Saturday, 24 April 2010

Film as the skin of imaginary organs; or, chichi

Film as the skin of imaginary organs; or, the cinema of chi-chi

When I heard that the Conference was planning a Day Symposium, I naturally assumed that this was a symposium about Doris Day, and I poured out my long pent-up feelings about Doris in an intense lyrical prose poem. I was appalled when Rod and Kevin told me last night that it wasn’t about Doris, and that I would have to make something up which was vaguely relevant to the programme. The solution I chose, between two moments of vagueness and over-excitement, was to talk about John Wieners, a man who loved cinema. Wieners published a book called Behind the State Capitol, or, Cincinnati Pike' which he describes as 'cinema decoupages, verses, prose insights', and which includes a number of pin-up board style collages of star photos torn from magazines. The question we have to address is whether his vein of wonderful poetry ended with, roughly, Asylum Poems, and the later Behind the State Capitol, with its generally optimistic tone, free associative logic, and affinity with the air of films and glamour magazines, is unworthy - and part of the onset of an illness. This admiration was quite inseparable from his transvestism and the feelings evoked in his poem called 'Feminine Soliloquy'. He wrote another poem called 'Acceptance':

Should I wear a shadowed eye,
grow moustaches
delineate my chin

accept spit as offering
attach a silver earring
grease my hair

give orders to legions
of lovers to maintain manhood
scimitars away as souvenirs?

With someone whose vest is trans, it is forbidden to ask the obvious question. He relies on the domain of the symbolic, as we do this morning. The avoidance of clear lines is called chichi, and we are now adopting a manœuvre of incomplete frequent and ornamental gestures called chichisteria. Larousse gives as the base meaning of 'chichi', artificial hair. Now a clip from Mitchell Leisen's 'Easy Living'!

(a finically dressed fussbudget of a certain age staggers up a vast staircase bearing an armful of milliner’s boxes higher than his head. His demeanour suggests alarm, indignation, mimosa-like sensibility, incompatible and constant impulses, a moral decorum which has to reassert itself all the time. He rings at the door of Jean Arthur’s suite, falls into the room, and casts his burden on the floor, crying “There you are my dear. Now, just pour yourself into these and fall down in a faint.”)
That was Franklin Pangborn. I suppose what we have to consider is the survival of hysteria, the link from hysterical symptoms to temporary body parts to elaborate dress. Chichi lingers on ornamentation, in contrast to tight, milled, hard objects, with single axes. Behind the State Capitol is like this:

Stock control of miracle fjord, intergovernmental clusters, des objets your gifts in our
arsenal an immemorial day April 5th 1973 and April 6th
means far richer happiness than man's kiss or sex.
Could three telephone calls Andrew, John and Charles
cost memory to reside in fatigue facing photograph
of my only one, he and I perpetually wed as
Shinto handsmen to wisdom, perfected and trust

Stars, planets, orbs precede streets or
paths, vertical pink paean petals, table, o guru
leadership, worldliness ascend after perusal
yesterday reconstruction. Earlier this century, 50 years.

boardwalks of Los Angeles welcomed home from the Panama Canal
Portraits in Vogue prove it. Pajamas, perukes, and thé palaces of afternoon.

(from 'To Barbara Hutton').
A verbal style with many detours, frills, pointless ornaments, with no axis or focus. Hindenburg tells us that an offensive without a schwerpunkt is like a man without character, and in this sense Wieners is a chichi without an armoured tip. I can't uncoil these sentences. Gene Autry recorded a song called 'Buttons and Bows':

east is east and west
and the wrong one I have chose
let's go where you'll keep on wearing those
frills and flowers and buttons and bows
Rings and Things and Buttons and Bows

...
let's vamoose
where the girls keep using
those silks and satins and linen that shows
and you're all mine in buttons and bows

give me eastern trimmin
where women are women
in high silk hose and peekaboo clothes
and French perfume that rocks the room
and you're all mine in buttons and bows.

This is about feminine charms, but all it mentions are objects, not actual females. A male person could acquire these secondary attributes quite successfully. Perhaps buying them from Woolworths, owned by Barbara Hutton. These froufrou objects point out that idle ornamentation was feminine, in that cultural context, and say everything possible about Wieners' style in Behind the State Capitol. Let him say it.

'On the Orientalia Line Ltd sped the gargantuan for this earth, the demure, the graceful, the gracious hostesses and hosts embarked during courses, that were found perilously upon the wilder shores of love.'

The movement of sense in both quotations is obviously related to the schizophrenia for which he was treated later in life. But maybe we should get on to a film example. One of the stills in Behind the State Capitol is from 'The Song of Bernadette'.

(A 14 year old girl wearing peasant clothes and an expression of dream-like stupidity is led by gendarmes from her house and through the streets as neighbours cry from upper windows, ‘Madame Flaubert! They’ve arrested Bernadette!” She is wearing a capulet, a cape-like head covering. Now she is in a large office where Vincent Price tells her “I am the Imperial Prosecutor. Do you know what that means?” and tries to make her deny her vision. He threatens that, if he fails, she will have to face the Chief of Police, a much less decorous man. It will be bestial, it will be terrible. He shudders to think of it. Bernadette looks scared but does not give in. Analogous scene with Jacomet, the chief of police.)

I was cueing this film on a video belonging to Suzanne, a psychotherapist, who after a certain point referred to Oscar-winning Miss Jones as 'a psychotic drip', and added ominously that 'psychosis is catching under some circumstances'. This film is no more than feebly adapted to contemporary taste, but obviously meant a lot to Wieners. He refers to it three times in State Capitol, as well as including a still from it. The poem 'What happened to the mind of Jennifer Jones' is about what happens in the film. Bernadette Soubirous was a peasant in clogs, unable to speak French, to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Lourdes in 1858. Wieners saw his own life in these terms. The story is somewhat less about the Blessed Virgin, and more about how no-one believed Bernadette at first, not even her sister Marie, her father scolded her for trying to make herself important, and finally the mayor, the town prosecutor, the bishop, the Vatican, etc., all believed her; what we could call the legitimation process. She was made a saint in 1933. We all have Imperial Prosecutor figures telling us our poems are just attempts to show off and make ourselves seem important. To the point of taping a message "Vincent! Don't be so mean!" to the bathroom mirror. “Das Lied von Bernadette” was a novel by Franz Werfel, who was Jewish in fact. The word schmalz possibly means kitsch for uneducated Catholics as prepared by intelligent Jewish writers and composers. As we know, schmalz means ‘dripping’. Werfel came from Prague but lived in Vienna and absorbed late 19th C Austro-Hungarian attitudes on a grand scale, including the pressings of Catholic religion, retrieved from the carcass rather as schmalz is won from geese. Werfel was married to the widow of Gustav Mahler, who was also married to Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus. He wrote the Bernadette novel in Los Angeles, the schmalzing pot of the European peoples. Wieners wrote a poem which I believe is closely related to this film, called "l'Impératrice":

who sits supreme above all human ecstacy.
nine star circle of dominion about
her head
crown of heaven atop it.
Who falls not, but smoke
incense to her eyes, our acts held in claws
of falcon at her right hand.
Sceptre and pole, cross and globe to her left.

Lily growing out of hip,
half moon crushed to quarter
under bare foot
lady of the blue robe

Scent of sperm, cloud of devotion to her nostrils.
And pale
wings of heaven behind
her back.

It's impossible to think of a figure in a blue robe without thinking of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Wieners received a conventional New England Jesuit education, as he puts it on the jacket of his Selected Poems. We have to ask what the role of religion is in his poems. The simplest answer is that he was portraying his own life as a saint's life, filled with miracles, with incredulity about the miracles he witnessed, and with calls from the other side which he couldn't foresee or resist. He was Bernadette; he was Jennifer Jones. These are two of the miracles. The Empress is literally a tarot card, admittedly with iconographic details rather different from those in the poem; but we are not in the realm of accuracy here. He is re-enacting the apparition of Lourdes. In the Bernadette poem I mentioned above, the first stanza is about the Rolling Rock, possibly the most exclusive club resort in North America. Maybe this doesn't connect to Lourdes at all. But, since Rolling Rock is by a lake and there is a beer named after it, while Lourdes is a resort and you can buy bottles of the holy water, there might just be a link.

The Bernadette story as told in the film is one long loyalty test – something bizarrely egocentric and even self-indulgent. The parties line out and denounce each other in wonderfully elaborate and official terms. The issue of ‘did she really see a vision?’ does not really ask for theological solution – it puts Bernadette herself securely at centre stage. It may be that Wieners was so taken with this idea that he unconsciously “staged” a faction struggle about his own poetry – adopting writing strategies which were non-functional at one level (appearing vague, irritating most readers) and functional at another (drawing attention to the author, inducing loyalty contests, setting up a filmy layer of symbolism which only the ‘sensitive’, the ‘initiated’, could see).

The question of ‘is there really anything to see’ is likely to remind us of Jackson Pollock, presumably the most famous figure of the American avant-garde during the 1950s, when Wieners was forming his style. Pollock's obsession with chance and the transient surface of the visual and the mind sheds a direct light on Wieners' preoccupation with the rapid diary form. The publication of a 1960 diary (as 707 Scott Street) makes it likely that all his poems were won from diaries, and that the later ones were less edited than the early ones. His receptivity to all kinds of material firstly allowed him to take on movie magazines, glamour photos, details of social ceremonies, etc., but secondly makes his late work impossible to describe adequately. This is where I set aside my judgment - generalisation is just unsatisfactory. Is Rolling Rock linked to Lourdes - or did he just switch channels on his TV?

Bernadette wasn’t actually a martyr – her experiences were actually rather sweet, light-hearted, girlish, even bucolic. My guess is that the martyrdom story fastened to Pollock did him a lot of good – it’s quite possible to read his mature work as decorative, intimate, and flowery. I like those paintings, which are repetitive, nonfunctional, and intuitive – a quick examination of Behind the State Capitol shows that it is, precisely, repetitive, nonfunctional, and intuitive. I can’t condemn it straight away for having these qualities. Only detailed examination would show whether the poems are successful.
Wieners wrote:

Rise, shining martyrs
over the multitude
for the season of migration
between earth and heaven.

rise shining martyrs
cut down in fire
and darkness,
speeding past light
straight through imagination's park.

