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THE VERY TRUTH OF THINGS

Jim Greenhalf 

With sales of poetry books going up  - especially anthologies - the argument that things have gone downhill might be hard to justify on Newsnight or Front Row. The rejoinder would come back: Well, things may have gone downhill for you, but for a lot of other people the reverse is true. Isn't it a good thing that lots more people from different backgrounds are writing poetry?

Brian Patten told me there was room for all. Adrian Mitchell was of much the same opinion. But what sort of poetry is being written and published? Why do I find the proliferation of it on view at Salts Mill depressing? Is it because I'm an envious old bugger whose past job as a journalist entailed interviewing rising poetry stars such as Simon Armitage and well-established ones such as Roger McGough, Adrian Mitchell and Tony Harrison? I think the green-eyed monster of jealousy does wink at me deep within. Salvador Dali observed that “fame is the truest measure of other people’s envy”, or words to that effect. These days I am more likely to feel annoyed by the media’s willingness to invest a newcomer with immediate celebrity and worthiness. Better to exclude yourself mentally from that world of rapping adolescents and gong-tormented academics whose slim volumes of technically adroit verse could be found in Blackwells in Oxford when I was last there.

So much of contemporary English poetry is autobiographical, personal rather than public. And the stuff that is public is either tendentious or sententious, or both. I should know, having written a good deal of both. What's so bad about being a bit tendentious? you might ask. Wasn't Mr Mitchell? Isn't John Cooper Clarke? But JC is clever and entertaining with it; and Adrian Mitchell's To Whom it May Concern, for example, doesn't directly blame or accuse anyone. Incidentally, the film The Post opens with Daniel Ellsberg stealing US Government documents. The Pentagon Papers, as they became known in the early 1970s, showed how successive US Administrations from Truman onwards had lied about American involvement in Vietnam. Adrian Mitchell’s refrain, “Tell me lies about Vietnam” was five or six years ahead of the news.

If truth is the first casualty of war the first casualty of poetry is the writer’s sense of balance. When I told Robin Silver of the difficulty I was having choosing poems from twelve books spread over forty-seven years for a reading at Salts Mill he said: “Yes, but where are you now? That’s what the audience wants to know.” I didn’t have a ready answer to that question then; I don’t have one now.  Oscar Wilde said “we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Having stars in your eyes is all very well, but not if your head is up your arse. I have made a fool of myself often enough in real life. The struggle to undeceive myself: that is where I’d like to think I am; that is what I have always tried to accomplish in my writing.

W B Yeats said: “Out of the quarrels with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” If that’s true why should Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien or Simon Armitage quarrel with themselves? Ruddy-cheeked Armitage has acclaim, gongs and is the country’s official Poet Laureate. Don Paterson and Sean O’Brien between them have scooped four Forward Prizes, three T S Eliots, two Eric Gregorys, a Whitbread, a Geoffrey Faber, a Cholmondley, a Somerset Maugham as well as an OBE. All they need do is keep on doing what has brought them so much literary booty over the past thirty years. I wouldn’t damn them for their material good fortune, not now I wouldn’t, because the opposite does not necessarily guarantee worthwhile or authentic poetry. Also, I have never shared the belief that they are Makars whom I should especially admire. Anne Fine, who knows about how glittering prizes are awarded, once said to me a propos Don, Sean and Simon etc., “But it’s only their mates who read them.” Not wholly true; but mates in important literary places ensure space, air time and festivals.

I met Simon Armitage once, in Bradford in October, 1989. He drove over from Huddersfield. We had an early evening drink in the Victoria Hotel. He was 26, a probation officer. At that time shacked up with Alison Toothill, fashion designer, in a picturesque little place called Marsden seven miles outside the capital of poetry. Bloodaxe had just published Zoom! Rave reviews, the promise of prizes. The T&A’s news editor Barry MacSweeney even sent a letter of congratulation together with a pamphlet of his most recent poems Ranter, I think. Of course I felt a pang of envy. I could tell that Armitage was aware of being selected to succeed. The white man’s Linton Kwesi Johnson, marked up for big things. He listened more than he spoke. What he said was nevertheless revealing.    

