Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: poetry

Hello sailors: Christopher Logue meets W S Graham meets Alfred Wallis

"sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls"

W S Graham: “sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls”

Though it’s not really intentional, the couple of poor pieces I’ve done here relating to W S Graham happen to concern his tutelage of other poets, namely John Knight and Burns Singer. We have already met Burns Singer in the company of Christopher Logue, so let’s complete the circle to find Logue and Graham in each other’s company, with, for good measure, a bit more tutelage in hand.

As Ezra Pound’s merciless editing was to Eliot’s The Waste Land, so, it seems, though in a smaller way, was Graham’s waste paper basket to Logue’s first collection, Wand and Quadrant; once Graham had knocked the book into shape, it was duly rejected by Eliot at Faber’s, to be published in Paris under the imprint of Logue and Alexander Trocchi’s Merlin periodical.

I’ve already pondered on Logue’s early medievalism; an obsession with falconry and castles doesn’t quite fit with his later persona, but this in itself doesn’t seem to have been an issue with Graham. I don’t own a copy of Wand and Quadrant (it would cost between £50 and £200 for that privilege), but Merlin One (May 1952) contains two long Logue poems of the period; the better of the two, untitled, lies somewhere between the Pound of Canto I and the later Logue “account” of Homer’s Iliad. It’s all very argonautical and surprisingly good:

And here they came:
three ships, three sails, three hundred oars
white into red as twisted in the light thin
as the leaf’s edge, in again, dark bent under darker blue.

img_0001The clustered winds speak out between their stays
the men speak out, the names are where they sail,
and at the steering pole clinched hands to mark
sky guided measures into the coma of distance.

If this was among what Graham scanned, I hope he liked it. Perhaps Logue’s seafaring aspirations appealed to him. Conversely, quite why Logue, on first meeting Graham, should consider that he “looked like a sailor” is unclear, but given the latter’s Greenock heritage and his forthcoming The Nightfishing, it’s a canny enough remark.

In 1952 Graham was in Rome, courtesy of Princess Margherita Caetani. Logue was there too, and had already taught alongside Nessie Dunsmuir, Graham’s then separated better half, at the Berlitz language school in Paris. Logue takes up the tale, very readably, in his 1999 memoir Prince Charming:

I was in a trattoria near the Spanish Steps, wondering how long I could make my coffee last, when a voice behind me said: ‘I, too, have fallen from a great height.’

This came from W S Graham – ‘I answer to Sydney’ – the Scottish poet, who had tracked me down through Caetani’s doorman.

Eight years my senior, with sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls, Sydney looked like a sailor. In Rome for six months, he had improved his circumstances by moving in with the young Danish woman who rented the rooms above his own, paid for by Caetani, now sublet for cash. Eliot was his publisher. ‘He loves gossip,’ Sydney said. ‘He told me that Hemingway went to the lavatory in Pound’s Paris hotel and pulled the chain so hard the cistern came off the wall and knocked him out. Then he claimed his bruises were from defeating three Lascars in a street fight. Cheer up. Tomorrow we will visit Keats in the English cemetery.’

The bus stopped by the Pyramid of Cestius. We bought sandwiches at the cemetery gate. Inside, it was quiet, planted with pine trees, birds twittering on high. Keats’s grave was just a mound. Shelley’s stone some way away. Sydney had a flask of red wine and two paper cups. I had a guidebook containing Hardy’s poem ‘At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats’:

Who, then, was Cestius,
And what is he to me? –
Amid thick thoughts and memoirs multitudinous
One thought alone brings he.

I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he is a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid

Whose purpose was exprest
Not with its first design,
Nor till, far down in Time, beside it found their rest
Two countrymen of mine …

We ate our sandwiches and drank the wine. On the bus back Sydney said: ‘They were not my countrymen.’

"That's where my words are"

“That’s where my words are”

Later: ‘You must publish a book. A poet without a book is no poet at all. Spouting is for those who can judge by ear. Not many nowadays. “There’s my book,” you say – “that’s where my words are.”’

A book with my name on it appeared in my mind’s eye. I brought my folders over to Sydney’s place.

‘This one’s no good,’ Sydney said – throwing it into the waste-paper basket.

‘I spent a lot of time on that.’

‘Then you wasted your time. This is better. Yes. Put it over there … read this one out.’ I did.

‘Now do you see what’s wrong with it?’ I knew what he was going to say. ‘It starts well enough. Then it starts to wobble. The meaning gets a bit ho-hum. Then just here’ – pointing – ‘it picks up again. Therefore’ – folding the page – ‘miss out the middle and in she goes.’

So my first collection, Wand and Quadrant, was assembled and sent, with a covering note from Sydney, to Eliot. At most, it had three poems worth printing. Eliot returned it with a friendly letter. When I got angry with him, some years later, I threw the letter away. The message was: keep going, work harder, read more.

Logue goes on to recount how Graham, still clearly relishing the older-man-as-initiator role, marks this literary occasion by taking him – ‘for reasons of health’ – to a brothel smelling of disinfectant, where benchfuls of clients await their turn clutching numbered tickets. As his own turn draws closer, Logue loses his nerve and flees the dismal warehouse. The sub-text here is his own sexual timidity, but I find I like him all the better for what might just be a principled abstention.

"Out into the waving nerves of the open sea": an Alfred Wallis on the cover of WSG's Letters

“Out into the waving nerves of the open sea”: an Alfred Wallis on the cover of WSG’s Letters

And speaking of sailors gives an opportunity to mention that Rachael Boast and Andy Ching, on behalf of the W S Graham Estate, are desperate to get sight of a BBC Monitor programme on the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis; this film on the nautical naïf may well feature Sydney himself. (Presumably it’s the episode listed here, from 1967.) If anyone can confirm that Graham did indeed appear in the programme or knows where a copy can be tracked down, please let us know. Thanks.

The images here of Graham in 1952 are both by John Deakin. You can’t have too much Deakin. Click to enlarge massively.

 

 

Stanley Chapman: satyrs and a dead dad

img_0001An early issue of Stand magazine (number 6, 1953) turns out not to contain what I was looking for, but it does have a stonking cover design, very fluid, with a nod to Picasso. Inside are two more images by the same hand, a header and an illustration to a story by Patrick Galvin. A bit of a pagan thingy going on here, evidently, and still sitting somewhere within the neo-romantic environment. I very much like the curvy, chunky forms and the confident, musical line that swells and narrows almost imperceptibly. You get the feeling that this person could doodle fauns till the cows came home.

The artist turns out to be Stanley Chapman, and there’s a poem by him in the same issue, on the death of his father. The inside illustrations and a little more on Stanley himself in a mo, but meanwhile:

 

WHEN DID YOU LAST KILL YOUR FATHER?

(On the tenth of March, 1953 – at the dentist’s).

Dad died in the countryside
Crossing Cannon Street
As eight great bells struck twelve o’clock
Dad heard his ten hearts beat
Sipped my soup in Lyons
Broke and ate my roll
While the dentist plugged the gag
Dad wrapped and packed his soul
Returning to the office
Ten thousand splitting bells took sides
Every bloody clanger slop
Ping hollow roots from hollow eyes
Cockrobin tugged Dad’s heart out
Sunshine swept it up
Miss Stay-No ground her spykey joke
In bloodstained kisses round a cup

*           *          *

Relatives were ran to
Before Dad’s doctor rang
The problems resolution
Came before the questioning
In my terms matriculation
Heavy traffics bandaged feet
Tramp the deafened country station
Where ten million dead hearts beat
Beat beat the race of Gracechurch bells
And crematorium chimneys
Not Nation all your ancient grief
And bloody printed similes
Can end my grief our grief black-tied
Fish-heads gaping trip-sex comfort
Ratmeat cafs in Billingsgate
Shall shine me to my sinking sunset.