In the smart lofts on West Newton St
or the warehouse district of San Francisco, come,
let us go back
to bequeathed memory.

What I remember about Wieners in San Francisco comes from Geoff Ward's great essay, 'Literary San Francisco and the poetry of the excitements'. Geoff actually went to visit the Hotel Wentley, the cheap rooming house in Polk Gulch where Wieners wrote the Hotel Wentley poems. As we know, another hotel was the Hotel California, and another was Grand Hotel, my favourite Garbo film. One of the stills is of Garbo. Possibly from 'Anna Christie', but I couldn't get a video of that.

(a faithful maid enters a super-luxurious hotel room to wake up the ballerina before her evening performance. The dancer wakes up as the room floods with light. She is dazzlingly beautiful, stricken by some spiritual anguish, and wearing a full-body robe or peignoir in some glossy, sheeny, oiled material. She complains that she is so tired and even veronal does not work. As pearls, furs, and orchids flow through the room, she reminisces about the Imperial Court and wonders whether the audience love her enough, whether they are worthy of her, and whether she will dance tonight. After a thorough discussion of these issues, she resolves “Gruzinskaya will not dance tonight”.)

We all have evenings like that sometimes. In the London gay community, someone given to panic and introspection beyond a certain point is called Greta. Harraps gives for chichi also 'to put on airs; to make a fuss, a bother; to put difficulties in the way.' Being constantly obstructive is one of the symptoms of hysteria, according to the reference works. The first film I ever saw was in a convent. I was at the nursery school attached, and when it was the Mother Superior's saint's day, they showed a film on a projector to celebrate. This included us four year olds. The film was 'Goodbye Mr Chips'. I don't recall any specifically Catholic dramas. This was shortly before I became fixated on Doris. This was a long time before I understood film as temporary identity, or adolescence as a dream of imaginary organs arriving as if brought by a cherishing supernatural intervention. Simon Pettet told me he saw a film of Wieners, circa 1965, reading in the ruins of the burnt-out Hotel Wentley. Maybe the building Geoff saw was a more recent one.

Film originally means a membrane, a fine skin through which an inside is visible. This could be extended to textiles. Early meanings of the word 'film' include foreskin, maidenhead, and retina. The OED cites its use in translations of Epicurean writings, as 'often applied to the emanations from the surface of bodies which in the philosophy of Epicurus were supposed to be the objects of perception.' 'Those superficial fleeting films of bodies.' 'The films of Epicurus... are the productions of human fancy.' Clearly there is a link between film and temporary organs, also called chichi.

This brings us to the concept of Diaphaneite, as expounded in that key paper of 1864 by Walter Pater. He sees beauty of spirit as visible in the outward form of certain creatures. Their skin is diaphanous, or the way they move. One of the things he says seems to be about Wieners. 'Here there is a moral sexlessness, a kind of impotence, an ineffectual wholeness of nature, yet with a divine beauty and significance of its own.' Neutralised by equipoise of gifts, Walter says. Not wholly a woman, then. But he always made the scene. Pater seems to be developing a gay theology whose doctrine is exclusively visual.

Wilson Knight published, in 1962, a book called The Golden Labyrinth. A Study of British Drama, whose central theme is that "seraphic equivalents, often in what we may call bisexual disguise, with suggestions of a state beyond sex, like 'the angelic heaven'" are figures which run throughout the history of drama, from Dionysus on down. Through it all 'runs the one golden thread of the seraphic'. He also holds a belief that the voices who speak through spiritualists are really the bisexual spirits of the blest. Further, 'The most striking advance of modern drama… is its use of Spiritualism or other kinds of extra-dimensional insight.' In another book, he sheds light on this by quoting the apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians saying that only those who are neither men nor women can enter the kingdom of heaven. Evidently, the bisexual seraphs have passed this test and are the voices who talk to spirit mediums, who perhaps feed poets their words as well. Could we consider Wieners as someone halfway towards this state, able to breathe through the pipe its language pours down?

Hysteria has often been linked to shamanism. Edward Carpenter, the pioneer sex reformer, believed that all shamans were gay, as he expounded in his Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk, 1914, where he seized on early accounts of cross-dressing medicine men to produce a theory that all cultural creation - all social progress, actually - was due to holy individuals of a third or intermediate sexual status. Significantly, most of his examples came from North America. This was where Knight got his troupe of hermaphrodite seraphs - as well as from Pater. We would admit a link between hysteria, ecstatic religion, prophetic trance utterance, and early dramatic performances. Maybe we should think of theatre primarily as travesty and transformation, of costumes as temporary alterations of the body shape. Spirituality and normal sexual activity do seem to shun each other's company. But Knight's nympholepsy is private to him, and could be retrieved as an authentic example of l'amour fou and erotic hallucination. He quotes a passage from 'The Monk', by MG Lewis, a Gothic novel.

'At the same time the cloud disappeared, and he beheld a figure more beautiful than fancy's pencil ever drew. It was a youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: a bright star sparkled upon his forehead, two crimson wings extended from his shoulders, and his silken locks were confined by a band of many-coloured fires, which played around his head(.)'

Lewis' picture, anticipating Wieners' Empress poem, seems to be a pin-up - although there were no pinups in 1796. Perhaps the pinup has a partly religious origin, in portraits of female saints. Perhaps these diaphanous figures were flying through the air until the cinema screen provided a kind of flypaper for detaining them in flight. Could pinup be an obstinate and rather unshaven dialect reduction of epiphany?

State Capitol involves a lot of social contacts merely for the purpose of making contact, and a lot of language which is inflated because it is really an exchange of honorifics rather than a record of essential facts. MAK Halliday, in one of those great sociolinguistic quotes, says that the primary function of language is to display status. We might modify this to say that its primary function is to signal prestige two ways- something more benign. Poetry is an intensification of language - and I suspect that poetry, over much of its history, has also been an intense form of status signalling. Typically, it recorded gifts, the primary quality of the aristocracy being generosity. We may find it helpful to think of Wieners' later poems as gifts signalling status. Their language is flouncy; it doesn't record essentials because the situation is permanently one of leisure - he has discovered that the Leisure Age gives us time to be filled. The act of filling that time is the exercise of freedom. You enjoy that time as long as you feel good about yourself - a condition for which perceived status, acceptance, verbal praise, are vital supports. Inflated language is fit for purpose - we are enjoying leisure, not hurrying toward its end. Wieners has, with these film poems, assimilated to the world of magazines, pinups, and television. He is recognising the new age rather than disappearing into a private and pathological condition. The problem of incorporating the beautiful into your home was not faced by John alone.
(clip of Doris as interior designer in 'Pillow Talk'. 'The last thing you want in Scarsdale is a fertility symbol.')

I think we might unpick his earlier, heroic poetry as well as getting lost in the lush ruffles of State Capitol (and the later texts of Cultural Affairs in Boston). I think we are getting further away from the existential integrity and anxiety of the 1950s all the time. The artist's journey into the interior now seems more like tourism and less foolhardy than in the days of Abstract Expressionism. I don't want to undermine that era - just to point out what modernity, with its affluence and mass access to higher education, means to us, now. I think some people don't like the late work because it doesn't include enough suffering. What is this about homosexuals suffering? is this suffering a task - something passed down, or accepted, in accordance with a work ethic? What does it buy you?

The falcon mentioned in the poem reminds us of another stylised bird of prey. There is a moment in 'The Maltese Falcon' where Bogart, after humiliating Elisha Cook Jr, refers to him as “that little gunsel”. This is a moment of truth in that dance of deception, as gunsel is derived from a Yiddish word affiliated to German gansel, ‘little goose’, and refers to a young male homosexual, silly and in need of a protector. Something of the real politics of that film emerges, almost in mirror writing, in this word; and one of the forgotten structures of the classic gangster tradition. As they say, what's sauce from the angel is schmalz from the gansel. Maybe not all gunsels simply vanish off screen. Maybe some of them grow up to be geese, with wings. There isn’t much schmalz on a falcon, but maybe a bird covered in lead and made on the inside of gold encrusted with jewels isn’t so different from a bird rich with schmalz on the inside and covered in beautiful white feathers on the outside. Werfel gave a speech at Davos in 1918 where he told the workers 'Comrades! what calls itself art today, is the shimmering ring of fat on the capitalist soup.'

The classic work on the subject is of course Hergé de la Tour de Chichi's 'Strike of the Tower falcon: Ismaili erotic poetry, the heresy of the Maltese Priory, and the Jesuit educational tradition' with the accompanying recipe book. Hergé was the descendant of Louise Mouton-Rothschischi, the inventor of the word chichi in the belle epoque. After an early career in interior decoration, he became a cineaste and psychoanalyst, who insisted on treating his patients while watching Loretta Young films on his clinical projector.

To save effort, I'm going to quote from his paper 'Symptomatic membrane, or the wet blouse as social field in Howard Hawks, John Woo, and Terence Fisher': "Enough of the spurious jacobinism of directorial high command. Events on the phantomatic membrane are the outer of a grand inner, gunpowder fired through a net, unthwarted trains of action learning to build themselves as scenarios. The film is an impartible object-scene where partial projections of allotted parties litigate for control. What are we seeing when our gaze traces movements on screen? Ejectamenta from a world of baffled light. The pellicular surface as discharge of human pollen into a solar atmosphere, billowing and capturing dislocated energies. Hormones are temporary organs on the inside, swarm forms which develop structures visible on the outside. In puberty, certain hormones build entire new organs, the realisation of the masculine and feminine. These are not simply coups of temperament, although on a particular afternoon they might seem like that, especially in hot weather. They are a hysteria which lingers, a phantom caught by nervously rich skin. The lines of Mannerist ornament represent unchannelled currents on the periphery of two bodies which issue as temporary yet firm swellings."
Thankyou, Hergé. That's absolutely masses. And we have to stop there as well.


