discourse around poetry involves guilt tripping, all the time. Everyone has a grievance. It looks as if the more books come out the more unfair things are. This is ridiculous! The temperament of the scene is irrational abundance based on floating unfairness. The “management”, for what it’s worth, has produced a set-up in which a flood of titles is coming out, in which thousands of poets are having their wish come true in the sense that their book gets published. I think it is hard to attack this outcome.
More work has extracted the fact that the 1150 titles come from 970 different poets. Groan. Who are all these people?

Saturday 27 August 2022

240 titles? are you kidding?

Notes on PBS exercise

The Poetry Book Society has a quarterly page of Suggested books and when I captured the lists from 4 quarters (so a whole year), for 2021 and 2022, I acquired a set of 237 poets active in that year. That is a lot of books, isn’t it.
I combined this with a previous set of 255 names derived from a cluster of 8 anthologies which came out around 2010, and which all dealt with new poets (a shifting term, of course). The extent of overlap could give us a vague view of what the total number of significant poets might be, who were working in that ten or fifteen year period.

So that overlap is the first question. The next is how on earth I can assimilate this bulk of product.

The total number of poets from that earlier exercise who appear in the Suggestions for 2021-22 is 17. So the other 238 did not re-appear in the new list of suggestions. What happened to the 238? Are we seeing a huge turnover and short-lived careers? an obsession with youth? This is good news for the bored consumer – the flow of quite unfamiliar products is rapid. This connects with a theme of my writing in the Nineties – namely tedium with the mainstream, which was excessively conservative, banal, and unambitious. That mainstream has been effectively swept away. I would argue that this justifies my editorial stance at the time. But, the issue has lost all urgency with time– which is what you hope for when you see something going wrong. Am I now someone without an issue?

Obviously, I am only looking at one year, so if you took a five-year run then more of the names from 2010 would surface. The data do not say whether most of those 250 names have simply left the business. But the lack of overlap leaves me nonplussed. So the total from the two lists is (255 + 238 less 17) = 476. This might be a “catchment area” for the whole period, 2010 to 2022, but a glance at the way we collected the names suggests that the real catchment area is probably double that and perhaps quite a lot more.

The total of names from 2021 who do not show up in my set of earlier lists is 222.

In the Suggestions, I counted 23 poets from an older era. This is subjective because it depends on my memory. But it is a very low number, so what we seem to be looking at is a frantic rate of replacement – the PBS selectors are keen on younger poets and there is a torrent of talented new poets rushing towards their observation post. Fantastic! How can you criticise this?

The figures suggest that there is a verdict on the poetry of the past, so of the period say 1970 to 2000, which is utterly favourable – people have an image of Being a Poet and they want to go and inhabit that image. It is a Yes vote. Maybe all those struggles were not in vain. But, that wish to be a poet does not necessarily mean you have much interest in the work of other poets (and certainly does not mean that you have a deep interest in the poets who were doing it between 1970 and 2000).

The Suggestions are on a website which is, obviously, a commercial facility. The PBS has a stock of books and is selling them through their website. That indicates that they flag up books which they expect people to buy. But more likely the publishers propose books which they think are saleable and the limiting factor is the fee which the publishers have to pay. There is a process whereby the PBS selects books for their subscription programme (you pay an annual fee and get four free books), but probably the selectors do not read 300 books to do that. And many other publishers did not want to pay the fee.

My project on British poetry started at 1960 and ran until 1997. So I am pondering the interval between 1997 and now. Can it really be 240 books a year for 20 years? OMG. All the same that is a plausible figure if you wanted to describe that era. To me it seems an intractable problem. I am reviewing two or three books a year.
It seems extremely difficult for a critic to develop an overview of the scene, because the numbers are as I have described. Already the 250 poets in that 2011 exercise were too many for me to deal with except by helpless hand-waving. A generational anthology seems almost too difficult to compile. In this context, the annual anthologies (Best Poetry Of 2011, and so forth) and in fact the PBS lists, are vital resources, even if not ideal as surveys. And the PBS website is a very convenient place to buy books. A luxury store.