“Cockrobin tugged dad’s heart out / Sunshine swept it up … trip-sex comfort / Ratmeat cafs” – Good, eh? Despite the alienating effect of the urgent, staccato hop and the enjoyably wrenched language, this does meet editor Jon Silkin’s demand in the same issue that a poem should deliver a “common bond of passion” that “sets up some sort of … animal stirring.” (The original is formatted with complex and curious line indentations that the clunky WordPress editing here won’t let me reproduce. Sorry about that. I think there are apostrophes missed in the second stanza, but as Chapman skips nearly all the punctuation I haven’t tinkered. “Spykey” – a spy’s key or meant for “spikey”? The second, I think.)

img_0002

img_0003Stanley Chapman has a brief Wiki entry, and some pages here. He would have been 27 when this poem was written, and he died in 2009. His reputation seems largely subsequent to this, and all very much to do with the London Institute of Pataphysics, Oulipo and Outrapo, constrained and generated texts and performances, his connections with Boris Vian and Raymond Queneau, and so on.

The few online photos show him snowy bearded, a pataphysical patrician. But I see that in the early ‘fifties he contributed artwork and poems not just to Stand but also to Listen and Chanticleer. The baroque arcanity of modern pataphysics, sometimes at risk of (excuse me for saying so) nudging up against Pythondom, is one thing, but it’s less easy to get a purchase on the twenty-something Chapman of this previous era, of whom I’d like to see and read more. But with luck some wandering pataphysician out there may see this and leave a comment with directions.

 

Men in tights: Christopher Logue and the sense of History

Sometimes, bits you happen to read slide into each other and coalesce as a question. In this case, if it doesn’t sound too pompous, the question is of poetry, history, reality and “commitment”, the focus being the early work of Christopher Logue, a figure met so far in these posts only as a drinking companion to Burns Singer.

Devil, Maggot & Son

Devil, Maggot & Son

Plenty of copies survive of Logue’s first collection, Wand & Quadrant (1953), but none at sane prices, so on that I can’t comment. But reading his second, Devil, Maggot and Son (1956, though all written in 1953), I was taken aback by the pure medievalism of his poetic theatre – all kings, queens, beggars and towers, and at first glance a world away from his subsequent, plainly spoken, bad-boy-politics register. To be fair, Logue’s playing card world is often darkened by bitterness, just as his Yeatsey lyricism is sometimes “modernised” by an intrusive knobbliness, but even so …

I’ll give a couple of examples below in case you’re interested. Early Logue is an acquired taste, but it can be acquired.

So what’s going on here? This is not the Poundian collocation of historical episodes, nor the sacramental antiquarianism of David Jones, nor Geoffrey Hill’s splicing of centuries. Did Logue, in the afterglow of ‘forties neo-romanticism, simply assume the medieval as the default fancy dress for  an aspiring poet? Or was his vision of turrets and gallows intended for a mirror held to his and our times, in the same way that Henry Treece’s “warrior bards”, by his own account, stand for the very modern victims of the “God of Profit Production”? When Logue writes of “My Saxon tribe” does he mean the working class and assume that we understand that? Does he just expect us to get it?

X, Volume One

X, Volume One

In a merciless review of Logue’s Songs (1959) in X magazine (excerpt below), Anthony Cronin picks up on the problematic medievalism, among much else. In the same issue, Brian Higgins’s poems include a laconically caustic “letter” to Logue (also below), slyly questioning the nature of his social commitment; here Higgins refers to the establishment, in Logue-speak, as “the Normans”. (Higgins, who died in 1965 aged just 35, is a poet worth attention, whose voice arrives in unexpected ways. In Michael Hamburger’s words: “He is wholly original, writing as though he were the first poet ever, just beginning to discover the world and language.”)

Pound embraced Mussolini, Treece turned Tory romantic, Hill was accused of nursing a Victorian nationalism … It all suggests that a committed leftist voice might do well to avoid entanglement in historical other-worlds, lest they turn into national myths, which are by definition conservative. A more fundamental danger of (con)fusing the present and the past must be the leap of implication that, since it was ever thus and still is, it always will be; if nothing has changed, everything changes nothing.

Medieval monarchs and ramparts slip easily enough into those of ancient Greece, which might trigger related questions about Logue’s life’s work, his acclaimed version of Homer’s Iliad, modern anachronisms and all. But that’s another discussion. Interesting though, that Logue was pushed to start the Homer by radio producer D S Carne-Ross, formerly co-editor of Peter Russell’s reactionary review Nine, for whose shenanigans over Homer and popularism see this post.

Poems and excerpts follow.

 

Christopher Logue in youth

Christopher Logue in youth

From “Amateur Horoscope”

In the middle
of the four yellow candles
let the old King
lie in the halflight
dead.

In the middle
of four wetnurses
let the swaddling King
suck the udders of his kind;
for he is ignorant,
with hell before
or heaven behind,
according to the colour of your eyes,
or perhaps your back’s old rage.

Abel and Cain, here is the parable
to be ruled by a King or a Chairman?
Do both answers beg your question
Or is the question itself a beggar?

The King will learn to count,
but not his daily bread. And
they said of the old dead King,
‘He had a lazy heart.’
‘She had out of him
only coins and a bastard.’
‘The orchard he tended
had a gibbet in every sap.’
And the King heard all and wept
My son, son, from the tower
of his hangman’s mind.

 

A Suite for Jewels IV

I, diamond, brighter the new-day
on a thicket of drawn knives
newer than I, lie quiet in the dawn
a magnet to the flights of sun.
Plain, I split on my prism’s edge
white to incarnadine and again white
as the moonlight on Death’s finger.
Within my grasp the acorn and the forest
are chastised on a carbon anvil.
Flesh is my shame. A serf to gold
how often am I worn to idolise
making delight where there is no darling?
yet I in light outmatch my owner’s lust
my craftsman’s sight; my kingdom crowns
whatever King may be. I, illuminate,
only a ton can snuff my beam
or the hungry paws of a beggarmaid.

 

prince-charmingFrom Christopher Logue, Prince Charming: A Memoir, 1999

I assumed that Devil, Maggot and Son had died with Stols. Then a parcel arrived from Amsterdam containing twenty copies of the published book … Creamy paper, the text set in elegant Romulus. As I read them my heart sank. They were so arty. Who on earth could be interested in such stuff? They raised a recurring wish: that my head might somehow be attached to my neck by a sort of bayonet fixture, easily removable for a thorough clean and a good polish before being put back on …

… I said [to Peter Russell] my book no longer pleased me. In future my work would be politically committed. Those who did not work did not deserve to eat.

 

From Anthony Cronin, “The Notion of Commitment: An Aesthetic Inquiry,” in X 1:1, 1959

This resolute self-regard is the principal impression left by Mr Logue’s propagandist poems. They are glumly insistent that Mr Logue is the only one who cares:

Men of the future think of me
Living at a time when one by one
Our kings give way to businessmen,
Our poets wrote to make men bother less,
Our wisemen, fat with caution, spoke of death,
And most died twice from individuality,
In this time on earth given by men to me.

Apart from egotism, the passage displays only the threadbare nature of Mr Logue’s social thinking – the romantic cliché, worthy of Noel Coward, about kings giving way to businessmen, and the communist jargon about people dying twice from individuality – truer to say they are dead from mass-production …

… Many of the sentiments expressed in Mr Logue’s poems are undoubtedly admirable, if unoriginal; what is wearisome is the constant claiming of so much credit for possessing them. The language is a mixture of turgidity and old Georgian frivolity about kings and princesses with a few words like ‘turd’ and ‘shit’ thrown in, apparently in the hope of achieving an uncompromising modernity. The real modern world never appears; for all the indication the (mostly literary) imagery of the poems gives we might as well be living in the Middle Ages. We learn nothing from the poems about Mr Logue’s attitude to any of the difficult relations in life … The vivid lyrical gift which is supposed to provide the jam on the pill, the separable poetry, when not a fearsome misuse of Yeats (and some other very odd influences, including Dame Edith Sitwell), turns out to be a compound of all the sweepings of the Georgian anthologies. Here is Mr Logue in lyrical vein and the manner of Rupert Brooke:

For God’s sweet sake give me back part of that
I gave. Part of a part? One loving jot?
Child I am no Elizabethan hack
Spicing his dalliance in a sonnet’s pot …

… This remote moonshine, far removed from the sane speech of men ever or anywhere, presumably represents Mr Logue’s attempts to come to grips with what the apostles of commitment call, in a noticeable tone of self-congratulation, ‘reality’. Complacent, trivial and boring, it reflects nothing but an ultimate unconcern with life. Poetry as an expression of adult matters which involve other people is not Mr Logue’s concern.

