Sunday 2 December 2007

Letter 8

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So Here We Are

Thomas A. Clark, born in Greenock, Scotland in 1944, writes an attentive poetry, giving space to each word and statement so that it can breathe and linger with the reader. His poetry is also attentive to walking, to the necessity of slow deliberation, and to words and their resonance. I would like to explore walking as a poetic theme using Clark’s work as a starting point to weave backwards and forwards.

The first poem in Thomas A. Clark’s Sixteen Sonnets (Moschatel Press 1981) begins:

as I walked out early
into the order of things
the world was up before me

This neatly situates the narrative self within a prior world of phenomena and perceptions. The ‘order of things’ carrying the phenomena and ‘the world was up’ denoting the ongoing activity. That phrase ‘the order of things’ is recognisable as the English title of Michel Foucault’s study of the epistemology of the human sciences (Les Mots et les Choses 1966 translated as The Order of Things: An Archaeology Of The Human Sciences 1970) and alerts the reader to questions of the ordering of knowledge and of the interaction between the self and the world. Clark’s narrative self walks out into the order of things, that is to say, assuming that things are out there and moving with a sense of attentiveness and becoming. It is therefore a knowing self and walking becomes the act of that knowing self.

The poem continues

as I stepped out bravely
the very camber of the road
turned me to its purpose
it was on a morning early
I put design behind me
hear us and deliver us
to the hazard of the road
in all the anonymous places
where the couch grass grows
watch over us and keep us
to the temper of the road

Here discovery and the world with all its terrors are already active and the narrative self steps out to build with the hazardous ground as it is. The line ‘here us and deliver us’ invokes the dissenting tradition of Piers the Plowman, Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton and Blake and of being delivered from oppression to the promised land. Here explicitly defined as ‘in all the anonymous places / where the couch grass grows’ and enveloped within the echoes of a prayer that is conditioned by temper, with all its variant meanings implied.

For Wordsworth and others walking was seen as an aid to the recovery of memory, creative expression and connecting to the divine. Wordsworth’s walking poems, such as ‘An Evening Walk’, ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar, ‘The Female Vagrant’ and ‘Michael’ connected walking with poetic labour, poverty and the rural poor. Walking then carries within it a subversive content through its associations with poverty, necessity, wandering, awareness and discovery.

From Hazlitt’s 1823 essay ‘My First Acquaintance With Poets’ we learn that the young Coleridge liked ‘to compose over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood; whereas Wordsworth wrote (if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel-walk, or in some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral interruption’.

The Romantics set a vogue for walking that was fuelled by guide books and institutionalised by anti-enclosure associations, open spaces and footpath societies and linked to the making of the self. The walking ideology, though, fixes upon walking as an educational experience rather than the cognitive processes of perception, memory, judgement and reasoning that were central to Wordsworth and Hazlitt.

One of my fondest memories of the 1998 Wessex Poetry Festival was Thomas A Clark’s reading early on a Sunday morning, which culminated in a reading of In Praise of Walking (1988), a poem consisting of forty statements about walking that weave across the nineteenth century ideology of walking.

In Praise of Walking begins:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least
possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence,
property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our
preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth
with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering.

There are walks on which we tread in the footsteps of others,
walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.

A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be
consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every
point along the way.

This deceptively simple poem interjects into an expansive realm of discursive poetics that has been the main path of English poetry and dissent since the nineteenth century.

Clark, in common, with J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geraldine Monk and others, has begun to move beyond the Wordsworthian rupture with the pastoral into new territory.

Following the poem then we note that the world is reached by setting out, again implying ordering, and is there to be discovered, suggesting our knowledge of the world is partial or incomplete and implying an action and a process. The use of ‘we’ suggests that it is possible for us all to discover the world. The ‘least possible baggage’ suggests that closure of thought and emotional response hinders discovery of the world. Discovery, here, implies making connections as we walk and possibly reconnecting with the physical world and human life before or outside of mechanisation.

The second statement acknowledges the possibility of walking away from the world of ‘coercion, violence, property, triviality’. It does not imply withdrawal as such but rather choice. Triviality recalls John Gay’s Trivia, Or The Art of Walking The Streets of London (1716), an important poem in the history of walking poems. Trivia here refers to the Roman goddess of crossroads, the three ways. This public poem takes the form of a narrated walk through London’s streets with a mock classical overlay that advises the reader on the city’s perils and the walker on how to dress. There is a lot of waste, sewage and incipient violence. It presents a distorted image of beggars and urban poverty as Tim Hitchcock points out in a new edition of the poem, edited by Clare Brant and Susan E. Whyman (OUP 2007). So ‘triviality’ here might signify after Gay an element of frivolity and distortion from the underlying conditions as well as implying a movement away from the unimportant to the important.

The third statement registers the connections between the visionary and the primacy of immediate experience. Note the absence of interest in the self and use of the plural in this clear espousal of an undefined world of discovery and visions. Walking is seen as part of the visionary tradition rather than any specific elaboration of a self. This is Wordsworthian then without the self as object. A walk is its own measure.

I am reminded here of John Ashbery’s poem ‘Just Walking Around’ where he writes

The segments of the trip swing open like an orange.
There is light in there and mystery and food.

In other words it is the journey that is important and that may involve opening into ‘light’ (vision), ‘mystery’ (the unknown) and ‘food’ (sustenance and thought).

Clark’s poem’s insistence on the connections between walking and humanness clearly is in contradistinction to those elements of social and economic life where humans are under the constraints of ‘time, work and discipline’ and of an infrastructure that is eroding those places where it is still possible to walk.

John Barrell in The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840 (CUP 1972) points out the insularity of local transport systems in that period and travellers’ perceptions of the pre-enclosure landscape as mysterious and hostile. Once in a network of paths it was not easy for a traveller to find a way out unless they had local knowledge.

The poem invokes those hidden paths as a reminder of how far the earth has been transformed by transport systems, networks and motorways and how it is still possible to find new ways of doing things.

Kim Taplin has explored the history of footpaths in The English Path (Perry Green Press 2000) through the writings of John Clare, William Barnes, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and contemporary poets such as David Caddy, Jeremy Hooker, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Barry MacSweeney, Iain Sinclair and John Welch. She shows how the network of footpaths connects humans with the natural world as well as place with place and how walking has and still does set boundaries.

Iain Sinclair has developed the London literary walk into a mode of creation, echoing that other London walker, David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts (1955), in works such as Lights Out For The Territory (1997), where he writes:

‘Time on these excursions should be allowed to unravel at its own speed, that’s the whole point of the exercise. To shift away from the culture of consumption into a meandering stream.’

The poem continues with the powerful line:

There are things we will never see, unless we walk to them.

When I visited the childhood home of the writer, poet and broadcaster, John Arlott (1914-1991), at Basingstoke, I was astounded to find a tall and pin-thin Gothic building near a cemetery. The cramped living room was seemingly impossible for a family to use. It seemed to be devoid of light. Within and without exuded a distinct aura. There was both a joy and a sadness. This beguiling place began to make sense in relation to Arlott’s determination to become a writer, his involvement in the literary world, of the BBC and pubs of Soho, and resonated again with the personal tragedies of his later life. The ‘Voice of English Summer’ indeed had always been surrounded by darkness. In sum, this peculiar house made sense in relation to the life of the poet, cricket commentator and wine connoisseur and I felt that I knew more about Arlott as a result of walking there.

Clark’s poem is in argument with or contradistinction to Wordsworth’s and other earlier walking poems.

What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance than what I discover along the way.

To be completely lost is a good thing on a walk.

The most distant places seem accessible once one is on the

Convictions, directions, opinions, are of less importance than
sensible shoes.

In the course of a walk we usually find out something about
our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone.

Clark’s emphasis upon discovery is quite distinct from T.S.Eliot’s lines from Little Gidding (1942):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

For Clark, walking is not so much about knowing as discovering. ‘A dull walk’, he writes, ‘is not without value’. The emphasis is on slowness as opposed to the speed of modern communications and those things we share outside of commercial and monetary value. Making connections, discovery, in this sense concerns reading the landscape encountered. This can take different directions from the materialist to the mystical. From J.H. Prynne through Sinclair to the novelist, John Cowper Powys, who used walking as a way of reaching the elemental and magical world of sensation and transformations. By the way, Jeremy Noel-Tod has written an excellent introduction to the figure of walking in the poetry of J.H. Prynne, in Necessary Steps: poetry, elegy, walking, spirit edited by David Kennedy (Shearsman 2007). There is a sense in which walking serves, in all these writers, as a means of reading, of stimulating connections by motion across the path, the past and present.

