Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Origins of the Underground

bibliographical essay explaining the background to Origins of the Underground

Note. Origins is part of a series of books called 'Affluence, Welfare and Fine Words', dealing with British poetry 1960-97. It will include Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2005); The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British poetry (Salt, 2003); Legends of the Warring Clans: The Poetry Scene in the 90s (published on the Internet at www.pinko.org ); Fulfilling the Silent Rules (Salt, 2008); The Council of Heresy (shearsman, 2009); The Long 1950s.

This posting is peri and para material to Origins and may not make too much sense without the book itself.

(1) Unwritten history, marginal art
Let me explore the fantasy even further and say that I am concerned by 'deep politics... the assumptions of political action which are tacit and unconscious". That is, I want to write down things which are not in the documents, which have never been written down before. This is partly because some things are too deep to be made explicit, partly because of the tier of decisions which are never made public but which shape the whole landscape. Examples of the latter would be Eliot's rejection of books by Lynette Roberts and Charles Madge. Those decisions are more or less public now (I don't think they are provable facts) but hundreds of such decisions decided what was going to be published and read without being recorded or made public. I believe it is the role of the cultural historian to swim out far into the realm of what is silent and unrecorded, to try to recover in a dim lightscale the hidden structures which made things happen the way they did. Another way of thinking about this is by a famous quote written up in an ethnomethodological essay: "You know I can't do that." This was an inmate in a halfway house for convicts on parole, the "that" was taking active part in running a scheme which would benefit all the inmates and help them to get out into the sunlit world, but it would have been collaborating with the authorities and would have shown him as a potential stool pigeon. He couldn't articulate this but said "You know I can't do that." There is a context of tacit knowledge which resists articulation. I think a cultural historian should take the risk and go out into the inarticulate and bring it back. There is also the concept of the 'Underground", within which almost all the poetry discussed belongs.

I can feel a certain tension between this task of recovering what is silent and the overt task of praising the published sources which I drew on. Oh well. Let me take another risk and say that the apocalyptic method involves mirrors not based on light which make visible structures and entities normally invisible to reason and rational inquiry.

There was a finished version of Origins in 2000. I have changed odd bits of it since (there were certain gaps in the 2000 text where I didn't have the right sources at that time), but most of the work was done before then. This means I can't really remember now (August 2006) where I got much of the information from.

Especially, I can't begin to describe how much I have got from James Keery. Origins is largely about two subjects, the New Romantics and the poets collected in A Various Art, and James has written extensively about both. I hope the material he has written up will come out as a book eventually, but I have seen hundreds of pages of his results as simple print-outs or email attachments, and each page was fascinating. James set out at one point to write about each of the poets in A Various Art, and I also can't remember everything he's published about them. There was a whole series in the Hull magazine Bete Noire. He wrote the first definitions of the Cambridge School in PN Review, around 1992 and 93. I am wondering where I got my knowledge of the Cambridge School. (Incidentally, I am calling them the Ferry-Grosseteste School in print, to avoid the twin problems (a) of confusion with other Cambridge Schools in philosophy etc. (b) of implying that all other poets from Cambridge are either part of the school or don't count. I think that if there are now poets active who were born in the 1980s, they should be called 'the arehouse school' or something. I don't think there has been one continuous organism living in Cambridge from 1966 until today. I don't like the mainstream propaganda ploy of claiming that the Cambridge School is just a few epigones of Prynne - a great excuse for not actually reading any of them. So when I say 'Ferry-Grosseteste school' most people won't know what I am talking about. I got my knowledge of the poetic background by spending time with people. Nothing was ever said explicitly. I sort of grew up with it and sort of don't know what happened.
You could quite easily list 60 people who could belong to the 'Cambridge school'. Everything you said about that school would then be untrue. It becomes a word which prevents thought and discussion. If we stick with A Various Art, at least we can talk about it.

Why no one has yet written a book about the Cambridge School, as would have been predicted back in 1992, is very hard to explain. The Ferry/Grosseteste School was there and thriving in 1966, fast-moving but hardly invisible. I could suggest that two problems would be the difficulty of understanding much of the poetry, and the rifts between the poets, which make it awkward to do the interviews. Just possibly (or am I making this up?), if you become friendly with one set of the poets, some of the others would refuse to talk to you. A lot remains to be revealed about this area of literature - and my account may be holed below the waterline when the further information is made public. The lack of writing about this area of poetry reflects the initial fact that what is said about it, by the primary readers, is so elusive and intangible. I think editions of some of the letters written by the poets will be the basis for a literary assimilation taking place.

