Stephen Spender and the Eternal Present
another essay on time
James Keery pointed out (in a letter) that Stephen Spender had written a completely Apocalyptic poem. It was 'Destruction and Resurrection' and took up a whole page in an issue of the TLS in 1942. Another example is 'Rejoice in the Abyss' and was written from the direct experience of London after an air raid, with a scenery of dead people and ruins. Apocalyptic elements of this poem include the use of the word ‘skull’ (twice), the use of the word ‘prophet’, the image of the individual as under the pressure of the whole of history, the sense of the social order collapsing and the Eternal shining through the gaps in it, the evocation of life after death (from the Book of Revelation), and the idea that history only exists through the momentary experiences of individuals.
How could you pick up a book called Ruins and Visions and not see an Apocalyptic book? So Spender wrote his early work under the influence of Herbert Read and his 40s work as part of the Apocalyptic School (which Read by then was a patron of). This imagery does not appear in his work before 1940. He ardently assimilated it because it was the style of the moment, open to the violent and chaotic experiences which a disordered history was throwing up. Further Apocalyptic work is in 'Epilogue to a human drama', also 'Speaking to the Dead In the Language of the Dead' and 'Time in our Time'. But the most revealing poem is 'Explorations' with the brilliant summary of Berdyaev -
"The Immortal Spirit is that single ghost
Of every time incarnate in one time
Which to achieve its timelessness must climb
Our bodies, and be in sense engrossed.
the Spirit of present, past futurity
Seeks through the many-headed wills
To build the invisible visible city.
All spaces outside
glitter under his ribs"
- this passage sums up the Apocalyptic creed brilliantly. The mind is trapped in the body ('in sense engrossed') but has access to the Eternal by going deeply into the self. 'Every time' is the argument from Berdyaev: we are in the End Time and have access to mythic status if we are alert.
'Mandolin skeleton, it strums on your gut' (also from 'Explorations')- this is the topos about the 'fallenness' of the mind into a body which gives rise to all the New Romantic imagery of skulls. The sound (of a mandolin) depends on the physical properties of the dumb material which gives rise to it. The 'obstacle' which gives sound its envelope of properties is a metaphor for the way the body conditions experience. This though would make documentary interesting - exploring the properties of a moment in time, an acre of space, which condition the 'free' life of the intellect. (This poem was called 'Spiritual Explorations' in the original publication in Poems of Dedication.)
In some ways Spender is better than all the other Apocalyptics. The key ideas are so much easier to reach in his poems because he is so clear in putting them over, where the others are defiantly obscure, taking paradox to the point where it disrupts the poem. His work has a way of dissolving in memory. It's so clear, so pure, that it leaves nothing behind and people don't analyse his work. He succeeds in translating flesh and bone into music, mandolin music or not: everything resonates, the melody never stands still. These are probably the best Apocalyptic poems.
Berdyaev wrote in the late 1930s that since the birth of Christ the whole of history was in an apocalyptic state, where eternity had irrupted into everyday existence and refused to make a safe exit back to the intangible heights of stellar remoteness. This was what John Goodland picked up to frame the Apocalyptic creed - why he chose the name. What Spender shows is the stress of war as a literal equivalent of the war and pestilence of the original Apocalypse, with a landscape of ruins the backdrop for the end of history: the smashing of houses and buildings as an equivalent for the opening of tombs, living people crossing over into death and dead people crossing the other way and speaking the words of the poem.
We have just been looking at the unchanging quality of knowledge, the grey
stability which prevents poetry from happening and makes every note dull. This surely is the condition which Spender is arguing against, throughout these poems, raising all faculties into an ardour of the present moment. The precondition of poetry since around 1942, when he wrote ‘Rejoice in the Abyss’, is no longer a lyrical tone, in the sense of an adolescent in love, but being shocked by transience into ardour. The gamble which the soul must take can only be represented by a linguistic gamble: disruptive innovation is the most obvious way of making the Now dominate the pulverous past, but many other devices will do.
We have said that the Apocalyptics saw the naked moment as a way of cutting the mind off from illusory knowledge as well as bringing it to a heightened pitch of awareness. A few years later, a very similar challenge was mounted by existentialism, asking for the same fall into the present moment and its vulnerability, while using different literary means to express this. But there is a third term in the series: the spontaneity of the era which began in the 1960s is equally concerned to force people back into the Now time. The linguistic gamble remains the distinctive device of poetry, and still embodies this urgent theory of Time.
