DISUNITED KINGDOM

THE WORK LAID BEFORE US IN THIS DISUNITED KINGDOM

http://www.internationaltimes.it/archive/index.php?year=1968&volume=IT-Volume-1&issue=34&item=IT_1968-06-28_B-IT-Volume-1_Iss-34_004-017

MODEL FOR DISCUSSION: The modern revolution in
English language poetry is American: Eliot/Pound. Local
post-Georgian poetry of validity is not English but Celtic:
Yeats, Joyce, MacDiarmid, Dylan Thomas. A first English
reaction fades out after a praiseworthy but inconsequential
brush with politics: Auden et al. Thomas, in whom Sur-
realism has its British day, provokes a new wave of little-
englandism: ‘Movement’ and ‘Kitchen Sink’. Rescue work
on the English tradition: Hughes, Middleton, Silkin, Tomlin-
son, Redgrove, Macbeth, Wevill, however talented, or not,
in its own terms, has not produced a new Poetics. The rest
is beer and marital squabbles: politics at the level of the
Profumo case. THEN the English language is discovered to
have survived and to be thriving in America: Pound, W.
Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Lowenfels; Olson, Duncan,
Creeley, Blackburn, Dorn, Levertov; Patchen, Ginsberg,
Corso, Ferlinghetti; Spicer, McClure, Snyder, Whalen,
Jonathan Williams: you can name more. With us: a split
between the ‘academy’ and the new poetry, similar to the
split in the United States. The establishment (Sundays and
weeklies) on the one hand; little presses and magazines on
the other. The establishment may occasionally manage to
recognize Black Mountain, say, but prudently leaves matters
to Tomlinson: presentation is for ‘documentary purposes’
only. We have a genius for leaving foreigners to typecast
specialists; the rest of us need never give a damn.

CULTURE: Behind all this: a complex problem of
acculturation.  For a while, we had Scots, Irish, Welsh
versus English. But long before that, in remarks on Whitman,
Gerard Manley Hopkins, and later D.H. Lawrence, had seen
the true problem. Fifty-first state or not, now or in the
future, our local stance is inevitably conditioned by the kind
of yes or no we say to the poetry of the United States. And
because of the ‘special relationship’, linguistic or political,
any stance we might take towards Europe is bound to be
secondary. It even happens that European achievements
reach us via America: ‘Kaddish’ brings Breton to us; Breton
is little known. Cutting across this, we have another factor:
deeply as we may love America, we are torn apart by our
disagreement with what America, as a power, has been doing.
This, incidentally, may have the advantage of leading us to
the European and Latin American traditions, not to mention
the rest of the Third World.

Have our pontifs seen and accepted all this? Alvarez
places four Americans above all in his Penguin anthology:
Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, Plath. Fine, but one-sided: the
British ‘academy’ responds to the American ‘academy’.
Those of us who take an interest in the ‘New American
Poetry’ – Tomlinson, Middleton, Davie, Fisher, Turnbull,
Eric Mottram – get less attention here. Something similar
happens with the European tradition. Our attitudes to the
Russians were biased by political considerations; Davie, in
the case of Pasternak, has made other points. The others
chosen: Herbert, Holub, some of the Greeks, are mostly
modest poets doing better than their British praise-chanters,
but not that differently. In the U.S. on the other hand, the
leading Latin Americans have been recognized years before
their acceptance here. The British ‘academy’, in other words,
projects onto the outside world whatever justifies its own
concerns and refuses to admit those voices whose continued
concern is to make it new. Even what is under one’s nose
escapes attention. A fine poet like Bunting scarcely gets
a hearing; MacDiarmid, who towers above anything else
done in these islands (so that we are like sheep on a slope
whose top is in the clouds) is scarcely even discussed.

COMMUNICATIONS: The conservative public, reading
conservative weeklies, is robbed of information. An inter-
minable game of musical chairs is played among poetry
editors and writers for these papers. Make a chart. Tom
who was literary editor of paper A. is now literary editor of
paper B. Dick who reviewed last year for paper C. is now
reviewing for paper D. Harry who chose poems for paper
E. now choses them for paper F. Not to mention those who,
under various masks, review the same book, in the same
terms, two or three times over in different papers. Results:
i) anyone not blessed by these papers remains in the wilder-
ness for years, for he can do without ‘reviews’ but the public
must know he’s out; ii) primary matter is drowned in an
ocean of secondary verbiage; iii) since few believe that
reviews sell books, reviewers must be feeding no one but
themselves; iv) but a consensus of agreement appears to
exist because everyone who agrees is always the same
everyone; v) any attempt to rescue a fellow-poet or redeem
injustice is bound to fail. So much for communications.

