am working on a new book about poetry in the 21st century. I started at the end of August and sometime around December 15th counted that I had 150,000 words and it was time to halt. I have been taking a break since then – actually still working every day, just not adding new chapters. The title is likely to be “Beautiful feelings of sensitive people”.
have been checking on early Christian vernacular literature. Heer says that the rise of this new literature in the vernacular (German) was the product of Dominican priests writing for nuns in the 70 Dominican nunneries of Germany. So, not to do with lay literacy but with a relatively un-educated part of the clergy itself. They presumably did not know Latin but could read and hence needed books. The history of lay literacy is slightly different.
The start point was looking at the Poetry Book Society website. I actually wanted to spot books I could review. I became fascinated by this as a shop window, and finally downloaded 19 quarters of their “suggested” books and turned them into a spreadsheet. I filtered out foreign poets and came up with a dataset of 990 poets and 1190 titles. I thought this proved that a survey was impossible, but after a while I felt that it was useful to take a dip into that big river and see what I could come up with. Obviously the background is “depolarisation” – about 20 years ago I began to get into a broader view of poetry than just the Alternative. After a few years of delving and pondering, I produced a book called “The long 1950s”, which still halted in 1997, but took the poets who hadn’t taken on the “innovation package” of the 1960s and had continued to write in the old styles. I found that rewarding and there wasn't much chance of me taking a narrow, Alternative only, view of the last 20 years.
Quote from an email to a friend: “at the risk of going on and on, I want to say that the figure of 990 authors does not represent a target I am going to meet... It is more like a scientific paper where you spend half your energy analysing why the data you have is so incomplete and what questions you can ever legitimately ask of it.
I looked at the classic generational (“under 35”) anthology Dear World and Everyone in it. 74 names. Of which 52 were NOT in the PBS list of 990. What I think this means is that the PBS website is just a shop window, many many powerful poets don’t feature in it at all. Wrestling with the 990 is not going to win the war... it is a battle which will not get you closer to the objective.
So, where are the others? (Dear World is 8 years old but the poets should be at the prime of their careers, roughly.)”
and another email: “I saw Martin last week and he was quite negative about the book. I don’t think he wants to read it. He was really against the subtitle “poetry in the 21st century” although it has to be called that. He did a thesis on the influence of the New York poets on English poetry and wants me to do something like that, where the content matches the title. That is no good, the central thing is that there is a deluge of new poets and the book has to deal quickly with 80 or 90 poets, not find an enclosure and sit in it. And he thinks it is just going to be me writing about poets I like… another statement of self-regard. But he isn’t allowing for me being like a camera and taking new data in, so that half the poets are poets I hadn’t heard of before I started. He is missing something there, the effect of the deluge is to wipe away the old landmarks. We can escape polarisation.”
The effect of thousands of new poets rushing onto the scene is that the past is simply forgotten, buried beneath new and fabulous layers of words. So we don’t need to continue the mainstream; alternative opposition of the 1970s. The new scene is not authentically the offspring of either side. There are just endless new possibilities. My guess is that most of the 990 poets are worth reading. The samples I have taken suggest that, but I am not going to sample every single poet. I have trouble with people who think that anything unconventional must be the product of the unconventional poetry which existed in the 1970s – this is just an act of grand cultural acquisition although I can see it is tempting. It is “I own the wilderness” more or less. Offspring– poetry is not just the product of poetry but of a whole cultural ocean in which poetry is just one warm current. Alternative poetry was not visible enough to develop a second and third generation – people rebelled against the mainstream culture and worked out a cultural programme before discerning the existing Alternative. This is a pity in some ways but it certainly encourages stylistic diversity.
