A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN CULTURE
by Michael Peverett
Section 6. 1975-1984
Jörg Demus plays the piano-harp at Ringve Museum (1977) instrument meaning
Punk in England (1977) NEW what mattered, relativistically
John Gross: The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1978) Leavis, Derrida, etc
Ronald Fraser: Blood of Spain (1979) politicized experience
The Oxford Book of Verse 1945-1980 yes it's reactionary
The Orbis Encyclopaedia of the World (1981) merely stating facts
Glenville Pike: The Last Frontier (1983) vision of pioneers
Harold Morland: The Matter of Britain (1984) that torso in haikus
Florence Elon: Self-Made (1984) with a note on “first person, present tense”
Peter Finch: Some Music and a Little War (1984) without expectations
We love the shapes of boats, and of violins. By long evolution, and by restless striving against the intractable constraints of natural forces, a form emerges that appears optimal and classical. Being an answer to Nature’s question, it becomes in a certain way a part of nature; though the violinist knows from his calloused chin that the instrument is not quite optimal, and contains many measures of failure, pain and compromise. But the pain, like a high price, to a certain extent validates the form: it is worth this.
But if a fiddle can be compared with a yacht, most of the thousands of other musical instruments that have been invented are more like rafts. Most of them didn’t work well enough and strike us now as amusing travesties, testaments to misplaced ingenuity.
In the recording of 1977, Jörg Demus plays a number of short pieces by Debussy, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and others on this instrument.
The chiming, bell-like tone of the melody line in the upper register is at once striking. (It seems, however, that this can be restrained, as in the piece by Bach.) I don’t know how the piano-harp is played, but I assume it is entirely by means of the keyboard and the two pedals. It hardly sounds like it. Though that clear bell-like tone is beguiling, one is immediately aware of a stealthy scuffle of apparently unrelated sounds behind it. In the bass a muffled thump half-conceals the note. There is a continuous, inconsequent background of soft thuds, perhaps a side-effect of the mechanics. Sometimes even the higher notes sound muted, and sometimes in the midst of passages we hear a quite different sound – a sharp, unresonant twang that sounds like someone striking the strings of an unamplified electric guitar.
No instrument is without limitations, and the piano-harp would seem to have more than most. Some of the noises just mentioned sound as if they are not under the performer’s control, fine musician though he obviously is. The tempi have a perennial flutter about them, so that no run of notes has quite the same rhythm twice – an effect that we eventually come to accept as intrinsic, as we accept the unsymmetric intervals in a peal of churchbells. The dynamics, too, seem widely varied, suggesting that the performer does not always know if a note will plang or plink. Just as precision tempo seems difficult, so do precise chords – they tend to be played broken, and the pieces seem to come to a halt with odds and ends of notes.
Yet the music is delightful. It is also exciting, because it opens a door, and lets us overhear, faintly, how different our culture could have been if, through some accident, the piano-harp had stood in the piano’s place. With repeated listens we begin, without conscious effort, to learn the aesthetic of the piano-harp.
Eventually there comes a point where it is difficult to assert with real confidence that we are better off for not having to make do with the piano-harp. An instrument’s limitations, quite as much as its strengths, are what give the music and our conception of the instrument a “character”, which is perhaps the essential factor in being able to interpret what we hear as having a “meaning”, that is to say a cultural significance. Therefore limitations in an instrument do not produce limitations in the wisdom of what can be said with it; in fact, the technical challenges they create provide opportunities for exposing, and polishing, new facets of that wisdom. Just as fully functional languages can be composed from any number of narrow selections of all the noises that a human voice can make, so we could have made music as natural and as human with different instruments. The difference, utterly transforming as it would have been, is not clearly a difference of value. [The difference that it makes whether, for instance, we grow up speaking English or Italian, is something that can only be contemplated by those who are fluent in both languages; those who are, of all people, the least prone to claim that one language or the other is superior.]
But I have written this in the past conditional, as if the piano-harp is an odd, trivial, dead end of the sort that interests only those mostly elderly folk who knock about in museums. But in fact, to listen to it is to hear the certain future as well as a curiosity of the past. Our musical instruments, like our languages, will change and are slowly changing every day. And these changes, in any aspect of human culture, affect all the rest, so that even when something does stay the same (such as a sound recording) it is now heard differently – a recording of the Léner Quartet sounds not like a string quartet but like an old string quartet. Which is one application of Gösta Ågren’s poem, The Ego:
The one who never changes
The main point of this article was to provide a link to Paul Rencher’s superb memoir of Satan’s Rats, but I had my doubts about how long the defunct-looking website that held it would last. And sure enough, the site has now been de-activated.* But here’s a few paragraphs to give you an idea.
It was reggae band Culture who prophesied upheaval when they sang “When the Two Sevens Clash”. So it was that, even in the backwaters of Evesham, the Spirit of 1977 arrived spitting, snarling and wearing bondage pants.
A visit to
I didn’t care much. The name was immaterial – I wanted to perform. That was all that mattered. My credentials were limited to the acting I had done at my last school when I appeared in “The Rivals” and “The Matchmaker”. The dusty room over Ma Bomford’s garage was no theatre, but ideal for us to set up our equipment and run through Communication Breakdown at garage band speed – 1 minute 30 seconds.
“What’s that?” growled Steve, as I let out a whoop at the end. “Don’t do that – it’s unprofessional.”
I said nothing but reflected that professionalism was about as far from punk as you could get, according to the papers. We were still developing our sound, continuing our painful odyssey through the cheesy Led Zeppelin songbook.
Something had to change. So I penned the lyrics to several songs that were to constitute the set at our first gig. On one productive afternoon in the college library, an essay on “The Return of the Native” was pushed aside so that I could conjure up these songs.
“You Make Me Sick” was
comic-book punk exploring the classic motifs of nausea and vomiting, as induced
by just about anyone who upset me in those days at
*Note (2005): I’m delighted to see that the site has now reappeared, so here’s the link: http://www.geocities.com/p_rencher/. The influence of EngLit students on some obscure but great British pop music is a subject that should one day be discussed. I’m thinking of Bob Pegg, who in unstable synergy with his then-wife Carolanne produced the two explosive albums by the folk band Mr Fox in the early 70s, and I’m also thinking of the single album – about 1981 – by the folk-punk band The Dancing Did (coincidentally from Evesham). The unsustainability of these bands can be explained if they are understood as crazily inventive attempts to get out of fundamental social, class and historical realities.
1977 was preceded by 1976 and that’s when punk really began – according to some, brought to discontented birth by the seemingly endless hot summer. But the punk records that had actually been released by the end of 1976 were so few that they were hardly recognizable as comprising a movement. 1977 was the headlines, the controversy, the palpable and thrilling awareness that things were not merely changing, they were already completely different.
My own memories of those years are basically a non-combatant’s. I was the right age (18 in 1976) to be profoundly stirred up by the whole thing, and I was, but I had grown up in middle-class rural seclusion and never got seriously into going to live gigs. I went off to a provincial university to study English in Autumn 1976. It was not the place for first-hand contact with the early days of punk. Students were mostly sceptical and not in the vanguard; punk bands despised students (even if they’d been students themselves, which they often had). Downstairs in hall, it was Joan Armatrading’s superbly impassioned “Love and Affection” that sometimes overwhelmed and soon irritated neighbours who were trying to write essays.