**
bibliographyGeoff Ward, Literary San Francisco and the poetry of the excitements. Critical Quarterly, vol 36, no.3.
Walter Pater, Diaphaneite (in Uncollected Essays).
-'Winckelmann' (in Studies in the Renaissance)
G Wilson Knight. Symbol of Man in stage and studio.
- The Golden Labyrinth.
Séraphine Nuage. Le sortitilège. Louise Mouton-Rothschischi et ses confections de fantaisie. (Editions Froufrou, 1947)
Hergé de la Tour de Chichi. Le chichi des hachichins. Détours ismailites et fumées arabesques. (Editions de l'apres-midi, 1990)
- 'Symptomatic membranes' (Baton Rouge Film Fan, June 1958)
- 'Tower falcon striking' (Little Rock Film Student, July 1980)
MAK Halliday, Language as social semiotic

**
Wieners' abject failure to include a still of Loretta Young in his pinups prevents me from making a connection to the Virgin of Loreto. As you recall, the Santa Casa, the house where the Blessed Virgin was born and lived, was miraculously translated to Loreto, an apport from the Holy Land, in 1294. Pointing out the reliance of the Church on hysterics and hallucinators for its basic narratives. The original Loreto was reproduced in many parts of Europe; there is one in Prague, for example. The idea of recreation of a cosmically key event in your own neighbourhood is important in Catholicism, and buying movie magazines is also an act of devotion. The idea of a household shrine brings us to Wieners' scrap-book for private devotions. In Munich I saw shops full of garish objects for decorating pious Catholic homes; the word kitsch is Bavarian, and is said to come specifically from these frightening objects. The practice of building household shrines goes well back into the Middle Ages, but it was the attempt to cram the polychrome brilliance and illusionist effects of the Baroque into small portable sculptures which really spawned a horror.

**
This was written as a lecture for a conference in Cambridge, I don't know when, maybe about 2003. I don't have the technology to include the film clips into this web piece. Also that might involve copyright problems. Wieners was of importance to Jeremy Reed, Barry MacSweeney, and John Wilkinson, a strange grouping. Geoff shared a house with John Wilkinson when both were students, circa 1973 or 74, and Wilko was doing a PhD on Wieners. I imagine Barry got into Wieners through Prynne, who was a heavy Wieners fan and had original editions of his work from the USA. I chose this style because I thought it would irritate the Cambridge bien-pensants more than anything else, and something about that town makes me surly. I knew Rod and Kevin would be with it, but there is a faction in C**b**ge of the Hanging Bishops of Modernism.

This is related to various writings on Jeremy Reed. Jeremy wasn't exactly influenced by Wieners but used him to unlock a range of possibilities.

The history of the temporary: oral poetry

Oral poetry and Protest poetry

The text I wrote (in 'Long 1950s') about the elusiveness of oral poetry is an unconscious memory of a passage by Martin Booth in British Poetry 1964 to 1984. I only realised this when re-reading Booth to try and get a handle on 'live poetry'. So he says you can't write a history of live events but his book actually is that history. ‘How this new upsurge in poetry reading and the oral side of it came about is hard to define or accurately trace [...] Few people kept records or recordings of events. Where these were kept, they were not publicised but kept as private and therefore secret property.’ (p.86)
So let's start with theory A: that the tradition of platform poetry, protest poetry, was already there in the 1930s, boomed in the 1940s, and never stopped up till the mid-1960s and the poetry readings boom which Booth finds starting in 1964.
What also happened was a denial of memory. There is a treble path to this. In the Left, there is a shedding of the past. The past always seems too radical or too compromised. Then, the political issues of 1945 seem ridiculous in 1955 and so the poetry which was inherent in those issues dies as the issues fade, and fades also from memory, its questions not needing any answer. Then, the community of the meeting hall is a mighty force but it is transient, after a while you turn back into individuals and the intense presence of the words uttered from the platform becomes irrecoverable. Indeed, the engaged, cheering community of 1955 become the oppressive and inhibited dullness of 1965. The printed page is less vulnerable to this (though not invulnerable). The fact that there were enthusiastic crowds at a poetry reading in 1945 seemed unimportant to people in 1955 even if they knew about it. So, I know that John Manifold gave readings in 1944 or so which a thousand people attended. More than any readings in the 1960s, with perhaps half a dozen exceptions. But by 1965 no one knew who he was or that he had ever had this success. He was an Australian Marxist and it was an Australian poet who gave me the information about him. Manifold was also a RAF officer, of course. The activism which followed the Slump of 1929 and the Nazi takeover of 1933 wanted writers to appear on platforms before all things. They did that in big quantities but they knew it would all be forgotten and that is exactly so. But still I have to ask if the idea of the poetry reading or of protest poetry suddenly arrived in 1964. I don’t think so.

I have called this theory A, not because I have tons more theories to act as its rivals, but because I feel caution about it and don’t want to assert it as true, precisely because of the problems of documentation.

Booth believes only in what he sees and has no sense of doubt. Wherever he is, he thinks is the most important place. The sense of presence is so overwhelming that he never asks if there are scenes where he is not present, and so it is that his book is astonishingly incomplete. Reading it, I am aware of the whole process whereby you withdraw from the social scene you are in, compare it to other experiences, look at the class of data which arise from comparison, think about forms, move away from identification, in fact undergo the process of abstraction. Booth seems to live in an eternal present. His work is still a classic because he writes about the live events, criss-crosses the country recovering how good the atmosphere was at Nottingham Poetry Society or whatever it is, talks about the audience and about what they liked. His first-person witness is all the evidence we have now. The history of poetry is not just what is in the texts.

The loss of inhibitions during exciting events is related to the difficulty of recovering the memory later. The rational content was retracted but that is why the emotional message occupied your brain so thoroughly. You liked it, too.
To sum up I don't trust the history of live readings as it is found in print.
The live situation makes people unable to think abstractly and critically. There is a specific sector of false accounts by impresarios where they present what they did as the history of the entire art in the entire country. They have the most interest in recalling past events but their versions are egocentric and unreliable. Unfortunately, stage performers are subject to the same malady. This malady is related to the total concentration which live performance demands, total self-concentration. Having reached that concentration your ability to focus on anybody else even for five minutes is critically diminished.

The protest poem was something I identified in the Chicago Review diagram [clarity and organisation by Robert Baird, text by A Duncan] but which I had difficulty finding examples for. I have a strong memory impression of Poetry and Jazz events starting in the late 50s, which pioneered a new kind of reading. The impression comes from reading, obviously. Those events pioneered a new kind of reading, made a link with popular music, and featured mainly protest poems. These were the kind of events CND supporters went to. Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell were the most significant protest poets I could come up with, although I listed Ewart Milne too. Something I found of great interest while researching ‘The Long 1950s’ was a poem by Ewart Milne written after the loss of the submarine HMS Affray in April 1951, and called ‘Elegy for a Lost Submarine’. This is a remarkable poem. It follows a long series of Communist anti-war poems which were full of cheap effects and reckless jumping to political generalisations from concrete facts. It precedes, I suppose, a long series of poems about the dull feelings of individuals who were disenchanted and who couldn’t make ideas fit together and were relapsing into domestic sullenness. But it does neither of those things. It is a poem about death on the ocean floor which is frightening, majestic, austere, and does not preach. It is the work of a politically mature individual who did not overrate the powers of his own mind to find patterns in events. It is interesting to compare it to Judith Kazantzis’ anti-nuclear poem ‘Progenitor’, which is discussed in ‘The Long 1950s’ and which has a similar stature. (“Elegy’ was published in New Poems 1952, the PEN anthology, and also in Jon Silkin’s 1960 anthology Living Voices.)

Milne (1903-87) identified himself as Irish but spent a lot of his life in England, which brings him inside my purview. He was in the ambulances in the Spanish Civil War. In about 1986 (? dates) Prynne was recommending to his students to read Milne’s book ‘Time Stopped’ (1967) as something which no one on the scene ever read. Charles Bainbridge told me this. It’s a terrific book. I don’t really have much knowledge about Milne. Wikipedia says he was on the writers’ committee of the (British) Communist party in 1952, and no doubt that’s right.

I have much better tags on the anthologies Purple and Green (1984) and Angels of Fire (1986), which are both, for the most part, protest poetry of the era typified by anti-Thatcherism, and which I lived through. But I think everyone knew that protest poetry was no new phenomenon.

You can currently get a video footage of Logue and Kinsey on the net at:
http://www.nme.com/video/id/xFPE1n4aiKs/search/parlophone

(I was unable to make this play.) They perform Parlophone EP 8375, ‘Red Bird dancing on White Ivory’. Wrapper also reads ‘jazz and poetry’. possibly 1958? If this doesn't work you can get a sound file of the EP on You Tube.

tentative list of protest poetry

Herbert Read, Thirty-five Poems (1940)
Stephen Spender, Poems (1936?); Trial of a Judge (1939?)
New Lyrical Ballads (1947?) (includes Manifold)
Ewart Milne, 'Elegy for a lost submarine' (1951)
Euros Bowen, ‘Difodiant’ (1951)
Christopher Logue, Songs (1959)
Adrian Mitchell, Poems (1964?)
Wandor, Roberts, Kazantzis, Touchpapers (1982?)
Purple and Green, anthology (1984)
Angels of Fire, anthology (1986)


review: Angels of Fire (1986): an anthology of radical poetry in the '80s (edited Paskin, Silver, Ramsay)


Angels of Fire is oriented towards oral poetry. This does not come across well in books. I am using the print medium, and it's obvious that radio or TV is much better suited to presenting and commenting on work which only exists in 'live' time. It's rational to respect this limit. I don't think you can ask people to put up the deep focus and concentration needed to get into a prose book, and then give them something which has very little information and essentially asks them to empty their brains. I don't think oral poetry lends itself to recollection and discussion, and the emergence of reputation.

The work on offer in both the new british poetry and Angels is deeply split between written poetry and oral poetry. The former is considerably more interesting. It has been pointed out that the plays of Shakespeare and the sermons of John Donne are both oral literature. To make the field of play visible, we have to refine our terms and distinguish low oral from high oral. The former is in fact sub-literary and need not claim much of our time. It looks more like a form of under-achievement than something specific to any ethnic group or set of groups.

Angels describes itself in the sub-title as radical poetry. We take it that this implies as completion radical change, and that the poetry is descriptive only to be critical. The poet starts with a departure from alienated reality into a subjective or speculative state, from which the poetry is written.

