Sunday 15 March 2015

On Isolation and Interstices

This is a piece I was asked to write for the Hong Kong based publication, Stationary.  It's an excellent collection of short prose edited by Heman Chong and Christina Li, some 165pp by many writers. The subject was broadly given. The magazine is now out.

On Isolation and Interstices
J the wrestler

There have always been interstices, gaps to fall through and there are more now than before. As worlds accelerate and shrink gaps appear with greater frequency.

J was an amateur wrestler in the Hungarian army, an Olympic-standard protected lower-rank officer groomed for international success but then the revolution came and he fled into exile. He arrived in England in 1956 and was immediately signed by a promoter. Within a few days he was in the professional ring learning the grunts and groans of the wrestling circus, part of what the sport itself termed ‘a sporting entertainment’. This was a world of beer, sweat, fury, pantomime, parable, and masked shadows. His skill and strength quickly raised him to prominence. Soon he was on television, attracting vast audiences, winning trophies. But his wife left him, his son was estranged and, as he aged - he was twenty-eight by the time he arrived in the country - his role diminished from straight hero to ‘rabbit‘ or loser, thrown across the ring by ever heavier men. He never made much money and went to live with his younger brother’s family in a poor part of London. He lost the sight of an eye. He was set up to manage a London pub that failed and he died of cancer in his fifties.

His English remained broken all that time. He was neither here nor there; public in the ring, private outside it; physically articulate but verbally hobbled. He was both muscle and flotsam.

I can’t quite find him on the map. I can’t quite hear his voice or trace his movements. Yet I remember his presence sitting next to me on the bed in the disused barracks that were used as a brief temporary gathering place for refugees during our first few days in the country. I was just eight and he was talking to my father about something, probably his future career.

I would like to find him on the map because I suspect he could tell me something useful about myself now. We were both between languages, between cultures, between histories but he was a man and I was a child.

Solitude is a vital element in any writer’s life. It is hard to write in company unless one has the ability to isolate oneself for short intense periods (I do, but these are essentially short). Boredom may well be where writing comes from, the mind liberated by no specific thing to do, no urgent task to complete, or - even if there is some urgent task - adjusted to its own procrastination and displacements. Isolation, however, is different.

Isolation is as much an inner condition as a physical one. Isolation is a product of lack - lack of ready emotional companionship, lack of common assumptions, lack of certainty in one’s psychological dealings. It is mind as gap. J’s cultural isolation is such a central feature of his condition as I imagine it, that it feels something like pain. In fact it feels like the condition of my mother whose own troughs and precipices were, I suspect, the result of the same isolation. For J, the world of roaring fans, of fancy-dress staged violence, would have been a wall of noise against which his own voice would have sounded lost and unfamiliar. For my mother the isolation was primarily emotional. Nobody around her felt the world the way she did. Not even I. I was pliably intelligent. I had become anglicised in a way she never could be. Both J and my mother lived in gaps that grew deeper as they grew older. In the end they fell through, alone. What they knew they knew intensely and consisted of the solid ground around them, something they could almost reach out and touch. Almost but not quite.

My own case of isolation is hardly to be compared with theirs. In England Hungarian, in Hungary English may be the worst of it but there are far worse things. Nevertheless, I am aware of the gap I sit in: I hear it as a faint white noise that is the condition of many in the modern world.  Our white noise is specific to each of us but we are many - in fact we are legion. Not that that helps, if help is what is needed. The solid parts of the world are ever denser, its sides ever steeper.

The gaps are potentially productive. Out of them grow sounds and images - but oddly without foundation, or so we feel, our feet not quite touching the ground. I sit at my desk opposite a fence licked by sunlight. Leaves flutter nervously in the wind. We are hovering.

Thursday 12 March 2015

The True Confessions of a Retired Tutor in Creative Writing

So I was reading this piece in The Guardian - and the comments after it and, having done so, felt that though I had explored this territory often enough before, there were some things that maybe I should have said more clearly, so I am trying again. First, a confession.


I confess! I taught creative writing. I enjoyed it. I inhaled and am still inhaling. I also seem to have written a lot of books. But surely, they must be crap, otherwise I wouldn't have been caught dead teaching on such an obvious scam. I confess this crime but I would like the following mitigating factors to be taken into account:


As a young poet I had no access to courses such as creative writing but was lucky to find poets who helped me both in the small groups they ran and as friends. Very lucky indeed. I would like it if others were as lucky as I was. I can't guarantee that they will be, which may be my fault, but it won't be for lack of trying on my part. The poets who helped me in youth joined the poets I had read and loved and already lived in my head as well as those the live poets introduced me to. I hoped to do something similar for my students.

People who complain that creative writing courses produce relatively few writers don't complain that history degrees produce few historians, that music schools produce relatively few world renowned soloists, that art departments don't necessarily produce a lot of major artists. I spent 16 years in schools teaching art. Are people asking how many of those are 'great' artists now? I sincerely can't see why writing is different from any other art.

The principle of creative writing? Simple. Put those who want to write together with a writer who can both write and teach. The students learn from each other under the chairmanship of the writer. Thinking about writing also helps to think about reading since what is being read had to be written first. The skill of writing is as much in the reading as in the writing itself.

