Saturday, 28 December 2013

Voices In Denial : Poetry and Post-Culture

This essay aims to argue two points: first, that British poetry during the 1960s missed an opportunity, suggested to it by other art forms, to positively engage with mass popular culture and second, that the denial of the “authorial voice” in poetry, due to the influence of various Postmodernist literary theories, should be challenged and rejected.
To take the second point, I would deny the very possibility of a “voiceless poem”, regardless of the style or mode of the work, regardless even of the stated intentions of the author, who may vociferously deny his own voice. Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of defining the voice itself, you cannot surgically remove the individual (“voice”) from the creative process without destroying the mechanism of the creative process itself. Beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed towards a specific poem, the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the unique “signature” (strong or weak) of the writer. The essential criterion of difference between a poem by Stevie Smith and one by W. H. Auden is ultimately a difference of personality, irrespective of literary theory. This is self-evident. It is also true of poems written by poets who tell us they deny the voice – all you hear is their voice. I should point out at this point that the existence of an authorial voice does not imply interpretative exclusivity. The potential for plural meanings in a text and the creative involvement of the reader remains unaffected by the presence of an authorial voice. The ideal poem would always resist, or subvert, clear-cut interpretations or didactic messages; it is unlikely to conform to expectations derived from the received wisdom of either traditional dogma, or fashionable orthodoxy. I make no apologies for this essay’s polemical tone, and welcome an open debate on its argument. Such a debate, in my view, is long overdue.
Roughly, between 1952 and 1958, the British Pop Art movement promoted the idea that artists should not denigrate mass popular culture, but rather celebrate it. The British Pop Artists of the late fifties (the London Independent Group) developed an aesthetic that celebrated the mass media and mass popular culture. By the mid sixties, this became apparent in fashion (Mary Quant mini-skirts, Cecil Gee suits) and pop music (The Rolling Stones, the “acid dandyism” of Jimi Hendrix). Curiously, few of the participants in this process were poets, so this was not actually a literary phenomenon. Generally, writers have often trailed behind the visual arts, and British poets of the time failed to take a creative interest in mass popular culture (the hippie mysticism of the sixties versions of Beat Poetry was essentially anti-materialist). It is a given within British Poetry (both mainstream and non-mainstream) that mass culture is to be minimised and that poetry occupies an oppositional role in relation to its perceived detrimental influence – an influence usually seen as a corrosive process of vulgarisation. The long-term effect of this rupture between mass culture and poetry has been to sideline or retard literary development in the poetic sphere and to perpetuate conservative, even authoritarian trends. This is usually the case, even among writers who consider themselves exponents of literary “progress” and often profess a world-view quite the reverse of conservative. It is also misleading to define this rupture in terms of a popular/elite opposition, although it is certainly the case that non-mainstream poetry projects an elitist image, even when playing with populism or flirting with street credibility.
In the sixties, British poetry was separated into two symbiotic “warring” camps: conservatives and radicals. The conservatives can be epitomised by publications such as Encounter magazine (1953-1967), and by poetic “schools” such as The Movement and the Confessional Poets. The radicals comprise what is now known as the British Poetry Revival, but was recognized in the sixties as the Underground, or the Children of Albion. In this essay, I will refer to the latter as the Albion Underground.
The abuse of the word “radical” to mean “progressive” is endemic when looking back at this era. There is an assumption that experimentalism must be radical by definition but that is not necessarily the case. Poetic movements of the Left tend to monopolise this terminology, conflating the meaning of “progressive” and “radical”. Radicals like to think of themselves as working to a progressive political agenda, often involving ideas such as social justice and revolution. Most “radical” poets fall into this category along with, for example, “protest poets” who often are neither innovative nor experimental in the avant-garde sense (“avant-garde” here being a synonym for “radical”). In my view, the term “progressive” must be related to freedom and – in a literary context – to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression depends upon the concept of “the authorial voice”; consequently, if you deny the voice, you deny the agent of expression. To deny the voice is, thus, a reactionary and not a progressive position.
The cultural climate of the later half of the twentieth century was very different from that of the Second World War or the period of Late Modernism. The Beat Generation of 1945-1960, haunted by the ghost of Rimbaud was among the last of the “Romantic” groupings defined by the image of the artist-poet as mystical prophet, seer, wandering visionary and popular shaman. Ann Charters has asserted that the Beat Poets ‘relied on autobiography’ because their marginal identity lead them to insist ‘on the validity of their own experience instead of accepting conventional opinions and the country’s common myths’.1 From the 1970s onwards, in the UK, in Continental Europe and in North America, we see the ever-expanding influence of academia. “Literature” became an almost exclusive domain of the universities, resulting in most innovative poets becoming functionaries in the Academy. Consequently, the traditional metaphor of the poet as wandering troubadour, alienated “genius”, or tortured outsider was replaced by the “academic expert in loco parentis” drawn from the post-Structuralist intelligentsia. A new fashionable orthodoxy was born – Postmodernism.
Postmodern Theory (a diffuse and ambiguous phenomenon full of internal self-contradictions) was a consequence of the French universities general strike of May 1968 (“The May Events”) in which academics became disillusioned with the Left after the Unions and the Communists sided with the Gaullist Establishment. Displeased by the turn of events they decided that all the Grand Narratives of the Modern or Proto-Modern past (the Enlightenment, Marxism etc.) were worn out or invalid – the “condition” was Post-Modern, the situation was new. At the same time, Roland Barthes proclaimed "the death of the author", one of the first assaults on the idea of the integral authorial voice.
By the 1970s there were, roughly, two strands or varieties of “difficult” poetry trying to maintain the status of the avant-garde in a post-avant-garde cultural landscape. There was the Euro-centric strand, inspired by Neo-Dada movements such as Fluxus, and there was the American academic variety inspired by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and the Objectivism of Louis Zukofsky. Fluxus was an early sixties Action Art movement initiated in 1961 by George Maciunas. It was concerned with the integration of art with life and the negation of social hierarchies. Allen Fisher, a poet once associated with Cobbing’s Writers Forum, is the most noted exponent of Fluxus-inspired poetics, as can be seen in his publications Place (1974-1981) and Scram (1971-1982). Objectivism was an offshoot of Imagism promoted by Ezra Pound. British Objectivism imported by Basil Bunting, came to be identified with the Northumbrian School centred on Barry MacSweeney, and the Cambridge School whose most famous exponent is J. H. Prynne. Prynne is also an enthusiast for the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (as you might expect Heidegger’s philosophy is notoriously “difficult”). One aspect of Black Mountain doctrine was the eradication of the ego. Ironically, and despite this, the Post-Albion Underground experimentalists were addicted to huge, grandiose, self-important projects emulating the Cantos, Patterson, Zukofsky’s A and Olson’s Maximus.
Academic poetry differs from the writing of the pre-Albion Underground era in that it substituted theory for personality in the creative process: this was, above all, a Poetics of Process. As a Poetics of Process it paved the way for the next style of American poetry to arrive, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Like Olson, the Language Poets were explicit in their denial of the individual “voice” and were distinguished by their concern to exclude all “autobiography” and “ego psychology” from writing. This stance, which coincided with contemporary debates in the academic sphere about the role of science, identity politics and knowledge epistemology, assumed the illusory nature of the “Lyric I”, and the non-existence of facts beyond language as unchallenged givens. In many respects, these ideas have now become entrenched as key doctrines of “radical” experimentalist poetry in both the United States and the UK. In reality it was another generational revolt: they used the denial of the voice and the principle of linguistic determinism as tactics to challenge the established status quo and assert their own “radicalism” – just as all “new” movements seek to do. Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten say in their 1988 group manifesto, ‘Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist’.2 This statement suggests an authoritarian tendency in operation. Nothing is more authoritarian than the denial of individual “expression”.  As an aesthetic or poetic this is entirely retrograde and reveals a mistaken view of the creative process.
These various innovations had a major influence on non-mainstream British poetry, which, prior to this, had shared, to some extent, a Beat aesthetic, founded on an authorial voice. In Britain the Academic Left consolidated a position based on Post-Structuralism and similar tendencies (e.g. Social Construction Epistemology, Reader Response Theory etc.) influenced by the later writings of Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). This book in particular had a tremendous impact, and precipitated what is known as the “science wars”. A key idea was the denial of objectivity and the view that the individual is a “cultural construction” not an innate entity. There can be no established facts, only incommensurable “paradigms”. However, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out in one of his critiques of Postmodernism, significant transformative action in the real world requires the participation of an integrated unified, human individual/subject. By extension, the same is true of artistic creativity in all its forms. Postmodern Theory usually denies this possibility.
The rise of the mass media since 1945 has consolidated an already incipient post-cultural state. This is a state in which former cultural values have evaporated and “high culture” has disappeared. It does not follow that the evaporation of high culture vindicates the historical claims of Postmodernism – that would require an agreement on the nature of Modernism and a clear distinction (perhaps) between Modernism and “modernity” in order to define “post-modernity” as a viable chronological category. I consider Postmodernism to be a doctrinal outlook: a limited (but diverse) quasi-philosophical tendency intrinsic to the late Cold War period. The era 1968-1989 saw the rise and fall of “Postmodernism” in this narrow, doctrinal sense. The emergence of post-culture on the other hand can be dated back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century, a period that saw the rise of mass circulation newspapers and popular entertainment such as Cabaret and Music Hall, the period of photography and the first moving pictures.
In the twenty-first century, the state of post-culture continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration, rendering superfluous the old, nineteenth century “vanguard” model of literary and artistic self-definition. A crisis of self-definition on this level has created an alienated intelligentsia still clinging to notions of high cultural value. These values have no viable place in a “new world order” of globalised mass “infotainment”. We now inhabit a world where hitherto “profound” masterpieces stand revealed as propaganda, a world where a tabloid headline or a refrain from a pop song may possess more aesthetic value than a poem by J. H. Prynne or Basil Bunting.
It is ironic that the position we are describing has lead an alienated literary class to deny the value of the authorial voice, not only the voices of others – but their own as well.