The poem continues:

Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all
contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self interest.

Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant.

The most lonely places are the most lovely.

Walking is egalitarian and democratic; we do not become
experts at walking and one side of the road is as good as

Walking is not so much romantic as reasonable.
The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement.

Here a differentiation is being made between a tourist and a local walker and I take reason to be allied to discovery. It thus implies a movement beyond a Wordsworthian interest in self to a sense of logic as survival. In other words, as a way of discovering how to save the earth from further destruction.

The poem ends:

To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we
can have.

There are walks on which I lose myself, walks which return
me to myself again.

Is there anything that is better than to be out, walking, in the
clear air?

‘To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we
can have.’ thus reminds the reader that, regardless of difference, we are all part of the universe. This is quite close to Gary Snyder’s idea that ‘walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility.’ Clark though moves the terrain to the question of value and venerates walking per se as a step towards radical and alternative value. It is, as it were, a movement attendant to the discovery of the world as it is and outside of self interest. Walking connects us with the physical earth and the distant unknown through the motion of moving forwards. It is also a movement from the actual to the possible in cognitive and human terms.

Saturday 3 November 2007

Letter 7

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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England

I would like to say a few words about the poet and translator, Bill Griffiths, who died in September, aged 59, and briefly sketch the context and scope of his work. He produced more than two hundred books and pamphlets and translated from Old English, Welsh, Romany, Latin, Norse and other languages. He was in the tradition of Radical pamphleteers, concerned with planting the Liberty Tree, and wrote with commitment to make you think about the words and materials under review. He was concerned with the discourses of power and their effects and with the erosion of local democracy. He had a great ear for music and quickly assimilated speech patterns. Some of his works are beautiful artworks, such as A History of the Solar System / Fragments: A History of the Solar System (Writers Forum / Pirate Press 1978). This consists of A4 sheets folded to A5 and machine stitched into a concertina format within green covers. It is a work that literally opens out the world of cosmology, alchemy and belief to show that the universe is multiple and diverse. I have always kept this on my desk to remind me of Bill’s inventiveness and that poetry should open out to another place. His passing leaves a large gap in English poetry.

He was born Brian Bransom Griffiths at Kingsbury, Middlesex, on 20 August 1948. His father was a teacher and mother had been a civil servant. When I first met in August 1973 he was known as Billy Griffiths. He arrived at the Windsor Free Festival poetry event, which I had instigated, with his mentor, sound poet, Bob Cobbing, and read with him prior to another double act, Robert Calvert and Michael Moorcock. He was an impressive reader using cut-up direct speech and intense syntactical compression in poems about bikers and Vikings. He was like the reading, moody and provocative.

I met him several times that autumn and kept in regular contact, receiving most of his Pirate Press editions and subscribing to his various books. He was an inquisitive and supportive, albeit argumentative, character. Bearded, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers, he was part of London’s anarchist squatting community and mixed with bikers, Hell’s Angels, gypsies, renegade Irishmen and other outsiders. Although he squatted in inner London, writing about the dispossessed in Whitechapel (Whitechapel: April & May, End, & Start Texts (Pirate Press 1977), he returned to live at his parental home until he moved into a riverboat at Cowley, near Uxbridge, in the mid 1980s.
Private and irascible, I had no idea that he had a degree in Medieval and Modern History from University College, London. He was independent and radically, non-conformist. We argued incessantly about the usefulness of education and how to develop alternative poetic strategies and readership. I was writing and giving away poems at the time and he urged me to not go to University so that I would think more in alternative ways. This was a time of social and industrial unrest, of fragmentation and protest, and such a proposition was not so fanciful if you had private means, which I did not.

I went to University and this upset Bill, who was committed to the ideals of an alternative society. He made poetry his life, placing it above all other concerns, and was continually producing new work. He employed disparate materials often prefaced by notes based upon his etymological and historical research that alerted his readers to the direction of his thinking. He used juxtaposition and narrative disjunctions to allow other discourses and voices into his poems to add another dimension to the subject under review. Typically, his endings refuse any closure to indicate a situation or event is continuous.
I recall seeing him in spring 1977 when he was strung out and not in great health. He gave a blistering reading at Portsmouth Polytechnic Fine Art Department. It was a provocative exposure of the mid-Victorian civil service’s handling of criminal justice and prisons using found and cut-up texts and documentary evidence. Some of these poems appeared in Poetry Review Volume 67 Nos. 1 and 2. He was cleverly using found texts from the past to comment on the present. It was his riposte to my decision to study History and to engage in post-graduate literary study, all part of an argument about theory and practice. His analysis was similar in scope to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977). That night we discussed the Annales School of historiography and the difference in approaches between historians such, the Marxist, George Rudé and the anarchist, Richard Cobb. The methodological argument between them comes down to the importance attached to the document. Bill’s eyes lit up as he extolled the virtues of the document, archives and proper systems of storage and access. Bill later worked as an archivist on several project, including cataloguing Eric Mottram’s Archive at King’s College, London, and became a member of the Society of Archivists. Bill was, in essence, writing a history of power ‘from below’ to use the Annales School term.

Bill was an associate of Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum Press and workshop, a regular contributor to Eric Mottram’s Poetry Review, a stalwart of the Association of Little Presses (ALP), producing the newsletter (PALPI) and Print Shop Manager at the Poetry Society from June 1974. As such, he was an integral part of the London hub, along with such poets as Allen Fisher, Iain Sinclair, Lee Harwood, Gilbert Adair, Ken Edwards and Jeff Nuttall, of what Eric Mottram termed the English Poetry Renaissance or Revival. Bill used the Association of Little Presses book fairs to sell his hand printed books and pamphlets and developed his own independent ways of reaching a loyal readership. He was produced many publications in the Poetry Society basement and several works, including War w/ Windsor (Pirate Press 1973), Idylls of the Dog, King and other Poems (Pirate Press 1975), Cycles (Pirate Press 1975) and The Song of the Hunnish Victory of Pippin the King (Earthgrip Press 1976), went into multiple editions. This was a golden age of little press activity and it was hurting the larger poetry presses. Eric Mottram at Poetry Review was accused of publishing too many foreign poets and lost his job. The Poetry Society print shop where Bill printed his and other London based publications was closed down. The whole apparatus of support, including the National Poetry Secretariat, wonderfully administered by Pamela Clunies-Ross, for little press poets outside London, was taken away. A documentary account of this is given in Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Salt 2006).

His early work includes War w/ Windsor, which appeared in several editions, and Cycles, distinguished by their disruptive use of language and radical scope. It is in marked contrast to the conventional poetry of that period and takes prison and urban deprivation as its main themes in a sustained study of the manifestations of repression. War w/ Windsor explores the social parameters of bikers and the law at a time when the stop and search laws were in frequent use by the police on any individual that appeared to be vaguely outcast. Stop and search was based on sections 4 and 6 of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and became a contributory factor in the 1980 St Paul’s, Bristol and 1981 Brixton, riots. Incidentally, his poem, ‘The Toxteth Riots’ (in The Mud Fort: Selected Poems 1984-2004 Salt 2004) quotes the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee emphasising ‘police harassment over a long period’ as the main cause of the disorder. War w/ Windsor gives voice to the biker’s world, the Windsor Chapter and Uxbridge Nomads war against each other and the police, of prison and social control, employing broken syntax in linked sets of sound poems that catch their speech patterns in terse narratives.

Here’s the opening of ‘To Johnny Prez Hells Angel Nomads’

1. Christmas straight-
Jacket kid
Packet of light fields
2. With no lamps, roads
Without airforce or Angels, wd you jin Ruislip?
A lion in you
In a law-shop
3. The motor-bike is acorn yellow
Johnny Bev Bob
White my mind
Gonna pick up of
Pepper is day yep
4. Bev as the sea wave wake
See this this is Angels getting the booting of their life in
This is Johnny
This is me picking up snout bits in Brixton
5. Johnny begot, beading of black Jack-club
Dance kick at drums, can-banging
6. And love
Works to mix to mix you up miscates the soul
Shooting blood out; all
Red-laking; well
Shut in the breasts of her.

Bill shared the Poetry Society’s Alice Hunt Bartlett Award for 1974, with Allen Fisher, for such work. Bill augmented his interests in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Romany, Norse and other languages into his work.