It may be fair to say at this point that very little has been published since 2000 to make my book unnecessary - or to illuminate the parts of the picture which remain dark.

Something I hope the reader shares is a fascination with the Forties which is voracious and rather indiscriminate. My relationship with the material was just this, I was picking up original Forties books from bookshops and library basements and trying to inhale gasps of that Forties atmosphere. This is not easy to carry over into cold print. It didn't really have to do with scholarly investigation. However, without it I couldn't have written about the period. This all started with reading anthologies of Horizon 25 years ago. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't able to write about that area of culture recently. (Maybe I started the habit with reading Enemies of Promise in 1972 or 73?) Horizon was actually the best magazine of the era. The most atmospheric reading is old magazines. Reading old issues of Horizon and Poetry Quarterly takes you there, you have to figure out how to get back. Penguin New Writing also scores, if slightly less. if you can get The Golden Horizon, the Horizon anthology, that is a wonderful start.

A lot of the Forties Recovery Trip happened through conversations with Karlien van den Beukel. Karlien is Dutch but is almost as fascinated by the past failures and successes of English culture as I am. She is a ballet historian, something which involves visualisation of performances which were volatile and can't really be recovered. This is spooky, but anyway it makes you good at conjuring up the atmosphere of past times, which is what I wanted to do for the Forties. I think the point about Robert Helpmann's ballets is that they are the high point of 40s English culture (even if Helpmann was Australian) and because they are so fully developed they give you a source which you can use when looking at partially realised works so that you grasp the intent. You need to see the poet's fantasy of the poem and not just the literal text. Even in 1987 I saw a recreation, at David Mellor's exhibition on New Romanticism at the Barbican, of Leslie Hurry's backdrop for the Hamlet ballet. In which, everything is taking place inside the mind of the tormented prince. Which gives you a grounding to realise why the Apocalyptics were interested in staging poems where everything was happening inside their minds. That backdrop is the greatest painting of the era. So much becomes clear as you look at it. Now, there were productions in the same year (1942?) of the play Hamlet and the ballet Hamlet, but both starring Helpmann. The British Library has a book showing Hurry's costume designs for one of these (possibly the play). All of this got through to me because of Karlien's preoccupation with Helpmann and her wonderful ability to recreate entire eras verbally. There was also the ballet Adam Zero, seemingly the most advanced realisation of the Apocalyptic doctrine, and Helpmann's most personal and ambitious work, which seems to have disappeared altogether - everyone hated it and there were few performances and few photographs.

Another work which offers a perfect realisation of Apocalyptic ideals, and so sheds light on every other Apocalyptic work, is Sacheverell Sitwell's Splendours and Chagrins. I wonder if this has been reprinted. Anyway, I found an original copy in a bookshop, and had no idea that it was going to turn out that way when I bought it. The amount of material on prophets, irrational trances, and the Antichrist makes it an apocalypse of our time and also shows the imaginary in which the poets were moving. This is a wonderful book.

Although academic historians have almost totally blanked the 1940s, or at least the parts which interests me, there are books from the 40s which tell you a good deal about what the poets were thinking: DS Savage's The Personal Principle, Scarfe's Auden and After, and Derek Stanford's The Freedom of Poetry, most eminently.

Under Siege, Robert Hewison's book on the 40s, is amazingly astute and succinct, I can't imagine being without it. James pulled me up about this, because it isn't sufficiently pro-Apocalyptic, but then it's so good on the daily literary routine, on how poets spent their time, made a living, and the kind of conversations they had. Things they left behind to soar on wings of poetry, no doubt, but a lot of the poetry was strongly linked to daily life. Hewison has this wonderful ability to find what is central and daily and to stick with it. It's terribly important to have this grasp of the key in which life is sung (so to speak). I admit that my interest then shoots off to something much more sectarian, weird, and autonomous, but Hewison is unsurpassed. I heard the great man on the radio recently, asking "Which British war film has the line 'Cocoa, sir?'" Trick - the answer is, 'They all do.' True. And mostly served by Sam Kydd, as well.