 copyright © A. C. Evans

A. C. Evans was born in Hampton Court in 1949, and lived in South London until 1963 when he moved to Essex and co-founded the semi-legendary Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group in 1966. Moving back to London in 1973, he currently lives in Mortlake, near Richmond. Working in the tradition of the bizarre and the grotesque, he also considers himself a Realist. Influenced by everything on the dark-side, he is also inspired by the iconoclasm of Dada, revolutionary Surrealism and the immediacy of Pop. He regards all these as points of departure, none as a destination – we live in a post avant-garde world.

His individual author collections include The Xantras (Trombone Press), Chimaera Obscura (Phlebas Press), Dream Vortex (Tabor Press), Colour Of Dust. Poems And/Or Texts 1973-1997 (Stride), This Sepulchre (Springbeach Press) and Fractured Muse (Atlantean Publications). The poetry sequence ‘Space Opera’ was made into a digital film and shown at the onedotzero3 Festival at the ICA in 1999.

He considers creativity to be the indirect effect of irrational drives and desires; an infinite quest for self-discovery and, inevitably, an indictment of both established dogma and fashionable orthodoxy. In his extremist, author-centred, poetry and graphics he uses ambiguity, juxtaposition, irony and objective chance to question assumptions about convention, identity and reality – black humour and the absurd are his constant preoccupations.