ARENA: Lautreamont claimed that poetry should be made
by all. The world is tough enough to take as many poets as
it can muster, so that it is foolishness to deny the value of a
poet because he is ‘academy’ or because he is not. The
terms are never more than relative at best. Among makers,
cross-breeding occurs continually: see Gunn on Snyder for
example, in a recent Listener. It is interesting to look for
those poets who find themselves, perhaps unwillingly, taken
as bridges between contending schools. Is Creeley the most
accessible of the Black Mountain poets? Has Lowell, in Life
Studies, taken something from the other side? A poet is an
ongoing process, a lifetime at work, focused now on one
problem, now on another. It is only the commentators
whose living is made out of treating a poet as if he were a
discrete set of unrelated books; whose vested interest lies
in splitting, antagonizing, bringing into conflict, destroying
this living entity. The Arena now, should be as wide as it
can be and set against the whining ifs-and-buts of the little
shepherds.

US/NOW:   I once lunched with an ‘avant-garde’ writer and
we spoke more or less the way I’m writing now. A friend of
the writer came to the table and my friend turned to him.

He switched his talk immediately and peppered it with
‘yeahs’ and ‘mans’ and ‘likes’. This kind of wholesale ling-
uistic acculturation is infantile: it is sociological and has
little to do with poetry. The plain fact is that we cannot
take over the American idiom, or rather idioms, since
America speaks with many different voices. This is why it
seems to me that we cannot get much out of ‘beat’ poetry
here, except perhaps its courage and breadth of interest.
Many are doing sub-Ginsberg here and no amount of with-it
can cover up the fact. Where we can attempt to learn is
with the school of Pound and Williams: not to ape – this
the same old trap – but to study the poems and the theory
these men have set out and to see whether we can use it in
our own breath, our own form, our own areas of concern
and if so where and how. Why the British ‘academy’ remains
so stilted, so hemmed in by dead language, is still a mystery.
In the theatre, where there is less talk of ‘schools’, the
British have had an international success. The social up-
heaval of World War II brought a crisis in language: we
listened to ourselves on the stage, casting about for a new
voice. In the novel, in poetry, such a process has been over-
shadowed by the American presence. There are men like
Harwood, Raworth and Pickard who have gone way beyond
‘promise’. There is Liverpool; there is ‘public poetry’. So
far, so good, but it is a beginning and needs much nursing as
all beginnings do. As for public poetry: American reading
publics seem able to take a far greater weight of content than
similar British publics. Notice how, at British readings, the
simple, funny or ranting poem always wins out. Such a
public might find an Olson or a Duncan hard to assimilate.
Which brings us to content and concern.

The central issue here is the poetry of politics. We know
about Britain’s diminution of power. This, among other
things, has turned the poet away from politics. Now by
politics I do not mean mere reference to Vietnam or Race,
I mean a broad, positive concern for the fate of mankind
everywhere in the world and for the relation of man to the
natural environment in which he lives: politics of environ-
ment framing the politics of community. Here, the little-
England poet cannot talk about politics because our politics
are grey. If he attempts to deal with external affairs out of
that greyness, he is forced to overcompensate with propa-
ganda and simple-minded rhetoric. Likewise, there is a
danger, in an under-politicized situation, that broad-bott-
omed poets will attempt to sit on every available chair.
And yet, in the world we inhabit, a poetry divorced from
politics is as unthinkable as a man divorced from society,
(and we all talk, even if only at first, at least to our mothers).
At a recent May-Day reading, poet after poet shuffled up
and apologized for not having ‘a political poem’. That Mac-
Diarmid is a great political poet seems also relevant.

If there is one thing which prevents a person who has
been to the States from talking with one who has not been,
it is, as a reader of Olson will know: Space. To experience
the hugeness of the continent; what it has meant for a people
to cover and mark that vastness, is to begin to be able to talk
about America. Before World War II, the American poet
came to Europe. It is perhaps the tragedy of his country
that she has been forced to take a leading role in world aff-
airs at the very moment when her poets were deciding to
stay at home. But the homecomer failed to like what he saw
happening to America. Fortified with his new learning
(with everything that in our own cultural isolationism or
war-exhaustion we had failed to retain), he began, in the
forties and fifties, to say so. The result was tremendous
gains in the New American Poetry and Art. While all this
went on, we retreated into the whimper of motionless
‘Movement’. Which is why the English language grows over
there and fails to do so here.