 

Brian Higgins, “A Letter to Christopher Logue,” in X 1:1, 1959

‘More days than sausages’, you said.
Well, one day I had four
And some thousands of words;
Mainly advice on Theft.

Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift

Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift

Thank you, Christopher Logue
(You well known classical translator)
Because of you I have moved towards action
Which is robbing banks.

Each day something drops –
From posters, from our pockets and ourselves.
Those who care for such serious matters
Will replace the posters.
As for our pockets – in time we may be lucky,
And God, or whoever arranges such things,
Will replace us when we die.

Since that day I’ve wondered
If four sausages were too many
To take from the Poet of Need.
Also how much you like my verses,
Wondered how long I will live,
How long my money will last.
I have several times been drunk,
Often lonely,
Written a play and songs to go with it.

I have done no mathematics
Received no money from the Government,
Bought what I need and sold nothing.

If you asked me, ‘What about the H-bomb?’
I would reply:
‘It will either burn us or bore us to death.’

If you asked me, ‘Are you for the rich or the poor?’
I would answer:
‘Those who are hungry are poorer than I am.
Let them find me, I will give them bread.
Those who are masters of employment
Know more than I do about riches.
If they pay wages they will grumble.’

I will say
‘I am for those who try to be artists,
Yet no doubt some who fail
Find compensations.
And those who succeeded,
Did they cut their throats from over-excitement
Or go mad through a joyful effulgence?’

If I became rich it would be through a literary accident,
If I stay poor – in our profession that’s no proof of failure.

Lastly, Christopher, a piece of advice
(Having read your instructions and stopped drinking milk)
Remember the English do not shoot
Satirists and attackers of the official order,
But we have yet to meet with a dangerous Laureate.
If the Normans change their policy
Be sure they will pick one they know will attack.

 

(Unnecessary bibliographical appendix: according to Logue’s memoir Prince Charming, the first edition of Devil, Maggot and Son was published by A A M Stols in the Netherlands. Subsequently Peter Russell (poet, publisher and editor of Nine magazine) prevailed on Stols to print “a small English edition” on his behalf. However, my copy of the Stols version is inscribed “Second Printing” while my otherwise identical Russell version is not. Each claims to be limited to 250 copies and each has the same numbered page to that effect dated September 1956. Not that it matters a hoot. Mind you, Logue’s memoir also has Stols dying during the production of the book, but in fact he survived until 1973. So much for memories.)

An exhumination of some work in progress

This is what I believe they call a holding letter. Five and a bit years back, this blog was mostly a matter of thinking aloud: bish, bash, bosh, done. But as the content has leaned more towards the researchable, a backlog has built of stuff to be tidied up and rounded off. And some of these unfinished explorations have involved generous input from others who have kindly got in touch.

So please bear with me.

twg-smallerThough what remains of his Irene is safely paged up above, I still need to do the full business on the extraordinary and now invisible Terence White, aka Terence White Gervais, Gervas d’Olbert, Gervas White, Terence Gervais-White etcetera, organist, composer, poet in five languages, orientalist, Joycean disciple, rough sleeper, possible heroin user and much else. To be going on with, my thanks to Louise Prey for this great pic of TWG in (worryingly) a clerical collar. This is only the second image of the man I’ve yet come across. But Terence needs rescuing, and it is in hand.

Then there’s the need to say a little more of the remarkable Melville Hardiment, poet, painter, soldier, educator, school magazine pioneer, and the man who introduced William Burroughs to LSD, or tried to. (Already touched on as Wyndham Lewis’s “Mr Gartsides”.) Thank you, Sophie Bissmire, for the memories and the photos. It will get done.

My recent attempts to figure out the person behind the extraordinary ‘forties images of Stanley Jackson were left a bit hanging. The revelation that there were not one but two Stanley Jacksons is thanks to conversations with Jackie and Eloise Hendrick, daughter and granddaughter of one Stanley, to whom I’m very grateful. We may now be in a position to disentangle the strange coincidences that have confused these two artists, so a stab at something definitive(ish) on The Two Stanleys is somewhere on the horizon.


What else? More could be said on the anarchist poetry of Alex Comfort and George Woodcock. In fact, ‘forties writing as a whole still has a lot to yield. And mention of Mr Gartsides reminds me that I’ve been meaning to get to grips with the vexed history of school art teaching, from Ruskinesque daffodils to the Marion Richardson child-centred revolution to the “spots and dots” of Kurt Rowland and the sub-Bauhaus reaction. (Though that has an ironic colouring, now that this low life government has wiped Art from the UK National Curriculum …) And a load more besides.school-art-booksIt’s all in the pipeline.

Homeric warfare: re-righting the Classics

The 'Betty' letters

The ‘Betty’ letters

As well as interesting marginalia, a bonus of buying second hand books is finding unexpected stuff tucked between pages, so I was chuffed recently on acquiring a set of the early ‘fifties poetry review Nine to find various fliers and cuttings hidden within, plus three letters to the original owner of the magazines from the classical scholar, translator and academic W F Jackson Knight (brother of literary critic Wilson Knight). One of these throws an interesting light on the methods of Nine and of its pugnacious and reactionary editor, the poet and self-appointed disciple of Ezra Pound, Peter Russell.

Eleven 'Nines'

Eleven ‘Nines’

The letters are to a “Betty”, probably an ex-student of Jackson Knight’s (though not, as I first thought, the classicist Betty Radice, later an editor at Penguin Classics). “JK”, as he signed himself, maintained a vast correspondence with ex-students and others, so it’s annoying but hardly surprising that my unidentified Betty makes no appearance in Wilson Knight’s exhaustive and exhausting 1975 biography of his brother, which I now plan to employ as a doorstop or flower press.

Much of the contents of the letters is shrill and slightly flirty chatter (JK never married), but in February 1950 he wrote to acknowledge a letter that Betty, who clearly had some close association with Nine, had inserted with a prospectus for the review:

“Naughty to put a letter in for 1d! How I liked it though. I wishd you were here.

Can I, if I subscribe, have the first issue of NINE? What chances to keep it going? Can you work together with The Wind and the Rain and be the Criterion, and get safer – you two the only two? What hope of getting hundreds and hundreds of my little friends into nine-print? No – only good ones, who deserve it – and only the pieces which should be printed. I don’t care about just another mag. I do care about the right one (prospectus looks good), which really serves the right causes and above all the divine niceness and brilliance of the sort of people you and I know who we mean by which. Grammar OK?”

'JK' in the early 'fifties

‘JK’ in the early ‘fifties

JK’s letters, wrote Wilson Knight, “drive the informality of epistolary writing to the limit.” No doubt Jackson Knight wrote as he spoke; it’s always a slight shock to realise that some people of a certain class really did talk like this. The Wind and the Rain, a rival literary review run by Neville Braybrooke, had recently printed a piece by Jackson Knight on his favourite author, Virgil. He did indeed go on to subscribe to Nine, to which he was also to make a single ill fortuned contribution. So was Nine to prove the right sort of mag, serving the right causes, and run by the right sort of people? Well, it was “right” in one sense.

“The Right is to-day, everywhere the Underground Resistance!” shouted Peter Russell in issue 2 of Nine. Reacting to what they saw as a poetic decade of undisciplined and introverted Leftist neo-romanticism, Russell and his editorial board – poets G S Fraser and Iain (later Ian) Fletcher, editor and classical translator Ian Scott-Kilvert and classical critic D S Carne-Ross, afterwards a Third Programme producer – banged the drum for a return to objectivity, order, tradition and form. In this post-war re-invigoration of the great literary tradition, translations from the Classics were to play their part. Even so, Nine was happy to print poems by Charles Madge, Ronald Duncan, George Barker and others positioned well outside its programme, though it was not always an unstrained fraternisation. For Russell, if not for his co-editors, these literary standards were of a piece with his maverick political rightism.