1  The Penguin Book of the Beats (1993), p. 435.  

2  ‘Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto’, Social Text, (1988), pp. 19-20.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Space Opera An Interview With A C Evans

Space Opera, eight linked poems employing Science Fiction imagery, contains willed ironies reflective of the element of ambiguity so inherent to the works of the writer concerned, ‘hermetic artist’ A. C. Evans.
Neogaea – New Earth – as a term summons up hopeful visions by association, while Space Opera calls upon the reader to expect epic, even glorious, space adventure. Yet, in fact, the sections cumulatively ‘tell a story’, insofar as clear and sequential narrative can be drawn from the image data projected by these pieces (even the use of the word ‘poem’ is rendered ambiguous by Evans’ own preference for the term ‘texts’) not of hope or wonder but of flawed personnel with fractured motivation bedeviled by fragmented data and encountering, finally, only failure of ‘a great attempt’.
This ‘great attempt’ – to explore the massive outer space planet Neogaea and its alien-inhabited satellite Neon, where strange non-human ‘cathedrals’ dominate a bizarre landscape (which is told in the Space Opera itself, and also affects a prior but unrelated Evans piece, ‘Contact Zero’), relates to many illustrations, and continues as an ‘undertow’ or concealed reference point in some of his more recent work – should have been a notable landmark in the development of speculative poetry in Britain.
That this was not so is a function, I suspect, partly of the difficulty of the work, a density of form, and demands on reader concentration more familiar in the ‘cutting edge’ areas of American speculative poetry of the time. It is also, perhaps, a result of the actual place of publication. The sequence appeared not in a genre outlet (though, as an aside, attempts by other writers at experimental work in UK genre outlets at about the same time also met little response), but in a more ‘mainstream’ group of publications, namely issues of Rupert Loydell’s little magazine Stride and related booklets from the same editor’s press: Stride Publications.
As the passage of time gives the perspective to appreciate more easily the importance of the achievement represented by Space Opera, and as a growing number of genre readers develop a capacity to attempt the appreciation of work which combines SF iconography with experiments in communicative form, therefore there is a value in returning to the sequence.
In an interview with Stride’s editor in Spring 1985, published in Stride 20, A. C. Evans gave considerable insight into his sources, inspirations, and methodology; but this interview had concentrated heavily on his artwork, rather than his poetry, and at no point in time overtly touched on the use of Science Fiction or speculative themes and imagery. I felt an interview directed to clarifying these areas would be of value, particularly in terms of contexting the powerful Space Opera sequence.

I began by asking about the use by the writer of the term ‘texts’ for this and other written work.

A. C. Evans: I use the term to distance myself from traditional verse writing. I actually prefer the phrase ‘poems and/or texts’ – so referring to the material as ‘prose-poems’ or just ‘poems’ is not a problem at all.
A related group of questions followed, aiming to elicit the roots of Evans’ use of Science Fiction material, and its meaning to his writing.

Steve Sneyd: How do you see your work in relation to Speculative poetry as a whole – do you see a connection? Are you influenced by others, and if so, who?

A.C. Evans: Regrettably, I am not in touch with Speculative, or Science Fiction, poetry in the UK (although I guess I should be!), so I can’t identify any influences in this context. My only formal connection with the Speculative scene was the appearance of a couple of drawings in the American magazine Velocities (1983), which is definitely “a magazine of speculative poetry”. Influences do surface of course, but they are external to current small press SF. Quite a complex area this, but if asked I would cite J. G. Ballard and Olaf Stapledon (crucial). American influences would be William Burroughs (inescapable) and H.P. Lovecraft, and possibly Harlan Ellison. But the SF influence generally is non-specific, culled from mass media SF and SF/Fantasy art, etc. etc.

Are you someone who has come to these forms/topics via an interest in Science Fiction?

Science Fiction has always been part of the cultural landscape (for me), so SF topics were a natural element in the ‘symbolic repertoire’. I have no real intention of being an SF writer – SF is just a component of the mass media environment we inhabit. I’m using SF as raw material, in fact, so I’m not really working from within the genre – this accentuates the alienation-distancing effect I hope to project. The details of the SF scenario I use probably derive from the mass media SF I mentioned: Dr. Who, Star Trek, or 1960s TV plays such as Collin Kapp’s ‘Lambda 1’; also the films of Andrei Tarkovsky – Solaris and Stalker, and the use of SF in David Bowie’s music (‘Space Oddity’, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs) which gave a new slant to things circa 1972.
The use I make of SF material? I use the idea of endless voyages through multi-dimensional space(s) as some kind of metaphor for an underlying theme of voidness (that is, ideas of outer limits, alienation, non-communication, and angst). SF-type ideas fit in with this – or seem to. After all, where are the (scientific) outer limits? High Energy Physics and Cosmology enter in – so some of this comes out like SF, but actually derived from Cosmology – e.g. Black Hole Singularities. This endless voyage thing is archetypal: look at Jung and Coleridge.
It also overlaps with a ‘symbolic repertoire’ of ‘occult themes’, such as the astral plane. I should also note a continuity with other more traditional sources, particularly Apocalyptic/Millenarian visionary materials – hence angels and cathedrals all mixed up with Starfleet Command in Space Opera.

Do you see yourself as part of the SF/Speculative poetry world?

As I said, I’m not ‘in touch’ enough to be part of the Speculative scene – but having said that, I’m not against being classified in this way.

Your very experimental approach is almost unique in this century, certainly within this area of genre poetry in the 80s. What reaction have you found from editors to this kind of material?

