John Hartley Williams


June 1st 2012

My mother, who made it into her hundredth year, was vehemently against the channel tunnel. You can see why someone whose lifespan embraced two world wars might feel that way. Keep the invading hordes out would be the motto. I contemplate with amazement, though, the hostility of the British to the Euro. It seems a sensible arrangement to me. Currency, like nationality, is only an administrative convenience, and as such should be made as convenient as possible. It would be good to have a European passport. (With some European heraldic device on the cover – a profile of Franz Kafka perhaps?) Using standardised banknotes and coins immeasurably improves convenience, safety, and protection from con men with  exchange rates.

            Not, of course, if you're British and love pounds. The Euro was supposed to get rid of all that nonsense, but plucky old Britain stands up for the banks and thinks the Euro a bad idea. I can see that the Euro was introduced more as an article of faith than as a well thought out economic plan, but it was an exceptionally bad idea for the banks to take advantage of it and make dire loans across the continent.  And why, in the matter of nearly-defaulting Greece, have  the banks, as creditors, got off lightly while ordinary taxpayers howl. It was after all, the banks who made the dubious loans in the first place – should not they be howling?

            But when did you last hear a bank howl?

An early hero of mine was the American president Andrew Jackson who loathed banks and did his best to destroy the national one. Too much financial strength in a single institution, controlled by too few, serving the interests of the rich and politicians, and partial to boot. That was his view. There is a painting of him in which I detect considerable resemblance to that wonderful American poet Ed Dorn (also a maverick).

Poets by and large, I imagine, are opposed to the machinations of banks on principle. The combination of financial speculation and totalitarianism is unattractive. Even those poets who like to gamble (and there are quite a few I know) must be taken aback at the sight of those computer warehouses where trades on the stock market are conducted a zillion times a day at lightning speed. But the right wing press in Britain (do we have any other?) supports the bonuses of bankers who gamble with your and my money (at no particular risk to themselves), advocates the return of lira and Deutschmarks and francs, and espouses the noble aim of encouraging chauvinism amongst the boys and girls.  Newspapers, headed by self-serving characters like Rupert Murdoch, encourage the general demoralization. Is it my imagination or does the bad news triumphalism of the British press get worse?

Insofar as the demoralization spreads, the bankers and the proprietors get richer, and by demoralisation I understand the weakening of general culture, particularly the culture of the mind. I never cared for Mrs Thatcher's phrase 'the wealth-creating society' because I knew what she meant by it. She meant money in the bank. But wealth, for a poet, is not what you've got in the bank; it's what you've got up here.  

I have lived in Germany for the last thirty six years. Unlike my fellow citizens I cherished no particular fondness for the Deutschmark, but I was impressed to see how willingly most Germans surrendered it to the political project. As a European citizen I benefit from, and enjoy, all the conveniences that go along with not having to carry my passport when I cross a border. The Schengen agreement provides for this. Having crossed over, say, to France or Italy, I can use the same currency without having to worry about exchange rates. What could be simpler? This contributes to my sense that I am a citizen of a rather unique union of similar yet markedly different cultures, divided by language, law and customs functioning in its most basic requirements according to a smoothly running system. Simplicity!

In Britain, the Euro seems to be viewed as a hegemonic project of Germany, but in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse and the reunification of Germany itself, the Euro was viewed, both in Germany and elsewhere,  as a form of security, binding Germany more closely with other European nations. It will no doubt be recalled that the government of Mrs Thatcher did not look with favour on the reunification project. Ancient fear had to be appeased. The country's current economic success is in fact due more to reforms by the previous government of Gerhard Schröder (Agenda 2010)  than to the fact of the currency itself – reforms of the spending agenda, for example, that Britain notably failed to implement.

  A right wing German banker by the name of Sarrazin has just published a book entitled Germany Doesn't Need the Euro and his views would go down very nicely with readers of The Daily Telegraph. He is almost certainly right that Germany doesn't need the Euro merely in order to achieve economic success; the whole point of the currency is symbolic. Symbolic, but with a practical function. Sarrazin's thesis that Germany's support for the Euro is due to 'holocaust guilt' seems to me mere hot air. There are plenty who would follow his nationalist agenda - it is the easiest agenda in the world to follow, like supporting your local football club - but complex problems can only be solved by thinking, not by flag-waving. We need more unification, not less, and sober-minded German analysts, I think, would agree. Do we not need a fiscal union and a transfer union so that money can be managed for its citizens in a way that there is equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity for all – something that Britain is failing, in a rather terrible way, to do? This is why I am surprised that those on the far left have also lined up against the common currency.