Cycle 1 (On Dover Borstal) begins:

as I ain’t like ever to be still but
lock and knock my sleeping

‘Ictus’ being Latin for a physical hit or strike, also signifying the first or regular beat in Latin verse, although there is historical confusion over this (see Oxford English Dictionary OED 1) and in medicine the beat of the pulse (OED 2 a), implies impact, stress and a sense of confusion and physicality. The exclamation mark emphasises and raises the pitch of utterance, echoing Romantic exclamatory usage in terms of outcry and suspense. That impact is implied is reinforced by line four’s ‘lock and knock in my sleeping’ and that the narrative self is under review is achieved by the switch from the ‘I’ of line two to the ‘my’ of line 4.

It continues:

the complex of the fort against the French, Dover,
‘s mighty imperfection: fits to the sea,
the moat (and ported, kinging the blue, closed, so built-made
and the salty grass and rubble of chalk growing
writing the chalk-kid
shout for separation

Here the writing shows an educated, disorientated narrator aware of the war machinery at work, ‘the barbwire is German / it is made with razorblades’ and employs alliteration and disjunctions that dazzle and surprise.

You’re you
and I ain’t any one but you

The bright crazy rings in agate
spring is.

It is an intensely physical poem, alert to historical knowledge, with a narrator self awake to a landscape and seascape of cuts and bruises and wanting to break free ‘to think on the pattern of an action’. It is this tension of wanting and needing to escape that he dramatically captures.

Bob Cobbing’s sound and visual poetry workshops at the Poetry Society from 1969-1977 were a formative and continual inspiration. Bill’s concern with the materiality, and ways of scripting, utterances led him back to Old English literature and other languages with traditions of cryptic utterances and runic signs. He also acknowledged in an interview with Will Rowe the impact of Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred (1968), with its global ethnopoetics and concern with archaic poetry. The book provided his introduction to works, such as The Nine Herb Charm (1981), that he would later translate himself.
Bill regularly toured with Cobbing and Paula Claire as Konkrete Canticle, the sound and visual poetry group, from 1974 until 1979, from 1984 -1988 and again from 1990 until 1992. They toured Canada, Sweden, Germany and the U.K. Here Bill developed different uses for the voice in poetry, fragmenting vowels and consonants, and explored the edges of utterance. As Paula Claire has written in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths (Salt 2007), Bill continually worked on texts and left behind a whole range of poetic experiments in hypergraphics spanning the repertoire of communication signs in their broadest sense. This is deposited in her Archive.

Through Eric Mottram, who taught English and American Literature at King’s College, London, Bill encountered the wide range of poetries published in the Poetry Review and returned to study Old English at King’s, gaining a Ph.D. in 1987. His translation work began, with John Porter, working on the late medieval Icelandic texts in Gisli’s Saga – The Verses (Pirate Press 1974) and then Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon Text with Modern English Parallel (Pirate Press 1975). In these and later works, Bill emphasises the rhythmic and would often produce the original text, a literal one and poetic version. His poetic versions though were in marked contrast to standard translations. It was if he was scraping away the Victorian gloss and returning to older traditions through rhythm and sound and placing them in the context of music and dance. His connections at King’s College led to a fruitful relationship with Anglo-Saxon Books in Norfolk, who published The Battle of Maldon (1991, revised 2000) and Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (1996, revised 2003).

In 1990 he moved to Seaham in Durham and became involved in the collection and archiving of dialect materials. His selected poems 1969-1989, introduced by Jeff Nuttall, appeared in Future Exiles: 3 London Poets (Paladin 1992). He became Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University. He published A Dictionary of North-East Dialect (Northumberland University Press 2005), several collections of dialect literature and wrote some ghost stories, set in the baroque world of English local government.
Pitmatic, his last book, concerns North East coalminers and their dialect and clearly has a social-political dimension. He remained a political and campaigning poet as later books such as, A Book of Spilt Cities (Etruscan 1999) and Durham and Other Sequences (West House Books 2002) show. Although he also wrote extensively on Plotinus, Darwin and Seaham, it is his consistent writing about struggles between the dispossessed and the police that stand out. See for example such late poems as ‘Detective Notes’ and ‘Thirteen Thoughts as though Woken in Caravan Town at Dawn by 150 Policemen in Riot Gear With Helicopter and Film Back-Up at Saltersgate Near Tow Law in Co. Durham on the Sixth of March 1996’ from 1997.

We have babies ‘n births
sometimes secessions; burials; communities are moved,
demolition eases the feral-search for ground for housing
the kings of the dock-weed be warned.
and the opulent win the shadow-box,
choose the puppets on show for hands with legs ‘n wages
we are subliminated into tokens ‘n riddle-stanzas
or left a road march

(see Worlds of New Measure: An anthology of five contemporary British Poets Edited by Clive Bush Talus Editions 1997)

Bill’s poetry has a difficult, edgy surface that is oppositional. It employs an array of languages, often in the same poem or set of poems. Colloquial or spoken English, Anglo-Saxon, local dialects collide with Latin, French and Standard English, the written language of power. It his work on the procedures of law and bureaucracy, on prison; his commitment to a locality and its linguistic culture as a base for poetry; his use of ordinary people’s lived experience through a musical ear and cut-up disjunctions; his efforts to write polyphonically and to remove the obfuscation of Victorian language over archaic poetries and his continual movement to offset the structures of power with citizenship and the dialect of poetic language that will survive. Bill Griffiths I miss your stubbornness and cussedness already.

Sunday 7 October 2007

Letter 6

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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England

Travelling on the Damory Bus from my home to Salisbury is an event in itself. The bus company’s website and bus stop timetables offer no reliable information on the Service. We rely upon memory that there is a bus leaving the village some time between 9.20 am and 9.40 am and the hope that it continues. So here we are on the bus filled with retired professionals looking out at the summer landscape. There are plenty of horses and sheep in fields, signs of turf cutting and wheat ripening. We see deer, pheasant, buzzards and no one in the fields. We pass by Ashmore with its iconic dewpond, ill-kempt wood and no indigenous population, not far from Society photographer, Cecil Beaton’s old home, Ashcombe House, now occupied by Mr & Mrs Ritchie. The bus falters going up hill as we leave Fontmell Magna and descend deeper into Cranborne Chase, a downland with dense woodland vestiges, Neolithic and Bronze Age earthworks that straddles parts of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire. The name refers to the land as a place of hunting and has been sparsely populated since Saxon times. It is easy to see the contours of history here. There are houses and entrances designed by the dramatist and architect, John Van Brugh, and humbler buildings that carry with them the association of bloody struggles between landowners, with their retinue of keepers, foresters and verderers, and poachers. Open an OS map and you will see that struggle in location and place names around the Chase.
Dominated by the Cathedral, with its tall spire and chapter house holding one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, Salisbury is a compact, lively city on the edge of the Plain, a barren chalk plateau to the north west of the Chase. In recent years it has suffered from an overdose of literature development officers and writers in residence who visit and leave little behind. This has been happening throughout the country and does not produce local literary communities. In fact, they can be counter-productive. The idea of introducing outsiders as experts, often people at the beginning of their career and without much literary experience, is fatally flawed and a waste of public money. It is a fragmented poetry scene, with people travelling in a thirty-mile radius to attend poetry events, lacking in leadership and direction. There are no magazines or poetry publishers to support the local scene. Yet it has an International Arts Festival and a vast literary history from Sir Philip Sidney, William Browne through George Herbert, Henry Fielding, to Hazlitt, Trollope, Hardy, W.H. Hudson, William Golding and David Gascoyne. John Constable’s painting The Cathedral From The Bishop’s Grounds (1825) is often cited as one of England’s best views. It is an extraordinary confluence of place, spirit and identity and is worth investigating in terms of how poets have used the confluence to probe history, identity, and the georgic.