I am uneasy about operating with these figures, because obviously that is reducing poets to parts of a featureless quantity and they all want to be unique, and to stress their uniqueness.
A lot of the discourse around poetry at the moment relates to exclusion and diversity. But, if you have a list of 237 significant books during a year, you are going to miss out on most of them, even 90% of them. Being left out is basic because it is anchored in the volume of publications. I am doubtful of its force as a theme of debate. It seems to me that if fifty poets swim within view of the camera then fifty more are drifting off camera and into invisibility. It is hard to process this in terms of guilt and neglect.

I asked “what happened to the 238?” and this would be a line of research. Is there a pattern whereby people peak with their first book, after years of endeavour, and then drop out rather than write a second book? I could spend a few days on the internet searching for this pattern, but frankly I am not willing to invest the time. Another question would be if the dropping-out is actually a decision of their audience; so that readers are identifying quite intensely with poets of exactly their age, and as they become culturally less active there is less of a market for the “date-stamped” poets. This would be a result of ever more rapid cultural change, so that the market is chronologically segmented, and there are generations of maybe five years who feel very distinct from older people, and in turn seem tired to people younger than them. This is a bit speculative – all the same it is curious how the promising poets of 2010 seem not to be on the map in 2022. So the pattern may be a huge number of poets with a very brief phase of attention for each one. But this is probably just one pattern among many.

I should point out that the count was actually 320 titles, but I did a crawl-through and removed Irish and American poets, etc. This was because I wanted a clearer, narrower, image. In reality the market is reading those poets, obviously. The starting-point has to be that all those titles are excellent - investigation might impair that theory, but we must start from a blank point where we know nothing and, yes, all 320 titles are bursting with great poetry.
Saturation could be a problem. I am wondering if there is a syndrome of saturation, frustration, and declining response levels. Maybe this abundance gives rise to radical resistance - and so to mechanisms of defence. So if someone refuses to read conventional poetry, that may be a response to overload. Conservatism is another clearly defensive line - a moment where distinctive features of "personal taste" also have a neurotic component. I don't want to overload my input channels - reviewing 3 books a year seems quite feasible. I am hoping for the next two to be delivered this morning. **

Thursday 18 August 2022

A forgotten attempt to document women’s poetry

Winter Were: a forgotten attempt to document women’s poetry
Theodora Roscoe, Mary Winter Were, compiled by, Poems by Contemporary Women; Hutchinson, 1944 75 pp.
“Includes poems by the compilers, Vera Brittain, Clemence Dane, Viola Meynell, Vita Sackville-West, and others.”
Do not pronounce this “winterwear”.
I have never heard of this anthology but I was trying to check if Were was British or not and the title came up in a catalogue. 29 poets. None of it is any good… a forgotten book. There are 60 pages actually of poetry. It is kitsch. Wartime schaltz. There is one exception… a poem by Sylvia Lynd which surprisingly enough I quoted in a post elsewhere in this blog, a few years ago (August 2010). It is about a flycatcher… not about the war, not pseudo-religious, not rhyming; full of concrete details. It is about a bird… and light on its feet, rapid, sudden in movement.