The Euro is clearly not working for all its citizens at the moment, and thought is indeed required, perhaps not my thinking but somebody else's. Thinking, however, is not what we seem to be getting. Newspaper journalists announce: 'This is the Age of Austerity' (though to someone who was a child in the nineteen forties this use of the word 'austerity' is an insult) and as for the fortnightlies, the monthlies and the quarterlies, the eyes glaze over. Some kind of sensitivity to the word needs to be restored if we are to retain the ability of making independent judgements and the power of discrimination. But where is the  culture of the mind to find expression? Recently I was at a literature festival in Listowel, Ireland, which was opened by the Irish President Michael D Higgins.  I was impressed by the eloquence and wit of his opening remarks in which he defended the power of the word, and above all by the passion he displayed on behalf of literature. In Britain, by contrast, I have never heard anyone speak for the nation on behalf of the project of literature, least of all any hapless Minister for the Arts. It seems to me that the level of society's interest in literature expresses the degree it is interested in itself, but you might justifiably ask, in a society which is failing to support its serious writers and getting rid of its bookshops, what has happened to that level of interest? Where are the poets in all this?

Well. Poets are not supposed to make remarks of a more general nature. There is a cultured elite of commentators to pronounce on matters of politics and morality in the more Augustan periodicals, and to write books explaining in kindly but hi-falutin terms what is wrong with the world. Doomsday scenarios, even those of the mandarin kind, are always popular; their diagnoses and remedies seem as futile as the long range weather forecast. Learned they may be, even intelligent,  but I think of Wordsworth, who was not impressed by Godwin's musings on 'Political Justice'. He wrote:

I consider such books as Mr Godwin's…as impotent to all their intended purposes…I know…no system of moral philosophy written with sufficient power to melt into our affections, to incorporate itself with the blood and vital juices of our minds…These bald and naked reasonings are impotent over our habits, they cannot form them.

The economics that proclaims naked greed is best for everyone and the devil take the hindmost needs an oppositional writing that speaks to the blood and vital juices of our minds. It needs a poem that might go like this:

            wool comes not to market
            sheep bringeth no gain with usura
            Usura is a murrain, usura
            blunteth the needle in the maid's hand
            and stoppeth the spinner's cunning


            …stayeth the young man's courting
            It hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth
            between the young bride and her bridegroom
                                                CONTRA NATURA
            They have brought whores for Eleusis
            Corpses are set to banquet
            at behest of usura

Whether or not you think this poem is corrupted by the context of its writing, that's to say whether or not you think that because Ezra Pound was rabidly ant-semitic we cannot take anything he has written on trust, you have to admit that the usura sequence from The Cantos is a powerful piece of rhetoric. It connects. Lewis Hyde (in his book 'The Gift') remarks: 'When Pound speaks of Eleusinian mysteries, he is speaking not only of the wheat whose recurrence bespeaks the fecundity of nature but also of the light that bespeaks the fecundity of mind.'

Fecundity of mind is related in my view to the power of the imagination. This is de facto what bankers as a class do not have. The gift of opportunism is not the same thing at all as the gift of imagination. You spend your life counting money, you get stained fingers, you wise up to all the possibilities of accumulation – but true speculative ability is the power to imagine how society may unfold to accomplish the full potential of every human being on the planet.

Bankers are not thinking about that.

Such social unfolding might involve the prospect of world government, but arrangements of this kind, of course, would be anathema to speculators, who thrive on a complexity of disparate financial idiocies. Are they not already licking their lips over the prospect of a collapse of the Euro? Meanwhile the poets say nothing. Why not?

The writing of poetry in Britain has now become a matter of not sticking your neck out. A line has been drawn, and the obedient poets, for the most part, follow it. I suspect this line is largely a creation of the MA in creative writing that everybody now seems to be able to afford the luxury of. Coupled to this is the notion (it never fails to amaze me) that the writing of poetry can be in some sense 'a career', with concomitant financial rewards. In contemporary Britain writers now have as a reward system a net of increasingly absurd prizes. These are awarded (on what seems to me a highly suspect basis – how after all can anyone tell which of the current slim volumes is truly the best writing on offer at the moment?) and provide dollops of cash to the lucky bard who may feel temporarily fortunate, although in strictly economic terms, that's to say terms that would mean something to a banker, the sums are peanuts.

The USA is no different. In fact these developments are further advanced there. Ed Dorn remarked: 'I think of American poetry today the way I've always thought about it. It's just a gutless wonder and it's really under the thumb of Rome and always was. Because it admires centralized authority and coercion and nothing else practically, except some cash. It likes the cash flow. And in fact poetry really is about the cash flow in a sense. And if you look at the people who have made money on poetry they've really managed to say almost nothing. Because the minute you say something, and you can be understood as saying it, and if you design your verse in such a way that there's no doubt about what you're saying, then you've lost the cash. Forget the cash. You're not ever going to be W.S. Merwin. You're not ever going to live in Hawaii. You're not going to be poet laureate. You're not going to get the grants, not the big ones. You're not going to be declared a genius by some board of trustees of a giant insurance company. But if you don't know that you're not a poet anyway.' 