It was in March 1913 that poet, Edward Thomas, crossed over Harnham Bridge, near the Cathedral, ‘where the tiled roofs are so mossy, and went up under that bank of sombre-shimmering ivy just to look where the roads branch’, on his literary pilgrimage by bicycle from Clapham in London to the Quantock Hills and Coleridge’s home at Nether Stowey. Thomas’s journey, with the Other Man, who eats brown bread and monkey-nuts, the status of whom is uncertain, has a potent relevance. Although, on the surface, it is a journey searching for signs of spring and observing what is present through earlier poetic responses, it is also a journey of self-discovery, written against the threat of a World War, and a probing of identity, the unconscious, spiritual purpose and landscape looking for rebirth. In Pursuit Of Spring (1914), is a search for poetic understanding with Coleridge the dissenter, the man in black as Hazlitt called him, as a figurative destination, that is to say it is a journey that extends from the superficial to the dark and disturbing.
Thomas was moved to have the Other Man quote in full and with relish George Herbert’s sonnet on Sin on his way to St Andrew’s Bemerton, where Herbert was rector and died in 1633. It is a chilly, tiny Low Anglican church, with a strong atmosphere of piety, a stained glass portrait of Herbert, and well worth a visit. The adjacent old rectory, rebuilt by Herbert, is now in private hands. My phone call asking to visit was declined.
Thomas cycles on through the Plain, with its five river valleys, interrupted only by a railway line and military camps, noting in this remote and treeless landscape the rooks, pewits and larks. Like Coleridge, Thomas has a fondness for birds (he notes that there are more birds than people in Salisbury that Sunday morning) and is less godly than his alter ego, the Other Man. Just outside Erlestoke he meets two ex-sailors, vagrants, who mention the Titanic, bless him and appear to be asking for money, which he refuses to give, and cycles on. He is more concerned with his uneasy conscience than whether the beggars ‘slept dry and ate enough’. Thomas is arguing with himself about the Christian idea of charity so beloved by Herbert. He is struck by seeing the whole through the inner and outer nature of small things, through the particulars of place, through oppositions, the mildness and wildness of nature, those defining imaginative characteristics he also saw in Coleridge.

Salisbury, its river confluence, the Plain and Stonehenge feature in Song Three of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, Or A Chorographicall Description of Tracts, Rivers, Mountaines, Forests, and other Parts of this renowned Isle of Great Britaine, With intermixture of the most remarquable Stories, Antiquites, Wonders, Rarityes, Pleasures, and Commodies of the same (1612), a curious work written in rhyming couplets of twelve syllable lines and engraved maps decorated with goddesses and allegorical figures. Here the traveller-poet uses the marriage and competition between rivers as a unifying symbol. Drayton was part of the Sidney–Spenser literary grouping that came to nearby Wilton House, where Sir Philip Sidney had written most of The Arcadia (1590), a prose romance, that later so outraged Hazlitt that he called it ‘one of the greatest monuments of abuse of intellectual power upon record’ and A Defence of Poetry (1595), which defends poetry as the highest art and equal of nature under God. Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, preserved and published her brother’s work after his death in 1586, completed his translation of the Psalms and made Wilton into a college of learning, poetry and alchemy. It was the spiritual centre of the Sidney-Spenser movement in English poetry, with many links to poets and writers associated with the Mermaid Tavern in London. Mary was patron to Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, Drayton and William Browne. Shakespeare is thought to have attended the 1603 royal performance of As You Like It at Wilton. Donne is said to have visited. Ralegh’s half brother, Adrian Gilbert, was her resident advisor and Fulke Greville, as elder statesman of the group was Mary’s most trusted ally.

Drayton’s attempt to preserve Albion’s history through topography and to forge a national identity was inspired by William Camden’s Britannia (1586). The ‘chorography’ of the book’s title refers to the physical and historical description of a single locality. These included written itineraries and routes across a territory with particular histories, points of interest and local lore. The controlling image of the river stems from Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion (1596). This idea and image fuels Poly-Olbion’s celebration of national diversity, with rivers, as loci of conflict and song, serving to unify the country. Drayton essentially produces a map of England based upon rivers and ancient monuments that is linked to ideas of visual memory and national identity. The final part of Book One ends with a celebration of Kentish independence and liberty against Norman yoke and placing Kent as the foremost English shire. William Wordsworth echoes this in ‘To the Men of Kent’, one of the ‘Sonnets dedicated to Liberty’, in Poems (1807).

Ye, of yore
Did from the Norman win a gallant wreath;
confirm’d the charters that were yours before.

This patriotism is rooted not in Westminster but in the tradition of local defence of liberty. Wordsworth’s debt to Drayton is evinced by the many references to rivers and can be read as a kind of up-dated sense of history through topography. Wordsworth as a public poet helped the idea of history through topography further permeate English culture and identity.

Tony Blair’s New Labour Government in 1997 somewhat incoherently tried to produce a national brand with its slogan, ‘Cool Britannia’, based on one of Ben & Jerry’s ice-creams, using pop musicians as symbols of youthful vibrancy and referring to a transient fashionable London scene. It completely misread how national identity comes to be ingrained as an image and viewpoint as well as the politics behind such images and viewpoints.

Here’s E.M. Forster in The Longest Journey (1907):

‘He saw how all the water converges at Salisbury; how Salisbury lies in a shallow basin, just at the change of soil. He saw to the north the Plain, and the stream of the Cad flowing down from it, with a tributary that broke out suddenly, as the chalk streams do: one village had clustered round the source and clothed itself with trees. He saw Old Sarum, and hints of the Avon valley, and the land above Stonehenge. And behind him he saw the great wood beginning unobtrusively, as if the down too needed shaving; and into it the road to London slipped, covering the bushes with white dust. Chalk made the dust white, chalk made the water clear, chalk made the clean rolling outlines of the land, and favoured the grass and the distant coronals of trees. Here is the heart of our island: the Chilterns, the North Downs, the South Downs radiate hence. The fibres of England unite in Wiltshire, and did we condescend to worship her, here we should erect our national shrine.’

In this symbolic and philosophical novel which contrasts the local waterways and ‘slowly modulating’ chalk downs with the quadrangular academic world of Cambridge, Rickie ‘the lonely and deformed’ character recites lines from Percy Shelley’s Epipsychidion (1821), at the Rings, that establish the novel’s theme and gives it its title.

I was never attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the world a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, - though it is the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
By the broad highway of the world - and so
With one sad friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and longest journey go.

Forster draws upon Shelley’s poetry, with its ecological reading, G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903), Greek and Wagnerian mythology within a mystical and symbolic structure to delineate his characters difficulties in choosing a life companion. Behind all this, Forster acknowledges an originating experience of talking to a young lame shepherd on Figsbury Rings, whom he offers a tip of sixpence and is declined.

The narrator sees Salisbury as a living creature with powers of movement, and ‘ugly cataracts of brick’ looking ‘outwards at a pagan entrenchment’ and away from the cathedral, neglecting ‘the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed.’ ‘They are the modern spirit’, he observes. He goes on in an unconscious echo of Drayton, although possibly not of Wordsworth. ‘Streams do divide. Distances do still exist. It is easier to know men in your valley than those who live in the next. It is easier to know men well. The country is not paradise,
(an embedded reference to both Sidney’s Arcadia and Milton) and can show the vices that grieve a good man everywhere. But there is room and leisure.’

Forster’s sense of national identity is defined like Wordsworth by topography and regionalism and is in the tradition of Camden and Drayton.
Wordsworth walked across the Salisbury Plain in August 1793, an experience that produced The Salisbury Plain Poems (Cornell 1975), ‘The Female Vagrant’ first published in Lyrical Ballads (1798), and fed into The Prelude. He changed these poems several times. The unpublished Adventures on Salisbury Plain (1795), a dark gothic poem concerns a sailor who, having been press ganged into the navy after war service, becomes a murderer and robber to provide for his family. Penniless and an outlaw, he meets a soldier’s widow, as he walks across the Plain. She is homeless, penniless, has lost her family. Both are outcasts and face the inhumanity of Justice. The poem relentlessly shows the human impact of war and links human waste to the historical landscape. This poem was later revised as Guilt and Sorrow: or Incidents upon Salisbury Plain (1842) with the image of the sailor’s suicide ‘hung high in iron case’ removed. This self-censoring of the younger, radical Wordsworth is a good example of how the struggles of the rural poor and outcasts can be written out of memory.
J.H. Prynne in Field-Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ And Others (private publication distributed by Barque Press 2007), points out that W.H. Hudson on his cycle journey (A Shepherd’s Life: Impressions of the South Wiltshire Downs, 1910 pp 4-5) through the Salisbury Plain writes about a young boy, a bird scarer, running across the ploughed field towards the road merely to see him pass and consciously neutralises elegiac landscape writing by the avoidance of any polemical, ecological or contemplative input. It is a low pitch non-poetic narration without pathos or melancholy in contrast to Wordsworth’s high pitch narration. Hudson’s non-committal tones and registers, omitting the rawness of the georgic, caught the Edwardian mood of nostalgia for rural ways and were immensely popular. Bird scaring, though, did not die out in Dorset until the Thirties.
One of this summer’s other recommended reads has been Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, which will surely join Waterlog, his aquatic journey through Britain, as a classic of nature writing in the tradition of Gilbert White and John Stewart Collis. Wildwood argues, echoing W.H. Auden, that ‘the enemies of woods are always the enemies of culture and humanity’ and supports this with references from William Cobbett, John Ruskin and various poets. Deakin wanders from place to place seeking out, what Edward Thomas called the ‘fifth element’, wood. He succeeds in his aim ‘to excite a feeling for the importance of trees through a greater understanding of them’ by showing the links between the greenwood spirit and democratic freedom. In particular, he sketches the history of Great Wishford’s 1603 charter of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Groveley some six miles outside of Salisbury and the annual May celebration of Oak Apple Day. This requires the whole village ‘to go in a dance’ to Salisbury Cathedral. The villagers legally protected their wood rights at court in 1292, 1318, 1332 and 1825 from landowners eager to use the wood for hunting. The Earl of Pembroke had the manor and wood enclosed in 1809, creating more restrictions that worsened the impact of the 1820s economic depression. More disputes followed leading in 1892 to the formation of the Oak Apple Club in the village, under the Labour banner ‘Unity is Strength’, to represent wood rights and customs and perpetuate the May celebrations. These involve pagan fertility and other rituals at the parish church and Salisbury Cathedral. The acorn and oak tree motifs were part of the socialist and anarchist movements defence of liberties. Further disputes occurred in 1931 and 1933 and it wasn’t until 1987 that a new accord was reached allowing the villagers their full rights. The annual Oak Apple Day continues and is an apt reminder of legal victory.

