Surrealist Resurgence; Nouveau’s Midnight Sun

(ed. John Thomas Allen)

The poet John Thomas Allen is on a mission. From reading the introduction to this short but powerful anthology; Nouveau’s Midnight Sun, comes an urgency very unique to 21st Century English language poetry, is it something not seen since the doings inside The Cabaret Voltaire almost a century ago? And it enters the living rooms of a rather sick and ailing western psyche right on time, as far as I can see.

While pictorial art has made many more inroads through the surrealist attack on what was once called ‘the bourgeois mindset’, or ‘culture’, the word, the written arts (that Artaud would not deign to degrade by calling them ‘literary’ or ‘literature’) have always had a much rougher ride, particularly outside of their native (and now ‘ancestral’?) tongue; French. We are children of the surreal, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Nouveau’s Midnight Sun, and its attendant group of writers; The New Surrealist Institute… (or N.S.I… yes, I like the possibility of that pun on N.S.A) consists of an attempt to explode the notion of a surrealism either confined to one language or to be a purely European affair… and, in a number of different ways, to broaden the reader’s notion of what the 21st Century surrealist enterprise might be. The introduction itself makes exciting and gutsy reading for starters… gone is the purely intellectual critical voice that inhabits so much poetry discourse… this is up close and soul-personal writing of the utmost intent, as much of Breton’s Surrealist Manifestoes, were. And what mattered in the manifestos matters here (and then some). Allen opens the anthology with this quote:

Across the spectrum of religious experiences—from the archaic and chthonic experience of sacred power to organized religion—surrealism arises in that elusive threshold between the sacred and the profane, between the illuminations and of everyday life and the more formal expressions of the sacred. The mysterious, contradictory nature of this liminal zone is embodied in surrealist literature and art: matter becomes metaphor; the ordinary object becomes extraordinary; and images evoke emotional disturbance and ambiguity rather than specific ideas. The ambivalent force of the surreal resists conventional rational categories of intellectual discourse. Behind its elusive potency of mood and charged associations lie the fundamental ambivalence and non rational power of the sacred.

—Celia Rabinovitch, Surrealism and the Sacred

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The initial attempt of surrealism to expand, to bring western philosophy up to the seemingly inexplicable weight and depth of sacral vision is more than hinted at here. It points toward the breaking of all the parameters that Plato, its godfather, implied in his allegory of the cave. Is it any error that 20th century philosophy was born with Fourier, and with The Romantics we’re now all so familiar with (that we prefer to group them under that nomenclature; “roman-tic”, is something of an academic error… that they, having Greek and having Latin for sure, relate equally, or more so, to Provencal and to the Occitan line than to pagan Rome).

Or even that the general pantheism or pagan atheism of the romantics also has a presage of monotheism in Kant’s noumena? at the very earliest? Perhaps Breton’s surrealisme would wish it that way? The Marriage of The Noumena and The Real? How so comfortably dialectical. Yet each could be equally inexplicable… and yet Kant; being the über-Kind of his time, surely strove to apply system to that wink of the noumenal void?! Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and finally Andre Breton, entered, tutting: The Un-system-men.

Notice that I don’t include Tzara in this mix, despite mentioning The Cabaret Voltaire, already. Why? Because Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos can sound so much like a post-Victorian Aristotle or Thomas More; a kind of brutal anti-theologian constructing horrible paradises while millions of men die in the trenches. Tzara was, most probably a great poet, but, like Pessoa’s Álvaro de Campos chanting hymns to the machine age, there is more than a whiff of the P.T Barnum about his manifestos (humour, though, wasn’t that the point? I might say to myself; warmth! into all your deconstructionist distances, your analysand’s corners. And can only assume that Tzara’s techniques were wondrous, all of his explications; faulty… although, to my mind, his shunning of Marinetti was a very sensible move).

One has only to utter a sentence for the opposite sentence to become DADA. I’ve seen Tristan Tzara asking mutely for a pack of cigarettes at the tobacconist’s; I have no idea what was wrong with him. I can still hear Phillipe Soupault insistently demanding live birds at the hardware store. As for myself, at this moment I might be dreaming.

—Two Dada Manifestos, André Breton

Tzara is the anti-sophisticate to Breton’s Kant. He soothed the human rage for rational dialectic, for material solutions (throwing up, instead, the suggestion that if the pre-Archontic God exists, he is no answerer but the mightiest of questions, which existentialism surely began in order to be a meme, or cognate, of that same relation). Yet, it took The Beats to add the angelic to that first surrealist stew… and have we exhausted, yet, this vein of enquiry…? which still might throw an Origen, Plotinus, Philo, Aquinas, Paracelsus, or The Irishman; Eriguena, at the wall of the Bretonian void (… but there is always no-time, or all-time to do it in, surely?) And existenz, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger, seems also the bare soup from which surrealisme’s first wave fed.

And so it was Pared Down Ontology… nothing but Being and the respiratory infusions of an anti-philosophic Marvellous to run the modernist boat on. Only in a ghosted, inherited manner, did Heidegger know what was coming, and for him to further every western philosophical precept since Plato he knew he could do only one of two things. The first; to fulfill all the highest hopes of philosophy by becoming Hölderlin; ascend into poetry and (if Nietzsche’s presumptions were anything to go by) onward… into music; a new ‘bodily rationalism’ of ‘daylight-glossolalia’ with the prosaic left as utilitarian, proto-gnostic prop (where a Gnosticism inclusive of Plotinus’s The Good, enters Christianity) a more resonant form of dialogue; The Word, most famously given form by John’s gospel (in Koine Greek it would be The Logos) the beginnings of which, in Aramaic transliteration; the language of Christ, reads:

1. In the beginning [of creation] there was the Milta*; and that Milta* was with Allaha; and Allaha was [the embodiment of] that Milta.* 2. This was in the beginning with Allaha. 3. Everything was within his power*, [otherwise] nothing would ever exist.* 4. Through him [there] was Life* and Life became the spark* of humanity 5. And that [ensuing] fire* lights the darkness and darkness does not overshadow it. 

Testament of Youkhanna [Aramaic Gospel of St. John]

Aramaic BibleThis “Milta,” or Logos, was present to communally terra-form a world before the descent into linear time, and which surrealism’s ultimate Reality attempted to mystically reveal  (which is what we have done, unknowingly anyway, via what was lost in the mythos of The Fall… it is time, now, to do it with the fullest and most piercingly self-sundered conscience, a kind of pre-social mode of consciousness that endlessly enquires and digests by un-masking maya, by re-discovering its own artistry upon the instrument of the entire de-located mind-body, as The Present; the stopped instrument for Time).

Heidegger’s second option: to ‘become’ a philosopher-of-the-end-of-philosophy, set up a kind of repetitive meme of all the presumptions of the last 2500 years and have them on a mono-stylistic loop, recreating the scenes of all those happy minds in full historico-spirographic scribble, feigning variety in a world of rapidly increasing hyper-realities. The world of Alvin Toeffler’s Futureshock.

Martin Heidegger in 1933 (bottom right, marked by a cross)

Martin Heidegger in 1933 (bottom right, marked by a cross)

He chose the latter, at least in the sense that he felt something coming in from the Outside that western philosophy couldn’t withstand, and keep any base terminology in proportion. Joyce’s Wake arrived. Existentialism, like Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, was not to develop. It has existed only as a potentiality up until the present. Woefully, it was to be ideologised, i.e- to be made Sartrean.

Just as Breton had been Trotskyite, now Sartre locked a few million students into the mind-game of Marxism and the rather dully apparent anti-capitalism which still goes on to this day (the un-seer of Das Kapital wedded to Soviet revolutionary rhetoric… now there’s a thing to get Pacman-trapped in…). The procedure of the cultural arbiters, being; ‘give them a general theme, but keep them away from the true crimes etc… ‘capitalism’ rather than these very very very particular capitalists (the two R’s;  Rothschild, Rockefeller). Thus The Beast works in us, with capital as degraded offspring, using any device for the purpose of slavery (only appearing because the populous willed it so) while the God behind ‘the god/s’ that wreak havoc waits patiently for the individual to remake, or re-ensoul, himself, so as to reconfigure the characters of the dream. The dream, being very real. And not real enough.

It is no surprise that the first major writer in English who became enamoured of surrealism; David Gascoyne (who we’ll come back to shortly) had pondered Heidegger’s problem, also. Allen is well aware of this, and quotes liberally from Gascoyne’s prose, appertaining to the issue:

In the words of Saint John at the end of the Gospel according to the logos, ‘even the world itself is not great enough for the books that there would be’, if one were to try to explain rationally the origin, coming and dispersion of the Word, so that it is hardly to be hoped that one could say very much that is relevant in a mere aphorism on what is the true significance of the word logos.

“When I was younger, I spent some time wondering whether I could formulate what I wanted amateurishly, to be called Logontology; but I soon realize I had neither the time, intellect or learning I would have needed to do the thing properly.

When I came to study Heidegger, I began to wonder whether or not the Fundamental ontology he has sought to find and lay foundations for might be just what I had dreamed of once. I’m still not really sure about this philosopher; and no doubt he is no longer at all sure, either. But the great thing is that neither his nor my project is any longer absolutely necessary.

The great I AM has already been found to be founded quite satisfactorily enough.”

—David Gascoyne, The Sun at Midnight

3401863_1_lNo surprise, then, that surrealism is a small and incredibly energetic child when Heidegger is giving birth to Sein und Zeit. In this, religion had to become secular for it to absorb the sacred more forcefully (in that crucible, then, there is no atheism, as there is no death) so that we see The Bible as apocrypha, or as the baby’s head appearing out of a mother’s labour, the birth-pang! and the invisible limbs of a truer Christianity, that we’re in the midst of… and that this is a mythical, trans-religious force (which The Beast has attempted to unsuccessfully replicate throughout all the major religions, banking and cultural programs etc) and not a strictly rational or anti-rational risorgimento, as I’ll return to.  This lineage is a seed, only now coming into view, but understood by Breton, at least in principle (and which explains why most of his later years were taken up in studies of esotericism; the lunatic fringe of the religious sensibility… just as Gascoyne sensed in his The Sun at Midnight. But Breton refused to admit to; that the name remains but its meaning evolves).

The scriptural scribe of the internet (which had to be born as the print form was entrenched, and beholden to a critical stasis methodologically some hundred years out of date) gets married to the pre-promise of a Gutenberg, as gnostic theurge becoming The Christian, and is pitted against The Beast; last vestiges of monarchy, of ego, of hierarchy. If post-modernism meant anything at all it was Artaud’s “En finir avec les chefs-d’œuvre” but only to entirely admit the I as supremely Partial, thus only to bring forward the previously unseen Self that the material self, the societal self, loathed to admit entrance. (This is key; cultural control, especially that mindset that has become prevalent since the end of WWII,  depends on a radical re-emphasis on the individual, AND the communal, the mass… each notion is tweaked to fit the social engineering of these years, that of inauthenticity, whose only partisanship is falsely wedded to a mass, through manipulation via change agents etc).

And just as Freud mistook Consciousness for The Unconscious (the dualism meant, up till-then, The Conscious, with ‘the unconscious’ being the brain, unjustly persuaded of its bodily superiority, an iron Plato in the territory of a glossolalic Parmenides and Heraclitus) so surrealism had to provide the method of no-method. (On top of the evolutional meaning and force of consciousness; the evolutional meaning and force of unconsciousness! Freud’s question brought down to us).

Philip Lamantia in 1953

Philip Lamantia in 1953

For surrealisme to travel, though, it needed emissaries… in essence; emissaries in other languages. In English we were fortunate to have two ‘envoys of The Marvellous’ in Breton’s time, the British poet David Gascoyne (previously mentioned) and the U.S teen-poet Philip Lamantia… from two separate generations (and unbeknownst to each other? Yet, we know that Lamantia read Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism early on, as well as being inspired by surrealist painting) although it would be a mistake to speak of them as purely or wholly surrealist, particularly in the case of Gascoyne.

Each, at least, used surrealist techniques but abandoned parts of Breton’s thinking (here I’ve no use for Breton’s Trotskyism, since Trotsky, and Bolshevism, were simply a paid off front for western industrialists to give Russia a ruthless makeover… the same ‘un-free market’ they’ve given the west).

Gascoyne split with Breton when he began being interested in the sacred more seriously (was it the Duchampian ‘game’ aspect that Breton wanted to retain for the surreal? What was it about the sacred that scared him off, I wonder)… all this, while Lamantia eventually got busy adding other more uniquely North American feathers to his cap. Une béatitude de la gouttière? L’héroïne? Jazz. What the beat ethic of the fifties and sixties did was to undermine the top-down alchemical theatre of Literature (it could be argued that this never really happened in Britain, and that the academy, in the wake of The Movement, was never really dislodged, and if it was, it became a customer friendly counterculture, and in the last few years, domain of the post-modern ironist, where the poet, stranded from surrealism’s original attack on culture or rationalism, neither aspires to The Real, The Irreal, or The Miraculous… and has absolutely no thought for The Mythic (maker of the real, but historically bound to a density of consciousness)… this new breed of poet’s concerns are wholly intellectual and apolitical, and their world inheres to that of the materialist socialite. Ironic, then; that the Baudelairean and Kierkegaardian emphasis on irony in the face of universal suffering that so characterized what became modernism has now so overdosed itself on the same irony (with a helping hand from Frank O’Hara) that it has now so eviscerated its techniques of what Terence McKenna called ‘the felt presence of immediate experience'; one of poetry’s great tools (thus a surrendering of wonder to intellect).

Yet there was a spiritual imperative in Breton’s cause, an imperative innate to language itself, that corrects our fall into ‘intellectualis procul’ just where the twin-stars of Baudelaire and Rimbaud crossed the night skies of that still young century.  One can only read prose like this, and attempt to locate it:

At an early age children are weaned on the marvelous, and later on they fail to retain a sufficient virginity of mind to thoroughly enjoy fairy tales. No matter how charming they may be, a grown man would think he were reverting to childhood by nourishing himself on fairy tales […]

Words, groups of words which follow one another, manifest among themselves the greatest solidarity. It is not up to me to favour one group over the other. It is up to a miraculous equivalent to intervene—and intervene it does.

File1380Both The Marvelous and The Miraculous up-end the Ecclesiastic and historical energetic framework, which seems to be a kind of tantric oppression, ultimately… I mean the wrangling of human and Platonic relationship into a wholly subsumed eros, an arch physicality of de-spiritualized matter. (Heidegger understood it, via Husserl, as the phenomena… were the issue. All well and good. To discover the question! But there was something trans-disciplinary about it that failed his grasp, ultimately). If, indeed, spirit had wholly slipped through matter in the western sensibility, one could also have a certain amount of sympathy for Gascoyne’s impatience with Breton… but what bothered Breton (and what has bothered many since) is that the form of the sacred that surrealism implied ultimately rendered his product a little less marketable (or, to lay the responsibility for this with his interpreters?)

Compared to this The Beats lived in a strangely a-religious realm, with Michael McClure’s “MATTER IS ALIVE, BY GOD! / MATTER IS ALIVE! / The grains of crystal slide. / It is the molecular consciousness! / ((I must be a Pagan / to survive it / — TO SURVIVE this vision.” —after enjoying the freshness of this piece the reader’d be incredibly attentive to the notion of the sacred being non-religious or anti-religious, or even being put in the position of one standing before the building of the edifice of Christianity, in a mixture of dread or awe, anterior to the sequestering of Christ’s message. Except I don’t think this is entirely true of the generations born since McClure’s poem was read… when most of the abuse of the church and the psychological damage it has accrued is second and third  generation, and the whole reputation has slipped out of the hands of most of the institutions, so that we can be both spiritual and religious rather than being spiritual in order to be anti-religious. Kerouac’s obviously anti-secular devotions, particularly in his poetry and in books like Visions of Gerard, temper the ferocity of McClure’s statement in favour of paganism, without invalidating the reality of his vision.

Both Gascoyne and Lamantia did at least see, and effect, in their own different ways, a similar variegated spiritual imperative in the achievement of Breton’s manifestos, and in what they had meant holistically for writing in a more para-literary sense (with Joyce’s Wake, first, and then with Borges, the notion of the meta-voice and the meta-narrative would have drawn attention in direct parallel to Lamantia’s, and most of the beat writers’ development as artists.  Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi was also in the air. In the same way Allen takes up these concerns and tries to move beyond them in a visceral, un-programmatic and engaging way in his introduction):

There were antinomies other than the ones Breton had attempted to resolve which still seemed to hang in the air. The real and the imaginary, dream and reality, the sacred and profane? The metaphysical and the secular? Was that even my question? What truth was so elusive? Why now? Why was I dreaming words of poetry, prose, literary criticism written by Frenchmen so long ago when my physiological state and it’s attendant continuing well being was the immediate concern?