I bought the book because I was surprised to see an anthology with this criterion and to be honest I thought that Trevor Kneale had broken a duck with his 1973 anthology of 41 women poets. There was an anthology called The Distaff Muse (1949), by Clifford Bax and Meum Stewart… there was a copy in my family home, I am not sure if my mother or my grandmother bought it. My grandmother had lots of poetry. But ‘Distaff’ goes back to the Middle Ages, in fact it starts with an excerpt from a Middle English poem called The Flower and the Leaf which has no author but which at least one historian thought might be female because of its sensitivity to flowers, textiles, and fine shades of colour. Is this scientific? who can say, but when I read this as a teenager I found it very provocative because I just didn’t have a view of what was feminine and what wasn't. So actually this level of “primary object choice” could be terribly important, I could see that, but I couldn't process it. George Saintsbury said “Few would lay much real stress on the argument that The Flower and the Leaf must have been written by a woman because“ etc. etc., and, yes, Saintsbury taught my grandmother, at Edinburgh.
I did get a copy with a dust jacket and the dj says "In these pages, the love of nature and husbandry, inherent in English women, is very evident, while motherhood and the spiritual side of life are not forgotten." A lot of the poems are about birds or flowers (and, yes, either a flower or a leaf is a common subject). The conclusion from reading Roscoe/Were in isolation is that women were concentrated in the conservative and artificial and pious realm. You can rescue them by rejecting modernity, so bold language and secular values, but actually public taste has gone decisively in that direction since 1944. Or, you can reflect how there was no “overview” of women's poetry at the time, it wasn’t carefully documented and so you could have an anthology which leaves out the best dozen or so women poets doing it at the time. ("This is the only collection of poems written entirely by women.") That is, this is a useless source and one of a category of low-grade sources. That is, recovering early or mid-20th C women’s poetry is tricky and we may have a long way to go in it. Perhaps Deryn Rees-Jones has said the last word.. and perhaps there is more to uncover. So
They looked at Death,
and with him nonchalantly passed the time of day,
he paused bewildered – said beneath his breath
“Immortals these”, and laid his scythe away.
(Susan D’Arcy Clark)

- yes, this is kitsch. Patriotism plus spirituality – it is just a No. There was a time when people really had trouble separating religion from the well-being of the British Empire. This was not benign for poetry. Was the Empire mainly about money? yes.

A number of the poets are credited as belonging to the Society of Women Journalists. It looks as if a lot of the poems are based on expertise in journalism… so the poem always has a very firm idea of what feeling you are supposed to have. A box with “your feeling here”. They start with the conclusion and are reckless about methods. The authors have no interest in poetry as such - certainly not in technique and the conscious history of style. The themes are usually patriotic and spiritual -connected to Church and State, actually. The poems fit inside the authority structures and are indeed authoritarian in approach – they don’t start with doubt or follow through with evidence. It seems other contributors were involved in organising war work and reached the anthology through networks of such Top People rather than through networks based on an interest in poetry. It is significant that women began to control parts of the State, as men were away at war and also because the State was doing ten times as much as it had before 1939. These were nurturing organisations and there is visibly a link to feminism as it developed in the 1970s. So, committees running organisations that weren’t making war and weren’t making profits. This is an interesting model. However, being an important person does not inevitably lead on to writing important poetry.
Clemence Dane lived from 1888-1965, and we have to ask how contemporary? Based on the Internet, some of the authors were suffragettes of WWI vintage and some were gay. They do get credit for this. However, it doesn't look as if many of them were primarily poets. One of the compilers was born in the 1880s and it looks like the concept is “contemporary in 1910”. Stylistically, all these poets were out of date, and evidently quite a few people in 1944 were still writing Victorian poetry. Rapidly, we move on to the prior question, “how is it that Now is owned by a minority and many poets who are alive and writing are not Now and do not co-own what Now is?”. I am unwilling to answer this although numerous of my posts (label “history of taste”) investigate it. Anthologies by Michael Roberts, K Allott, and E. Lucie-Smith, over 35 years, document the notion of Now! which was victorious.
It is apparent, all the same, that some people wanted to consume poetry but found modernism puzzling, alienating, and unpleasurable. The new regime included printing and offer for sale of poems in whose course it was possible to fail… so separating an elite, with Close Reading skills or modern ideas or whatever, from another reading public which regarded Tennyson and Housman as the standard. So in the Thirties, and up to 1944, there were people who wrote completely non-modernist poetry, and they were part of that “market segment” which disliked modernism. However, tracing the “social biography” of this segment does not remove the fact that these poems are no good. Dorothy Wellesley wrote some good poetry, but check this -

He is not dead, nor liveth
The little child in the grave;
And men have known for ever
That he walketh again:
They hear him November evenings,
When acorns fall with the rain.