The economic depression following the wars with France, enclosure acts and the Corn Laws, which banned the import of foreign grain and kept the price of bread artificially high, hurt agricultural workers particularly badly as described by William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830) and there were riots in Salisbury. The painter, John Constable was not immune to what was happening and if you compare his Salisbury Cathedral From The River (1820), which shows the landscape as a social playground, with Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadow (1831), you will see the stark contrast. What is amazing is that the exact spot where Constable painted one of his most literary and symbolic works still exists and when you stand there the painting is more explicable.

Constable portrays two agricultural labourers crossing a stream by horse and cart set against Salisbury Cathedral under a rainbow, after a storm, and next to an outsized ash tree on the left, moving towards a shrivelled ash to the right. In the central foreground is a dog, with a grave to the left and fencing to the right. The ash trees are symbolic of life’s disparities, with the Cathedral representing faith and resurrection and the rainbow hope. The rainbow has to be symbolic as it is in the wrong meteorological place. The dog appears to be observing the scene and directing the viewer’s gaze toward the horse and cart, which is empty. They could have delivered grain to the city or come from the city without grain.
Conventionally read the painting is dominated on the left by the shrub and gigantic ash tree soaring above the distant Cathedral and the illuminated eye of the storm in the mid-central and upper part of the scene. The bright light is at a distance beyond the spire. The shrub and gigantic ash are unadulterated, untamed by reason, a life force, with which the agricultural labourer and waterman are seemingly in harmony. The rainbow encloses the darker half of the painting that is mirrored by the circling stream, representing consciousness and the enduring faith of the labourers in balance with the natural world during an economic and political storm. It is thus an emotional response, with the rainbow of hope encompassing faith and the labourers in harmony with the wildness of the natural world, to the social-political situation. However, when you stand at the exact place that Constable chose and widen the frame of reference you see to the left beyond the Church of St Thomas, is Fisherton Mill where grain was used for bread making and that to the right leads to the older water-mill at Harnham, where grain is used for bread-making and stock feeding. We are thus at the centre of the city’s agricultural economy and its supporting relationship to the neighbouring villages. The painting is thus built around an absence of the exact economic conditions that mark the empty cart. The painting has a nine line quotation from James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-30). The Seasons was a celebration of the divine order behind the apparent chaos of nature. For the Romantics, including Constable, it was memorable for its descriptions of weather, landscapes, of the moods and colours of the natural world. Mood is dominating economic relations in this painting. Looking again, the dog, separated from the labourers by the stream and on the wrong side to be part of their company, centres the non-economic human connection with the land and acts as a psychological bulwark against wrenching economic conditions.

Constable’s Cathedral view, often listed as one of England’s greatest, serves to show how economic relations, poverty and the struggles behind them are blanked out of cultural memory.
It is a failure to appreciate local history and distinctiveness.

Monday 3 September 2007

Letter 5

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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.

Friday 3 August 2007

Letter 4

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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England

As this is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet, painter and engraver, William Blake, and August 12 is the anniversary of his death in 1827, I would like to say a few words about this remarkable figure. At mid-day on Sunday, 12 August 2007 the Blake Society will be unveiling a new memorial to Blake at Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where he is buried in an unmarked grave. The exact location of his grave is recorded in the Dissenters graveyard and there will be shortly something more to see at Bunhill.

When I first started visiting London in the early 1970s, William Blake was inextricably linked to the city and the counter-culture that attracted me there.
I had recently bought Blake: Complete Writings with Variant Readings Edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford 1969), read Michael Horovitz’s poetry anthology, Children of Albion (Penguin 1969) and his comments on Blake in New Departures magazine, seen Allen Ginsberg on television recalling being visited by the vision of Blake in 1948, and was finding books at Compendium Bookshop, in Camden High Street, called The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941) by Kenneth Patchen and The Kodak Mantra Diaries by Iain Sinclair, published by the Albion Village Press (1971). Blake was linked to the Beats and the hippies as a kind of founding grandfather. At the time this all seemed very special.

However, it was not particularly special at all. Within a year or so I discovered that the 1960s bohemianism was something of a replay of the 1860s complete with trips to Morocco and India, dropping out and smoking hash, free love, a reverence for and study of ancient religious texts, a fascination with the occult, and so on.

It was in the 1860’s that William Blake began to be seen as special and work began on interpreting his considerable output. Since then his work has been critically interpreted by successive generations of bohemian writers and artists. From Algernon Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites in Chelsea, through John Ruskin, W.B. Yeats, Geoffrey Keynes, Ruthven Todd, Kathleen Raine to Michael Horovitz, E.P. Thompson and Peter Ackroyd.

The first Blake biography was The Life of William Blake (1863) by Alexander Gilchrist. Wonderfully vivid and sensational, based on interviews with many of Blake’s surviving friends, it reveals that Blake conversed with spirits, saw angels in trees, sunbathed naked, reciting Paradise Lost, with his wife, Catherine, ‘like Adam and Eve’, and greeted his own death with song and faith in the everlasting. This book completely transformed Blake’s reputation from being a generally forgotten and ridiculed figure into one of eccentric substance.

Gilchrist, the neighbour of the Carlyle’s and Rossetti’s in Chelsea, died before the book was complete and it was his wife, Anne, that finished the work, with the help of the Rossetti brothers, and kept it in print. Anne later fell in love with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, writing the first critical essay on Whitman and went to live in Philadelphia, with her children, in an attempt to become his wife. They became life long friends.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a very bohemian household in Chelsea and amongst his early guests was Algernon Swinburne, an innovative poet and excessive character roughly in the mould of Blake. Swinburne wrote William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), the first substantial critical work on Blake and like the Rossetti’s helped track down Blake’s publications. The Pre-Raphaelites clearly saw Blake as a like-minded forebear that was worth celebrating. (Incidentally there is a fine essay on Swinburne by Veronica Forrest-Thomson on the on-line journal, Jacket issue 20.) Swinburne established the link between Blake and the antinomian tradition and to some extent framed the reference by which we see Blake. By ‘antinomian’ the Victorians mean any religious group that does not obey the moral law of its leaders and does not see such behaviour as necessary for salvation. I prefer to use the term Dissenter as it emerged from the Seventeenth century as it implies and involves both a political and spiritual dimension and to see the alchemical and Neo-Platonist traditions as they were transmitted from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the nineteenth as something separate again. This is what I gleaned from my contact with the remnants of the Powys family. Too often Blake criticism divides into lop-sidedness. I think that we need put the social, political and spiritual readings of Blake together. Moreover, we need to recognise that Blake was imbued in the late eighteenth century European alchemical and Neo-Platonist tradition and to look closely at where his use of language came from. In other words, we need to be historically specific.

Here is ‘London’ from The Songs of Experience (1793)

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the chimney sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appals;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

The poem concerns the mercantile city of London in the 1790s.

It begins with a first person narrator wandering each charter’d street, indicating with ‘each’ that it is the whole city under review, and registers the constrictions that he sees on every face. ‘Mark’ and ‘charter’d’ are repeated for emphasis. They embody the stanza’s dual sources.