I am not actually looking for the very truth of things. Some people try to claim they have a handle on the truth, don’t they?  At the moment I am just interested in good stories and using good language. If I can touch a few people and evoke feelings and sensations, that’s all the better. There are people who write and there are people who write about writers. I am glad that I belong in the first category, he said watching me write down his words.

Over the period of the award-winners’ greatest fame my admirations were otherwise - Eliot, Rimbaud, Yeats, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, Bukowski, Voznesensky, Plath, Hughes, Berryman, Emily Bronte, Ginsberg, Dickinson – the usual suspects. I liked Berryman immediately because his Dream Songs seemed to comprise of quarrels with himself, with God, with death, with society. Two voices were apparent in his modern sonnets: Henry and the nameless negro who sounds like a Driving Miss Daisy servant but could be a composite minstrel figure. I didn’t know how to have a quarrel with myself in poetry. Eliot, who didn’t like himself very much, looked in the mirror and saw the figure of J Alfred Prufrock. I looked in the mirror and came up with Porkfat, a self-obsessing neurotic. Unfortunately I didn’t know that for this device to work as an alter ego Porkfat would have to have at least the semblance of his own voice rather than the one assigned to him by me. Too callow and not as gifted with poetic intelligence as Eliot. Forget class differences. I was always too frenetic, too impatient; even if I had been instructed in the virtue of patience by some wandering Ezra, it wouldn’t have been natural to me. The road I went on instead was probably necessary. For while anybody can write at least one good, authentic poem, not everybody can go on doing it once they become conscious or are made conscious of their most successful effects. You don’t know in your twenties that, to paraphrase Eliot, in your strength lies your weakness; from imitating your superiors you start imitating yourself. Yet there seems to be this widespread media assumption that whereas sculpture, music and non-abstract painting evidently requires trained skill, banging out your feelings in words surely does not. And because of this poetry is regarded as the most democratic of art forms. I am too much of an instinctive loner to desire the democracy of the literary workshop or coterie. We all like to be seen with knowing eyes. Former Yorkshire Post features editor John Yates opened his generous review of my book The Unlikelihood of Intimacy in the Next Six Hours in March, 2002, with this observation:-

Jim Greenhalf deserves a wider audience. But if he had one I suspect he would turn his back on them and walk out of the door. As a poet of dystopia, he is at his happiest when sad. Yet the air of melancholy that pervades many of the pages of this remarkable little book is neither whimsical nor maudlin. Greenhalf is too talented – much too talented a poet – to make such a mistake. There is a rigour and honesty to his writing which mocks sentimentality, and a blackness to his humour which is so well controlled that it never collapses into easy cynicism…

From time to time I try to be more democratic. For a short while in the early 1990s I was Father of the NUJ Chapel at the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford; but a dispute over pay soon disabused me of notions of gratitude or fellow-feeling: I became the cat who got the kicking because I couldn’t win them the cream they thought they deserved. My skin was too thin then. In my mid-thirties I still hadn’t got over the ritual humiliation of being mocked at secondary modern school – too tall, too shy, shackled to a funny surname: Greenhalf, half-green. But I learned. And one of the things I learned thanks to the help of a small number of friends was that acquiring your own voice in poetry takes time and a willingness to accept constructive criticism. Not until I was past forty did I feel that I was getting somewhere, style becoming voice.  Al Alvarez says in the last chapter of his little book The Writer’s Voice: “The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear. All true art is subversive at some level or other; but it doesn’t simply subvert literary clichés and social conventions; it also subverts the clichés and conventions you yourself would like to believe in.” Undeceiving myself in other words, not looking at the stars with my head up my arse. Balance.