I have only worked with a small number of editors who’ve been very supportive – particularly the editors of Stride and Memes. My feeling is that the material we are discussing runs counter to the anecdotal/humanistic mould of most small press straight ‘poetry-verse’, so one regards blank reactions as understandable, given the overtly hermetic and inaccessible style of the pieces themselves. Getting down to the cutting edge inevitably means getting into an area where rational communication starts to break down, and I expect editors not to relate to this sort of thing – although I haven’t submitted poems to pure SF editors, ever, so have no idea how they would react.

Was the Space Opera sequence conceived as a whole?

Yes, although ‘Neogaea’ (Space Opera 5) was actually written first, in 1984. The other parts were derived from it some months later. ‘Space Opera (The First Report)’ was published in Stride 21. I think ‘Gaze Of The Medusa’ was especially written for The Serendipity Caper anthology, as a sort of introduction to the sequence.

Does any other work relate to the sequence?

It was linked to ‘Contact Zero’, which also appeared in The Serendipity Caper, and initially in Stride 19. The Space Opera texts also stimulated a number of drawings such as ‘Centre Of Gravity’ from 1984; and ‘Life On Neogaea’, ‘Angel With Raiding Party’, ‘Styx Insect’, ‘The NeoNova’, ‘Destination Tomorrow’, and others, from 1985.

Have you written other Science Fiction texts?

There are SF-type poems in both of my Stride booklets (Exosphere and Decaying Orbits) – such as ‘Metacropolis’ – which are not part of the Neogaea complex.

Finally, could you explain what you were trying to achieve with the Space Opera sequence, the extent to which you think you achieved your aims, and, perhaps, a few words on how it the sequence relates to your body of work as a whole?

It’s easier to answer the last part of the question first. Space Opera fits into a range of discursive prose texts subverted by surreal and aleatoric elements. The Xantras (1992) is a more recent example. It was an attempt to see how ‘far out’ (or in) you can get without being too abstract (I don’t really believe in pure abstraction) or too conceptual. Also, as we’ve said, the sequence relates to graphics like Contact Zero (not in this volume) and a number of line drawings (some of which are in this volume): I like to think there’s a non-rational continuum in my work in all media – unexpected links connecting things in half-hidden patterns. pathways to the outer limits.


I tried to achieve a fusion of ‘genre’ thematics with an ‘experimental’ prose style in order to, as it were, get the genre aspects into another gear - it was a clash of disparate elements – a populist space opera scenario filtered through a linguistic style derived from a more refined ‘arty’ ethos. But technical, aesthetic considerations are only part of the equation. There’s an entertainment factor as well. So if the reader finds the sequence dull then I’ve failed in my objective of translating the reader into another sphere. I wouldn’t want to change or revise any of the sequence – so I guess I feel I achieved my aims. Only the readers can say if Space Opera works for them.

(c) Steve Sneyd, 1995

The Argotist Online Interview

A. C. Evans was born in Hampton Court in 1949, and lived in South London until 1963 when he moved to Essex and co-founded the semi-legendary Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group in 1966. Moving back to London in 1973, he currently lives in Mortlake, near Richmond. Working in the tradition of the bizarre and the grotesque, he also considers himself a Realist. Influenced by everything on the dark-side, he is also inspired by the iconoclasm of Dada, revolutionary Surrealism and the immediacy of Pop. He regards all these as points of departure, none as a destination – we live in a post avant-garde world.

His individual author collections include The Xantras (Trombone Press), Chimaera Obscura (Phlebas Press), Dream Vortex (Tabor Press), Colour Of Dust. Poems And/Or Texts 1973-1997 (Stride), This Sepulchre (Springbeach Press) and Fractured Muse (Atlantean Publications). The poetry sequence ‘Space Opera’ was made into a digital film and shown at the onedotzero3 Festival at the ICA in 1999.

He considers creativity to be the indirect effect of irrational drives and desires; an infinite quest for self-discovery and, inevitably, an indictment of both established dogma and fashionable orthodoxy. In his extremist, author-centred, poetry and graphics he uses ambiguity, juxtaposition, irony and objective chance to question assumptions about convention, identity and reality – black humour and the absurd are his constant preoccupations.
 
JeffreySide has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
 
He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
 
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook.
 

 
JS: What are your definitions for the words ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’.
 
ACE: I would define ‘radical’ as pertaining to radix (root) – getting to the root of things. I don’t think there is a direct link between radicalism and formalism, although formal innovation might be a kind of aesthetic radicalism. I don’t think it is useful to tie radicalism to formal innovation – not all ‘radical’ works of art or poems are characterised by formal experimentation. Also the idea of ‘experimental’ or ‘revolutionary’ art is basically a nineteenth century idea – you can trace the use of the term ‘avant-garde’ back to 1825 at least, although it was popularised by Bakunin in the late 1870s. I find it ironic that one of the few artists who could claim to be a real revolutionary was Jacques-Louis David – and he was a Neo-classicist!  As it is very difficult to disconnect the ‘voice’ from a worldview (culture etc.) one has to look closely at the worldview/cultural background of the voice – how far does the worldview of the voice credit the transgressive implications of freedom-to-create? If you evade this question how 'radical' can you claim to be? To use Eliot as an example, I would define ‘The Waste Land’ as a reactionary poem, not a transgressive or ‘radical’ poem in the progressive sense, even though its poetic form might have caused some outrage. In any case none of Eliot's efforts stand comparison with the ‘radical’ Simultanism of say Cendrars' 'Trans Siberian' poem, or the works of Apollinaire. I would define ‘radical’ as pertaining to radix (root) – getting to the root of things. I don’t think there is a direct link between radicalism and formalism, although formal innovation might be a kind of aesthetic radicalism. I don’t think it is useful to tie radicalism to formal innovation – not all ‘radical’ works of art or poems are characterised by formal experimentation. Also the idea of ‘experimental’ or ‘revolutionary’ art is basically a nineteenth century idea – you can trace the use of the term ‘avant-garde’ back to 1825 at least, although it was popularised by Bakunin in the late 1870s. I find it ironic that one of the few artists who could claim to be a real revolutionary was Jacques-Louis David – and he was a Neo-classicist!  As it is very difficult to disconnect the ‘voice’ from a worldview (culture etc.) one has to look closely at the worldview/cultural background of the voice – how far does the worldview of the voice credit the transgressive implications of freedom-to-create? If you evade this question how 'radical' can you claim to be? To use Eliot as an example, I would define ‘The Waste Land’ as a reactionary poem, not a transgressive or ‘radical’ poem in the progressive sense, even though its poetic form might have caused some outrage. In any case none of Eliot's efforts stand comparison with the ‘radical’ Simultanism of say Cendrars' 'Trans Siberian' poem, or the works of Apollinaire.