The suggestiveness of poetry, the looseness of its semantic associations, are meant to evoke this chaos; the new society is held to start as incongruous and tentative behaviour by individuals; the word psychedelic may spring to mind. The start is governed by a medical metaphor, of exercises repeated in order to solve the malady of unhappiness, defined as submission or self-dislike; the outcome is governed by a political metaphor, as a new social contract, with, typically, less hierarchical structures and less aggression. The individual is understood neither as an object of passive domination, nor as an autarkic self living out buried imperatives, but as something vulnerable and put upon, yet able to achieve fulfilment by conscious effort to change, and by emotional openness to other people. Two key episodes are the experience of resentment, whether at institutions like the nuclear weapons arm and unequal rights for women, or more personal frustrations, which makes the poetry radical; and growth, the slow development of new behaviour patterns, which makes it possible to remove the causes of those resentments. The correct way to read this poetry is to read your own personal problems into it, and to use it as a protected area within which to explore your own possibilities; you cannot read it properly if you have no problems, or if you believe them to be insoluble. Or if you identify with nuclear armaments, property, and organized knowledge.


Angels of Fire was the name assumed by a troupe of poets who gave readings together from 1982. It might be more accurate to say that events with very mixed bills were staged; there were some core members, but most of the poets in the anthology were only occasional guests. The rubric Angels of Fire, a name for these mixed events, does not imply something new in British poetry, or any technique which all the poets share: the Introduction fails to suggest anything which might be this. The juxtaposition has a certain suggestive power: the poems seem to flow into each other, which is the mark of a good anthology.

More troublesome is Sylvia Paskin's attempt, in the Introduction, to establish that formal and social radicalism are really the same thing, and to set up a time sequence for the departure from conventional norms which she believes to be the norm for contributors to this volume. It would be convenient if what is most politically radical were most formally radical, but a careful look at the book suggests that this is not the case. Indeed, the strong links of the British Left to Nonconformism mean that attacks on the status quo tend to assume moral ideals, the idea of a moral community, the predictability of human affairs: all features of poetry throughout the Christian era, and so also in 1950s England. Awkwardly enough, this approach to existence and its equivalents in literary design are common in the past of English poetry. There is a trio of values to juggle: formal innovation, social radicalism, and being up with the fashion and the tastes of the market. Editors naturally wish to claim all three for their pet projects, but scepticism is in order for reviewers.

There are problems with the chronology in Paskin's introduction. She seems to be saying that left-wing poetry did not exist before the invention of the poetry reading (as carried on by the Angels of Fire troop). She implies that this was in the late 60s. However, there is evidence that Poetry and Jazz readings were taking place in the late 50s, and that these had a radical political flavour. There is an anthology, Jazz Poems, which demonstrates this. I would wonder, if there were a complete split in radical poetry in 1958, or 1968. Does Paskin's claim mean that radical poets were very daring in 1958 and then since around 1961 have been rigidly conformist to a fixed ideal? if there have been new ideas since then, or local heterogeneity, why aren't we told about it? or is the problem more that any definition of what is formally conventional will include most of the contributors? so that theoretical acuity is sacrificed for unity's sake?

I would wonder, if there were a complete split in radical poetry in 1958, or 1968, since the political nature of the radical movement means that its members take a view of the whole of living society, not just the young; to put it another way, the evolved radicalism of the Left before 1960 (not to say before 1925) made it impossible for youth to outflank age (and lose touch with them). There was no such split; the Left is more unified - and, of course, more divided, although on a finer scale. Rejecting the traditional art of the Right is very fine, but the traditional art of the Left is not so easily disposed of, either intellectually or artistically. Finding the poetry of the Right presents special problems.

The terminus a quo cited (page xviii) is the late 1950s, which is when the Poetry and Jazz events, linked by Jeff Nuttall to the Young Communists, were running. This is already a problem; because, if poetry is progressing, it should have shown changes between 1958 and 1985. Does this mean that radical poets were very daring in 1958 and then since around 1961 have been rigidly conformist to a fixed ideal of how radical poets write? if there have been new ideas since then, or local heterogeneity, why aren't we told about it? or is the problem more that any definition of what is formally conventional will include most of the contributors and leave the shared position hopelessly split? so that theoretical acuity is sacrificed for unity's sake?

Not mentioned by Paskin is Christopher Logue's epoch-making volume Songs of 1959. This provided the blueprint for the live political poetry of the Sixties; Blake, protest, the A-bomb, song forms, ballad romanticism, sex, all are there. He even produced an LP of songs at the same time. Sex existed, in the 1950s, at least for Logue and George Barker. In Logue's book are, however, concealed two originary names: Brecht, Neruda. Logue invented the direct voice poetry of the Sixties: but he was adapting the Left avant-garde of the Twenties. One of the results of living in a continuous present is that you don't realise you're part of the past.

The word 'collective' used for the A of F poets makes me feel a bit queasy, since after all they didn't write any poetry collectively; one has to ask whether this meant anything more than appearing on the same stage, one after another, to read personal, individualist poetry. What it could have meant is an intense process of discussion and artistic contact which caused a group of people to evolve a new style together and be the context for each other's experiments. This kind of heightened formal acuity would mean a heightened way of discussing form: there is no evidence of this, in fact Paskin's introduction (pp. ix-xxv) acts as if formal questions didn't exist, with the vital exception of the difference between performance and reading a book. The former is alleged to be virtuous. Angels of Fire was a loose bag of individuals of libertarian beliefs who did not share any formal innovation or provide an aesthetic context for each other.

One version of the arrow of time is that it runs away from written poetry and towards the recitation. In this perspective, simplification, reduction, stridency, and schmalz are progressive. The pressure of the live audience is flattening, obscuring aesthetic differences so that people become insensitive to form, inducing a group loyalty and camaraderie which also means intolerance of outsiders; a form of aesthetic blindness. In my experience reading poetry is a much more involving and worthwhile experience than listening to hammy and simplified "performance" poetry.

The preoccupation with the group and with spontaneity are part of a general tendency of the Sixties. The boundaries on the power of the group are wiped away in two directions: the power of the individual to resist, and the power of superordinate rules to restrain group autonomy. The group is a transient thing, but lives in an eternal present. It makes its own rules. This notion is reminiscent of the prayer meeting, equally impatient of learning and favouring the spontaneous spoken or sung word; and of television, the new dominant medium of the Sixties.

There is no kind of ensemble playing here; the poems are predicated on the personality of the poet because in the live performance the person speaking bears all the weight, is all the scenery, the only source of information, etc. This personalism restricts the kind of information that can be put across in a poem. Again the word "collective" jars, because the striking difference between this and any kind of theatre troupe is the lack of ensemble playing or collusion, the absence of dialogue. John Arden, the best and most poetic of the Left playwrights of the Sixties, claimed that "Literature generally has been spoiled by the cult of personality of the individual artist", something made far more intense and monolithic by the unnatural form of solo recital. (Paskin might well claim that the whole apparatus of "technique" is artistic vanity, to be replaced by live recital and "realness".) The critique of the self opens out the space available for unpredictability and exploration in poetry, which is hammered flat by the performing self and its self-promotion.

Paskin's handling of people who are bored by performance poetry involves some twists of logic. She says "Poetry written for performance is ... badly written showbiz, ephemeral in its nature, superficial in its substance and ultimately not to be taken seriously" - a brilliant summary of three decades. Unfortunately, the missing clause is "is conventionally regarded by academics and the mainstream élite as". This is all twisted up; I don't see how the mainstream, a majority, can also be an élite; the term "conventional" implies that it isn't the real reactions of the people described but something on the periphery of their being; one might retort that people in poetry readings are forced to respond by embarrassment and vague benevolence, and it is in private reading that real choice and exploration can occur. Performers get over-excited about an audience that does not react in the desired way. This is an argument in favour of print, which makes nonconformism easier and arouses less insecurity and hysteria. I can see that it's tempting for an overwrought and queasy actor to say "if you aren't committed to my performance then you are against the future and ultimately responsible for the devastation of the planet and damage to the social fabric": which confirms that the right to think brings about disagreement. Does this indicate that if I can adhere to a collectivist ethos then I never have the right to say no to any artist? how is this compatible with radical revolt and self-determination? if I always surrender my personal choice, wouldn't that mean I had to agree with an elected Conservative government? what exactly is my right to disagree with the majority?

The dig at "academics" is odd because surveys of regular poetry readers show a concentration of teachers, university teachers, students, and librarians, so that the audience she is attacking is the typical poetry audience. The term "conservative" is extremely confusing here, since there is a large cadre of the New Left in academic life, and the audience for avant-garde poetry is concentrated in universities. Why is Paskin pretending the opposite? Part of the answer is that fear of thought which is the core of English cultural conservatism; part is a faith in the arrow of time and in modernism, leading to a wish to appropriate progress: Paskin has to pretend that avant-garde art isn't there so that she can propose her pet poets as the avant-garde. The literary academic world is denounced as conservative because it is progressive - in politics, in literary theory, finally in poetic form. Left poetry obviously uses simplicity, because it aims for the largest possible audience; it uses familiar forms, for the same reason; it is realist, because it wants to affect people's perception of the practical world; it is didactic, because it wants to inform and persuade. How can it also be avant-garde? How can you go to great lengths to make your writing as ordinary as possible, and then be annoyed when someone says "this isn't extraordinary"? The strain between populism, moralizing propaganda, and the radical-experimental, can't be abolished by mere singsong amiability.

There is a contrast within Angels of Fire between the straight-ahead first-person moral uplift stuff and certain poems - by Allen Fisher, Paul A. Green, Bill Griffiths, Ken Edwards - which are totally different, because they are avant-garde. They are included for prophylactic reasons, to ward off attacks. Paskin is attacking these poets included in her own anthology; but she is unable to criticize the general run of it, its defects have been pushed out of awareness. The mainstream response to the avant-garde, the formal periphery, involves four strokes: it's bad; it doesn't exist; we are it; and it used to exist but doesn't any more. Amazingly, it is usual to deploy all four at once. When she happily talks, on p.xviii, about the poetry which Eric Mottram used to promote as "disappearing into obscurantism", one has to at least suspect that this darkness visible comes from editors denying that it exists; that what is called obscure is simply new and demanding; that the hard-won new psychological space of this poetry is missed by readers out of negligence, induced by the marginalizing gestures of editors and reviewers; consequently, that this poetry (Mottram published 121 poets during his stint as editor of Poetry Review) has had a course since the grand distractions of 1977 - and, that the poets in Angels of Fire were in 1985 one to two generations behind the leading edge of poetry. Of course my attitude here may be subjective - I have always written Socialist Realist poetry and never anything avant-garde - but it has the point, over Paskin, that it tries to describe the most difficult of modern poetry rather than simply closing the door on it: you wouldn't like it in there. If there is a periphery of British poetry, a zone of mystery and repressed possibilities, it is here.