Daniel Farson's books Sacred Monsters and Soho in the Fifties shed a great deal of light on the pub life on Fitzrovia and Soho as Hewison describes it.

Part of Origins looks at the origins of the Counter Culture. Martin Green says that the Counter culture began in Ascona, in 1900-1920, and I have followed Green. Which brings me up against my ignorance of the history of the underground, as I am unable to verify Green's statement, so calmly made. I just trust him, he's a major historian. The statement I took from Green is evidently a risk in the book. I picked up a book on the New Age, by Heelas, which has a cover photograph which on examination turns out to show an Asconan group in a ceremonial dance. So far, so good! Another book in Nottingham Central Library, by Steven Sutcliffe, proves that the phrase New Age is owed to Alice Bailey, an English Theosophist. I had not read Sutcliffe's work when writing Origins. It is possible, further, that Lawrence's interest in the living sun is dependent on Bailey, her book on cosmic fire. Froebe-Kapteyn's move to a new set-up may have followed a split from Bailey. So even if we accept that Bailey's organisation was the decisive influence on the New Age in England (as Sutcliffe suggests), this does not get us away from Ascona and does not invalidate Green's generalisation. However, information supplied by Webb (p.396) is that Froebe-Kapteyn was a friend of Bailey's, and that the latter lectured at Ascona in around 1931-3. If Bailey was lecturing in this rural and remote area on the Swiss border, it is because it was full of people who wanted to hear her esoteric doctrines.

A whole centre for her was about to be built there when she decided the place was infested with black magic (Reuss, evidently). What is the 'topological' distribution of parts between New Age, Counter Culture, and poetic Underground? this is another question too vast to answer. Maybe Ascona was the source of the New Age but not the Counter Culture?

I did also read James Webb's books on the history of occultism. Look at the poets who used the occult: Yeats, Lawrence, Graves, Raine, Redgrove, Benveniste, Sinclair. The problem with rejecting all that crazy stuff just because it's crazy is that you are then unable to spot the real meaning of passages in poems - the wider symbolic structures they come out of as opposed to the literal meaning. But surely as literary scholars we are supposed to grasp the meaning of texts, and this understanding is the secure basis for the rational processes which we undertake later on. Take it from me that you really don't want to read 800 pages of (one instalment of) Alice Bailey's messages from her Tibetan case officers, as sent by ghost mail. So you may want to read Webb and at least know how she fits into 20th C religious history. If you do want to read old Alice (and the organisation she founded to make her message known is still thriving), accept my congratulations. If you are the Tibetan disembodied case officers, hi!

Webb wrote The flight from reason (also published as The occult underground) and The Occult establishment (vol II of the work). Be aware (beware!) that I have written a lot more about cults, Near Eastern magic, etc. in volume 5 of this work, The council of heresy.

I was reading The Auden Generation recently and found its narrowness of view irritating - it should have been called The Auden Clique. The facts do not allow four to eight writers intimately associated with Auden to be blown up into the whole generation who began writing in the 1930s. Poets like Joseph Macleod, Barker, Berry, and Dylan Thomas can't be pushed off camera just because they don't fit in socially. I think - I have only just worked this out - that there was a war or alternation between the Auden line and the (continuing) Lawrence line in that decade. This is interestingly blurred by the fact that The Orators is so much based on Lawrence. We should add Sacheverell Sitwell and Richard Aldington to the Lawrence side.

James Keery is re-analysing the history of Thirties poetry to follow up the re-analysis of the Forties. This project could go on indefinitely. This would be like following up a fascination with the death of JFK by researching political violence of 1900-1950. Do we have tangible questions to answer, or do we just enjoy researching. When John Goodland began organising the Apocalyptic group in 1937 or 1938 (or whenever it was!), he was interpreting a cultural pattern which already existed. It was real in 1933-4 when books by Barker, Thomas, and Francis Berry were published.