In my terms 'progressive' must have something to do with freedom. Freedom of expression is closely linked to the concept of the voice – if you deny the voice, you deny the agent of 'expression'. I think that is a 'reactionary' position, not a 'progressive' position because it strikes at one of the most basic principles of freedom. There can be no freedom if there is no free agency: the only sensible definition of a free agency is a free individual. Frazer's Golden Bough was based on an evolutionary schema that postulated a 'progression' from Magic, via Religion to Science. Eliot disregarded this because of his own 'faith' position. I would suggest this points to the fact that Eliot (or the poetic voice we call 'Eliot') was actually an anti-Modernist, not a Modernist or a 'radical', unless of course you wish to think about a reactionary or conservative form of radicalism (you can – Margaret Thatcher is often called 'radical'). This example highlights an issue concerning ‘modern’ and ‘radical’. Rimbaud might be both ‘modern’ and ‘radical’ but Eliot might be ‘anti-modern’ and ‘radical’. So these terms are prone to circular interpretation! This is my observation on confusions or contradictions in general usage.
 
Incidentally, it is a commonly held view that ‘innovative poetries’ in the UK originated in the Nineteen Sixties. In this period we find the literary world separated into two, symbiotic, warring camps: ‘conservatives’ and ‘radicals’. The conservatives are ‘the establishment’, usually Encounter magazine (1953-1967), The Movement (1955), their pre-war predecessors the Georgians, or, sometimes, the more recent Confessional Poets – the Alvarez/Plath ‘suicide school’. The ‘radicals’ composed what is now known as the BPR (British Poetry Revival), called at the time the Underground, or the Children of Albion.
 
Constructing timelines can be great fun – one likes to isolate those key moments or watersheds, those defining episodes or momentous years – here are some for the Sixties. 1963: the Kennedy Assassination, Wilson leader of the Labour Party, The Liverpool Scene, Writers Forum, Plath kills herself. 1966: the year of ‘swinging’ London (according to Time Magazine) and the Situationists. 1968: the May Events in Paris, the death of Duchamp, Bomb Culture.  Perhaps 1969: was a significant year – did Zabriskie Point symbolise the end of Modern architecture and the birth of Postmodernism? Of course, in the main, the ‘Sixties’ was – and, for popular ‘folk memory’, still is – a fashion statement. It was a statement defined by clothes (the Mary Quant mini-skirt, the Cecil Gee suit, the monokini and the topless dress), James Bond films, Art Nouveau posters (in the style of Mucha) and pop music – The Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, the ‘acid dandyism’ of Jimi Hendrix.
 
JS: So this was, for you, the real impact of the Sixties not changes in literature and poetic practice?
 
ACE: Absolutely, however, fashionable Sixties culture was mainly confined to large urban centres, mainly London and Liverpool: the rest of the country, stunned by the Profumo affair, traumatised by the death of Churchill, was still in a state of denial, living in a drab, post-war cultural desert of Fifties kitsch. The various items of new legislation – the abolition of theatre censorship, for example – that helped to make the so-called ‘permissive society’ did, of course, have lasting, positive, long-term effects. At the outset it should be recognised that the BPR was a sideshow for everybody except its participants: then, as now, very few members of the general public read ‘innovative’ poetry. If the truth be known the most ‘innovative’ publications of the Sixties were in the field of prose, not poetry – for example Thomas Pynchon’s novel V (1963) or Samuel Beckett’s collection No’s Knife 1945-1966 (1967).
 
Perhaps, on our imaginary timeline, the defining moment or year for the BPR sideshow was 1965. This was the year of the Cultural Revolution in China: Maoism was to become very trendy over the next few years after Godard made La Chinoise. 1965 also saw the death of T. S. Eliot, and, coincidentally, the beginnings of an ‘anti-permissive’ backlash in the shape of the NVALA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) founded by Mary Whitehouse. The International Poetry Incarnation (at the Albert Hall), organised by the Poet’s Cooperative, was the big literary event of the year. The abiding image of the Incarnation is preserved in grainy film of the nudist buffoonery of Allen Ginsberg, semi-official envoy of the American Beat Generation. ‘Albion’ was all about the Beat Generation.
 
According to Kerouac the Beats were the generation that came of age after World War II, their aims, expressed in ‘spontaneous prose’ and vernacular, freeform poetry, were the ‘relaxation of social and sexual tensions’ and the espousal of ‘mystical detachment’. This ‘mystical detachment’ seemed to mean a fascination for Zen and, in sharp contradiction with British Pop Art, rejection of capitalist consumerism in the cause of unworldly anti-materialism. William Burroughs, a distinguished London resident of the time, and one of the few writers associated with the Beats whose work has any lasting value, dissociated himself from the mystical stuff but this went largely unnoticed. On a technical level, Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959) far outstripped the work of his Beat contemporaries.
 
JS:  Historically what route do you see British poetry as having traversed to get to the point it is at now?
 