The best poems in this anthology are those by Fisher, Green, Edwards, and by James Berry. The device under interrogation seems to be the voice: the avant-garde poems do not conjure up a central speaking voice, they are traversed by multiple processes without an obvious agent who could "mean" them, they do not chatter to us and do not offer a reassuring moral resolution. Berry's strikingly dense and close evocation of an inner-city riot is very different in style, being metrically even and semantically determinate:

On and on again through night
of thudding and jawfuls of blood,
of skin of gravel and glass,
quickly bodies change places
in flashes of flames.
And smeared people, gutted
shops, charred billboards,
all make streets
into stoned and trackless woods.

('City Riot') but it is similar in that the author's opinions are withheld, and in fact he is not an actor in the scene: 'Involved, yet inactive, you look on'. We could compare someone who, given a space to fill up with visual information, inserts, not a photo of their face, but some shape which they have created and wrought. There is a whole world of processes and shapes outside the personality. If the self-centred poem is the norm, especially in performance poetry, then poetry which excludes that centre is a creative periphery. The exploration of negative space would seem able to locate unused possibilities and inconsistencies, something to stop the self from repeating itself and therefore allow it to change.

This poetry is the politicized riposte to all the depoliticized verse in the Bloodaxe book (The New Poetry), the committed counter of all their light verse. Indeterminacy opens up a space for change, rapidly emptied out, by cynical and apathetic people, into jokes and inconsequentiality. Either way, it is one of the features of modern poetry.

Angels of Fire was giving performances in London, so all its staple poets were living in or near there. How is it that the new and progressive, as defined by Paskin, Ramsay, Silver, lives in London when the ideology of Hulse, Kennedy, Morley, in the Bloodaxe book, says that London is the centre of tradition? is somebody telling a lie? or do we have a nasty clash over the progress franchise here? London is the biggest concentration of anarchists, feminists, socialists, and everything else (if not miners, shepherds, and sailors). Or is it true that the regions are where obsolete and Victorian poetic practices thrive and multiply? Archivists will note three poets who appear in both anthologies: Michele Roberts, Jackie Kay, and Grace Nichols. All three appear in the Paladin the new british poetry too; all three are intellectually under-funded; Roberts has some talent but nonetheless gets published because of her overt feminism. The incidence is due to editors' wish to appear liberal.

Questions raised by this debate are: what is the conventional from which "radical" poetry differs? what were the new techniques of the 1960s? what is the chronology of new styles? how is style mimetic of social innovations, real or desired? where did the formalist group go after 1975? what were the ideas of the group around Eric Mottram?

One of the tantalising things about this problem of the Nether Oral is that it takes us persistently back to Scotland. The two breakthroughs for Scotland, fifty years apart, were James MacPherson's Ossian and Walter Scott's novels, beginning with Waverley. Both were huge hits all across Europe; based on oral creativity, heavily adapted to print (and mass circulation); and attracted vocal criticism for being 'fake'. English scholars have decayed into sordid excess in attacking Ossian, which certainly has roots in Gaelic ballads of a style which became popular in the 14th century, and collected in quantity in for example Duanaire Finn. We could add Burns, another hugely popular poet whose work is always close to oral genres.

The price for this enormously profitable acceptance by the English literary market was a disabling nostalgia for songs and ballads which has afflicted Scottish poetry ever since. This was MacDiarmid's assertion throughout his career.

Certainly in Scotland we find the crushing impact of an over-valued oral folklore and song on high poetry, along with the attachment to a regional dialect imbued with values of loyalty and solidarity. We find undertainment and kitsch. The complex of values at stake today seems to go back to the 18th century without a break. Its geographical reach makes research difficult, but it may be that the set of oppositions in play is one of the inheritances of the Empire, which formed (however momentarily) a cultural system. That system involved a rigid role structure, and this would seem to have implied fixed literary roles for different registers of English. These minor literary genres had an alliance with non-standard variants of English speech. To the extent that they stood for exclusion from elaborate and high culture, and that there were large groups willing to identify with this solidarity of non-admission, the genres and dialects held a cultural charge.

We are also likely to draw on the analyses of the major Scottish theorists of poetry, in particular Edwin Muir (Scott and Scotland) and Hugh MacDiarmid (his campaign against Burns) to explain how the diglossia of Standard English and a low-prestige dialect can lead to the latter becoming specialised in menial functions and of little use for poetry.

In England, in the 1840s, there was a sub-literary stream of dialect poetry written by, and largely read by, working-class people. It was often politicised, but in general suffered from the restrictions which we have labelled as the Nether Oral. It had solidarity and presence. This presence, though, was very compatible with being forgotten. Indeed, this genre persisted up to the 1960s without ever impinging on literary historians or authoritative anthologies. It was precisely sub-literary. Working-class poets who arrived in the 1960s were claimed to be the first ever working-class poets. The choice of the Georgian poets, around 1905, to write a considerably more legitimate version of the same proletarian realism, has been forgotten, as the reading public simply stopped reading it. The likely fate of social, oral, simple, cheerful poetry is to be rapidly forgotten - and this is the basis for blurb writers claiming that it is new and revolutionary whenever it shows up.


***
Note. In about 1998 I worked for months on studying anthologies to work out the divisions of the poetic field. I wrote a huge amount of material and the above is part of it. The final results are in a chapter of 'Fulfilling the Silent Rules'. This piece also talks about nodes in the Chicago Review diagram, which people found very condensed. It includes material about protest poetry in the 1950s which was aimed for 'The Long 1950s' but didn't make it.
Oral poetry crops up throughout the ‘Affluence’ work and I don’t want to list all the relevant passages.

Obscure and conventional poets; or, Bodgers

Into the valley of the bodger codgers: Completing the picture: exiles, outsiders, and independents (ed. William Oxley; Stride, 1996; 185pp.; £9.50) 34 poets

This is a terrible book, and for us can only play the role of exhibiting the mediocrity which radical poets daringly and bewilderingly escape from. Its lumpish and heedless qualities bring it close to the lumpish and heedless qualities in national life. In a pluralist age, this exhibition of a sensibility, closely allied to Stride magazine, to The Poet's Voice magazine, to Oxley's activities as an editor, and to the University of Salzburg republication/reanimation programme, expands our knowledge even in the manner of a scaly monster pulled forth from the deep. One of Anna Adams' two poems is not bad. The selection from James Kirkup is disappointing, not necessarily indicative; there are hints in what I have read of his work that there is a real poet in there, concealed by his over-fluency. He would be of the third class within good poets, which is why I haven't got the energy to go off and read his two dozen books. I think The Descent into the Cave (1957) is probably OK; the structure of imagery in his volumes of the 1950s is compelling even though the versification is tuneful but undistinguished. This, of course, raises the spectre that some of the other poets may have something going for them, and that Oxley has chosen their worst poems, reducing the diagnostic value of the anthology to zero. Feyyaz Fergar is not a bad poet.

The two favoured topics seem to be hedgehogs and King Arthur. An Arthurian poem about hedgehogs would presumably be very popular in this market.

The rhetoric of the title is curious: it seems you can only market things by calling them untraditional and rebellious. But the poems in the book are awesomely traditional, conventional, and ordinary. As are most of the poetry books people buy. Why is there this use of false colours? why is it that editors disguise the fact that their wares are ordinary, unoriginal, old-fashioned, and simultaneously deny the existence of the poetry which is really innovative, experimental, and daring? Why is it necessary to tell so many lies? after all, you can sell beer on the basis that it gets you pissed, and perfume on the basis that it smells nice.

Oxley says in his introduction that the poets have nothing in common except being "a recognizable continuation of the tradition of English poetry" and that they are critically ignored (he does not specify if they are more popular with publishers or readers, or other poets). They don't suffer from "technosis". He relates the ‘exile’ of the title to the exile, or internal exile, the "recluse", which all poets must be, as original people. Such exiled poets tend to 'over-produce'.

The claim to completeness made in the title has to be demolished. I can imagine that Lotte Kramer, say, is no. 3,450 down the list of British poets, and that the anthology covers poets from 3,299 to 3,800 down the list. Collecting them doesn't amount to any kind of completeness. These are big figures, but once you have universal secondary education, and expose millions of people to the wonderful heritage of the English language, whoops! big figures are what you get. This is great for the consumer. Up to 2000 books & pamphlets of poetry are published a year; there are 250 poets whose work and style I know. It might be a problem for me selling my expertise as a commodity: if I say, "what I say about British poetry is Right and so what I don't know must be unimportant". I have only read a fraction of published modern British poetry, and so my general views on it, like this article, must have a proportion of arbitrary simplification and partiality in them. Chaos is always threatening to break in - I mean loss of consciousness due to torrents of unassimilated data.

The interest of this anthology is that, given that we can tell from catalogues that there are a few thousand poets wandering around the landscape rather than a few hundred, our curiosity about this shadowy social anatomy can be partly satisfied by reading a couple of hundred pages by low-quality poets. We have the High Street poets and the formally original poets, but clearly there are a great many poets who fall into neither camp. Reading this book gets us away from total ignorance, although it may not have any representative quality just because we want it to.

This raises the questions of modernity and how the live strands of ideas give a poet a boost, the equivalent of belonging to a society which cares about poetry. Arguing about form sharpens the poet's attention and so makes it possible to write poems which are not stultifyingly dull. Other poets are operating inside static artificial environments unable to give them dialogue. Poetry is a kind of mass crowd suggestibility; poets either believe in mass-contact with the dead through continuity of form or in mass-contact with the living and transient through use of the latest and most pristine form. Poetic styles contain latent gestures implying social relations around them. The anatomy of a fish tells you about water. If a poet has no particular style we are entitled to think that this is the outcome of a process, an adaptation to external pressures and internal capacities.