An island near Origins is my edition of the selected poems of Joseph Macleod. I finished this in December 2001, and it was published early in 2009. Obviously, the material in the Introduction is not repeated in Origins, but has a good deal to do with it. There could also have been a chapter on Kathleen Raine - an omission, but the book is long enough already. My work on Raine is in another book ('The Council of Heresy').

The day after writing this, I was looking up something on the Internet as part of studying Prynne's poem 'Aristeas' (essay to appear in 'Silent Rules'). To be exact, it was Karl Meuli, a Swiss scholar who had made the first connection between the Aristeas legend and Inner Asian shamanism (in 1935). The hits showed that Meuli had written a catalogue for a collection of peasant masks belonging to Eduard van der Heydt. The masks (often of wood) were used in 'masquerades', masked dances, and do suggest links with shamanism. One use of them would be to impersonate the dead, in processions which link to legends of the mesnie hellequin and the Wild Hunt. They are devil-masks, often enough. Heydt, however, actually owned the Mountain of Truth above Ascona. He bought the whole area from Theodore Oedenkoven, along with the hotel, in 1926, and hung on to it. So the dumb omniscience of the Net links Prynne back to Ascona? 'Aristeas', as you know, does show processions of the dead wandering about. Heydt was a banker and lived in Switzerland. What does this suggest? Nazi gold. Indeed, if you look him up on the Internet you find hundreds of hits about a museum in Germany changing its name from van der Heydt because of his war record in rather exciting cross-frontier transactions.

What does this have to do with Prynne? nothing. Prynne evidently wasn't engaged in laundering stolen Jewish goods on behalf of the Nazi elite. Too many connections!
The link with Ascona is inscribed in the book-list (already in the 1968 pamphlet 'Aristeas') where articles in the periodical Artibus Asiae are cited. Artibus Asiae was published in Ascona and was linked to van der Heydt and his collection (possibly he paid for it?). What we have here is the co-existence of mystic yearning for eastern knowledge, serious scholarship of Asian cultures, and very rich people collecting hugely expensive Asian artefacts. This actually isn't a coincidence - the three things are closely connected. Where you get rich people and villas, you quickly get art dealers, for an obvious reason.

Philip Taylor
The Apocalyptics rejected objective knowledge, the mix of documentary and propaganda. In order to understand what this was, we have to look at the content of propaganda for the British Empire. I got into this via a notion of the symbolic structures underlying poetry. I decided that the most obvious quality of decent poetry was to avoid clichés - and wanted at one time to make an inventory of clichés, as a way of getting to where poetry starts. A lot of the book is about myth - cliché and myth are not completely separate things! Not successful either at building 'a library of cliché' or at defining the relationship of modern poetry to myth in a way which everyone could accept, I still pursued the inventory of British propaganda. Two wonderful sources I found, eventually, were Taylor's book on propaganda, The projection of Britain, based on official sources, and JM Mackenzie's Propaganda and Empire, which does not feature in the book because it is about the 19th century. However, the early propaganda was terrific because it was so obvious, and because you could spot it in transmuted forms in 20th C poetry. Indeed, so much of 20th C British literature is broken down forms of the powerful and simplistic messages of the 19th C Empire, the world's most powerful state. If the poems and the personality behind them both seem to be a bit broken down, frustrated, fragmented, etc., then this is partly a product of the courageous act of breaking down the inherited propaganda. Evidently the rejection of the Empire meant also a rejection of the Empire-building hero and of the grandiose, burstingly complete, historicist art which the Victorians loved. Mackenzie turned up a cigarette card series called Picturesque peoples of the Empire, which I just loved.

A third source was Stephen Tallents' The projection of England, a manual for creating propaganda. I then read Macleod's memoir A Job at the BBC and found him quite obsessed with Tallents, whom he blamed for wrecking his career as a writer of talks about cultural affairs. The Tallents story came to loom large in Origins. Evidently Tallents was the controller of propaganda (even if there was no such job title in the Civil Service establishment) and the holder of the list of Things You Can't Say. The modern system of cultural managers is much more complicated, but still that set of what you can't say is the motive which brings the underground into existence - the true origin of the Underground.

The Anthony Souvestre who wrote about New Romantic poetry in the 1940s was also David Sylvester, the art critic. One of the names teeming in those little magazines.