Democracy is debased coinage in the palms of a political shyster or opportunist. The invasion of Iraq, which I accepted in 2003, was a line in the sand for democracy. Our armed forces were prepared to die defending and protecting it. Democracy must be a good thing then. Just as unregulated capitalism is, err, a bad thing. And good things and bad things can be grouped in boxes. But when democracy is obliged by law or by rules of distribution, as in Arts Council money, to be more inclusive by being less critically discriminating my nerve ends flare and I can become rather boring. Democracy, saving the planet, remaining part of the European Union, having safe spaces at universities, expressing yourself publicly whether on paper or social media, believing implicitly in science, opposing all religion - except the beliefs of ethnic minorities - these are all good things. If you don't tick all these boxes it means you must be a supporter of Trump-Farage-Johnson, probably a secret supporter; if you're not a capitalist you're one of those mixed economy Trogs from the Sixties who believes in old man God and T S Eliot and as such can have nothing of interest to say to the righteous brothers and sisters occupying those little boxes. I have not forgotten what it is to be young and carefree because, like Eliot, I never was. While friends were out partying I was walking solitary about the nocturnal streets of London E17, poetry books stuffed into the pockets of my old grey overcoat. At college round about the time bolshie students at Essex and Sussex universities were growing their hair and trying to emulate their counterparts at Berlin’s Free University, I remember feeling profoundly embarrassed when the laziest sods on the course became politicised and asked the sociology lecturer, a tedious but decent dry old stick from Scotland, to justify his job by explaining his professional credentials. I felt ashamed. But as Bob Dylan sings on My Back Pages, “Ah, but I was so much older then: I’m younger than that now.” My education continued with three weeks in Czechoslovakia two or three years after the Warsaw Pact’s invasion. I smuggled in a copy of Doctor Zhivago, but all the talk was of what you couldn’t do, what you couldn’t buy. I don’t remember anyone talking about Jan Palach or Vaclav Havel. I was Romanticising politics like Franz, that Swiss character in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who yearns to be part of the great march of history while exiles from Prague just want to live and be themselves. Poetry that yearns to be something other than what it is seems to be all the rage now. It’s not enough to write about the world: you must have a vocation to change it – to suit yourself, of course. In part this has been a consequence of the social engineering of the arts brought about by the first Blair Administration. The principle of Utilitarianism - the greatest usefulness to the greatest number - now operates at the expense of excellence. Similarly, why should universities go on putting on classes in dead languages when they can attract greater numbers for media or computing studies? Kingsley Amis, a radical-turned-Tory, told me he blamed the third Thatcher Administration for wrecking higher education. So at the turn of the Millennium, a group of Somali poetry writers in Sheffield got £30,000 from the Arts Council whereas David Tipton’s Redbeck Press, which had a history of wide publication including international translations, got sod all. The sugar shaken down for People Tree Press didn’t fall on Redbeck. Between the steam irons of Thatcherism and Blairism - and all the other bloody isms today - I suppose the miracle is that any decent poetry is written at all.

As a mixed-economy Trog from the Sixties wary of all-conquering science I think the four legs good, two legs bad box-ticking is bollocks. Charles Bukowski and Fred Voss are quite as capable of turning out forgettable poetry as TSE (more than 100 lines in Four Quartets).  Poetry, like song, comes down to who gives the world the most memorable lines and tunes free of all the circumstances of their creation. I doubt that there have ever been ideal circumstances for writers, artists and musicians although there have been brief eras when that was felt to be so. Howl may be taken as a blast against Eisenhower's Mad Men America of the Fifties; but it is also in part a witty, funny poem that wasn't constrained by those times. There's a short poem by D H Lawrence in front of me. It reads: 

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

High time we stopped feeling sorry for ourselves. Finally, as an indication of where I stand in terms of art, in this case poetry, and propaganda, the opening chapter of my MS Dead Poets’ Society – Almost called From Dorian Gray to Auschwitz might be of interest.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. Oscar Wilde.

Two years’ hard labour picking Oakum in Reading Jail may have helped Oscar Wilde to a less supercilious view of life and art; he certainly needed it. The extract quoted above is from the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890 when Wilde was thirty-six and approaching the peak of his celebrity. Public disgrace and personal humiliation were five years away.      