Deep in the hearts of men Within his tomb he lieth,
And when the heart is desolate
He desolate sigheth.
(“The Buried Child”)

This is just kitsch, again. And why is it in 16th century language? I guess the claim is to be spiritual, by using the language of the Prayer Book and the King James Bible. We may also think of the radio serial “The Shadow” (“who knows what evil lies within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows”). Looking closely at Palmer’s 1938 Post-Victorian Poetry shows that, while he has a vocally anti-modernist position, he does not present any gifted anti-modernist poets from the previous ten years… traditional poetry has sunk and gone to the bottom of the lake. It has unchained the inner kitschmeister. I don’t have an explanation for this. So we have “the rise of modernism” and “the failure of conservatism” and these are two quite separate stories, involving two separate groups of people. The crisis has two aspects, and I only have the history of one side, who were mainly Oxford graduates as it turns out. Close Reading did discourage students from writing kitsch.

There is a party of the defeated, with Resentment as its stock in trade. Palmer actually sets out their market offer, as it was in 1938. So of all the frustrated poets, some are “alternative”, experimental, and so on – but probably 95% are stuck in conservative attitudes and reject “advances in taste” as well as being unable to build those advances into their own practice.
Elsewhere, “Clemence Dane is the ‘invisible woman’ of British 20th century culture: a prolific and popular writer and artist, described by her great friend Noel Coward as ‘a wonderful unique mixture of artist, writer, games mistress, poet and egomaniac.’” And she was the model for Mme Arcati in his play Blithe Spirits. Her poetry is no good. It seems she was gay and a feminist, as well as making pots of money.
It would be nice if reading bad poetry bestowed on you knowledge of the history of bad poetry but that is just a vain hope. This is a really bad book but it is futile to think that it is an X-ray of women’s poetry at the time. I very much doubt this and clearly there were quite a few good women poets who just don’t feature here. That is the difference in the 1970s – there were people who wanted to be experts in women's poetry and created that expertise by effective and persistent work, the bureaucracy of culture (if you like). A good anthology is the result of years of preparatory work (and not just contacting people you know as fellow-journalists).

I have never heard any of my fellow fans of Forties poetry mention this anthology, and I don’t feel inclined to share it with them. It clearly isn’t a window on exciting processes. Unlike Rexroth, for instance, and his great 1948 anthology. I have just noticed that, out of 9 female poets in that anthology, none are in Lucie-Smith. A check… Rexroth was collecting “new” poets, so all his selections should fit into the frame of “1945 to 1970”, which is the frame Lucie-Smith uses. This tells a tale about the instability of taste. How your career can float away from you. Of nine female poets in Rexroth, three never got a book out. Eithne Wilkins was one. I am glad to say that someone is doing a book by her. We heard details about this at the Apocalyptics conference in Sheffield earlier this year.
Of 6 female poets in Allott’s Penguin anthology, only 3 are still there in Lucie-Smith’s Penguin anthology, 8 years later.
But, what about the hot new poetry of 1470? "The narrator sees a company of ladies and knights arriving, dressed in white and wearing chaplets made of various kinds of leaf. The knights joust with each other, then join the ladies and dance with them in the shade of a laurel tree. Then a second company arrives, this time dressed in green and ornamented with flowers. They perform a bergerette, a dance-song, in praise of the daisy, until they are overcome first by the oppressive midday heat and then by a storm. The company of the leaf, safely sheltered by their laurel, courteously come to the aid of the company of the flower drying their drenched clothes over improvised fires.

And after that they yede about gadering
Pleasaunt salades, which they made hem eat
For to refresh their great unkindly heat.

OK, this doesn’t exactly sound macho. Since when do men make salads. Further “The great philologist Walter Skeat accepted Bradshaw's judgement, and spoke of the poem's "tinsel-like glitter…which gives it a flashy attractiveness, in striking contrast to the easy grace of Chaucer's workmanship“ - this sounds so much like what men always say about women’s poetry that it is an argument for female authorship. Could we define this as “ the first musical” and insert Jeanne Crain or Ruby Keeler into it? There was a musical called "Hooray for Daisy" in the 1950s, but I think it was about a cow rather than a daisy.