At the same time I was keeping up with what was going on by religiously reading the NME, then entering its golden age. I was pro-punk from the first, and had been dreamig of something like this ever since the clarion-call of such editorial pieces as “The sinking of the Titanic”, which had made mincemeat of the bland transatlantic doldrums that the institutions of rock were settling into – Rod Stewart and the Eagles, as I recall, seeming to epitomize the state we had sunk to. But because I was neither a regular gig-goer nor a regular radio listener I think it must have been 1977 before I ever even heard a bona fide punk record. I only heard records that I bought for myself, and that implies a serious limitation to anything I’ll say from now on, because it means that I managed to pass through the whole period without really encountering some bands at all, for example the Damned and the Dead Kennedys.
[The NME’s golden age lasted from the mid-seventies to around the mid-eighties. Those key editorials had been written by survivors of an older generation: Mick Farren and Charles Shaar Murray. I’m not sure who was really behind turning the paper into a wide-ranging exploration of youth culture (it was often political but never really politicized – there was an often-heard truism around at the time that rock’n’roll was intrinsically consumerist and capitalist; 60s idealism had become unfashionable, the hippie dream could be presented as ridiculous or tragic but either way as a definitive failure that led only to the Eagles). Whatever led up to the NME’s change of identity, great journalism was to follow: Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, then Ian Penman and Paul Morley, then Richard Cook and Barney Hoskins. The progression was towards an impressively more expansive musical grasp, but with gradual abrasion of the social aspects. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. Cook and Hoskins appreciated and thus accepted nearly everything. They were connoisseurs and not confrontational. Then suddenly white pop music didn’t matter any more, and music journalism just went back to being the fan-club crap it had been before, and young people stopped reading it. Around the same time, a man’s magazine called GQ appeared on the news-stands, at first to general bewilderment; it would take a while before the laddish market would clearly emerge. The NME had, no doubt, always been a heteronormal male readers’ thing, but it had also seemed to have ideals.]
Back in 1977, acceptance was not a favourite word. We seized on simplifying terms, such as “Boring Old Fart” (to exclude anyone older than 25) and “Muso”, to exclude anyone who showed any interest in playing their instrument. The former term had an unexpected longevity and is still heard today, but for nearly all of that period except for right at the start it has only been used by the older people themselves. The latter term, though now forgotten, had a more significant impact; it eliminated, apparently forever, the brief heyday of the cool rockstar as virtuoso musician, as exemplified by Hendrix, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore and bands like Yes – even they were cool once – with their banks of keyboards and racks of guitars. But perhaps changes in the technology of pop music (synthetic sounds, automated rhythm tracks, samples) also prevented this highly problematic category from re-emerging.
[In hindsight the brief era of the rock virtuoso looks like a failure by critics to credit what their ears were telling them about the radical novelty of the new art-form; that rock’n’roll depended on other qualities than those of virtuosity or musicianship. Without the critical vocabulary to explain this, they slipped back into more familiar conceptions taken from the classical concert platform; these could seem to be applicable to jazz, though there was already a bit of a strain – but they were sheerly irrelevant to the potency of a great pop record.]
The first approximately new wave record
that I purchased was the
Marquee Moon was released in May 1977 and it was only after that I went on to buy The Clash though it had come out in April; well-primed as I was, something about that alien package made me afraid, perhaps its affront to the cultural values of my student mates. Then I was properly launched, things were in full swing, and in only a few more months the scene would be visibly imploding. 1978 was on the whole a depressing year. Things picked up again in the summer of 1979, when the indie scene began to deliver: Unknown Pleasures and A Trip to Marineville. In terms of musical substance these records were, I thought, streets ahead of any core punk record released in 1976 or 1977. But it was the earlier phase that was revolutionary and perceptibly effected a culture-shift. It was news as well as art.
(I am half-inclined to claim that there were NO American punk bands in 1977. The Ramones are the obvious exception, but they were mostly a joke. It was about three years later, 1980, that the true American form of punk, known then as hardcore, came to our attention: Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, Flipper...)
Punk meant different things to different people, and my own perception of it was probably more deviant than most, but I think it’s worth recording. As you might guess from my background, I was really more deeply interested in artistic form than in the social and tribal aspects that resonated on the street – though I wouldn’t have admitted that at the time. I saw punk (in stark contrast, say, to Yes’ flatulent double album Tales of Topographic Oceans) as a crucial return to basics.
The earliest punk records were often in a jumpy 2/4 that felt like a reaction to the increasingly monotonous 4/4 that characterized “rock” (for example, the upholstered freeway music of Foreigner et al). 2/4 looked back to the fifties, to the early days of rockabilly when it still had that inheritance from the uptempo country of the Hank Williams era. 2/4 demolished the sort of cod-heroic stance that 4/4 rock was tending to assume; one of the meanings of 2/4 was: we’re common, and we don’t mind admitting our commonness, we’ll transmute it by rage and intensity. That was always going to be unsustainable, and it must be admitted that the Sex Pistols were an exception to this – their songs were always in 4/4. Anyhow, the reversion to a fifties beat went with extreme brevity. Songs such as “White Riot” managed to get back under the two-minute barrier again. The implication, so far as I was concerned, was this: most of the time the four or five minute rock song failed to justify its inflation, its repeated chorusses and soloing and long fade. I saw it as a matter of significant content. You’ve said it once, now fuck off.
The quintessential ideal of punk, so I thought, was an impatient shedding of unnecessary trappings. Guitar solos were banned outright or slimmed down to two or three seconds of dismissive scintillation; “pretentious”, meaningless lyrics were replaced by literalism: there was no doubt here what every song and every line was doing. Punk was utterly functional and represented, among other things, a furious reassertion of what in the novel you would call naturalism.
Perhaps it’s wrong to put it that way, perhaps we just replaced one set of conventions with another. We mocked emotion in singing – that kind where the singer throws in insincere spontaneous moans to convey the impression they are actually in the throes of earnest feeling, rather than just singing a song about it. Love songs, for the moment, were pap.
What I admired was in fact only one strand of what was evolving. It didn’t seem possible to keep that focus for very long. The surprisingly good album by the Adverts, the first album by the Slits, and the early work of the Fall were developments of the strand that I personally was interested in. I felt betrayed by most of the rest.
British punk owed much more than I realized
to American models – for instance, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, the Stooges,
MC5... unaware of that, I saw punk as establishing a pop idiom that
dramatically shed its transatlantic colourings. For me rock’n’roll was always
basically an American music. In
Remember, I am talking about how this all appeared to me at the time.