ACE: I suspect there is no clear historical trajectory for British poetry in the modern era, which I define as 1890 to the present. I would say that the most 'radical' innovations of the Eighteen Nineties (due to 'Symbolist' influences) were (a) the formal understanding that a poem must be short (no more epics) (b) urban themes and subjects (c) subjects from popular entertainment (e.g. Music Hall). (d) a problematic approach to religion and morality. I see the fin de siecle as the defining watershed for modern British poetry.
 
JS: I always thought points a, b, c, and d were not a result of Symbolist or Decadent influences. These points seem grounded in naturalism and realism, something that Symbolist poets would not have comfortably endorsed. The Symbolists were dedicated to pseudo-romantic notions of ‘truth’ and the ‘Ideal’; they were against plain meanings and matter-of-fact description. The points you mention are more overtly identifiable in the work of Eliot than in Symbolism per se.
 
ACE: I think this is a stereotypical, post hoc view of Symbolism – the actual poems and practices of key 'Symbolists' (e.g. Mallarm√©, Verlaine, Laforgue) don't evade naturalism/realism. The godfather of 'Symbolism', Baudelaire pioneered the 'modern' urban poem of gritty realism, alienation, fetish sex, and a number of other things. His ‘Correspondences’ is a kind of mini ars poetica for later writers, but I don't think his inheritors actually referred to themselves as Symbolists at the outset. The crystallisation of Symbolism as a movement was quite a late development (circa 1886). The Symbolist concern for 'vagueness' and the ephemeral is really an inflection of Impressionism (itself a mode of realism concerned with the fleeting experiences and perceptions of everyday life) and a realisation that poetry is intra-subjective experience. This concern with interior subjectivity is very important. However, one has to realise that terms like Symbolism, Decadence, Impressionism and so on were quite fluid and not well defined at the time. Idealism (Ideism) was a sort of Neo Platonic occult doctrine about 'higher' realities, the basis for much Abstract Art (Kandinsky, Brancusi). But I don't buy the idea that the Symbolists were  'pseudo-Romantic'. Symons’ models were Huysmans, Whistler and Degas. Again, it’s just using ‘Romantic’ as a pejorative, bogey word.
 
JS: On the point of the short poem; surely, it was Edgar Allan Poe in his essay The Poetic Principle (1850) who initiated the idea of the short poem as being true poetry.  Poe believed that the important thing was for the poem to have an effect on the reader, this effect can normally only be sustained for a short period hence the longer the poem the less lasting the effect. Baudelaire was influenced by Poe and translated him into French. Poe’s influence on French poetry was therefore significant, so much so that you could say that Symbolism was essentially an American invention.
 
ACE: True! In this respect Poe must be counted an honorary Frenchman. I don't think his poetry was much appreciated in America! The modern American poetic 'canon' dates from Whitman, I would guess – not Poe, who is usually dismissed as a minor curiosity and an inconsequential poet. The English Nineties poets inherited the principle of the short form poem from Poe (partly) via the French influences – but they could read him for themselves no doubt. Poe is definitely a precursor of Symbolism (whatever we mean by the word) although his own poetry was Late Romantic. It’s an overstatement to say that Symbolism was an American invention on the strength of Poe. (Poe's poetry was translated into French by Mallarm√©, while Baudelaire was known for his earlier translations of the Tales of Mystery and Imagination.) Also the short poem principle was not the only formal feature of Symbolism as a movement. Vers Libre, the Prose Poem and Open Field were all 'Symbolist' innovations before WWI.  
 
JS: What do you mean exactly by ‘naturalism’?
 
ACE: When I say Naturalism I mean specifically the Naturalist Movement associated with Zola and Huysmans, the plays of Ibsen and, in Germany, the work of Gerhart Hauptmann. It means something quite specific involving 'exposure' of difficult social truths, not a loose real-life descriptiveness or picturesque nature poetry (evocations of daffodils or mountain scenery). Naturalist Realism was considered ‘decadent’ and 'degenerate' by its opponents – because it questioned the status quo it was subversive. Decadence celebrated modernity, low life, physical sensation and the 'artificial'. In many respects quite different from Symbolism in the narrow sense, the Decadent Movement elevated technology over nature. What we call 'symbolism' is a loose bucket-term that encompasses all these things: a lineage of writers and artists influenced by Baudelaire.
 
JS: To the extent that your own poetry (whether you intend it or not) enables readers to bring meaning out of the text indicates that you have some connection with the experimental, however tenuous.
 
ACE: This 'reader' thing is political correctness. It's a truism isn't it? Of course the reader brings meaning out of the text – I bet Sappho would have agreed that her audience functioned at a level of creative engagement with her work. But then to assert that only the reader is important, removing the author from the picture altogether, is just ridiculous – it’s a kind of pseudo-democracy, a populist dodge – its just ‘gesture politics’. So far as my own poetry is concerned, I like to 'tease rather than tell' and I think poetry works primarily on an irrational level. I like the idea that the reader can identify with the poem or text on a level of emotional empathy as well as on a level of ambivalent, oblique psychic symbolism or imagery. Surreal elements of ‘objective chance’ enhance the shared nature of empathic engagement with the reader, because they can derail expectations but I don’t think this engagement is concerned with simple issues of semantic meaning. It is quite possible that a truly ‘poetic’ poem might be incomprehensible on the rational level. I certainly don't think poetry (or any art) should be didactic – if you want to deal with ‘issues’ become a journalist.
 
JS: How do you define the individual voice in poetry? Surely to insist upon one is didactic.
 