The answers came, slowly. My state of consciousness at this time could not be called idiosyncratic; indeed, by clinical standards I was having a serious bout of megalomania. While lying in bed and coughing spasmodically, I felt nothing but the most unearthly hope; I envisioned Rene Char opening his ‘Leaves of Hypnos’ deep in the Paris Catacombs as bits of multicolored grains began reabsorbing themselves in blue frost on the reptilian, jeweled tongue of Artaud, stuck forever to the lamp-post where Nerval had taken his own life, slowly reconstituting into green cotillions of mechanized insects with esoteric marching orders, sizzling anagrams, falling deeply from the sky’s black canopy. I walked determinedly with a collapsible cane, experiencing in different shocks, seizures and spasms, the violently profane and sacred finding unity in my being.

Breton insertThe antinomies he speaks of are not only of ‘movements’ or within ‘literature’, they lie at the heart of our whole attitude to The Real, spread over the last hundred years like his strange black canopy; the emergence of an exit sign slowly, and then more quickly, flickering up to full neon glare, in some corner of the apocalyptic circus tent? The bombshell of language that occurred in St. John’s rendering of the word-as- spirit cleaved into matter, and recovered here in shamanic ordeal (and anyone doubtful about the physical effects of revelation should take peyote, or speak to someone who has taken peyote, using that exact nomenclature; Ordeal. Ordeal, too, as in our current political  lunacies which are simply humanity putting a gun up to Satan’s forehead, and every media-meme fastening itself to the myriad (but ultimately dull) shock-projections of The Beast (where the counterculture, in the conception of a hope-killing post-sixties Ginsberg, would surely collude? Which I’d class as the great opposition to the mythic in the post-modern arena of poetry. Might we conclude, in this, that the ‘beat mode’ ran out of steam exactly because it ignored surrealism, and that artists like Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia outlasted it because they continued to develop?)

But, in short, have we understood how NEW metaphysics is to the production of poetry, or to conceptions of poetic utterance?? Even so-called ‘modernists’ like Basil Bunting managed quite well to carve out an entire oeuvre without it, or in dismissal of it (despite his mixing with the greatly surrealist for a time). Perhaps a purveyor of Robert Duncan’s Language Mysticism (the experiencing of the sacred, of God, through language… without any middleman… bringing Duncan, as he implied through his lectures, closer to Luther than to the academy in its most papal manifestations) might concur on this point. And it’s also something John Thomas Allen has wholly ingested,

If surrealism didn’t contain a metaphysic, why were so many prepared to sacrifice their lives (Unica Zurn, the ill fated and mercurial muse of puppeteer Hans Bellmer, who had jumped to her death from a high rise window) (David Emery Gascoyne, expatriate British surrealist poet who would write his alchemical collection, ‘The Sun at Midnight’, before crashing into an amphetamine-induced psychotic depression for years after) and their sanity to it? The constellate diamond of Surrealism, rather like the Star of David sparking on a workbench joined to a seismographic body with an ivory crucifix as the lever in shining perpetuity, was more than a mere “art movement” and always had been.

Between disagreements on this matter, it is also obvious Allen’s proto-Bretonian project could be held to the leftover dogmatisms of the pope of surrealism himself. Yet the introduction to this anthology is written with such a warmth and graciousness absent in other editors or would-be editors that this worry is quickly dispelled.

Andrew Joron - Neo-SurrealismWhile there isn’t space here to go into a full comparative analysis of what has happened with surrealism in English since Gascoyne and Lamantia first imbibed it (Andrew Joron’s Neo-Surrealism would perhaps take care of the North American side of things) and since the works of the early surrealists started appearing in translation it’s worth stating that surrealism in a purely written English-language sense, seems still something of an outsider art, despite, like existentialism, its having a slow burn of energy from the immediately post-WWII years through to the 60s and early 70s (particularly in the U.S… interesting to note that its effects were all over American and U.K marketing and yet Breton, in the years up to his death, and in the years immediately following, had less and less influence in Europe). Any neo-surrealism of a name is due to a number of small presses in the U.K and the U.S (Atlas Press in the U.K, and Black Widow Press in the U.S might be the most recent of these, with many surrealist translations now available, particularly from the latter). As the reader can guess, generally speaking, the cause of surrealism seems to have remained much stronger across the Atlantic (the extreme polyglot nature of the U.S, its carried-down resource of other languages may also allow for this) and this naturally befits the correctness of the location from which Allen’s anthology should hoist its proud flag of Illogic from.

That Blake’s work is shadowed in the book’s subtitle; Transcriptions from Golgonooza and Beyond whets the curiosity. Breton’s insistent lineage for surrealism was, markedly and unsurprizingly, French language orientated, but I often wondered why he was so hard on Joyce’s work, as a near-contemporary, and failed to mention Blake in his first manifesto (perhaps the case of Blake’s absence is more easily understood, as his work was only just appearing in print at the time of the manifestos). It seems to me that, in certain English-ized approaches to The Marvellous certain key personages in European romanticism would, as I’ve already pointed to, definitely bolster Breton’s stated lineage. Blake’s dictation of his later poems, Coleridge’s composing of Kubla Khan… both of these, although not ‘automatic’ in the Breton-and-Soupaultian sense, they are extremely close. And compare Coleridge’s famed championing of Wonder in literary composition with Breton’s citing, and framing, of The Marvellous are all worth bearing in mind (and where, if we go back to Gascoyne, his straying into ecclesia occurs. Ironic, that Breton; being ‘pope-like’ to his admirers, is, in this reader’s eyes, the most secular of pamphleteers… I see no contradiction in that at all!)

But let us allow the poems to do the rest of the talking. David Shapiro’s A Book of Glass opens the anthology:

On the table , a book of glass.
In the book only a few pages with no words
But scratched in a diamond-point pencil to pieces in diagonal
Spirals, light triangles; and a French curve fractures lines to ellisions […]

It has something of the European quality. But there is also the North American plain-spokenness about it. Impersonal and displaying an ambiguous journeying quality, it plays with inner tones and sensual enquiries. It’s a very good poem, and I notice Shapiro has no more. Shame. Not so with Christina Zawadinsky, who is fairly amply represented… which is a great editorial move, as she is obviously one of the most talented poets in this gathering. Her prose poem Fifteen Years Was Not Enough begins thus:

Near the piano the globe of Pluto spins and then tries to fly away on its black wings. In front of the television there’s a circle of light where you would sleep and stretch out your arms in the darkness. Outside the door every stranger in the world knew not to come even one inch closer. You smiled and the earth cracked open and out walked crows and angels carrying toys and tiny pyramids. Now beyond the windows the willows are swaying and shaking out their long cold hair. But you were always there, you didn’t fear the darkness or snow or the sun.

There’s something of the elegy to it, obviously… but her work displays sudden outbursts of phantasmal or oblique imagery which would plant it more precisely in a surrealist mode. Note, also, Pluto and The Sphinx. These disparate elements; the galactic and the ancient in collusion somehow. For me, this is where the future is for surrealism and its updates; Fourier in an inner entanglement with Philip K. Dick and John Carpenter.

In contrast, we have prose poet extroardinaire John Olson, with a piece named Afternoon of an Autonomy (surely this is a reference to Mallarmé’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune? I even feel like putting on the Debussy to remind myself of it set to music. And Olson’s mood is characteristically irreverent),

The autonomy of a monotonous mood rolled by with a sigh. It crashed into an abandoned pile of socialism. A crow arrived and furnished the bruised autonomy with glasses. The glasses were French ocher and veined with absent-minded rivers. The autonomy hurried to wear them, but stopped to paint an exhibit of alcoholic ice skates. The clatter of naked peculiarities produced by the creative fervor of the short-sighted but determined autonomy worried a nearby elephant, a female from Sri Lanka named Sathyanga who sparkled with telepathic alphabets and blew aromatic furloughs from her oracular trunk.

Olson has a seismic imaginal reach for crackling strangenesses, and the overriding tone of his lines seem to fall somewhere between sarcasm and playfulness, existing somewhere Benjamin Péret and Francis Picabia (you could also throw in Max Jacob or even Shakespeare). He is a troubadour of the oblique and absurd, and this anthology is all the more interesting for his presence. The poem How Sentences Are Born also sees some fascinating flights:

There is a candle whose light awakens the sheen of a grand piano. Let’s use that light to navigate our way through all the debris and chaos that life throws at us: objects falling on a hardwood floor. Zombies disembarking from a tour bus. Bugs and abstractions boxing in a baked eye of intuitive goop. Personal injuries weeping in a mirror of hungry sand.

…and later he falls into a similarly weird, probing and elevated mode:

Think of yourself as words on a radio. Busy, probing, inquisitive, confident, but basically ephemeral. Waves. An ellipsis boiling over with miracles of protein. That’s when it’s time to seize the rain and squeeze it until it assumes the shape of Wisconsin.

…or how about this, from the Hopkins-like Each Time a Vowel Catches Fire:

Art’s fondest dream is to push its interior meanings into globular lumps of morality which writing does when it really starts to tremble and become a maelstrom of silver the crackling of ink beside the mind of an ant attracting rain and Pollock pushing a little blind eye into a dangerous glamour to sweeten the sharpness of death a nail in a declension of wood.

File432…nice, how punctuation takes a holiday in that last piece, leaving all the expressivity supercharged in only word-meaning (which aspires to all meaning?) and, further, how the exploitation of the prose poem form allows him to drop into reflexive philosophical statements that never entirely find conclusion and, instead, add to what John Ashbery has called ‘a poetry of continuum’. Whatever furthers the poem, imagistically and observationally, is its own sustenance. If you do not have any of Olson’s work I highly recommend it.

The first of two pieces by Adam Cornford also catches my eye, and I soon go back to re-read it; Red Venice:

In solitary London
all the stone steps are connected

In brave Accra
dolls float in the lagoons

In silent Munich
night has a long tongue

The poem succeeds not only through syntax and image, but here through the unlikely juxtapositions of places themselves: London, Accra, Munich… offering odd new lines of dreamy travel à la Roussel. His next poem, Philosophical Panorama, has:

At sunset the line of hills undulates like a lazy signal in the infra-red
and behind them curtain gray curtain paling the mountains
cordilleras fluttering with infinite slowness in the geological wind
like worn muslin the strata exposed  and angled near vertical
a decor of ghosts the ancient shells hanging in the tatter and     weave

Symmetry, asymmetry, dissonance. Distance. Nearness. The surreal collapses space and time. Transposes it into space-Time. Verdant connectivity of dissimilars, nearness into distance, distance into approximate intimacy. Abstraction and concretion. As Jim Morrison once joked in an interview; ‘the dead will have to fend for themselves’ to the question of human lives becoming longer, and by degrees, more and more spiritual. We ghost the dead, we see them by creating them in imaginary forms. Anna Karenina exists as long as the book does. And yet she is nowhere. Our creations, then, share vital qualifying principles with the dead. Is this  pure imagination? We inhabit our own Guadalahara… as Ashbery, himself ghosting Roussel, implied. The wind, in Cornford’s poem shares a concrescence with rock and soil. The nothing-is-something tone. There, and now… here. The marvellous receives its energy from that communion of spiritual and material; this is the liminal implied by Allen, and also in the poetry of Michael Rattigan (whose writing is also reviewed at The Fiend).

The liminal eventualizes correspondences, as Allen’s anthology exposes. That’s why, I would assume, he has broken up the work into chapters or sections so that the overall impression is something akin to a conversation, a menage, even, between Arthur Cravan, Plato and Loy… or as in his own poem Genome Dice:

Surrealism is Eros, the woman in sepia gelatin. How could she be reached? She’d been given a blue ring of ochre that rang and sang, he’d spent nights and days with her, but a gelatin freeze remained. How could she be reached? A word fallen like lead thumbs? A scream so horrifying it would render Lucifer deaf? He couldn’t maintain her face, it shifted. Strange is a mathematics of semiotic dislocation now. This is not Arnim, or Achim, or the uncanny. A sense of dislocation related to civilization is not the same as the uncanny… A cryptographer struggling with a code as some struggle with poppers of sea salt asthma, and the molecules were pleasing him in nostril shock, porcelain worms freezing into small hickory smoked bullets burning.

…not only are the images tantalizing but it also (more broadly) makes me think that, formally speaking, it is surrealism that has done more for the prose poem than any other approach. Ever since Baudelaire the race has been on to undermine the traditional form for poetry and the structures and strictures inherent in prose. Surrealism led the charge. Lautreamont discovered the sleeping road of nightmare and found it consoling; an ugliness absorbed into beauty by compassion’s black wand. Desnos’ prose seeped into poetic metre, Breton and Soupault’s Les Champs Magnetiques prefiguring Charles Olson’s projective Field by a quarter century? (along with Einstein’s greatest theory: not relativity, but the theory of the Magnetic Field, not coming to any school near you not soon; the moment when Einstein could inherit from Tesla cleanly and honestly without obfuscation)… prose as prophetic gate into oblivion’s sacristy etc. Prose imbued with the first ballad-like urge of man?? Switches in forms, cross-embuements, or cross-fertilizings of the physical and of the spiritual. Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel had all built systems on the before then shabbily treated liminal (but none apprehended it Les Champs Magnetiqueas symbol of process until Bergson and Whitehead) but it wasn’t until The Marvellous that the sacred implied in the psalms and the gospels became at least partially present and a visible presence in modernity. No philosophy could swallow it whole. It was like Socrates knelt at the place where Empedokles was plunged into the boiling lavas of Etna. No one could dive in. Platonism could dutifully return to Pythagoras but Empedokles was for the entirely betwitched or the ecstatically brave. All this, the innate balladry of the plain prose sentence stored up… needing the novel to encourage it through the 18th and 19th centuries, before, in Baudelaire, it could expend the fullest extent of its potentialities.

In this context, the wholly book-tied pieces of J.Karl Bogartte are worth delving into (Bogartte doesn’t explicitly name anything he writes as formally ‘poetry’ or any other form of creative writing. The writing seems simply a part of an entire creative ethos that encompasses much visual art, and is formal only insofar as it is contained by the printed book or the webpage etc. The following sections in the anthology are from the book A Spindle’s Arc).

Portrait of X (2013) - J. Karl Bogartte

Portrait of X (2013) – J. Karl Bogartte

Night, ridiculous angles. Glance, eating muses by candlelight, she is eating her placenta, by instinct, your precious amanita… At dawn you are a translation, the nearness of another language, the flowing of locks capturing a sense of clairvoyance, windows of night-presence for a serum of words, a ridiculous corridor of invisible twins… You and you…

[…]

The glow between living and ceasing to live, emulates the long-legged cascade in her whispering circuitry, the gaze of rain is corrupted film, caught in the act, disguised by pleasure purring in gradually brightening passwords.

[…]

Deception is a lunar state of unconditional ill repute, a ravaging stone held close and indigoed into a conception of fire rising through the body, facing the other direction. A lancing misconception.

'Swallow the Ghosts of Your Whispers' (2014) - J. Karl Bogartte

‘Swallow the Ghosts of Your Whispers’ (2014) – J. Karl Bogartte

Sometimes the lines can seem very choppy and terse. Other times they can be very angular, dissonant and pre-thoughtful… entirely instinctual. Nothing, however, feels formulaic or procedural. As with the images in his visual work they have, and appear out of, both an abrupt and consoling darkness of pagan clarity, along with the vagueness of a not-wholly-grasped memory; the illusiveness, but Real, exactitude of déjà vu (literally; the already-seen, the re-minder). Which is to say they’re always surprising and disturbing, in the most visionary sense. In his pieces the madness feels to be its own rational un-system. And, for me, this always invites the primal self-reflection which process philosophy imbibed from; the surrendering to a secret, rather than the arguing into submission. And this, I think is implied in one of Yeats’s great titles; The Cold Heaven. Distanced absorptions? Joy’s dualisms; felt again in the ekstasis of Julian Semilian’s Poetry Reading, whose title similarly flexes back upon its own performance, so that the writer is submerged beneath an initially prosaic setting that turns into a glee’s linguistic gymnastics, language thrown back into the glad ferocity of its own signifying waves…

        ah, the dedications of voluptuaries! A hand for them! a hand like a swarm of flutes to grant fortitude at the funeral of friends, a temporary gathering at best.  But the crimson! engrossing you in the kelly-green of the asylum where we read, now emerald, now viridian, now aquamarine! porphyry quavering amidst the adoring of cadavers! […]

The Marvellous as language repository itself has had a certain traction in critical theory ever since works like Breton’s L’union Libre and Les Vases Communicants or Joyce’s Wake. In the final poem I’ll quote from, that notion is pitched to an entirely Other landscape which, again, proves that the alchemical, the science- fictive, the cognitive leaps, the boundary dissolutions, continue this tradition of surrealism, felt first in those now-almost-centennial works.