It was very noticeable in 1977 that punk
dispensed with the tinges of blues and country that had been such a constant
presence in previous rock music, right up to and including the pub-rock
movement that itself was one of the immediate precursors of punk. (That was one
reason why Elvis Costello was new wave but not punk.) During this brief era if
you happened to hear something by the Rolling Stones or Led Zep – and of
course, that happened rather often because very few punk records existed as yet
and they were very far from dominating the airwaves – it sounded like these older rockers
belonged to a different harmonic world. Joe Strummer and Paul Weller used their
urban English accents. It had often been observed that English place-names
sounded silly in rock lyrics, but American ones (Route 66) sounded mythical,
and apparently they sounded like this even to Americans. The English names were
bathetic because they broke the escapist illusion that, as I’ve said, seemed
inherent to our borrowed form. But now (briefly) you could name the A13,
Chelsea and the Westway and it didn’t sound silly at all. Or
I felt extremely cynical about that
international thing. Nearly thirty years later you might assume that what I
have written in the previous paragraph represented anti-American feeling as it
exists now, suspicion and fear of the western super-power. But it wasn’t to do
with that (with the cold war still intact,
I realize now that I had a lot of this wrong. I had never lived in a city, and I did not understand the profound forces that drew people towards camp and eclecticism, for example; nor, contrariwise, did I understand that my idea of a local authenticity didn’t make much sense amid the stream of fast-changing cultural blends that already typified urban consciousness. What I was concerned with now looks parochial, romantic and politically dubious. Everyone will be quick to say these things now – too quick, probably. After all, I did not invent these ideas out of my own eighteen-year-old mind – I somehow imbibed them (via the NME, no doubt) and they really did represent a strand of what was going around. If one replaces the phrase “authenticity in music” with “relevance in music” – and they meant the same thing to me at the time – I think there might still be a challenge in the great failure of 1977. “Ghost Town” (1981, I think) might be the last British political record. I remark to my younger friends, with mere malice (so I allow them to believe) : Of course, pop music doesn’t matter now. But if since 1977 there has actually been a subsequent effort, on anyone’s part, to seriously wrest the means of (musical) production and make it an art-form for and by teenagers... I was too old, probably; it’s impossible to hear popular music other than relativistically. If I’d been black and a few years younger I might have felt the same way about rap. After that, I stopped even knowing the names, and what I got to hear was just mainstream pop music, variously entertaining. I didn’t know what it meant any more. For example a few years ago I thought a duet by Wyclef Jean with Mary J Blige was a great record and then I was discomfited to hear his music brusquely dismissed as “mumsy”. That was my own penance for turning my back on pop music, ironically because I applied another lesson of 1977 rather literally. I really believed, when I’d turned thirty, that it was pathetic to carry on clinging to youth music like a superannuated has-been. So I binned it and learnt to love fugues, lieder, intermezzos and serialism instead. I thus inadvertently solved a mystery that had often troubled me as a teenager: why some of my elders, who plainly were light years ahead of me in appreciation of classical music, if they ever noticed pop music positively at all, would invariably hit on some piece of loathsome shite, some piece of comically inept fluff by Cliff Richard or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now I’d become one of those endearing no-hopers myself. So it is only as a report of my own “placed” experience that I can still assert, with the ghost of pride that was once certainty, that 1977 was (to quote a record from a couple of years later) “not here to cheer you up”.
[“You had to be there,” we say, implying that you had to be the right age, which is what can also be said about the music of today that I can’t hear correctly and whose significance, therefore, I can’t weigh. (Mere age, of course, is not all there is to it, but I’ll use that for simplicity of exposition.) As a relativist I should demur; what the 45-year-old hears, I ought to claim, is just as valid as what the eighteen-year-old hears. But in a certain sense it isn’t, for the eighteen-year-old lives and breathes through the youth music of her/his own era whereas it is by no means of the same importance to the 45-year-old who hears what is really someone else’s music and who wonders why anyone can put up with listening to it interminably over and over again. Only the eighteen-year-old possesses the scene, instinctively devouring the music as replete with cultural significance, every accent and accident contributing to a total effect, like the band’s clothes and song-titles and CD covers. Yes, the 45-year-old’s more tepid response does have a validity of its own, for there are indeed features that are more easily seen from outside; for example, you appreciate some aesthetic features of scripts that you can’t read (e.g. in my case Arabic or Korean in contrast to Roman); or, another obvious example, there are peculiar, unrealistic conventions in movies and soaps – in all “realistic” dramatic forms – that are more likely to be noticed by a bored observer, by someone who isn’t really caught up in the action. Undistracted by inwardness, one notices samenesses. (Thus the music of an unfamiliar culture “all sounds the same”...) But even I would have to admit that there is a certain primacy in the inward experience; for the inward audience, it just matters more. This does not, however, provide a non-relativistic foundation for ultimately pronouncing on what’s good and bad, even were there a consensus among the inward audience – who being impassioned are prone instead to violent disagreements.]
I was most reluctant to arrive at the last page. I admire it no less for thinking that an apocalyptic view of culture would after all be rather surprising in the editor of the TLS, also that the “man of letters” needs a rather different form of attention before it could conceivably seem a relevant category in my or most other views of “our situation”. He does seem about right on “theory”, but I’m guiltily conscious of saying this from a more or less fixed determination never to read “theory”* - like me, he bases his view on externals, verbal minutiae - he doesn’t concede enough common ground to begin to read “within” the theoretical tradition.
He seems unjust to the Leavises, dismissing the Dickens volume airily in the Afterword (it would have spoiled some of his earlier attack) - Leavis on Little Dorrit, as on St Mawr, Othello, Heart of Darkness, etc, is indispensably good. It all depends on how seriously upset you get about Leavis’s bizarre, combative refusal to admit he ever made a mistake, though his shifts of opinion are in fact rather naïvely transparent. I feel much cooler about it all than Gross - for him it vitiates the whole work, indeed looms larger than the work.
[* Occasionally I forget about this, and no doubt when Derrida (like John Gross himself) arrives in the Oxfam Shop, I shall press on from Marges de la Philosophie (semi-absorbed years ago). I always liked the lucid Stanley Fish and probably acquired my basic relativism from Is there a text in this class? - the form that this relativism takes (possibly misunderstood) is that value exists only as a feature of a community. Shakespeare can be loosely called “great” only within the large frame of reference erected by western civilisation - and taking a “dominant” view of it, too. In practical terms that does make him “great” for me, because of my background (though even from my narrow perspective I have noticed marked shifts in exactly what things have seemed “great”, over the years). For you Shakespeare may not be so great, or even a complete irrelevance - and you are not wrong. In fact the local value of any thing is nothing other than what you happen to make of it - its function in your life. (Fish however under-rates long-term functions of literature - things that happen long after the “reading”.) This is at the granular level.
This relativism is what I believe and seems to make for methodological clarity. It is not “laissez-faire” relativism because I accept my own values and aim to persuade you of them. But the values are derived from love. On a general view they are not axiomatic - I might have loved something else. The relativism is axiomatic.]
John Gross doubts if Leavis taught much. A
measure of what he taught me might be my ultimately negative judgment on C.S.
Lewis’s defence of
This brilliant book re-creates a unique succession of events in a unique historical situation – one of the lasting impressions of the book is that “the Spanish Civil War” was not like any other episode in history. This, for me, formidably validates the author’s procedure.
Nor, of course, was the war the same for any two of the hundreds of witnesses that Fraser interviewed. Yet their stories are by no means entirely detached, since they occupied a shared time and space, more importantly shared social conditions, which become clearer with each page. The book is a way of treating these (perhaps they might be identified with the war itself) without imposing a historian’s marshalling.
It’s best to read it straight through. The structure is improvised; the paragraphs and pages, though approached by the reader in a linear sequence, do not mimic the sequence of passing time. But this is a necessary discipline for the emergence of the image. Quite hard work at first, eventually compulsive. Though the book consists mainly of unliterary testimony, it becomes a seminal literary work, and characteristically so in demanding a new way of reading. It may be one of the lasting achievements of its own era, in the aftermath of ‘60s radicalism.
Blood of Spain is a large book but one of its virtues is the impression that each
narrative takes place in the open air, a solo in the midst of unrecounted life.
Eschewing the inclusiveness of summary, the mastery of De
That is one of the central preoccupations for any reader. Equally fascinating is the political situation on both sides; revolutionary Catalonia, for example, is I think the only occasion when an anarcho-syndicalist system has subsisted, or tried to subsist, on a grand scale; in a region containing one of Europe’s major cities. But the situation everywhere had unique features – in the Basque country, for example, impossible contradictions of loyalty arose. The political complexities on the Right were less turmoiled (they were winning) but no less unpredictable (see e.g. Dionisio Ridruejo’s view of Falangism).
