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)

Tag Archives: neo-romanticism

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.

Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?

 

“He turned my head a bit”: W S Graham and John Knight

A bit of lit crit on the connections between the very marvellous indeed W S Graham (left) and his friend and fellow Cornish poet, now largely forgotten, John Knight, with some thoughts on Knight’s writing and its shared concerns with Graham’s. Somebody might already have tackled this, but if they have, I don’t know of it. Anyway, it’s on a new page (tab above) called Clusters concerning W S Graham, with the idea of adding further clusterettes in the future. (Graham’s protegé Burns Singer might be a good subject at some point in time.)

Can you hear me?

A psychodrama of the Blitzscape: Robert Herring’s ‘Harlequin Mercutio’

Ego, Harlequin, Mercutio, Hamlet and Merlin prowl the shattered landscape of the London Blitz, debate in best Shakespearian English, are blown to smithereens and fused in transcendent spiritual regeneration. What else could this possibly be but the long lost and remarkably odd 1943 “pantomime” Harlequin Mercutio, by Robert Herring, poet and pioneer modernist film critic? For the full neo-romantic weirdness, read the write-up here on my Pieces of Apocalypse page – scroll down half way, past the piece on Henry Treece.