The title claims the, perhaps dated, myth of the outsider; so far as I am concerned the poems on show are notably conventional. The presence of such dull and undistinguished poets clamouring for attention deafens readers to the possibility that there might be something outside the High Street mainstream which is different from the conventional and containing mysteries or new lights. Why would a reader go on turning to obscure poets, with hope, after checking out a hundred who proved to be confused, garbled, and unoriginal? It is boredom which stabilises the borders of the governed and permissible. There are no punishments for unconventional reading except having to plough through the failed mutants, the failed enterprises. Why do people do it? The poem is a way of translating self-regard into public regard.

The word ‘technosis’ is striking. I assume that Oxley means by this the use of verbal technique, which draws the poem away from the most colourless and colloquial level. This connects to the idea of the poet as ‘recluse’: we would expect someone living and creating in isolation to evolve into new realms of language, but that may not be true at all. What is hard to follow is why someone would be a recluse if they are not original. But, if we set aside the need for an explanation (and it might just be ‘being unfashionable’), it is enlightening to realise that if there are 3000, or 5000, poets who can’t get published or reviewed, most of them are conventional in style. There is a good deal of poetry which has textural loyalty and decency but does not inspire any positive aesthetic choice. Low affect writing is less demanding than the high-affect equivalent. There are some destructive effects of competition, as Oxley points out, but unfortunately some poetry which avoids competition is simply not very good. With a lack of commercial pressure and an atmosphere of warm sympathy from the tiny groups who have an abiding interest in it, poetry can sink to appalling depths of benign banality. The difference between poets writing in an original way and poets using dowdy and dull techniques may be to do with social networks: poets who use innovative techniques have links with groups of poets and talk about poetry with them, whereas the unambitious ones are isolated (and really ‘recluses’). Being ’connected’ does not necessarily mean that you have hundreds of readers, just that there is a shared space.

In 1962, Allott anthologised a poem of Kirkup which was a documentary: he was asked to watch a heart operation and to describe it. It is a good poem, he was accurate like a draughtsman. He could write about many different subjects but did not show a central sensibility, conceptual or linguistic. His poems remain enigmatic because they do not leave much trace. It may be that James Kirkup’s nimbleness and stylistic inconsistency were connected with his status as a homosexual, as a gay chameleon. This possibly indicates why heterosexuality is signalled by dullness and self-repetition: to show gravitas and fitness to hold power. This would give us a link between personality and style. In fact, Kirkup may qualify as a genuine outsider: that was his situation, although his poems conform in every other way to the norms of poets writing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Harry Guest is someone else who does not have a reputation commensurate with their talents, and who is not easily categorised. Still he is an important poet and I have spent effort recently collecting his books and trying to work out the pattern of his career. I am afraid there is a problem here and it is that Oxley is a very poor anthologist. Guest appears to better effect in Penguin Modern Poets 16 (with the compelling Jack Beeching) and Tony Frazer's anthology A State of Independence. You can get PMP16 on the Internet for 50p just now, and I suggest you do that.



Codgers

Nicholas Moore (1918-86), included in Conductors of Chaos as a forerunner, was the nephew of T. Sturge Moore, a poet well known in the nineties who complained (quoted by Herbert Palmer, who knew him) in the late 1930s that no one had been willing to publish him for thirty years. What did Nicholas do? he was quite successful as a young man and then spent forty years of almost total obscurity. Could this be the origin of the Cambridge School? T. Sturge (1870-1944) was a decent if erudite and rather slow-moving poet, perhaps best-known for alleging (in the 1922 anthology Twentieth Century Poetry) that

No sight earth yields our eyes is lovelier than
The body of a naked strong young man.
O watch him course the meadows flecked with shade
Beside a stream, before his plunge be made!

(Girls, I hear you interject. Girls?) Possibly those long Hellenic narrative poems of his are really gay novels, and their obliquity is self-protection; his history from 1914 (he was also involved in book decoration and the wave of fine-art, genteel, low-run book production which eventually led to one strand of the small press scene) foreshadows the non-trade poets whose artistic specialisation was based on an honourable marginality; exclusion from the institutions (and from marriage, too) yields a leisure which breeds erudition and laconic, ciphered, non-standard diction. I think all his poetry has been printed; this may not be so. Nicholas' poetry, however, is drivel; the relevant Ministry should hire an official to go round destroying the unpublished poetry of doddering, cranky, prolix crackpot recluses. The Bodger Codger Officer. Could I suggest myself?

The taste which sets up totally uninteresting poetry for admiration as a social duty because someone honourably went on writing it for 95 years is bound to drive the audience away. Is one paying attention for some motive, or just because the poet wants it? The past as damage? (I should point out that there were two good poems by Moore N. This is important. It does not follow that his other poems are valuable.)
It's normal for a teenage boy to define his power in terms of physical strength, but advancing age defines power increasingly in terms of being listened to. Attention is basic to one of the measures of hierarchical importance, and it is hard for us to extract the attentiveness which art needs from this complex. The relation of rebels or dropouts to the hierarchy is always questionable; their reason for making the exit may be wounded pride, inability to accept second (or seventeenth) place, and their plan may be to be male number one in the (deserted) exile territory. Short of having anyone to listen to them, their means of exercising power may be to be resolutely attentive to themselves, and to record every little flicker in dead verse. So the end result may be just like the scheme of the conservative critics: you have to listen to the burblings of senior males, not because you want to, but because they want you to. It is arguable that books and universities exist to give an outlet for the vain, not to benefit those who are inclined to learn.

Special features of this development towards the full-blown codger monologue are a refusal to believe that time exists (due to waiting in vain for success for twenty-five years), or that talent exists (for a similar reason), furious resentment of the young (unless adopting Take Me O Guru postures), reducing the poem to a series of infinitely protracted Acts of Respect (because reading them is an act of veneration), investment in anything derelict, marginal, and out of date, collecting of bad poets of the past. Early radicalism and willingness to take on the authorities turn, as vigour fades and each fight seems hard to win, into a nervous dislike of any political confrontation at all, and, concomitantly, definition of quietism as radicalism; while any real radicals are viewed with condescending hostility.

**
A shorter account of the anthology will appear in ‘Fulfilling the Silent Rules’ when that finally comes out. This is a different text which was originally written around 1998 as part of the project of analysing anthologies to look for the divisions within the poetic field. The interest is still ‘does a collection of bad poetry give insight into the vast extent of bad poetry in general’ and the answer is probably ‘no’. In ‘The Long 1950s’ I try to deal with the whole notion of Amateur Poetry and that works out a bit better than ‘Bodgers’.

Was there a School of London?

Ideoles 2
(London, circa 1972)

This follows up a piece about how hard it is to see big processes within the unlimited clutter of the daily life of poetry, asking whether the big processes are actually there, outside mythologizing texts which invent them in order to make themselves important.
We have a couple of examples.

There is a story in some issue of Poetry Review (I didn't record who wrote it) which records life in the Poetry Centre (in Earl's Court) in about 1975 and, among all the revolutionaries and counter-cultural agitators, one Bernard Kelley, who used to interrupt people's readings by popping up and saying 'I object to that line'. The story tells that when Kelley gave a reading his victims turned up and enriched his reading by frequent hommage interjections of 'I object to that line' - and he was really unhappy.

The story is soaked with nostalgia for anyone who recalls a time when people in the arts actually wanted to change things. However, the most interesting aspect for me is its lack of credibility: the Kelley reading is so much the pay-off which makes the anecdote slick and resolved that it sounds like a thousand other lies by mainstream gits about the Underground and we have to suspect that it is totally made up. There is no track record of mainstream gits ever telling the truth about the Underground, so why should this be different? In 2010 I went to a reading in Leicester by Tom Raworth and John James, and afterwards someone came up to Tom and asked him about Bernard Kelley. I seized the opportunity to ask him about Kelley, and his view of the PR anecdote. He expressed total disbelief that anyone would interrupt Kelley - because he was large, young and intense, and looked as if he would clock you if you interrupted. So the anecdote is probably fantasy.
Looking at it now, the line 'I object to that line' sounds like a satire on the authoritarian conservatives who ran poetry and who closed down Mottram's Poetry Review and the whole scene at the Poetry Centre where anarchist-dadaists could hang out without being chased away. Kelley was an anarchist and surely the whole Underground was libertarian and about allowing anything to happen in the poem, whereas it was the other side which had rigid literary-academic values and admired its own willingness to say No all the time.

Was Kelley's Dadaist action a symptom of something bigger? probably not. It was a joke. Its originality is present because of inhibitions: at any moment, in a hundred readings, half the audience may be bored and indifferent to what's going on, but normally they just stay slumped and silent. To put it another way: there is a basic rule that in conversation you are supposed to talk as well as listen, and in a reading the rule is that you are supposed merely to listen. In every reading some people are faced with the possibility of voicing their indifference or resentment. To draw attention to this draws attention to a whole mass of unconscious but binding rules. For this reason I feel sympathetic to Kelley. To have a saboteur-provocateur like that around, to have hundreds of other rebels and subversives around, gave the 70s scene legs. All the same it's wrong to interrupt and also it is right to give poetry total attentiveness because that is the way to the deepest psychological rewards and by giving attentiveness you make it easier for other people to go all the way. Laughter is a necessary release from the paradoxical result that you have to spend a great deal of your time giving ferocious attention to poems which are shallow and stultifying.

I have a book called 'Sonnet Brushes' which has 15 poems each by Ulli McCarthy (now Freer) and Kelley. It is a nostalgic document if only because they were both anarchists and it comes from a time (about 1972) when capitalism was tottering and radical politics had an emotional reality. I don't think anyone would want to revive Kelley’s poetry. He led his life as a gesture rather than creating an art-commodity which is still solid thirty years later. Ulli’s poems are gorgeous, I have just been reading them.