The front line is avoided in favour of the
rearguard; it is not so much the military actions as the radicalization of
individuals that impresses us as the primary condition of civil war. But
I’m looking for a quotation, but will just pick the page I happen to be re-reading. José Avila, a labrador (farmer):
Politics, that was where the trouble lay. Everyone read a lot, everyone had his own point of view, everyone went his own way. If there had been just two sorts of politics, left and right, things would have been better. But there were so many ideologies, especially on the left: republicans, socialists, communists, anarchists. I don’t know what the labourers really wanted. I don’t think they knew themselves. But whatever it was, it wasn’t good for us farmers. At work they began to make remarks to our faces. “Not a single fascist must be allowed to live.” It became risky for us to live on the cortijos (large farms). The labourers talked of the reparto (division of estates) but was that what they really wanted? When the republic took over the duke of Medinaceli’s three estates near here, the people didn’t seem satisfied with the land they got. They wanted something else. If only there had been a strong political organization, left or right, republican or non-republican, things wouldn’t have reached the stage they did. Guarantees, rights – fine! But law and order as well. That was what was missing.
And Juan Moreno, a landless day-labourer:
What did we want? Not the sort of agrarian reform the republic was trying to make. The state and capitalism are the worker’s two worst enemies. What we wanted was the land – for the workers to take it over and work it collectively without the state intervening... The reformists, the state socialists, wanted agrarian reform, wanted everything controlled by the state. When the state said “stop” – stop; when it said “render accounts” – render accounts; when the harvest was in – it would be there demanding its share. We didn’t want that. The land must be in the workers’ hands, worked and managed collectively by them. That was the only way the workers could control their own affairs, ensure that the produce which resulted from their work remained theirs to deal with as they freely decided. Not that each collective could remain isolated, a unit on its own. No! Each would be responsible to the local CNT organization (anarcho-syndicalist trade union), the local to the regional, the regional to the national. But each would be managed by a committee elected by the collectivists themselves, each at the end of the year would divide up the surplus produced among the collectivists... We hated the bourgeoisie, they treated us like animals. They were our worst enemies. When we looked at them we thought we were looking at the devil himself. And they thought the same of us. There was a hatred between us – a hatred so great it couldn’t have been greater. They were bourgeois, they didn’t have to work to earn a living, they had comfortable lives. We knew we were workers and that we had to work – but we wanted them to pay us a decent wage and to treat us like human beings, with respect. There was only one way to achieve that – by fighting them... In many ways we were worse off under the republic than under the monarchy; the right became even more aggressive and reactionary, and we had to defend ourselves...
OK, so let's be serious. There are authors here that I do
like: Eliz Bishop, R.S.Thomas, Berryman,
I have not seen your writing
For ages, nor have been fretting
To see it. As once, darling.
This letter will certainly be
About some book, written by you or by me.
You turned to other ghosts. So did I.
It stopped raining long ago
But drops caught up in the bough
Fall murderously on me now.
Her poems here attract me by intelligence, or rather by what that intelligence discovers - Witch, Birthday Poem fromVenice, Leaping into the Gulf. The discoveries turn out to be rather wilder than is compatible with the poetic - or, I suspect, the life that nurtured this poetic. That seems to be the best kind of gift that a poet can give.
This has rather a complex history of
compilation. The cartography apparently comes from
The hybrid origin of the book is subtly
betrayed in a map such as the one of
On the Spanish coast there is no Torremolinos or Benidorm or Lloret de Mar.
Production looms large in the accounts of nations - somehow, archaically so.
I really bought the book to understand the moon and skies, but the explanations are, to me, incomprehensible - perhaps they are just not complete enough.
Glenville Pike is not a lively writer but he has exciting material. From Tasman, Cook, Edmund Kennedy, Frank Jardine, the missionaries, the gold-rushes, the 1899 cyclone; to exploration, drovers and packers – he maps a melancholy, and of course broadly familiar, epic of pioneer generations.
One misunderstands the economic nature of exploration by reducing it to a matter of names, but nevertheless, naming is a crucial component of the story that Pike has to tell, and so it is of the methodology that elicits the story. In the earliest days the naming begins with features seen by sailors: islands, river-mouths, and a few notable peaks. Inland exploration was much more confusing. The travellers were invariably cutting across the numerous rivers on their marches up and down the peninsula. But rivers inland are much more difficult to understand as unities, because they are seen only at crossing-points, and the grand simplicity of a coastal debouchment is the mingled water of numerous tributaries. Different explorers kept naming the same river twice, or misapplying previous names, and a good many of the oldest names ended up getting attached to the “wrong” rivers, i.e. different ones from those they originally referred to.
No unified grasp of the landmass could be exploited during this period (the second half of the nineteenth century). Only the concentrated local interest of flakes of gold could pay immediately. It’s extraordinary how gold-rushes always spring up at such times; extraordinary in contrast to the utter insignificance of the same locations once latter phases of civilisation have gridded the land. I suppose that’s why prospectors always end up being called “old-timers”.
At some point the myall,
or “wild blackfella” disappeared. It was about the 1930s, just about when the
first motor-car, a Baby Austin, was driven to
The pioneer culture, in its turn, would become embattled and worn down. If (as I suspect) Mr Pike reflects the more enlightened attitudes of its nonage, it came to admire the courage and to sympathise with the culture of the wild Aboriginals (these having now disappeared, however). Of the modern-day peninsula he writes: “Here is a country still as the explorers first saw it, a paradise for the Aborigines of long ago, and a land still unpolluted by white man’s civilisation.” However often you read that sentence, it seems to end up suggesting that the land is still a paradise for the Aborigines of long ago. Perhaps if you are a historian they still seem to inhabit it. (But of the Aborigines living in new kit-homes in Laura township, he can only say: “Once happily living on (cattle) stations, they have become urban dwellers attracted by the fortnightly unemployment cheques, white man’s tucker, and grog. With no work required, sufficient money, and homes provided, they ‘have it made’.”)
has been the lifeblood of the
There may be something in
what local cynics say – if most of the cattlemen are forced, by economics, to
sell out to the Government, the best parts of the
No doubt it would suit some
politicians’ small Brisbane-oriented minds to leave the
In this way the
conservationists, most of whom have never seen the
Those people who have their
homes in the lonely Peninsula country are too few in number to have any
influence at the polling booths, but their contribution to
But this pleasing quietness might, after all, be inseparable from the neglect. A more sinister quietness lay on Pine Tree in 1888, when Louisa Boyd came up after the massacre. (“The sheltered English girl was hardly prepared for the sight that met her eyes; the bloodsoaked blankets of Eddie Watson and the grave freshly dug to receive his body. She led the prayers at the graveside, then set to work to tend Jim Evans’ terrible wounds...” Louisa was recently married to Jack Boyd and, as the author with gentlemanly discretion claims, “previously had never seen blood other than a scratched finger”.)
In their hey-day the pioneers, though pursuing their own ends, felt totally at one with the development of their nation, epitomized for instance by the heroic construction of the overland telegraph line to Cape York. Epic development gave a pattern to their lives. So there is a profound disappointment in the unexpected loss of impetus. They believed that their lives manifested a destiny.
If Australia were to act
more like one of the rich Western nations it tries to copy and less like one of
the Third World undeveloped countries, there would be a bitumen two-lane
highway connecting Cairns with Weipa by way of Laura and Coen, and the Mulligan
Highway would no longer be a horror road.
Organizing 4WD parties that enable urban tourists to sample the thrills of the “horror road” was obviously not the destiny that was dreamt of.