Sutton Breiding’s untitled poem appears thus:

I am sewn
to the words
waxwing and binary system
I am hypnotized by the special effects
before the sky’s blue screen
here are echoes
of all poems in poems of the Poem

the million mirrors reflecting dead teasel
in a rubble of shadows and toys
I am sewn
to the taste
of night rains
and the berryjuice of memory on hot country lanes
where I scrawl in post-language’s cool fire
a pre-language of dust from everyone’s Martian childhood

 

 

Andrew O’Donnell, Nov ’14

71anFyLlLFL‘Nouveau’s Midnight Sun; Transcriptions from Golgonooza and Beyond’ is published by Ravenna Press, and is available through their website, and the usual online booksellers. John Thomas Allen is also the author of ‘The Other Guy’ (2012) and ‘Lumiere’ (2014).

David Gascoyne’s ‘New Collected Poems’ was released this August, through Enitharmon Press. Philip Lamantia’s Collected Poems was released last year, and is available through University of California Press.

[All uncredited photographs by the editor.]

 

 

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The New Isaiah: A Forgotten English Poem of the 1930s – Niall McDevitt

David Gasgoiyne.inddFlicking through the fine hardback New Collected Poems of David Gascoyne (Enitharmon, 2014), I finally saw in the contents list the name of a poem I’d always wanted to read. All I’d ever known of it was the title, The New Isaiah, and a quoted paragraph which I’d seen in Robert Fraser’s biography Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne from 2012. However, the poem itself was not in my edition of an earlier Collected Poems, nor in any selection I had seen, nor was it online, nor in any anthologies I’d come across. Perhaps it was lost? Or juvenilia? Or not one of his best? Or maybe English poetry’s best-kept secret, David Gascoyne, was still keeping secrets from those few who knew his work? When I heard of this new collection I was hoping it would include the poem. My first anxious scan through the contents list missed the title, perhaps not thinking it would appear so early. A second search spotted the shibboleth, The New Isaiah, page 19. It had been published in his precocious debut Roman Balcony. At last, I began to read:

Across the highways strewn with ashen filth
The ragged pilgrims come to the new Metropolis,
That cruel City, built of stone and steel,
where unveiled passions, unashamed crimes,
the windy avenues traverse, where lust
wars bitterly with lust, where naked lights
illumine nightly what the day concealed.

Reading it doesn’t disappoint, but it does exasperate. How can this early masterpiece, and one of the better English poems of the 1930s, have been excluded from anything? Editors of Gascoyne and of poetry anthologies can only have been thinking quantitatively and left it out to save space. (It runs to three pages.) Or they underestimated its grandeur and cadence. Its unavailability has led to a gap in the skyline, akin to a missing edifice. This is an outstanding poem and yet apart from Robert Fraser’s signpost no one ever writes about it, talks about it, quotes it, republishes it, until now that is. All credit to Roger Scott, the editor of the new volume, for bringing it back into the public eye. A forgotten lyrical monument is publicly unveiled again.

The introductory stanza takes us into its negative cityscape as Dante takes us into Dis. I’d have preferred ‘traverse the windy avenues’ to the inversion but the poem plays with archaism as so many modernists were wont to do. Joyce looks back to Homeric epic, Eliot to Arthurian epic via Joyce, Gascoyne to Biblical epic via Eliot and Joyce. The ancient/modern parallelogram is erected again.The second stanza changes texture. Its vista of rural migration not only has a Shakespearean feel, but subliminally seems to imagine Shakespeare himself as the English Everyman who quits the provinces for the capital, leaving Ann Hathaway for theatreland.

They come in hordes, they come all day,
the oafs, the ignorant, the louts,
who tire at last of retch and sweat
on farms, on all-too-barren fields
whose crude desires, unsatisfied
by buxom cheek of dairymaid,
by greasy thigh of country-wench,
come hither in an eager rout
in search of painted lips and faces,
of limbs by nightly libertines embraced.

Gascoyne's debut poetry collection, 'Roman Balcony'

Gascoyne’s debut poetry collection, ‘Roman Balcony’

The 1930s was an excellent decade for English poetry, which saw the artform not only revelling in new techniques but using them to return poetry to its prophetic roots. Poetry became engaged again as politics explored extremities. MacSpaunday – the four-headed beast MacNeice/Spender/Auden/Day Lewis – dominated the mainstream, but there was a fecund fringe at work and a fruitful clash of generations. Everyone knows September 1, 1939 is a great 1930s poem but even admirers of David Gascoyne may not have read The New Isaiah until now. That said, Gascoyne’s brilliant Zero is another virtually unknown visionary classic of 1939. The problem, I believe, is not just the spiritual sincerity but the true radicalism of Gascoyne, which makes for a poetry that is slower to assimilate because harder to digest. Being resistant, it meets more resistance. A recent two-hour BBC documentary on 20th century British poetry chose to highlight among others John Betjeman. Gascoyne went unmentioned. This is how blinkered (and blinkering) the traditional survey of English poetry can be. Elsewhere, he is excluded from Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets except for the phrase ‘like David Gascoyne on a rare good day’. Ridiculously, this is in a passage criticising ‘stylistic irony’and lamenting a lack of sincerity in poetry. Such a throwaway comment looks like revenge for some slight, but ripples out generating more prejudice. Even an enthusiast, Darran Anderson, sees Gascoyne as a kind of one-hit wonder whose oeuvre fails to live up to the greatness of And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis. The hapless author is ‘A writer who connected briefly with genius and wrote a poem so monumental it casts a long shadow over everything else he wrote or failed to write.’ This is a reductio ad absurdum from the usual reduction of Gascoyne to mere Surrealist, but at least proselytizes for another 1930s Gascoyne poem. It’s an all-too-secular verdict, replaying Breton’s anti-Christian dismissal.

libra-1-isis_smallPublished a year after The New Isaiah in 1933, And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis is both a showcase poem of English surrealism and modernism’s most stylish ‘white goddess’ poem – even when modish, he is religious – but full immersion in this poet’s output finds the sublimest depths elsewhere. Still a ripe target for contempts and condescensions, pigeon-holed by a few early poems, Gascoyne is something of a modern Blake, an outsider poet whose presence swells by the decade. He is a poetic ‘crisis manager’, capable of registering personal-political upheavals. Sane poets only go so far; Gascoyne goes further. His own psychological and financial difficulties and his more slow-growing, underground reputation make him a – superficially – less attractive figure than the highly successful Eliots, Audens, Betjemans of this world. Gascoyne is not a poet of the tournament but of the wilderness. He has what all poets should have, but surprisingly often don’t… profundity. The New Isaiah is a textbook example of how a poem/poet/poetry can extend its depth by turning to contemporary philosophy for guidance.

They come to toil at City desk,
to serve in cafes or in shops,
to balance on the scaffolding
of building-sites, to dig the roads,
to wait in the weary, rain-drenched queues
that straggle outside the Labour Exchanges;
or if the City finds them fools,
they sit and sleep like sodden sacks
on the rusty seats of embankments or suburbs.

Elementary as it is, this stanza captures our present as well as Gascoyne’s, connecting the Great Depression of yesterday with the ‘economic downturn’ of today. To the riddle of the title, the dedication supplies a key. Oswald Spengler is the recipient of the poet’s benediction, alive at the time of writing and to whom it may have been sent. (Gascoyne, though shy, still found the courage to make contact with people he admired.) The poem has several notable qualities. It is a foreboding versification of the ‘Downfall of the Occident’ metanarrative; a British-Israelite portrait of London between the wars; an ambitious young poet’s attempt to vocalise the city in the aftermath of Eliot; and an important forerunner of such later Gascoyne urban explorations as A Vagrant and Night Thoughts. The philosophical starting-point allows him to ruminate on his native city of London as a Spenglerian world city. His observations and lucubrations coalesce into poetry. Quotidian sights and sounds are symptoms of a terminal fall.

When night descends, when the last toil is done,
the City streets, garbed in beguiling lights,
invite the labourer to every vice,
and laughter squalls, and crowds go arm-in-arm,
the whores come out to wait in alleyways
where sudden drunks from hidden corners lurch,
and Pleasure Palaces and smoky dens
alike proclaim their diverse cheap attractions.

Oswald Spengler

Oswald Spengler

The civil servants of English poetry baulk at the idea of the prophetic, and this is perhaps why this poem – like a whistle-blowing document – has been filed away. The New Isaiah is a prophetic poem in that it is stylised as such, but tells an unusual story as it humbly passes the prophetic mantle to someone else. It is as much a praise poem for the thinker Oswald Spengler as it is a condemnation of the evils of the polis. In other words, in his call-and-response relationship to The Waste Land Gascoyne is not trying to step into the shoes of Eliot as poet-prophet, but is versifying the theory of one of the most idiosyncratic and controversial thinkers of the time, one who became a touchstone for the most out-there and abandoned literati to follow, most famously Miller and Burroughs. Steeped in the twin pessimisms of Spengler and Eliot, the poem makes no attempt to rebut the pessimism of Eliot, as Hart Crane and others did, but echoes Eliot without imitating Eliot. The major difference is that while Eliot’s poem expresses a patrician malaise, Gascoyne’s is much more socially mobile and much more rooted in the metropolis in question, London, and its native people. Even though Eliot uses London placenames, while Gascoyne opts for a universal urbs, the London of the ‘Labour Exchange’ is recognisable. There is something Hogarthian in its concerns. Gascoyne, born in the aptly named London suburb of Harrow, may seem as condescending to the rustics who flood into his capital as Eliot is to the cockneys he ventriloquizes, but Gascoyne was always a considered anti-fascist and a sometime communist. Their politics are not the same, nor backgrounds, Gascoyne being of petit-bourgeois-cum-bohemian origin. Nor does Gascoyne share the incrementally right-wing politics of Spengler. As it happens, the coolly neutral The New Isaiah is not concerned with class analysis but with the plight of an industrious if licentious people who are sacrificing themselves to a machine, a machine that is falling from a state of disrepair into a state of disuse. This poem of godlessness differs from Eliot’s in that it is comprehensible all the way, though it retains mystery. There are stanzas of blank verse and free verse, pentameters and tetrameters interchanging, but nothing of the outré stylistics of The Waste Land. What makes this substantial poem work is its confident switch between free and formal verse, (or perhaps free-ish and formal-ish verse.) The prosaic offsets the poetic as if by shift work. As Eliot references the urban laureateship of Baudelaire in his ‘Hypocrite lecteur!’, Gascoyne homages the Frenchman by breaking into intense rhyming quatrains. Some of the lines are ringing Alexandrines such as ‘… and with our brushes paint disintegration’s signs.’ Rather than the discombobulating polyphony of The Waste Land, there is dialogue between a narrator and the prophet. The narrator is Gascoyne, the prophet is Spengler, but the prophet is also the man in the street listening to himself. This is folk prophecy reminiscent of Piers Plowman – as in the alliterative line ‘they sit and sleep like sodden sacks’ – not written de haut en bas, but shared. The seemingly humdrum vistas of the opening stanzas suddenly intensify. Realism explodes into expressionism.

In stinking sewers open to the sky
the worn-out profligates lie down to die:
and rank contagion fills the germ-laid air
from poisoned corpses that the wind strips bare.

Midst clawing shadows and the web of crazy nights,
in stuffy rooms that paralyse the mind,
the weakened bodies of this later race of men
beget a stunted and deformed mankind.

Nor art nor music flourishes in this decline;
the world degenerates, has lost its mind.
We hang our harps upon the streets to weep
and with our brushes paint disintegration’s signs.

There is a herd instinct among some literati to react to an utterance as grave and concerned as this with snide indifference. Another contemporary critic, Andrew Duncan, has dismissed Gascoyne as ‘pedestrian and hysterical.’ Aside from the wrongness, my objection to this is a lexicological instinct never to deploy the word ‘pedestrian’ as a critical term. There’s nothing wrong with walking, quite the opposite, so it should never have become a metaphorical basis for the putting down of poetry. I first noticed this critical oxymoron in an essay by Jeremy Reed – introducing Gascoyne to the readers of the anthology Conductors of Chaos – who eulogised Gascoyne’s night walks in Paris (from the poem ‘Noctambules’) whilst accusing the Larkinian mainstream of ‘pedestrianism’. It’s a paradox too far. For a poet, pedester is equester. Gascoyne’s poems were inspired by his colossal walks through London as Rimbaud’s and Blake’s had been before him. Much poetry would benefit from being more pedestrian, less desk-bound. I have looked through Robin Skelton’s skeltonPoetry of the Thirties and other anthologies to see if they contain any poems as good as The New Isaiah. The good thing about this Penguin tome, which more than makes up for its abysmal cover, is that the mage-like Skelton was an informed Gascoynean and included a half-dozen poems by the misfit, though not The New Isaiah. Auden’s Spain, Barker’s Elegy on Spain, MacNeice’s Autumn Journal are brave contenders; but Gascoyne’s poem has the advantage of timelessness. True, there is the fashionable Spenglerian theme, but Gascoyne is drawing on the old Isaiah too to paint a pestilential ever-recurring London. Black Death, fire, blitz, apocalypse are all visible within its perimeters. Too often, poets write about what they see by daylight. Auden’s fine epistle to Isherwood; To a Writer on his Birthday concludes with an image of ‘I smoke into the night’ but begins with a ‘Daily’ and a ‘lulled by the light’. It is solar not lunar poetry. And it is desk-bound. Gascoyne has night vision, mobile as the moon, and sees what is rather than projecting his own charms and circumstances onto the object. The poem is free of any intention whatsoever to make the reader feel good.

All aim and faith has gone. Men do not grope
within this xanthic fog, nor do they hope,
but toil and grovel as the years proceed.
They toil for nothing; nor do they feel need.

Though the earlier line ‘in stuffy rooms that paralyse the mind’ is Eliotian, suggesting Preludes, Gascoyne shows how determined he is to differentiate himself from Eliot in his phrase ‘xanthic fog.’ All xanthic means is ‘yellow’ but if he had said ‘yellow fog’ it would be literally quoting from Prufrock. Xanthic offers a completely other texture, and sound, to describe the same phenomenon. The stanza is filmic, the celluloid rolls, and we seem to see footage of somnambulant workers in satanic mills. It’s hellish and irredeemable, but for the trumpets:

The ranting whirligigs revolve and scream
in acrid breath of smoke and steam;
the lights are harsh and dazzle every eye
to signs of omnipresent Destiny.

But Destiny’s brass trumpet wakes the wise.
They see decay, they see the falling globe,
they see the slow inevitable decline
of nations, and the twilight of the West.

The despairing tone is not unique. Gascoyne himself later compared the two novelists Henry Miller – a personal friend and hero – and Louis Ferdinand Celine, finding ‘the same unbounded pessimism, the same catastrophic vision of a world stifling in disease and filth’. Celine’s bitterness and Miller’s joie de vivre contrast, but Gascoyne’s variation on a theme is the rhythmic deeming of a lyric poet to the accompaniment of bass drum. Of course this youthful Gascoyne has seen less, but he has seen. The consolation for the populaces limned within is that a prophet is walking among them, a waking conscience, an illuminated soul who records the mass descent of humanity into what Blake calls ‘the Nether Abyss’. The clarity and simplicity of the language convey a stately effect. It’s been carefully worked but doesn’t show it and has been pared down to what it is, a social cri de coeur. The second of the two quatrains above slips out of rhyme as the poem resumes its other form, the larger blank verse stanza. The intense pitch stays. Is it good news that a prophet is among the people once again? Is it good news that Isaiah has returned in a new incarnation? It almost is. It could be. The obvious snag is that the people will ignore his importunings, as they always have. A masterful iambic pentameter couplet takes us to the heart of the matter.

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head
who cries his warnings to the careless crowds
who heed him not but arm themselves for wars,
who whet their swords for one another’s blood,
who go a-whoring with their own inventions
deaf to the cries of one who sees their fate:
’As Rome fell, ye shall fall,
as falling ye are now.