Sunday 7 August 2022

An afternoon delving

An afternoon in the Poetry Library

I ventured out of Nottingham to spend an afternoon (4/8/22) in the Poetry Library, in the South Bank Centre in London, looking at texts missed out of my Blair-era Grand Project, or BGP, on British poetry 1960 to 1997.

First, E.P. Thompson's long poem ‘A Place Called Choice’. This is a great poem and it was published in an American magazine in 1951 and did not see the light in this country until 1985. I had received a copy (of two different versions) by email, which I found confusing. 1950 is before my start date but given the publication dates I should have known about this. Back at base, I collated the two versions and found one amendment:
Across the Piltdown gravel,/
Over the Swanscombe skull, crunched among ammonites and shells,/
Over the tiny Crustacea, the bric-a-brac of chalk,/
First cousins to our father/
Who lies crouched in the abandoned road of memory/
Clutching in his stone fist a charm against the centuries:/
Trawling the turfs of Fosberry with a net of shadows,/

- part of the first line is changed to “alluvial gravel”. In 1951 the Piltdown hoax had not been exposed (Oakley and Weiner did this in 1953) and Piltdown Man was still the first humanoid in Britain. 1953 - it is hard not to see the link with Stalin, another intellectual hoax, whose fall would restart Thompson's intellectual biography.
There is a whole section which dropped out of the version published in 1985 (and in the 1999 Collected Poems, an admirable project by Bloodaxe, which is what I borrowed from the library). It goes like this:

Here on this black hurst above Halifax, bare/
Except for the refuse of an old slum-clearance,/
Standing on this old track, the cobbles and setts/
Sunken and worn by the labourer, the hardy pack-horse/
And the weavers hunched under their pieces, recalling/
The cold spell setting in (the masters called it “progress”)/
  Chilling my father’s knuckles in the frostblue rushlight,/
And I, on a torn blanket by the hearth, lay watching/ 
His limp clemmed fingers threading the last warp,/
Until the clock struck five, my seventh birthday,/
And he stood over me, cursing, shaking salt from his eyes,/
Calling me out for my bit of parkin and cold porridge,/
Setting me off to the new mill in the valley farmland,/
The clatter of my clogs on the track with an hour to dawn ...//

Recalling my return, some ten years later,/
With my skin like paper, the curious crick of my shoulders/
Rucking my jacket up, the daughters of the parson/
Staring and dropping their eyes, and the jolly vicar/
Giving his heartiest greeting, the girl at the farm/ 
Laughing in my face, and turning back to her guardsman ...//

I note the black apple trees by the disused canal,/
The lime eaten out of the farmland, the smoke/
Hung like a heavy ball of phlegm in the valley/
 Soaking the walls, the whitethorn, the poor grass,
/ But lug the usual loads, tread with my thoughts/ 
The Great North Road of acceptable consciousness/
(How science has got out of hand, and man disengaged/ 
From nature, devouring himself, and all that trap),/ 
Catching sight – always too late – from the side of my eye/
  Some figure, abandoned, thumbing a lift, shouting ...//

In the thicker evening more vocal, and at night/
Possessing me at last with large excitements/ 
And various voices, heard, though hardly understood,/
As the textile villages litter and foal their lights/
From here to Lancashire and Blackstone Edge –/
 Sensing within that interthreading of workshops,/
In the intricate by-ways and slips between the Palace,/
The speedway, the Lyric, and the accountant’s offices/
Some human bond more strict than the bonds of money,/
Warmer, it may be supposed, but more exacting.//