Mass Observation
Evaluating the impact of documentary on poetry is a key issue, since rejection of this was so central to the Apocalyptics. This is an irresoluble question and therefore is omitted from the book. What we have instead is discussion of the sources of information in poetry, of the history of documentary, of photography, of the co-option of artists into the schemes of the State, and so forth. This informs the reader about the flow of public information into poetry, without bothering to say that poets should reject objectivity, or reject subjectivity.

Mass Observation was about 'the science of ourselves', a sociological project based on thousands (in concept!) of observers recording their actions and thoughts on a daily basis. The project of MO was that to find what was common, mass, and daily was fascinating and a huge triumph. This directly conflicts with the idea that cliché is uninteresting and poetry is on a periphery distributed around the swampy and banal centre. My belief is that poetry can just as well be typical and political as private and exceptional. In fact, we have discovered here an interesting area of conflict, rather than a signpost to artistic success. MO's publications are quite fascinating to read. I have a copy of their first book, 1938, by Penguin. The material is out of date, our selves have moved on, but it's still fascinating. One of their great themes was that the newspapers claimed to represent public opinion but really just printed their own prejudices - as MO tries to prove in their first book with fact-collecting about public attitudes towards the Abdication. It was later than this that newspapers began to spend a lot of money on market research organisations, who were essentially copying MO. They thus caught up with the shifts of the public, and the criticisms ceased to be valid. MO evolved into a market research organisation. The stock in trade of many writers, at this time, was material on National Character, which they would troll out at the slightest provocation. Sociology, when it finally arrived, kicked all this into the long grass - since it was obviously fictitious to an extreme degree. I have a book called The Character of England (1947), which has lots of this fictitious material. For example, V Sackville-West proving that the typical English countryman was a noble landowner, and that there was no class dissent in the countryside. At this point, we can consider whether there was a war between sociology and national myth, and that the problems of modern poets have to do with this war. There are hundreds of problems with this suggestion. To start with, it's difficult to find credible poetry which was written using these myths when they were still alive. I could cite lots of bad poetry based on such myths.

Another question is whether English poets failed because their childhood absorption of patriotic and imperial material was too greedy and intensive, and the 'diet' which saw them renounce, in a brief burst of ideological awareness, the inherited positions, never lasted long enough. Auden's phase of revolt against the Empire was so short that you could easily miss it. His first book was on the other side - in favour of imperialist heroes and their high-tech gadgets. When you find explicitly left-wing and anti-imperialist poetry, it is mostly in a context which meant most readers never saw it. It's true that many Tories around 1936 perceived in Auden and his henchmen a Marxist conspiracy against the survival of the Empire, but this was largely a fantasy. His clique was talked about by the upper middle class because they were upper middle class, while working-class socialist writers were not talked about as inappropriate. Later, Auden's slide towards the Right seemed to last for ever.

(The pattern would involve a betrayal of pure nationalism, in Scotland and Wales - a betrayal of pure Socialism, in England.)

I don't think it's reasonable to apply these tests to poetry, as if poetry was supposed to provide a faithful picture of National Life. This does not seem to be something poetry does at all. Probably all good poetry fails this test. It may not be a very good test. Anybody with a bit of education can disqualify all good poetry in about five minutes. The point is to work out tests which disqualify bad poetry and accept good poetry.

Harald Szeemann, the exhibition director, wrote a book called Die visionäre Schweiz (visionary Switzerland). This includes Ascona, on which he was an expert, but it goes much further. It's a wonderful book. Szeemann started from the museum of primitive Art (somewhere in Switzerland) and by this point had developed a position which could combine naive art and modernist art in one delirious sweep. He shows so many artists and you are given Swiss idealism, as in the Red Cross, League of Nations, etc., along with the fervent optimism of naive artists who just wanted to imagine a whole beautiful universe and to produce art which represented this transformed universe. Naive art is shown as what emerges from the spiritual universal side of Symbolism, or maybe the other way around. This may be nothing to do with my book, but it's just so fabulous. Many of the artists spent their lives in asylums (art therapy was pioneered in Switzerland). I bought this on the Internet and it wasn't even expensive. It's important, not so much to read the words of the drop-outs at Ascona, as to see what they saw - the transformed world. The Apocalyptics were also naive artists- babbling about a new heaven and a new earth, rejecting more or less everything which reason had made. They wanted to expand into a transformed, joyful world of personal mythology - a sacred space. You can criticise the English poets for not describing what they saw enough to yearn for, the world with political problems solved - for not writing idealistic poetry.