Have just been reading an interview in Wolfgang Iser’s book where a Norman Holland reports work which researched “reader interpretation” by actually asking people to write down their reactions to a poem. He selects a single poem, by Denise Levertov, and reports that ten people wrote about it without any common element (except that it was about a snake and that the writer was a woman, a fact which is not in the text) in what they wrote down. I like this but I am wondering how I can respond to it within my book. I suspect that this was quite a simple poem with a dreamlike image which was genuinely open to interpretation. Poems which include interpretation, introspection, argument, etc., are much less subject to variant interpretation. But really, anything I write may mislead someone who reads it, my reaction to a poem may be quite different from theirs. This incites me to record my reactions, not to suppress them. I like the idea of collecting ten responses to several hundred poems, but I am doubtful that I could get people to supply this material for free. I am recording my responses to poems because I can control the material and I don't have to pay for it.
To look in another direction – the responses of poets to poems are of great interest and the way they write expresses that response. The history of poetry is a narrative of the way poets of one generation respond to the poems of the previous generation. This is a manageable way of capturing subjectivity. Of course there may be a whole range of subjective responses which I am not capturing at all. And I can’t compose a book in which many volumes of poetry are discussed and ten responses are included for each one. I am trying to give people helpful advice rather than to record every possible reaction.
Nolan. I quote something quoted in a poem by Kevin Nolan about eisteann ri bhfuaim, and so on. I have now discovered that this is a passage from the poet Sean O’Riordain’s diaries, for February 1949. The diaries were published as “anamlón bliana” in 2014. I am unsure how Kevin came to quote from them in a book published in 2006. The quote is at page 78 of Loving Little Orlick. The sense of the whole passage is to define “the wonder and magic of life” (alltacht og druiodhiocht). The sound which we hear dying away is that of a horse’s hooves, pulling a cart, which O'Riordain heard as a child.
So I have reached the point where the reading is continuing and I am finding new texts I like but I am not writing about them because there is no longer room.
I set up the book by observing, early on, that a 1962 anthology by Kenneth Allott included 39.5% Oxford graduates in its selection. Then I gesture towards a set of 990 poets retrieved from the Poetry Book Society website, and say that the theme of the whole fifty-year period is the broadening of the apex. It would be rational to give a figure for how many of the 990 had been to Oxford. I am not doing this – I just don’t want to do 990 internet searches for biographic data. Contemporary poets like to hide their educational career, because of the attention given to it which may be hostile and anyway bypasses what they are really saying in their poems. It would be hard to get an accurate figure. I prefer to spend my time reading poems. So this figure is missing.
I just don't think anyone is going to examine the figures in print and say “the apex has not broadened”. So the extra evidence does not advance us.
Have been reading David Kynaston’s social history of the 1950s – Family Britain. Think this is the third time. I relate to that decade. He prints Gaitskell’s analysis of the 1955 general election (which Labour lost). He (HG) says that the problem was privatisation – people were more interested in the welfare of their household and less interested in the nation and the collective benefit. So my book puts great stress on privatisation and the analysis was already there seventy years ago. This is depressing somehow, but if you write good history then it does sound familiar because everyone already knows about it. Gaitskell identifies a shift of balance– so not the annihilation of the collective idea, just a shift of the centre point. Actually both parties had lost votes since the 1951 election but Labour lost more. Not voting probably does represent a loss of interest in the collective issues, certainly in the possibility of changes to the overall shape of society. So 90% of voters didn’t change their vote in 1955. These small shifts are very interesting but if I broke down my analysis to include them it would be too complicated. The main point is what Sennett says, that there is a polarity between private space and public space, and in the modern era this polarity has broken down and it is the public space which has lost its energy. I think the point is that the sublime or majestic style is not impossible, but that there are massive inhibitions about it, and that poets tend to do it badly because of a lack of steady long-term development. I think some contemporary poetry is sublime, for example Pauline Stainer or Nancy Gaffield. Rod Mengham delivered a lecture on Tom Raworth as the sublime – I never saw the text but it is intriguing. Raworth slips off everything personal and local in order to give a glimpse of something uncommitted and intact. All the same I hear so many jokes about someone being pretentious and so little about how people miss the more profound and universal notes.