Beneath those yellow airlanes of steam in dispersal,/
There, in that thicket of evacuating smoke-stacks/ 
Is the place where mankind is knotted together,/
The place of engagement among whale-backed moors
/ Under the pretty fairylights of heaven:/
The place where humanity is knotted into matter,/
  The brain to the skull, and the skull to the planet./ 
Threading a road through the inner thoughtways/
One within me, thrusting for speech/
In the breast of this bonebox beating aloud,/
Marker of the vaunts of man in his earthdays/
Of the folk of this woolstead thirsting to sing://

“First in the fire age, foremost in the firemist,/
 Beyond all forethought master of matter:/
Thick in the hallways of a thousand windows/
Thunder of looms and throng of folk

Next, I borrowed a copy of Kenneth Allott’s Collected Poems. I have already blogged about this, but the key point is that Allott had written Apocalyptic poetry in the 1940s and these are really very good poems. Again, it was Jim Keery who made me aware of this. Allott’s creative biography is quite complicated. Next, a copy of a 1973 long poem by Patrick Fetherston. Peter Finch reviewed this in 2nd Aeon and after reading that issue I realised I had to pursue Fetherston. He published under the imprint tetralith, I wonder what that means. It means “four stones” so maybe just a rebus for “feather stone”. “Fethwar” is a possible prehistoric form of “four”. I took this one home.

Next, some work on Heath-Stubbs. I glanced at his verse play “Helen In Egypt”, a “romantic comedy”. More work left out of someone’s collected poems, I doubt it is any good. His work went off very badly in the 1950s but there was something there in the 1940s. I read the issue of 'Aquarius' on him, for his 80th birthday, not bad but no-one even mentioned the fact that he was gay. My problem is that the printed record is so dishonest on this theme, considering hundreds of poets, that I can't write an accurate account of British poetry in my selected period. Most of the tribute pieces are nice but don't say anything memorable - which is true of the majority of Stubbs' poetry.
Then looking at non-verbal works by two poets active in around 1970, Andrew Lloyd and Neil R Mills. Mills did “City Zen” (pun for “citizen”, good grief), a set of b/w photos of signs (shop signage and similar) with characters missing. A wonderful collection of dilapidated and even pre-war walls and premises. I guess part of the point is that there is no individual utterance by the poet – he is just directing our attention. The interest in “damaged patterns” is specific to the era – a preference which at its final extension expresses a hope that there is a gap in the whole social pattern and we can slip out through it. Is that saying too much? Both Mills and Lloyd are indescribably laid-back and yet there is that idyllic quality. The first casualty of apathy is belief in the system. I looked at Lloyd’s typed/mimeo’d pamphlet from 2nd Aeon (1970?), “twelve lyrics and liu”. It has almost no propositional content, being almost sound poetry but based on distortions of actual words and patterned layout. I am reluctant to describe it... it is almost purely subjective, and possessed of great charm. It is difficult to come back 50 years later and produce a formal statement, almost a consecration, for such work. Maybe the anti-meritocratic feel is the key thing… experiencing a Cool Groove and not wishing to write an effortful poem. Maybe there was an effect of abandoning words – getting rid of them as a safety rail, as a shield. Giving much greater scope to a simpler energy coming out of the self – the way you move, your silhouette. And being more aware of the gestural level affected the verbal poem, slightly later, so that it was less hung up on words and more attuned to gesture and space.
I also got a pamphlet by Gill Vickers, “an untitled first collection of poems by Gill Vickers”, 1969. So much better than just “poems”. This was published by “R”, the shorter title for “resuscitator”, a Bristol magazine edited by John James. I have one issue, from 1964. I located the Library's copy of this tucked up inside another book... I couldn't borrow it but I did photocopy part of it.

I don’t sit here to think

yet I thought again in the pub that the longest walk is inward with no fear of walking, which I thought I recognised

yet I know of a street where on the corner there's a mirror set in the wall there's this guy walks right up to it before he goes in the pub next door looking, to find out how much space he has inside to fill, trying to see into the potency of what he’s going to say

inside, there beneath my wine glass I‘m feeling kind of shut, so don't look him in the eye, better bust his thoughts up or disappear to someplace I know about.

