Wednesday 21 June 2023

beautiful feelings (again)

Interval. June 2023. I think the text has stabilised but I keep going back and making small changes. I have been looking at Fiona Sampson’s 2009 book “Beyond the lyric”. I listed the poets she discusses in a spreadsheet. 70 poets of whom none features in my 2023 book. Ulp. There is a major problem in having a conversation about poetry… everyone is isolated, just in different ways. It is so hard writing a book in this situation. A check shows she has 50 words about Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who had only done one pamphlet at that stage. And she gives one sentence, condescending and abusive, to Robert Minhinnick. So I do write about de las Rivas and Minhinnick; there is a tiny overlap. So she has 70 poets… I have 80… how many good poets are there who are missing from both lists? No rewrite is going to raise my text into a non-polarised space where it speaks for everyone. My feeling is that you want ten different books about new poetry, written from ten different standpoints. I am happy to have written one from my standpoint.

Brian Vickers has said “it will be clear that the so-called ‘critical revolution’ was the work of a small group of writers, and has been followed up by a relatively small group of readers and publicists. The great majority of scholars, critics, book reviewers, journalists, general readers, teachers, and students have remained unaffected by the forward march of critical theory, as it has advanced from Paris to Baltimore, and from New Haven to Cardiff.” (Vickers, Appropriating Shakespeare, 1996 ed., p. 92) It is striking how little influence Theory has on contemporary poetry. I would struggle to explain why I was discussing theory, if I injected it into my book. But there is a qualification - I have just been writing how the absence of the author’s ego, at least of the lyric ego, is one of the hallmarks of Alternative poetry. Vickers reminds us that Barthes and Foucault made the death of the author fashionable, in two essays of 1968 and 1969. Foucault referred to “the archaeology of knowledge” because that means silencing the voice of the text, in order to look at its material features, just as the archaeology of a building describes it without reference to the notions of the builders, in an era before writing. So there could be a connection, that would lead to an entire class of texts. I am not going to get into this because I don’t think the connection is clear enough. There would be too much disagreement. I am not sure you could get a roomful of people to agree on what the “lyric ego” is or whether it is present in a given text. Neither Foucault nor Barthes uses this phrase. Maybe we can imagine a prose book written from the standpoint of Grand Theory and one written from the point of view that performance poetry is it and poetry on the page is obsolete.

Have just acquired (from Oxfam) a copy of The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, originally 1951. This is an account of bomb design and of 617 Squadron of the RAF, a unit specialising in dropping super-heavy bombs on targets not vulnerable to lighter bombs (such as 2000 pounders). The relevance of this to my book is that I discuss UKIP and a sector of opinion alienated from modern culture, and The Dam Busters is a great apex of the patriotic and optimistic kind of story which that sector want to hear the whole time. I would have written about this kind of story, and the group feeling it embodies, if I had more space. We don't have any "UKIP culture" but evidently their voters would respond to 'The dam busters' and it shows us what they want to hear. Of course it seems incredibly out of date now, and I would be hard put to find something from 2021 which embodied it in the same way. Ford and Goodwin's excellent book about UKIP, and about the voters who supported them at various times, analyses the patriotic, and occasionally xenophobic and racist, attitude and asserts that it is prevalent among older voters and the most unchanged parts of society, and is visibly declining – as younger people are much less interested by that kind of feeling. Those two politologists are also astute about the victim status of the UKIP voters – it does seem that education is the great agent of modernisation, so that people with limited education are living in a “pre modern” version of the world, and, as follows, are also the ones with the lower incomes and the lowest prospects of economic improvement. In fact they are also concentrated in certain parts of the country which could be characterised as in decline. Their problem is being collectivist but anti-government. Ford and Goodwin point out that they need help from the political system and that the feeling of being sidelined and ignored is part of their generalised resentment of modernity. I do agree that they need help and that the political system is there to increase equality, not steer a course away from it. As a group, they are intensely uninvolved in poetry.
Last week saw wide press coverage of the bursting of the Dnipro dam by the Russians (probably!) on June 6 2023 and declarations that breaching dams without regard to civilian deaths by drowning etc. should be considered as a war crime. No mention, during this flap, of the breaching of dams near the River Ruhr, on May 16/17 1943, by 617 Squadron – so was that a war crime or not? If you cause a flood in the most heavily industrialised part of Europe you are going to drown some of the civilians in the housing sited near the factories, also dense. I am looking at Max Hastings’ website which claims that some 1400 civilians died, downstream, as a result of the dam bombing. Wikipedia says 1600 civilian deaths of whom 600 were German. The prohibition on dam destruction goes back to a 1977 amendment to the Geneva Convention.
I should be honest here and admit that I read Paul Brickhill's book when I was about 11. I can't be more precise but that would make it around 1967 and it was probably in the PAN-books edition which I now have another copy of. So I am disappointed if his account shows discrepancies and omissions. If you were a boy in the 1960s you got really a lot of World War II hero stories. I am quite sympathetic to patriotic voters who still want to live inside that kind of story. However it wasn’t genuinely up to date in 1967 and it has not become more up to date since. Brickhill was Australian and this was possibly the first time I had read a book by an Australian. He was part of a fighter crew and was shot down (over Tunisia) and spent much of the war in a German POW camp. I am inclined to give his book classic status – it is very well written and a lot of it had stuck in my mind, 50 years later. I say this also because I think the 1955 movie is a bad film, messing up the same narrative material. Brickhill wasn’t paralysed by patriotic cliches. It is hardly a secret that he would have liked to be on that mission on the night of May 16. It is highly plausible that his account of what the fliers felt would have been recognisable and convincing to the fliers themselves. I have not read Hastings’ book (“Chastise”) but his website says about the 1400 dead “At least half were not Hitler’s people, instead his foreign slaves, almost all women, drowned in the Biblical flood- the Möhnekatastrophe, as Germans call it- unleashed by the bouncing bombs.” Wikipedia says they were “French, Belgian, Dutch and Ukrainian prisoners of war and labourers.” Brickhill does mention civilian casualties (at p.97) and says there was an ethical problem. He says most casualties were civilians and most were not German. Hastings quotes Guy Gibson as expressing similar doubts, possibly in his book Enemy Coast Ahead. (Gibson was killed in September 1944.)
I don’t want to undermine Brickhill’s book; I am more interested in pointing out to modern readers what values it embodied and what state of mind its readers were seeking out, and still are. They are not false values. The cover says it is “one of the three or four most enthralling and inspiring war books yet published”, and I would think that is accurate. If I wanted to attack war propaganda I would have picked a different book. Another goal is to identify something missing from the poetic offering of the last 100 years: the simple patriotic and heroic narrative, with damage inflicted on an enemy who is without virtue. I don’t much want to read such poems, I simply want to point out that they are not there. Wikipedia advises me that Brickhill undertook The dam busters under a commission from the Air Ministry. So this was not the free market but a residue of wartime sponsorship by the State. This probably allowed him special access to documents and to the living witnesses. It may also account for the narrow focus – he wasn’t interested in the event as a whole, for example the slave labourers working in Ruhr factories and housed downstream from the dams. The documents record what senior RAF officers had an interest in. He doesn't seem to have interviewed any groundcrew – well, this is starting to sound malicious! Let’s admit that the exciting quality of the narrative is due to its restricted focus. Dealing with a historical event from the viewpoints of all concerned may wreck any literary qualities... to be honest I can't think of any poem that brings off this feat. Martin Middlebrook brought off a revolution by writing a book about the Hamburg raids in a way which included German flak units, German air forces, and above all the civilians on the ground, or in the firestorm. Most books about the Second World War do not try to do this. It was published in 1980 – but collective memory had been fixed decades before.
In POW camps which only contained aircrew, Brickhill must have heard a thousand stories about flying missions, and the consequence is that his narrative of the actions of the aircrew in 617 Squadron is authentic. This is something which no later historian is going to match, and this is where theory is not going to undermine an account: Brickhill reproduces what it felt like to be in a bomber squadron in the 1940s. He does not use heightened language, which makes it difficult to classify his work as propaganda; in film terms, he leaves out the music (the “Dam Busters March” became a standard piece of music for brass). Even in 1965 it was getting hard to reproduce the idiom of 1943 accurately. In a sense, you can't update Brickhill.
I don’t see any way I can insert this into my narrative, but I find it compelling. Poets are not usually writing about collective experience. I think the old-style belief in English destiny, the one we have just described, wants narratives to be biased, so that events are only evaluated from the point of view of English success, and the reader or listener does not have to worry about re-evaluation of some heroic feat. They don’t want some new perspective, it holds no benefits that they want. I think there is some kind of a copy of this in the nationalism of other ethnic groups – it has been taken up by “identity politics”. Some parts of the scene want the components of patriotic history, but want to adapt them to produce a different kind of approval and idealisation. You can separate “critical” and “uncritical” writing.
I think you could describe the status which ethnic minorities (so second- and third generation immigrants, for the most part) as being part of a generous national story, so with the warmth and density of Second World War stories where the audience is unified in its bias and remembering details of what someone does. This gets very complicated but I can say that I am trying to write a national story of poetry which has that warmth, that ability to credit achievement, that collective feeling, and that capacity for accurate memory. You can’t make people feel at home by retreating into a purely critical state. People want to be part of something.
Brickhill is good about listing Australian, Canadian, American members of 617 Squadron. But everyone was White – that is just how it was.

I briefly attended an evening of the Nottingham Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago. The evening was in a pub where I spend a lot of my time anyway. I arrived an hour before the event started, since they started very late. I left after about 80 minutes because I was finding it hard to equate being drunk with being angry – I was used to being happy in that pub but I wasn't feeling happy. The level of poetry was infinitely low and after studying the brochure I felt that I was facing not only an evening of “open mike” idiocy but a whole weekend of it. This was not quite true, since one of the people reading for five minutes each was Sonya somebody, who writes poems about mathematics and is genuinely interesting. I heard a full set from her at the event last year. I didn’t catch her second name but I am sure it is in a notebook from 2022. The event was sponsored by a local brewery and while I like their beer I have been told that there was no central planning and that all the events were “pop-up” events, where people made up schemes and submitted them for inclusion. The brochure shows a great lack of names I have heard of and a lack of descriptions of poetry: the poets are not the appeal and no claim is being made that these are artistic forces and offer a memorable literary experience. Instead the stress is on open mike, on workshops, and on access for the socially excluded. Access to what? Poetry is being removed from the equation and the feeling of being vaguely drunk and feeling a vague bonhomie as if in a pub quiz is the big offer. The event does not offer name poets because they do not expect anyone to have heard of the names. The poets offer workshops teaching poetry because they are afraid that nobody is able to concentrate for half an hour while listening to poetry. The compere at the event I attended was like the quizmaster in a pub quiz. There are good poets in Nottingham but none of them was in this set of performances – again due to a lack of central planning. Someone could have planned an event with the good local poets but in practice no-one did. I am not sure, but my impresion is that almost nobody was travelling from outside Nottingham - so no travel costs. The bearing of all this on me is that I don’t want to go out and research “performance poetry” because it’s boring – and that the audience at these events has no ability to concentrate and is not conceivably going to read a serious prose book on poetry. It is pointless writing about anti-literary poetry because its audience is not going to read your book.
I have a negative vision whereby I am at an event where most of the audience is there to get their open mike spot and they don’t care to listen to anyone else’s poetry. And, high-achieving poets are eliminated and the outcome is four days of open mike events.
One positive result of attending open-mike events is realising that the poems are rarely autobiographical – as predicted by the “solipsistic banality” theory expounded by Ross Cogan. The likely subject is more likely humorous and connected to something already in the media, so that the audience are already familiar with it. This minimises the information transfer. Writing about personal experience requires the audience to make a certain effort. I think the line of vacuous poems about personal experiences belongs to the page rather than to the live venue.
I am sure that there are cultural things which are pleasurable without being worth analysing. For example, yesterday I was messaging Tim Allen about a 1961 record called "Johnny remember me" which certainly wasn't a good song. It offers pleasures of nostalgia. If you can remember 1961, dimly. But I am not trying to offer a 330 page book with serious analysis of John Leyton. Or of the "Dam Busters March", either.