‘Mark’ and the social ‘marking’ that Blake lists in the poem have a religious framework. The figure of the wanderer in the streets appears in Lamentations 4: 13-14 and in Ezekiel Ch 9: 4 where we read: ‘And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.’ Note the use of ‘sigh’ and ‘cry’ from stanza three.

‘Charter’d’ in the 1790s had a political connotation and refers to the ‘charter’ that gives rights as well as the ‘charter’ that established a monopoly and takes away rights. Blake uses ‘charter’d’ in both senses, stressing the loss of rights and implying that they are instruments of injustice. Blake’s involvement with the rights of man issue began in the late 1780s with his friendship with the St. Paul’s Churchyard bookseller and publisher, Joseph Johnson, with whom he socialised, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and other radical Dissenters published by Johnson. Blake also knew Tom Paine, who wrote ‘Every chartered town is an aristocratical monoploy’ in The Rights of Man (1791). The streets and rivers of London are reduced to the level of sameness by divisive social charters and are marked on the faces of the city. The ‘charter’d Thames’ is a reference to water rights and access to the river for trading and bathing. This is a time when London’s rivers are increasingly being used as rubbish dumps. By placing the rights issue within the context of London property, Blake instantly draws in an implicit history of struggle about access, boundaries and divisions between various authorities from the Palace of Westminster (King, Court and Parliament) with the people of the City of London. As a Londoner immersed in City history he knew about restrictions, the ‘every ban’ of stanza three.

In stanza two ‘In every cry in every man’ the narrator is himself implicated in the rottenness of society, much as the wanderer in the streets in Lamentations is polluted with blood. The stanza reinforces a sense of entrapment by its regular metrical beat and the stubborn insistence of ‘In’. The ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, linking objective manacles of repression and subjective failings, which he sees and hears, are present in his mind as well.

In stanza three the ‘I’ of the opening is replaced by ‘How’ linking the ‘Chimney sweeper’s cry’, the horror of which ‘appalls’, yet leads to inactivity and thus blackens the Church,
‘the hapless Soldier’s sigh’ caught up in a War not of his making, with blood running ‘down Palace walls’. The last line echoing both Lamentations 4, with its blind men polluted in blood, and by implication any recent bloody struggle.

In stanza four the victims from the dark underside of the Church, Crown and marriage speak. Line two’s ‘youthful Harlot’s curse’, can be read as both her shouting and passing on venereal disease to the Infant of line three and on to the marriage hearse of line four, all connected by a cash nexus. Blake ensures that the reader understands that this flow from one to the other is a process by the use of ‘How’ in line two. ‘How’ here also implies that this is a social transaction that is capable of being explored or refused. Mary Wollstonecraft and other radicals saw marriage without love as prostitution and wanted new rights for women.

The poem records the social marking of society, the blackening, daubing with blood, blasts, cursing in the streets and the shocking image of the ‘Marriage hearse’, which can be read as both anti-marriage and the outcome of venereal diseases. Note Blake writes ‘plagues’. The narrator is also marked and aware of the situation with its unavoidable logic that does not depend upon him at all. By the end of the poem these cries, sighs and curses that he hears are tangible signs of shame and active forces of destruction and through the use of the present tense are prophetic, illuminating and terrifying.

Blake made a great impression on the Pre-Raphaelites, including William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, and through them by extension, on the advent of, and visual image of, early Modernist poetry in fine-printed small press publications. The linking figure being W.B. Yeats, whom with Swinburne, was the reason for Ezra Pound moving to London in 1908. Yeats was inspired by Blake and William Morris in his desire to be published in handcrafted books, from the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses, using processes outside of mechanical production.

Yeats, published by Elkin Matthews At The Sign Of The Bodley Head in the 1890s, was involved in the literary side of the Art Nouveau movement that saw Dial (1889-97) magazine, the illustrated quarterly, The Yellow Book (1894-97) and The Rhymers Club books published. There was a renaissance of artisan hand-based printing linked to creating language for the eye. Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore, Oppen, Laura Riding, and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press carried on this tradition.
Poets began thinking more about spatial relations on the page as well as the designs used to frame their work. This work is being carried on today by such presses as Adastra Press in the US and Five Seasons Press in the UK.

Many of Yeats’ friends in the Rhymers Club, that used to meet upstairs at the Cheshire Cheese pub at Wine Office Court off Fleet Street, were followers of Blake. Poets such as Arthur Symons, John Todhunter, Ernest Dowson, met there to drink, smoke hash, and read their work aloud. They were also concerned with cracking the key to Blake’s symbolism. None more so than Yeats who with the artist, Edwin Ellis, produced the three volume Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic and Critical in 1893. Yeats’ study of Blake and his circle, Swedenborg, the recently translated Cabbala, and Jacob Boehme, led to the re-discovery of an unknown prophetic book, ‘Vala, or the Four Zoas’, in the possession of the Linnell family.
Yeats saw that Blake’s Four Zoas, or mythological entities, corresponded to the four quarters of London and offered him metaphors and visions, based on alchemy, the elements and zodiac, for an Irish and Celtic revival.

Yeats and Ellis re-discovered other books and their work marked another key stage in the retrieval of Blake’s output.
Their work was continued and set on a more scholarly footing by Geoffrey Keynes (1887-1982), who first wrote to Yeats in 1913. Keynes was part of the intellectual aristocracy. The elder brother of the economist, John Maynard Keynes, he married Margaret Darwin, a grand daughter of Charles Darwin. Educated at Rugby School and Cambridge, he was a friend of the poet, Rupert Brooke and close to the Neo-Pagans as his brother was close to the Bloomsbury Group. The Neo-Pagans were a loose group of Fabian, back to nature bohemians that enjoyed camping and nude bathing. They accepted free love as a principle but not as a practice. Full of sexual tension, they were dedicated to leisure, art and personal freedom. Keynes became a Consultant Surgeon, specialising in blood transfusion, and spent his spare time on literary scholarship and bibliography. He edited and wrote a dozen books on Blake between 1925 and 1975 and kept on adding to Blake’s Complete Writings.

The work of Blake’s that I currently read most often is The Marriage of Heaven & Hell (1790-93). It is a work that I sense will receive more attention in the future. The Marriage consists of an Argument, The voice of the Devil, Memorable Fancies, the Proverbs of Hell and A Song of Liberty. In different editions plates 4, 14 and 15 are placed in a different order. The distinct sections do not form a sequential narrative. It thus appeals both to a post-modernist and historicist sensibility.

Marriage is an alchemical term for the union of male and female, sun and moon, and other opposites. Heaven and Hell immediately invokes Emmanuel Swedenborg’s 1778 Treatise Concerning Heaven and Hell and Jacob Boehme’s Heaven and Hell (1622), which repudiates any belief in eternal damnation.

The Marriage is an alchemical text written after Blake’s break with the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church and for the radical Swedenborgians who were anti-clerical, mystical and Masonic. After April 1789, the New Jerusalem Church began to impose restrictions on its members and no longer accepted sexual love as holy for every member. According to the Church minutes of meetings, there was a fierce battle over sexual rights and privileges, followed by the exclusion of radical freemasons for supporting the French Revolution. The issues behind The Marriage then are rights and liberties.

The Marriage employs inclusive and open meaning within a terminology derived from the seventeenth century mystical and alchemical tradition that was readily available in London bookshops and had been the same sources of dissent for John Milton and the Ranters. (The historian, E.P. Thompson pioneered this wider approach to the intellectual roots of Blake’s mythology in Witness Against The Beast (1993).) Blake takes from these sources, especially the mystical and metaphysical writings of Jacob Boehme and the alchemical philosophy of Fludd, Agrippa and Paracelsus, and produced his own private symbolism. At root this satire on Swedenborg is a fusion of theosophy that posits the spiritual tradition, an alchemical union of men and women, against Christian orthodoxy, with it its systems of thought from empirical rationalism based on simple either / or dualisms. It is in a way the philosophical primer to the Songs of Innocence and Experience. The text works away at attacking certain mental attitudes, ‘contraries’, and is a sustained attack on repression of the divine universe. It shows the reader distinct choices, the ‘contraries’, philosophical and lived dualisms, highlighting passion, the tiger’s wrath, excess, exuberance, energy against restraint, doubt, prudence and social control. It delineates two cultures the untamed devil’s and tamed angelic, a reference to the conservative Swedenborgians seemingly afraid of sexual liberty. Blake’s devil culture vigorously opposes the mental attitudes, the contraries that block sexual freedom, most powerfully expressed in the line ‘Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of religion’. References to the natural and social world are combined to celebrate human potential and diversity. Blake’s distinct contribution to Boehme’s theosophy, from which he derives his philosophy of time and eternity, is in the memorable epigrams, such as, ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time’, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, ‘The cut worm forgives the plow’ and the child-like allegorical illustrations that are so dissimilar to those in seventeenth century alchemy.