Peter Russell, drawn in 1950 by Wyndham Lewis

Peter Russell, drawn in 1950 by Wyndham Lewis

In the event, it wasn’t too long before the wheels fell off. Issue 1 of Nine had appeared in the Autumn of 1949. Oddly, all but one of the editorial board vanished abruptly from the title page after issue 7 of Autumn 1951, leaving Russell to manage the final four issues solo. What happened?

His ‘seventies collaborator William Oxley later recounted Russell’s version of the crash, given twenty years afterwards. Two highly unpleasant reviews by poet Roy Campbell, loose cannon and elder statesman of the maverick right, had “blown apart” the board; one of a book by Stephen Spender, the other of:

“… some translations done by an eminent professor of whom Campbell wrote: ‘We do not expect poetic talent from a translator, let alone a professor, but we are entitled to insist on elementary scholarship.’ The editorial board of Nine, apart from Russell himself, were ‘all aspiring professors looking for safe jobs in universities,’ and they refused to countenance the publication of Roy Campbell’s offensive review.”

This “offensive review”, of J B Trend’s translations from the Spanish of poems by Juan Ramon Jimenez, eventually appeared in Nine 9, with a note by Russell explaining that it had been rejected by “the then editorial board”, and first printed in The Catacomb, the scurrilously reactionary (and loss-making) review run by Campbell and his son-in-law Rob Lyle, but bailed out by Tate and Lyle sugar money – “catacombs financed by saccharine,” as Christopher Logue put it.

“Though it is difficult to imagine what literary motive can have prompted the publication of this book,” fumes Campbell, “the political motive sticks out a mile.” His “review” then veers off into the familiar Campbell rant about the Spanish Civil War, “gun-shy poets” such as Auden and Day Lewis, the Iron Curtain and so on. It’s not hard to see why the board had cold feet.

On top of all this Russell’s co-editors, their suspicions aroused by an unpaid printer’s bill, had accused him of having his hand in the till, while a fire destroyed the contents of Nine’s office in 1951, postponing issue 7. Thereafter frequent appeals for renewals of subscriptions couldn’t prevent disastrous delays to later numbers. Nine finally gave up the ghost in April 1956.

'... the MS was altered ...'

‘… the MS was altered …’

But there may have been other behind-the-scenes unpleasantnesses that contributed to its break-up and decline. One is disclosed by Jackson Knight in a later letter to “Betty”:

“Re P[eter] R[ussell] – I did draw back a little. I didn’t seem to be much wanted. And when I’d done something asked of me actually during a week end of hundreds of miles, arduously, the MS was altered to make me disapprove when I’d approved of something – rewritten. So I couldn’t sign it. I don’t know if it was printed. I’ve never had this happen in 33½ years otherwise. I am not cross. I know something of the literary fight and literary code. I just keep away when I can, having seen the way the wind blows. Yet I received a N[ine] actually today.”

The “something asked of me” was a review of half a dozen Penguin Classics translations; this did appear in Nine 6 (Winter 1950-51), but under the pseudonym “Classicus”. (Clearly Knight was never sent a copy.) The books he had reviewed included two prose versions by E V Rieu, co-founder and editor of Penguin Classics, Homer: The Iliad and Virgil: The Pastoral Poems. (Rieu’s previous, ground breaking Homer translation, The Odyssey, had been the opener for the series.)

The offending article

The offending article

Of the Virgil, “Classicus”/Jackson Knight approves most warmly: “ … as felicitous as any modern English prose version .. can be expected to be … The most fastidious reader … will find nothing to blame.” And “Classicus” even heads off the predictable charge of dumbing down: “If this is ‘culture for the masses’ – and I think it is – we must have more and more of it …” All the other books are thoroughly approved, except for one, Rieu’s Iliad.

Here his opinion appears inconsistently damning: “Homer is eminently rapid, eminently plain and direct, and eminently noble … Dr Rieu’s prose Iliad satisfies the first two conditions … but fails to satisfy the third. Of the supreme grandeur of his original he manages to convey very little …” And that’s about all “Classicus” has to say on the book. This has to be the section altered by Russell to censor Knight’s original, more generous approval of Rieu’s Iliad. But why?

In our post-Classics culture it’s not easy to appreciate just what was at stake, and how threateningly communistic Rieu’s approach might appear to some. As Sun Kyoung Yoon explains in a 2014 article in The Translator:

Rieu … translated Homer in an egalitarian spirit, in line with a trend which was gaining ground in the aftermath of the Second World War. To bring Homer to the widest possible range of readers, Rieu chose to transform his epics into novels … emphasising narratives and characters … his Odyssey, in particular, was a major landmark in popularising the Classics: the huge success of Rieu’s Penguin edition proved that Homer could be made accessible to anyone.

img_0005Popularised perhaps, but hardly popular with Peter Russell. In a stand-off between accessibility and “grandeur,” his elitist instincts knew no doubts. The issue of Nine that carried the censored review by “Classicus” also promised forthcoming numbers on Latin and Greek literature, “to re-establish creative contact with the past.” Translations were solicited that should not “sacrifice poetic vitality to accuracy, nor accuracy to poetic vitality.” For Russell, Rieu’s egalitarian translations met neither criterion. In the event these special numbers did not materialise; in humiliating Jackson Knight by tinkering politically with his review, Russell made sure of that.

But we are in Cold War territory here. And the fracture lines of the times were as liable to appear in the pages of the little magazines as anywhere else, as this minor classical spat demonstrates.

Recommended for use as an anvil

Recommended as a flower press

Jackson Knight died in 1964, his reputation as a scholar and a gent unblemished, apart from an enthusiasm for spiritualism that led him to consult the shade of Virgil himself to advise on his 1956 Penguin translation of The Aeneid, the “Supreme Poet” even dictating answers to JK’s questions directly in Latin to his medium Theo Haarhoff; in séances Virgil appeared to Haarhoff’s niece clad in his laurel crown.

Peter Russell died in 2003 after a long, hugely prolific and generally penniless career as a professional poet. His later work, under the influence of his “mentor” Kathleen Raine, moved away from the vaunted objectivism of the Nine years to a gushy, “vitalist” and often confessional Neoplatonism. His anticommunism never wavered.

‘A day is two halves’: Thomas Good’s ‘Carrion’

Thomas Good by Matthew Smith (detail)My recently posted profile of the sadly neglected but gratifyingly jagged poet Thomas Good (intro post here, also) mentions his contribution in the ‘thirties to that mammoth intercontinental compendium of the surreal and the Joycean, Eugene Jolas’s transition magazine. This turns out to be a short prose piece, published in the final issue, number 27 of 1938, among an assortment of texts grouped as “Hypnologues and Paramyths.” A note states that Good sent this from London, so it must have been written very shortly before his move to France after his breakdown in 1937. Curiously, this is the same issue of transition to which Terence White (aka Terence White Gervais) contributed. I should have tracked this down before, but here it is anyway and in due course I’ll add it to the Thomas Good pages above. It’s the earliest piece of his writing that I’ve yet found, by several years.

transitionFor me this chopped and feverish piece of automatism sits among the “hypnologues”. It’s striking that the earlier part echoes Good’s personal anxieties at the time, with its mentions of firm loins, a priest withholding absolution, Lazarus, an anchorite and so on. Yet the last two paragraphs contain a number of proper names (Mackenzie, Whipsnade, The Waste Land !!) that suggest some cut-up method using magazines or newspapers. However it was made, it certainly stretches the notion of narrative to screaming point, though it’s odd how quotable it is in places: “Each leg is severed for patent privacy …” Even aphoristic: “Benevolence is only one ounce in the kingdom of truth.”

Two possible typo’s: “cenotaur” in the middle of the first paragraph must surely be for “centaur,” and I have no idea what a “speehoo” might be in the final section, though a “speeho” is apparently an uproar in Scots.