The history of any subject is that those sharing a mutual interest in it get together, formally or informally. I think of the Renaissance courts, or the idea of masters and guilds; I also think of those groups of writer friends like Keats and Leigh Hunt and Reynolds , or indeed Pope and Swift, who would get together to discuss their writing if only because they were interested in and respected each other. It is not outrageous to suggest that people may stand a better chance of writing well if they have access to intelligent opinion and discussion as they develop.

Contrary to rumour, students are not promised anything except the opportunity to conduct intelligent discussion of what they care about with other people who care about it. There is no guaranteed outcome. Courses are not a version of show biz or target led business. Nevertheless the courses seem to have consistently risen in popularity and even straight English degrees seem to do better when there is Creative Writing involved. For reasons for that see (3) above.

Objections to creative writing come from two chief sources:
a) writers (generally novelists, not poets) who have made a living in writing without any course and are for one or other reason financially independent (albeit possibly supported by a partner or with family money). They like to keep a certain mystery about their dark art. They regard themselves - and they may well be right - as especially gifted people who have achieved everything through individual genius and the sweat of their noble brow. They couldn't possibly discuss their art because it is too high for normal people to understand and maybe they themselves prefer not to understand it or even think much about it. (There is something genuine and true in the notion that the arts and their procedures work by a sort of mystery but not all who proclaim themselves as possessors of secret gifts actually possess them.)

Such successful and comfortable writers resent both the courses and the writers who teach on them because the writers who teach are not properly struggling, not alone, the way they think they were alone and struggled, and because they think (not having taught such courses) that the writers are teaching systems and tricks. Systems and tricks are, I myself freely declare, quite useless and furthermore, having examined a decent number of other MA courses in the past I can declare that I haven't come across a single one that offered a bunch of tricks as a prescription for success.

b) people who know nothing about writing and probably read very few books. These include a number of commenters on such subjects (see the comments under The Guardian piece). The level of intelligence shown in discussing Creative Writing by such people is roughly the same as that found in comments following a Chelsea defeat.

These are my true confessions. Further let it be known that a number of people - many of whom I have never met - keep sending me their work for an opinion in one form or another and that I still go to meet younger writers when they think they'd like to show me work in progress. I find that flattering but also exciting. It's nice being with the young - putting aside children and grandchildren the rest of my life tends to be with my own age group. I can't devote my life to the young orindeed others with manuscripts on the go (I never could) but when it is possible I would like to continue seeing and reading others.

There is in fact a list of witnesses I would call should the court require it in order that it might lighten my punishment but I will not ask for such witnesses now (it would be somewhat distasteful), nevertheless I want to assure the court that such a list exists.

One last list in link form as a mitigating plea. Not my list but the list of a single university, the UEA, where I was proud to teach. Let them be witnesses too. And beyond them all those who did not become famous and maybe never published much but whose experience of reading and writing on the various courses enhanced their human pleasure and potential and who might yet go on to publish and be successful later.

Click here for the alumni and explore.

Monday 9 March 2015

Sedona: a poem, its sources, and its shaping


You are travelling

into fantasy terrain

in a white Buick,

eyes fixed on the road,

the central reservation,

and the dust rising,

so you might dream it

or remember it perhaps,

passing Sedona

with Sonny Terry

and Brownie McGhee, the light

dazzling and constant,

to Sonny Terry's

harmonica, with blind eyes,

into the desert,

if that is desert

before you on the straight road

and not a mirage -

- a filling station,

a Navajo store, a bar...

Did these once exist?

And if they did, what

was it about Sedona?

What was your name then?

Were you ever there

or anywhere where time is?

Was Sedona real?

And this photograph,

or that photograph, is that

your tongue, your closed eyes?

Occasion and source

This is one of those poems that starts about 4 am after an hour of lying awake. I have had a few broken nights recently since I sprained my wrist about eight days ago. I wake as I might normally do but the wrist hurts and I can't get into a position that is comfortable so I read what I can in that condition having put aside whatever is too heavy or carrying too long a narrative and resort to the brevities of Twitter which is a godsend if only because there are so many fascinating scraps of writing and imagery on it.

The poem itself began after reading a line by Alice Bishop, an Australian writer and editor I hadn't heard of before. That line, in prose, was: "Her eyes, they're roadside scrub and well-fuelled flame". I thought that was lovely. I didn't know who the 'she' referred to was but Bishop's avatar showed a well dressed young woman leaning against a cliff by a dirt road, turning away from the road. The image together with the line offered something deeply packed and intriguing.

My first instinct was to do something I hadn't done before, which was to take the line and build something from it, while fully acknowledging the author by tagging her in, but that is a complex procedure on a platform as tiny as Twitter, especially at four in the morning. Nevertheless I played with it as a possible first line and a half (my longer narratives recently have all been on the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern and usually comprising ten verses) but then dropped it because I felt anything I might say about the female figure in Bishop's line, however I removed her from that context and placed her in one in my own imagination, she might turn out to be a second-hand figure for me. I could see her but couldn't smell her. It was in the process of thinking that and droppping the idea that the clue to a subject of my own arose.