For Boehme, Man is protected by time from sharing the complete suffering of God. He has, though, to share that suffering as the price of entry into eternity. To enter the eternal is to become open to all of the agonies of time and the vision of God, the Alpha & Omega, the eternally present at each time is present in all beings, including animals.

Everything for Blake is not only holy but has a unique nature and perception. The central idea in Boehme’s theosophy is that reality in both its physical and metaphysical aspects is a living entity in constant tension between affirmation and suppression of the potential that exists in unity. Contraries, dualisms, yes and no, define each other, bringing forth new forms, new substance within the unity. This is the fundamental philosophy behind The Marriage. Blake refuses any neutralisation and easy generalisation of good and evil, heaven and hell, angel and devil, by making the contrasts starker and open to wider meaning. They reside, as the title suggests, in divine man and woman, for whom union is essential. Each epigram, such as ‘The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’, offers a pithy reminder of how to live and is addressed to all religions, all prohibitions. They attempt to show that individuals, represented by animals as opposed to angels, have different attributes and temperaments that cannot be contained within rules and laws. They create a moral relativism showing that there is no absolute good and evil, citing Milton’s interchanging of Christ and the devil as an authority, and placing him with the narrator in the devil’s party. Blake’s citing of Milton and Paradise Lost references for his readers the opposition between the Ten Commandments, a code of prohibitions, and the Gospel of Jesus, a gospel of love and forgiveness, and the seventeenth century political opposition to the Moral Law.

Blake’s Marriage is an alchemical marriage of heaven and hell requiring the two contraries to remain in opposition, neither submitting to the other, and arises from the energy between both. It is, at once, both a spiritual and political position and Blake proceeds to defend the virtues of desire and energy as marks of liberty.

Since the late Victorian period, Blake has been seen as the exemplary figure of the self-published artisan printmaking poet. He acts, as it were, as a reminder of the processed book as commodity and of the ineffectualness of the poetry market place. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell satirises narrow and dogmatic thinking and offers the diversity of the human and animal world as the site of potential human development. Such a work seems particularly acute and perspicacious at a time of religious conflict, international terrorism and extreme climate change.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

letter 3

Click on the link below to hear So Here We Are on Miporadio.
Please give time for the link to download.

So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England

I first walked along the Euston Road, London NW1, in September 1973, on the way to King’s Cross St Pancras, one hundred years after Arthur Rimbaud had lived in and around the area. Here he wrote most of those extraordinary prose poems, Illuminations that transform and allow the reader to see anew. They are filled with bridges, arches and railway lines, as the area is today. It is a fascinating place, layered with literary ghosts. W.B. Yeats lived and wrote at Woburn Walk, from February 1896 to June 1918, and was also involved in an alchemy of the past and future. There is a sense of magnetic attraction to this area that goes back to before William Blake’s Jerusalem (1804-20) mapped a landscape pointing to St Pancras Old Church and the fields north of the Euston Road as pivotal.

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood
Were builded over pillars of gold
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood

Here Little-ones ran on the fields,
The Lamb of God among them seen,
And fair Jerusalem his Bride
Among the little meadows green.

The area and church is named after the Roman boy-martyr executed by Emperor Diocletian in 304 AD. Pancras became a favourite saint in England. Indeed we have a Saxon village here in Dorset named Alton Pancras and its nearby Church Hill. Founded in 314 AD, the Old Church is regarded as one of the oldest in Europe and, with Glastonbury Abbey, the oldest in England. It was built on Caesar’s encampment at Pancras called the Brill. This conjecture by the Chief Druid and Antiquarian, Dr. William Stukeley, from his digging in 1750, would have been known to Blake, and was later confirmed by the discovery of Roman bones in 1863 by the Midland Railway Company. This emphasis on field archaeology and the discovery of ancient materials certainly fuelled the late Victorian fascination with the occult and lay behind some of Rimbaud and Yeats’ work. Fieldwork has subsequently inspired such poets as Seamus Heaney (Field Work 1979) and Peter Riley (Alstonefield 2003, Excavations 2004) in more diverse ways. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘field-work’ is derived from the ‘field-work’ of 1767, which related to surveying, and that of 1777 when it was first used in connection with agricultural fieldwork. Literary references to ‘Pangrace’ as it was known, include the satirists George Wither, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, where it is cited as a place of great sanctity, and the contemporary satirist, Iain Sinclair, who championed Aidan Andrew Dun’s epic poem, Vale Royal (1995), on the subject.

In 1865 Thomas Hardy, working as an apprentice architect, supervised the disinterment and removal of coffins to make way for the Midland Railway cutting. These included those of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, who were removed to lie with their daughter, Mary Shelley, at St Peter’s in Bournemouth. During June 1814 Percy Bysshe Shelley had secretly courted Mary Godwin, reading sections of his poem, Queen Mab (1813), by her mother’s grave, and her stepsister Jane ‘Claire’ Claremont. This was the place where Mary had gone since early childhood to escape from her stepmother and where allegedly the boy-poet, Thomas Chatterton, had fallen in an open grave a few days before his death in 1770. Whilst the Old Church was home to radical Dissenters, such as Mary’s parents, it was also the place of worship for Catholic émigrés escaping the French Revolution. Church records show a great many members of the extended Blake family using the church but no reference to William, who was involved in the New Jerusalem Church of Swedenborgians elsewhere.

Hardy was imbued by the place, reading Queen Mab and writing several poems about his experiences at St Pancras Old Church, including ‘Neutral Tones’ and ‘The Levelled Churchyard’. The Hardy Tree growing within the old gravestones still exists. The Old Church remains a peaceful place.

In September 1973 I was going to King’s Cross St. Pancras to meet a woman. Now whenever I am in the area I think of the Venus of Euston Road and I want to tell some of her story and her literary connections as they impinge upon English poetry.

She was part of a generation of upper middle class bohemian women writers and artists that included Mary Wesley, Lorna Wishart, Barbara Skelton, Caroline Blackwood, Anne Dunn, Joan Wyndham, Elizabeth Smart, Theodora Constantine
and Kathleen Raine.

Sonia Brownell was the reluctant muse and eventual lover of members of the Euston Road School of Art and Drawing.
From a Colonial background, she was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent, Roehampton, the infamous school described by former pupil, Antonia White in Frost in May (1933). Sonia’s friend and contemporary was the actress, Vivien Leigh. The school left Sonia poorly educated, angry and self-willed. She appeared as a Renoir beauty; insecure, eager to find her place in a man’s world.

Her first affair was with the painter, Adrian Stokes, who became an art critic, linking psychoanalysis and painting, and a poet. Stokes is currently being rediscovered. Mallarmé fascinated both. It is noticeable that Sonia stays in contact with many former lovers. She was the first networker. She had an affair with Victor Pasmore, one of the Euston School founders, and eventually took over his rooms at 18 Percy Street, a short walk from the Euston Road. She lived here on and off for the next thirty years. This is next to the Eiffel Tower restaurant where The Poet’s Club, of T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound, met in 1909 and Wyndham Lewis launched Blast in July 1914. Sonia also briefly met one of the students, Lucian Freud, who later became a life-long friend. Freud was another moving onwards and upwards. Her main lover during this time was another founder, William Coldstream, whose wife, Nancy, was having an affair with the poet, Louis MacNeice. Sonia soon knew most of the young painters of the Euston Road and beyond.

She frequented the Wheatsheaf pub, close to her Percy Street flat, which between 1936 and 1937 had been one of the main meeting-places of English Surrealist poets. Rayner Heppenstall, Humphrey Jennings, Dylan Thomas, Roger Roughton and David Gascoyne were all busy translating, discussing and forging ahead within Surrealism. It was, with Zwemmers Bookshop, in Charing Cross Road, where the poet and Blake scholar, Ruthven Todd, worked, a conduit for contemporary French art and poetry. These were the places to go to find out what was happening in Paris and London. At twenty, Sonia soon knew all the players and was part of the social exchange between Paris and London bohemians.

