PERSONAL MODERNISMS: ANARCHIST NETWORKS AND THE LATER AVANT-GARDES
By James Gifford
The University of Alberta Press. 294 pages. $34.95/£28.99. ISBN 978-1-77212-001-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
In the late-1950s I started to collect little magazines and some small-press publications, largely from the 1940s. I was lucky because there were plenty of second-hand bookshops and one way and another I managed to build up a complete set of Penguin New Writing, together with an almost-complete set of Modern Reading, and lots of individual issues of Poetry Quarterly, New Writing and Daylight, Selected Writing, Bugle Blast, Writing Today, and Focus. There were others, and I admit to probably having overlooked many things simply because a glance at them hadn’t immediately aroused my interest. And I didn’t have unlimited funds at my disposal. Not that a lot of the magazines and books were expensive if one didn’t mind their often battered appearances. I didn’t, provided all the pages were there and the texts of the poems, stories, and articles were intact. And so I got those magazines referred to, along with two books by Wrey Gardiner, a copy of the original edition of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, the 1945 anthology drawn from issues of Personal Landscape, a couple of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s books, and the five issues of Denys Val Baker’s anthologies of writing from little magazines.
As I read the little magazines and the anthologies I came across names that, in the late-1950s, weren’t exactly well-known in Britain. Or if they were, it wasn’t always for the right reasons. Henry Miller might be a good example. A book like Tropic of Cancer didn’t get its official British publication until 1963. Other names I noted were Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth, and the fact of them being American probably meant that their work wasn’t accorded much attention here. But what about Nicholas Moore, George Barker, George Woodcock, Alex Comfort, David Gascoyne, J.F.Hendry, Henry Treece, and D.S.Savage? Despite being British they certainly weren’t in the forefront of the local poetry world in the late-1950s. I doubt that many people even thought of Woodcock and Comfort as poets, and it was only later, when Woodcock published a key text on the history of anarchism, and Comfort’s The Joy of Sex brought him fame, that they became better- known. Philip Larkin was attracting attention, and it was the poets publishing under the label of The Movement who were garnering all the plaudits at that time. And critical surveys tended to often skip over the 1940s and put their emphasis on what was known as the Auden generation of the 1930s. James Gifford mentions books by Stephen Spender and Bernard Bergonzi and says: “Each of these works has as a defining trait a strong tendency to view Modernism and late Modernism through a perspective developed from the High Modernism and the Oxford Poets (MacSpaundays), and by and large limited to their ideological and theoretical scope.”
It’s Gifford’s contention that works like those by Spender and Bergonzi ignored, or played down, “Tambimuttu’s Poetry London, the preceding Villa Seurat group, or the New Apocalypse and the subsequent New Romantics.” Elsewhere, he adds poets in California (the key players in what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance) and wartime Cairo, to his list of those who can be seen as functioning in opposition to what Auden and his followers represented. Anarchism was a prime factor for many of these poets and provided a conduit through which they communicated with each other. Anarchism and little-magazines.
The early influence on most, if not all of the poets grouped under the loose label of New Apocalypse, was Henry Miller whose books, the best known of which in the 1930s was Tropic of Cancer, had a major impact. As Gifford puts it: “The conceptual, political, and aesthetic background for the New Apocalypse grew directly from the Villa Seurat network’s influence on English post-surrealism.” Miller had challenged the surrealists then-alliance with the Communist Party and his 1938 “An Open Letter to Surrealists Everywhere” became a key document for those poets who preferred not to be associated with any political creed, and especially not a doctrinaire one like communism. Miller’s concern was for the individual: “The brotherhood of man is a permanent delusion common to idealists everywhere in all epochs: it is the reduction of the principle of individuation to the least common denominator of intelligibility. It is what leads the masses to identify themselves with movie stars and megalomaniacs like Hitler and Mussolini.” It’s easy to see that such an attitude would not be looked on kindly in the 1930s, when political allegiances of one sort or another were paramount, or in the 1940s when patriotic pressures were insisting on a spirit of common interests and togetherness. Miller and the writers associated with the New Apocalypse, New Romantics, Personalists (all descriptions applied to poets standing aside from the MacSpaunday group) were often attacked for what George Orwell described as their “nihilistic quietism.” And Kathleen Raine referred to “defeatism” in relation to these same poets.
Developing the question of how the “association between the 1930s, as a decade of poetry, and four Oxford graduates, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice has become axiomatic and naturalised,” Gifford refers to two Penguin anthologies, Poetry of the Thirties (1964) and Poetry of the Forties (1968) which, he asserts, “had a significant influence” in terms of what was seen as the canon for those decades and so was taught in the classroom. Robin Skelton, he says, does include some New Apocalypse poets in Poetry of the Forties, though in his introduction to the book he is quite dismissive of the group, and his selection of the poems he does use, and the placing of them in relation to other work, tends to reduce their interest and importance: “George Barker appears only twice, Bernard Spencer appears only with his works most heavily influenced by Auden rather than poetry after his break from the Auden school of thought, and Dylan Thomas’s works focus on his least surrealist and syntactically complex poetry.” Any anthology is always open to criticism relating to its contents, and Gifford’s questioning of Skelton’s inclusions and exclusions seems to rest on the way he “collapses the opposition many 1940s poets felt towards Auden as a stylistic issue related to Romanticism and the function of the symbol rather than a political difference that drove the stylistic choices.”
Gifford also opens up the question of social differences between the MacSpaundays and at least some of the poets associated with the New Apocalypse. He quotes Peter Childs as claiming that the “canonisation of Auden” came about because of “his appeal to a ‘liberal middle-class conscience` which has constructed the decade’s value and significance.” And Childs pointed out that “Dylan Thomas and George Barker were from lower middle-class backgrounds and entered neither public school or Oxbridge.” Gifford himself adds that neither “Barker nor Thomas cared much for the easy accessibility of their work to the class from which they arose; nor do they turn to their art as a means of changing the world, as Auden had until the war years.” This reference to the New Apocalypse poets perhaps not knowing, or even caring, who their likely audience would be is further accented by Gifford quoting G.S. Fraser who, in his introduction to an anthology of their work, acknowledged that they were “not likely to have the same immediate popularity as the generation that immediately preceded them, the generation of Auden, Spender, and MacNeice.”
I think it is obvious that little magazines and small presses were of importance to the poets of the New Apocalypse. And the 1940s were boom years for such publications, though not everyone agreed that the “democratisation” implied by a more-open access to publication was necessarily a good thing. Robin Skelton, for example, was dismissive of the “amateurish near-poems” produced by most of the contributors to the “overseas anthologies and the many little magazines that appeared during the war years,” and he went on to say that editors and publishers appeared to believe that “a new romanticism” had arisen and that it “made the acceptance of pretentious and sentimental attitudinising extremely easy.” Henry Treece, who Skelton described as the founder of the New Apocalypse school, was taken to task for his role in encouraging this situation to develop. Even Gifford has to acknowledge that it’s unlikely that any of Treece’s own poems are ever going to be revived. And I have to admit that my own reading of his work in some of those old 1940s publications, and in Kenneth Rexroth’s New British Poets anthology, published by New Directions in 1949, and a good source for lesser-known 1940s poetry, has never inclined me to think of him as an important poet in any way. But in context he’s readable and not necessarily worse than many other poets of his period. Saying that may make me appear to agree with Skelton’s statement about the weak nature of much 1940s poetry. But I incline to the view that most poetry at any time is usually less than memorable. And looking back at it rarely makes it seem better than it was. This, of course, does not invalidate the requirement for a correct historical record of its existence to be established.
The same can be said about the little magazines and related books that provided a means of circulating the work of the Personalist poets (the term seems interchangeable with New Apocalypse and New Romanticism) located in London, San Francisco, Cairo, and other places. Gifford’s long account of the various publications is particularly valuable as information about them is often difficult to come by. A.T. Tolley’s Poetry of the Forties (Manchester University Press, 1985) has since its publication been seen as a major source of information, and Gifford acknowledges that while disagreeing with some of Tolley’s interpretations of the relationships among poets associated with the New Apocalypse and the importance of those poets within the 1940s literary world as a whole. Gifford, in fact, spends quite a lot of time disagreeing with other academic critics about their accounts of what New Apocalypse added up to. However, he does offer a lively narrative of the role of little magazines in disseminating new work by such poets as Lawrence Durrell, Nicholas Moore, David Gascoyne, and others. Several of the poets had been involved as editors of little magazines at one time or another, and it’s no surprise to read that they appeared in each other’s publications. The same names crop up in Delta, Seven, and Kingdom Come. Delta, incidentally, followed on from The Booster, which was officially the magazine of the American Country Club in Paris but had been taken over by Henry Miller’s friend, Alfred Perles, who transformed it into a vehicle for work by Miller, Durrell (an excerpt from his notorious novel, The Black Book), Anais Nin, and David Gascoyne. The good times lasted until the American Country Club threatened legal action if the magazine didn’t revert to its original function. I sometimes think that any history of little magazines is best based on anecdotes and reminiscences relating to the struggles to see them born and then kept alive. Academic accounts usually can’t capture the spirit of the little magazine world.
The anarchist connection was clearly of importance insofar as the exchange of ideas and publications was concerned. Alex Comfort edited New Road which published Americans like Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen. And there were links to Arson, an anarcho-surrealist magazine produced by Toni del Renzio, and to Now, which George Woodcock edited from Freedom Press and published work by George Barker, Herbert Read, W.S.Graham, and William Everson. Gifford discusses the anarchist element among the New Apocalypse poets in some detail. Anarchism has always lent itself to a variety of interpretations, but perhaps the dominant aspect in relation to many of the people involved was the individualist anarchism espoused by the 19th Century German philosopher, Max Stirner. This isn’t the place to analyse Stirner’s The Ego and its Own, but it does seem to have had a degree of influence on the thinking of poets who were concerned to promote the personal in preference to the collective. I’ve perhaps made this appear to be simpler than it was, and it did occur to me to wonder whether all the poets always shared similar interests and ideas.
I mentioned having come across a copy of the Personal Landscape anthology published by Poetry London in 1945 and Gifford analyses the background to the magazine. It was started in Cairo by Lawrence Durrell, Bernard Spencer, and Robin Fedden, with some involvement from Terence Tiller. I doubt that, with the exception of Durrell, these names will mean much, if anything, to many contemporary readers. And it may be that even in Durrell’s case his poetry is mostly forgotten. He did make a name for himself later with the Alexandria Quartet, but in 1941 his novel, The Black Book, was only available in the edition published by Obelisk Press in Paris, and a combination of censorship and the war meant that few people had read it. Those who had, and they included the American poet Robert Duncan, viewed it in the same light as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Gifford has a fascinating chapter on the way in which Duncan, soon to be a major figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, was influenced by Durrell: “I contend Duncan’s anarchism informs his mysticism and poetics, and his fascination with Durrell, Miller, Barker, and the other Personalists is both a consequence of his anarchism just as his increasing interest in anarchism is a consequence of his interest in their verse and prose.” It’s possible to see that Duncan’s concerns, like those of others in the United States, were in accord with the intentions of many of the contributors to Personal Landscape, to keep to “the same well-trod paths and avenues away from ‘propaganda` and ‘outside national and political frontiers.` “ It’s a temptation to bring such publications as Circle and Ark in the USA and Transformation in London into a discussion of what Personalist poets were doing, and Gifford does devote space to them, noting that Circle “immediately endorsed an anarchic surrealism akin to English surrealism.”
When the war ended the Cairo group inevitably split up. And there were various alterations to relationships and activities as the post-war situation changed. It has been noted by Tolley and others that the network of little magazines and small-press publishers that had thrived during wartime, and supported the poets loosely grouped with the New Apocalypse, had virtually collapsed by 1950 or so. And Kenneth Rexroth, writing in 1957, had some interesting things to say about the decline of contacts between British and American poets:
“Anarchism, conscientious objection, war resistance, were more popular with young English writers than with the Americans, and there was considerable contact during and just after the war between San Francisco and London. Writers like Alex Comfort, D.S. Savage, George Woodcock, Herbert Read were widely read. The first magazines to publish the new San Francisco school were Horizon, Poetry Quarterly, Poetry Folios. This has all died out, not because the Californians have changed, but because the British have. A kind of hopeless inertia – atomphobia – has settled upon the British avant-garde.”
I suppose, too, that the fact of some of the writers – Alex Comfort, George Woodcock, Lawrence Durrell – tending to drift away from an active role with poetry, and some of them – David Gascoyne, W.S.Graham, Nicholas Moore – physically moving away from places where they had contacts with other poets, and feeling the impact of the decline of magazines and publishers like Poetry London and Grey Walls Press, must have had its effect. Changing tastes may have had something to do with the lack of readership for many of the poets published in New Apocalypse magazines. The 1950s saw the rise of poets associated with The Movement, with its emphasis on what might be called a more direct and down-to-earth approach to writing poetry. Anarchism and surrealism were out.
James Gifford provides plenty of food for thought in his survey of the poets of the New Apocalypse, New Romantics, Personalist movement. Or should it be movements? They are, as he rightly says, mostly overlooked, either by design or accident, in many works of criticism and in university courses. Opinion may differ about the reasons for that, but the historical record of their existence does need to be correctly established, and Gifford’s book is a step in the right direction.