This heartfelt plea is a little confusing, set in apposition to the remark about “a land still unpolluted by white men’s civilisation”. I suppose, like many other people, the descendants of the pioneers wanted self-contradictory things – the dream but also the dreaming, untamed grandeur transfixed in an eternal moment of being mastered, admiration but not displacement, to be left alone but not forgotten, and to bequeath to their children something whose value lay in being uninherited. One wants one’s life to have had a purpose. Or more realistically, one wants it to seem to have had a purpose.
[It would be a shame not to give a sample of Mrs Lennie Wallace’s inspiriting narrative of a 1958 drove from Merluna to Mareeba:
Our plant was a very small one with two saddle horses and one packhorse per person. We had to do big stages to meet our delivery date, and with 100 F degree heat for twenty-three days, with no storms yet to make either grass or water, our once-fat horses turned to near skeletons. To cap it all, I developed dengue fever.
Meanwhile, Hardy [nb. her husband’s brother, organizer of the drove] was in trouble. One night out from Coen there was a yard available, but they rushed that night and took the yard. Some had bad horn wounds when we took delivery the next day.
Hardy counted them out. ‘One thousand one hundred’ as he tied the eleventh knot in his whipfall, then: ‘One, two’ – a pause as he looked back over his shoulder to a stag that was hobbling along well behind the mob – ‘and three. I think he has Three Day Sickness.’
Hardy was right. The whole mob got it. Some even got it twice and calves on their mothers suffered, too. It was the first outbreak for over thirty years, and nothing had immunity.
It didn’t help our task, and we shuddered each morning as the cattle were counted off camp. We broke all the rules and forced the sick ones on as there was no grass or water where we could leave them. Rarely did we do a normal eight-mile stage; most of our camps were dry ones, with the horsetailer and cook carrying canteens from the closest waterhole.
Calves born on the road had to be killed, but when near a station we gave them to the station kids to poddy on the milkers. Many a herd has been started from drovers’ calves.
Christmas Day was spent just north of Musgrave. The menu was dry salt beef, tea, damper, and syrup. I spent most of the day by a waterlily pool trying to get a bullock on his feet and rejoin the mob. I rode back down the telegraph line in pitch darkness except for flashes of lightning. As a Christmas gesture, Hardy Wallace did my watch for me, he having caught us up in a jeep.
The sister of John, the cook, lived at Musgrave and she gave him a home-made fever mixture for my dengue. It worked, but was horribly horrible in taste. The ingredients included quinine, Epsom salts, and gin. John had also been given some fresh eggs for me and he carried them in his saddlebag. The motion of the horse scrambled them in the shell before they were cooked, but that was only minor...]
[For a dramatically different sense of
*unfortunately, now de-activated (2005).
[See also: George Farwell, Cape York to the Kimberleys (1962).]
Harold Morland, born in 1908, was already well into his retirement when he wrote a long poem that found its way into print. It is cast in a narrative mode and the stories are taken from the Arthurian corpus.
The poem, which is in a dozen sections or so, is written in syllabic stanzas of the form 5-7-5. But whatever part the haiku may have played in originating this form, these stanzas bear no resemblance to haikus and are best judged as an alternative to other traditional vehicles for narrative poetry in English, chiefly the pentameter. This had now become a hopeless medium for any modern poetry because the smooth flow of the stress-pattern is immediately antipathetic to the sounds that now come into our heads. In some way not instantly easy to define, the way it sounds isn’t right for a modern sensibility. I’d guess that the invention of recorded speech (especially in movies) is the key factor in our new way of hearing and forming vividness. We like effects that (in the now-archaic terms of prosody) depend on clashing stresses; on speech-rhythms and prose-rhythms and on almost anything but what the accentual iamb imposes on us, a regular lilt.
If you consider each of Morland’s stanzas as a single narrative pulse, you can see its potential for releasing those irregular effects. For example, the seven-syllable bit can seem both to match and not match the five-syllable bit, as in the first two lines here:
Even light armour
under the heat of summer
rubbed him to soreness.
The matching, emphasized by rhyme, expresses a momentum, in this case of riding. The non-matching, the skitter of extra syllables, expresses a resistance to that momentum, a sense that our environment is always too obdurate to fit our efforts exactly but instead carries on with its own agenda, in this case being hot and buzzing with flies.
A book with such a dependable bedrock is inevitably readable, but it seems to me that several things prevent The Matter of Britain being as enthralling as it ought to be. The author writes episodes, not concerned with completing stories that he (perhaps rightly) assumes every one of his readers will already know. This makes us doubt the the nature of the author’s commitment to narration, so we don’t really give ourselves up to the story. Elaine is taken no further than her night with Lancelot. Perceval is carried forward with some purpose but breaks off after the curse. These are two of the best sections, but how deeply can we involve ourselves in segments that seem to exist for the author’s gratification and not ours?
As a narrator, Morland has evident powers. Thus, describing the evening with Lancelot,
First in the darkness
golden globes of candle-light
on delicate hands;
We believe in the way that Elaine falls in love under the spell of this evening, even though she knows it’s being stage-managed by her father.
Or when Perceval sees the Grail procession:
First came a young man,
his hair radiant as fine gold
in leaping fire-light,
bearing a white lance
that seemed too pure for the use
of dusty battle;
but from its steel head
a drop of slow blood dripped down
to the young man’s hand.
Morland suggests the image of a ceremonial spear such as I remember seeing in Anglican churches of my youth. It makes that drop of blood shocking in a new kind of way.
The pleasure of narrative is hard to kill. If the story is chugging along it’s no real problem putting up with long stretches of dull writing and – what’s worse – fine writing that shows its age (“Voles haunted his feet”) in return for occasional refreshments such as these.
But it’s disappointingly apparent that Morland’s interests don’t extend to tournaments, quests, or the other bread-and-butter motifs of the Arthurian romances. Instead, he focusses on individuals (e.g. Morgan le Faye, Merlin, Kay, Palomides) and turns them into seekers of the mind’s mysteries, figures who evince a worldview. They observe the ways of nature and Arthur’s court while large thoughts twist briar-like around their brain. Sometimes this vaguely recalls Browning and sometimes the poetry of the 1940s.
[In Morland’s template scene of the young Perceval meeting the knights from Arthur’s court, he – like Perceval – problematizes the knights. This more or less reverses the perspective of Chrétien and Wolfram, who present the scene as being all about how bizarre Perceval’s performance is; knights are (or at least are tactfully assumed to be) a commonplace of the audience’s daily life.]
The last section is good. It tells the folktale of the shepherd who in after-times disturbs a cave where Arthur sleeps out the centuries with his knights and hounds. Morland’s shepherd is heavy-handed, he stumbles, his body weighs 14 stone like a real body, and he makes an eloquent contrast with that shadowy, ceremonial other-world that can’t exist in the same kind of way as ours, yet constantly haunts us with the promise of contact. This is how it ends:
The shepherd awoke.
A rubble of moss-greened stones,
and there at his feet
the clew of gray wool.
A lark overhead singing
A little laughter
of wind in the grass. Silence.
And a gaping mind.
The green hills asleep,
with sun and shadow drifting
and life murmuring.
Across his rough boot
a thoughtless snail is making
its own milky way.
This was Florence Elon’s first book of poems. I like to think of her receiving a complimentary copy from the publisher and putting it on her bookshelf. For her the title would shine out with a special naïve meaning, like those books you can get made for your children with their names inserted in the text and called My Own Story Book.
