Friday 16 September 2022

The hangman ties the holly

The hangman ties the holly: Canadian mythological poets in the 1950s

When we read Anne Wilkinson’s poem:

Her coral remains lie
Where fishes keep their watch by night
And move transparent fans
In hollows of her delicate drift-bones.
From ivory pelvis spring
Her strange sea changeling children;
In sockets deep with six lost layers of sight
The sea fans open.
(‘Virginia Woolf’)

- we are bound to think of Apocalyptic poetry. Wilkinson was Canadian. She wrote a book called “The Hangman Ties the Holly” (1955), a title reminiscent of 40s English poetry in its paradox and parody. Evidently there was some influence of the main Forties English style in Canada. The question is whether this affected a few poems only (so Wilkinson wrote in a mythical way about a death by drowning, without that implying that she would use the same style for any other topic) or whether the idea of personal myth affected some Canadian poets at a deeper level.

The start point is two unanswered questions from the Forties research impulse which followed David Mellors’ overwhelming 1987 exhibition. First, what echoes of the Apocalyptic thing were there in the rest of the English-speaking world? and, secondly, given that the claim about Apocalypse that it vanished like an apparition around 1950 sounds like factional propaganda, how did the movement develop in the 1950s?
The big picture of the 1940s is the detachment of the English speaking world from England as the centre of literary taste. This coincides notably with the re-facing outwards of US policy to become the doctrine of the world’s dominant power, and responds to the controversial and spookily avant garde quality of Apocalyptic poetry in England. The more emotive it was, the less it sounded authoritative and metropolitan. It is interesting that this detachment of the USA was parallelled by rapid anti-English re-orientation in Wales and Scotland – old mantles of authority had simply broken up in rags, and decolonisation was the public music that everyone could hear.

What happens if you remove the world crisis from the “world soul” which the prophetic insight of Apocalyptic poetry is expecting to be listening to? and what, further, if you remove the irrational and confusing quality of style, which so many interested people objected to during the 1940s? The outcome might be something which retains personal myth and a reliance on intuition rather than documentary, which is serene and wrapped up in its mythical world. It would be a myth of serenity and fulfilment, as opposed to paranoia, crisis, the image of Nazi power across the narrow sea. In the Ur-text, the Book of Revelations, we remember the horror-film passages, but the text itself is mainly not about those, it contains a whole range of strange scenes. If you see the course of the world, that could include a wealth of scenes which do not belong in a horror film. The 1950s were an era of returning prosperity and, outside big exceptions like Korea and Indochina, peace. Canada was at peace. The realm of poetic myth could be as diverse as the realm of the original Greek myths, or also as the world of fairy tales, which was closer to the powers of Western secular poets.
Part of the Forties scene was an interest in the ballet and Romantic painting, intact worlds which recalled an era of peace (and of wealth, at least for a few). Part of the poetry scene of the time was an approximation to this realm, a blurring of borders. James Kirkup is an example. So in the 1950s you might find that poetic myth looks like a ballet – something graceful, entranced, aestheticised. In fact, the move away from the activity of States, and so of armies, navies, and so on, could lead directly to this sort of idyllic and small-scale setting. Further, the release of the Unconscious, a move bound to bring decentralisation of art, could unleash a swarm of graceful and decorative dance-like scenes, as opposed to something from a horror film or a war film. The Unconscious contains endless variety, and that was the initial point of unclasping its lid.
We can think about this by looking at products of the early 1950s: Under Milk Wood, the dramas of Christopher Fry, Eithne Wilkins’ Oranges and Lemons. They are more to do with whimsy, decentralisation, comedy, riotous decoration, and much less to do with international politics and the twilight of the gods. But it is credible that this is the direction which the Forties scene went in, and so that we are looking at a development rather than a collapse. People were not writing war poems, full of burning buildings, in an era of peace and victory.

This is the context in which we can look at a group of Canadian poems of the 1950s and ask whether their exploration of personal myth might be part of an emotional connection to England and English poetry. One framework for this might be a wish to have a Canadian thing which moved off in a different direction from US poetry and so pioneered a territory which was not already owned by someone else. Another might be the example of Dylan Thomas. Possibly recent British poetry was acceptable as a model because British political power was evaporating so fast that dependence was not the interpretation which would occur to relevant people. The poets in question are Wilfred Watson, Daryl Hine, and Anne Wilkinson.