The other moment of ideole that has crossed my path was a claim (somewhere on the internet) that there was no School of London in the 1970s (or at any other time). This was news to me.
I suspect that the underlying drift is an egoistic fantasy running something like 'I am so original even my vowels are original I live in a universe larger than all other universes where only I can live you just can't see my originality'. At the same time, it is hardly the behaviour of a good critic to deploy descriptions of writers which those writers themselves reject. Originally, painters had to join guilds and these were called scuola in Italian. The phrasing was thus 'school of Venice' 'school of Cremona' etc. and this had no regard to individual style, which came much later in history. If you visit older museums, the Louvre for example, you see the labels saying 'English School' for any English painter, 'Flemish School' for any Fleming. It thus has a primarily geographical value. By extension, it has a second meaning, of painters or poets who knocked about with each other. Rarely, it can have a third meaning of describing stylistic affinity. So it is not clear to me which of these three meanings our friend- we may as well call him Reed Rothschild - is denying. The immediate purpose is surely to discredit the utterances of critics who might wish to draw the attention of the public to a roster of two or three dozen poets to whom public attention is largely unknown. I suspect the follow-up is to plunge the shared discourse into an exhaustive description of the differences between say a dozen of the London Boys, to the point that everyone else walks out. What may be at stake is the control of attention: X wants to focus all the attention of the public on the part of the spectrum where he can claim originality, setting aside our potential choice to look at the other 99% of the spectrum. The struggle for attention is the most fundamental struggle. A writer cannot simply decree as a prerogative act that attention deserves to be given mainly to the plane where they show to best account - everyone else has a share in deciding how attention is to be pointed. Pointing to a plane of minute detail & directing us away from other planes is the core gift of the writer, a task which all the artifices discarded by the avant garde helped to carry out.

The myth of the avant garde is that you can invent the rules and not just the poems which embody them. There is a tragedy of objectivity. It may be part of the duty of a modern writer, the conditions of service, to accept that the world may want a 3-line caption account of you when you are ready to give a 30 page treatise. A critic loses the details, to define a genre.

People who furnish their creative work with a Theory often want that to replace critical activity. They think that you have to accept the Theory or misunderstand the work, but Clause One of the theory states that ‘my work is really important’, so actually the Theory is largely wish-fulfilment and not thought. My experience from writing workshops and so on is that people deploy Theory to prevent critical thought, not assist it. So am I allowed to set aside the theory and think for myself? or is that subversive? how far do I have to comply?

I wonder how Reed Rothschild would react if someone said that his work was incomprehensible. Probably he would justify it in terms of a set of procedures which are familiar from other writers and which the reader should therefore have been trained in as part of the process of knocking around with modern culture. The obscurity and arbitrariness would be justified in terms of a shared language, a shared theoretical framework. This is what the reader, lacking, is called provincial for lacking. This is also the tangible set of organs of the School. The reader appreciates the texts as a sequel to identifying the school.

There is also the effect of hegemony, of the prevailing assumptions which someone lives in day in day out. Because these become invisible, an individual may well not appreciate that they share a huge amount with the other avant garde writers they see every week, and so hugely overrate the few cells where they are original - after all those cells are the domain where their conscious activity expends itself. The more they merge with the group, the more they think they have a streak of originality.

Self-definition moves matters to the plane of authority and even tyranny. History should be written in such a way that the key participants recognise its validity and give it their assent of. But what if the participants are self-aggrandising? is there no external check? What if an account were instantly recognisable, and seemed true and telling to a great range of third parties, while the subjects themselves withheld their assent? Human beings give off a range of information too voluminous and diverse to be reduced to the strand under conscious control. That might be a modern project - to filter and attenuate radiant information so that there was nothing happening at the wavelengths outside the principal beam of conscious control. This would imply that a body of poetry had no meaning other than what is embodied, in final and unchangeable form, in the body of theory supporting it.
That would make life difficult for a critic. But as a critic you are transgressing if you aren’t bringing the conscious intent, and the uncontrolled appearance of the work to others, together. You are striving to bring back further and better particulars. It’s easy to get it wrong and you have to strive all the time.

Another question is, is there any evidence of alienation between the famous Schools of London and Cambridge?
This is of less interest now that the big collected books are so visible and so reliable - something which was not true when the processes in question were either theories or invisibly ‘underground’ and people were really uncertain about what had just happened.

I attended a day of reconciliation between the two groups (in about 1993?), organised by Ulli Freer and Rod Mengham, close friends down the years who obviously thought there was a barrier to be crossed. I remember questioning some people - at Ulli’s house, I think, in the next street to mine on North Finchley - what evidence they had for thinking that there was a feud. They just couldn’t come up with anything. They all believed in it but they didn’t have any reasons for believing it. cris cheek came up with some complete horsefeathers about somebody in Cambridge once giving him a funny look, in about 1978. I think there was an inchoate feeling that the Cambridge poets should be making some huge act of fealty to the greatness of the London School, and the fact that the Cambridge lot were happy to lead their entire lives without even thinking about the Tribe of Mottram was emotionally unacceptable. So maybe we should conclude that the famous Cambridge-London feud didn’t happen - it had no events, no products, no organs, no story.

This raises another question - whether tangible evidence has any value in cultural history, and whether we should instead accept the intuition of first-person participants and their memories, in later years, of what those intuitions were. This also raises the question of whether those intuitions also include fantasies - and how we would segregate the fantasies from the historical account. What if you have ten people who shared a cultural process and who give nine massively different accounts of that process?

Suppose we try to get along without two Big Pictures - suppose we resolve that ‘there was no Cambridge-London feud’ and ‘there was no School of London’.

I think these stories are too interesting. I was trying to write about the plane of banality and meniality, the surface of fog which intermittently you break through to find a pattern. About getting ten years of Poetry Review off the shelf to work on and having the heart-slowing feeling that there is not one good poem anywhere in the whole sequence. Drinking dust. It is an easy matter to pile up - at least by naming them - 20,000 books of poetry from our period. That primary stage, which includes all directions, and includes almost all possibilities of bad poetry as well as of good, is real and can be made available to all. But what if that appalling clutter is all there is and processes and directives are not really there, just some attempts of the ego to impose a shape on numerous tons of dust?

Another crackpot recovered

Another crackpot: Alan V Insole, Immortal Britain (1952)


This 1952 book offers us a foreshadowing of New Age irrationalism and a link between 19th century crackpot antiquarianism and the drug-addled ramblings of modern times.

There is a frontispiece, showing a unicorn, with a chain formerly around its neck visibly broken, trampling a swastika and a hammer and sickle emblem. The border is decorated with scrolls showing an interlace with zoomorphic decoration, familiar as the Hiberno-Saxon style of manuscript painting. The cover design shows St George leering at a dragon which we can see as an empty skin into which a naked man with a hammer and sickle on his buttock is crawling. It has a swastika just beneath its eye. On his forehead are stag’s horns. A chalk figure stands, a staff in each hand, on a broad down behind him. One chapter is called “Origins of the Cold War’ and the book is a defence of the traditions of Britain against foreign tyranny, not sparing the traditions of astrology, freemasonry, and the occult. The book has 568 footnotes. It was published by Aquarian Press - I can’t describe them, although I doubt they are the same outfit as the modern Aquarian Press. The name suggests an interest in astrology. It seems they published a book by chief witch Doreen Valiente in 1964.

The chapter on “Origins of the Cold War’ starts with Classical civilisation and is still there 23 pages later, to close with a quote from Blake. The stuff about Russia comes in one paragraph somewhere in the middle, where we are told that paranoia is the origin of totalitarianism and so is unchanging - so that a study of the Roman empire is quite adequate to explain the Soviet and Nazi regimes (which he sees as identical). Insole sees a flat world, where everything within his reach is flattened onto one plane, and there is no difference between 100 AD and 1950 AD.

Insole shows us Neolithic refugees from the invading tyranny of the Battle Axe People, fleeing to Britain circa 2000 BC to retain their freedom. This is charming but I can’t help feeling that he is projecting the situation of the 1940s back onto deep prehistory. He offers no evidence that Britain was in any detectible way free in prehistory. The history of freedom is a noble theme. Insole is right to think that where the State is weak and citizens strong, as in Britain and the USA in very recent times, the history of smaller structures, such as the household, comes to the fore. With that shift of perspective the relations between men and women also come to the fore. The trouble is that he has not found any evidence to help out his fantasies and seems to have no idea of where such evidence can be found. The history of the family is of supreme interest but requires more work than the history of the State, since after all the State hires full-time historians and generates warehouses of archival documents as part of its ordinary routine.
This work sheds light on the closeness of the idealistic and the psychotic. Its line of reasoning ignores probability, the validity of analogy, the views of other people, evidence, in fact everything which makes the difference between psychotic states of mind and reason or sanity. We can hardly ignore the psychotic quality in this reasoning. Yet it presents beautiful ideals. It is beautiful to think of love and equality between men and women originating in Britain and always being preserved there. It's untrue, but it’s beautiful. It is also beautiful to think of a home of freedom, going back to the age before farming. To locate that mythic place in Britain would call for evidence, and Insole offers none, but it surely is beautiful all the same. Delusions are likely to include the extremely beautiful as part of the deal. All this before drugs come along to give you psychosis and the ideal in one evening.

Insole says at p. 135 ‘We shudder to think to what depths Europe might have sunk if not for the bards of Britain. It was they who created the Age of Chivalry, and the whole concept of ‘courtly love’.’ He says of the knights of the Round Table that ’it was their singers who rescued women from the degradation of the early fathers and placed around them and their favours [those] poetical romances’. There is a footnote to be added here. Andreas Capellanus, writing about 1184 AD, does in fact say that there was a real place where courtly love was present not just in poetry but in real life, and this was the Court of Arthur. That court would have been late 5th C or early 6th, and in Britain. The trouble is that the nature of Andreas' text is one of learned fantasy - he is producing clever argument as an entertainment and does not even look like a historian who uses and qualifies sources. His book is about the doctrine of love, which sophisticated courtiers used at that time to discuss to pass the time, arguing theoretical cases to see what the rules of love were. (He got the information about Arthur's court from Geoffrey of Monmouth.) The next point is that the novel of courtly love is very generally agreed to start with Chrétien of Troyes, whose writings are culturally related to Andreas, and of the same date (to be exact 1170-1190). However, Chrétien came from Troyes and is universally agreed to be at the origin of the French literary tradition of love and reverence for women. This has nothing to do with Britain and such romances arrive later in Britain and were written in French when they first arrived there. It is true that Chrétien's stories are fictively about the knights of Arthur and set in an imaginary sub-Roman Britain, with names deriving in a rough way from P-Celtic speech, but really they were completely made up and the style did not exist before Chrétien. To attribute courtly love to Britain is a hypothesis unknown to science and it is utterly implausible. (The lais of Marie de France are earlier than Chrétien and date from the 1160s. They also focus on love and use the Arthurian myth.) It is barely plausible that Arthur even had a court, as opposed to an army camp where he and his officers slept. The Arthurian country is a blissful Nowhereland for Chrétien as it was for Tennyson. Actually there was no Age of chivalry, just a literary genre. Surely not the same thing?