Less privately, the title refers to her
experience as a second-generation emigrant to the
To many, the primary meaning of the title
is something else. This author conceives her book as poems about a topic; as if
her medium is a way of being a raconteur. It places her quite clearly on the
traditional half of the divide that is supposed to run through American (and
British) poetry. Various names have been given to the halves; I like Ron
Silliman’s use of Poe’s “
The existence of this great divide is much attacked, virtually always by those whose own poetry tends towards pure SoQ - for we all play this incessant and ridiculous game of oneupmanship and experience intense discomfort at the thought of being discovered in a conservative seat - I say “we all”, but I suppose I mean, primarily, minor and insecure poets and academics who seek approval from their peers.
Still, the existence of the divide is undeniable. Only a very unworldly poet is unaware of it (though some SoQ poets affect to regard modern innovative poetry as of no great significance and haphazardly co-opt older modernists and post-modernists into a satisfyingly single great tradition). But it is not necessary to get embroiled in judgments about history. It is a present fact that there are two major audiences for different poetries with scarcely any crossover, and hence two major artforms that both call themselves poetry. (But then “poetry” has always been a blanket term that embraces a multiplicity of endeavours.)
But enough of the intoxication of big ideas.
You think you know where you are with the poems in Self-Made. The poems are frankly about relationships, sick-rooms, her children, her parents, death and being in foreign places – the absolutely standard fare of around a million American and British poets, some few of them published. I have read some of these poems many times and seen nothing but the standard fare. Then one day I notice something else.
My mother in her
sails through a shop
like a steam liner, leaving froths
of lace, long white scarves in her wake.
She dons fur caps, high boarskin boots,
brocaded gowns of her
like crystal, turning, decades flash
in velvet-curtained booths.
Once from her closet rack, I stole
a sequined shawl, black sash.
She laughed – to find me rouged
and stumbling in her spike-heeled shoes.
Now each, in turn, holds up a chipped
hand mirror forthe other’s use.
She tucks in strands of grey.
We pick out matching pins.
It began with the rhythm and the hint of
rhymes. I saw that the poem hinted at an Ur-poem which is in iambic
tetrameter and whose stanzas rhyme abab. (I am using “iambic” in the
incorrect but time-hallowed and useful way to refer to an accentual pattern in
English verse.) The actual poem begins each stanza with an iambic tetrameter
but breaks away from it, though sometimes half-returning; it creates lines that
aren’t quite accepted by the ear, but are heard as unmetrical or nearly
metrical. You might relate the Ur-poem to the fancied norm of behaviour
referred to in the opening words: My mother in her
As for the rhymes, they are displaced across stanzas (flash, sash) and dispersed into smaller units of sound (Avenue, froths, boots, youth, booths, rouged, shoes, use). The last two lines make a quiet comment by their form alone, still resolutely end-stopped but presenting new, unrhyming, sounds to the ear – and being trimeters with a coldly duplicated rhythm, so the tetrameter music is in the end closed out completely.
What each stanza actually segregates is not a pattern of rhythm or rhyme but a locale: the aisles of the shop (Stanza 1), the booths for changing (2), Mother’s closet (3), a hospital ward (4). All of the locales are wintry, but take place at different times. The poem is concerned with long spans of time, in fact with an attempt to encompass the essence of two lives.
All the stanzas have complexities. The
first exposes opulence and serene energy, and coming straight after the title
may be taken as telling us that the
The second stanza is giddier – even sickly
giddy. When I listed the locales I implied that this stanza, too, takes place
in the shop on
The third stanza can be read straightforwardly as a charming and familiar domestic scene, and indeed that meaning should not be neglected. This daughter, I think, adoringly emulated her mother’s style. But “stole” could be a hard-nosed little rebellion and “laughed” could be an unkind comment on its ridiculous failure. There is certainly a recalcitrance in the things themselves (the dropping of “and” in the second line suggests a dot-dot-dot... the frustration of inconsequent clothes grabbed from a rack).
But all the first three stanzas persist in
opulence, though its satisfactions are increasingly qualified. The last stanza
presents a diminution both of possessions and of physical movement. The two
women are doing their hair with severe practicality, no fantasy. Is this, then,
what being “in the
These daughters that you used to dress,
whose skinny legs you pushed to run
Then the rhythm loses that meaning. It runs on, but becomes detached from the father’s questioning watchfulness in the ward:
Their hands wear polished, sharpened nails.
By the end of the poem the rhythm robotically fails to react to the changed material:
those mumbled prayers
they can no longer say, their mouths
whose wails you used to kiss away
have now forgotten how to speak.
The rhythm now has a different and crueller meaning, hurrying to a destination with a momentum that is indifferent to human purpose.
In the following poem, too, rhythm remains important. It provides a means of falling silent.
From now on
Covered with sticky white –
ointment or fresh paint –
you are placed by my side
out of nowhere:
can’t stay open;
breath puffs, twice
as fast as my own;
skin’s glued to mine.
Out of the silence
your tiny voice begins
its unending sing-song.
Every time I read this poem its slowing-down to zero, to the barest minimal line of “suck air”, is more captivating.The silence then is a perfect stillness in which the mother and the tiny baby lie, for how long we can’t say, in a prelapsarian union that, perhaps, is maintained only by trance, by oblivion. Not often does one lie so close to someone whose features are totally unfamiliar. At this moment it is almost as if the birth hasn’t yet happened, as if the long embrace of pregnancy continues in its intimate silence. (For the doubled rhythm of the baby’s breathing still fits neatly within the mother’s breathing.) They are companions, for all that the sense of the poem includes the mother’s observation, its detachment which at another time could be amusement.
The final stanza enacts an effort, one of whose meanings is reluctance. Life begins again, positively charged with the child’s miraculous “sing-song”, and reflecting the mother’s adjustment to her baby’s stubborn differentness, which includes being a different person and being a baby, not an adult.
When I first made a list of the poems in Self-Made that I liked best, I found subsequently that others came forward and silently took their places. So now I don’t want to pick anything else out – Elon writes in sequences, and you benefit from letting the eye jump around, sampling the different musics.
A note on First Person, Present Tense
[This revised note first appeared in the blogzine Intercapillary Space]
have their own lives here. The hall chairs
count me as I climb the steps. (Jane Cooper)
I run into the cool morning;
rooks study the rubble of the pavilion,
a motorbike buried in the hedge... (Kelvin Corcoran)
This note is about poems that go: I do this, I do that, something happens, I feel this, I do something else. My main interest is the use of the simple present, and sometimes other persons might predominate: for instance it might go they do this, you do that, and sometimes the other persons are disguised “I”s, but only sometimes.
That’s reductive, but this isn’t about having an easy laugh, because some good poets have been very comfortable in this mode (Peter Redgrove, for instance; Jane Cooper and Kelvin Corcoran also). It’s still a dominant mode in the writings of naïve poets. Its pressure as a dominant mode is even discernible, I think, in the strategies of poets who go out of their way to avoid writing that kind of poem.
This has doubtless been discussed a hundred times before, but I haven’t seen those discussions, so here is mine. The examples I’m going to use are by Jeffery Bahr and Florence Elon, both poets that I happen to like, but I do them no service here. The extracts are not from outstanding poems and are used only as illustrations.
I drop him off, and get the call
and drive back to his school
to find him slumped against a sign,
one hand in his pocket, etched
with pen-stroked rock bands, pentagrams,
the other waving. (Jeffery Bahr)
One reason you know this is a poem is the tense, i.e. the simple present. There is an absorbed convention active here. Most readers take the tense of such poems for granted; they don’t notice anything unusual about it. Yet in spoken English the simple present is very restricted in its use.
He’s gone outside.(3) He’s helping unload some paper.(4) He’ll be back in a few minutes.(5)
You never answer his phone.(2) I need to know(1) if the printer’s been fixed yet.(7)
I do normally,(2) but I’m too busy doing this report.(1) It’s got to be out by lunchtime.(1) I thought of some additions last night.(6)
1. Simple present is usual with auxiliary verbs, the verb to be, etc. Also verbs of feeling or knowledge (I want). This note isn’t about these usages; it’s only about verbs of action.