In 1997 Ian Duhig, the late and much loved Julia Darling, Athony Thwaite and I were doing a British Council tour of Arizona. We had the use of a white Buick and drove up and down the state to various reading venues. On one occasion we got lost on a road fringing the desert and ran into the beginnings of a dust storm; on another we drove through Sedona with its red rocks. I remember feeling vaguely unhappy in Sedona, as though I were lost within myself.

This was what I needed to get started. I just had to visualise being on the road again, almost any road, a road at any rate through a desert in some compartment of the memory and I immediately felt I was on to something. A possible montage of images opened up like a chaotic map with no clear road only the sense of being on the road.  I could smell the road. I began writing.

Redrafting and shaping

So the verse with which the first draft started and which is now second emerged. There is the careful driving and the dust though I don't actually remember a central reservation. Maybe it was an odd linguistic slip referring to another part of the same journey, a visit to the Navajo 'reservation' that inserted itself here, though that experience was something different in kind and I wrote about that at the time.

All this is composed impromptu, verse by verse, each verse immediately appearing on Twitter as a free-standing text. (I should explain that, for me, there is a certain creative tension in writing in this half-exposed manner. It is something to do with being on full alert, at the edge of things, not quite in the court of the self.)

Having finished a run of eleven verses (the ten I had did not seem quite complete so I added an eleventh) I copied the lot out with a few changes and left it overnight.

When I woke up and re-read it I felt the poem wasn't quite right.

The problem was twofold: the first problem being the reiteration of information - the white Buick in particular; the second a matter of pace, flow and opening. The questions and recapitulations half way through had the effect of stopping the poem before restarting it.

The electric charge that should carry the poem through was fading before recovering.

So to the bureaucratic details.
  • The first verse moved down one. and the verse that followed it in the first draft (and one white Buick / automatic, a tape deck, / mountains either side) was cut, though I liked it in itself.
  • The two verses following that verse still do follow it in the new version above, but the one after it has been moved so it is now the penultimate verse of the whole.
  • The one that followed that one originally is now the first verse because it floated a little free of the narrative where it stood but made better sense as an introduction.
To be brief about this, the various verses got rearranged in the redraft which also entailed other minor changes though the material remained what it was but a little clearer, a little more open to the experience it was constructing as it went along, which was, essentially a sense of desolation in Sedona, a feeling that one might have anywhere in the world, except this time it was in Sedona in a white Buick.

So what?

I am writing this down as much for myself as for anyone else in an attempt to understand articulately that which I do instinctively. That can only be done in retrospect. I could not write with a retrospecive formal consciousness. One has to keep moving forward.

More importantly perhaps I talk about the core feeling of the poem, the driving force of it, as a memory of desolation but 'desolation' is an approximate term: it is the poem that is the real feeling and that feeling unpacks itself as it goes along, dragging a lot of other unnamed unidentifiable, almost incidental feelings in its wake. And that is, I suspect, what all poetry is even once one discards the well-known items of 'lyrical' baggage.

The point is you can't take the baggage with you. You have to discover it along the way.

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 7

Sándor Márai 1900-1989

The great Hungarian novelist, Sándor Márai, an earlier visitor to England in 1938, had noted how in England:

One has to relearn everything. It is not enough for those wishing to take up residence to accept the state of affairs: whoever finds himself here will bend or break but will not leave without a scratch. It is not enough to dissimulate, to pretend, to nod slyly and politely indicating that you accept everything: the people, their habitations, their social arrangements, their ways of dressing, their formalities… Whoever wants to live here must yield up his secrets and hand himself over heart and soul. Careful! they can tell! They are not interested in the overtly tamed, are contemptuous of any member of the bleating herd looking startled but ambling behind the leading sheep, slyly grazing in the opulent meadow. What they want is for you to accept them, nay, more, that you should believe in them entirely, not just in their laws, in the rules of behaviour that govern the various forms of life here, but in the spirit too, the spirit out of which the law was wrought. …You have to surrender everything if you want to live here…

You cannot surrender everything of course. And dissimulation is too tiring to carry on forever. You cannot surrender, nor can you ever quite become the thing itself. You are obliged to remain a certain kind of immigrant writer. A certain kind, because immigrant writers are not a single community. There are certain broad groups, those, for example, who speak English at the time they arrive and those who don’t; those with a colonial history, those without, and so forth. But the groups as a whole, don’t hold together. They are not communities as such. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they are all travellers, all 'elsewhere', at the margins of something. What gives them hope – gives us hope I should now say – is the feeling that the centre to which we are marginal is itself increasingly comprised of travellers, while continuing to offer a solid enough core of language and usage, of voice and manners – a grammar if you like – enough at any rate to nourish those who need it. A mother tongue, or at least a foster-mother tongue. A mother lode.

There is an image of marginality I have used before. In this image my works are a Budapest tenement block on the outskirts of some rambling English estate. The tenement should ideally be filled with living people, speaking a variety of languages, but above all, English, because England is where they are. The land on which that block stands is what this lecture is about.

There is an early poem of Kenneth Allott’s, in fact the very first in the handsome new Collected Poems, edited by Michael Murphy, called ‘Men Walk Upright’. Let me pick a few verses from it.