When I first read this, I found myself feeling sorry for the baby ant which is castrated …

 

THOMAS GOOD

Carrion

Dry lanes he came through without sugar in stomach and temptation in coldness. He looked and called and no answer. He spoke and said: “You yellow cuckoo, only touch my bellysprings and you’ll find I’m randy enough. I’ll pink straight if they don’t leave me now, or when they hear my body crackle.” Not to speak of the apple-orchard and blossom to cover her. Firm loins broke his goose-step, and there were crazy children singing into his ears, asking him to murder them, because the priest withheld absolution. O, never will he stink yet until Easter, with seven lines crossing his brow, and if the five angels who sleep by Lazarus’s tomb have not kept quiet how much ranking will be in the bye-pass of Heaven. Now the twin-monster is harnessed to a star, and the bite of a tooth in her left breast. She saw the seven storms and breathed out gold-dust to the cenotaur. There was a crack in the eyeball and white men strangling a negro baby near the furnace. So I said: “Never answer while these bloodlips rouse stealth in the keeping of pig-sties. For benevolence is only one ounce in the kingdom of truth.” There were five pears adjacent to the snowdrop, and where the crane draws wheels, Satan made his meal of abdomens. Only the anchorite had any salt to his pie and left no sting in the serpent’s mouth. The acrostic was numerical and eleven bases of brimstone led to the gossamer pavement. Travelling by his side I heard the snapping of ribs, and demented stallions were exercising magnetism in shovelfuls by any road curious eaters may have taken. A day is two halves and few women have goat’s milk, but when two angry girls stripped the priest, he shaved his bones to sawdust. He said: “I’m in Chancery now and doubletwisted if Abel gives no quarter.” Now the discourse was ready to be given:

“O, lapwing in heaven of time carry a countenance of grim odour through the bays. Alias Mackenzie is a softer reef than a pinnacle and swallowed mud is no tether to a liaison. Fume in equal paces, left, left, right and left again, and tell no dead games in season by choking berries in Whipsnade. In streams of gloom two straps had soaked in steam. Dromedary counts steps to Druid arches and Clovis holds no distaff.”

Now I stand where no echo manipulates water, or trifle soothes brain-fag. I have asked in three-four time if Bartimaeus singed his tail in the waters of Eden, and if several apricots sit swaying in Gotha. Each leg is severed for patent privacy and eleven bends of the head strike the end of a season of chamber madness. In the court of the triremes Abjacus castrated his baby ant and an uncouth bandy-legged giant manoeuvres by firelight. We kept swaying through bedrock till the sweep of dunes left a billycock hat to signal where the tide had reached. Twenty fathoms below Ann’s curse, foul stench set jaws in motion, and, cleaning the stirrups, we plunged into the spume again. And so on. Until they sailed into the archer’s last ride and knocked twice into farthing spoons, all frosty in the daydream. This is the speehoo on hot drops when no cream spins round the hoop. Have you to beg on carrot roads or sweep stale ditches? Give five hoots by the pear-tin and send the scarab flying to the hatchway. Care for the two bitches lifting the curls from the rancid butter and no ginger will stand baking. For crying Smith will not bill The Waste Land and Joseph is stripping the muddle by the oak beams and clover.

The bad and better days of Thomas Good

You know those moments when you trip over a poem by an unfamiliar name and think: blimey, who’s this? A while ago, I turned a page in Fred Marnau’s apocalyptical review New Road 1945 to discover:

THOMAS GOOD
The Trappist

In a lean country suckled by forgiveness
Nailed to bleak courage and the percussive breeze
Bends the hooded man, scarecrow of tailors,
Humming death’s harlotry and the private grave.

Who loving farther mountains tracked the bloody avenue
Coddled atonement and the sword insulted,
Brief’d by no reason on earth insured the triple girdle
Sprinkled wishes like ashes on the changeless floor …

… One window opening in the village of remembrance
Where the smooth lady guilelessly inclines,
Unmanacled of vows the tonsured dandy starts
Electrified as by the sudden glass of Chartres.

O senseless sense. O far too clear division
Of sense and spirit (if these unhallowed deeps be true).
O riper worm, shocked into penance and the holy wax,
Adjourn, the eminent pillar of St. Simon cracks …

… and four more stanzas of the same – tough stuff, dense and jagged, disciplined in form but slippery in syntax, if not consistently secure then certainly compelling, and unlike anything on neighbouring pages. Here (as in much of Good’s poetry, as it turns out) the force of the full impression is in despite of the many particulars that resist ready understanding. Compacted images are piled in without respite, and associations are often puzzling, as if at one or two removes, implying invisible connections that may or may not exist. For instance, in stanza one we can see that the breeze is percussive, but how can the hooded monk be said to be nailed to it? But yes, of course he must be. It works.

good-photo

Thomas Good in 1968

And there are obscurities, such as the “triple girdle” in stanza two, which can surely be only a triple Girdle of Venus, the line associated in palmistry with lasciviousness and nervous temperament; it is the “tonsured dandy” whose hand discards his deadened desires like ashes. The poem concerns a dreadful tension between spirit and bodily senses, culminating in a violent release from Catholic guilt. Is this, despite first appearances, confessional? If so, who was Thomas Good? Just the one poem in this book, but ninety pages later, the same name introduces his own translations of Apollinaire, so here, clearly, is someone to be reckoned with and to be pursued.

Nothing by Thomas Good – poet, priest, critic, teacher and Francophile – has ever been anthologised or is currently in print. His Selected Poems appeared posthumously over forty years ago in an edition of 250. (“The Trappist” is not among them.) In The Fortnightly Review last year Peter Riley listed Good among those “now unknown names” once endorsed unhesitatingly by Nicholas Moore. In a footnote to a volume of letters of William Carlos Williams he is shrugged off as “a relatively minor British poet and critic.” For J H Prynne, in a 1974 poetry review in The Spectator, he is “another serious and unread poet of [the ‘forties] generation” – a condition Prynne helps perpetuate by neglecting to get around to any actual consideration of Good’s poems.

But the more I re-read Good’s work, the more I tune into it, the more I’m convinced that here is a poet of stature and interest who has been unjustly and sadly overlooked.

out-of-circumstanceIt’s fortunate that Good’s friend and literary executor Michael Hamburger, the careful editor of his 1973 Selected, included there Good’s substantial “Autobiographical Note,” which informs a  short write-up by David Collard in the Record of Pembroke College, Oxford (here, jump to page 103) whose Archives now house Good’s papers, “rich and so far un-researched.” I’ve not visited Pembroke, but in what follows I’ve drawn on the “Autobiographical Note” and on a summary of the Good papers, for which I’m extremely grateful to Amanda Ingram, Pembroke’s archivist. (The Archives’ site is at http://www.pmb.ox.ac.uk/archives.)

To continue with a profile of Good’s life and work, go here. To jump directly to a selection of his poems, go here. Or use the Thomas Good tab up above for both pages.

Dunstan Thompson’s wavering football

Is it just me, or is there an issue with the declining quality of recent academic writing? (I don’t say “research,” as that implies a sense of direction and originality that might preclude some of it.)

img_0001I’ve been reading D A Powell and Kevin Prufer’s editing of essays and other bits on Dunstan Thompson, an uncommonly interesting American poet who came over here as a GI in the ‘forties and stayed. (Unsung Masters series, Pleiades Press, Missouri, 2010.) Tramping through “Battles in the Boudoir: Thompson’s Intimate Metaphors of War,” by Heather Treseler (Presidential Fellow at Notre Dame, Postdoctoral Fellow at Cambridge, Mass), I came across this, regarding Thompson’s magnificently titled “In All the Argosy of Your Bright Hair” of 1947:

“The poem begins as a graveside elegy … The first lines are full of funereal keening:

Whom I lay down for dead rises up in blood,
Drawn over water after me. His wavering
Football echoes from the ocean floor. Blow,
Ye winds, a roundabout. These bully sailors flood
My eyes with tears, treacheries.

The poet stumbles slightly here in his mixture of maritime and homely images; a ‘football’ sent up from the ocean floor seems, at best, a rather odd gift from Neptune and one strangely placed among watery ‘tears’ and ‘treacheries.’ But by the second stanza, Thompson’s ‘argosy’ has been righted in its waters.”