ACE: I'm not insisting on it, I'm saying you can't surgically remove the individual ('voice') from the creative process without destroying the mechanism of the creative process itself. But to define the voice is very difficult – I would be the first to agree. There are all sorts of pitfalls here. For instance when Barthes proclaimed the ‘death of the author’ in 1968 he did so on the premise that the omnipotent author was a surrogate for God. The death of the author was also the death of God. It was an act of liberation. I can certainly see his point. Without going into too much detail I would suggest that, beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed towards a specific poem the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the unique 'signature' (strong or weak) of the writer. The essential difference between a poem by Stevie Smith and poem by, say, W. H. Auden, is ultimately a difference of personality, irrespective of literary theory. I would say this is self-evident. It is also true of poems written by poets who tell us they deny the voice – all you hear is their voice. A poem without a voice is an impossibility (obviously a voice can be unobtrusive, boring or inconsequential, but that is beside the point). This becomes a complicated matter of psychology and philosophy (masks, multiple personality, false identity, alter-egos, selfhood and instability, automatism, fictional personalities and characters) and not a literary question at all.
 
'Expression' is coming under attack every day.... check out the PEN website. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out in one of his critiques of Postmodernism, significant transformative action – artistic creativity counts as transformative action – in the real world requires the participation of an integrated unified, human individual/subject. Postmodernism usually denies this possibility. Eliot, if he were still with us, would be quite at home with all this self-denial stuff. What would he make of all the other related fads of radical chic? These include social constructionism, reader response theory, linguistic determinism, ethical criticism, post-colonialism and eco-criticism – whatever intellectually hypertrophied school of thought the current wave of ‘radical’ poets use to advance the next generational revolt – theory as power dressing. There is major issue of identity here, all bound up with a stereotyped Anti-Romanticism (T. E. Hulme via T. S. Eliot).
 
JS: Hulme’s attack on the Romantics was based on his mistaken belief that they were not writing poetry that was particular and descriptively accurate. He thought them flowery and vague. In fact, his call for more precision in poetry was ironically the same one that Wordsworth advocated. Both Romantic and Modernist poetry have more in common than is often recognised.
 
ACE: I'm sure your description of Hulme's position is quite correct – I agree – actually I think Modernism is a development of Romanticism. You could argue that some aspects of aesthetic Postmodernism are a development of or amplification of, the idea of Romantic Irony – Byron saw a close link between Romanticism and burlesque. However the ‘modern’ or most recent form of anti-Romanticism is an authoritarian attack on the so-called ‘paradigm’ of self-expression. Yet this is not so contemporary as one might think – Orwell noticed a tendency to conflate ‘Romanticism’ with a negative interpretation of ‘individualism’ in the Thirties and Forties as well. Not much has changed since those days, unfortunately.
 
JS: Are you advocating a sort of neo-Romantic poetic aesthetic?
 
ACE: Perhaps this use of the term neo-Romantic conforms to the dictates of the anti-Romantic propaganda line. What is Romantic? I tend to find that anti-Romanticists don't really know what Romanticism is/was.
 
JS: My understanding of what Romanticism is that it is about self-expression via a stable authorial voice or ego. Keats criticised Wordsworth for his self-obsession and coined the term ‘Egotistical Sublime’ to describe it. In principle I’ve nothing against an individual voice in poetry but I think that the text is, and should be, ultimately in the control of the reader.
 
ACE: I think this is just far too narrow – Romanticism is or was (historically) a diverse, widespread phenomenon – it can include everything from the Gothic novel to science, philosophy and politics. Romanticism was a tendency or movement that affected all parts of society and all the arts. Also, I suggest that associating the idea of a ‘stable’ authorial voice or ‘ego’ with ‘self-obsession’ is unnecessarily tendentious – it sounds like a thinly disguised moral agenda. It’s like saying Romantics are/were ‘bad people’, because bad people are self-obsessed and nice people are not egotistical. This is not the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is the political correctness of the late twentieth century. Schlegel described Romantic poetry as ‘continually becoming, never complete and infinitely free’. I would affirm Romanticism, or a form of Romanticism, as a movement about freedom, revolution and transgression – the dogma against Romanticism is a dogma against change, against the ‘voice’, against the individual. Where Romanticism is for the individual, count me in!
 
JS: But don’t you find it ironic that the concept of the authorial voice disallows the reader the freedom to make of the text what he/she will? Surely, the text under such conditions becomes dictatorial. How is one to find personal significance in a text that claims itself as being only applicable to the ‘voice’ that wrote it? Surely, this leads to didacticism.
 
ACE: I just don't agree with any of this – the mere existence of a 'voice' disallows nothing – the existence of the authorial presence in no way implies interpretative exclusivity of signification in the way that you say – why should it? Also, didacticism is not dependent upon the 'voice' in any way. It is a quite separate matter, I think. Propaganda is often disembodied, anonymous and impersonal. Mind you, I guess there might be conflicting views on the nature of the didactic. My ideal poem would always resist clear-cut interpretations or didactic messages. Protest poets might have a different view. What has happened since the Seventies is that theorists have replaced the iconic (‘Romantic’) personality cult of the artist with a personality cult of academic gurus, a pantheon of celebrities drawn from the post-Structuralist intelligentsia (e.g. Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Kristeva, Cixous, precursors such as Levinas, and a number of others). It is in the interests of theorists to deny the crucial role of the artist and elevate the ‘reader’ to a central position in the discourse, but it is their discourse – a discourse of academic command and control using the ‘reader’ is a propaganda ploy. I would assert that most readers relate to the ‘voices’ of their chosen authors living or dead, and this intimate, one-to-one relationship is a defining aesthetic experience for most readers most of the time.
 
JS: Do the US Beats and the British ‘Children of Albion’ poets confirm or deny the idea of an authorial voice/subject in poetry?
 