Remember, for one thing, that translation has become of
overwhelming importance in the States. Read Rexroth or
Lowell on French, Bly on Spanish; consider Duncan on
Dante or Olson and Zukofsky on Shakespeare; or Snyder
on Japanese and American Indian: how much of that have
we participated in?

This kind of American poet has preserved American
honour in a time of terrible distress. Backed with this
erudition, aware of the modern revolution in language, he

could take a stance towards politics of almost unparalleled
breadth. The sheer scope, the authority of much of Gins-
berg, or of Duncan on the Vietnam war, are unthinkable
among us. There is a situation in which almost anything
can be made into poetry, in which poetic courage can
apply itself to almost any issue, personal or Collective, and
come up with an adequate answer. This is light years away
from our own mournful mouthings over pints of beer,
soiled sheets and garden implements.

Though there are problems. The very self-confidence of
anyone who has taken the world as his province has a vital
influence on the poet’s definition of his own role in society,
his thought about what kind of a thing the poet is. Here, the
poet either fails to refer to himself in the first person on
pains of being accused of pretentiousness or turns his att-
ention to the minor phenomena of nature in order to avoid
his own involvement in society. The Americans, if one can
understand correctly their attitude to what we do, are telling
us that they cannot find the poet behind the poem; voice,
flesh, blood and spunk remain concealed as ‘private parts’.
If this be so, X’s poem is much the same as Y’s; there is a
certain play of form, of artificial metrics, and that is all.

With the poet’s individual involvement in his production,
with work as extension of being, we reach the crux of the
matter: the age old problem of selectivity. A critic recently
stated, in discussing ‘confessional verse’, that the American
poetry he admired seemed to be dominated by a Jewish
ethic. His shallow reading of Judaism apart, what about the
great interest in Oriental philosophy among the other
poets? Has the view that all categories are relative, that, in
the timeless and spaceless absolute, any given phenomenon
is worth neither more, nor less than any other, not had a
great bearing on the way in which some Americans work?
The positive value that is ascribed to almost anything that
occurs in the poet’s life; the references to cliques of friends
and clusters of private jokes, can become wearing for almost
any reader. This, of course, has two sides. If you say that
no subject should be taboo to a poet or if, as with Olson,
you attack the pretentions of the human animal vis a vis
the other creatures and things, then one can only applaud.
But if you play ecstatic games in which everything plus the
kitchen sink must find its place in the poem, then doubts
arise. We are in danger of sinking into a welter of insignifi-
cance, a morass in which poetry dies out altogether and
nothing is left but monomaniac discourse. ‘Confessions’
in any case are as interesting as the person who confesses.
To integrate a wider and wider area of concern into poetry;
to impose the seal of order on as many things in one’s world
as will bear talking about is one thing – to sink from over-
weight is another. And this is the danger of putting the
American ‘dream’ into poetry.

It depends, of course, on who the poet is. Creeley has
admitted that he likes to travel light but that he would not
dream of denying a Ginsberg his baggage of ritual knowledge.
There are times when poets ‘do not want to remember any-
thing’ and there are others in which the poet must. Then,
there is another problem, which is the depth at which poetry
works. It has been said, in the States, that there has been
too much stress on French surrealism and that this, because
the French are such rationalists to start with, is no more than
a dislocation of conventional imagery on the surface. Why
not Spanish surrealism ( in Lorca, or Neruda) wherein the
unconscious speaks directly to the unconscious, bypassing
the normal categories of the conscious intellect? Interest-
ingly enough, this appears to tie in with the early theory of
the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Here the
mind is structured in a universally available way and the less
overlaid it is with secondary rationalizations the better it
can communicate with any other mind. The problem of
selectivity finds one solution when the mind, as it were,
cannot at any point make the wrong choices, and this is not
unrelated to those Buddhist notions we looked at just now.
Perhaps the deeper a poet listens to himself, the closer he
gets to a language which is simultaneously true to him and
to all other men. Does a poet discover his own voice,
rather than make it? Here Rothenberg is interesting on
primitive poetry: the shaman seen as both ‘seer’ and
‘maker’. In cultured poetry, making as a craft takes over
and the element of ‘seeing’ suffers diminution. The true
erudition of the poet then is an internal matter. What is
required is the stock-taking of his deepest being, a long and
disciplined meditation on who he is, or as Zen has it, was
before his birth.