Georgina Boyes wrote a book called The Imagined Village which follows the history of the Folk Dance Society. It is coherent, but sheds light on areas of mid-century cultural life far beyond the life of folk dancers. This is one of the most satisfactory works on 20th C cultural history.

Dai Vaughan, Portrait of an Invisible Man
This is a biography of Stewart McAllister, the film editor who collaborated with Humphrey Jennings. The whole thesis is less about the arcana of Forties documentary than about the fabrication of cultural history: McAllister had co-director credit with Jennings on essential films, other people at the studio say that Jennings couldn't have made the films without McAllister, the style of the films came from McAllister's surrealist sound/visual edits, yet you never hear about him. I went to an evening of films at the NFT and the ample programme notes never mentioned the existence of McAllister even though he was co-director. McAllister was Scottish and introverted, Jennings was public school plus Cambridge, and knew all the right people. When reputation started up, Jennings' friends contributed their personal memories of him. This has expanded without ever being compared with what was happening, rather unglamorously, back at the studio. To some extent discourse about culture is cut off from culture, a joyful narrative of achievements and heroes that invites identification and is not based on the production process of poems and films.
This is really nothing to do with Origins, but it's a very important book. Almost everything I have done as a poetry critic is to recover poets who focussed on writing poetry from poets who knew the right people, had media-friendly voices and faces, had the right mix of topical and predictable, etc.

Where is the boundary between what doesn't matter because people can't identify with it -and what does matter, but which is obscured by stupid social assumptions which collapse as soon as you blow on them?

Jennings, in his early twenties, was visual designer for Macleod's Festival Theatre in Barnwell. I wanted to find out if there was any link between those productions (1933-5) and Jennings' films. I couldn't answer this question.

Even after reading Vaughan's book, I think Jennings was one of the most important cultural figures of his time (say 1935-50?).

Let's also mention the films. You can't watch those films too much. They yield endless information. You can't make your mind up about the Apocalyptic attack on documentary without watching British documentary films - of which the best were made after the Apocalyptic manifesto was published. Wartime propaganda films were some of the best British films ever made. Depressing but true. Perhaps simply because the best actors came back from Hollywood. Perhaps because they put over ideas which were humanly plausible. Perhaps because English films made to entertain are usually of low quality.



Savage memoirs
There is a collective volume of memoirs by peace activists, mainly anti-nuclear campaigners. And one of them is the theorist of Apocalyptic poetry, Derek Savage. (It is The Objectors, edited Clifford Simmons.)

There are very few memoirs by participants in the New Romantic/ Apocalyptic part of the world. It is really important to grasp that Savage, in the middle of a world war, was consistently pacifist and withdrew to small-scale farming so that he didn't have to take part in the trade network. There is a memoir by Derek Stanford, Inside the Forties, which recalls his period working in the Pioneer Corps, doing things like forestry. This was a typical destination for conscientious objectors, and his unit was to an amazing degree full of pacifist artists. Reading this really got me interested in the anarchist-pacifist line of things. There is a sort of person who is Incredibly Annoying but who tends to be found when new culture is being created. The Pioneer Corps was full of this sort of person. Stanford mentions both Christopher Fry and Ian Hamilton Finlay. There is more about Fry in the Corps in Stanford's 1951 book about him.


That's enough! There are loads of books I could talk about, but we have to stop.


I visited London for an event in October 2008 and the poet Gavin Selerie told me that he had been influenced by 40s poetry. This came after the publication of the Penguin Modern Poets selection of poems by Raine, Gascoyne, and Graham (in 1971). I can see how this could be true, and I am glad that the poet specifically mentioned it, because the traces are too general in nature to be firmly attributed for textual reasons alone - his romanticism could have come from many other places. This has a bearing on the absence of the 40s poets from the 1960s: if this current arrived after 1971, that just underlines how it was absent from the 1960s - just because the books weren't available. That penguin book isn't titled 'poets of the 40s' but anyway that's what it is.

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