Come into the streets now away from the multiple shops,
The glossy automobiles and the Roman bank-fronts.
Here is a new factory with elegant chimneys
    But mark the surrounding

Mortified brick and mortar which will not be renewed,
The yellow lace curtains, the rubbish bins in the gutter,
The noise of the unwashed children who somehow are cheerful
    With their tops or their conkers…

… It is the freedom of light, the right to go walking
Well-fed in drawing rooms and gardens which has refined
Us if only to an impotence of anger. Think.
    You too are an animal.

I remember the factories. I even remember the unwashed children. They went to school with me. Elsewhere in the poem Allott talks of “The democratic plains, the pampered grass, / The imbecile willows, weeping into the stream”.

What I would like is that the road should lead me through that democratic plain, into a city that is half mirage, half ruin. It would be the city frequented by poets such as Joseph Brodsky, Derek Mahon and other such uproots. Visitors there should wander through the grander halls of Eliot and Auden and Rilke and Stevens, and find themselves congregating, as if by chance, at the sort of places where travellers normally tend to wind up:  in art galleries, concert halls, cafes and restaurants. Then, in the evening, when such establishments are closing, they should meander back to their dream hotels through streets that seem remarkably like home.


Sunday 8 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 6

Norman Cameron
If I had to pick two poems from Allott’s anthology to represent a more possible kind of voice, I would choose poems by Norman Cameron’s Naked Among the Trees and John Heath-Stubbs’s Epitaph.

Cameron’s poem begins with nostalgia for a lost way of life
Formerly he had been a well-loved god,
Each visit from him a sweet episode,
Not like the outrageous Pentecostal rush
Or wilful Jahveh shrieking from a bush…
In the middle two verses he paints a picture of burgeoning sensuality where the god “rose like barley-sugar round the lips” and shows what his society has done with it, turning it into “The drinking-bouts, the boasting and the bets.”

The poem ends:
And these have made his cult degenerate,
So that the booted Puritan magistrate
Did right to spur down on the devotees,
Catch them and whip them naked among the trees.

It was Martin Bell who first showed this poem to his small poetry class at Leeds. The poem is about desire and chastisement, and comes down on the side of the chastiser without quite bending to the chastiser’s frame of mind. The chastiser – the booted Puritan magistrate – is understood if not liked, is understandable, and in his own way becomes part of the longing.. The voice is in the longing, the resignation, the pain and the irony. It balances these things within a severe formal structure that allows the sensuality to strain even more sensuously against the ropes of metre, rhyme and diction that bind it. Restraint and constraint balance out. The poem articulates a very complex feeling by way of form.

Form, I soon realised, was an important aspect of voice, probably the most open part. Form, working with complex feeling, pressing against a certain informality of tone, was, perhaps, the most governable, learnable, aspect of voice. It was the perception of the openness and availability of form that became vital to my own lunge at Englishness. Its architecture made things possible.

It is also an element in John Heath Stubbs’s Epitaph.

MR. HEATH-STUBBS as you must understand
Came of a gentleman's family out of Staffordshire
Of as good blood as any in England
But he was wall-eyed and his legs too spare.

His elbows and finger-joints could bend more ways than one
And in frosty weather would creak audibly
As to delight his friends he would give demonstration
Which he might have done in public for a small fee.

Amongst the more learned persons of his time
Having had his schooling in the University of Oxford
In Anglo-Saxon Latin ornithology and crime
Yet after four years he was finally not preferred.

Orthodox in beliefs as following the English Church
Barring some heresies he would have for recreation
Yet too often left these sound principles (as I am told) in the lurch
Being troubled with idleness, lechery, pride and dissipation.

In his youth he would compose poems in prose and verse
In a classical romantic manner which was pastoral
To which the best judges of the Age were not averse
And the public also but his profit was not financial.

Now having outlived his friends and most of his reputation
He is content to take his rest under these stones and grass
Not expecting but hoping that the Resurrection
Will not catch him unawares whenever it takes place.

There is, of course, a more overtly courteous address in this poem but it is clearly playful. The laughing, aristocratic, ironic, self-deprecation is, at the same time, self-declaration. It was a modern instance of the poetry of delightful passages and comedy that Voltaire had talked about. The double-negative at the end is one of those pieces of English manners that ensure a certain knowing distance between speaker and listener. It is distant yet complicit, knowingly bureaucratic and cautious yet faintly laughable. It is part of the oil in the works in the language. Epitaph is clearly English in tone – I could not imagine it being written anywhere else. Aspects of that Englishness – that tone and voice - could mediate between my alien material and the language it had to inhabit. I would try such archaisms and lapidarities in a serious poem called The Swimmers, about the death of my foreign mother in England. Irony was to do the work of pathos there.

In 1974 Faber published the last of Philip Larkin’s books, High Windows. There is enough written about Larkin and his politics to keep us busy for a very long time, and I don’t want to add to it here. Listening to the Larkin voice – the dominant voice of the time, a voice that extended down suburban streets, billowed through allotments, resounded in classrooms and common rooms, even as we were entering the three day week - was almost overwhelming. Beautiful as it could be it sang of the dull almost as a virtue and denied the exotic. It seemed in many ways to deny me and my experience. Vigorous and oppressive at once, it lay somewhere at the core of a language I could not get to. Larkin represented the impossibility of carrying through my self-Englishing project, a half-open door that would not open wide enough.