I think the limit to considering this is that the domestic scale is so much the norm and if you criticise the norm you have no standpoint. You can write a history of what happened, but much less a history of what didn’t happen. I don’t see how the normal thing can fail to meet the prevailing norms so I am not trying to define what we have, what we do, as failure. I am just pointing to how this part of history is out of balance, which is probably true of other phases of cultural history.
The sublime is still there and is part of everyone’s experience. If they play Parry’s setting of “Jerusalem” at the Promenade Concerts, that is obviously the sublime, it is an occultist figure like Blake advancing to centre stage. It is just inaccurate to say that that is not happening or that we don’t get carried away by it. I don’t want to catalogue all such moments because really it would take too long. We associate these moments with legacy art and not with new art, partly because the new cannot be collective and is not part of childhood memories.
We cannot become conscious of cultural norms unless they are contrasted with some other phase of culture when the rules were different.
28th January and I have reached the end of the book. I think I wrote the last bit of text yesterday. The day before, I went to the cinema (“Babylon”, by Damien Chazelle) with the idea of sitting in a bar and writing the last piece of text. It was about Nat Raha and very difficult to write. I had all the ideas on the bus... that feeling of movement, things rushing past my eyes. I wrote them in my notebook. Later on, I discovered that I had stuffed my bag with so many Raha books that the notebook had escaped from the bag and I didn’t have it any more. This was a sign. I wrote the text from memory and that was it. Anything else in that notebook could be forgotten about.
I read (most of) a book in which the author had just written poems about insects. And maybe a month, six weeks, before that I had read a book in which there were 20 pages of poems about insects. And we could match this to Mendoza, who works as an insect librarian (storing specimens) and writes about insects, although in a very non-realistic way. So my programme was to read 100 books from a 5-year period, with the idea that minor features of style would repeat and that you would get the unconscious of the time, the features of style which define a period because they are unconsciously accepted. And finding ideas repeated is a key step towards that. Even if it also means that the process is getting boring. So I have to read a lot more books. Although the book is complete. It is going to be a crisis if I find something else I have to put in. But I have to collect the data. I had to write the book first, because it was convulsive, I just had tons of ideas every morning and I would spend the day writing them down. So this morning I have nothing left to do but actually it is desirable if I read another 100 books and that is still part of the project.
Boring tasks get left to the end and I spent a long time yesterday in a freezing cold shed going through cardboard boxes of books, some of which have collapsed due to damp in the shed. I found the reference I wanted (an essay about the Welsh language campaign in Aberystwyth with an account of a famous demo in February 1963) but also a book which I didn’t read during the project because I hadn’t catalogued it. Digon o fwydod, by Mihangel Morgan. I am not sure I like this, much as I admire Morgan's novels. But I will have to read it properly.
Popol Vuh. The story of this text is fascinating but I didn't have space to expand on it within a review which had to be essentially about Martin Thom. I think it is fair to call it “pre-Columbian” although physically any text we have is much after Columbus. There is no “Mayan codex” of it but it was collected by Spanish priests around 1560 and then printed in the mid-19th century from their manuscripts.
“In the 1550s, in Santa Cruz del Quiché, a town constructed about a mile from the ruins of K’umarcaaj, someone wrote a compilation of the K’iche’s tzijs which were found in distinct places – not only wujs – at the moment of the Spanish invasion, composed in Western style (Latin characters, paper and ink). We do not know if this was a single and unique version, or one of many copies; we also do not know why they were written in this way. What is certain is that these texts were selected and set down in a certain sequence that did not exist as such prior to 1524; the content, however, is of the pre-colonial era“
[[tzij narrative; not sure what a wuj is.]