Tomorrow and yesterday are pictures
Remembered and foreseen, painted within
Man’s two profiles facing Past and Future, pivoted
On the irreducible secret diamond
His Now. Past and Future, pictures only,
And all events and places distant from
The instant of perception in the brain,
Are memories and prophecies.
All distant times and places, all events
In other minds, all knowledge folded
In books, Pasts petrified in statues,
Spatial distance witnessed by telescopes,
Prehuman histories embossed on fossils,
Silent messages from star to star,
Exist only in the flash within the single flesh.
(‘Time in our Time’)
The forties poet Peter Yates also writes about the Now, the constellation of a brain state which is more complex than anything outside it:
The Cube of Now
No bird of volted eye
Sky crashing grief
Will splinter this
Dead word of life,
No rocket of high fever
Ever bursting bars
Mounting out of this
Eye-socket shooting stars
Will journey out of this
Dense cube of now
It’s obvious that Spender’s poems rely constantly on imagery, and that the historic language of symbols is always open to him. I think it’s clear that Spender is using imagery developed by other poets, and that this is a part of his humility and of his appeal to a collective state of feeling. His line is rapid and he does not slow down to explain the imagery - it has a logical structure (of oppositions and analogies) but we have to react, not to follow a trail of argument. So it may be worthwhile looking at the bell imagery in ‘Rejoice in the Abyss’. First, the title is a paradox based on a parody of the Bible. The phrase is gloria in excelsis deo, glory to God in the highest (the words of the shepherds in Luke 2:14): the abyss is just the reverse of this. The abyss is the (virtual) place in the cosmos where the dead are thrown: we rejoice in it because the contemplation of death brings us to the turning point of committing ourselves to the pure Now, the home of the living. The poet says Under the bells of foxgloves and of towers. The red flowers of fox-gloves are an elongated bell shape. A bell resonates because it contains an empty space; bells in (church) towers also summon people to join the congregation. The empty cup is linked to the skull (‘for hollow is the skull’) which itself is compared to the hollow within the dome of St Paul’s, a cathedral at the centre of endless bombing raids on the Docks and the industrial East End but also known for its ‘Whispering Gallery’, with unusual qualities of acoustic clarity. Finally the skull is seen to resonate because of its emptiness: our isolation and physical frailty make us susceptible to the message of the human race. Spender’s language here is clearer when we compare it to all the other Apocalyptic poems using the same matrix of imagery. Finally the poem is an emotive appeal to human togetherness: rejoice is the word above all, even if misery brings us together.
(Spender constantly rewrote poems and the selection of poems in the various 'collected' volumes is partial and keeps changing. A particular edition may include the poem but not the lines I quote. This is a convoluted issue which we will explore some other time. The poems he omitted in 1985 are of great interest.)
Gambling and the way to live in the moment
Gambling involves chance which is unpredictable because it involves uncertainties. The big figures erode the quality of uncertainty because so many isolated events balance each other out. If you have a dataset of millions of people, the counts are much smoother than if you have just a dozen individuals. This is the key to why sociology is the enemy of poetry. It has a battery of means for eliminating the untypical and smoothing away unpredictable variations. It applies these methods before the starting line because it has a superordinate goal of describing something significant for the whole of society, so that finding local and unusual results is defined as failure. The connection with the policy formation process in the circle of people in and around the national government is a fatal attraction. Of course both government and sociologists have their sphere of activity which are necessary and have nothing to do with poetry. The government is not supposed to be a kind of casino where policies work for some citizens and fail with many others. The people who run a casino can rely on making profits because they are making so many bets that the element of uncertainty crumbles. This is how governments work, too. It’s like playing cards with a deck of 52 fours of hearts.
Poetry has had a romance with sociology, which was a major feature of the mid-century. This story has been resolved, and the conclusion is that sociology is the enemy of poetry, and that applying the guild rules of sociology to poetry or to evaluating poetry is inevitably disastrous. The line of contact between poetry and sociology that emerges like a crack in the arena of arts subsidy, where a stratum of brokers try to redefine art in terms of social policy produces a slur of corrupt language so appalling that it destroys the minds of those who encounter it. No one really expects the incidence of poetic talent to be a random scatter throughout the population, so that the dataset of successful poets would represent the sociological breakdown of the whole population, with equal representation for every local authority and every class and so on. No one really thinks that the motivation of artistic pleasure is so simple that you can throw out every other factor than membership of a sociological sub-group. No one really believes that the naming of such a sub group is tantamount to defining the possibilities of self-awareness within a member of that group and that thus to define these possibilities is quick and easy. Yet the brokers talk about poetry as if all these things were so and as if poetry did not exist. The project of describing society is simply too cold and alien and decentred to succeed in poetry.