Northrop Frye reviewed Wilfred Watson’s Friday’s Child (Faber and Faber [British Book Service], 56 pp., $2.00) on publication, saying it “is typically formal poetry, mythical, metaphorical and apocalyptic, using religious language because it is impossible to avoid religious language in poetry of this kind. The expected influences are present: Hopkins (notably in “I Praise God’s Mankind”), Eliot, the later Yeats, and more particularly Dylan Thomas, the most exuberantly apocalyptic poet of our time. (There are two poems on Thomas, an “Admiration” and a “Contempt”: the latter seems to deny the apocalyptic element in him, which I find incomprehensible, in spite of the great eloquence of the poem itself.)” (Frye, in The Bush Garden)
This draws the frame inside which this essay has to navigate. Frye is clear that Watson was influenced by the Forties English (or Welsh!) thing; Watson clearly stated, on the cover of one of his books (if I am not mistaken) how much he disliked the Apocalyptic movement. It looks rather as if he had been influenced by Thomas but saw this as a weakness, a social disadvantage. That might propose that Canadian poets, maturing in a certain ten-year period, might simultaneously have been influenced by poets such as Barker, Thomas, or Raine, and have felt a need to moderate that influence and pursue their own direction quite energetically. Watson wrote:

Emily Carr

Like Jonah in the green belly of the whale
overwhelmed by Leviathan 's lights and liver
imprisoned and appalled by the belly's wall
yet inscribing and scoring the up rush
sink vault and arch of that monstrous cathedral,
its living bone and its green pulsing flesh -
old woman, of your three days anatomy
Leviathan sickened and spewed you forth
in a great vomit on coasts of eternity.
Then, as for John of Patmos, the river of life
burned for you an emerald and jasper smoke
and down the valley you looked and saw
all wilderness become transparent vapour,
a ghostly underneath a fleshly stroke,
and every bush an apocalypse of leaf

Evidently, this is an apocalyptic poem. Jim Keery included it in his Apocalyptics anthology, and this is not a puzzling choice – no matter what Watson said. John of Patmos was the author of the original Apocalypse. It does not imitate the pattern of the source because it does not adapt the myths sufficiently into a new myth. The supernatural narrative appears as a tidy comparison for the activity of a real person, Emily Carr (1871-1945). It is “personal myth” in that way. If we look at the images, we see apocalypse, but if we look at the grammar we find something organised and tidy. This is noticeably an equivalent for an Emily Carr painting which has a realistic and rather tidy depiction of a row of totem poles, products of the Canadian Pacific province which embody mythical beings and may record myths, even if their primary significance is to identify a clan and its property.
Watson also wrote:

Then nor Any day nor
Any moment neither
But now — ever and ever
It was, and the Garden of Eden was
The day before. The first
Love of the world, the curst
First marriage poured
Into my veins its heaven.
And centuries of birds sang laughter
Into my heart of rafters
Till the tomb egg broken
A bell rang and swung its thought
(‘Love Song for Friday’s Child’)
The imagery is, basically, apocalyptical, and even mandatory for an apocalyptic poet. If you don’t think an apocalyptic poem looks like this, you are wrong. I am not saying that Watson didn’t work out this poetic theology on his own, just that he reached the same field of resonating images that the English poets did. (I understand his later poetry was quite different.)
I am less interested in locating an echo of the English avant garde in Watson – if the poetry is just an echo then this is of scarce interest – than in finding how the fascinating theories of the group (initially in Leeds, we understand) worked out in a situation less marked by haste and hysteria than wartime Britain. My impression of the three core Apocalyptic anthologies is that the poetry is unfinished, disfigured by haste – people just didn’t think they were going to live very much longer, and they couldn't wait. It is quite rational to think that the movement would reach maturity in the decade 1946-56 (roughly!), and that poems from that period would be the ones of most interest for a connoisseur of poetry looking back in a more leisured era. That moment of fruition didn’t happen in Britain – enemies of the New Romantic style took over too thoroughly and hit too hard. We have evidence that editors had decided, around 1950, not to take any more poems in that style. This gave rise to the question, already mentioned, about the later development of Apocalyptic poetry as something located in a body of missing evidence. I think Jim Keery and I disagree on this, but my impression is that the style flickered out when the pressure of war and international crisis abated. There was an upsurge when Dylan Thomas died, as so many people wrote “farewell Dylan” poems in a style imitating his that you could possibly produce an anthology of them. Patrick Anderson, in Canada, produced what may be the best. People loved Thomas, and loved ‘Under Milk Wood’ (broadcast after his death), at that moment. But the 1950s went on without a School of Dylan raising its artistic level to a pitch you could call significant. The dirges were a farewell in two senses. But, this is an open question. There is a surviving problem of obscurity, poetry that got written but not published (or, published in an amazingly marginal way). Then, there is the problem of sensibility, that poetry sensitive to the state of the world (the world-soul, I almost said) would look totally different in 1955 from how it looked in 1943. Then, there is the question of the style flourishing in somewhere like Canada – free from the ideologues and hate-peddlers of the London and Oxford (Oxfordshire) hot-pots, and benefiting from serenity.
A guide to which way the wind was blowing may be Dorian Cooke’s ‘Fugue for Our Time”, which I understand was written at about New Year’s Day 1950. Cooke’s poetry is still largely unpublished, and we understand that Peter Manson is planning a collection of it. The story is that Cooke had a book ready for William MacLellan to publish, and MacLellan never managed to bring it out. Manson's search for the (possibly) surviving typescript is the stuff of literary legend. However, ‘Fugue’ did come out, in 1951, from a Communist Party front publisher called Form Books. Cooke (1916-2005) was the youngest of the original Apocalyptic group, in Leeds, and wrote some of the most extreme, and least successful, material in their group anthologies. However, ‘Fugue’ is a striking contrast to that material, being a metrically highly organised, closely argued, poem about the state of the world in 1949. I take it that this is a development of the original concerns, rather than a path out of them, and that this reformed manner was likely to be the vehicle for Apocalyptic poetry of the 1950s. Cooke ceased publishing at that point. I describe this because, if we are going to look for connections between the Canadian poets and the Apocalyptics, we should look at “Fugue for our Time” (or late Thomas) rather than the more frantic material from the time of the military build-up, the expansion of the Third Reich, and the Fall of France.

Frye remarks: “In our day, however, the primitive tendency has been reached through a further refinement of sophistication: “modern” poets use myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic imagery just as “modern” painters use abstract or stylized patterns. In Canada, the Romantic nineteenth-century traditions are reflective and representational: “modern” poets have unconsciously bridged the cultural gap with the Indians, just as the painting of Emily Carr bridges the gap in British Columbia between a culture of totem poles and a culture of power plants.”
This suggests that the drive towards the unconscious was bound, in Canada, to lead to a re-imagining of myths of the First Peoples. This was a nationalist programme which also meant turning one’s back on Europe. It follows that impulses which in the abstract precisely match the Apocalyptic idea in Britain would, in Canada, culminate in something Canadian – where the link to Surrealism or Apocalypse was only theoretical, cooled by an ocean, and not really worth investigating. (The extensive use of indigenous material, including myths, eventually led to a complaint by Indigenous writers or others that this was appropriation. Part of the appeal of myth is that it is free, it belongs to you when you deploy it in poems.)

The Apocalyptic thing involved decentralisation. The State was suspect because of its links at every level with the war machine. Rejecting the machine meant a rejection of the Enlightenment, in favour of myth; but inevitably also meant a rejection of the State and of its processes. Humans were no longer similar to each other; everything was personal. The new mythic discourse had also to reject the standard myths, being the Christian legend of salvation and the Greek mythology. Their “classicism” and Victorian aura condemned them. But folklore had bypassed the Enlightenment and was evidently decentralised. It offered a language which Forties poets could master without simply becoming neo-classicists. A key to the Apocalyptic plan to revive myth is that they were using it creatively – the Victorian apparatus and its costumes would be discarded, to be replaced by a newly invented set of symbols and events, straight from the unconscious. These new stories had not benefited from thousands of years of sophisticated polishing by such compilers as Ovid: they would be coarse. Folklore fits into this as a sort of myth without sophistication or overlay; it is a much better source for invented myth than, say, a Mannerist painting with a full range of visual rhetoric. So a title like “the hangman ties the holly”, with its echoes of popular song (of an older time) is an example of personal myth – not yet ennobled and sublimated. It is a line from a poem called 'Carol’ –