There was a whole life beyond the door, a life I recognised of ordinary people going about their lives but they were not my life and wouldn’t be. It was rather wonderful to see an excellent Irish poet, Dennis O’Driscoll, finding a workable synthesis between Larkin and European writing, writing at a rhetorical pitch that retained the best of both but O’Driscoll could do it out of confidence in his audience. I had no such confidence.

Donald Davie says something about confidence in his Purity of Diction in English Verse (full text available here), another book of the fifties whose ideas continued to animate English poetry into the early eighties.  Why diction and purity? Because, in considering the texture, dimension and nature of voice, diction is of central importance. The features I have picked out in Cameron, Heath Stubbs and Philip Larkin are, beyond form,  features of diction. Davie directs the reader to George Puttenham’s 1588 book The Arte of English Poesie (text available here) for an example of what may be attempted in the way of defining and purifying diction, then moves to Oliver Goldsmith and his notions of chastity as a guard against frigidity. That frigidity is defined by Goldsmith as ‘a deviation from propriety’. Davie adds: “It follows that hyperbolical and highly metaphorical language runs most risk of frigidity”.

I knew all that instinctively in those years I desired Englishness. That was the whole point of entering on the Anglicisation process. One must resist the temptation to employ "hyperbolical and highly metaphorical language. "

“When [the poet] lost confidence in his public,” Davie goes on, “[he] was thrown back upon confidence in himself. When this confidence too was shaken it masked itself as hysterical arrogance,” adding that, “if Wordsworth lost confidence in the readers of London and Cambridge, he still had confidence in the readers of Somerset and Cumberland.”

My confidence in my public was minimal. My public was the notional English ear. It was not London or Cambridge, and still less the readers of Somerset and Cumberland. How to avoid hysterical arrogance?

[concludes with Sándor Márai  and back to Allott in next post

Saturday 7 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 5

Martin Bell in Leeds c 1972

In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Allott speaks of  “a representative collection of English verse written between 1918 and 1960” adding that it should be explained that “English verse means ‘written by English poets’, not verse in English. It was a typical English working definition. It did not stop him from beginning the anthology with Yeats and including Joyce, as well as, later, Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese and Sylvia Plath. He felt no need to explain the presence of the Irish poets, could argue for Plath on the basis that she married an Englishman, and proposed an even more interesting argument for Arthur Waley, in that his translations “are original poems for the English reader”.

 In other words, the body of Englishness, as much as Britishness, comprehended not an ideal, or ideological state of affairs, but whatever looked important on the ground. You might argue this as an extension of the English imperium but it is not hard to imagine now how many interesting doors it opened, and how complex a notion English poetry was thereby acknowledged to be. In much the same way, Philip Larkin included Martin Bell’s free translation, or rather adaptation, of Laforgue’s L’Hiver Qui Vient (as ‘Winter Coming On’ (the Bell poem here, scroll down) in his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (another, if later, key anthology of course). By the same argument, much more recently, Paul Keegan includes Miroslav Holub’s The Fly (in George Theiner’s translation) in his The New Penguin Book of English Verse and, in a bid to establish Scottish national aspiration as international inclusiveness, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah’s The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse includes poems translated from Latin, Welsh, Old English, Gaelic, Old Norse and Old French. Even more inclusive than the hated Sassenachs, as Crawford himself was saying the other night on Michael Rosen’s radio programme. Is that then an extension of the Scottish imperium? I wonder.

Characteristics of English verse, according to Kenneth Allott, require an examination of complexity. Complex, it most certainly is. Allott quotes Eliot on the necessity for modern poetry to be difficult, contrasts it with Matthew Arnold’s advocacy of plainness, and asks:

…how far can we really go along with Eliot’s view of his own poetry as ‘traditional’ development of the poetic inheritance…[?]

declaring, by way of answer:

…I see this particular poetic innovation as a Franco-American foreign body which English poetic anatomy has encapsulated and is in process of extruding…

So we have extrusion too. Allott goes on to criticise The Waste Land – one of my major touchstones – as “too clever”. Being too clever by half is a charge very much associated with received ideas of Englishness, the little England of a right little, tight little island. So the open door that welcomes Plath and Arthur Waley can also close. It’s a paradox I seem always to have been instinctively aware of. It could be confusing at times. Allott both includes and excludes, defines, undefines and re-defines. . But Allott isn’t really a little Englander. He has his reasons. He goes on, via Leavis, to identify the dangers in Eliot and Pound, who, he says, “show more than a normal distrust of democratic tendencies in politics because they approach the social problem too exclusively from the side of the maintenance of cultural standards.”

Reading that, I cannot dismiss it as nonsense, or parochialism. What Allott identifies in Eliot and Pound is clearly there to be identified. It is not simply aesthetics, but a notion of democracy that is at stake. Democracy, in effect, trumps aesthetics. It is the relationship between parochialism and democracy that lies somewhere near the heart of the Englishness question.