Sociological distinctions used to classify are elementary, such as class and gender. They thus relate to status distinctions and speech patterns learnt in early childhood. Thus working class speech patterns are already present in 5 year olds and later acquisitions of verbal capacity build up on that basis. The distinctions could be sophisticated but that would brings us back to distinctions belonging to individuals. 7 year olds already have class identity and know what gender they are. This is an early and very general stage of cultural development. The generality allows us to classify 100s of different poets with some success in a single grid. The problem is that 7 year olds are not well equipped to write poetry and that the stratum of awareness of 7 year old level, remaining within adults and poems by adults, is not important for poetry. 7 year olds are also not good at sociology. Their capacity to speak reflexively about the social field is very restricted and this makes it unlikely that the verbal stratum which reflects their level of awareness is going not produce writing about social structure as opposed to unconscious, quotidian, plain speech. There are later cognitive developments just as these create differentiation, reflexivity and a mastery of the code which allows new creativity, they escape the 7 year old grid which as we have said is simple and uniform.
I don't want to block out the fact that many people want poetry to reproduce infantile states, to use a simple vocabulary embodying simple affective states, and in effect to speak as a 7 year old. Song simplified in that way, and poetry has links to song.
Everything gets difficult at adolescence. You become conscious - perhaps reluctantly. Adolescents mostly complain at being pushed into roles but the level of choice available is also too much for them to handle. How would we expect poetry written by adults to return to the stereotypes and secure simplicity of childhood?
Sociological criticism of the simple type equates work by 200 male poets on the basis that they are male but has diminished capacity to detect that one poem is better than another and that some of these poets can write while others can't.
Sociology picks up something grey and featureless but perhaps very tenacious and constant.
Children are egocentric. The grasp of how other selves fit together in a more complex social reality is confined to later strata of awareness and development. I think we do find poets who regress back to that 7 year old stage, if only because they think they have to appeal something common to everyone and that is the little child because later on people get complicated.
There is a link between complex language and consciousness and then again between conscious choice - uncertainty about social role - tentative and innovative behaviour. For me this is where modern poetry happens. There is a sort of communalist poetry where the rigidity of social roles is a virtue and you don’t have to be any more complicated than the role. This is almost the only kind of poetry in Wales.
A feature of grievance mode is to repeat the message because it is not being obeyed. Equally rigidity mandates grievances because you don't drop demand A and move on to other patterns of which some will be successful. grievance is an important part of political behaviour. The wish for authority of the losers migrates into repetition, stereotyping, simplification - even if it's also linked to an ideal social vision. If you are so rigid about your rights, you are likely to see law as especially rigid (as the source of those rights) and so to see rigid laws governing art.
I don't think everything about my life was fixed at the age of seven. I also think 7 year olds misunderstand most of what is happening around them. I think what matters in modern poetry comes from the conscious strata of the self and not from the infantile and unreflexive levels. I am not convinced that social origins or gender are a predominant influence on the way someone writes poetry. If it's all from your parents then they got it from their parents and it goes back 1000 years like that. Somebody sometimes has to act in a conscious way.
Sociologists use much more complex classifications than the ones mentioned. However, the writing about poetry which I am describing does not come from trained sociologists. Sociologists leave poetry alone - it would be likely that anyone with a theoretical grounding would spot poetry as an area where orthodox research methods are not going to capture the complexities of individual experience. Poetry is in the domain of freedom and so differs strikingly, indeed critically, from many other spheres of human activity. There is a thesis on poetry by a sociologist, Peter Ryan; most of the text is interviews with poets, where they speak for themselves. The thesis has nothing in common with the crude sociologism of populist poetry criticism.
The cube where all these unstable time lines converge is too exciting. A young poet who perceives all the possibilities of political breach, linguistic breach, and exit into an experimental lifestyle, is likely to be so fixated by the possibilities that they stop making sense. This seems like a structural weakness. Poets must survive this phase and bring their own possibilities into some coherent frame.