I know that when I was young I lacked the confidence to proclaim myself a poet, or to put it another way, I was conflicted at recognising the hubris involved in taking myself seriously as a writer of poems. There were no MAs in Poetry to be had that might have vindicated wavering self-belief; would I have wanted one if there had been? My father would have derided such a notion; parental derision is not shrugged off lightly. He was right about a lot of things I didn't want to believe at the time; I think I would have concluded for myself, however, that such a thing was pointless. The pursuit of poetry, and this is something I was learning from Ezra Pound, involved the learning of foreign languages, travel, the study of literatures other than English ones, acquring a grasp of history and so on. I could teach myself prosody; I could learn by wide reading the language within a language that is poetry. What use could well meaning criticism be to someone who was pig-headedly trying to find his own way to swim? Meanwhile money was necessary for life, and I didn't have any. So what was that like? Philip Larkin used the word 'sad':

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
                      From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
                           In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

                If I had to find an image for money it would be an insane Disneyland – that place in Florida where my sophisticated urban Berlin students looking to make some pocket money for the next semester were required to dress in national costume – clogs, dirndl, black hat &c.

                'Money' said Ezra Pound. 'is a mass of tickets for getting the food and goods of a country justly distributed'. He added that 'if you think money is a means of bleeding the public you will admire the banking system' and 'if you think it is a means of sweating profits out of the public you will admire the stock exchange.' 

My neighbour here in Berlin once described my existence as 'regulated poverty'. If I had not been tied to my salaried job as a teacher…? No point in brooding on that; the fact is the engendering of poems does not perform as one might wish, ie: with gratifying swellings of productivity. Although I occasionally entertained the idea of applying for a grant to work on a book, I was rather half-hearted about doing this seriously. How could I be sure than anything as apt to fall apart as a poem would turn out alright? Wasn't this some kind of gravy-train riding? I had pangs of conscience that were never put to the test as no one ever awarded me a grant. Nor could I (as others I knew did) have signed on for the dole announcing that I was a poet. Not many 'Poets Wanted' notices on the vacancies board at the Labour Exchange. I didn't write 'poet' on the 'occupation' line of my passport either.

But I was aware of abundance elsewhere. Other people had money. I was aware that the project of literature is, as the arts administrators are always saying, underfunded. Money flowed over and under and around the project of literature, and the arts administrators wrinkled their noses and said Oh you had the idea of mounting a poetry festival, did you? Bully for you.

A very few people of goodwill kept the show on the road. 

Raymond Federman recorded that Samuel Beckett told him: "Raymond, whatever you write, never compromise, and if you plan to write for money or for fame, do something else." Federman added: "I have cherished these words and hope I have not betrayed them" No doubt many nowadays would consider that absurdly idealistic. The fact is, there is only one way to write well, and it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with taking a flinty look at the world – no charm, no flirtation, no self-aggrandisement, just the pursuit of the word.

Money-obsessed politicians who can think only in terms of growth (regardless of the ecological and social damage this causes), bankers who resist regulation of their efforts to scoop the pool, journalists who, in the name of some empty agenda of 'independence', talk down the movement towards integration and the better calibrated system of social justice that a common economic policy for Europe (involving the use of a common currency) would imply – all these agents who cannot see that to discover truth you have to leave it behind continue in their project of making the environment fatal.

Poetry's health is a test of the extent to which society is interested in discovering what lies below the surface, what the word might mean whose face value is diminished by constant unreflected use. (Or, to put it another way, what the word might be hiding.)  That will never be something your average 'mover and shaker' is going to be concerned with

I drive through the streets and I care not a damn;
The people they stare , and they ask who I am;
And if I should chance to run over a cad,
I can pay for the damage if ever so bad.
  So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
  So pleasant it is to have money.

What's new in the present situation, I think, is the totalitarian nature of the money agenda being set before us, the contagion of the unchecked profit virus that closes off loopholes and suffocates the imagination wherever it finds it. Profit is now the officially disclosed motive behind education; if the economy is to survive it requires cart horses that can type and do sums. Education for its own sake…?!  What can you be thinking of?

The fact is: the establishment of Euro was an idealistic project. Even if we are not surprised it has attracted wreckers, that doesn't mean we should surrender the idea that lies behind it. Pound felt poetry should also involve history. I think that's my feeling too. In a poem called Fazit, the Austrian poet Ilse Aichinger wrote:

The day before the day before yesterday
will be the day after the day after tomorrow,
the day after tomorrow the day before yesterday
yesterday will be tomorrow.

At the end of the poem, she wrote

The fear remains in me.

Career-minded poets will shrug off the idea of history. It shouldn't surprise us. Given the nature of the world in which they live the outside world impinges on them only insofar as it appears to reflect them back to themselves. They never get beyond the mirror.

Which brings me back to Ed Dorn again:

            Tolerance has ruined us all
like hopping frogs with nowhere to hop.
If what you say isn't worth your life
then you're just wasting time
like everybody else, and for a writer
that's an even more awful truth.


John Hartley Williams
June 2012