Where does the balance lie? How does it lie? Delicately, I would say. Eliot remains a great poet, whereas few of the fine poets in Allott’s anthology could claim greatness. It is interesting that the best translator of Eliot into Hungarian was the poet István Vas, a major figure in twentieth century Hungarian poetry who died in 1991. Vas was a Hungaricised Jew like myself, like the majority of Jews in Budapest. He certainly knew of Eliot’s anti-Semitism but that did not stop him admiring him and translating him. (For any Hungarian readers Vas's translation of The Waste Land is here.)

It is true of course that of the eighty-six poets represented in Contemporary Verse fifty were Oxbridge educated and about the same number were products of private education. Some of those voices then seemed distant, moated and out of reach to me but there were others that sounded from not too far away.

[Next: Norman Cameron, John Heath-Stubbs, Donald Davie on purity of diction

Friday 6 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 4

The Englishness of English Art is the title of a series of six Reith Lectures by the immigrant art and architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in 1955. The lectures were published in modified form by the Architectural Press the same year and lingered for years on the Peregrine list before being reissued by Penguin in 1991. Pevsner is, of course, chiefly famous for his monumental Buildings of England series, the earliest of which predates his Reith Lectures by four years, the last being published in 1974. I mention these dates because they are important to me too, covering as they do my childhood and early adulthood in England, in other words my formative years as a poet. Pevsner’s six lectures were broken down as follows:
1. Hogarth and Observed Life
2. Reynolds and Detachment
3. Perpendicular England
4. Blake and the Flaming Line
5. Constable and the Pursuit of Nature
6. Picturesque England
In considering this talk I thought of taking this as a model, or at least a rough template. There is much in its broad lines that offers possible lines of investigation. If I took 1973 as a benchmark I would probably look hardest at the Hogarth, Reynolds, and Picturesque England chapters, and particularly Reynolds, if only because the received idea of an English temper and aesthetic would be rooted there with Dr Johnson and his Augustan “bottom of good sense”. That was the kind of tough-minded, sceptical, humane, yet now and then, mildly mystical, form of materialism I saw in The Movement at large, and in the dominant English spirit of the era, in Philip Larkin, in particular.

I mentioned the anthologies that lay to hand in my youth. In my mind the Movement was up against Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, neither of which I understood in the academic sense, but which excited me, or in Eliot’s terms communicated themselves to me. Communicated what? A recognisable sense of the world as it actually existed. It was Martin Bell, while I was at Leeds, who had introduced me to them in about 1969-70, as he did to various other Americans, to Stevens and Ransom, for example, who also excited me, leading as they did to Roethke and Jarrell and William Carlos Williams and the rest. So it was European-bred instincts, topped by American scale, gab and intimacy that formed the foundations over which the Movement had to build and move me. Nevertheless, the Movement was the Englishness of the time, as I saw it, and somehow I had to understand it.


We cannot keep class out of it really. Class is always a factor, but, as immigrants, we did not easily fit into the English map of class. Auden and Eliot have both been great influences on me, as on many others, but they were international figures, somehow off the map, off the scale. The voice of English English poetry was rather more localised. The English voice, or what I read as English voice, was audible in just off-centre voices, like, say Bernard Spencer, who appears in Allott’s anthology, and writes of allotments in April, not as a Georgian or rural idyll, but a form of plain-spoken, heartfelt realism:

…Behind me, the town curves. Its parapeted edge,
With its burnt look, guards towards the river.
The worry about money, the eyeless work
Of those who do not believe, real poverty,
The sour doorways of the poor; April which
Delights the trees and fills the roads to the South,
Does not deny or conceal. Rather it adds

What more I am; excites the deep glands
And warms my animal bones as I go walking
Past the allotments and the singing water-meadows
Where hooves of cattle have plodded and cratered, and
Watch today go up like a single breath
Holding in its applause at masts of height
Two elms and their balanced attitude like dancers, their arms like dancers.

This was not my original world at all, not the world of Budapest courtyards, of revolutions, crowded trams and Central European nightmares. Not the troubled savage history of redrawn borders and endless insecurity. This was not the landscape I left but the one I entered in London and now recognized as a second home, a suburban landscape or Metro-Land, on the edge of pastoral yet populated with the poor, their sour doorways and our own worry about money, a landscape that nevertheless opens to the brief ecstasy of those elms dancing and dancing.

It was not my first world but it spoke a language one could learn and get used to. It watched things carefully, it did not allow itself big rhetorical gestures, it had a certain suppleness and warmth of feeling. Beyond all that, it spoke the standard English without local inflection that I myself was trying to learn, for what other kind of English, after all, would be available to me? I was British. I had no locality. No group-speak. It was worth learning. It had to be learned!

[to be continued via Allott and who gets to be English

Thursday 5 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 3

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) 1694-1778

In thinking of those particular years I can’t help but include some elements of what I find are already parts of the received idea of England.  It is a received idea because I received it and because what I received did not run entirely contrary to my direct experience.