In this project, all the lines of stress run through the individual and the prize of success is a triumph that makes anything else seem petty. The effect of this on the poet’s ego is a threat to good order, if the poet regards their personal situation as emblematic for millions of people or for a whole culture. The risk realises itself in a style which is the personal property of the poet, and in doing so moves into whole new territories, not linked to the need for risk and consciousness and sometimes able to overwhelm and distort those qualities. The risk changes and even rots here into investment - self investment, with chance realised as rising values.
The struggle for style is highly complex and cannot ultimately be explained by metaphors from any other game. It has to be understood by lengthy absorption of the poetic products of the styles and by reaching deep understanding, preferably by spending years trying to write original poetry. However many connoisseurs understand the style of, say, Tom Raworth, there is no notation for it. You could not come to know what it is except by reading his collected poems. However much connoisseurs respect each other's knowledge, as a way of stabilising the game, they only share that knowledge to a limited extent: every detailed discussion shows the limits of consensus.
Poetry generates the information it is made of. The set of possibilities implicit in the area defined by preset linguistic rules is the consecrated area for a given poet and also obeys the mathematical rules which govern the results in a casino. The rules shift probabilities to create possibilities. By denaturing language poetry forces to the surface the assumptions limiting consciousness or any set of propositions conforming to rules known or unknown. By observing the regular infinitude of number we gradually come to conceive of a possible infinitude of poems and so yet a further one of actions and experiences.
Risk seems to be a key factor in modern poetry. But it cannot cover the entire field. We can conceive of the possibility of a variant B where the information of poetry is scattered over a whole order of society and the impulse of the poet no longer involves gambling. George Mackay Brown comes to mind as the poet of cycles. He was dependent on Muir, whose 'Variations on a Time Theme' (1934) expresses a completely different philosophy of time. It is curious that Brown was so preoccupied with numbers: everywhere we see recurring sets of events in threes, sevens, and so on. Gamblers also have this preoccupation with runs of numbers, but Brown is the opposite of a poetic gambler. He thinks the runs pre-exist the individual, precede birth, and are just waiting there for a concrete individual to stumble into. Brown and Muir were not seeking risk. They had a strong belief in cycles and archetypes. Brown was willing to write a poetry of routine because for him the social order of Orkney (where all his tales are set) is itself beautiful, and all his poems refer to the total pattern even if they deal with local details. His interest in recurring numbers (described by Alan Bold in his book on Brown) is because he loves correlations and these themselves are telltale signs of the cycles. The calendar is his natural theme because it presents a cycle, whose course is measured by a set of numbers.
The phrase ‘cutting edge’ is meaningless if historicism is a phantomatic and exploded philosophy. There is a good statement of the spherical possibilities of advance in poetry, with lines out all round, by the late Michael Donaghy. Yet breakthrough is something artists really can experience, even frequently. They do not get closer to the laws of the world-spirit in doing so. They are faced with local and personal technical problems which shatter on thrilling and decisive solutions. This breakthrough experience is attractive and can be made obvious to the audience so that they share it. It is a key asset. It hardly follows if I solve the problems with my next poem that I invalidate the work of a hundred poets writing in other genres - even though I transcend myself. Meanwhile, I am spending almost all my time struggling with problems - not so attractive at all.
You can’t say something is OK when it’s out of date. The argument about historicism can’t shoot down the feeling of boredom, staleness, and satiation. We have a right to these feelings even though we don't want them.
Other unifying themes
[[There is an interesting link between the poets of the 1940s and the themes of feminism. This is a theme which I cut out of Origins, because the book seemed too long.]]
In fact, this is the moment for even more overarching generalisations. Apart from finding poets ever since 1940 trying to realise risk, we find them resisting the object-machine and renouncing identification with power and its assets. Poets are against powerful machines. Poets are individualists, they believe in the value of a unique point of view - and as a consequence are not interested in grey monotony, the typical, the set of facts already established and from which any significance has been sucked. They are generally using the exceptional as part of a protest against the findings of sociology as applied by schools, governments, banks, arts councils, and other authorities. They often have a preoccupation with the cross-modal. When a pattern is detected by two senses at once it is more likely to be a something than if it appears in one only. Resistance and difficulty are seen as evidence that an apparent something is not merely a fantasy produced by airy speculation, which will prove unreliable very quickly. This checking is a constant background activity and the destruction of fantasies and ideas is the more frequent result of it. The confirmation is only relevant in the case of unproven ideas, anomalies really.