Quite apart from the clear fact that the opening lines, while they mention death, are no sort of elegy and involve zero “keening,” what the dickens is this about a “wavering football”? Ms Treseler has been watching too much college sport from her window. It’s “footfall.” With an eff. And it’s clearly printed as such in the “folio of poems” included in the very same volume, as well as in the original edition. The mannered aesthete Thompson may have fancied footballers, but he would have run a mile from the object itself. In these lines, the “dead” lover returns revived to stalk the unwilling poet. (And to bed him too, as what was lain down now rises again in blood. Thompson was partial to a bit of double entendre.) There’s absolutely no need for the poet to “right” the wobbling argosy, which was never in danger of capsizing; it’s the critic who’s capsized here. And while on the “right the argosy” comment, don’t you rather weary of that sort of waggish conceptual punning that academics resort to when they run short of real perceptions?

Two pages on, Treseler tackles Thompson’s “Lament for the Sleepwalker,” telling us that it –

“… features the speaker’s heart as a predatory cat, prowling the outdoors for the figurative carrion of an erotic connection. The poem begins in dramatic apostrophe:

The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:
Nine lived, he ranges – killer cat – my heart.”

Sorry, but what apostrophe? Thompson does not address his own heart here. Treseler has mistaken the dashes for commas and read this as if it were:

“Nine lived, he ranges, killer cat, my heart.”

Which could identify “he” with “cat” with “heart.” But it ain’t so. The heart is not subject, but object. He, the other, the lion-lover, the killer cat, ranges my heart. It’s a simple enough inversion, but the misreading knocks out Treseler’s whole understanding of the poem.

In the same poem, perhaps enchanted by Thompson’s adopted Englishness, she takes the “green courts” where the predatory lion-lover “eats green meat from the green dead” as “worthy of the Windsor palace.” Windsor? Where did that come from? And this despite the green moss, green jungle and bamboo of the previous two lines. I’m afraid it’s simply not that sort of court. Just an open space. I’m only surprised that we don’t have a tennis ball bouncing in to maintain the sporting metaphors.

But you get the point. Let’s give it up and hasten on a few pages to “I Can Only Promise Poems: Finding Dunstan Thompson” by Katie Ford (Professor at Franklin and Marshall College). This proceeds to take a look at some of Thompson’s later, overtly Christian poems:

“Probably the most heavily liturgical of the poems is ‘San Salvador,’ which has perhaps only one moment that breaks from Christian formulas of belief:

… Dear Host, sole owner of the house He built,
Who, coming unexpected to the door,
Knocks, and, if answered, breaks the chain of guilt,
And lets the soul go free to live once more;
Shepherd, who seeks His torn and filthy sheep,
Rejoicing when the longest lost is found;
Father, who sees the broken wastrel creep
Towards home, and, running, lifts him from the ground …

It’s the little ‘broken wastrel’ that feels new to me, although it participates in the parable of the lost sheep.”

img_0002No, no. It doesn’t. Quite apart from Ford’s persistently sloppy use in this essay of the term “liturgical,” confusing formulas of language with formulas of belief, the “broken wastrel” is not “little” and it’s NOT A BLOODY SHEEP. (Excuse my shouting, but …) Thompson announces the shift from one saying or parable of Jesus to another with a series of divine titles: Host, Shepherd, Father. “Father” flags up the jump from the lost sheep to the Prodigal Son, and it’s this son, of course, who is the broken wastrel who creeps towards home, to be met by his father running to meet him. Not a little sheep. No way then is this image a “new” or “one moment” departure from an orthodox narrative or register – quite the reverse.

Katie Ford also is fond of conceptual puns, rambling them out in sequence to take us, imaginatively, to nowhere and back. Bizarrely, her opening thoughts in this essay conjure up the “cathedral” of the ocean depths, from which the earliest living creatures emerge onto dry land to escape the dangers of the deep: “Imagine crawling out of the ocean,” she invites the reader. Er, no thanks. This then drifts  to social Darwinism, to the ascent of Christianity under Roman rule (the “cathedral” again, cleverly), to the ascents and descents of canons of literature, and thence, finally, to the critical neglect of Thompson’s poetry; “There’s a fight for life,” she tells us, “going on in every discipline, system, business and art.”

Uhuh. Maybe so. Cranking out more “research” is the surest way to survive, I’ve no doubt. But you do wonder just how red in tooth and claw some universities can be if these two essays represent winning quality. Yes, there is some better stuff in this book and no, I’m not just picking on these two contributors because they happen to be women, and yes, I know, it’s only one book, and yes, we all make mistakes, and yes, I am being curmudgeonly about relatively minor points, and agreed, there are more important things in the world to get worked up about, and yes, I’ve nearly finished ranting now. But it would be reassuring for the future of English studies if those who earn their modest crust by analysing poems on our behalf could learn to read and understand them before they arrive at the point of publication.

Thompson may turn up in a proper post on this site some day. Meanwhile, he’s easily Google-able. Here’s a good place to start.

Satan meets Cinderella: two anarchist dramas of the ‘forties

Satan disguised as an engineer, a madman in the attic, an army of radioactive Welsh miners, plus Cinderella … Yes, it’s British anarchist drama of the ‘forties! This post will be a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so be patient. First, a quick recap on the origins of all this in the poetic dramas of the previous decade.

The new poetic theatre

dance-of-deathPlenty has been written elsewhere about the ‘thirties heydays of the “new poetic theatre,” and in particular the plays, more or less political and Brechtian, of W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood, staged by Rupert Doone and the Group Theatre with the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, the sets of Robert Medley, and Faber to publish the scripts – quite a back-up! The first of these, The Dance of Death (1931), an Auden solo effort, is somewhat clunky but finishes splendidly with a brief guest appearance by Karl Marx:

Announcer. He’s dead.

[Noise without]

Quick under the table, it’s the ‘tecs and their narks,
O no, salute – it’s Mr Karl Marx.

[Enter Karl Marx with two young communists]

KM. The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated.

[Exeunt to a Dead March]

THE END

img_0001Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) is my favourite of the series; their fascist-infected English rural idyll of Pressan Ambo, closely related to the nightmare delusions of Edward Upward’s extraordinary 1938 novel Journey to the Border, blends banality with menace, and is a fine satiric invention.  In comparison The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) seem to lose a little sparkle.

Not surprisingly, other McSpaunday personnel get in on the act: Louis MacNeice’s witty Out of the Picture (1937) or Stephen Spender’s execrable “tragic statement” Trial of a Judge (1938), both also realised by Doone and Faber. Somehow Spender manages to write an anti-fascist play in which the fascists are the only interesting characters. One can almost forgive them for locking up opponents who go on like this:

TWO RED PRISONERS.
Your days in dark, our dark that wakes,
Across the centuries and the waves
Will join to break our chains and break
Into the nobler day which saves.

And so on. And on. John Piper’s scenery was wasted on it.

The coming of war and the dissipation of that particular political-poetical consensus might appear to mark the end of these theatrical experiments. So it’s interesting, a decade on, to come across their minor progeny under the colours of anarchism, which in more or less individualist or philosophical shades had become the ideological flavour of ‘forties neo-romanticism. Here are two examples.

The Last Refuge

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

The more slight, but no less interesting, is Wrey Gardiner’s The Last Refuge, a single act affair that pops up in the 1945 edition of New Road, an annual neo-rom anthology published by Gardiner’s own Grey Walls Press, and edited at the time by Fred Murnau. Charles Wrey Gardiner was most active as a poet and autobiographer, but is better remembered for Grey Walls and for his sustained editorship of Poetry Quarterly. Whatever the strength of his sympathies, The Last Refuge seems to be an unusual instance of his nailing his black flag overtly to the mast.