Voltaire's Letters on England begins with the Quakers:
I was of opinion that the doctrine and history of so extraordinary a people were worthy the attention of the curious. To acquaint myself with them I made a visit to one of the most eminent Quakers in England, who, after having traded thirty years, had the wisdom to prescribe limits to his fortune and to his desires, and was settled in a little solitude not far from London. Being come into it, I perceived a small but regularly built house, vastly neat, but without the least pomp of furniture. The Quaker who owned it was a hale, ruddy-complexioned old man, who had never been afflicted with sickness because he had always been insensible to passions, and a perfect stranger to intemperance. I never in my life saw a more noble or a more engaging aspect than his. He was dressed like those of his persuasion, in a plain coat without pleats in the sides, or buttons on the pockets and sleeves; and had on a beaver, the brims of which were horizontal like those of our clergy. He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, humane air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head which is made to cover it.

And from Letter VII
There is no such thing here as haute, moyenne, and basse justice-- that is, a power to judge in all matters civil and criminal; nor a right or privilege of hunting in the grounds of a citizen, who at the same time is not permitted to fire a gun in his own field.

From Letter XVIII
the poetical genius of the English resembles a tufted tree planted by the hand of Nature, that throws out a thousand branches at random, and spreads unequally, but with great vigour.

From XX
The whole nation set themselves up as judges [over these], and every man has the liberty of publishing his thoughts with regard to public affairs.

And, lastly, from XXII
Possibly the English genius, which is either languid or impetuous, has not yet acquired that unaffected eloquence, that plain but majestic air which history requires. Possibly too, the spirit of party which exhibits objects in a dim and confused light may have sunk the credit of their historians. One half of the nation is always at variance with the other half…

…To conclude, in my opinion the English have not such good historians as the French have no such thing as a real tragedy, have several delightful comedies, some wonderful passages in certain of their poems…

These ideas, as I said, are received in the sense that we, as immigrants, received them. They were our starter kit. The ideas included, in Voltaire’s terms, extraordinariness; “a little solitude not far from London”; a house that was “small but regularly built”; plain dress; a humane air; something about common justice or “the level playing field”; and liberty – however comparative, however relative, of all sorts, including speaking, publishing and thinking, the tolerance, sometimes even the cultivation, of diversity and eccentricity.

Under such conditions life could be perceived, as Voltaire perceived it, as comedy rather than tragedy. And this brew, according to Voltaire, allowed for “some wonderful passages” of poetry, whether as written or as felt.

To my parents – both of whom were far to the left in terms of British politics – these seemed positively idyllic qualities of the kind that had been mostly missing in their lives. Some two years after my mother died, I asked my father what he thought was good about having come to England. He replied: the sea and freedom.

[To be continued by way of Pevsner

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 2

Lord Rothermere

Britain was not an enemy. It was a far away country of which we knew little, a great power that had never done us any harm. Indeed Britain, in the person of Lord Rothermere, had led a between-the wars-campaign in the British press for ‘A Place in the Sun’ for Hungary, arguing for some kind of redress, a redress of the dangerous kind Hitler was to offer us later, in 1940, when parts of Transylvania were returned to Hungary, at least until the end of the war. 

Britain was a success. Its fate, its very character was potentially admirable. Our writers came to Britain and wrote in puzzled praise of it. Britain was on the right side, the winning side, in most wars: Hungary always on the losing side. Britain bombed Hungary in the Second World War but many Hungarians had been praying for Britain to bomb the Nazis out. My father re-entered Budapest in 1945 on the back of a Soviet army truck. My mother was set free from the concentration camp at Penig by US forces. My own parents were cheering for both Britain and the Soviet Union....

You will have noticed that I have been referring to Britain, not England. Like most outsiders we were not fully aware of the difference between the two and remained ignorant for some time. It was British subjects we became, not citizens of England. That which Tom Paulin once dismissed with disdain as the condition of being ‘baggy and British’ was a blessing to us. That imperial bagginess contained us in a way England or Scotland or any other nation-state might not have, and as Hungary, it seemed, had not, could not, did not want to. The nation-state was an insecure place for us. Nationalism of any sort, for my parents, always meant danger.   Britishness offered a different, administrative, identity, one not entirely definable in national, ethnic, racial, or even, it seemed, narrowly cultural terms.


I did not study sciences in the end but went to art school where I became a painter-poet. I had missed out English, so my reading was unguided and untutored apart from the personal enthusiasms of a few close friends. My first loves were the poets we jointly discovered, by chance, or not quite by chance but by pocket. There were so many cheap paperback poets, especially if you were willing to pick them up in second-hand shops, or, better still, outside them on the all-must-go shelves. Besides the anthologies I have already mentioned, which tended to be, on the whole, the second tranche of my buying and reading there was much that was cheaply available and exciting and did not smell of school: Rimbaud, Keats, Apollinaire, Rilke, Donne, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, the Penguin Modern Poets series, The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century French Verse, of German Verse, of Russian Verse.

My first reading was an indiscriminate, higgledy-piggledy, naïve, international brew that pointed to the possibilities of poetry, that demonstrated the kind of things poems could do, but did so primarily in terms of ideas rather language, in air rather than water if you like. I had not read Hughes or Larkin or Heaney or Hill. That was to come. They lay waiting in those paperback anthologies I have already referred to, including Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. That was where Englishness lay, or at least partly lay.