ACE: In my scheme of things I suggest the 'denial of the voice' is a characteristic of Postmodernism. Barthes' ‘Death Of The Author’ article was first published in 1968. The Poetry Incarnation was 1965 so the British Beats pre-date Barthes in this regard. Barthes himself cites the prime Symbolist Mallarme as 'the first to recognise' that language should be the prime element of a poem. Closer to home, I always quote Olson as the main US initiator – all that 'wash out the ego' malarky. However, as I observed elsewhere, the Beats seem to me to conform to the Romantic concept of the artist-poet. The decisive break was the Language Poets (c 1971) who I see as Postmodernists: they quite specifically attacked the 'workshop aesthetic of individual expression'. 1971 is usually quoted as the beginning of Postmodernism in literature. The historical origins of Postmodernism in the arts generally are confused (but that is another story I guess).
 
JS: In your writings you use phrases such as ‘defected to Americanism’, ‘literary Americanism’, and ‘like their American friends’ the tone of which may make people think that your poetic viewpoint is insular and anti-American because of political considerations. Can you expand on exactly what you mean?
 
ACE: I realise the implications of using a term like ‘Americanism’. I'm not being narrowly political here – in this context I would define Americanism as an academic trend or ethos – high-level interaction between academics and others that conforms to The Fall of Paris scenario. The idea that, after WWII, the centre of cultural innovation moved from Paris to New York. The assertion that New York in particular and the USA generally has set the pace and the agenda for innovation in the arts since 1945. I don't deny the reality of the geopolitical shift, but I feel that the situation is compromised by the rise of the global mass media – this Fall of Paris idea is another highbrow propaganda ploy. Avant-garde innovation was a nineteenth century concept. By the middle of the twentieth century the idea of the avant-garde (and Modernism as a movement) has been completely trashed and exhausted, mass-produced and commodified. Academia and critical theorists have to keep these myths going – too many jobs depend on such cultural histories. Americanism is a kind of academic Historicism. This is only indirectly related to 'hard' politics and foreign policy. In any case I am only applying this critique to poetry.
 
JS: Some of the references to the ‘Children of Albion’ in your writings suggest you see them as ‘selling out’ on the authorial voice/subject. If they did so, why was this?
 
ACE: From my frankly cynical viewpoint I would suggest it was susceptibility to academic trends. Even Jeff Nuttall ended up working for a University. I would say that the Academic Left consolidated a position based on Post-Structuralism and similar tendencies (e.g. Social Construction Epistemology) influenced by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). This book had a tremendous impact and precipitated what is known as the 'science wars'. Key themes were denial of objectivity and the idea that the individual is a 'cultural construction' not an innate entity. I don't think this mode of thinking really filtered into the 'counter-culture' until the Seventies. Having said that I might also observe that there is – at a deeper cultural level – a correlation, or a form of family resemblance, between traditional mystical ideas of self-denial, including puritan asceticism, and ‘the death of the author’ mystique as interpreted by Postmodernists. Such mystical ideas did permeate the Sixties Beat counter-culture and helped to prepare the ground… well, kind of.
 
Incidentally, if one looks among the poets of Albion and their successors for that absolute non-conformism (non-conformisme absolu) demanded by the First Surrealist Manifesto such a ‘radical’ disconnection from established norms is present only in the form of an emotional stance. It was a mere posture or, more appropriately, one might say, a poetical imposture. And even that imposture has been vitiated by the fashionable orthodoxy of Postmodern theorists. Which is why, for many years now, English poetry has been – literally – going nowhere.

(c) Jeffrey Side & A C Evans 2006

This interview first appeared in The Argotist Online


Monday, 18 November 2013

Ghost Elements


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 I. OF THIS WE MUST

Of this we must and of this we should and of this we might and this we shouldn’t:
the possibilities are endless and open to all kinds of interpretation and misuse.
They turn into those eraser shavings and then you swipe them off your desk
and they land on the floor and someone steps on them and they stick on their shoe.
Of this we should and of this we might and of this we must and of this we shouldn’t,
and now because his family are upset we must all sign their petition to keep him
in a service that we do not even know he is happy about. We recognize the need,
yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications for us all.









 


 
 II. THIS IS NOT HERE
The power went out in my whole neighbourhood and then this light appeared in the sky,
invisible to teachers and parents: on this wonderful day, a star of pure love appeared
to be my gift… I'm not speculating about the future, this is the reality here today;
sometimes we have to do a little dance before they open the gates or windows
and it's not going to happen again. The refrigerator will keep food for about four days
as long as you don’t open the door once the power has gone. There are other options.
One is that a breaker tripped but the handle didn't move, the other that you are
obviously holding on to certain secrets. This can be checked by gently pressing on.

 






 

 

 
 III. AND THIS APPEARED
If you see something every day it will eventually manifest in your life. A dream
is your creative vision for your life in the future, but one was more faded
than the other. What does this mean? I agreed to have my machine upgraded
and concluded that these mutations do not appear to have a detrimental effect
on virus fitness or economic and policy considerations. We can’t allow evil
into our lives, but we should still pray and hope for peace and righteousness.
Nor dare we make ourselves partners in their devilish ranting. This is a story
not to tell the kids. Stuff like this needs to be taken somewhere else.
 




 
 
 
 
 
IV. SEE YOUR VISION

The luminous landscape is something you can see in your mind’s eye;
you can understand what you are doing when you are retraining your senses.
Improving your vision is a matter of changing the habitual way you see:
by using your peripheral vision you are using more rod cells, when trying to see
try not to look directly at the places you are trying to see. As you get older
your sight weakens and becomes more like meditation or yoga. It is what we see,
and also the way in which we see. It's time people used commonsense.
Our vision is all about holding the vibration and designing infrastructure.

Also available at Stride Magazine

Text © Rupert M Loydell 2013
Images © Rupert M Loydell & A C Evans 2013