The play must have been written a few years before it saw the light in 1945. Despite some minimal stage directions it’s maybe better considered as unperformable, a drama on the page in the manner of Gervase Stewart’s The Two Septembers, or Robert Herring’s “pantomime” of the Blitz Harlequin Mercutio, to give two others from the same period and sampled on this blog. Virtually the entire script is versified. The action (or conversation, mostly) is set in a bombed-out house deserted by its owners, emblematic of Blitzed England, and squatted by a selection of archetypes: an Old Woman, her earth-daughter Cinderella, a Lunatic (her traumatised son in the attic), and an Anarchist who ascends from the cellar. A Voice in the Air from a wireless interjects occasional propaganda and inane dance music. Visitors comprise a Poet, in love (inevitably) with Cinderella, and an Inspector, the embodiment of authority, come to arrest the squatters on a charge of “living dangerously.”

The few moments when Gardiner tries a satirical touch are uncomfortably clumsy: “Silvery Sid and his Sauntering Saps” is not a great mickey-take name for a radio dance band, and Cinderella’s unsophistication at times has a cor-luv-a-duck touch – “Did ever anyone have such funny men as come my way?” The writing is far happier when Gardiner goes with his usual (and rather likeable) overstrained earnestness. The central tension here is between the writer’s twin, dialectical self-projections, the Poet and the Anarchist, the Poet being apt to rhapsodise in gloomy symbols, provoking the Anarchist’s denunciation:

Your song is vague and indecisive, Poet.
What the poor people need is freedom,
Not the undying words of a dyspeptic dream
But a bitter marching song that none can stem,
A rising tide, a rousing fire,
An anthem for the world’s despised.

Where the poet sees the traumatised son as “a caged animal” the Anarchist hails his insanity as a liberation:

He has had that little jolt
That brings a man to know
His own will’s the source and fountain
Of his own world.
The second bomb would give him the full knowledge
Of one who walks and lies down at will,
Accepts and refuses the snags of fate,
Free in a world where mass suggestion has no power.

The Anarchist brings proceedings to a sort of conclusion when, in a moment of Stirnerite resistance, he grabs the poker from the fireplace and brains the Inspector, leaving the Lunatic to pontificate –

All you poor crackbrained fools who disdain desire
Are but the slaves of a crawling cesspool
Some call sanity.

– the Poet to ruminate –

Truth is still stranger than we know,
Like light falling in a chaotic dream
In the twisted corridors, suddenly upon the wall,
Haunting the mad, the suffering, the chosen few.

– and Cinderella to round it all off with a nice bit of bathos:

Love as a woman’s tear will always fall
Sure as the gentle rain upon us all.

It’s all agreeably heady, and very much of its moment.

Cities of the Plain

cities-of-the-plainIf the class solidarity of “the world’s despised” is only alluded to in The Last Refuge, it’s up front, with marching boots on, in our second contribution, Alex Comfort’s “Democratic Melodrama” Cities of the Plain, published by – who else? – Grey Walls Press in 1943. As poet, novelist, literary critic, anarchist theoretician and conscientious objector, Comfort was remarkably busy during the ‘forties, with a literary reputation later eclipsed by his Joy of Sex fame. (Cities had been preceded in 1942 by Comfort’s “mystery play” Into Egypt; as this is currently unobtainable, I can’t say anything about it.)

If Last Refuge was not designed for performance, Cities most certainly was. A slightly pompous permissions note states that the author “wishes to repudiate in advance all the ideological constructions, of whatever complexion … placed upon this play. Ideological theatres will apply unsuccessfully.” Whether any theatre, ideological or not, applied successfully to stage it, is an open question. Directions insist that it is to be acted “with the maximum of gusto.”

A remarkably schoolboyish Alex Comfort faces up to the shadows of the mid-forties

The play, closer to its Auden-Isherwood predecessors, is set in a parallel society. The title references the Sodom and Gomorrah of Genesis, but the narrative involves a single unnamed city in thrall to a ruthless capitalist corporation that mines the neighbouring mountain. (For some reason best known to Comfort, the miners have Welsh names: Iorwerth, Dai etc.) Facing imminent bankruptcy, the directors sell out to a proposal by two mysterious and unscrupulous “Engineers” to mine the mountain for radium; though many miners will die from radioactivity, this is presented to them as a noble and necessary sacrifice. Dissent is encouraged by the principled doctor, Manson (man’s son, presumably), who leads back from the mountain an army of scorched, ulcerated and mutated miners who tramp off into the future, members of the audience joining them, to lead the revolution.

While the majority of characters are believable to degrees, the two Engineers operate on a different level. The Black Engineer, so called for the colour of his clothing – black shirt, velvet dungarees and biretta – is revealed as something beyond human when he encounters the sherry quaffing Bishop of Sodom and Gomorrah (a “pillar of Conservative-Churchmanship”), who recoils in horror, crying: “I don’t believe in you! I’m not a Manichee! You’re a heresy!”

This odd disjunction is a deliberate dramatic contrivance. In a discussion on Shelley’s The Cenci in “The Critical Significance of Romanticism,” later collected in his 1946 Art and Social Responsibility, Comfort notes that in that play, as in those of Ford and Webster:

img_0002The human players pass through a tragic conflict, but their opponents are not persons – they are naked, animated symbols. The impulses and powers of evil and of infatuation which in tragedy operate through imperfect living people are here made external and come to occupy whole persons, elevated to the same status of identity and reality as the protagonists … [Cenci] is a mask, as if the Devil had inspired a dummy or a suit of armour and made it walk.

Here is the Black Engineer’s offer to the Directors, in return for the mountain:

I offer you the price of your living, to drink the wine of this plain and to sit at this table – to sleep with your wives and to keep your names out of the papers; to make the sun and the moon stand still in the sky, and to sanctify the status quo. I offer you a new grip on the reins, a new leg for your broken chair. You shall not become bankrupt but be rich, and you shall die and lie in gold coffins …

It’s remarkable that the atheist Comfort, in order to personify and animate corporate evil, is obliged to fall back on this Faustian religious supernaturalism.

Like Auden and Isherwood, Comfort keeps his verse passages for key moments and uses far more vernacular conversation than Gardiner, though this can be a bit overdrawn and heavy handed at times. With the possible exception of the miners’ songs, which have a passing touch of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs (“With a will, ho!”), the verse is effective. Comfort was, in fact, a pretty decent poet. Here’s some of Manson’s big speech at the end of Scene II, pleading for the healing of the sick earth:

Now in the night, when continents
like tables cool and creak, and each tap’s timbrel
flickers invisible, constellations rise
westward on Europe moving carefully.
Out of Orion’s cockpit with no noise
the white aseptic stars watch blind earth tossing,
clawing the mask, going under; see the rivers’
reflexes quietly fade, the body grow quiet.
Between the hems of night the inflamed cities
throb in the flank; the finger in wise pity
probes the soft coils – as the stars’ gloved hands
draw up the wounded countries with small stitches.
You of the lancets, Sirius, Betelgueuse,
scanning the festered cities, plotting the fever,
cut to the permanent bone. This sickness is mortal.
Incise the will. Restore the healthy granite.

As a bit of a contrast, here’s the feverish, apocalyptic dance of the revelling shareholders, sung as the miners march to their fate, with a touch of Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”:

The hills are tumbling round our ears,
The stars crash down from the night;
But the bonds are good and the wheels go round
And there’s wind in the bagpipe yet.

Seven red madmen dance to the moon,
Seven pale horses rode,
But spades are trumps and the sun stands still,
And there’s wealth on the turn of the card!

Their wheels are broke and their bones are dry –
Their hammers bang for the coffin;
But all we see is a five-pound note
And a Union seat in the offing.

And grey death hides behind the door
With a rattle of shot in his throat,
But the wheels go round and the people roar
To keep the bastard out.

Can you hear the crash of the steeples, boys,
And the guns go crack in the trees?
The world shall burn to warm our hands –
It makes a lovely blaze!

There is more of value in this play, and much more could be said about it. But I will return at some point in these posts to Comfort’s poetry. He wrote two further plays. The first act alone of The Besieged appeared in Life and Letters Today for April 1944, but it was never published entire. Gengulphus is also listed as unpublished; some sources give a date of 1948, suggesting a possible publication, though I can find no trace of that.

The quick fade to these experiments in anarcho-drama is probably attributable to the same factors that saw off neo-romanticism in general. The verse speeches, the heightened, symbolic characters, the open calls to political action, the almost expressionist intensity – these are worlds away from the kitchen sink social realism of ‘fifties theatre.