A new Isaiah walks the City streets
with burning coals of fire on his head:
’The world-metropolis is built on dust,
with fruitless labour, by the sweat of lust.

To dust it shall return nor shall it rise again
till the world writhes in the tremendous pain
of a new birth in a far distant dawn,
nor can you hope to see that new world born.

‘You cannot turn to God for there is no God left:
Your God is the Machine, of soul bereft.
Through all the discords of a striving host
the machine drones on, a steel ghost.

‘Out of the foul refuse that the mob ignores
old vices rise that no one now deplores.
New Sodoms and Gomorrahs flourish in the dusk
which suck their foul fruit dry and throw away the husk.

‘You cannot check the wheel of Fate.
The years are late. The years are late.
The West declines, Metropolis is falling…’
through the loud shade the prophet-voice calling.

The sun has gone. The City’s lights
shine out with fevered brilliance.
When at the last these brilliant lights shall fail
how dark and terrible the Winter night!
E’en now, above the giant roofs
rises a pale and waning moon –

Tis but a few can read the signs.

Of course, Spengler isn’t walking the streets in this fashion; but Gascoyne the pedestrian poet is, intoning internally, firing mentally.The line ’The years are late. The years are late’ is very Eliotian but the stanza it features in is not. Again, it’s a well-executed versification and vindication of Spengler. I particularly like the way the quotation mark returns after the third line, signalling the breaking off of the prophet. From the fine line ‘the world-metropolis is built on dust’, the prophet speaks in definite rhyming couplets, the most consistent stretch in the poem. It’s a poem I wish I could hear Gascoyne read, but I’m not aware of a recording. The new Isaiah, like the old, prophesies the coming of a messiah but warns his listeners to entertain no hope of seeing the messianic age. In a way, the poem is an entertainment. It is a blast against complacency; it would be funny if all the people contained in the poem could become its audience. Had Gascoyne recited it in a London pub, it would have been understood by laymen – that is one of the miracles of the poem. The British-Israel mystique appeals to something deep in a populace nourished on the King James Bible. Most Gascoyne stuff is not as accessible. This poem so goes against the grain of entertainment deployed in most public address, including poetry,that it somehow entertains despite itself, as Piers Plowman entertains even as it reprimands. The utterance, the musicalisation, do not cause despair but something more like relief. The unutterable has been uttered, the truth is out. The metrics are pleasing. Such is this poem’s ‘brief authority’ the reader who has not yet read Spengler may feel there is no need; the poem has condensed the two-volume book into a song. Is there a moral? It is certainly not in the earlier stanza about the ‘later race of men’ who ‘beget a stunted and deformed mankind’. Gascoyne is absolutely not advocating the eugenics of so many of his contemporaries. This is merely a detail in the poem’s necessary hyperbole. Both species and system are dying. It includes us all, not a victimised underclass. The moral must surely have something to do with Gascoyne’s choice of prophet. We may have assumed it would make no difference had he called the poem The New Jeremiah, that it was a matter of style, of sound. But the prophets are distinguished by their teachings. The New Jeremiah could have worked well as no one foresaw the destruction of civilisation – nor incarnated the poetry of despair – better than the author who gave his name to the jeremiad. However, it is the choice of Isaiah that offers something like hope to the reader and indicates where Gascoyne is coming from. Isaiah is above all distinguished by his concern for the welfare of ordinary people in prioritising social justice over religious ritual, and by his famous anti-war message about converting swords into ploughshares. Gascoyne’s poem empathises with its own population, but only so far. As soon as Isaiah himself enters the stage, he turns on the people for their warlike ways. Suddenly it’s not hard to see that Gascoyne is addressing his own nation, still recovering from the military-industrial nadir of WW1 while preparing for the madness of WW2. Again, he does not aim the blow at a section of society but at all of society. And ruin is predicted. Gascoyne is telling the British Empire in no uncertain terms – and with total accuracy – that it is going the way of the Roman Empire. The archaism of the ‘ye shall fall’ is Biblical English. Spengler’s ‘Faustian’ Germany would fall first, Gascoyne’s Britain soon thereafter. The war will be won, the peace will be lost.

calamiterror george barkerAmid the poetry of the 1930s there is much seriousness, because many of the poets had tasted the brutalities of war and because many were clamouring for social reform. When they write in lighter veins, the result is still a very high-minded satire of which MacNeice is probably the best exponent, but which even Betjeman can rise to in a poem like In Westminster Abbey, a parody of religious jingoism. There is the sensual and sardonic wit of Geoffrey Grigson, most moving in the love poem And Forgetful of Europe. There is George Barker’s Blakean epic Calamiterror. There are the well-crafted but bland posturings of the pseudo-revolutionaries Day Lewis and Spender. It might be argued that the poetry then was too much political and not enough spiritual, but the apolitical Dylan Thomas comes to mind with any number of hip Christo-pagan classics, as well as the converted Eliot of Ash Wednesday. Gascoyne certainly fills the spiritual void and is one of those rare poets who can combine the political and religious in a single poem. The New Isaiah is a very early example of this. The mystery is how someone born in 1916 and who published his first volume in 1932 could have written such a serious poem. The New Isaiah was most likely composed when the author was 15 years old! One explanation is his schoolboy years in Salisbury as a member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, a highly accomplished musical ensemble, performing and recording such works as Edward Elgar’s setting of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius (with Elgar in attendance.) Chanting this high religious poem in 1929 was one of the most moving experiences in Gascoyne’s life, according to Robert Fraser, and it was in the same year that he began writing poetry. He must have sung countless psalms and hymns in his five or so years in Salisbury, before his voice broke and he was made redundant. But his 1930 return to London added a new stimulus: not the Regent Street Polytechnic but the allure of bookshops including Foyles, Zwemmers, A.H. Mayhew, Watkins Books, and the Poetry Bookshop where he encountered Eliot the man reciting Christina Rossetti. There are other fine poems in his first collection, most notably Seaside Tragedy which brilliantly turns a local newspaper article about a widow’s suicide in Bournemouth into a modernist lyric-epic, a work which sophisticates and dignifies its subject, creating a tragic poem about an ordinary person. It’s also a fine nautical poem. Prison is thought to be describing his low-ceilinged room in the family home at Richmond Road, East Twickenham. There is the opulent minimalist fantasy of the title poem, Roman Balcony, a clue to the fascism of the era. Each is its own work of art with its own materials. The Roman theme is courtesy of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean. However, it was not just the bookshops of London but the city itself that provided the Jerusalemite/Babylonian/Roman vistas for The New Isaiah and a template for the politico-religious urban poetry that Gascoyne would revisit. That a teenager could pen such a mature poem probably signifies genius. That critics such as Schmidt and Duncan can be so dismissive of David Gascoyne suggests he is probably one of those poets who divide readers in extremis. Visionary Londonists such as Iain Sinclair tend to be admirers. Academia has yet to fully catch on; a serious study would only garner a few dozen customers. Roger Scott has taken that route and a PHD has led to this monolithic new edition. The poems pipe on to their dedicated inspectors and find new ears. The New Isaiah is both caring and careful, addressed as it is to ‘careless crowds’. These must include the literati who failed to notice the poem. It’s not an epochal poem like The Waste Land, but it is an important, special, powerful poem. And it hasn’t been hacked to death. The deft, once-off repetition of the key couplet ‘A new Isaiah walks the City streets / with burning coals of fire on his head’ is compelling, as is the capitalization of the capital City. Who could disagree that herein lies a modern formula? This is urban shamanism. I like the image, suggestive of the ‘imbas’ that is Gaelic for a poet’s inspiration i.e. the ‘fire in the head’ (as well as the Shelleyan image of inspiration as a fading coal). It is based on a vision from Isaiah 6:

Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the
LORD of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his
hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with
it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and
your sin is forgiven.”

It is a fire unafraid of simplicity and profundity, with much heat and light to bestow. Adolescent? It is a clean-lipped poem.

Isaiah, depicted by Michelangelo

Isaiah, depicted by Michelangelo

Niall McDevitt, Oct ’14

 

David Gascoyne, ‘New Collected Poems’, Enitharmon Press, £25. An introductory bio (of sorts) for David Gascoyne, can be found here. The book can be ordered through Enitharmon’s website, or via the usual booksellers.

Niall McDevitt is a London-based Irish poet, and a recent bio for him can be found with an earlier piece on David Gascoyne. His recent essay on the poetry of Clayton Eshleman forms part of a project of criticism on the work of that poet, entitled ‘The Whole Art’, and is currently available through Black Widow Press.

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One Poem – Heller Levinson


of if as in pertaining to

 

of if as in pertaining to persuasion conviction convincing conniving

creating consensus (assemble   gather   bundle   congregate) the urge to

avalanche to bring to fore (fruition   fructification   frequencies   flocking)

the flocking impulse — purpose → the establishment of   attaining to

purpose is viscera is the human stuff what nations warfare & peace

negotiations are & poetry & science & billabongs   to be purposeful in action

fusillage & forethought preambling foreskin to attain given or achieve such

the warp of  contradiction pursuit here education such a ruse the misfit in the

assembly the rust in the machine packets of annihilation designed to render

highways of truculence bitterroot whangdoodle whippy

when angling for purpose

persuade yourself

 

 

 

 

of if as in pertaining to equidistance Pythagoras hilarity come holy come

hole wholly come 1  2  3  if you will wont want font subterfuge trillion trillion

on a trolley collar on a dollar disparity contrareity bespoke holy smoke far

away another day come early come quick go licketysplit guard the wick pick

up stick(s) wish I might with I will fuse to lonesome whippoorwill song

flight

alight

measure

less

 

 

 

 

of if as in pertaining to melancholia truancy purports curvilinear

homeopathic medicinals prevail especially in a time of drought hillsides with

sufficient snow provide sledding whisk whisking through passin’

triumvirates prosper from gaiety dish dishing doling jubilee bails

oxgenation blasts terminal velocity termination the teardrop term tunes

spliced from mourning laced with persuasion circumlocution-braced

lachrymal-fretted eke out ferret time left the rub

gather

 

 

 

 

of if as in pertaining to equality equilateral quasi-matter

circumlocution circumnavigationally cursory crusade conjunctive dispatch

come one come all irrefutable the stall the billabong the wall the staunch

raunch uncontrollable smear-blear only the weary dum-dum-dum-dumdy-

doo-wah would accept a tragi-one dimensional bereft void of heft gross

vitality theft hear the lonely if only exceptionally were

dis-trib-utable

 

 

 

 

hinge-trio-dustjacket-frontHeller Levinson lives in New York where he studies animal behavior. He has published in over a hundred journals and magazines. His publication, ‘Smelling Mary’ (Howling Dog Press, 2008), was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Griffin Prize. Black Widow Press published his ‘from stone this running’ in 2012. ‘Hinge Trio’ was published by La Alameda Press in 2012.  Forthcoming is Heller’s ‘Wrack Lariat’, slated for publication by Black Widow Press, Fall 2014. Additionally, he is the originator of Hinge Theory (and be sure to check out Paul Stubbs’ brilliant essay on Hinge Theory here).

 

email: hellerjames@yahoo.com
web: http://www.hellerlevinson.com

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On Music – Colin Wilson

from ‘Modern Music – The Problem’ (Part One)

The essence of the ‘Modernist’ controversy was stated in the 1880s by Max Nordau in his book Degeneration; since then it has turned up in various forms, sometimes modestly, as in Haggin’s chapter on modern music in his Musical Companion, sometimes thoroughly aggressively, as in Henry Pleasants’s Death of a Music. As Mr Pleasants’s book is the most recent, I may as well take it as the starting-point.

death of a musicModern music, says Mr Pleasants, has edged itself into a cul-de-sac; it has become intellectualized to an extent where it is meaningless to the general listener. And it may well be that the musical historian of the future will see jazz as the vital musical tradition of the twentieth century. Why do we snobbishly insist that a symphony must be a more important form of music than a Broadway musical, when the musical may be artistically vital and the symphony arid and formal? Is it not time that we faced the decadence of our serious music, and stopped looking down on jazz and popular music?

It is difficult not to feel at least some partial agreement with Mr Pleasants. The ‘modernists’ argue that all important artworks are ahead of their time, and that Schoenberg, Webern, and Boulez will one day be as acceptable in the concert hall as Bach is today. They may point out that contemporary critics accused Eliot of a kind of deliberate practical joke in offering The Waste Land as poetry, while nowadays any college student can appreciate its emotional force. But, as Mr Pleasants points out, Wozzeck, Pierrot Lunaire, and The Rite of Spring sound as strange today as they did fifty years ago; they have not been assimilated in the same way.

And yet it seems to me that this kind of arguing fails, to some extent, to grasp the essential root of the matter. We cannot argue as if popularity in the concert hall were the only criterion of value. Artistic experience is related in a curious way to the personality of the spectator. One might say that it affords an escape from personality, a broadening of the personality. Men can mature only by allowing themselves natural expression; the emotions have to be taught to flow. The inner being has to be kept in motion. In the same way, a woman might feel that she must have a child if her personality is to find its natural expression. But there is an obvious difference. In becoming a mother, a woman has allowed a certain part of her personality its fullest expression; having a dozen children will not necessarily enlarge it further. But the fulfilment brought about by certain artistic experiences has no clear limitation. A youth may discover that the music of Wagner brings about an inner release, an expansion of his personality; but that is not to say that he will not find still greater release in Schoenberg or Bartók.

schonberg1rWe do not yet know enough about the psychology of personality to know whether it could go on developing indefinitely, or whether it has a certain limit of expansion analogous to the blooming of a flower. The artistic career of such men as Yeats and Gide seems to indicate that there are no true limits. But since it is impossible to know how far a personality is capable of development, it is equally impossible to make rules about whether various forms of art are valid or not. It may be true that Pierrot Lunaire remains an intellectual rather than a musical experience. But then, it is possible to imagine a person for whom its strange sounds create an experience that he could find nowhere else in music.

In short, the point that is generally overlooked in arguments about modern music is the question of the psychology of the kind of people who enjoy it. Both the attackers and defenders write as if music had an absolute value, to which Schoenberg either conforms or does not conform. This is like assuming that everyone who professes to be a Roman Catholic has carefully thought out his beliefs, and weighed them against the claims of Buddhism and Mohammedanism. In fact we know that, ideally speaking, religion and philosophy ought to be concerned only with ‘truth’. And yet we only have to hear a convinced Catholic arguing with a convinced Communist to know that the emotional needs of the personality play an important part in a man’s conception of ‘truth’. The true philosopher is not discouraged by this; he attempts to allow for his emotional prejudices. But the philosopher has the advantage of being able to appeal to the laws of logic. The logic of art is an altogether more difficult matter, since art is essentially an appeal to the personality rather than to the reason.

It must therefore be conceded that for certain people the rarified atmosphere of ‘modern music’ is pleasant to breathe. To some extent, then, modern music is justified. But it might be contended that previous revolutions in music – from modal polyphony to diatonic harmony, from classicism to romanticism – were natural evolutions of public taste. Wagner may at first have sounded odd to the admirers of Bellini, but it did not take too long for the general public to find the new music assimilable. Is it ever likely that the general public will follow the admirers of Schoenberg, or come to accept Boulez’s Marteau Sans Maître at a concert, sandwiched between the Beethoven Fifth Symphony and Debussy’s La Mer?

Conceding that the answer is ‘probably not’, might it yet be contended that serial music is the central musical tradition of the twentieth century, whether the public accepts it or not? After all, no one denies that the theory of relativity is a natural development in physics, even though the general public does not understand it.

Again, this seems to be missing the point. Music is not eventually judged by how it says things, but by what it says. Beethoven seemed a difficult composer to the general public of his day, and his late quartets are still as ‘difficult’ for the average listener as any Schoenberg; but the manifest importance of what he had to say carried the day. The proof that the public responds to what is being said can be found in Alban Berg, whose only ‘popular’ works are Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto, both clearly driven by a powerful emotion. The Chamber Concerto or the Altenberg Songs say nothing of comparable importance, and are seldom heard.

The emphasis in all the discussions seems to have got misplaced. Composers who have defended their right to compose ‘difficult’ music include Schoenberg, Copland, Roger Sessions, and Hindemith. If any of these men were obviously of the stature of Beethoven, there would be no argument; the works themselves would carry the day.

Where Schoenberg is concerned, the unpopularity is very clearly a matter of content as well as form. The artists of the early nineteenth century tended to be ‘popular’ in that they spoke of unifying emotions, of the brotherhood of man. The late nineteenth century – the era of ‘decadence’ – cultivated a kind of artistic solipsism, and the idea of individualism was sometimes carried to an absurd point of selfishness, as in Lautreamont, who seemed to believe that a man would be justified in murdering a baby if it gave him pleasure. Far from feeling universal brotherhood, the ‘decadent’ poet tended to make no secret of his contempt for his reader, the ‘hypocrite lecteur’. So it was hardly surprising if most readers responded with coolness to the work of these artists. Now Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern most emphatically belong to this tradition. Berg set Baudelaire poems in Der Wein; Schoenberg and Webern both set Stefan George. The strange, solipsistic world of decadence is always present in Schoenberg’s music. In the Gurrielieder, Verklärte Nacht, Pelléas and Mélisande, the First Chamber Symphony, and the First String Quartet, it is open and undisguised. It is still obviously present in the choice of text of the George songs (op. 15), Pierrot Lunaire, Erwartung, Die Glückliche Hand, and Herzgewächse. An unkind listener might still detect it in the over-dramatized self-pity of the Survivor from Warsaw (which has always seemed to me Schoenberg’s one total artistic flop). Schoenberg’s admirers claim that Moses and Aaron reveals a greater Schoenberg, preoccupied with the universal issues of man and God; but again, one observes that the centre of the opera is the dance about the golden calf, and Schoenberg’s text dwells on the lust and violence with an obvious satisfaction that recalls Oscar Wilde. (People eat raw meat, a youth is murdered, four naked virgins are sacrificed, then men strip women and possess them on the altar; Schoenberg spares no details in describing the orgy.)  Moreover, when Schoenberg returned in later life to writing ‘tonal’ works – the Second Chamber Symphony and the Suite for String Orchestra (1936) – they sound as if they had been written thirty years earlier. (The Second Chamber Symphony was, in fact, begun in 1906.) The idiom is still that of Verklärte Nacht. Finally, we have the curious fact that Schoenberg never expressed any kind of dissatisfaction with his earlier music. Most critics have seen in this only evidence of his iron consistency, his recognition that his development had proceeded according to a rigorous musical logic. But when one considers his lifelong failure to escape the romanticism of his youth, it seems equally plausible that his development after 1908 was a technical development only, concealing an inability to develop in a more fundamental sense. The curious rigidity of Schoenberg’s personality, his lack of humour and the unwavering hatred with which he regarded anyone who was even lukewarm towards his music, tends to reinforce this probability.

chamber musicThe comparison with James Joyce affords some interesting parallels. Both began by writing in a naïve and romantic idiom; both showed a curious innocence in their total self-preoccupation. Both suffered a number of early snubs, and developed a formidable intellectualism to cover the over-sensitivity. Joyce also refused to ‘disown’ his early work – the poems Chamber Music (1907) reveal an unexpected strain of Irish sentimentality – and the later Pomes Penyeach show that Joyce was writing exactly the same kind of poetry twenty years later, although the achievement of Ulysses came between the two volumes. Acquaintances who knew Joyce in his later years have all remarked on a certain naïve element in his personality: the childish sense of humour, the constant dwelling on the past, which seemed to indicate that, in a certain way, he never grew up. His stature as an intellectual was considerable, since he had forced it on himself as Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake shows that he still saw himself in exactly the same light as thirty years earlier , when he wrote Stephen Hero; pride and self-pity are still the leading traits of his character. One might also observe that the sexual perversion and violence that erupt in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake bring to mind the central scene of Moses and Aaron; the same perverted romanticism is apparent.

All this is not intended to minimize the achievement of either Joyce or Schoenberg. The achievement remains; but it must be recognized that it was largely an achievement of will, not the true development of the whole human being that we find, for example, in Beethoven. One must recognize this in order to see the music of Schoenberg in perspective. It is something that one would not realize from reading books about Schoenberg, or listening to the kind of discussion of him that is presented on the Third Programme: for example, a recent (December 1963) discussion of Pierrot Lunaire between Hans Keller and Egon Wellesz that seemed to be based on the assumption that Schoenberg is the only interesting composer of the twentieth century.

The parallel with Joyce raises a further question. Joyce’s influence in literature has been equal to Schoenberg’s in music; and yet, in a certain sense, his work is a dead end. No one can continue it, and one might perhaps be forgiven for suggesting that Joyce himself never really continued the work began with Ulysses. Finnegans Wake is an elaborate game rather than a living work of literature. Joyce’s influence was not fundamental and seminal; no one could say, as Dostoevsky said of Gogol’s Overcoat, that a whole literature came out of it. Joyce’s technical influence is present in Döblin‘s Alexanderplatz, Berlin, in Wolfe’s novels, even in Graham Greene of the 1930s; but only in the most superficial sense.

In the perspective of another half-century, Schoenberg may well be seen in the same light. His language has obviously exercised an enormous influence; but how profound is this influence? Has it, like Gogol’s Overcoat or Schiller’s Robbers, really created a new kind of sensibility, a new ‘world outlook’ that will continue to bear fruit?

For a new language to exercise a genuinely profound influence, it must be an integral part of a new sensibility, a break with old patterns of feeling as well as of expression. The language of Wordsworth and Coleridge was such a breakaway from the sensibility of the age of Pope: hence its seminal influence on the nineteenth century. But, as we have already pointed out, Schoenberg’s ‘feeling’ is a continuation of the ‘feeling’ of Wagner and teuton symbolMahler; he might be regarded as the last fruits of their line of Teutonic romanticism, rather as Delius could be described as the ultimate expression of the French school of musical impressionism. Delius has exercised no influence comparable with Schoenberg’s because his technical procedures had less to offer; but it may well be that, in many other ways, he is Schoenberg’s musical equivalent.

The only way in which the listener can judge this is, of course, by ear. And the difficulty of Schoenberg’s musical language may make it difficult to reach any conclusion. Berg’s musical language is easier to come to terms with. It presents initial difficulties in the more formal works, but the listener can have no difficulty in recognizing the relationship between the Violin Concerto or the D Minor Interlude of Wozzeck and the world of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. And yet Schoenberg’s language is not so inaccessible, as soon as one has an inkling of what he is ‘saying’. Getting to know Schoenberg’s music is like getting to know a person whose haughty and abrupt manner conceals shyness and a desire to be liked. The listener is advised to begin with the Verklärte Nacht, the two Chamber Symphonies and the 1936 Suite for String Orchestra; after these, the transition to the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto should prove both interesting and pleasant. The language of the Violin Concerto may seem strange at first, but the opening cadences make it clear that this is a romantic concerto wearing a false moustache. There is none of the harsh feeling of torn silk that one gets from Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. In fact, Schoenberg’s concerto is in many ways reminiscent of Berg’s, allowing that Berg’s feeling is tragic, while Schoenberg’s is only dreamily romantic, somewhat after the manner of Verklärte Nacht. The Piano Concerto is equally easy to get to know. One critic described it as ‘Brahmsian’, and in fact much of the orchestration has a curiously Brahmsian sound. A great deal of the concerto sounds as if someone had accidentally played a tape of a Brahms concerto backwards.

Part of Schoenberg’s difficulty in finding wider appreciation is undoubtedly due to the excessive claims made for him by admirers who seem determined that admiration for him shall be confined to a small clique. Hence we have Hans Keller writing (on a Schoenberg sleeve note): ‘The sole trouble about Schoenberg is that he is the first composer of supreme greatness who is more talked about than played. This is our age’s fault, not his, and if he is the least played and most talked about, that may only go to show that he is the greatest of them all.’ The uninitiated listener is thus prepared for tremendous messages of Olympian profundity; and if Schoenberg is the ‘greatest of them all’ composers of ‘supreme greatness’, then this profundity must, at the very least, be equal to that of the late Beethoven quartets. These absurdly excessive claims only tend to conceal from the listener the fundamentally simple romanticism of Schoenberg’s music; they seem, in fact, designed to increase its inaccessibility.

schoenberg2Schoenberg has been accused of many things including deliberate faking – musical confidence trickery. But the worst that can fairly be alleged against him is that the complexity of his musical language is not true complexity – the complexity that is the attempt to communicate a complex emotion. (Eliot once made the same point against Milton, citing Henry James as an example of ‘true complexity’.) Moreover, it would be unfair to say that Schoenberg tries to pretend to be profounder than he is. Irritation at the cliché-ridden nature of one’s language is a legitimate reason for trying to change it. The linguistic complexity of Mallarmé, Valéry, Joyce, and Dylan Thomas is of this kind. No one can blame an artist for making what he has to say as interesting as possible. It is true that the greatest artists have never had need to resort to linguistic fireworks for their own sake, and that extreme preoccupation with technique is usually a sign of a certain dilettantism. But it might be said in Schoenberg’s favour that he is a German, and the Germans have a tradition of making heavy weather of self-expression. No one claims Kant or Hegel were fakes because they did not express themselves as clearly as Hume or Descartes.

The other composers who are mentioned in attacks on ‘modern music’ (I continue to write ‘modern music’ in inverted commas, meaning ‘difficult modern music’) are Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Webern. Thirty years ago Bartók was usually mentioned as well, but time has shown that his music has a far wider appeal than that of the others.

webernWebern is the easiest to justify. He is a musical contemplative who never set out to be popular. He practised music with the same mystical devotion that Flaubert and James practised writing. The most essential Webern works are very short, and for small numbers of instruments; it is typical that many should regard the Piano Variations, op. 27, as his masterpiece. One cannot conceive of Webern writing an opera; even the songs (many to Stefan George poems) strike one as ‘impure’ Webern.

He sits above music like a hermit on a mountain-top; or perhaps a better simile would be a great chess player looking down on a chess board. At long intervals he reaches down and makes a single move. Webern reminds us of a line of Yeats:

Like a long-legged fly
His mind walks upon silence.

It is pointless to include a musician like Webern in an attack on modern music, because he seems to have almost no interest in communication: he plays music like a game of patience.

Hindemith is a totally different matter, and the objections raised against him by Constant Lambert in 1933 still hold good today. It is slightly difficult to understand why Hindemith should be regarded as one of the three colossi of modern music (the other two being Schoenberg and Stravinsky) if men like Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger are to be regarded (rightly, in my opinion) as minor composers. The sheer quantity of his musical output is impressive; but so is Milhaud’s; he owes much of his reputation to his teaching, but so does Milhaud. One can only assume that his fashionable creed of ‘classicism’ and his German  seriousness recommend him to people who are irritated by Milhaud’s Gallic frivolity.

W. J Turner has an interesting passage about Bach that applies, in many essentials, to Hindemith. ‘Bach had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not , and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-size works, there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.’ Haggin, who quotes this, goes on to remark that he agrees with it, and that he has also come to find only certain passages ‘moving’.

The word ‘moving’ causes one to pause for reflection. Modern Bach enthusiasts often claim that what they like about Bach is that he is not moving – that he was aiming for something quite different, a kind of mathematical perfection. And it is as well to remember at this point what Constant Lambert said of this idea that emotional and romantic music is a ‘late and decadent excrescence’. ‘Music, far from being abstract, is… naturally emotional… The romantic and emotional nature of music is latent in its origins.’ (Music Ho! Penguin edition.) And elsewhere he points out that ‘classical music has little sense of horror about it, not because classical composers despised such an appeal to the nerves, but because they were unable to achieve it.’ Bach may strike us as unemotional if we have been listening to Wagner; it is doubtful if he saw himself in this light.

paul-hindemith-06Now Hindemith appears to be suffering from the mistaken notion that Lambert exposed in Music Ho! – that there was a time when music was a kind of abstract exercise, meant to appeal to the mind alone. This is the kind of music that he writes. Listening to Hindemith is often like listening to Bach in the sense that there are often long periods in which very little seems to be happening. The consequence is that when Hindemith wishes to be moving and impressive – as in the climactic passage of his opera The Harmony of the World, where the music has to suggest music of the spheres – he has forgotten how, and the result is totally unexpressive.

There seems to be a kind of fallacy in Hindemith’s music. It may be that Lambert is right when he suggests that the whole idea of Gebrauchsmusik (utility music for everyday purposes) is a misunderstanding of the nature of music, since ‘there is no regular demand for musical material as there is for writing material or boxes of matches; there is only a demand for something which creates its own demand – a good piece of music…’ One can see that, in Hindemith’s early days, the unexpressive quality of his music must have contrasted piquantly with the violence or satire of his chosen subjects, as in Murder, Hope of Women, Das Nusch-Nuschi (which has a chorus sung by monkeys), and Cardillac, based on a Hoffmann story about a jeweller who murders his customers because he cannot bear to part with his work. It was this Hindemith who exercised a dubious influence on the young Kurt Weill – dubious because the Hindemithian passages of Mahagonny are the dreariest in the score – and who was regarded as the enfant terrible of his generation. But in the ‘respectable’ later Hindemith there are only occasional flashes of beauty or power to sweeten the pill. Gebrauchsmusik has been translated ‘bread and butter music’, but Hindemith’s later music better deserves to be called ‘bread and water music’! As with Schoenberg, one feels that his music must be understood as an attempt to escape a romantic heritage; but Hindemith’s method of escape is altogether less interesting than Schoenberg’s. In his best works, Schoenberg scrambles his language, but does not betray the emotion he wants to convey. Hindemith deliberately turned his back on his romantic heritage for many years, and wrote what Haggin describes as ‘harmonically sour and emotionally dry works’. Later he allowed a certain romantic element back into his music, but it only served to underline the mechanicalness of long passages of textbook variations. Works like the 1940 Symphony in E flat and the ‘Harmony of the World’ Symphony begin with purposeful-sounding fanfares that promise an interesting musical journey; but within minutes the traveller is in the old musical desert, with miles of flat, bare country on either side.

Part of the trouble is Hindemith’s unwillingness to write anything that sounds as if it has a definite key. But unlike the music of Schoenberg and Berg, which has a harsh, mountainous quality, Hindemith’s music moves along so uneventfully for much of the time that the ear feels that it ought to have a key. The consequence is that the ear often feels a kind of embarrassment, as if in the presence of some disability, like a stutter or a tendency to sing slightly off-key.

The truth is that, whether Hindemith likes it or not, he is by temperament a romantic composer, and romantic music must have a feeling of a key centre. The most effective moments in some of his works – the opera Mathis der Maler (not the symphony, which tends to aridity), the 1939 Violin Concerto, the 1937  Symphonic Dances, the ballet Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Brass and Piano, op. 49 – have a strong feeling of tonality. (This need of romantic music for a key centre can be seen even more clearly in Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny; at its best – the scene in the ‘Do-what-you-like’ bar, the chorus ‘Rasch Jungens, hé!’ – it is romantic, tonal, and has a sense of musical economy and drive; when it is being avant garde in the manner of Hindemith, as in the long passage following the Benares song, it loses direction and drifts.)

Like Schoenberg and Bartók, Hindemith has achieved one of the few individual styles of the twentieth century; any piece of his music identifies itself in a matter of seconds; but it is the dubious individuality of the club bore, whose voice sends everyone scurrying for magazines to hide behind. It is a pity that the man who could achieve the bizarre effects of Cardillac and the sense of weight and sincerity of Mathis der Maler should have chosen to be identified with Gebrauchsmusik written according to a Bachian formula, and should become best known to concert audiences for the comparatively trivial Metamorphoses on a Theme of Weber.

 

 

colin-wilsonBorn in 1931, Colin Wilson was a highly prolific British writer of creative and critical prose, writing 150 books over 50 years, and covering subjects of philosophy, literature, mysticism, the occult, religion, science fiction, spirituality, crime, and studies in consciousness. He is arguably best known for his first book ‘The Outsider’, for his philosophic amendments to popular European existentialism, and for his compendiums on the occult. He died in December of last year. This essay was first published in ‘Brandy of the Damned’ (1963) and later as ‘Colin Wilson on Music’ (1967). It was re-published by Foruli Limited in July. (A second part is forthcoming).

 

 

 

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David Gascoyne: 2012 – Niall McDevitt

Is it possible for a 20th century poet to be a contemporary? David Gascoyne, who died in 2001—just managing to dip his toes into the third millenium—is a special case. A first biography of the cultic but widely overlooked poet has been published in 2012, Night Thoughts by Robert Fraser. This finely wrought Oxford University Press tome by the man who resurrected the reputation of George Barker might serve to make England wonder about the nature of achievement in the field of poetry. The Dracula-like presence of Gascoyne is emerging from his coffin, a benign vampire, a blood donor. He walks. His breath makes patterns. Many of the most successful poets writing today will never have biographies written about them. They’re not interesting enough. Name England’s most important 20th century poets… Hardy, Auden, Bunting, Hill? Many say Philip Larkin. The 20th century’s mistake was to think it could judge itself. It will have to be judged posthumously, not by anthologies brought out for the Christmas market in the year 2000. England doesn’t know itself poetically because it doesn’t know David Gascoyne, but it is going to have to get to know him. His quarantine is over. The plates are shifting. As Hopkins was a 19th century poet who became widely known in the 20th, I believe Gascoyne is a star of the future, an essential English messenger, a politico-religious poet.

DG photoJokingly, I call him ‘the real T.S Eliot’ though I don’t know what this means. Certainly, Gascoyne is my favourite English poet of the 20th century. Eliot, an American regarded as the greatest poet in any language of the 20th century, is unassailable. Also, he has become a naturalised English poet, a Tory guru, the thin-blooded ‘mentor’ of such right-wing cheerleaders as Roger Scruton. However, when I re-examine Eliot’s tiny oeuvre with its many second-rate poems, I wonder why he is such an icon. His few masterpieces are too well-known, and seem museum-pieces of modernism. They exist for undergraduates who will be unwittingly exposed to the subliminal advertising of the Anglo-Catholic, Classicist, Royalist hymn-sheet. Gascoyne’s oeuvre is, by comparison, so unknown, so off-campus, so strange and illegitimate and unpropped, that it seems more like silvery manna than any human bread. Its profundity, radicalism, spirituality and bohemianism are unique. His left-wing genius was extended by Surrealism, and later by Existentialism, he being the first Englishman to fully immerse himself in both movements. In France, he is probably also an underground legend. He formed deep relationships with outstanding people across the Channel; Blanche Jouve was his therapist; he was Pierre Jean Jouve’s translator. His exemplary French connection aroused the hostility of his British peers, who ignored his aesthetic imports. Perhaps the most emblematic vista of his lack of success was that instead of being summoned to Buckingham Palace to be honoured by the Queen of England or to the Elysée Palace by the President of France, he took it upon himself to break into both buildings while suffering from amphetamine psychosis. He is the most out-there major poet of modern times. This repels bourgeois readers, so far. It’s understandable. Most English poets if given the choice would prefer an MBE to a straitjacket, though others wouldn’t see any difference.

The poems, the stories of the sacrifices it took to make them, are disseminating. The biography helps us to fuse the life and the art, and see the legend whole. I did not realise, for instance, the story behind his classic poem A Vagrant. The poem is in quotation marks so I had thought Gascoyne was ventriloquising a beggar he had encountered. But no, it was actually himself, homeless in Paris on his 31st birthday, Rimbaud as a mature man. Its sprightly voice, its out-there odyssey, really give a sense of what’s at stake — the cruelty of the megalopolis, the stoicism of humanity. There’s nothing like it. Voices within the voice add soupçons of madness, a sheep breaks in, but the voice retains its crispness. It’s fascinating. If Jean Genet read it he’d have been flabbergasted. Gascoyne himself becomes a genie of the streets and quays herein. The experience offers him an incredible vantage-point, and a sympathetic eye to see through the stone-walling city:

                                                                                       the soul
Is said by some to be a bourgeois luxury, which shows
A strange misunderstanding both of soul and bourgeoisie.

It is both Paris and Atlantis, a poem of urban shamanism. We could almost be grateful for the poverty that enabled him to see what he saw, write what he wrote. Kathleen Raine, a friend and travelling companion on a reading tour of America, notes that he regarded himself as a ‘vagrant’. Safety-netless, his acrobatics are all the more breathtaking. Though he could fall to his death, he doesn’t. In an era in which homelessness is rightly regarded as ‘The Big Issue’, this is an illuminating poem on the theme. Like Rimbaud before him and Dylan after him he attunes to the ‘mystery tramp’, partakes of the Chaplinesque aura, dustbinning academies in the process.

The city, no matter what city, is always Dis, as in a free sonnet Inferno:

One evening like the years that shut us in,
Roofed by dark-blooded and convulsive cloud,
Led onward by the scarlet and black flag
Of anger and despondency, my self:
My searcher and destroyer: wandering
Through unnamed streets of a great nameless town,
As in a syncope, sudden, absolute,
Was shown the void that undermines the world:

That he was a teenage genius adds to his lustre. The 19-year-old friend of Eluard, encouraged by the Frenchman, wrote his First English Surrealist Manifesto in 1935, against a backdrop of Royalist jingoism. Published in the new biography and translated by Robert Fraser from Gascoyne’s own French, it seems eerily relevant to the England of 2012 in the throes of Diamond Jubilee. ‘At the very moment at which we are composing these lines in London (May 1935), the whole of England—orchestrated by the capitalist press—is preparing for an hysterical frenzy of the most dispiriting kind: the Silver Jubilee. May one not discern in this fact a manifestation of historic justice? Just when the country is enjoined by its government to a travesty of rejoicing in the names of patriotism and imperialism, despair is the principal reaction of the poets.’ To read this for the first time in 2012, alongside a contemporary poem such as Heathcote Williams’ Royal Babylon, was doubly exhilarating. Gascoyne was joining in with the zeitgeist, lending his neglected weight to the resistance. For poets wondering if politicised poetry was less than poetry, his manifesto offers an assurance: ‘Qualified poets are not confronted with a stark choice between two directions: on the one hand the pursuit of a simplified art, populist and proletarian and possessing no purpose  beyond the efficacy of its propaganda or, on the other hand, de-politicised art, subjective in the extreme, aspiring to nothing save the personal expression of the writer. Surrealism indicates a third way, the only authentic one, leading victoriously out of the twin traps on which the first two approaches are impaled.’ Today a poet can read this and—without having to walk lobsters on Oxford Street—know there is nothing second-rate about political poetry. Ginsberg demonstrated it in the 20th century to a vast congregation, but Gascoyne is still being debriefed. (The two poets enjoyed a late-flowering friendship and can be seen in the Italian documentary ‘Lunatics, Lovers and Poets.’)

There is as yet no Complete Poems of Gascoyne. What you get looking into various selections and collections is a miraculously stylish 20th century: Surrealism, WW2, Existentialism, psychogeography. His Surrealist poems are from a distinct phase (1933-36) and never overburden the oeuvre. He is along with Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan one of the few poets in English to make Surrealism work. Today when English poetry is attached to a life-support machine called social realism, his example is not only a third way but a way out. His most anthologised Surrealist  poem is the beautiful And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis which came before Robert Graves’ The White Goddess but speaks to all those who’d prize the Gravesean flame above the Larkinian squib:

she was standing at the window clothed only in a ribbon
she was burning the eyes of snails in a candle
she was eating the excrement of dogs and horses
she was writing a letter to the president of france

His World War Two poems are much less known than those of Dylan Thomas or, say, W.H Auden’s September 1,  1939 and the third part of his elegy for Yeats. They fill a huge void, the void of their own absence from English anthologies. They are still cultic rather than a cornerstone of the cultural heritage. Unlike Auden, Gascoyne didn’t flee England, but returned to England from France. He would rather have served in the army than be imprisoned as a conscientious objector, but was classed as a Grade 3 conscript, i.e unlikely to be called up and only suitable for sedantary work. A great anecdote tells how he was in the company of George Barker as bombs were landing on Hammersmith. When Barker turned to look at Gascoyne he saw his friend in immaculate suit and bow-tie reciting Baudelaire, in French, to a mouse in the fireplace. Gascoyne—following in the footsteps of his theatrical forbears, the Emerys—enjoyed an unlikely career as a professional actor during the war. His suite of World War Two poems is atmospherically painted on large-scale canvases. One of them, Zero, from September 1939, is a dizzying vision of the abyss that would apply to any human situation in which catastrophe is imminent. It speaks as powerfully to our time as any poem I can think of, staring into the eye of the apocalypse:

Who can by now not hear
The hollow and annihilating roar
Of final disillusion; or not know
How our condition is uncertain and obscure
And difficult to to bear? Yet through
The blackness of his dungeon there still peer
Man’s eyes, unmoving, lit by their desire
To see the worst, and yet not die
Of their lucid despair
But in such vision persevere
Through time into Eternity.
For this is Zero-hour

This is surely one of Gascoyne’s inimitable talents, seeing into the heart of the matter, going beyond polite emotion, assizing the gravity of the human situation, expressing it with gravitas. It earns its exclamation mark. The English reading public, steeped in Kipling’s ‘If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs’ clearly have no time for this sort of thing. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is preferable to the ‘incoherent Nada of the seer’. Though Zero is too truthful to court popularity it is nonetheless possessed of the brilliance of a great popular song. Why are Eliot’s dirges better known than this? It is surely the implied critique of Conservatism in such poems as Eros Absconditus that debars advancement, say, the damning alexandrine: ‘In blind content they breed who never loved a friend’. A rare example of the poet-as-artist, his freethinking is enabled by his bohemianism, the abandon of imagination. (It was a later poet-as-artist, Jeremy Reed, a brilliantly distinguished and unaccountably marginalized protégé, who first alerted me to Gascoyne’s importance.) Such a poet inspires artists working in other media. An Englishman who did get Gascoyne was the actor/writer Simon Callow. He describes Gascoyne’s 1978 joint reading with Stephen Spender at The Roundhouse:

The voice that emerged from the hunched, haunted man was, by comparison with Spender’s bold clarity, feeble, despite the microphone in front of him… The passion gripped him, a strange vatic figure, now become Beckett-like, nothing but burning eyes and a mouth urgently speaking of isolation endured and alienation transfigured, of pain universal and particular, of high noon and eclipse. He spoke of these things with a presentness and a personal truth which was more than moving: it was nearly unbearable. The man’s life had been a sort of ‘via crucis'; he knew whereof he spoke… ‘Ecce Homo’. The memory of the generalised seventeen-year-old emotionalism I had brought to the poem… made me blush in the face of this authenticity, these molten feelings poured into a cast of such precision. It was the stubborn pursuit of the precise word, the exact image as a conduit for the expression of experience that Gascoyne, in his reading, made so evident.

First Edition of Gascoyne's 'Poems 1937-42' with cover artwork by Graham Sutherland

First Edition of Gascoyne’s ‘Poems 1937-42′ with cover artwork by Graham Sutherland

The poem Ecce Homo from the sequence Miserere is proof of further repulsions. Gascoyne writes Christian poems. Though Eliot’s and R.S Thomas’s and Geoffrey Hill’s Christianity-in-lyricism is palatable, Gascoyne’s must be kept at arm’s length. What’s wrong? It’s simple. Gascoyne’s Christianity is that of Blake, of Coppe, of the millenarians and Gnostics. ‘Christ of Revolution and of Poetry’ is the startling refrain. One really doesn’t get better crucifixion poems than this; it is the equal of a painting by an Old Master, yet it is updated to the Fascist era. The whole sequence Miserere is evidence of his religious existentialist quest, via friends such as Pierre Jean Jouve and Benjamin Fondane, as well as the posthumously influential Kierkegaard. There are many self-styled humanists who would refuse to read Christian poetry, but they are foolish. The purpose it serves, certainly at Gascoyne’s level, is not to proselytise or even to pray, but to wrestle with Christendom. None of us can deny that we are surrounded by Christian architecture, iconography, educational and charitable institutions, tourist rubble etc. Our ancestry is Christian, our guilt is Christian and the wars we watch on television being fought in our name are Christian also. Even our nihilism is  Christian. True Christian poetry is a critique of Christendom, which is, after all, the superstructure of capitalism. As poetry cleanses the language, it cleanses the superstructure. Secular poetry, afraid of metaphysical ideas, afraid of the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling, only goes so far.  That Gascoyne is a latter-day Christian mystic only makes him all the more repulsive in neo-Darwinian England. The establishment embraced Eliot’s hymns and Eliot himself, but Gascoyne was much more the Christian hermit, undistracted by office jobs. Eliot himself, as publisher, rebuffed Gascoyne the poet. Stephen Spender confessed that he and Eliot—both from haut-bourgeois backgrounds—didn’t wish to share a carpet with Gascoyne for fear of the traces he might leave on it. Spender also confessed envy. But how the held-down poet later soars, as if the holding-down was a bow-string.

And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His spattered blood

Whereon He hangs and suffers still;
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what to do.

Gascoyne’s anti-Fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, anti-patriotism therefore can contribute much to our time, to the current debates, especially in the apocalypse-tinged year of 2012. The Occupy protesters of St. Paul’s were not afraid to taunt Christian capitalism, and the city of London, with the question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ Gascoyne’s Christian poems are formulated in the same spirit, and add a mocking ‘What would Pontias do?’

The poem Demos in Oxford Street—with its richly ambiguous ‘Demos’–seems to evoke the spirit of a one-man May Day protester in the heart of the  satanic malls:

the mature
And really average population passing by, away
And onward down this thoroughfare, of all surely the most
Average in any modern capital. O Sting!
Where is our life? Where is my neighbour, Love?
We have hardened our faces against each other’s weariness
Who walk this way; we are not bound to one another
By bomb panic or famine and it is not Christmas Day.
We are aware of Socialists in power at Westminster
Who seem to be making a pretty mess of things…

(Needless to say, his seeming anti-Socialism here does not imply Conservatism but a disgust with the Labour Party. Though he was capable of lapsing to the right, he was always more than capable of relapsing to the left).

‘The real T.S Eliot’ has for a ‘Waste Land’ given us the radiophonic poem ‘Night Thoughts’. It is another unknown, ineffable goldmine, a great meditation on London written by a native Londoner, one whose mystical attunement to the city was a birthright. One of many voices is called the ‘Anonymous Mass Voice’ and this is one of the poem’s arias:

Fear, fear: you speak of fear.
What is this fear? Is it the fear we dare not fear,
That fear of fear itself, or fear of other’s fear,
Such fear as ends
In passionate untruth, self-justifying falsehood without end?
Demonic fear
Of individual guilt, of being caught, of doing wrong,
And fear of failure or of being found a fool,
And fear of anything that might contrast with me
And thus reveal my insufficiency,
My lack, my weakness, my inferiority,
In showing up my difference from itself;
Fear of uncertainty and loss, fear of all change,
Fear of all strangeness and all strangers; and above all else the fear
Of Love, of being loved, of being asked for love,
Of being loved yet knowing one has no love to return;
Fear of forgiveness –
Fear of that love which is so great it can forgive
And the exhausting fear of Death and Mystery,
The Mystery of Death, of Life and Death,
The huge appalling Mystery of everything;
Arid fear of Nothing,
Yes, after all the fear of Nothing really,
Fear of Nothing, Nothing

Fear of Nothing, Nothing, absolutely Nothing.

In Britain, much contemporary poetry is totally trivial. It is thought in literary circles, in modern art too, that the trivial, the throwaway is the postmodern profound. Not so. The example of David Gascoyne, coming in from the cold, shows us what is at stake. He is one of the few English poets who have anything to teach us in the current crisis. Having died on Sunday 25th November 2001, he was alive for the defining moment of the 21st century. I would like to know his take on the events of 9-11. It is good for humanity that he saw it, exiting Christendom, even if it was too late for him to write about it.

 

 

Photo of Niall McDevitt by Max Reeves

Photo of Niall McDevitt by Max Reeves

Niall McDevitt is the author of two critically acclaimed poetry collections, ‘b/w’ (Waterloo Press, 2010) and ‘Porterloo’ (International Times, 2012). He organised the event ‘An Evening Without David Gascoyne’ in 2012, featuring Hilary Davies, Robert Fraser and Jeremy Reed. (This essay was taken from McDevitt’s second book; ‘Porterloo’.



 

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In Defence of Pound’s Propertius – Mark Wilson

Although Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius was written in 1917 it would not appear in print until the publication of his Quia Pauper Amavi in 1919 where it elicited, in the main, negative reviews and controversy. Classical scholars scornfully critiqued Pound’s loose “translation” methods (something which still happens today) and the bold eroticism of the poem undoubtedly made the genteel Georgian literary clique wince with embarrassment. Eliot, with his usual far-too-circumspect detachment, left the sequence out of Pound’s Selected Poems in 1928 as if he too couldn’t cope with the heat that the poem had generated. Thomas Hardy was a far more perceptive reader when he gauged that Propertius had more to do with EP’s equivocal position as poet-artist in relation to the imbecility of the British Empire in 1917 and that certainly correlates with Pound’s own understanding of what he was trying to do by playing ventriloquist to Propertius in such a liberal fashion. Once more Pound was donning the mask or the persona in order to record his own emotional and aesthetic odyssey in early 20th Century Europe which was something he had successfully done with his earlier archaic, Pre-Raphaelite and Provencal troubadour efforts a few years previously. With the decorative confectionary stripped away though the effect with his books from Lustra (1915) onwards was more stark, strident and ultimately offensive to many.

Pound's Quia Pauper AmaviControversy still stalks Homage to Sextus Propertius, even in 2014. Despite the fact that the poem has been fully rehabilitated into the EP corpus and recognised as the key Pound poem-sequence, along with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, to pre-date The Cantos. Mauberley, however, still appears to be the preferred poem amongst most readers and critics (especially in England), but there have been exceptions to this rule of course. One thinks of how Thom Gunn in the Faber Poet-to-Poet Ezra Pound volume (published in 2000) bravely chose selections from Propertius as opposed to anything from out of Mauberley suggesting more than just a millennial sea-change in fortune. Perhaps Gunn was the first to recognise that Propertius, more than even Mauberley, was Pound’s construction of a lexical matrix that configured a distinct paradigm and vision for The Cantos itself which is embedded sporadically with ‘creative’ translations throughout. For “creative translation”, as practised by Pound and others since, certainly possesses an artistic vitality that is essential if contemporary poetry (of any period) is to be reinvigorated heedless of, and despite, the many shrill voices of dissent that have railed against it for the past century since Propertius was published. However, it needs a poet of high calibre who is both skilfully inventive and fully attentive to techne, such as Pound was, to pull the feat off.

Pound’s whole approach to ‘translation’ had been foreshadowed by precursors such as Arthur Golding and Christopher Marlowe who, working in the Elizabethan era, had not only translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Amores so that English readers could enjoy this great Latin poet’s finest two works, but had also with these “translations” created powerful contemporary English poems full of the new syntax and semantic cunning of the age. Later in the 19th Century Dante Gabriel Rossetti had done a similar thing with Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Pound wrote of Swinburne’s Villon translations: “Swinburne’s Villon is not Villon very exactly, but it is perhaps the best Swinburne we have”. Of course, Chaucer, “le grand translateur”, pre-dates all these writers and is perhaps the ultimate poet-translator-exemplar that Pound was hoping to emulate most with his many “versions” and “personae”. All these historical and literary precedents would suggest that the hue-and-cry caused by Propertius or any of Pound’s translation-projects seems to be extremely strange, otiose and ill-judged. Perhaps the real problem is poets who, since Pound, have tried to be ‘translators’ in the Poundian tradition, but who lack his inherent poetic acumen and precise employment of techne to achieve success. Usually the result of these poets’ labours is a production-line of sub-standard travesties of the original authors as well as being impotent failures as contemporary poems. Of these more later.

Back to Propertius and what makes it such a great poem-sequence. Pound was usually intent on bringing out the melopoeic (musical or sonic) qualities of the intonation in his verse-craft, but with Propertius we have the sense that he was lengthening out and trying far more for logopoeic “effects” as well. The “dance of the intellect” is indeed something which resonates in the nexus of Propertius‘s phrasing. In fact, its effect is virtually noticeable in the interplay between lines which perpetually blend ultra-modern vocabulary with words that are deliberately archaic. In addition, Pound is consciously breathing out a new configuration for his cadence rather than stuffing his words into an existing and, by implication, dead “form”:

Nor are my caverns stuffed stiff with a Marcian vintage,
                       (My cellar does not date from Numa Pompilius,
Nor bristle with wine jars)
Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent;
Yet the companions of the Muses
                               will keep their collective noses in my books,
And weary with historical data, they will turn to my dance tune.

Internal rhymes, alliteration and assonance certainly create melopoeic richness, but the main thrust is definitely the logopoeic “dance” between Propertius’s 1st Century BC Rome and Pound’s 20th Century AD London. “Frigidaire patent”, “Marcian vintage” and “historical data” are as contemporaneous as most of the phrases in the English poems that were being written around 1917. They also create electrical and multi-layered tensions with the more archaic nouns: “caverns, “cellar”, “dance tune”, “companions” and “Muses”. This scintillating dance between historical epochs would be something Pound would develop more radically in The Cantos but here we have its early lexical stirrings. Despite the fact Pound is employing vers libre here there is no sense that he is “padding out” or using any unnecessary words; rather the reverse. The verbal exactitude is extremely compelling and also creates an authoritative, memorable pitch. If the translation of Propertius’ original was undeniably “free” and “libre” (undoubtedly improvised from a Latin gloss with varying degrees of accuracy) there was no doubt that Pound’s writing in English wasn’t.

One of the controversial elements of Propertius when it was published was its unabashed eroticism. Pound wrote of the mysteries of Eros throughout his career and has arguably penned some of the most beautiful poems about sexual love in the English language. The appeal of the Latin love-elegists (Catullus, Ovid, Propertius) was, therefore, a natural one for Pound. What was shocking to readers in 1919, still recovering from a repressive Victorian value-system, is obviously fairly tame to late 20th/early 21st century readers/viewers visually glutted on watershed cinema and TV, colour-gloss magazines and images freely-downloadable on the internet. Pound’s approach was far more subtle though:

How easy the moving fingers; if hair is mussed on her forehead,
If she goes in a gleam of Cos, in a slither of dyed stuff,
There is a volume in the matter; if her eyelids sink into sleep,
There are new jobs for the author;
And if she plays with me with her shirt off,
           We shall construct many Iliads.

Sextus Propertius drawingHere Pound skilfully creates the erotic medium through sheer suggestion as opposed to a blatantly coarse and gratuitous presentation. The sibilance of “a slither of dyed stuff” creates sexual tension from its provocative, and intimately whispering, noun “slither” which implies “scantily dressed” and, by a further implication, purposefully so. Meanwhile “gleam of Cos” utilises a metonym to suggest the pleasure of partially-undressed foreplay with “Cos” being, perhaps, the 1st century Latin equivalent of what “Dior”, “Armani” or “Chanel” are to 20th Century fashion-speak. However, Pound’s legerdemain with language here is subtle and exquisite, which avoids making his presentation heavy-handed or cliche-ridden. Nevertheless, the jewel in the crown of this particular cluster is: “And if she plays with me with her shirt off, / We shall construct many Iliads”. The play-off between the personal/private and the public (which is Propertius’ ongoing poetic dilemma) set-up by the allusion to Homer’s Iliad revels in the irony that the extremely public Trojan War was fought for an extremely private indiscretion by one man involving another man’s wife literally “with her shirt off”. Pound’s seemingly odd choice of “shirt” here seems to work better than the more feminine “blouse” because it suggests the active, almost “masculine”, side of Cynthia in the heated agon of her intimacy with Propertius (confirmed later in the poem with: “Struggles when the lights were taken away; / Now with bared breasts she wrestled against me”). All in all, Pound seems an extremely knowing observer of sexual mores and his masterful presentation of the acts and pheromones caused by Eros is significantly better than most poets who seek to engage in this type of verse-craft. After the stifling hypocrisy of Victorian (and, by extension, Georgian) morality Pound’s poem seems a liberating cry of honest passion forty years ahead of the sexual revolutions of the 50s/60s and the films, literature, art and other cultural phenomenon that accompanied this personal-public reawakening. It also signals the more hermetic and ritualistic “mysteries of love” and natural-regeneration passages that occur frequently in Pound’s Cantos. If Mauberley was a “farewell to London”, the English cultural scene and Pound’s previous incarnation as a poet then Propertius surely heralds a new beginning for him that would eventually crystallize into the sublime macaronic and ideogrammic tesserae of The Cantos.

In terms of Propertius as a “loose” translation or even a mistranslation this, of course, was always Pound’s intention and overriding vision for the sequence. As a poet he was far too intent in capturing something essentially living, vital and dynamic in the original, qualities that are quite beyond the usual grasp of the metronomic taxidermy of more conventional, or literal, translators. Pound’s aim with Propertius was to write a contemporary, but startlingly new, English-language poem that would transcend its time by remaining “news” and thus allow it to eventually attain “classic” status. This involved inventions of new forms, linguistic kennings and structural configurations in the English “versions” which are exploits a more conventional translator of classical poetry would not even consider let alone entertain. Propertius is definitely looser than Pound’s other translations such as his Cavalcanti, Arnaut Daniel, the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer and his versions of Rihaku/Li Po in Cathay. In fact, Pound’s use of the words “Homage to…” in the title of Propertius should have signalled to readers that a ‘close’ and accurate translation was never his prime aim or intention. “Homage to…” suggests a way of grasping something much deeper about a poet-precursor rather than just technically reduplicating their poems in the English language. Pound wasn’t even trying to palm Propertius off as accurate translation (the fact that the sequence isn’t included in Pound’s 1953 Translations is conclusive proof of this) rather he was sincerely and consciously following Chaucer, Marlowe, Golding, Rossetti and Swinburne in a creative act of pure linguistic “invention” that would produce an enduring and remarkable poem-sequence. This is proved when reading the far more accurate translations of Propertius’ poems (Constance Carrier and W.G. Shepherd’s are the translations I am most acquainted with) which seem formal and dry “plaster-casts” in comparison to Pound’s living-breathing Propertius. The original Sextus Propertius certainly wrote with more decorum in the original Latinate and elegiac constraints than the American-English verbal and vers-libre swagger employed by Pound in Homage; but Pound has certainly unlocked the inner Propertius, the man of passion, by breaking-up the line, by playing more loose with the syntax and returning to more ‘natural’ speech-patterns. If Sextus Propertius had lived in London in 1917 this is certainly a credible capturing of his idiolect:

If she confer such nights upon me,
                                                       long is my life, long in years,
If she give me many,
            God am I for the time.

*

And yet again, and newly rumour strikes on my ear.

Rumours of you throughout the city,
                                             and no good rumour among them.

*

All things are forgiven for one night of your games…
Though you walk in the Via Sacra, with a peacock’s tail for a fan.

Always Pound’s desire is to “pitch” a naturally inflected and organic “voice” which constantly surprises the reader in timely, urgent fashion whilst also being “timeless” poetry. This memorable turn of phrase is what makes Propertius such a compelling and pleasurable work which can be read many times over without exhaustion: surely the indubitable sign of a true classic. And it would also herald the way for Pound’s “free” translations of Homer, Ovid, Sappho and many others that would eventually be enshrined in the gleaming marble veins of The Cantos.

Pound's Propertius VIII

Pound’s handwritten quotation from ‘…Propertius’ 1970

Unfortunately, most of those who have tried to emulate Pound in attempting “free” or “creative” translation have failed possibly because they have lacked Pound’s linguistic acumen and vision to create something new in the English language. Robert Lowell, for example, goes for a sort of half-way house in his Imitations (1962) and the result is awkwardly unsure of itself either as accurate “translation” or inspired “invention”. Since then it seems to be quite faddish for contemporary poets, who have absolutely no knowledge of original languages, to stick a “free” translation into their collections and the result is usually an uninspiring melange that employs colloquial expressionisms far too often for “effect” but which jars tonally with the rest of the poem’s vocabulary. Christopher Logue is a supreme exception to this rule with his five-volume War Music (an unfinished “account” of Homer’s Iliad) which is a magnificent work of endless literary fascination as well as genuine semantic invention which remains true to the Homeric spirit. Another successful exception to the rule is Geoffrey Hill’s 2006 version of Eugenio Montale’s The Storm where radical invention, close attention to techne and verbal precision is unsurpassed. Pound was, of course, conversant with most of the languages he “translated” from: Latin, Italian, French, Provencal and Spanish. Critics seem to forget that, for a time, he was a university Professor of Romance languages and wrote The Spirit of Romance. He could have made ‘close’ translations if he had wanted to, but in some cases chose to translate more “freely” and “creatively” in order to create great English-language poetry.

To make conclusion then: it seems to me that there is ample literary room for both types of translation in contemporary poetry. We certainly do need accurate and “close” translations in English of poets writing in other languages in order to gauge a fair representation and true assessment of that particular writer and their work. Having said that, there is still plenty of space for poets to attempt “creative” or “free” translations so long as this is clearly stated as part of the title or in some form of appended annotation. It is also clear that only a few poets have actually possessed the poetic acumen, or commanded the necessary techne, to pull-off a “creative translation” that resulted in great literature. One of these, Homage to Sextus Propertius, is Pound’s finest work outside of The Cantos as it did, indeed, create the microcosmic paradigm and poetic conditions needed for that most colossal and vital work of Modernism to come into being in the first place.

 

Mark Wilson, April 2014

Mark Wilson has published three poetry collections: ‘Quartet For the End of Time’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2011), ‘Passio’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2013) and ‘The Angel of History’ (Leaky Boot Press, 2013). His poems and articles have appeared in ‘The Black Herald’, ‘The Shop’, ‘3:AM Magazine’, ‘The Fiend’ and ‘Le Zaporogue’.

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The Coming Trauma of Materialism – Owen Barfield

The Fiend is making available a pdf version of Barfield’s essay
The Coming Trauma of Materialism with the permission of The Literary Estate of Owen Barfield. It was first published in The Denver Quarterly in 1976, and collected the following year in his astonishing book of essays The Rediscovery of Meaning.

Born in London in 1898, poet, philosopher, author and critic, Owen Barfield studied at Highgate School, and then at Oxford’s Wadham College.

monks7.JPGowen barfieldHe first began publishing with the novel The Silver Trumpet (an influence on the early writing of both J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis) in 1925. Two books; History in English Words (1926) and Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928) followed, focussing on subjects that would become a life-long obsession; language usage in the arts and the evolution of consciousness, as well as the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner (whom Barfield later went on to translate). Throughout this period he established himself as a key member of the well-known literary group; The Inklings, centred on the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child, and then in other locations around that town.

There followed a long period where Barfield worked for his father’s law firm Barfield and Barfield, beginning in 1929, and through WWII. After the war his literary creativity seems to swell once more, with many works, including Unancestral Voice, History, Guilt, and Habit, Romanticism Comes of Age, What Coleridge Thought, The Rediscovery of Meaning, Speaker’s Meaning, Worlds Apart and Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry as well as many novels and poetry. Many of his works of criticism allowed him lecturing opportunities, particularly in the U.S, where his work is perhaps more well known than in the U.K. The last surviving Inkling, he died in 1997.

His many books have, in the last few years, been reprinted by Barfield Press, headed by his grandson Owen Barfield Jr. All things Barfieldian (including a full bibliography) can be found at the website for his literary estate.

Some video introductions can be found on the internet, also. The later documentary Man and Meaning is an excellent overview, while the Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite‘s youtube presentation on Barfield (part of a series on The Inklings) is also well worth watching.

Thanks go to Owen Barfield Jr. for granting permission on this piece.

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from St. Mawr – D. H Lawrence

[this section of the story describes the aftermath of the character Rico’s riding accident (Rico is Lawrence’s fall guy for the ‘bad artist’ type) and the thoughts of the main character, Lou Carrington, immediately following. – Ed.]

There lay Rico, crumpled and rather sideways, staring at the heavens from a yellow, dead-looking face. Lewis, glancing round in a sort of horror, looked in dread at St. Mawr again. Flora had been hovering.–She now rushed screeching to the prostrate Rico:

“Harry! Harry! you’re not dead! Oh, Harry! Harry! Harry!”

Lou had dismounted.–She didn’t know when. She stood a little way off, as if spellbound, while Flora cried: Harry! Harry! Harry!

Suddenly Rico sat up.

“Where is the horse?” he said.

At the same time an added whiteness came on his face, and he bit his lip with pain, and he fell prostrate again in a faint. Flora rushed to put her arm round him.

Where was the horse? He had backed slowly away, in an agony of suspicion, while Lewis murmured to him in vain. His head was raised again, the eyes still starting from their sockets, and a terrible guilty, ghost-like look on his face. When Lewis drew a little nearer he twitched and shrank like a shaken steel spring, away–not to be touched. He seemed to be seeing legions of ghosts, down the dark avenues of all the centuries that have lapsed since the horse became subject to man.

And the other young man? He was still standing, at a little distance, with his face in his hands, motionless, the blood falling on his white shirt, and his wife at his side, pleading, distracted.

Mrs. Witt, too, was there, as if cast in steel, watching. She made no sound and did not move, only from a fixed, impassive face, watched each thing.

“Do tell me what you think is the matter,” Lou pleaded, distracted, to Flora, who was supporting Rico and weeping torrents of unknown tears.

Then Mrs. Witt came forward and began in a very practical manner to unclose the shirt-neck and feel the young man’s heart. Rico opened his eyes again, said “Really!” and closed his eyes once more.

“It’s fainting!” said Mrs. Witt. “We have no brandy.” Lou, too weary to be able to feel anything, said:

“I’ll go and get some.”

She went to her alarmed horse, who stood among the others with her head down, in suspense. Almost unconsciously Lou mounted, set her face ahead, and was riding away.

Then Poppy shied too, with a sudden start, and Lou pulled up. “Why?” she said to her horse. “Why did you do that?”

She looked round, and saw in the heather a glimpse of yellow and black.

“A snake!” she said wonderingly.

And she looked closer.

It was a dead adder that had been drinking at a reedy pool in a little depression just off the road, and had been killed with stones. There it lay, also crumpled, its head crushed, its gold-and-yellow back still glittering dully, and a bit of pale-blue showing, killed that morning.

Lou rode on, her face set towards the farm. An unspeakable weariness had overcome her. She .could not even suffer. Weariness of spirit left her in a sort of apathy.

And she had a vision, a vision of evil. Or not strictly a vision. She became aware of evil, evil, evil, rolling in great waves over the earth. Always she had thought there was-no such thing–only a mere negation of good. Now, like an ocean to whose surface she had risen, she saw the dark-grey waves of evil rearing in a great tide.

And it had swept mankind away without mankind’s knowing. It had caught up the nations as the rising ocean might lift the fishes, and was sweeping them on in a great tide of evil. They did not know. The people did not know. They did not even wish it. They wanted to be good and to have everything joyful and enjoyable. Everything joyful and enjoyable: for everybody. This was what they wanted, if you asked them.

But at the same time, they had fallen under the spell of evil. It was a soft, subtle thing, soft as water, and its motion was soft and imperceptible, as the running of a tide is invisible to one who is out on the ocean. And they were all out on the ocean, being borne along in the current of the mysterious evil, creatures of the evil principle, as fishes are creatures of the sea.

There was no relief. The whole world was enveloped in one great flood. All the nations, the white, the brown, the black, the yellow, all were immersed, in the strange tide of evil that was subtly, irresistibly rising. No one, perhaps, deliberately wished it. Nearly every individual wanted peace and a good time all round: everybody to have a good time.

But some strange thing had happened, and the vast mysterious force of positive evil was let loose. She felt that from the core of Asia the evil welled up, as from some strange pole, and slowly was drowning earth.

It was something horrifying, something you could not escape from. It had come to her as in a vision, when she saw the pale gold belly of the stallion upturned, the hoofs working wildly, the wicked curved hams of the horse, and then the evil straining of that arched, fish-like neck, with the dilated eyes of the head. Thrown backwards, and working its hoofs in the air. Reversed, and purely evil.

She saw the same in people. They were thrown backwards, and writhing with evil. And the rider, crushed, was still reining them down.

What did it mean? Evil, evil, and a rapid return to the sordid chaos. Which was wrong, the horse or the rider? Or both?

She thought with horror of St. Mawr, and of the look on his face. But she thought with horror, a colder horror, of Rico’s face as he snarled Fool! His fear, his impotence as a master, as a rider, his presumption. And she thought with horror of those other people, so glib, so glibly evil.

What did they want to do, those Manby girls? Undermine, undermine, undermine. They wanted to undermine Rico, just as that fair young man would have liked to undermine her. Believe in nothing, care about nothing: but keep the surface easy, and have a good time. Let us undermine one another. There is nothing to believe in, so let us undermine everything. But look out! No scenes, no spoiling the game. Stick to the rules of the game. Be sporting, and don’t do anything that would make a commotion. Keep the game going smooth and jolly, and bear your bit like a sport. Never, by any chance, injure your fellow-man openly. But always injure him secretly. Make a fool of him, and undermine his nature. Break him up by undermining him, if you can. It’s good sport.

The evil! The mysterious potency of evil. She could see it all the time, in individuals, in society, in the press. There it was in socialism and bolshevism: the same evil. But bolshevism made a mess of the outside of life, so turn it down. Try fascism. Fascism would keep the surface of life intact, and carry on the undermining business all the better. All the better sport. Never draw blood. Keep the hemorrhage internal, invisible.

And as soon as fascism makes a break–which it is bound to, because all evil works up to a break–then turn it down. With gusto, turn it down.

Mankind, like a horse, ridden by a stranger, smooth-faced, evil rider. Evil himself, smooth-faced and pseudo-handsome, riding mankind past the dead snake, to the last break.

Mankind no longer its own master. Ridden by this pseudo-handsome ghoul of outward loyalty, inward treachery, in a game of betrayal, betrayal, betrayal. The last of the gods of our era, Judas supreme!

People performing outward acts of loyalty, piety, self-sacrifice. But inwardly bent on undermining, betraying. Directing all their subtle evil will against any positive living thing. Masquerading as the ideal, in order to poison the real.

Creation destroys as it goes, throws down one tree for the rise of another. But ideal mankind would abolish death, multiply itself million upon million, rear up city upon city, save every parasite alive, until the accumulation of mere existence is swollen to a horror. But go on saving life, the ghastly salvation army of ideal mankind. At the same time secretly, viciously, potently undermine the natural creation, betray it with kiss after kiss, destroy it from the inside, till you have the swollen rottenness of our teeming existences.–But keep the game going. Nobody’s going to make another bad break, such as Germany and Russia made.

Two bad breaks the secret evil has made: in Germany and in Russia. Watch it! Let evil keep a policeman’s eye on evil! The surface of life must remain unruptured. Production must be heaped upon production. And the natural creation must be betrayed by many more kisses, yet. Judas is the last God, and, by heaven, the most potent.

But even Judas made a break: hanged himself, and his bowels gushed out. Not long after his triumph.

Man must destroy as he goes, as trees fall for trees to rise. The accumulation of life and things means rottenness. Life must destroy life, in the unfolding of creation. We save up life at the expense of the unfolding, till all is full of rottenness. Then at last we make a break.

What’s to be done? Generally speaking, nothing. The dead will have to bury their dead, while the earth stinks of corpses. The individual can but depart from the mass, and try to cleanse himself. Try to hold fast to the living thing, which destroys as it goes, but remains sweet. And in his soul fight, fight, fight to preserve that which is life in him from the ghastly kisses and poison-bites of the myriad evil ones. Retreat to the desert, and fight. But in his soul adhere to that which is life itself, creatively destroying as it goes: destroying the stiff old thing to let the new bud come through. The one passionate principle of creative being, which recognises the natural good, and has a sword for the swarms of evil. Fights, fights, fights to protect itself. But with itself, is strong and at peace.

 

220px-StMawr‘St. Mawr’ is a short novel or novella written by D.H Lawrence. It was first published in 1925.

The heroine of the story, Lou Witt, abandons her sterile marriage and a brittle, cynical post WWI England. Her sense of alienation is associated with her encounter with a high-spirited stallion, the St Mawr whose name provides the title for this tale. She eventually settles in a remote ranch set high in the mountains of New Mexico, near Taos.

Lawrence wrote most of this brief novel whilst spending five months of the summer of 1924 at what is now known as the D.H Lawrence Ranch, a property which he and wife, Frieda, acquired from Mabel Dodge Luhan earlier that year.

‘St Mawr’ first appeared in ‘St Mawr and Other Stories’ which, in addition to the novella, consists of two short stories ‘The Overtone’ and ‘The Princess’, and two unfinished stories ‘The Wilful Woman’ and ‘The Flying Fish’. All these works were written during Lawrence’s stay in America between 1922 and 1925.

[book background courtesy of wikipedia. ‘St Mawr’ is in the public domain.]

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Two Prose Poems – John Olson

Whereby the World Smacks of Mackinaw

I assume my existence is a republic of blood and bone and that we walk through ourselves to places of beauty in a revealing intuition of consciousness as a form of headlight. It is in this sense that a book exists as distinct from its author, moss amid moss in the milieu of its solitude, lady bells and a garden in Montmartre. A bottle of wine travels through itself. It is in itself only nothingness, a shine in the blood whispering eventual sleep.
            Paris glimmers in the evening. I am only my perceptions. Death is a theater in which I will one day play a role. Meanwhile one can give being to a transcendent nothingness and go on one’s way, cast oneself into the flux of existence, diversions and chocolate and long walks in the rain.
            Being is everywhere. A Picasso trembles with the sugar of appearance. Exasperation heats a language detached from its destiny. One can conceive of a creation as a calliope of smells, an admonition of pins designed to stimulate beatitudes of ardor and hammer. An amber emotion softens the touch of day. My cuts are healing. Perception is a creative event, and there is redemption in this paradigm. Images run to agree with it. Subtlety grows wings. The dirt smells richly of pain and labor. The railroad unrolls in the distance. Truly, my shoes are literal shelters for my feet. I am like an emotion flapping in the wind. I could be employed as a ribbon on a box of spiders or the slow drool of honey from a spoon.
            One can see where this theory is leading. The puddle hugs the sky in its reflection and the skin at the elbow has long been a fascination for my fingers when the spirit of idleness has presented itself and the problems of others tossed in my mind like a green salad with anchovies and cheddar. Food for thought, as the saying goes.
            What can the relativity of being mean if the being finds its being in something other than itself? The slow white groan of raw sienna.A jar of candy.A tonic in F minor.A sentence boiling with windows and cerulean dossiers of hypnopompic shampoo.A basket of laundry barking at a pair of freshly creased pants.
            Language is the shadow of reality. It can do and say what it wants and yet reality will go on shaking and percolating as if nothing had happened. Things give themselves to us as appearances and we convert them to sermons. The greenhouse mimics the heat of the tropics and bromeliads dazzle us with shape and color. I feel a little sweat trickle down my back. Waves of intoxicating fragrance remind us that a little moisture can tingle on the skin like a thesis of undulation. And so we widen our lens and see that the world is with us in some way, not against us, but mingling itself with our desires in such manner that no pleasure is exempt from pain but is a blend of pleasure and pain and our dreams are sewn with the thread of sleep.
            Being is what it is. A skull whose two holes were eyes.The feel of a feather on the skin.

 

 

How Far Can I Go?

How far can I go without arriving anywhere? Consciousness moves toward the meaning of being and finds a dynasty of sense in a gumbo of words. Being is opaque to itself because it is filled with itself and this filling is the emptiness of a street swirling with snow.
The pulse of a peacock is soft as punctuation. Consciousness, which is the punctuation of being, is an abstraction in which carbohydrates wear the fog of time and sensations corresponding to the tenderness of mushrooms and beans give us the mystery of one another. An ocean climbs into speculation and extrudes prophesies of salt. The ocean recedes leaving a wet slick sand addressed to a shadow, a comet’s tail tasting of ice and metal.
            Thus, the ocean is a great power, and should be nailed to the wall, where it may be viewed at our pleasure, that is to say its image rendered in watercolor, for the guests of the motel. The cars repose in the night. They are parked at angles. A pop machine hums. Palm trees whisper to the moon,and the adult in 3C stirs with childhood memories, making the bedsprings squeak.
            What is this planet we call home? What is it? It is more than a rock. More than a ball of water. More than its clouds and mountains.
            What is it?
            It glitters in its rhythms. It rolls through space marbled with clouds, blackbirds and orchards, catwalks and broth. Creatures emerge from the water and begin to speak. Their words glare of abstraction.
            What is this light? How does it serve the meaning of the dark?
            Due to the requirements of language, everything is infrared. Space and light are married in emulsion. A patch of trembling flowers are spirits that strain to speak.
            A kitchen knife shares the air with a glass of grape juice. But my God, what happened to the butter? It has melted into the shape of a sparrow. And the bread is a page in the chapter of an invocation.
            All consciousness is consciousness of something. Even a spoon accommodates the rising sun by providing a palette for its heat and light. A smooth silver curvature with a handle whose tip depicts a tangle of vegetation.
            What more can I say?
            Let our blood warm the leather of our inquiry. As for Nothingness, it, too, has a truth to tell. The non-being of being topples into the sentence like a load of whipped cream and puzzles the will to express some authority over it. But nothingness is, after all, nothing, and there is nothing to say to nothing but whatever rolls from the mouth, and that may be an apple, or the representation of an apple, which implies the absence of an apple at the same time it presents the appleness of an apple.
            The rest is silence.
            And bananas and cherries and jujubes and dates.

 

 

Image

John Olson is the author of eight books of poetry, his most recent being ‘Larynx Galaxy’ from Black Widow Press. He is also the author of three novels, including ‘The Seeing Machine’, about French painter Georges Braque, ‘The Nothing That Is’, an autobiographical novel presented from the 2nd person point of view, and ‘Souls of Wind’, in which French poet Arthur Rimbaud visits the United States in the 1880s and meets Billy the Kid while on a paleontological dig in New Mexico, which was shortlisted for a Believer book of the year award in 2008. He is the recipient of ‘The Stranger’s Annual Genius Award’ for literature in 2004 and was one of eight finalists for the ’2012 Arts Innovator Award’.

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Three Poems – Andrei Bely

Messengers

In fields hopeless and dumb
Droops the pale-bladed grain;
It is dozing and numb
Amid dreams that are vain….
With a high sudden hum
The field tosses its mane:
“Unto us Christ is come!”
The wild news shakes the plain.
Like a wind-beaten drum
Shouts the quivering grain.

The bells ring soft and slow,
There is clamor and pain
In the church, and a low
Voice is lifted again
That reiterates: “Woe!”
To the poor folk and plain
Are brought candles aglow:
“Christ is coming again!”
But with voices of woe
They file doorward, in pain.

 

Euthanasia

The shining and ponderous goblet
I empty: the earth drops below me,
All things sink away, —I am treading
Cold space—the vast void—the dim ether.
But distant, in ancient space looming,
My glimmering goblet: the Sun.

I look—far below me are lying
The rivers, the forests, the valleys,
Estranged in the vanishing distance.
A cloud, blowing fog on my eyelids,
Trails gossamer gold in its going.

The flickering landscape is burning
Its last: mid-day stars newly-kindled
Look into my soul, sparkling: “Welcome,”
With radiance silently streaming:
“The end of long wanderings, brother,
Lies here, in your motherland, welcome!”

Slow hour upon hour in procession,
Slow centuries, smiling, pass onward.
In ancient space proudly I lift it,
My glimmering goblet: the Sun.

 

“YOU SIT ON THE BED THERE”
(Opening poem of the “Funeral Mass” cycle)

“You sit on the bed there
In the sunset’s full crimson,
Pillows crumpled,
Looking distracted, —what
Troubles you?”

                                  “Oh, swept by
                                  Transparent
                                  Gold cataracts,
                                  The fir-tree tops
                                  Loom athwart the sky’s blue.”

“Orphaned, alone, I shall
Languish,
Through summery
Twilights and Winter nights.
There are new flights, but
Try them I dare not.
Oh, do not die!”

                                  “Oh, above the pines
                                  I float off into æther seas.
                                  Who, there, what, there,
                                  Swathes the sky with whitenesses,
                                  As with vestments of silver?”

 

 

Andrei_Bely_(1910s)Reared in a professorial atmosphere, in which science was the major element, Boris Bugayev, better known under his pseudonym of Andrey Bely, has lived a double life of artist and analyst. The artist was engrossed in problems of form. He created an interesting, experimental genre which he called “symphony,” with cadenced prose, verbal instrumentation and musical development of themes. The analyst, on his part, used mathematical formulæ on the poet’s fine frenzy, inaugurating a science of rhythmics, at least for the Russians. Yet Bely is no æsthete, but a mystic, who gropes toward the light of Christ, “the timeless taper,” and who lives by the uncertain hope of the ineffable coming. The  metaphysical conflict is constantly invading the field of his poetic endeavor, until his lyrics become the battle-cries of his spiritual journeys. He is responsible for more theorizing about symbolism than any one else, ‘Weltanschauung’ and almost intto an ethics.

His poetry is rarefied and difficult. Its delicate imagery is but an overtone of a resonant spiritual note. His poems have an esoteric quality which is also evidenced in his two famous novels, “The Silver Dove” and “Petersburg.”Through both moves a curious counterpoint of the apocalyptic and the homely, muffled by theosophic speculation.

The proletarian revolution elicited from Bely a cycle of poems, suggestively entitled “Christ is Risen!” Herein he envisions Russia, of which he once despaired, as the new Nazareth. Quite Recently he completed the first part of a monumental epic planned for ten volumes.

[from the original introduction to the poetry of Andrey Bely in Modern Russian Poetry; An Anthology translated by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky (Bodley Head, 1923). Bely went on to produce numerous works of critical prose, memoir and fiction. He died in Moscow in 1934.]

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