Poetry is made entirely of concepts but has a strong and dark relationship with objects. Tekmerion is a Greek word for an object which provides proof, and this is something crucial to many modern poems. The object does not speak at all but speaks the truth. Somehow. A classic element of historical European culture is the miraculous object: the saint has a vision and wakes up to find the sights gone but an anomalous object clutched to his chest. The object is then preserved, often at the same place where the text is preserved, and is held to have virtues. Such objects continue to generate anomalous events. They are tekmeria of a supernatural narrative. Although we escape from the object-machine we do not escape from the testifying object.
The selection of poetic moments is often based on this kind of proof. The poem itself is seen as miraculous object, recording a breach event. What has to be proved is something you do not believe - this is the precondition of the interest and investment. Poets search for physical sequences of sensory events which bear out abstract ideas, making locally tangible what is true everywhere, and conceptual.
These preferences lead poets into a fairly obvious range of psychological or linguistic sites in search of these qualities. They shed light on what poets are trying to do and so on how they fail. It is a failure mode if you believe in individuality but lead a completely conventional life-style and write all your poems about your mundane routine.
You can site yourself in a unique niche in time either by a temporal gamble as recommended by Berdyaev and Spender, or by a special theory of style history which grants you a non-comparable niche. This is an anxiety not everyone feels. Another way of finding a place is simply by positioning yourself close to the sources of patronage, for example by being an Oxford poet and tied into the Oxford literary networks, exchanging assets and shining prestige out of huge mirrors. Social relationships with actual people, in which you win by getting real assets and real status, tend to wipe away the need for theory, abstraction, and revolt, as is well known.
This all got cut out of my book. If poetry is only a set of unique and complete moments, how can you write a history of it?
If you meet a poet, avoid telling them their poems are not unique.
See other essays on 'equivocation' on this site.
Spender and 'effacing of record'. The passage in the 1955 Collected poems (subtitle '1928-53', introduction dated 1954) reads -
Mandolin skeleton, it
Strums on your gut such songs and peasant dances,
Solitudo, amor, O life O death.
('Explorations', at p.150)
This is completely different in the 1985 Collected (and I think it is different again in the 1942 volume 'Poems of dedication'). 'Time in Our Time' is not only missing from the 1985 Collected but already from the 1955 Collected. The passage only interests me because it is such a classically Apocalyptic statement. Also 'mandolin skeleton' is beautiful although macabre. But the way Spender washed out his own past is strange and hardly discussed. I suspect that his Forties poetry was his best and also the most deleted and rewritten for the (permanent?) record. The backlash against the Apocalyptic style seems to have led him to suppress or adjust a whole swathe of his poetry. Admittedly this is secondary to his conversion away from communism, possibly against activism in general, with its effects on the body of his poetry as selected by him.
I will write another blog about poetry missing from the record as gathered and edited.
Within his coils of blood,
Drumming under his sleep, there moves the flood
Of stars, battles, dark and glacial pole.
This is still purely Apocalyptical. Hendry, Treece, et al., spent so much space trying to say exactly this, never as well as Spender.
Cold War postscript
Sinn und Form 63/1, spring 2011, page 8, has Zagajewski reporting on Spender visiting Poland at the end of the 1950s and asking a group of Polish writers if there were any communists among them. Pause. Someone answers, ‘”Sir, you have come too late.” Zagajewski then sums SS up as one of the western sympathisers with communism, to make a rhetorical point which only stumbles on the ridiculous mistake about Spender. Who was a professional anti-communist by that time. Editing a magazine funded by the CIA. There were at the end of the 1950s communists in the West who justified every wretched act of the communist regimes, but it happens that Spender was not one of them.
It looks as if the Cold War was filled with calumnies of writers for being on the wrong side, and now that it’s over writers are calumnied because people are not sufficiently interested to collect what literati really said and really stood for. Now that we don’t have to fight surely we can get the facts about someone’s opinions and attitudes right. The tedium of dredging up what the facts really are is extreme, but do it or shut up.
Spender probably went to Poland to collect facts to flesh out his anti-communist articles with and to prevent them from getting out of date. Where would you go to get anti-communist anecdotes if not Poland? What’s that? He actually collected facts, talked to people, to back up his political position? Not a bad idea, you might think.