It would be interesting to know if either of Comfort’s two published plays was ever staged. My ex-library copy of Cities (Croydon Public Libraries) sports a fully clean borrowing label; clearly Croydon Rep didn’t jump at the chance to put on this “Democratic Melodrama.” Which is rather a pity.

‘NUTS’: Julian Symons annotates Stephen Spender

Having in my time bought a few too many second hand books that turned out to disappoint, it’s rewarding when the reverse happens.

img_0001Some years ago, I forget where, I picked up for a quid a damp-buckled copy of Stephen Spender’s Life and the Poet, 1942, in which Spender attempts to reposition the role of the progressive artist and intellectual post-Spain, post-Popular Frontism. This was published by Secker & Warburg as Searchlight Book No 18, a series edited by George Orwell and T R Fyvel, billed as broadly popular, patriotic and anti-fascist. (Of the 17 projected titles listed here, only ten actually appeared before the printer’s paper stock ran out.) Searchlight Books were hardback with a dust jacket, but mine has paper covers, so must be a review copy.

And indeed, a reviewer has made his or her reactions known in some enjoyably bad tempered annotations, summarised inside the front cover:

Mr Spender wrote but apparently never went “Forward from Liberalism”. This is a wretchedly poor book, illogical, disconnected, apologetic & generally unsound.

Life and the Poet does indeed seem hastily shoved together, sloppily thought through and in places just badly written. Spender dedicates it to “Young Writers in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence and the Pacifist Organisations of Democracy”, which by covering all options avoids offence, but indicates something of the hand wringing equivocation he feels obliged to deliver.

“Before finishing the last chapter of this book,” he confesses, “and while revising the first five chapters, I have already been called up into the Fire Service. Yet I may stimulate in the minds of a few people the urgent necessity of a faith in poetry, or, rather, the poetic attitude …”

Our reviewer is not impressed by this excuse. Here are a few passages he/she found objectionable, with his/her reactions transcribed in italics:

Spender: 'Generally unsound'

Spender: ‘Generally unsound’

Without saying that Tolstoi, Turgenev or Henry James were socialists, one might draw revolutionary political conclusions from the life which they describe in their novels. Yet to believe … that the true picture of life in fiction today would inevitably have a socialist political implication is entirely different from preaching that … novels should preach socialism and see everything through red-coloured spectacles.
NUTS

In the case of a really great novelist or poet there might even be no difference, because his observation and his conclusions would be indivisible. But in the case of those lesser artists, there is a tremendous difference.
If the political conclusions were sound then the Novel will be too. The rest of Spender’s thesis is nonsense.

Listening to these [Left Wing] lectures on literature, it seemed to me that the principles were right, but their application was always wrong.
Well what the hell?

The ultimate aim of politics is not politics, but the activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State. Therefore an effective statement of these activities – such as science, art, religion – is in itself a declaration of ultimate aims around which the political means will crystallise.
Aim? Politics has no aim, any more than evolution has. 

So the political agitator is driven to deny that there is anything in life outside the struggle for power … Therefore you must pretend that everyone on your own side who is killed is a hero gladly giving his life for your cause without indulging in any feelings as a separate individual which might be irrelevant. Indeed, you go on to deny that anything in the nature of an individual really exists or has ever existed.
Oh do I?

Politics then become the only reality, and … [Artists, thinkers and scientists] make a merit of stifling the light that is in them: to become scientists who deny that scientific enquiry can ever be objective, poets who deny their own individuality, who show no curiosity about man’s situation in the whole of life and the universe, novelists who have no interest in human beings except to prove that one race or class is superior to others.
Mr Spender appears to have all the intellectual’s concern for his own piddling little individuality. What does he mean by superior? Dominant? Obviously no class is “Better” – No one suggests any one is.

Political evils must be met by other, greater political evils until the war is won. Yet, just because of this, it is all the more important that the “happy few” who uphold values of art, poetry and science should state as clearly as they can what the function of those values in life is, in order that new social patterns may grow around such an understanding.
Ha! Ha! Spender & Co, world-lovers & leaders.

Politicians establish a Sabbath of institutions which petrify, until at last they are shattered by revolutions. Yet to the revolutionaries, who are also politicians, Man … is still only made for their new Sabbath, which, they are determined, differs from the old Sabbath in that it will never be destroyed.
Nonsense. If Mr S will tilt at Marxists he should get to know some Marxism, which denies the possibility of a fixed, static, immutable policy.

What is important is Man. The creative mind must never entirely subscribe to any kind of Sabbath – Pharisaic, Jewish, Christian, Roman, Communist or British Imperialist.
How nice for the creative mind.

Part way through chapter two our annotator loses patience with the chore of annotation, but has made his or her position pretty clear. The book’s owner did not think to add a name, so who was this irascible Marxist?

As it happens, the sentiments chime rather well with “A Poet in Society,” a review of the book by Julian Symons in the first issue (1943) of the second series of Now, the anarchist political-literary review edited by George Woodcock at Freedom Press. (See here for another aspect. As it also happens, the handwriting of the annotations is not incompatible with the very few samples of Symons’s writing I can see online, though I can’t pretend that the similarities are absolutely conclusive.)

Symons: acerbic

Symons: acerbic

Symons is best known as a writer of crime fiction in later life, but was then the founder of Twentieth Century Verse, an independent Marxist (usually tagged a “Trotskyist”), and a reviewer of clinical and acerbic penetration. While Woodcock aimed to align the new series of Now with an “anarchist point of view,” contributors did not necessarily “subscribe to anarchist doctrines,” and in an editorial intro he carefully separates himself from the “hard things” that Symons has to say, defending “a certain virtue” in Spender’s “doubt of the value of politics as a means of social action.” Maybe he was anxious to avoid offending Orwell, later a contributor to the magazine.

In his review Symons tackles both Life and the Poet and Spender’s latest poetry collection, Ruins and Visions. The poems he finds “fine” and “moving”, but with Life and the Poet he finds himself “in violent disagreement,” denouncing it as “a high, thin and cloudy view of the poet’s nature and function,” marked by “the confusion of thought and frequent clumsiness of phrase which we have learned to expect and regret … Sometimes,” he adds, “this leads him into sentimental rubbish … It is impossible to comment usefully upon writing at this level.”

His critique follows the annotations at a distance while, naturally enough, losing some of the immediacy of his anger. One or two of our annotated passages in particular are fastened on.  Spender, who believes in no absolute, is criticised for setting up “the creative mind” (see the final passage above) as a kind of absolute. The fourth annotated passage above, on the “ultimate aim of politics,” comes in for particular scrutiny:

Man is a social animal: and his creative activities – “activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State” – are part of his social life. It follows that to talk about a statement of artistic aims round which political means will crystallise is to talk nonsense. A new view of society must precede a new view of art: society fashions art, art does not create a society. It is therefore a delusion to believe that any artistic aims are ultimate, since no state of society is ultimate: artistic aims are instead fashioned out of the social life of the time, which is in turn influenced by the tradition of social life and art which it has accepted as a heritage. “Eternal aspirations,” loneliness, and yes, the “creative mind” itself vary in form with the society that contains them. A society gets the art it deserves.

The heavy stress placed on “life” in this book is occasioned by an irrational dislike for the logic which binds the poetry written today inside our routine of living; a routine which exists as much for those who try to be “free” and who write from a position of freedom which is in fact false, as for those who are consciously and even willingly bound.

This is all excellent common sense, and seems to me highly relevant to today’s facile, commodified and over-valued art scene, still lubricated by persistent notions of art and poetry as magical, “alternative,” special or visitation from without.

Symons was surely one of the sharpest minds at work on the Left during this period. In a contribution to Now 5 on “The End of a War: 8 Notes on the Objective of Writing in our Time,” he references, interestingly, Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art, making entirely valid use of the perceptions of a writer working “from an attitude very different from mine.” (Symons knew Lewis well, and respected him.) In Now 6 his demolition of Cyril Connolly (“The Condemned Playboy”) is a pleasure to read.

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