I was a lover of turkey and holly
But my true love was the Christmas tree
We hung our hearts from a green green bough
And merry swung the mistletoe

We decked the tree with a silver apple
And a golden pear
A partridge and a cockle shell
And a fair maiden

No rose can tell the fumes of myrrh
That filled the forest of our day
Till fruit and shell and maid fell down
And the partridge flew away

Now I swing from a brittle twig
For the green bough of my true love hid
A laily worm. Around my neck
The hangman ties the holly

This is a wonderful poem and its sophisticated manipulation of a folk idiom, from songs we all know, is distinctive. (The laithly worm was a loathsome dragon in a Yorkshire folk-tale, or possibly ballad.) The links with an Apocalyptic style are almost invisible, but there are moments in Wilkinson poems which do show a link, however transformed: Free from cramp and chap of winter
Skin is minstrel, sings
Tall tales and shady
Of kings of Nemi
(“The Red and the Green”)

So Spring affects us directly through the skin and our inner state is seasonally buoyant. The kings of Nemi are the subjects of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which offers a link, persistently, between myth and folklore. Folklore in fact offered a safe space where poets could work on mythical material without the oversize implications of writing myth. The theme of the poem is quite close to “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”; the red is the blood which circulates inside the body of a human, and the green is the vital force of vegetation. The poem says that the power of the natural world is inside humans, and that art can reflect this more or less boundless vitality and growth. The Golden Bough is about vegetation myth as the basis for most folklore: the king dies and is resurrected just as the wheat is harvested and yet grows again. So the skin is released from winter and metaphorically blossoms; it sings for spring, and so Spring is the motive for songs. (The tall tale is shady because it is like a tall tree, and that tree must be the one on which the Golden Bough grows. But a tall tale is also a myth.)
My feeling is that these poems show how “personal myth” could work in poetry, so shorn of wartime paranoia and of prophetic trumpet tones but coherent and integrated. The unpopular features of the Apocalyptic thing were verbal awkwardness, a lack of logic and consistency, and a tendency to exaggerate. These features could be fixed. So if we are looking for reflections of the style in the 1950s we should start by looking for poems which have shed these features. Wilkinson may be the supreme example of this, since her poems are graceful before anything else. So when Wilkinson writes about “the green artery” of plants, that is very much like “the green fuse” of the flower in Thomas’ poem, she uses imagery like Thomas’ rather consistently, but her style sounds quite different. More generally, personal myth needs to be discreet in scale, because your personality is not inherently gigantic. Another feature of the 1950s is a more oral style, where the folk manner simplifies the poem and makes it closer to an audience. This is audible in Thomas, in Fry, and in Eithne Wilkins, as we mentioned. It bestows lucidity. So we may think that the answer to how Apocalypse developed in the 1950s is work by Kathleen Raine and Anne Wilkinson.
Daryl Hine wrote a pamphlet called “The Carnal and the Crane” in which the title comes from an 18th C Christmas carol. (Several editors have supposed a 14th C original, which we don’t have.) My supposition is that the poems in this 1957 publication (he was twenty-one!) do present personal myth realised through folklore and do resemble some other poems of the time which used folk material. However, Hine was a prolific poet who had almost nothing to do with Apocalypse in the course of his career. A link with Christopher Fry is thinkable. I couldn’t find references to the carnal and the crane (two birds, one eats red meat and one eats fish) within the text, although the longest poem is about King Herod and the Three Kings, and the Carnal is a Christmas song which is about the Journey into Egypt and so partly about Herod. The Herod material is in a poem 13 pages long called “The Return from Unlikeness”. Hine does show “a lack of logic and consistency” and paraphrasing his Christmas poem would be difficult. It is irrational at some deep level, and in the irrationality is the personal element, masked and yet elaborate:

Remember that you thought me beautiful
and praised the muscled flesh above the bone,
the angle of the head, and used to call
my skill the body’s silent falconry
that could release and call the falcon home.
I’m hunter, hawk and hunted, and I shine
in the apocalyptic landscape as I shone
amid the simple views of Arcady.
(The speaker is Alexis, one of the gay shepherds from an eclogue of Vergil.)