2. Simple present, implying a habitual occurrence.
3. Simple past – for recently completed action.
4. Present continuous. The usual tense in English for something that is occurring right now.
6. Simple past, used for remote completed action (compare 3).
7. Composite past, used here to venture into the irrealis (where a lot of other languages would use a subjunctive).
As the above example shows, the main idiomatic use of the simple present is to imply repeated business. (What I am calling the “simple present” is sometimes referred to as the “habitual present”.) Thus, if you overheard someone say
I drop him off
you would automatically interpret this as implying a habitual state of affairs. You’d understand it to mean I generally drop him off i.e. he doesn’t catch the bus.
If you overheard someone say
I get the call
you would be puzzled to interpret it at all (because the “habitual” version would be I get a call e.g. every time the printer breaks down).
As the second example shows, Jeffery Bahr isn’t using the simple present in its “habitual” sense. His poem is about a “happened once” situation.
Most narrative is about the past, and the most common tense for narrative, spoken or written, is the simple past.
For the uncommon situation where narrative is actually about the present, we use the present continuous. E.g. on a cordless phone: Hold on, I’m having my tea. I’m just looking for the number. I’m trying to remember where I wrote it. Just going upstairs now. Or in the words of Roy Drusky, Don't worry Mr Peters, I'm just heading for the door.
The simple present is, nevertheless, used for narrative; paradoxically, narrative about the past. In literature, this is the “historic present”, as for example in half the chapters of Bleak House. It’s a self-consciously literary device. Novelists might use it sometimes, but journalists don’t. In a novel you would appreciate it; it’s only in poetry that you don’t notice it.
The simple present is also used for:
- spoken narrative in non-Standard Englishh. She goes to me well you can’t come in we’re closing so I go to her I go my sister works here I’ve got to get the keys off her and she goes well she’s left for the day so I go down the street and there’s her car so I go back and I go well I don’t think she has cos I can see her car...
- telling jokes. A man goes to a funfair and he wins first prize at the shooting-gallery. So the man says what do you want for your prize....
- stage directioons and screenplays. When people describe a film they talk like this: He escapes from the hospital with a nurse who takes him off to a ranch where they can’t be traced. He trains himself up with Chinese medicine and martial arts. But one day she tries to contact a friend who turns out to have been killed and then they follow her back and surround the house... (This use of the simple present acknowledges, I think, that the action on film or stage can be re-played.)
- telling a psycho-analyst about your dreaam. It’s always the same. I’m at a crowded party somewhere. Suddenly I realize that people are watching what I’m doing. I start to feel trapped...
What the dream and the joke have in common is a sense of the narrative action being unlocated in time. Both are narratives whose significance does not relate to the time they occured (if there ever was such a time) but only to the time now, when they are being recounted. The narrative is presented as having a typical quality.
Now we are, at last, getting close to Jeffery Bahr’s poem. The “poetic present tense” is somewhat different from all these analogues, but it resembles each of them in different ways. The characteristic prominence of the first person differentiates the “poetic present tense” from some of the other uses I have mentioned, for instance jokes and screenplays. First-person present tense is (as it seems to me) the most glaringly unidiomatic of uses. How many times in a year will you actually say
I clean my teeth
I draw the curtains
though you in fact do both these things every day? Not often, I suggest.
So why would you want to write like this in a poem? Unlike the joke and the dream, the poem very likely does narrate events that actually occurred in the past. Let’s try converting Jeffery Bahr’s simple present into the simple past.
I dropped him off, and got the call
and drove back to his school
to find him slumped against a sign,
I accept that this tense-change isn’t enough on its own to convert the poem into idiomatic English. But make a few other changes and it could:
I dropped him off, but then I got a call and drove back to the school. I found him outside. He was slumped against a sign....
What this change of tense also does is introduce into our minds a fictional occasion of telling. Instead of just Jeffery Bahr and his poem, we now have a poem which quotes a narrative that, we imagine, was spoken not to us but to someone else.
But often this “occasion of telling” would be hard to picture, because the narratives in such poems are deeply personal, unsensational, inconclusive, the sort of thing that does not get told at all outside of a poem.
Besides, a strongly pictured “occasion of telling” has a way of inserting a wedge between poet and narrator that turns the whole performance into a dramatic monologue. This induces preoccupations in the reader that are for the most part unwanted in modern poems. Narrative in the simple past is a comparatively unusual choice for a modern poet. It feels old-fashioned. It requires a trust in the infallibility of the poet (who is in contrast to the fallible narrator). It’s a kind of trust that we are not now in the habit of conceding.
With the poem as it stands, we may interpret the present-tense narrative as a kind of tacit meditation, rather than telling. One reason for its current prevalence in poetry is surely an uncertainty about what is being done, an indefiniteness of audience and even an uncertainty of whether there is an audience at all outside the poet’s own mind. Well, there is an audience, of course there is; they’ll read the words, but you can’t trust them to – how can I put it? – to take your meaning... The distrust, in other words, is mutual.
This is a stanza by Florence Elon.
Now moon beams pattern leaves
outside the blinds
where linnets nest.
I lie alone.
Under the study door
your light shows in a strip:
you leaf through texts,
take notes, file them away.
Through swaying leaves
the moon circles our quilt.
This time I’m going to try a conversion into the continuous present. (As above, it’s necessary to make a few other adjustments.)
Now moonbeams are patterning leaves outside the blinds, where linnets are nesting. I’m lying alone. Under the study door your light is showing in a strip: you’re leafing through texts, taking notes, filing them away...the moon's circling the quilt...
At first things go along quite well, because the word Now implies a time-located narrative. The change of tense gives a greater sense of immediacy to the drama; we feel closer to sharing the speaker’s lonely experience of lying in bed, moment by moment. But at the point where I break off, a tension between tense and content is starting to become apparent. The continuous present implies a record of experience, but the speaker can’t actually know exactly what her husband is doing behind the closed door. He certainly is not leafing through texts, taking notes AND filing them away all at the same time. And when we get to the moon, it positively flies round the quilt in an effort to match the tempo of leafing through texts.
The collapse of this attempted transformation betrays the temporal complexity that lies concealed beneath that simple present. It isn't a single momentary "now" at all, it's a long wakeful night and what's more it's resonant with habituality. The poem does not, after all, describe a single precise occasion, or rather it does to a certain extent, but it also implies a long-continued state of affairs. The narrative slip-slides from one to the other, and this is made easy and unobtrusive by use of the simple present.
Though this poem is formally addressed to the speaker’s (ex-)husband, we never suppose that its words were actually, then or now, spoken to him. The poem represents feelings that were not articulated then and are now transmuted into the art-articulation of poetry. The poem evokes a scene which (we understand) is a conglomerate of real events put together with a motive, i.e. to assert it as typical. The "poetic present tense" is a way of having it both ways, supplying the evidential force of something that actually occurred while simultaneously claiming the generalising force of the kind of thing that's always happening these days, the kind of thing that just says it all.