Wilde’s preface is a manifesto in which he proclaims that art has but one purpose: the creation of beauty. He does not say what beauty is, merely that its apprehension is not for everybody. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. These are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. Arguments about art and morality are fruitless. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. This is as preposterous a declaration as the rhetorical flourish with which Keats winds up Ode to a Grecian Urn 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

Physical beauty may be a mask for moral ugliness: cruelty, egotism, conceit. Physical ugliness, however, may conceal moral beauty, as in The Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If poets were, as Shelley imagined, the unacknowledged legislators of the world, the Industrial Revolution would not have happened; the population of these islands would have remained in rural squalor like the people of Ireland, romanticised by poets and painters living on a fixed income. Keats and Wilde assume that only bad art produces ugliness. Whether aesthetic ugliness – the Great Western Railway, for argument’s sake – encourages moral deformity, Wilde does not say; but from his contention that hope is the preserve of the cultivated, we may infer that his credo excludes the possibility of one of the beautiful people harbouring a thought or idea that is ugly, soul destroying, homicidal.

 In Crime and Punishment one of Dostoyevsky’s characters proclaims that the world will be saved by beauty. I don’t for a second believe that the beauty that the Russian writer had in mind corresponded with the beauty celebrated by Wilde and his fellow aesthetes – the Pre-Rapaelites among them. For Dostoyevsky, beauty without ethical sympathy is unthinkable. For Wilde, beauty was simply itself, free and transitory. The beauty so admired by Wilde’s character Dorian Gray has more to do with cold perfection than the reality of life. Wilde was at one with the writer Huysmans whose novel, Against Nature, is a clever, world-weary fanfare in support of all that is contrived and artificial. One of Wilde’s witty paradoxes was that life imitates art. An artful arrangement of exotic flowers in a choice vase is superior to a field of wind-blown wheat or a waywardly growing garden. Artifice will always be preferred by the discriminating sensibility to the genetic chaos spawned by Mother Nature. A rose is a rose is a rose, declared that old bore Gertrude Stein. Wilde would have none of that. His buttonhole was a green carnation.    

The beauty that Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelites raised on a pedestal, the obsession with perfection, carries the stink of the tomb. The Picture of Dorian Gray is replete with imagery denoting the paleness of objects; his favourite simile is the coolness of ivory. The women painted by Edward Burne-Jones represent death’s perfection after the solemn mortician has done his work. In death human beings are stripped of necessity and action; death objectifies us. The Pre-Raphaelites liked their women to be pale and languid. The epitome was Ophelia. The medievalism of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites are tapers at a time of electricity. After Blake, after Cotman, after Turner and Constable, English painting drifted into an Arthurian backwater and got stuck among the reeds. While the Pre-Raphaelites worked out their twin obsessions with a mythic past and Morris’s languorous wife Janey, artists across the English Channel were painting the very objects that Wilde and his friends would have found distressingly commonplace. I want to stun Paris with an apple! Cezanne declared. Wilde sought to stun London with his version of Helen of Troy – Salome.    

Wilde’s obsession with perfumes and sensory experience was imported from the Paris of the 1840s, principally from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Personally I prefer the poet’s last poems written between 1859 and 1863 – Le Voyage; Anywhere Out of the World; Les Petites Vielles; Les Veuves – which anticipate the worldly despair of Existentialism. Baudelaire was incomparably a greater poet than his English Victorian counterparts. French writing, like French painting, moved on. Compare Wilde’s languorous lilies with the adolescent Rimbaud’s wild and sardonic strictures regarding flowers in his poem to Theodore Banville –

To the Poet on the Subject of Flowers.

See! it’s the Century of hell! and the telegraph poles,
the iron-voiced lyre, are going to adorn your magnificent  shoulders!

Above all, though, give us a rhymed account of the potato blight! –!                                