"Around 1701–3, the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, while at the church of San Pablo Chuilá, in Chichicastenango, obtained one of the versions of this antique manuscript, laboriously copied the K’iche’ text, and translated it into Spanish"
- this was the Popol Vuh. But what he copied was already in Latin characters. This is so obscure. Scherzer and Wagner publsihed it in 1857, then
" in Paris in 1861, the Abbé Charles Brasseur de Bourbourg published a copy of the K’iche’ text along with a French translation. Brasseur gave these texts the name Popol Vuh "
So the 1703 copy was copied from an earlier version which however was already in Latin characters. The title means “book of counsel”. Popol Wuj is a more modern transliteration.
I asked the question if it could be a fake, like certain other “primordial” books, but this seems not to be true and reportedly scholars collected texts from oral recitation in the 20th century and they correspond to the 1703 Popol Vuh.
Gordon Brotherston is reported to have compared several different Amerindian cosmogonies and called them “chapters of the same book”. This is very interesting although it is arguable whether they really correspond to each other, even being “basic books” of their respective ethnic groups. He was publishing in the 1970s and I haven’t seen his work. It sounds like the kind of thing which is so rich that I can't remember anything about it afterwards even if it seemed like a whole new world while I was reading it. His book is Book of the Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas through their Literature. “Gordon Brotherston sostiene en este ensayo que las diferentes literaturas americanas pueden leerse como capítulos de un mismo libro, que él llama El Libro del Cuarto Mundo. Para ello, establece el texto americano, distribuyéndolo en las distintas regiones geográficas y según las distintas modalidades: glifos, quipus y amoxtli, entre otros.”
"These grammars can be first accessed through the great historic-cosmogonic narratives that Gordon Brotherston calls ‘the books of the Fourth World’, and include texts such as the Ayvu Rapyta (Origin of the Human Language) of the Tupi-Guarani, the Runa Indio (Huarochirí Manuscript) of the Quechua, the Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, the Popol Vuh (Book of Counsel) of the K’iche-Maya and the Books of Chilam Balam (‘Books of the Wizard-Jaguar’) of the Maya; the Amoxtli (painted books) produced by Nahuatl tlacuilos;"
These cosmogonic books could stand as an example of the sublime, the category which I have claimed is one pole of cultural space and which is hard to access for modern poets. I am thinking of Graham Sutherland's painting “Origins of the Land”, which at one time used to hang in the Tate; this is a great example of something which is modern and English and yet sublime, cosmogonic. It was connected with the Festival of Britain and the key point may be authorisation: the Festival was a collective and governmental cultural event and also it came during (even if late in) an era of collectivism brought about by shared danger during the war. In fact, Sutherland approved of the government and the government approved of him… not a state of affairs which has obtained for many artists since 1951.
Martin Stannard wanted the book to be a complete account of some bounded and small subset of the scene. It was possible that I would do this by writing entirely about politicised poetry. I did say in a review, around 2014, that political engagement might be the key to the new poetry. But I didn’t do this because it would have been too exclusive. There was a revival of political interest following the 2007-8 financial crisis, and the cuts to welfare services which followed it. But if you look at 100 or 200 poets active in the past ten years, they mainly aren't political. Or, at least, if you focus on their political ideas, you get a very distorted view of their poetry. All the same, this could have been an interesting book. My excuse for writing from my point of view is that there should be ten different books about recent poetry which all had different views. I am inclined to ask about the unconscious pressures to conform which mean that most poets aren’t political, or only in the safest possible way. I guess there is an unspoken piece of folk wisdom saying that “If you say something controversial, you halve your audience”. In terms of what I think about, Steve Ely, Andrea Brady, and Sean Bonney have been pretty central over the past decade or more. But if I did a book saying “this is the centre! This is the apex!!” it would shove hundreds of other people towards the periphery and the dubious lighting conditions. Such a book would have much less about poets and much more about contemporary history, for example the zombie economy, Austerity, global warming.
If I say “you can fail artistically by failing to write about politics” that sounds very sensible, but it is also a sort of massacre. You take sights on everyone else and blow them away.