In a discussion at a Hungarian conference earlier this year I mentioned that I was thinking of giving a talk whose subject might, very crudely, be described as The Englishness of English Poetry. They laughed. Can you imagine a talk entitled The Hungarianness of Hungarian Poetry? they asked. Such a talk would be an invitation to the worst kinds of xenophobia. The history, and fissile internal politics, of Hungary would not be able to accommodate such a discourse without tempers snapping and fists flying. It says something about the relatively relaxed liberalism of England that I don’t anticipate being shouted down here by the BNP.


But I don’t intend to dwell too long on concepts of Englishness, except in so far as such things were part of a field of expectation. What I want simply to begin to conjure is what it was I thought I was entering between the years 1973 and 1976, by the end of which time my entry into the Englishness of my own English poetry was as complete as it could be. I am interested in what that Englishness looked like, felt like, sounded like.

It is therefore more a sound than definition that concerns me. The sound of a specific moment in poetry. I am, of course, aware that the sound I am after is not to be detached from class, from empire, from history, or geography. How could it be? Language is not a locked room. Nor is poetry, to stick with my water metaphor, a private swimming pool in an exclusive club. At least I hope not. The sound I heard then did not strike me at the time as exclusively the product of class, empire or the rest. It struck me as a version of what I heard in the street and at work, that is to say, the talk of people I could not think of as nothing but the products of class and empire.

1976 is the point at which my poems began to appear with some regularity in the press. In 1978 I was one of six new poets in  Faber’s Poetry Introduction 4. The next year, 1979, my first book, The Slant Door appeared. I don’t think this is all coincidence.

[In Part 3 I go on to consider Voltaire's view of England, then move on to Pevsner

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 1

Kenneth Allott 1912-1973

Just this week while clearing books and papers I discovered my text for the lecture above. It may be interesting for some so I am in entering an edited version of it below and in a few other proceeding posts.

When I was first given the honour of being invited to give the Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture my mind immediately went back to Allott’s influential anthology, The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, a copy of the second, enlarged, edition of which I bought very early in my days as a poet, probably about 1969, at which time it cost the grand sum of 6/-, thirty pence in our money. It might of course have been one of the dozens of second hand paperbacks I bought for rather less, when I was trying to build a library of sorts. I can’t remember. However, it would have sat alongside a number of other paperback anthologies of the time, including, most importantly the Michael Roberts Faber Book of Modern Verse and its companion, the David Wright – John Heath Stubbs Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse (the first was more exciting at the time), Penguin’s The Mid-Century English Poetry, Longer Contemporary Poems, British Poetry Since 1945, and so forth.   These anthologies were my general companions to poetry in English, or rather poetry produced in England. They served up the general menu of English fare and came complete with their complex, important associations, with their inwardness, with the whole sense of being here...

...I hope you will forgive me beginning in such personal terms. If, in some ways, this lecture is about me, I rather hope it is about England too, in fact rather more about England than me. Or at least about something that hovers, not so much between England and me now, but something that seemed to hover before me at a certain stage of my development, a stage at which the unease was greatest, when I felt I had to become specifically an English poet.


What a peculiar ambition! A poet is a poet, or so I thought at starting out. We poets in our youth begin in gladness, as you know, and while despondency and madness are not yet my condition, there was a period of what you might call despondency, and that coincided with a dissatisfaction with the kind of poet I was then, and a subsequent desire, indeed a sense of urgent necessity, to become a different one, or at least to discover what I could of that difference.

My reasoning then was something like this. I was writing in the English language. But language isn’t something you do something to, it is a medium you enter the way you might enter water. It has a substance and manner of its own. It has its currents and whirlpools, its shallows and depths. You cannot tell a language: Do this! Go there! Language offers resistance. That’s the point and nature of it. Poetry is what comes of meeting that resistance and learning how to dance with it.

That, if you like, is a more articulate version of the much more intuitive discontent I felt then, in about 1973 or 1974. To put it crudely, as I did at the time: the English language - as used in England, I would add now - wants to say English things.

Today we are more aware of how complex a proposition that is. Whose English? What English? we rightly ask,  conscious of the great variety of Englishes. We are conscious that such questions will be articulated in as much political, as psychological or literary terms. It is, in effect, slippery and dangerous ground.


It did not seem quite so dangerous to a twenty-four year old immigrant in 1973. I should perhaps try to define the kind of immigrant I mean. We were not Commonwealth. Britain was not our, so-called, mother country. We had no colonial history. Britain had no criminal record for us, not even in European terms. We were Hungarians. As Hungarians in Hungary, our traditional enemies were all around us, right on our borders or not far beyond. Germans, Russians, Romanians, Slavs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Turks. Even the French were our enemies because we held them chiefly responsible for the harsh terms of the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon that had cut away two thirds of our country and over a third of our population, cutting us off from even the sources of our literature. These were places our greatest writers had been born in and had written about, localities that had become ingrained in Hungarian minds as part of our history, culture and imagination. Suddenly they had vanished into hostile territory. Hungary was, and remains, a wounded country as it has been ever since 1919.

[to be continued