Thursday 1 June 2023

Jon Manchip White

Jon Manchip White

I am collecting material on White (1924-2013) largely because he is one of the “unknown” poets whom Allott saw fit to include in his classic 1962 anthology. Another being Hilary Corke who, so far as I can tell, never got a book out. White’s obituary says “Welsh writer Jon Manchip White, with his ascot, a bristly white mustache, and pleasant and gentle demeanor, never looked the part of a British spy. But he spent four years with Britain’s Foreign Service, arranging meetings for people in distant corners of the world for England’s spy masters.“ This may be true although there are problems with how all the biographical claims which he made could fit into a plausible chronology. I don’t think all of it is true. But it may well be that he was the first script editor at BBC television, in 1950. In 1984 he published a book on how to survive Russian invasion, written with Robert Conquest. This was very late for Cold War legends and it sounds as if some people were worried that their jobs might disappear as the Cold War finally wound up. That could express itself as a light-hearted (but media-friendly) book about what to do after we have lost the war (due to not spending enough on arms and intelligence during the peace, obviously). The fact that he knew Conquest is compatible with him being with the Foreign Office and involved with the Cold War Establishment in the 1950s. He records having studied the Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos at Cambridge (evidently after war service), which would make him the first of a long series of poets who went through that Tripos. Ted Hughes is probably the most celebrated. I am reading White's book on the south-west USA and at p.74 he says "During the first six months of the year, the Hopi perform their kachina or kotsina dances, and in late August the famous Snake Dances." The kachina dolls appear also in poems by David Wevill and Martin Thom. So there is some continuity with poets born decades later.
I watch a lot of of black-and-white TV (a weakness, possibly!) and if you do that you notice the name Manchip White appearing as scriptwriter quite regularly. So he wrote one episode of The Avengers series two, for example. Just one. He also wrote about 20 novels. All this suggests that he was gifted enough to thrive as a freelance writer and that he might well have been a promising poet who was too busy making a living to follow it up. It is less compatible with an idea that Allott selected mediocre poems by people who had the right background, viz. Oxford or Cambridge universities. White published two books with Fortune Press in 1943 and 1945 (alternatively 1946). That implies that he paid to have them accepted (or guaranteed them, promising to purchase a lot of the print run himself) and that he published them at the age of 19 and 21. Juvenilia, one would guess. These books disappear from later lists of works compiled by himself. I saw Salamander and it seemed radically original, hyper-formalist if not necessarily very good. The poem Allott selects is “The rout of San Romano”, from a 1952 pamphlet. This was part of a group of 13 pamphlets (from Erica Marx's Hand and Flower Press) by more or less unknown poets of whom only one (Michael Hamburger) had a later career, so far as I know. It was just a very bad time to be a young poet. My guess is that they weren’t radical or unconventional but disappeared even though they were willing to reproduce what would turn out to be the central ideals of the 1950s. The only one of thirteen whom Allott takes on is Manchip White. “San Romano” is a good poem, solid and serene, although not free from the possibility that it is derivative of the Quattrocento painting which it describes.

The vagabonds lash out for no fine houses,
Bestride no chargers with a classic ease,
Rating no ransom, rewarded with carouses,
Their cadavers will dung the orange-trees.

I know the blackguards for my ancestors,
Hemmed as we are by rail-and-wire mesh,
The wags anticipate these later wars
Where crude steel battens cheaply in our flesh.
White produced one more volume of poems (The Mountain Lion, 1971, 43 pp.) My impression of his poems is that they are costume drama and he did not usually write personal poetry. He did not want to write 20th C language and looked longingly at anything involving cloaks, swords, and ruffs. It was more logical for him to write film and TV scripts than to go on writing non-lyric poems.
I saw in the Poetry Library the first collected volume of Poems in Pamphlet – there were two. I counted 25 names between the two. Erica marx says she put out one pamphlet a month and they were “unknown or little-known poets”. She was the niece of Karl Marx but does not seem to have been left of centre – she published 3 pamphlets by Rob Lyle, who was so far Right as to be outside the bounds of formal politics in this country. She refers to the preponderance of religious poetry in this time, so around 1952 and 1953. Also, to “a period of political and spiritual chaos like our own”. Poets had difficulty finding a stable frame of reference in which to write poems. I think they still do.
Maybe Erica Marx was to the 1950s what Eric Mottram was to the 1970s. The 20+ issues of Poetry Review which Eric did could correspond to the 25 pamphlets of Hand and Flower. (I think it was more than 25 in the end.) Of course 50s poetry was a big disaster and 70s poetry was a great triumph. All the same Marx gave an outlet to struggling poets. It wasn’t her fault if they weren't any good.
We have to qualify that by saying that she did a pamphlet by Charles Causley and, in 1956, a whole book by Kathleen Nott. I have written about Nott on this blog. So, OK, she did find two good poets. Causley's limitations weren’t her fault.
I have formed a pious wish to read all the Poems in Pamphlet volumes. But when time allows. There could be a lost poet in there, as opposed to someone who just thought they could write poetry. The theme of young poets in the 1950s giving up because the scene had lost energy and just didn't welcome them or even criticise them is one to be taken up another day. As for Allott, roughly 60% of the poets he selected had studied at one of the two over-famous universities. But maybe that is just how the scene was in 1960? The signal I am picking up is of famous poets wth good educations... and struggling poets also with good educations. How many of those 13 poets, the ones who turned out to be losers, had Oxbridge degrees?