I am really not clear what the unlikeness is and what the players return to. The whole could be gay love poetry with a New Testament nativity play superimposed on it. But the buried material resists surfacing much as the overt content resists being unwrapped and discarded.

I regret that I don’t like Hine’s later work as much as this 1957 pamphlet. Perhaps that is because I am more interested by the past. And perhaps he just liked Auden too much.

James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles is certainly personal myth, certainly fuses entirely with folklore material, and certainly from the 1950s. Is it Apocalyptic? not for a moment. It sounded fascinating when Frye reviewed it (in his annual survey of Canadian poetry, for 1958), and is fascinating to read. It is like a comic ballet, with geese instead of swans. It is more like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (with its hoe-down) than like George Barker. It fits neatly into a pattern of Canadian poetry about Christmas – all the characters are Michaelmas geese, and Christmas is for obvious reasons the end-point. A summary I grabbed from the Internet is:
The title of A Suit of Nettles was inspired by a German fairy tale. Seven suits of nettles are woven by the sister of seven brothers who have been changed into swans. When the time comes for the seven swans to put on their suits of nettles and regain human form, the arm of one suit is not finished. Consequently one brother always has one swan’s wing instead of an arm.
The poem, like Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar, is a sequence of pastoral eclogues, one for each month of the year, but here the dialogues are not between bucolic swans, they are between Ontario geese! Although the goose-eye view is bound to be somewhat restricting there is much carefully observed detail about farm houses, spring in a small pond, summer in a pasture and the small town Ontario Fall Fair. […] Here is a poet who believes in merry invective. (I don't know who wrote this. Uncredited blurb to the 2010 edition)
“The poem has a seasonal cycle, associated with a rotating children’s ride at ‘an ordinary small town fair in Ontario with its sideshows, ferris wheels, prize animals, freaks, and merry-go-rounds.’”
I enjoyed Reaney’s Ontarian pastoral.

Far away red far away
Red as fire
A fox
Flash and transpire

I met a green woman
Her feet were paths
Her eyes were bunchberries
Her arms green laths
Her tongue a mushroom
Her teeth white violets
Her nose an owl feather
Her eyes like cressets

Did I touch her?

All pulse-wage since
And this place
Holds my heart in a bottle
Of pathpace

I suppose that pathpace is speed of movement and the speaker is trapped, so that his energy is bottled up. The garnishing refers to child support payments. Reaney’s poetry is eccentric, rural, archaic, folksy, quaint, but highly wrought and convincing. There are quite extensive references to The Golden Bough, just as in Wilkinson.

I was excited by comments in Northrop Frye’s essays on 50s Canadian poetry but on examination the connection with British Apocalyptic poetry is not really there. The use of folklore and even folk-song in poems by Wilkinson, Hine, and Reaney is interesting but has other sources and is not simply an extension of fashions on this side of the Atlantic. I found these poets fascinating.
A guess that Canadian poets reached personal myth by means of folklore proved right, although Frye’s admonition about Canadians accessing Native Peoples’ mythology to fill the gap left by Christian and Greek myth had more scope. Reaney, Hine, and Wilkinson do not show any evidence of using “First Peoples” myth, and instead we are seeing people of English (or anglophone, anyway) stock using English folklore. Evidently folk singers, and eventually folk clubs, thrived in Canada. We all know what that led to.
I subscribe to an online library which has quite a lot of Canadian poetry from The Porcupine’s Quill, including 50s poetry, and which does not display at full size on my PC. This halted the essay and it did not really recover. After efforts using the screen grabbing tool I was able to recover a text of James Reaney which I could blow up and read, but it was time-consuming. I hope to access poems by Jay Macpherson and others as time allows. The idea of personal myth in the 1950s would still repay further attention.
It is fair to mention a thread that is just lint. Robin Skelton was a genuine Apocalyptic poet (Patmos and other poems, 1955) who went to Canada. However he was not in Canada during the 1950s. And he wasn't a high-powered poet. I don’t think Canada needed Skelton, and I don’t think anyone took him, as opposed to John of Patmos, as a prophet of times to come.
Even pre-drop Jim Keery has pointed out flaws in my understanding: "I’ve got those lines by Hine, for the obvious reason (I think the second ‘shine’ should be ‘shone’) – but nothing else of his – and ‘liked Auden too much’ is a direct hit, I think – for a start the land of unlikeness is from his Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being – ‘He is the way./ Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;/ You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures’ – ugh – which is where Lowell must have got his title, though Land of Unlikeness came out in the same year, 1944, and it’s a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions: ‘I realized I was far away from Thee in a land of Unlikeness’ – it is a great phrase!"
So there we are. Further dredging reveals that the phrase was taken by Augustine ("regio dissimilitudinis") from Plato's dialogue "Politicus" (the Statesman). "Beholding it in its troubles, and being anxious lest it be racked by storms and confusions, and be dissolved again in the bottomless abyss of unlikeness, he takes control of the helm once more." The "land" has been taken to be either the captivity in Egypt or the wandering of the Holy Family to Egypt, which we see in Hine's poem.

Thursday 8 September 2022

Michael Roberts as Machiavel

The free ticket

The starting point is a consideration of a dataset of thousands of 20th C poets. Most of these had no careers, they do not feature in the anthologies. This greyed out background makes us think more about what is special in the trajectory of the poets who did get selected, who do feature in a trawl of anthologies. Part of this is a sense of Time – being able to see the history of literature and to place yourself on a time-line, and so work out what style is appropriate. I previously discussed the issue of why one person decides what Now is and another doesn't, but we are not going to get into that again. Samuel Hynes titled a book "the Auden generation" which conducts itself as if only four poets had debuted during the 1930s. Surely "generation" implies everyone, and that would include several hundred people (even if "emerging" was not something they got round to).

I noted that mid-century poetry was dominated by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. This is based on standard anthologies. The ratios point to assimilation to modern culture as part of a biographical process, and as source of both content and formal insights to support poems. Clearly, also, the anthologists picked good poems, and the sociological background is incidental to that. My feeling was that almost all the poets who were completely ignored wrote in out of date styles – they lacked a sense of Now. My feeling was also that this sense comes very quickly when you socialise with other people who read modern poetry, because most readers have a strong sense of the “out of date”. Poetry is not different from clothes, films, popular music, painting, etc. in this respect. To recover why some poets grasped what being out of date meant, we would look at social groups and not specifically at individuals.

To analyse this, my urge is to go back to Michael Roberts’ anthology New Signatures, 1932. Evidently, this defined the way to write as legitimated by Allott (in his Penguin anthology) thirty years later. It was the way Allott himself wrote. It showed a style which people could copy. It was the winning ticket. So, what we are looking at is a population of a few hundred people who wrote poetry in some other way and didn’t make it into Allott’s 1960 version of the contemporary. New Signatures was the key to legitimacy – it was a public document, widely reviewed and presumably on sale quite widely. It was really obvious at the time that this was the style which was going to dictate the pace for everything else. So why did most poets starting in the 1930s pass by this style? Roberts “mentored” the poets who picked up the Legitimate style from his exhibition of it– but only a minority were willing to do that. There is a free ticket but most people don’t go along to pick it up. A quote –

The sun, a heavy spider, spins in the thirsty sky.
The wind hides under cactus leaves, in empty door-
ways. Only the wry

small shadow accompanies Hamlet-Petrouchka-
Chaplin across the plain
the wry small sniggering shadow preceding, then in train.