There’s no space in one set of lips to see all their motives, I hoped I recognised a few, yet all I saw was this guy talking to himself more often than he looked in the mirror.

Each day’s much the same, you get made? But a lot of things get made. You take some and a whole lot gets given while you let some person take you in their giving.

How many is it possible to stand before and ask quite coolly, please don’t be cold?

Or when asking feel the texture of 5 senses together, not becoming tired, yet with a silently older ability to confront?
(untitled poem at page 7)

It is reasonable to say that this also has limited propositional content. his connection with James might be an indirect indication that Vickers’ poems, while understated and so ambiguous, are part of a lyric and domestic mood which James appreciated and which expressed feelings about social life rather than about the self as a separate thing producing language for itself. Actually the way you write might express something about the person you are talking to. Its open texture soaks up an atmosphere from the surrounding space... detached and yet full of affection and even joy. It deals with the immediate present and allows that an infinite depth by not categorising and implicitly diminishing and concluding the threads of a group relationship. Time has passed but we still live in the present because there is nowhere else to live.
I can't remember where I heard her name… anyway I don’t think she published anything else. I have a feeling that this open attitude towards social interaction was more possible in 1969 than a few years later, when economic crisis (inflation and the collapse of most people’s real income) brought something tougher, more purposive but also more authoritarian. So unprovable, because the lazy and almost blissful late Sixties mood is not explicit – it’s in the space between the lines. The work by Andrew Lloyd asks for more subjective response because there is more space between the lines, in fact it’s all space. It offers me a possible world where I can feel purely subjective. The entrance into it is narrow because I have to catch a train and go back to where I live.

This sounds like quite a lot for a four-hour session. It just underlines how many poets there are in the margins of my BGP – marginal because of the limits of my effort, not because their work is opaque. I just get overwhelmed when I visit that library. It is so full of bad poetry and yet there is so much gold ore. The main thing I was there to do was do some error checking for a list of all the books which Poetry Review ran during that 1960-97 period. I thought there were some holes in the net, possibly. Just under 800 British poets were reviewed in that time, possibly a statement of the core of poetry in that time, even if most of the poets I looked at don’t feature in that list. A spreadsheet now gives me figures for the percentage of women poets in the complete set of reviews, like this:

1960-64 15.36
1965-9 14.16
1970-9 11.03
1980-4 23.22
1985-9 24.36
1990-4 27.22
1995-7 34.22

This gives quite a good fit to a simple upward line – although there is a bit of a bump in the 1970s. An era where norms collapsed, but still a puzzling anomaly. The fact that women poets collectively fit that line suggest there is a collective identity, but that must be a “low level signal” compared to the differences between individuals. Gill Vickers just isn’t the same person as Ruth Fainlight. Quoting myself, “Where I think all this fails is in the equivocation of one person with another. Clearly if you count something you are giving the impression that it is a homogeneous quantity. No two poets believe they are interchangeable so a count involving a lump of several hundred of them must be flawed.”

I also copied a few more pages of Eric Mottram’s Elegies, which I am gradually reading. There must be more poetry I haven’t read; it’s just a quest that has no end point. Elegies was finished around 1981 and is like a pin-up wall, Eric writes about 35 or so cultural figures who have heroic status for him. The poems are not “about”, he regards that as outdated; they are very subjectively edited and leave out what would be prosaic. You need to know quite a lot about each of the figures to understand the poems. So when I read

you musick-loving lights
made visible by water
entry after entry
toki no ge awakened
“all’s harmony all separate
once confirmed it is your mastery
long have I hovered on the Middle Way
today the ice shoots flame”
the justification of alone
is radiance of discovery
inventions shape daylight
mount lights shade volume by surface
now black rain may beat
black rain bends the homestead

I know the whole poem is about an American poet (one I have never heard of) and so about his poems, and so the scenes may come from within his poems. But I can’t follow what the scenes are. All the same the fragments that chase each other are evocative.