Insole is not completely insulated (or insolated) in his delusions. There are a number of contact points between him and later waves of English irrationalism. The book ends with a quote from Blake which includes the 'Rouse up! ye sons of the New Age' riff. So hippies in 1968 were looking at the same pictures he was seeing. He cites EO Gordon (Prehistoric History of London) who was one of the authors picked up by 1960s antiquarians, and crops up in Allen Fisher‘s Place. This may be specifically to do with a strange story Gordon tells about mounds in London, but more generally represents an interest in topography - you wander around the countryside, or even around London, on your days off, and spot anomalous things which you prefer to embody ‘the truth’ over scholarly history and its rationalism. (Insole gets the title wrong, so we may as well record that it is ‘Prehistoric London: its mounds and circles‘, by Elizabeth Oke Gordon.)

The links are the exaltation of the prehistoric British past, the preoccupation with topography, the belief that the whole of history as accepted by the intelligent is propaganda, that personal relations undergo revolutions in history and that the powerful are victims of madness, leading to institutional alienation from which we are now to recover; that history is a projection of the unconscious; that place-names store up long lost traditions. The idea that everything significant in history happened in Britain comes from Blake. (The closely related idea that in Britain homely things like hills, hedges, stones, oral tags, children's games, etc. embody vast significance must have been invented after Blake.) Insole sums up Gordon like this: ‘In London when the Sacred Tree decayed and became a stump it was likely to have been replaced by a stone, which acquired the name Pol or Pul which was an ancient title of the Sun God, and so became Old Pol‘s Stump. EO Gordon in his Prehistoric London gives reasons to believe that on the site of St Paul‘s there was an oracle of the hunting days as far back as 3200 BC; and that it became a stone circle about 1900 BC; and that the pointer to the South-east was the famous London Stone still preserved in the walls of St Swithin‘s Church.' (p.91)

At p. 60 he quotes HJ Massingham on a game of football played once a year in Dorking: 'the game was not a sport but a religious service [...] The game was played by people with a social organisation which was split into two halves for ritual purposes. One side of the community representing the sky-world and its solar cult, and the other the underworld [...] The costumes of some of the players represented the ancient king-gods of Britain.' (This text dates from 1932.) Massingham sold many books and was a link between the grandiose fantasies of Diffusionism and the new-style fantasies of the 1960s. The idea of ancient culture preserved in things like games of football is a significant doctrine of English crackpots, going back to Sir Lawrence Gomme if not before. (Ronald Hutton suggests that this ball got rolling with an 1890 paper by Sydney Hartland in Folk-lore.)
As well as Gordon, Insole has AV Maltwood, the spiritualist medium who in the 1920s ‘found’ a zodiac in the landscape around Glastonbury. He thus has the Doctrine of landscape as embodying ancient cultural symbolism and containing messages for us to decode. This is not yet Iain Sinclair but it is well on the way. Insole has not yet aggregated sacred geometry, ley lines, or flying saucers into the mythic corpus. This was the work of a later group.
A half-hearted search on the Internet shows Insole mentioned in a DH Lawrence letter of 1920. Uninspiring. He was presumably in Taormina or nearby in 1920, with someone called Juta. (hit from Website for the catalogue of a collection at Nottingham University.)
Insole scores a point over megaliths. He doubts their diffusion to Britain from far away, arguing that things tend to become feebler as the waves diffuse further from a point of origin (and maximum intensity?). Of course carbon-14 dating has disproved the idea of professional archaeologists of the time (viz 1952) about the diffusion of megalithic ideas, and Insole deserves credit for right intuition.

I bought this for £2 and while this excuses a lot the book is not worth more than 99p.
So what is the justification for dealing with this crackpot? It has to do with Outsider Art and more specifically my guilt at not finding any to put in 'The Long 1950s'. If we are looking for Outsiders in Britain to compare with those collected by Harald Szeemann, in those incontestably great works of his, we have to look for them where they are. Both Sinclair and Fisher incorporate themes redolent of Outsider Art, but I cannot accept that they are Outsiders. They are lucid intellectuals, and if you read their interviews their lucidity and solidity of knowledge are visible at every point. What they share is a massive interest in Blake at an early stage of their journey: the national preoccupation with him has put Blake in an authorised position (consider the statue based on his engraving which now stands in the forecourt of the British Library), and so the stylemes associated with Outsider Art have migrated to somewhere much closer to the centre. It follows that the envy of Outsider approaches which used to be such a feature of Western artists has largely been diluted and dissolved, and in fact that handling such uncontrollable themes is now one of the feats which a serious artist has to master. (London Stone crops up in Fisher's work.)
Much as I despise the doctrine, flagrantly abused by Massingham and Gomme among others, that an ancient and apparently meaningless blob of picture or speech can trap a powerful fragment of ancient cultural meaning, even if those who have preserved it completely fail to understand it, I concede that this Doctrine has been outstandingly useful to television, first to Nigel Kneale and then to a large number of scriptwriters for 'Dr Who'.

The idea flimmers up that viewing history through individual psychic structure and through slight changes in relations within the household was, at some unnamed point perhaps in the late 19th C, as odd and marginal as the search for ‘sacred landscapes’ and ley lines. I am doubtful about this. In any case Insole was decades behind the times in 1952.

Monday, 5 April 2010

review of 'Departures' by David Wevill

David Wevill, Departures. Selected Poems (shearsman. 139 pp; £9.95. ISBN 0-907562-34-5)

Wevill was born in 1935, a Canadian, and lived in England for ten years; his first book was published in 1963, but he had already been part of a Penguin Modern Poets volume; he has lived in Austin, Texas, for the last 30 years [written 2004]. The first trace is 4 poems in 'Cambridge Poets of 1958'. The volume was Birth of a Shark, and the projection of an animal, with the poem shaped by an anatomy, was critical for his first two books. Perhaps this linked to an existentialist preoccupation with the individual and with the dominance of the physical situation.

This sea has many coasts,
And every inch and brown pool
Is a fingerprint. The gannets come
Plunging, wreck their sight; the sea-salt keeps
The crab-flesh it corrodes; and the grape-
Avenging Dog Star locks
These fiery lives to the pillows we drown on.

The focus on the edges of a body were a metaphor for the washing and ebbing edges of a poem - anyway, this period saw Wevill emerge with a perfect grasp of the edge. He learnt how to say everything in a small compass, and still imply a world beyond the poem. The emphasis on exact physical detail and action sequences, and on human marginality in a violent landscape, seems to match themes of Canadian literature identified by Northrop Frye (The Bush Garden) and Margaret Atwood (Survival). It resembles EJ Pratt in that combination of exact sequences of physical actions and an atmosphere of latent violence.

The explosion came a few years later. Linked by an experiential metaphor to the vast unobstructed spaces of Texas, the expansion to book-length poems could be seen as a totalisation of the animal poems: they were staged around a (projected) body, here the projection was an entire world.

Lose no sleep over this re-entry into the condom of
daylight and dust. Here the moon's vulva opens. The Sea of
Tranquility is a dripping cave where blind shell creatures,
colourless, crawl.

In the clear cooling pool the skeletons will harden again,
both male and female.

We wake washed in the sweat where all seas meet.
Bone to bone, our breath sifting through our ribs like wind.

(from Firebreak, 1971)

Martin Thom, Tom Lowenstein, and Nathaniel Tarn are just some of the poets who drew on anthropology at that time. The pressing question of English poetry over a long period had been how to write mythical poetry in the emptiness after Christian and Greco-Roman myth ceased to work. The 'authoritarian pessimism' of Beckett had been a stopgap elevation of the emptiness to fill the boundless; the discovery of non-European myth required perseverance and great exactness of technique. Animal poems led into animal myth and then into the dizzying selfreferentiality of creation myth - Where the Arrow Falls (1973) draws extensively on Hopi cosmology, narrates a world which the characters create every morning. It is their anatomy translated into space. The extension of scale and the jettison of a 20th century Western semantic frame shattered the poetry audience - this is where a shared cultural memory stops. Discovering Wevill now is a staggering experience - this is his first English book since 1973 - but my whole career as a reviewer has thrived on slab reissues of major poets of the 1970s. The 80s were a period of gloss erasure, the disappearance of entire sections of history. Wevill's translations of Ferenc Juhasz (in a Penguin European Poets volume) provided the most amazing reading experience of my undergraduate career - maybe Juhasz was the specific entry which led him into original mythic poetry. (To be exact, the most convincing proponents of poetry as myth were the Canadian Northrop Frye and G Wilson Knight, his teacher at Toronto in the 30s.)

The theme of the next phase seems to be making a home - and making a loving family for children. Here, the mythical vastness and everyday reality coincide. The late poems are much sparser; and seem to be influenced by Spanish poetry, or by Spanish songs - 'Solea' is named for an Andalusian religious song type (familiar from Miles Davies' Sketches of Spain). It means solitude, in the dialect of Seville - or better, perhaps, longing. These poems about family history embody a depth of time and sometimes of loss which is almost overwhelming - 'We have what we're not while it lasts.' In 'Rincòn of the heady abstractions' I think rincòn (literally, corner) means 'my corner, my home', almost like niche or Heimat:

This

corner has no exit. If I remember
it is satisfaction of remembering & not
even a body or face to go
under for, strings in my hand
vibrating still with earth's winds.

Orpheus is too old to meet his question.
Above & below there are greater
certainties than love
remembered, a person.

'Figure of Eight' (1987), a long poem, is a denial of loss through a geometrical figure that replenishes itself; drawing heavily on Buddhist parables, the figure draws itself against a lack of resistance which implies a deeper emptiness of its ground; with autobiographical pictures and a meditation on the high points of 20th century poetry.

Summer too long where is fall the keen
Canadian wind
the clear streambeds of eyes, the
lassitude of honey.
Means and ends
'The honey of peace in old poems'
the clear viscosity clouded by the cold
of living fragments.