(A.S.J. Tessimond, at p.101) Maybe a lot of poets didn’t like this style. Oxford was full of bright kids but it can’t be that everyone else wasn't bright. Maybe the key thing is the capacity to imitate – you have 19 year olds with a honed ability to imitate. They see a style and just pick it up. It is theirs. Meanwhile hundreds of other 19 year olds can’t imitate the new style. It’s like being unwilling to put on a new fashion in clothes. “I’m not wearing THAT.” The message only reaches those who are destined to receive it.
Roberts also did the Faber Book of Modern Verse, which jettisoned most 20th C poets, even the famous ones. In 1936, if you virtually memorised Roberts' anthologies, that equipped you to write Modern verse. I am just asking why some people didn't do that and still tried to write poetry. In 1960, Allott is effectively repeating Roberts' decisions, setting them in stone. This becomes the story of poetry 1930 to 1960.>br> Maybe there is a minority of poets who see style as detachable from their personality. Studying literary history makes this realisation inevitable. That detachment may be the basis for choosing a style and so choosing the right style. This is still speculative – so, to speculate again, maybe any (arts) university course will grant the same realisation.
Tessimond worked in advertising. This also sheds light on the question of poetic fashion. To write ads, you have to have a sense of what is up to date. You also have to be flexible rather than stubborn, other-directed rather than preoccupied with your own feelings – again, this may suggest the personality type of someone who is able to acquire a new style. So we are positing not just a social scene in which everyone is interested in modern poetry but also the kind of person who is able to assimilate new verbal patterns rather than just stick with what they were doing before. Fairly obviously this might correlate with creating verbal environments which other people can go inside and feel released and at home in.
I think that arriving at a university and a town where you don't know anybody is a big shock and often sweeps away previous attitudes, which is a moment that makes room for the adoption of a new style. A new career in a new town. I also think that a high-powered university gives you a double stimulus; whereby the whole set-up is telling you that you are destined to be the best, but both your teachers and your peers, who are competitive with you, are being very critical of you, and that testing process is necessary to high-flying universities. In poetry, being self-confident on its own leads to prolix and dull poems, and pure criticism produces people who never complete any poems at all. The balance is the key.
I don’t want to state that the Oxford set-up is perfect. Clearly there are people who come out of it with an excessive self-confidence and sense of entitlement; and others who come out furious after close contact with people who are too talented, and with others who eagerly confirm that you are the lesser talent and they much prefer several other poets in your year. Larkin has left a record of how angry he was with Sidney Keyes for being more talented than he was, and how crushed he was by being left out of a book (Eight Oxford Poets) which featured better poets his age. (The editor, Michael Meyer, turned him down.) We are not talking about a set of perfect outcomes. All the same, if you are designing an environment for novice poets, you probably want that combination of self-confidence and vigorous criticism. Facing rivals who are not only super-gifted but also super-competitive may not be a benign experience. It can leave burn marks. All the same I think one of the common features in unsuccessful poetry is how unselfcritical it is – the poet may have a good time writing it but they are not asking if it is any good. The ones who are going to make it all have that ability to focus on their weaknesses.

Inventing a style which other people can use is another topic which we can go into at another time. Special gratitude is due to people who do this – Auden is a prime example. Eliot produced poetry which people couldn't imitate, that is another matter. Dylan Thomas certainly produced a hundred imitators.

This post tacitly accepts that most good mid-century poetry came from a sociologically very narrow group of people. It is hard to accept that, but if you want to devise environments which facilitate novice poets then it is helpful to look at examples of success. The post is quite narrow itself, and we should also recall what happened a bit later– as Wolfgang Görtschacher has documented, the Sixties saw a terrific rise of interest in poetry at the new universities, and it is possible that every university had a poetry scene of some kind. So the Oxford-Cambridge dominance was washed away during the Sixties. I think it was easier to go from three centres of poetic endeavour to 30 than from zero to thirty. I think it’s good that there were some centres of excellence in 1950 and better that there are now a whole lot. And some centres of insolence. And probably some centres of indolence, too.

In the 1970s, we still have figures from the 1930s setting the rules – Roberts, Auden, Grigson, Allott. (Even though Roberts died in 1948.) I looked up Eight Oxford Poets and they were Keith Douglas, Gordon Swaine, John Heath-Stubbs, Michael Meyer, Roy Porter, Drummond Allison, J.A. Shaw, Sidney Keyes. The year was 1941. They were all twenty.