English poetry dallied at the border of the forbidden waving a perfumed silk handkerchief, whereas French writing tore across it in search of the unknown. The nearest that Wilde got to publicly stepping across the bounds of propriety was in the tedious The Importance of Being Earnest, with its abundance of arch references to bun-burrying. How his chums must have laughed. How contrived it all is now. Writing in late Victorian England assumed the shape of a ponderous bathysphere, washed up on the shingle of Dover beach. But French writing was a rocket. Is it any surprise that cinema, painting with light, was invented in France?    

England looks back to the past, as any nation does when it has no confidence in the future. The England of the Pre-Raphaelites was less sure of itself, less smug, than its modern critics avow. There is a dark thread of despair in Tennyson. Arthur Hugh Clough personified what the Austrian Arthur Snitzler came to imagine at a later date as the man with no values. In architecture, John Ruskin espoused the Gothic. He hated the adoption of Renaissance designs by Bradford’s industrial tycoons for the Town Hall, the Wool Exchange and Salts Mill. The celebrated modernism of Robert Browning – My Last Duchess - comes off a poor second to the best poems of Baudelaire. The English intelligentsia, like their monarch, were in mourning for the past; they could neither see nor feel any wonder and beauty in the things produced by the Industrial Revolution – the advances in so many fields simultaneously. How ironic that Wilde, of all people, was so blind to the artifice of science and industry, to the age that was coming.

Arguably, it is the secondary literature of late Victorian England, as exemplified by the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, where the new age is to be found. Dr Jeykll and Edward Hyde advance to the edge of consciousness with Sigmund Freud still in the shadows. Sherlock Holmes is not simply a consulting private detective: he is the embodiment of the mind excited by ideas, the application of reasoning to the mysteries of human behaviour. Holmes is the pathfinder of forensic science in police work. The greatest advances in theatre, the novel, poetry, music and painting were made in Norway, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, the United States and Ireland.    

Dostoyevsky’s vision of beauty – ethical and transcendent – as personified by Sonia in Crime and Punishment, is neither transitory not unearthly. Art for art’s sake meant nothing to the Russian. Ultimately, this credo came to mean nothing to Oscar Wilde. Ten years after his clever preface, Wilde died in exile in France: another Irish writer, unwise but witty, dying in a country less foreign than his own. Dorian Gray, amoral, bereft of ethical sympathy, concerned only with the physically beautiful, is the Aryan ideal, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist man. Idealised physical beauty was central to National Socialism. Hitler so believed in it that he systematically murdered everyone disfigured, ugly, socially useless, politically dangerous and ethically undesirable. Yet the art he espoused was uniformly ugly; Wilde would have mocked it mercilessly – until arrested by the herrenvok. Dorian Gray would have been an ardent Nazi – as were so many of the English upper class. England had its Black Shirts and Wilde’s native Ireland its Blue Shirts. At a time of uncertainty Fascism has understandable appeal: that is its danger.      

Victims of political tyranny may say that Oscar Wilde was anticipating the ideological barbarities of the Twentieth century’s murderous ‘isms’ – Communism, National Socialism, Maoism, Year Zeroism. The writing of one era may indeed anticipate events of an era to come; but I think Wilde’s preoccupation with aesthetic beauty was meant to be a shocking antithesis to the social, political and religious orthodoxies of his day; the moral deformities that he found ugly. Fair enough, but art without ethical sympathy, without what Walt Whitman called eternal tendencies, may result in Reinhard Heydrich: a man of moral and artistic accomplishment and a committed Jew-exterminator. It is perfectly possible to admire Beethoven in the evening and to mastermind the Final Solution in the morning; Heydrich is the historical proof. Jews on their way to the gas chamber at Treblinka, the ‘Road to Heaven‘ the path they took was called, were accompanied by an uplifting selection from the classics played by an orchestra.

Wildean aesthetes are able to pursue perfection because someone else must work to provide them with their income. Boredom and world-weariness are poses they can afford because the effort costs them nothing but stylishly Romantic ennui. Only in the symbolism of death do they find what they are seeking. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the ultimate manifestation of the Nazi ideal of physical beauty dedicated, as it was, to wiping out anyone unworthy of the elect, the master race.