This was an extraordinary time and place for a young woman. Sonia was able to educate herself to an extraordinary level by living here. Poets and painters worked and socialised together in this small area south of the Euston Road known as Fitzrovia. It was conveniently close to Bloomsbury, London’s poetry publishing centre, and the West End with its theatres, galleries and museums. This was a time when poets and painters were extraordinarily close and Sonia played a significant role in getting people together. She had been won over by the example of Paris and magazine’s such as Verve, (which ran from 1937 to 1960) with contributors, such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, originally writing on French cuisine, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and so on.

The Second World War did not stop this desire to link art and literature, although Paris was out of bounds. Sonia stayed in Percy Street as the bombs fell. For most young artists it was a time of excitement. As Joan Wyndham, wrote in her wartime diary, Love Lessons (1985), ‘What a life,’ I said, ‘never knowing if you’re going to be bombed or seduced from one moment to the next!’ …
‘The bombs are lovely, I think it is thrilling. Nevertheless, as the opposite of death is life, I think I shall get seduced by Rupert tomorrow.’ And so it was.

Sonia worked at the Ministry of War Transport and helped out at Horizon magazine, edited by Peter Watson and Cyril Connolly, with the help of unpaid female labour. Horizon was with John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing, (where Sonia was poached to work for a while) and Tambimuttu’s Poetry London, one of the leading literary magazines of the Forties. They succeeded Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse as the most important poetry magazines and were distinguished by an eclectic mix of art and poetry. Through Watson, Sonia met more painters, including Lucian Freud’s friend, Johnny Craxton, Rodrigo Moynihan, Anne Dunn, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, who became life-long friends. Graham Sutherland, for example, would provide the striking cover and illustrations for David Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942, published by Poetry London editions. Through Connolly, she gained a literary education and from 1945 became Horizon’s driving force as managing editor. Her internationalism, fondness for French and American literature, upset lots of male traditionalists. She read all the submissions, argued for her recommendations, made discoveries, such as Angus Wilson, so well that her voice became the dominant one. Socially she found herself at the centre of London literary life, hosting parties at Horizon, Wheeler’s and the Gargoyle Club, with its Matisse decorated glass ceiling, to celebrate the likes of W.H. Auden, Louis Aragon, Edmund Wilson and T.S. Eliot.

Sonia, through her role at Horizon and growing number of contacts, became immediately after the War for a short period a conduit of French literature’s entry into London. She fell in love with her opposite number on Les Temps modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre’s great friend the philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the world of Juliette Greco and Simone de Beauvoir. She befriended a generation of writer and thinkers including Raymond Queneau, Jacques Lacan, Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, George Bataille and Michel Leiris. Her mistake with the French and Merleau-Ponty, in particular, was that she did not appreciate the distinction between wife and mistress. She was distraught when the love of her life would not leave his wife for her. She did not understand why he had started and ended the affair and where their love had gone.

That generation of French writers and critics behind existentialism and structuralism did not really fully reach London and England in full translation until the late Sixties or in some cases the early Eighties. There was effectively a blockade in the Fifties through the insularity of the Movement poets and publishers. Horizon, Penguin New Writing and the Gray Walls Press that fostered an interest in new French and American poetry closed and were replaced by editors and publishers that had no interest in internationalism. An interest in modern and new French and American poetry became very much an underground activity during the early Cold War. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945) was not translated into English until 1962 and more readily available until 1976. His Prose of the World, an intriguing study concerning literary language written in 1952, was not translated until 1973. Merleau-Ponty thus had a posthumous influence on English poetry, most notably in the work of Denise Riley, John James and Jeremy Prynne, where there is testimony that the individual defines the self and the world and is imbued, and or constrained, by conflicting bodies of knowledge. Merleau-Ponty’s thinking relates to painting in many ways. It is here that Sonia, with her substantial knowledge of painting since Cezanne, might well have had some impact upon his thinking.

Sonia knew all the English writers that contributed to Horizon, Poetry London and Penguin New Writing and they thought they knew her. She was the acknowledged model or basis for a number of fictional characters such as the shrewd and efficient Ada in Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room (1967), the bossy Elvira in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), the cynical and enigmatic Diana in Marguerite Duras’ Les Petits Chevaux de Taquinie / Little Horses of Tarquinia (1953) and Julia in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

‘The girl from the Fiction Department … was looking at him… She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life… She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated… All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead.’

Orwell saw through her beauty and hard drinking to someone who would fight for the freedom of expression and look after his literary affairs. She had already rejected his proposal of marriage three years earlier. In 1949, on the rebound from Merleau-Ponty, she agreed to marry the ailing man. Three months later, Orwell was dead. Sonia kept his name until her own death in 1980. She looked after the Orwell estate, whilst only drawing a small annual payment from the subsequent massive royalties, co-editing the four volume Collected Letters, Journalism and Essays (1968), with Ian Angus. It was her drive and methodical tracking down of all Orwell’s writing that paved the way for the twenty volume Complete Works (1998) and ensured that Orwell remains one of the twentieth century’s dominant literary figures. In many ways this is her lasting achievement. It is in the Essays that we find Orwell’s best work. In ‘Politics and the English Language’, first published in Horizon, April 1946, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ and ‘Why I Write’ we have some of the most effective English essays written since William Hazlitt. Take, for example, the remark that ‘Saints must always be adjudged guilty until absolutely proven innocent’. The essays continue to be relevant and persuasive to a wide spectrum of thinkers and writers. There is a degree of Anglo-Saxon plain speaking about Orwell that continues to appeal to English readers increasingly despondent with bureaucrats and businessmen that are ‘economical with the truth’ and the failure of politicians. Reading ‘Politics and the English Language’ reminds us to be continually vigilant against jargon and the sloppy use of English. In recent times, words and phrases, such as, ‘political correctness’, ‘celebrity’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘global village’, have lost their meaning through misuse and have become redundant. One of the worst places for jargon has been in English Studies where some critics manage to swallow a dictionary of jargon to enable them to say very little.

Orwell successfully placed a number of new words and phrases, such as ‘doublethink’, ‘down and out’, ‘Room 101’, ‘Big Brother’, ‘Newspeak’ into the English language and Sonia gave us ‘Orwellian’.

Sonia’s later years were not particularly spectacular. She worked for the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, from 1951, overseeing the publication of Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer. Indeed this was a link going back to Orwell, who was the London correspondent of Partisan Review magazine. Through this connection Sonia met Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, Maya Angelou and so on.

Jacques Lacan pursued her in London in an attempt to woo her back to Paris for good.

Strangely, Sonia fell in love with Michael Pitt-Rivers, great-grandson of the anthropologist and archaeologist, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers and son of the notorious Captain George Pitt-Rivers, a local fascist that owned most of Dorset, including where I grew up. Indeed, during my childhood, I heard many stories about this eugenicist, Nazi sympathiser.
Michael was a convicted homosexual and I suppose that a woman who had been hampered in her professional life might be sympathetic to a minority whose activities were against the law. There is also the fact that a great many in Sonia’s circle were bisexual. At any rate, it would appear to be a strategic alliance giving Sonia financial security and status. It must have been a rare spectacle for the local gentry, farmers and farm workers to be introduced to visiting American poets, French Surrealists, Oxford philosophers and wacky artists in deepest north Dorset. The Captain couldn’t hack it and more than once got out his horsewhip to shoo Sonia’s guests off his land. When Sonia realised that she had made a big mistake she took a drug overdose and divorced Michael in 1961. I can say that unlike other members of this landowning family I have never heard a bad word said about Sonia. She seems to have been accepted as ‘one of those’ and that was that.

Sonia returned to editing in Paris producing the magazine, Art and Literature, with John Ashbery, Rodrigo Moynihan and Anne Dunn, from 1964-1968. I have the first issue in my hands. It is sub-titled ‘An international Review’ and contains work by David Jones, Gaston Bachelard, Genet, Connolly on ‘Fifty Years of Little Magazines’, where he acknowledges John Lehmann as the best magazine editor, Adrian Stokes, Kenneth Koch, Tony Towle, the first published poems by David Shapiro, aged 17, and the first publication of an extract from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It is a wonderful mix of English, French and American and once again, Sonia’s selections were successful.

She also translated Duras’ plays ‘Days In The Trees’ and ‘The Square’ for the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequent performance in New York. Mostly, she drank and raged against the world. She campaigned to raise funds for impoverished elderly writer friends, such as Jean Rhys and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and wrestled with George Orwell Productions chief financial adviser to regain control of the royalties and investments that belonged to her and Orwell’s son. The money arrived too late. She died of a brain tumour in 1980, penniless in rented accommodation and Francis Bacon paid for her funeral and outstanding debts.