When things go bad in our relations with someone, we can’t help the way that we don’t communicate, which is also the way we communicate. When we feel frustrated by the repeated failures of that communication, we start to frame magical, healing sentences which would actually get through (unlike all the things that we do really say to each other, which fail to achieve anything – because we’re in a vicious circle, endlessly stimulating each other’s pattern behaviour). So long as those sentences are never verbalized, they would get through – in the irrealis. So long as we don’t make the mistake of actually verbalizing them, we take comfort from half-believing that they would effect the healing change that would alter our destructive relations. (If we verbalized them, we’d learn that all the effort that we lovingly expended to deliver a sort of clinching clarity was entirely useless, because it’s still us speaking, and since we haven’t changed, we’ll be ripped to pieces again.) In fact this self-therapy prolongs the problem by fixing our pattern behaviour yet more deeply; though there is this to be said for it: inasmuch as it allows us to be who we really are, it helps us to grow tired of who we are. A lot of naïve poetry is a vent for recording these “healing sentences”; it turns to personal advantage the underlying realization that the poems don’t have any readers who matter personally.
I’m not saying that first-person-present-tense poems are all bad, or indeed all anything. But my twin themes of self-therapy and uncertainty of the poem’s social function are meant to be suggestive. All art has conventions, but all conventions exact a cost. So incessant use of the present tense is the symptom of a problem – the actual problem may lie with narration itself, which is obscurely seen to produce enervated poetry. A poem, some of us wisely – but symptomatically? – proclaim, is not a machine for narrative; it is not about saying things, not in this kind of way anyhow.
The current dominance of the “poetic present tense” disguises the surprising fact (well, it surprised me) that its use is rather new. In older poets (when Blake walks thro’ each charter’d street, or Marvell falls on grass), the implication is always habitual, as in normal spoken English.
Then you can pick out occasional lines from Coleridge or Keats:
‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep (Dejection)
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs... (Ode to a Nightingale)
But as a whole these poems are not about what the speakers do. The poet who’s stting there in the present tense provides only a brief descriptive frame for meditation, exclamation, etc. The poet in fact is not in action, the poet is only seeing (or not seeing), listening, reflecting. See also This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, Rugby Chapel, The Scholar-Gipsy etc.
It’s Whitman, I think, who first begins to drop the meditation and to compose a whole poem out of the record of present-tense actions. This is chiefly in some of the short poems in Drum-Taps:
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying...
That was during the US Civil War. But it wasn’t until a hundred years later that this mode became truly commonplace.
[Both our present tenses can be used to imply the Irrealis, but the simple present is used to imply it in the future. Compare these two sentences:
If he eats the dodgy ham you’ll be spending tonight at the Royal United.
If she is eating perhaps I could leave the agenda with you?
The first construction, using the simple present, relates to what may soon happen; it implies that he has not eaten the ham, not yet anyway, and may still be prevented.
The second construction, using the continuous present, is about what may be happening now, i.e. the boss having breakfast; the speaker has no first-hand information. This lack of first-hand information may accompany a whole range of attitudes from absolute polite assent (as, probably, above), to complete incredulity (“If he’s tiling the bathroom then I’m joining the Foreign Legion”).
(2003, revised 2006)
One of the pleasing things about Some Music and a Little War is that you can’t pick out a poem that typifies it. Your way of reading is subject to review; it’s one of Peter FInch’s instruments. Here is one of the central pages of Instantaneous Magnetism:
is the union
we do not
as a study
This doesn’t look as good as the book by a long way, and it really isn’t supposed to be in a table, but I couldn’t get it to line up around the crucial central column of “magnetism” otherwise. (You can see it really well if you whizz up and down with the scrollbar!)
That central column is in part unseen but no less felt, just like the real thing. The palimpsest of academic, perhaps scientific, writing is also discernible, but comically disrupted by a vein of demotic and perhaps accusatory comments
(“...(fuc)king mag(netis)m..”?). “tude” is part of “student”, I think, but it might also be part of “attitude”. “nal” and “nat” suggest – by a sort of rhyme with “animal magnetism” – “natural”, and (just as potently for a Welsh author) “national”. But there are no right answers, only good questions. It is curious how a poem that you can’t precisely read aloud nevertheless has a distinctive voice. Or you might call it music, like the title of the book; but if so, it’s music with a lot of space through it, like Cage or (an acknowledged influence) Trout Mask Replica.The whole page shimmers. One has a palpable sense that even in the original book Instantaneous Magnetism doesn’t really fit on the pages. The visible part is a section of a trailing knot of energy, that is eventually likened to the pattern on a tie-dye shirt.
Bright Wind, the companion-piece to Instantaneous Magnetism, is concerned with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, another invisible play of forces. The “and” in the following passage comes from the sixteenth-century doubling of epithets beloved by the translators who made the prayer-book and the bible. But Peter Finch keeps one mundane eye on the incongruous break-up (or break-down) of a charismatic service into modern, urban men and women.
motives and desires
gas and electric
rushing and struggling
faith and godly
distinct and convincing
strenuous and occasional
week and many
bed and found
uneasy and disturbed
methods and results
city and people
frowned upon and imitated
fingers and bade
life and opportunity
god and they
sinners in the hands
The poem allows fingers to be pointed.
The “little war” of the book’s witty title
is (of course at one level only) the
We carry a lot of questions around with us:
is plastic alive
is blood forgotten
is air emulsified
is an ant a giant to a microbe
is an atom a star
is chess a product of bicycles
is seawater evil
is rubber hollow
is double vision the result of rainwater
is fishfood not really food
They’re funny, and more intelligent than they might seem at first, but we have no answers. We need advice, but in this book advice leads in unwelcome directions:
Grasp the grenade in the throwing hand
no gloves, no rings,
with the fingers holding the lever tight
against the body
tremble, let the blood flush under your nails,
pull out the arming pin,
do not relax grip on the lever before throwing.
That’s exciting, but it’s obviously not right. Or perhaps this good advice appeals:
Keep quiet, you can betray –
but not everyone can.
Don’t talk in the street.
You must not make notes,
code it, destroy it,
the less said, keep quiet.
all the time the water running,
rolling together, confluencing,
swelling out from the thickness of your arm
to the size of your thigh. Large it’s large.
It makes more noise. It goes
splartsch splartsch splartsch
Quiet comes to this:
They entered the Umschlagplatz, scrubbed,
hair flat, clean clothed, four by four, four by four.
(I wanted this piece to have a title which...)
Advice is one thing, and then there’s testing.
ten tag tag
When this eventually streams into a less clotted sound it becomes like this:
then you know
it is awfully hard for anyone to
go on doing anything because
everyone is troubled by everything.
Having done anything
you naturally want to do it again
and if you do it again
then you know you are doing it again
and its not interesting.
(Gertrude Stein, Doing It Again)
If the line about blood flushing under the fingernails caught your eye you might also appreciate this:
They wanted the salt, the water to cleanze them. To take all the flames from out of their souls. They had died in their hundreds. Half sunk in sand, their flappy mouths filled with sea. He looked across them, saw the remains of an ambulance – its red lettering still showing faintly as it rusted back into the coastline....
The dusk was coming. He wanted all his energy for the sea. He touched his forehead, felt the bone flex sponge-like under his finger...
It’s with the sense of touch that the book ends, an artist’s account but no more purely “autobiographical” than any of these other poems:
You know what I’m doing. I’ve told you.
Smoothing, planing, rubbing, rolling.
Each time I look at it its less,
like a pebble you’ve had in your mouth and kept in your pocket and taken out and sucked and rolled under your tongue and spat out and dried on your shirt and put back in your pocket and thought about and then tried sucking without it and felt what its absence might mean and touched it, the actual pebble, with your fingers at the same time, niggled it a bit, down near where the rip in the material at the bottom of the pocket is, so the pebble touched your skin, not too sharp because you’ve softened it, not cold, and you take it out, palming it, suck it again.
It’s like that.
(If Marcel Duchamp had been writing this...)
A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett