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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England
I first saw the American poet and editor, Jerome Rothenberg read at the Portsmouth Polytechnic Fine Art Department in 1975. He began by meditating and chanting and took his audience on a wonderfully disparate journey through his New York and Polish Jewish background to his fieldwork with North American Indians and fascination with archaic and primitive poetries around the world. His willingness to go deeply into his own distinct background and to look beyond at other poetic cultures combined with his sage-like appearance made a deep impression. He seemed to be already a global poet of some distinction. Of course, it was not uncommon in those days for well-known poets to celebrate the works of others in their own readings. I recall seeing Pete Brown, the Liverpool poet, at the Roundhouse in 1974, reciting sound poetry, Scouse poetry, skipping songs, lyrics, street graffiti and expanding the aural expectations of what a poet might do. It was all part of a wider, more open interest in ethnic and non-literate writing, the celebration of diversity and a way of doing things that only poetry can do. Rothenberg and Pete Brown were in their different ways aware of the oral materiality of poetry.
They offer a useful contrast. Brown has subsequently been aloof from the poetry world and forged his own career as an award-winning lyricist, percussionist and a bandleader. However, Rothenberg went from translating Paul Celan and Günter Grass in New Young German Poets (1959) to the anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania (1968) and Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (1972) to becoming the institutional representative of ethnopoetics in America. He has become the epitome of the globetrotting poet-anthropologist-translator-editor challenging the American poetry canon and helping to extend the history of that poetry. Such a figure as Rothenberg does not really exist in England. Those that sought such a path went overseas rather than face the stubborn refusal to look beyond the island.
Since the Seventies there has been much less openness to diversity in English poetry. Indeed this is something that afflicts both the mainstream and non-mainstream in England. It is more than a Little Englander condition. Just as J. H. Prynne, in his specimen commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets 94, (Cambridge 2001), reminds readers of the etymology and philology of each word in the sonnet, so our reading patterns have a history that has shaped how we read poems. An awareness of that history, conditioned as it is by ethnic, social, educational, psychological, regional and other factors, and its prejudice, may help us to find the key to those ‘alien’ poems that we refuse. On the macro level, it might help us to appreciate the divide between those who read poems as language only and those who read poems as social process only and show the need to resist closure on either side of the fence.
Beneath that is a deeper condition that refuses both the close reading of each word in every line and the broadest range of possible readings in terms of language effects and imaginative responses and the different levels of meaning of a text and its inter-connectedness within other discourses. Allied to that is the relative lack of understanding within practical criticism that poetry is also a sound. There is an aversion to work that intensifies the materiality of poetry. Thus trite and slick language effects are venerated by the mainstream whilst works with a wider range of effects and meaning are marginalised or excluded.
My poetry reading template was first set in the late 1970s by such books as Raymond Williams’ The Country and The City (1973), E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1968), Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture (1968), Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971) and J.H. Prynne’s The White Stones (1969). Each book clearly draws the reader into its world and has seminal significance beyond shaping my reading prejudice. As a set it is quite distinct from say, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (1948), Douglas Bush’s Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition of English Poetry (1963) and Thom Gunn’s The Occasions of Poetry (1982), a list provided by my friend, Brian Hinton, or a list of post-modernist critics, and is generational. When blanking an alien poem we tend to fall back upon our reading prejudice. Some anti-list and coterie pressure doubtless reinforces that. However, we should try to avoid premature closure of possible reading avenues. Language based readers should look at social and economic pressures and vice versa within the context of an understanding that poems are processed as much as a tin of beans.
A decade ago I published some poems by a young woman poet. They were quirky, individual, raw and probing. A few years later she called me to ask why no one else was publishing her work. She had been rejected. Could I explain what was happening? I fell back on an understanding that mainstream English poetry had become thin and mean-spirited in terms of what it accepts. There is a typical forty line poem that paints a pretty picture, uses slick techniques, gives a chuckle at the end and amounts to little beyond that. It certainly doesn’t lead to any subsequent exploration. That caricature poem and its offspring still prevails and wins all the prizes that are judged by a small coterie of judges, winners and their friends.
I am delighted to say that after some years of rejection Sheila Hamilton has found a publisher in Austria for her first full-length collection. That she had to go to an Austrian publisher rather reinforces my point about the narrowness of English poetry in terms of the primitive and sacred. However, there is more to this. Reading her book The Corridor of Babel (Poetry Salzburg 2007), I became aware that her work was more European than English. It is an enlivening work, celebrating psychic, human and natural diversity and the possibility of a wider universe. Hamilton is a ‘technician of the sacred’ to use Jerome Rothenberg’s apt term. She is clearly a poet of the earth or more precisely of the universe, that is to say that she is more of an anthropological than an ecological poet. Her brief is thus wider and more concerned with reconnecting and transforming consciousness than mere celebration. She speaks up for a range of abused women through history. Her poems celebrate the range and diversity of birds, fish and animals and their depiction in art, ensuring that the reader becomes aware of their disparate attributes and qualities. They also feature mythological and fabulous creatures such as the unicorn, mermaid, angel, stoorworm, windigo, cath palug, Minotaur as they have impinged upon our consciousness and landscape. In sum, her work draws upon the legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the French Surrealists.
The English Surrealist group that came together in the late 1920s and early 1930s blossomed for a short time. They organized the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition at Burlington Place, London. However, they were critically attacked from the outset and only one essay in F.R. Leavis’ Scrutiny magazine in December 1932 was sympathetic seeing the group as ‘artisans of a new spiritual progress … conscious of all the potentialities of human nature’. Few survived the Second World War to strengthen and widen their work. Magazines such as Transition, Experiment, Contemporary Poetry and Prose, New Verse had closed and new outlets were harder to find. Hugh Sykes Davies withdrew into an academic life. Ruthven Todd and Len Lye went to New York, Humphrey Jennings, Roger Roughton and Dylan Thomas had died prematurely and David Gascoyne moved to France. Of these, perhaps only Gascoyne grasped French Surrealism’s connection of the spiritual, alchemical and political.
There is no acknowledged tradition of ethnopoetics in English poetry. Sheila Hamilton’s fascination with culturally distant forms and lifestyles and her parallel interest in women that are feminist, spiritual, green and Surrealist, such as Remedios Varo, necessarily puts her outside the general reading template of most English poetry editors.
One man that has become synonymous with ethnopoetics did live and work in England for a while and that is Nathaniel Tarn.
Born in 1928 in Paris of British-Lithuanian and French Rumanian parents, he was educated in France, Belgium and England. After graduating in History and English from Cambridge University, Tarn studied Anthropology at the Sorbonne, LSE and Chicago University, where he completed his Doctorate, based on fieldwork in the Mayan region of Guatemala. He taught at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. After publishing his poetry volume Old Savage / Young City (1964), appearing in Penguin Modern Poets 7 (1965) and a celebrated translation of Pablo
Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu (1966), he became General Editor of Cape Editions and Founding Editor of Cape Goliard Press between 1967 and 1969. Here he published literary, political and anthropological books by the likes of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Nazim Hikmet, Vaclav Havel, J.H. Prynne and Tom Raworth. I still have many Cape Editions books in my library. The effort to widen the literary horizons of English letters was not entirely successful and in 1970 he moved to the U.S., becoming an American citizen and professor of Comparative Literature at Rutgers University from 1972 until his retirement in 1985. Having battled against a Little Englander resistance to the wider world of poetry, he pursued ‘Ethnopoetics’, the accessing of primitive and archaic poetries. Exiled and open to other cultures, through extensive fieldwork in Burma, China, Japan, Cuba and Alaska, in a land ‘full of borrowed’ languages, he espouses a universalism. This expansive and enquiring arc from a French to an English and American poet, owes something to the early inspirations of Olson and Lévi-Strauss. Tarn seems to have a genuine psychological and linguistic curiosity about the human mind and condition as well as an abiding sense of where to find deeper layers of history that look backwards and forwards. His non-conformist lineage may be traced from Blake through Yeats, the French Surrealists, Patchen, Dylan Thomas, MacDiarmid to Olson, Robert Duncan and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and critics. Being both European and American certainly enriches his perspectives. His latest collection of essays, The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology (Stanford 2007), shows the impact of his double career as a poet and an anthropologist and contains some energetic theoretical essays as well as a good amount of biographical information.
Rothenberg and Tarn, both linguists and translators, are fundamentally concerned with finding openings and making connections to the past and future. They have moved out of the Modernist in the spirit of Gertrude Stein’s comment: ‘The exciting thing about all this is that as it is new it is old and as it is old it is new, but now we have come to be in our way which is an entirely different way.’
There are translators of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English texts around. Much of this is orthodox and academic rather than creative and anthropological. Again the onus is on closing off the possibilities of sound. The work of Bill Griffiths stands out as an exception to the rule. An Anglo-Saxon scholar, he has an ear for song, the varieties and cadences of speech and writes compacted lyrics that expose layers of social domination. His work is clearly rooted in an oral tradition. His Old English translations include: Guthlac B (1986), The Land Ceremonies Charm, The Nine Herbs Charm (1986/7), The Old English Poem ‘Phoenix’ (1990), The Battle of Maldon (1991). His work is widely published by Etruscan, West House and Anglo-Saxon Books. Will Rowe has recently edited The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths (2007).
There is some anthropological work around in England as Sheila Hamilton’s book testifies. Pascale Petit, a French /Welsh poet, has had some success with The Zoo Father (2001), The Huntress (2005) and The Wounded Deer (2005), fourteen poems inspired by Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and has a strong affinity with natives tribes in Venezuela. Her work is incantatory and works best as a unity.
Dialect poetry has been partially preserved and survives as a mostly backward-looking art. It has perhaps been the Afro-Caribbean poets, now more based in America, such as Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, that have most effectively taken the art form forward by finding their broader roots. It is notable that many so-called minority poets get absorbed and diluted by the marketing and homogenising process of globalisation.
To find some archaic poetics I would suggest looking at the Notting Hill Carnival procession. The ethos of the costumes, dances and methodology of the participants of this London Afro-Caribbean event is remarkably similar to the Elizabethan and Jacobean Court masques. Indeed it is a fine example of a literary heritage being transported through the Empire and the slave trade to another culture and returning to its country of origin through impoverished immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s. The Carnivals began, I believe, as a response by Afro-Caribbeans in Trinidad to the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century.
Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian communist who came to London after being deported from New York as a result of her civil rights campaigning, started the Notting Hill Carnival. Twice interned for her political beliefs on Ellis Island she came to London in 1955. A turbulent character, manic in her energy and astute as a political organiser, she organized the first Carnival in 1959 as a response to attacks on Black people and the race riots of the previous year.
The Carnival which began as a celebration of Caribbean culture and a wider appeal for a united stand against racism, combines the traditional Trinidad Carnival elements of mas, calypso/soca and steel pan with Jamaican-style static sounds, reggae and rap. Non-literate utterances abound and augment and counterpoint the masques of the procession. It is a sophisticated language system at work and a joy to watch.