So drugs and mind-expanding substances are relevant now,
but with one caution. Movement after Movement of the
avant-garde has been taking an interest in them but, by
forgetting the disciplinary aspect of meditation, it has
condemned itself to superficiality. Under abject social con-
ditions, more and more freedom is rightly looked for. But
freedom only begins with do-as-you-please and ends by en-
tailing a greater responsibility than bondage. If a poetry is
to be produced, it can only come out of the interplay of
concern for the objective world and concern for the inner
existence. The poet runs along his rails; his poetry along-
side him; the world alongside that: keeping the three tog-
ether is the secret of art. Dropping out is no solution: you
will only be used.  Dropping down and inwards before
joining in may be. It seems to me that this debate has rec-
ently enlivened the I.T.

I think one only has to voice such concerns to see how
far the poetry that is written here today is, for the most
part, alienated from them. Our political poetry is in a wre-
tched state. What of the inner poetry? I fear that poetry
here is relentlessly superficial: the poet slinks in corners with
immemorial British shyness, a shyness which can, at the drop
of a hat, become rabid arrogance when it is suggested we
might learn from the outside world.

WORK TO DO: The remedy, as always, lies in the readiness
to learn. There is a great body of poetry now, to take one
example, in which European issues flourish in the context
of a great sense of Space, a Space as large and meaningful as
North America’s. I refer of course, to Latin America from
Ruben Dario, a century ago, to the present day. There is
first Cesar Vallejo in whom a surrealism of depth, a passion-
ate local concern and a universal political appeal are found
combined. There is the huge river of Pablo Neruda, carrying
every conceivable impurity, maddeningly unequal, often far
too facile, but, at its best, of a sweep, a lyrical power, un-
equalled anywhere. There is Octavio Paz whose poetry, as
well as his brilliant essays, define the new world with all the
wisdom of the old. And after them: Nicanor Parra; Ernesto
Cardenal; Enrique Lihn, Carlos German Belli, a host of
young Cubans and so on, mile on mile. There is the univ-
erse of primitive poetry (in W. Trask’s brilliant anthology
or Garibay’s work from the Nahuatl); there is the East with
a millenary tradition. There are the great modern movements:
Dada, Surrealism and their progeny. There is the first half
of our century which has been carried on in the States but
has frittered away here. To talk of looking out from here is
not chauvinism; provided that we do look out.

Even those critics who write against our ‘gentility’ seem
to accept our alienated world as irremediably given; one in
which mere is no alternative to the poet but to control his
madness. Such talk when Havana, Calcutta, Prague lie about
us is as dated as ‘gentility’ itself. If ‘extremism’ comes out
of boredom, let us stop being bored. If it is paid with ‘mad-
ness’ we cannot all afford such trifling luxuries.

And there is science, the general language of our time,
the democratic idiom. How can one say that only psycho-
analysis can be more or less grasped by the layman? There
are anthropology, linguistics, ethology, comparative religion:
vast worlds of concern which used to be the poet’s and are
no longer. Why? Because of confusion between the prac-
tical effects of technology and applied science (which can
be, and are, appalling), and epistemology, the mind-in-move-
ment and its joy, which can, in a correct political context,
STILL save our kind. We have no need to fear that know-
ledge which will broaden poetry and return it to its legisl-
ative role. Here again, the New American poetry points the
way. Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan: such men are not afraid
to enlarge the scope of the art. With such concerns, with
such ambitions, we may learn to go unafraid of working
in poetry at several levels as the great masters of the past –
Dante first and foremost – habitually did.

Gentility may or may not have been eradicated here
with us. What we must destroy now is the nauseating cycle
of guilt and moaning about guilt; the miserable timidity;
the smallness of mind and purpose which keep us almost
totally alienated from our true potential. The texts are
there, from the States, from Europe, from such brilliant
achievements as Fulcrum and Trigram: it is not too diffi-
cult to open doors. This is the work laid before us, in this
disunited U.K.

Nathaniel Tarn
pic Nick Victor.

From the archive: IT Issue 34, 28 June 1968.


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