Friday 21 July 2023

Jack Lindsay

Jack Lindsay

am reading Bernard Smith’s book of essays about Australian art (mainly), The death of the artist as hero. He includes three essays about Jack Lindsay (1900-90), a marginal figure who I suppose has some role to play in the story of British poetry.
In about 1976 (??) I bought a copy of his 1945 pamphlet Perspective for Poetry in a bookshop in Loughborough. It was published by a Communist Party publisher although the packaging carefully does not mention any such affiliation. As if it represented freedom of thought. The pamphlet completely failed to impress me. It seemed like conscious mediocrity, someone who was desperately afraid of taking up a position and was unable to say anything original. I read now that he published 160 books. This sounds like the biography of a hack. If you have such difficulty developing new ideas, then signing away your soul to the Party is attractive because you can just go on writing up unoriginality for ever and a day.

He was responsible for the series of Key Poets pamphlets around 1950. Andy Croft writes about this in his excellent cultural history of the Communist Party. They were really good. It wasn't a good time for British poetry but he had come up with a whole row of fascinating poets. As Croft records, the Party leadership ended the series because they didn’t want to be associated with something middle class like poetry. This is, I think, one of the reasons why poetry in the 1950s ended up in such bad shape. I have to emphasise how good Lindsay was at doing this. Good editors are rare.

If you summed up Lindsay’s message, it would be “art has something or other to do with society”. And maybe “just give in to the Party and study the thought of the First Secretary and you will be free”.

His original project was Australian nationalism, with an emphasis on culture. Without having many details, I think that what he did was unsuccessful but that that brand of nationalism had a long way to go, from its start, and that anything dating to around 1920 seems shallow from a modern perspective. All the same it was a fertile idea around 1920 and he deserves credit for having this interest. Smith doesn't say what he contributed to Australian nationalist thought. Obviously I am reading Smith’s book because I want to know what is specifically Australian and how a cultural programme developed in the 20th century. This was Bernard Smith’s life project, I suppose. He records Lindsay converting to Marxism around 1937 and that seems to have been the end of his Australian nationalism. He records Lindsay buying a cottage from which the previous owner’s library of books on the history of religion had not been cleared. He spent a year in 1933-4 reading these in a consistent way and thought about the long-term history of human symbolism or spirituality. The outcome was A Short history of culture (1939). Lindsay certainly had that deep perspective:

Can we draw conclusions from this shamanistic stage, which will bear validly on the later developments of the creative function? I believe we can. Though specialisation breaks up the shamanistic experience, and though the simple yet intense unity of personal and collective experience cannot be maintained, the basic element survives.

(Perspective on Poetry)

The interest in shamanism is very early in 1945, and the perspective which links something as old as shamanistic rites with 20th C poetry is dizzying. But these sentences are saying nothing at all. I believe he is getting the “Tatars as shamans” material from a 1936 article by Nora Chadwick in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which has those words in its title. (Most Tatars are Moslems and do not practice shamanism.) It may have been the write-up in The growth of literature (by Chadwick and Chadwick), in fact. Chadwick (N.) says “Shamans are a class of professional religious and intellectual men and women in North and central Asia”. Can I record my doubts that Lindsay had actually read poetry from the Altai Tatars, even in English. And I am certain that Chadwick had not done any fieldwork – not among the Tatars in the Altai mountains, not anywhere. It is all a version learnt through prose, probably several stages of prose. This may be why what Lindsay says is so colourless. And, the Altai is an incredibly long way from north-west Europe. Why should societies in that plateau region of Central Asia be ancestral to societies of north-west Europe, or why should their artistic forms have any bearing on artistic forms in Wales, England, etc.?
If there is any connection between Central Asian shamanism and the shores of the North Sea, it would be amazingly interesting. But Lindsay does not identify any such connection.
I suspect the underlying idea is that ancient societies (in some millennium or other!) had collective art, and we have had individualistic art since about 1580, which is part of Alienation. And if we advance to Communism, we will again have Collective Art, and we will stop being alienated. And we will all vote for the same Party, there won’t be another. Lindsay isn’t quite this stupid. But he doesn't explain why individualistic art, since the advent of reflexivity in the Renaissance, has been so good. Or why Soviet art is so bad. (George Thomson's Marxism and Poetry, also 1945, also published for the Communist Party, follows this line of argument. It is more interesting than Lindsay but even more at odds with the known facts. Thomson dismisses all English poetry since the 16th century for not being collectively created.)

Chadwick says that Siberian and central Asian shamanism (together) are “among the most influential and interesting” of creative illiterates. OK, that is certainly interesting. Had she read all the others? If we jump ahead a bit, Ted Hughes read vast amounts of ethnographical literature (in translation) and recycled its motifs in a modern English style. The area is fascinating. Smith at pages 289-302 of his book talks about links between “White Australian” artists and “Black Australian” artists, an area of equally great fascination which is quite outside my visual experience. The essay is called “Cultural convergence”.

Chadwick says that her revision of the story is because “we have been dependent for our impressions on the reports of travellers” but she does not say what information she has except the reports of travellers, of Tsarist date. She specifies that she has never seen the performances nor learnt the languages their texts are composed in. Her main source is the ten volumes of VV Radloff’s collection (in Russian and German translation). It is certainly inspiring to learn that there is a whole range of literature outside the “European” models, and the possible connections with early artistic creation in north-west Europe are tantalising, but the writings of the Chadwicks are not illuminating. It is like reading a history of the symphony by someone who had never heard one. I have just read the 1936 paper and to be honest it has nothing to do with Eliade’s romantic version of shamanism. So Lindsay is thinking of Chadwick’s high/religious concept and not the image we have today.

Lindsay issued in 1927 an anthology of Bedlamite poetry from the 16th and 17th centuries. I like to connect this with Logue’s Bedlam poems and Sean Bonney’s poem about Tom O’Bedlam (in Blade Pitch Control Unit). I like the continuity over 70 years. The link has to do with the idea of the world turned upside down, radical critique being like someone whose perceptual framework is truly mutated and illegal. It has to do with altered perceptions. I see that the chorus of the primary Tom O’Bedlam poem has “Bedlam boys are bonny”, which is probably what attracted Bonney to it. Lindsay’s book had musical settings by Peter Warlock (who was the father of poet Nigel Heseltine).

I am reading Lindsay's Selected Poems 1935-81 (a copy turned up at a sale locally) but it is not very good. I have been thinking recently about poems by Jack Beeching and EP Thompson – who were also in that British Communist milieu around 1945 and 1950. I think Beeching was a friend of Lindsay. But I don’t think Lindsay got involved with Thompson's “opposition” magazine, the New Reasoner. He stayed in the Party. Anyway, Beeching and Thompson need to be taken very seriously as poets. There was a Left poetry in the 1950s. It doesn't need rehabilitating, you just have to read it.

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