Wednesday 24 October 2018

Sir Thomas Browne as Melville's Crack'd Angel

A talk delivered at Dragon Hall
for Sir Thomas Browne's birthday (1)

G K Chesterton, who regarded Sir Thomas Browne as a mystic, thinks of him not so much as “a man who reverences large things … as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon.” To which he adds: “Little things please great minds.” 

There are indeed delightful passages in Browne on the most apparently minor phenomena such as this personal favourite of mine from his notes on Bubbles:

“That the last circumference of the universe is butt the bubble of the chaos & pellicle arising from the grosser foundation of the first matter, containing all the higher & diaphanous bodies under it, is noe affirmation of myne;  Butt that bubbles on watery & fluid bodies are butt the thinne parts of ayre, or a diaphanous texture of water, arising about the ayre & holding awhile from eruption. They are most lasting & large in viscous humidities wherin the surface will bee best extended without dissolving the continuity, as in bladders blown out of soap. Wine & spirituous bodies make bubbles, butt (not) long lasting, the spirit veering thorough & dissolving the investiture. Aqua fortis upon concussion makes fewe & soone vanishing, the acrimonious effluvium suddenly rending them. Some grosse and windy urines make many & lasting, wch may bee taken away or hindred by vinegar of juice of lemon; & therefore the greatest bubbles are made in fatt viscous decoctions as in the manufacture of soape & sugar, wherin there is nothing more remarkable then that experiment wherin not many graynes of butter cast upon (a) copper of boyling sugar presently strikes down the ebullitions & makes a subsidence of the bubbling liquor. Boyling is literally nothing butt bubbling; any liquor attenuated by decoction sends forth its evaporous & attenuated parts wA talk deliveredch elevate the surface of the liquor into bubbles.”

What Chesterton so admired in mystics, the revering of small things as emblems of the great, is certainly in evidence here. After all there are few things smaller than a bubble. Nevertheless I very much doubt that Browne was a mystic in any common religious sense. The case I would like to make is that he is not so much a mystic as a scholar poet for whom juxtaposition offers a taste of the miraculous. 

The rapid journey in the passage from Bubbles; from the universe down to vinegar juice and to windy urines, is balanced, in Browne’s phrase on, “thinne parts of ayre”. Those thin parts of air produce, for me, the magical elements of a poetry that shifts with perfect naturalness from one mode of discourse to another. It does so by way of an orotundity that is fully intent on its object while, at the same time, developing inventive personal ways of describing phenomena. That manner of proceeding establishes a fascinating voice that persists beyond the subject itself while remaining deeply implicit in the subject - a voice that, in its comprehensiveness and rapidly moving associations, exercises a powerful spell.

Monday 9 July 2018

Little Gidding 8 July 2018

I hope you will forgive me for beginning with myself but since I am not a scholar, let alone specifically of T S Eliot, I fear I have little or nothing to add to the academic knowledge of him or his work. You will get that soon enough [Prof Seamus Perry – rather marvellous as it turned out]. Please regard this as a brief hors d’oeuvre or prelude (even Prelude) of an Eliotean kind.

To begin, therefore, at the beginning I began to write poetry at school, at the age of seventeen, when instead of concentrating on the Physics, Chemistry and Zoology A levels that might have qualified me for medical school I started picking up thin volumes of poetry in the school library as a form of avoidance and distraction. I had no particular preference and next to no knowledge. I was of a refugee family without any substantial collection of books at home. I had dropped English Literature at O level. Poems were, if you like, another form of refuge. And sometime, soon after, following a conversation with a friend and fellow student, on the spur of the moment, I made up my mind to be a poet.

I tell you this to set a background for my reading of Eliot, to whose work I was introduced three years later, at art college in Leeds where I was studying Fine Art, hoping to become a poet and painter. The man who introduced me was Martin Bell, a poet deservedly well known in his day and, undeservedly, less well known now.

Martin came in once a week on a Wednesday afternoon and those interested in poetry could go to his room on the third floor and engage in discussion of the poems he put in front of us. Having begun my reading in a chaotic manner, lurching this way and that in my tastes over the three years, without any guidance, the poets that most appealed to me before then were a miscellaneous bunch: Arthur Rimbaud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Keats, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the French Surrealists, particularly Jacques Prevert, Robert Desnos and Max Jacob as well as the Liverpool Poets and others of the time. Most of these I discovered, some in translation, through the cheap paperbacks then published by Penguin or second-hand in book shops. The surprise was that my taste in the French surrealists and Rimbaud was echoed, as I was to discover on our first meeting, by Martin Bell’s own chief loves.  

But Bell was, above all, an admirer of Eliot and it was he who introduced me, and indeed the few others who attended his sessions, to Eliot’s work as well as to Lowell, Wallace Stevens, John Crowe Ransom, Alexander Pope, Sylvia Plath, and many others.

Eliot struck the deepest chord. It is, perhaps, strange that that should have been the case. Strange for me, a poorly read painter with English as only his second-language and, more importantly, one born of a Jewish family that could immediately recognise itself, according to Eliot, in those figures squatting on windowsills who were ‘spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp, / Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London. I myself was spawned in Budapest and was certainly patched and peeled as a boy in London. I was supposed to be of the same tribe as Rachel who was busily tearing at grapes with murderous paws and with the Jew who was underneath the rats and everything else on the Rialto.

It didn’t seem to matter. All that has since been explored by Anthony Julius and others and I don’t intend to make a meal of it here. I wasn’t going to let anti-Semitism stand in the way of the intoxication and overwhelming importance of the poetry, a poetry that, for me, transcended such things. What its power seemed to show was that it wasn’t opinions that mattered but some hidden, barely conscious form of life that produced its own gifts, its own voice and register, a voice proposing that the sense of the world was not the same as a view of the world.

It was the early Eliot that first grabbed me and it is that excitement I want to focus on today. It is the anxious, apparently assured, but fragile, broken Eliot, the man whose imagination had emerged from a mental explosion and was still covered in clumps of earth and splinters of glass, that I want to conjure.

It wasn’t so much the magisterial tone and mysteriously bitchy and twitchy high-brow quatrains of some of the 1921 poems, poems such as A Cooking Egg, The Hippopotamus and Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service – smart, clever poems - that grabbed me, though they did leave a mark: it was, despite the anti-Semitic references, the high and low comedy of Sweeney Erect and Sweeney among the Nightingales. It was Sweeney meeting Agamemnon, and Sweeney meeting Ariadne. It was the comedy, the music and the elusive heave and depth of quatrains like:

Paint me a cavernous waste shore
  Cast in the unstilled Cyclades, 
Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks
  Faced by the snarled and yelping seas,

Display me Aeolus above
  Reviewing the insurgent gales
Which tangle Ariadne’s hair
  And swell with haste the perjured sails…

But why was it so powerful? This was the first big step in Eliot for me and frankly I did not know what the poem was about but I took to heart Eliot’s view that poems could communicate before they were understood. What after all was ‘understanding’? Was it knowing references, reading codes and solving problems? Was a poem a problem to be solved? I didn’t think so – did not feel so - but even if that were the case – and knowing and reading were certainly useful once the poem had communicated  - not knowing things was no barrier. Something ran underground, some hidden line of power, something perhaps like the oldest subway line in Budapest that you can’t see at street level, but whose vibration you can still feel beneath your feet. Maybe that is what poetry has always been: a rumbling under your feet. Let me read the whole of Sweeney Erect:

PAINT me a cavernous waste shore

  Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,

Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks

  Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.

Display me Aeolus above
  Reviewing the insurgent gales

Which tangle Ariadne’s hair

  And swell with haste the perjured sails.

Morning stirs the feet and hands

  (Nausicaa and Polypheme),
Gesture of orang-outang

  Rises from the sheets in steam.

This withered root of knots of hair

  Slitted below and gashed with eyes,

This oval O cropped out with teeth:
  The sickle motion from the thighs

Jackknifes upward at the knees

  Then straightens out from heel to hip

Pushing the framework of the bed

  And clawing at the pillow slip.

Sweeney addressed full length to shave

  Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,

Knows the female temperament

  And wipes the suds around his face.

(The lengthened shadow of a man
  Is history, said Emerson

Who had not seen the silhouette

  Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).

Tests the razor on his leg

  Waiting until the shriek subsides.
The epileptic on the bed

  Curves backward, clutching at her sides.

The ladies of the corridor

  Find themselves involved, disgraced,

Call witness to their principles
  And deprecate the lack of taste

Observing that hysteria

  Might easily be misunderstood;

Mrs. Turner intimates

  It does the house no sort of good.

But Doris, towelled from the bath,

  Enters padding on broad feet,

Bringing sal volatile

  And a glass of brandy neat.

Part of that rumbling was the music, the sound-world of the verse. It made a gorgeous clashing noise in my inner ear in, for example, the consonant play of the first stanza: those bold anfractuous rocks, those yelping seas, and the wind blowing through the second stanza, where ‘Aeolus above’ is  ‘Reviewing the insurgent gales.’ The wind rises in the very name of Aeolus and is whipped to a frenzy by ‘reviewing’. These together constituted the sharp whistle of those insurgent gales driving the sea surge. The word insurgent contained the surge. Language was doing double duty. This was more than clever: it couldn’t simply be filed away as workmanlike onomatopoeia. That wind blew through the very bones and must have arisen from the very bones of the poem.

Secondly, and just as important, was that which I could not then contextualise but which reeked of an urgent other world of histories, myths and precisions. They were in one sense – in their mysteriousness - the equivalent of the Georgian poet W J Turner’s ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi’ and ‘shining Popocatepetl’ names that in his popular poem, Romance, took Turner by the hand as a boy. But Turner’s exoticisms were moments without much foundation. The names in Eliot were the noise of a substantial, dense world, a world with import, within not without me, pressing at nerves, touching on sensitive spots. Even an essentially uneducated young man who, at twenty, had yet to write a half-decent poem could feel that. 

It was a world that could also accommodate Sweeney and the landlady, the incident of the razor, the epileptic figure curving back, the shriek subsiding and finally the towelled Doris who enters padding on broad feet, bringing sal volatile and brandy neat. In fact it had to accommodate them in order to balance the poem. So an ambiguous low comedy that wasn’t quite comedy, at least no more comedy than one of those drawings of post-first world war Berlin by George Grösz, a comedy that, in this case, ended with the image of Doris, a character out of some domestic farce that might however turn sinister at any moment, a comedy that spoke of the graceless body rather than of the spirit, completed the register of a world in which anything could and did happen at once.

But all this was only preparation for The Waste Land.

My personal condition in terms of literature, and poetry in particular, was somewhat better prepared by then than it would have been even a year or two before but it was still pretty scant. Yet, if I had to say what it was drew me to The Waste Land, as it did to much if not all of Eliot, it was the sense of recognition, a recognition of glimpses and glances. The Waste Land seemed to me a strange yet familiar world of ghosts, fractures, visions, terrors and anxieties, sudden unspecified desires, hot intimate tensions, apocalypses, panics, rapid changes of direction, half-heard echoes and a fierce dramatic sense of constant presence as if simply too much were happening all at once and that that too-muchness was the world.

I was, of course, fascinated by the various quotations and associations with regard to which Eliot made a few gestures in his notes. By this time I knew a little about the Fisher King, the Sybils and about Ezra Pound, could trace ‘Mein Irisch Kind’ to its source in Tristan und Isolde, had some kind of handle on Webster and Dante and Baudelaire, and had read a good deal of Shakespeare (I was secretly educating myself through primary texts). I had actually trodden Margate Sands in our first few months in England in 1957. 

But while all this minimal, supplementary knowledge was of help in setting the narrative of the poem into some kind of order, it was never the supplementary knowledge – which, of course, I realised was not supplementary to Eliot but was the shattered archipelago on which he found himself  – but the direct insurgent gale of the verse and those intense brief voices and visions that, as they say, blew me away – and still does.

We know of course, through the drafts edited by Valerie Eliot, out of what chaotic flotsam and jetsam the poem arose and, from the various biographies, at what tension the material spurted out, in fragments and passages, the whole poem not one great planned-through voyage but one drowning after another, its narrative pruned into a kind of thematic coherence by Pound. 

But, if there wasn’t one single overarching narrative, what was it that drove the poem?

I did once ask Martin Bell what he thought The Waste Land was about. Sex, he leered, and that made a certain sense: after all there was all that uncertainty about sexuality, about Tiresias, about the invitation of Mr Eugenides, the Smyna merchant to a weekend at The Metropole, about what happens on the floor of that narrow canoe, about the terrible edge-of-hysteria domestic scene with Vivienne, or indeed those arms downed with light brown hair in Prufrock, the daunting sexual power of Grishkin in Whispers of Immortality and, of course, the fear of impotence right at the beginning of The Waste Land:  those burnings, those deserts, that drowning.

All that made a good case, especially to a Freudian-Marxist like Martin. Nor could I, or would I even now, deny the claims of that reading.  It is clearly there. But The Waste Land draws its power from other sources too. From the visions of destruction in the First World War – Prufrock had been dedicated to Jean Verdenal mort aux Dardanelles – from the poem’s terrible regrets, from its loss of one identity after another, from its desperate desire to seek shelter in Christianity or some other religious domain, from its evocation of mystical hallucinatory states, from the Buddha balanced by Madame Sosostris, from those trawls along city streets and along rivers and canals. In other words, from the sheer bursting energy that is always at the point of exhaustion.

I would like at this point to read the last section of The Waste Land: What the Thunder Said. Here we begin with the last days of Christ, the crucifixion, with the road to Emmaus which then passes into the apocalyptic, possibly end-of-war view of nations including Europe, and an extraordinary vision of a vampire-like horror amid bats with baby-faces (a scene I immediately recognised from the nightmares of my childhood), before heading for the final exhaustion in thunder, to Ganga, through the Upanishads, to evocations of the themes of earlier Eliot poems and passages, the desolation by the Thames and that welter of cries from Dante, the Hymn to Venus, Gerard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd and then that final childlike rocking to and fro – Shantih, shantih, shantih - by way of consolation or faint hope.

WHAT THE THUNDER SAID (I read this. but the link to the Poetry Archive gives you Eliot reading it himself)

For me, it is as if, like all great art, The Waste Land were taking place in a continuous present. Furthermore, in my own condition, that present was entirely enveloping, full of echoes that shook me without my knowing quite why they did so. Perhaps I recognised the revolutionary Budapest of 1956 with its bullet and shell scarred buildings in those falling towers; perhaps the woman who drew her long black hair out tight was an incarnation of my mother and her black hair as she turned away from me to brush it; perhaps the voices of Eliot and Vivienne in the room and those of the group down at the pub echoed some experience of hearing my own mother and father at a point of tension and the presence of overheard unfamiliar others engaged in their own lives in some social space.

Perhaps all this was personal, or some core of it was. I chose to concentrate on it here because of its significance to me then, But also because the world it conjured is never quite dead. Not even now.

Since we are at Little Gidding, a poem that harks back to themes in The Waste Land, I want to end with a few lines from Part I that seem appropriate to me in terms of the condition in which we find ourselves even on a day like this.

… There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city –
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

Monday 25 June 2018

Worlds on Orwell and Writing:
1 Political Purpose

Poet as Journalist and / or Insurrectionist
George Szirtes

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” - George Orwell, Why I Write.

In previous years I felt no impulse, as Orwell put it, “to make political writing into an art”. As a poet I would secretly have agreed with Auden’s In Memory of W B Yeats, where he says that poetry makes nothing happen but survives in the valley of its saying, a way of happening, a mouth; and would have argued that that precisely was the point of poetry, that it did not set out with a specific intention to achieve an aim, but was deeper, more various and more troubling than that: an intuitive enquiry, through language, into some kind of intuitive truth. 

And I would have backed that up with Keats’s feeling that we hated poetry that had “a palpable design on us”. Poetry was not an advertisement for our views but an exploration of the nature of things, standing at an angle to action, not a spur to it, or means of it. That which Keats called ‘negative capability’ seemed to be the whole raison d’être of poetry.. 

It wasn’t that I felt that poetry should be closeted away from the public world but that its necessary engagement with it would be on other terms: as witness, clown, or prophet. Auden himself, in the same poem, suggested what the witness role might be when he wrote:

In the nightmare of the dark 
All the dogs of Europe bark, 
And the living nations wait, 
Each sequestered in its hate…

That I understood very well. That was just the kind of Europe I was born into in 1948. It was journalism not agit-prop I liked and instinctively practised.

Hungary, my land of birth, has, like her neighbours, a nineteenth century tradition of revolutionary poetry, usually by poets very highly regarded at home and almost unknown elsewhere. Such poetry would usually go with a stirring tune like the Marsellaise and it would be as much the tune as the words that would enable the song to function as an anthem, as a kind of Liberty leading the people on the barricades. The trouble is that both sides of a conflict have anthems: for every Internationale there is a Horst Wessel song: the fierce absolutist moods they conjure have much in common.

There was an alternative way of addressing politics of course, as developed under Stalinism, either as samizdat and therefore dangerous, or couched in terms of fable, or surreal anecdote. The Penguin Modern European Poetry series of the 1970s was packed with examples of it in poets like Herbert, Holub, Bobrowski, Popa and so forth. Its excitement lay partly in its wit and sense of danger. We in Britain had next to no political pressure to say or not say such things: unlike, say Akhmatova or Mandelstam, we risked nothing. Our readership was not united by fear, poverty or other forms of repression: ever more they were disunited, free-floating political entities. 

There was class of course and regionalism, issues addressed by poets like Tony Harrison, and a lighter form of sharp but knockabout partisan politics as written and performed by Adrian Mitchell. Later we had Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson.  But all these were poets writing as representatives of class or ethnic groups. I was not of any coherent British group: the more the groups were located the more I felt a permanent refugee visitor, an outsider.

I was suspicious of most things that presented themselves as obviously and absolutely right and in relation to which one had to demonstrate that one’s heart was in the right place. Not that it was in the wrong place but that the demonstration  always seemed on the edge of a dangerous, mob-rousing falsehood.

It was, I thought, different for fiction: novels, by virtue of their interest in character, action, and setting, were bound, in one way or another, to be political. They could embody views. Not necessarily in the polemic sense that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, or Orwell’s own 1984 did but simply in that they were about action: what people did and what happened to them. Poetry was a more philosophical form, concerned less with the moral imperatives of what happens next, more with the very nature, in Auden’s terms, of happening. 


Although I would have argued this then, and still could, I feel less secure with the argument.  Too much is happening now to be secure of anything. Too much has changed. Hungary, like much of Eastern Europe, has turned against our notions of democracy. The current Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, announced his preference for what he calls “illiberal democracy” at a party summer camp some four years ago. The ‘illiberal’ part of that may be construed as simply an extreme form of social conservatism that despises qualities such as tolerance, diversity and the freedom to think and articulate one’s thoughts in public. There are echoes of this elsewhere in Europe, in Russia, Turkey, China, the USA and here too. Events move fast: the trajectory, it seems to me, is steep.

What can we, as writers, do in the face of this?  I have openly expressed views on platforms such as blogs or Facebook and have written articles in various branches of the press including The Guardian, most particularly on the reception of migrants and about Hungary, for which latter I receive foul but low-level abuse. It is low-level because I am simply not that important. But it’s worth noting that I don’t write those articles specifically as a poet. I am simply a writer who has some specialist knowledge of Hungary. Being a poet is secondary.

The poetry part of it is difficult. The trouble is that the poetry I have written on the subject, or at least that part of it which strays beyond the journalistic sense of Auden’s dogs barking in the dark, is not necessarily good poetry as I have long understood and felt it. Sometimes it is what I like to think of as a wittier kind of doggerel with pretensions to genuine satire but writing it feels as though I am weaponising that which, at best, goes unarmed and naked.

The leads me back to the tension between what Orwell called aesthetic enthusiasm and political purpose. The poem that Orwell himself provides in his essay is a lively if heavy-footed example of it.

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

It’s fun but he did not persist with it. The pre-Spain Auden of 1935 was doing it far better in his Beggars Song,

"O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches
With somersaults and fireworks, the roast and the smacking kisses"

Cried the cripples to the silent statue,
The six beggared cripples.

Last week I was at Lumb Bank tutoring developing poets among whom was a seasoned foreign correspondent who had spent extended periods in Liberia and Rwanda reporting on the carnage there. Having come back he was turning to poetry to find a way of understanding events of which he had given factual accounts. It seemed vital for him to do so. The poetry is harrowing but formal and disciplined. It is not polemical. It is another kind of reportage as filtered through memory and the wounded imagination.

But the combatants in those wars were listening to different songs and different words, such as those sung by revolutionary maid, Jenny, in Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

…And hundreds will swarm ashore around noon
And will step into the shadows
And catch all those folk by their door
And bind them in chains and bring them before me
And ask: Which should we kill?
It will be midday and quiet at the harbour
And when they ask, who has to die.
People will  hear me say: All of them! The lot!
And as each head rolls, I'll whisper: Hopp-la!

And the ship with eight sails
And fifty cannons
Will sail off with me.

Alle! Hopp-la!

It is extraordinarily powerful, the power behind the polemic. Hearing it I feel ashamed and terrified and excited all at the same time. I no longer trust myself. I dread and envy Jenny.

Hopp-la! Hopp-la!

Worlds on Orwell and Writing :
1 Introduction and Political Purpose (1)

There are various reasons one might write. George Orwell, in his essay, Why I Write (1946) suggested four reasons. These are the four. 

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
 (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Each of Orwell’s reasons was the subject of a pair of provocations in the form of ten-minute thoughts or riffs offered for general discussion. Those discussions took the form of eight conversations, two on each of Orwell's reasons.   

‘Conversations’ seems the appropriate word because unlike, say, a formal enquiry or academic conference, conversations can range far and wide and the ostensible subject can develop in a variety of ways. Like a creature growing legs it may scamper off altogether elsewhere. But that’s the joy of conversation: it releases startling ideas and possibilities.

The conference was a sum of those provocations, possibilities, focusings and scamperings-off, with Jon Cook in the Chair and I as the recording less-than-angel. This is the record as a took it, editing it as best I can, trying to mark all the main points and hoping to be true to the character of the sessions.

The last shall be first it was decided and political purpose took precedence. There may be all kinds of reasons for this, including our heightened awareness of frightening political developments in many parts of the world at the same time.

First Provocation: Political Purpose 1

Since the first paper was given by me, it is hard to give a proper account of the discussion that followed but at the heart of the provocation was a practical question. How does the writer respond to worrying developments in a given political situation as a matter of urgency? 

Writers may of course lobby or collect signatures for petitions (as indeed I did) but one needn’t be a writer to do that. What does help, if one has access to the press, is the raising of issues through articles. 

For poets, however, the provocation suggested, quoting Auden and Keats, there may be a problem in the very nature of the medium, something that resists its utilisation for a set political purpose.  There were of course revolutionary anthems and, under repressive conditions, as in thirties Russia and in post-war Eastern Europe, poems of subtle and ironic political resistance. The provocation showed a certain distrust of the former. This was not to suggest that poetry should not deal with politics but that it should be wary of being used by specific groups as propaganda.

Political purpose, as Orwell defined it, consisted of the desire to push the world in a certain direction. Was poetry the right vehicle for that?


The discussion that followed did not focus on the specifics of poetry – there were few poets in the room - but concentrated on the ways different kinds of politics might be addressed by fiction and non-fiction, looking away from the urgency of the practical issue at hand (in the case of the provocation, as situated in Hungary) towards the deeper roots of what constituted the moral and political imagination and the fierce moral currents surging through contemporary literature.

There was talk of the relationship between art and propaganda. There was discussion of Orwell and gender. Who is the writer, the ‘I’ that makes the observations, that is at the centre of events. Does the figure that does the observing represent anyone else, some other group.  We considered revolutionary poetry in, say South America, the work of Shelley in The Masque of Anarchy as both a direct response to a political event but also as a disruption of a courtly form and its shifting onto a democratic sphere.