In issue 6 of Penniless Press, Alan Dent argued, in a review of Andy Croft's
Nowhere Special, that 'different realms move at different speeds and the
cultural has forged ahead of the economic, the social and the political. As a
poet, Croft has, in a way, been left behind. He shows little modernist
influence...' But as Andy Croft here argues, radical politics have often found
their most natural expression in old fashioned literary forms. And anyway, when
was Modernist literary technique - in Britain at least - ever associated with
In 1949 the Arts Council announced that the forthcoming Festival of Britain
celebrations would include a national poetry competition (with prize money of a
thousand guineas). The competition attracted over 2,000 entries; it wasn't a lot
by today's standards, but it was more than enough for the competition judges,
Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir Maurice Bowra, Lord David Cecil, Professor Basil Wiley,
George Rylands and John Hayward:
There was, as one would expect in so large an
entry, a great deal of very bad verse, ranging in ineptitude from the
expanded cracker-motto to grandiloquent failures to imitate Paradise Lost.
There were the great imperial sagas from the, first week of Creation to VE
day; the sacred oratorios and the patriotic hymns; the epics of rural life
and the odes to British industry. There were the oddities which relieved the
monotony of the judges' task; poems written on cardboard, or in coloured
chalks, or on scraps of paper, or in block capitals; poems embossed in
vellum with illuminated initials, or with calligraphic title-pages, and
bound with loving care, complete with leather thongs or silk ties. There
were the eccentrics and the moonstruck, bemused and halting followers of
Blake and Smart, with their obscure cosmic visions and their fearful
prophecies of imminent damnation underscored in ink. And above all, there
was the vast chorus of those content to chant in monotonous unison the joys
of love and springtime, with special emphasis on bird-song at morning and
starshine at night.'
What a fascinating collection these entries would have made! They certainly
sound more interesting than the winning entries which were published by Penguin
as Poems 1951 (1951) - eight sequences, all by men, five of whom were
published writers (including Robert Conquest, whose anthology New Lines
(1956) was to provide the theoretical justification for the expulsion of
ideology, theology, psychology and philosophy from post-War British poetry).
This was cultural gate-keeping at its most brazen, a peculiarly English
combination of Public School snobbery and Modernist self-assurance (the critic
John Hayward, who wrote the judges' report, was T.S. Eliot's flat-mate). And so
the Arts Council poetry committee was born, and poetry was safely back in the
hands of those whose education and sensibility had taught them the difference
between 'verses on a birthday-card' and 'an epigram in the Greek anthology' .
It was a triumph for reaction and the traditional centres of cultural knowledge.
The judges were defending the professional against the amateur; it is clear that
behind their rejection of 'the overwhelming majority' of entries lay
considerations of experience, education and social class. Moreover, it was
rooted in a deep (and ignorant) contempt for the popular sources of poetry:
'What was striking in by far the largest number
of poems submitted was the lack of what may be called any literary ancestry,
of any evidence, explicit or implicit, that their authors had any knowledge
of the English poetic tradition. Many of them, so it seemed, could rarely
have read any poetry worth the name, or if they had, were entirely
unaffected by it... To all appearances the extent of their knowledge was
confined to popular anthology pieces, to hymn books, and to dimly
recollected set-passages from school primers... There is no point in
encouraging such writers, who will continue to string rhymes together, with
or without the inducement of a prize...'
But they were also speaking from the commanding
heights of Modernism (Hayward was especially disappointed that no new 'school'
had emerged among the entries). They had expected imitations of Hopkins, Yeats
and Eliot; instead they were obliged to come down from Parnassus to read poems
about 'communion with Nature, the pangs of despised love, the pleasures of
melancholy, the rapture of the backward view, and the precarious navigation of
perilous seas in faery lands forlorn....'
This was the Restoration of late Bloomsbury-Modernism after two decades in which
it had been, to say the least, tarnished by its association with Fascism. Before
the War, the triumph of Modernism had anyway only ever been very partial -
Surrealism never really took root in Britain, and the most influential
Modernists were arguably Jules Romains and Dos Passos rather than Joyce or Kafka
(and by the late 1930's even Virginia Woolf was writing for the Daily Worker).
The most popular poets were still the Georgians (Masefield, Davies, de la Mare,
Houseman, Sassoon). And what was the Audenesque but ironic Public School
Georgianism ? (2)
At a time when radical politics were characterised by the defence of nation,
democracy, culture and the' people', traditional and popular forms were a
natural means of expression for radical poets. Communist Party poets in the
1930's and 1940's like Day Lewis, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland,
Randall Swingler, Jack Lindsay, Maurice Carpenter, John Manifold, Clive Branson,
John Cornford, Arnold Rattenbury, Geoffrey Matthews and Jack Beeching were
primarily concerned to 'naturalise' their arguments within a recognisably
English literary landscape. (3) Even Edgell Rickword, who had been associated
with Modernism in the 1920's, turned to eighteenth-century satirical forms in
the 1930's. The result was what one critic called 'Anglo-Communism'. Randall
Swingler, for example, clearly sought to Anglicise the revolutionary content of
his verse by invoking a sense of belonging to an older, native, radical
'Acres of power within me lie,
Charted fields of wheat and rye
And behind them, charted too,
Brooding woods of beech and yew.
Beyond them stretch, uncharted yet,
Marsh and mountain, dark and wet,
Whence sometimes in my dreams and ease
Strange birds appear among the trees.
The fields of corn are action's fruit,
Gripping the earth with puny root,
The surface pattern neatly planned
Upon the chaos of my land.
Against the ruminating wood
They set a fence, but to no good
The shadow and the sap of mind
Still weighs the harvest of my hand.
And the wild marches and the hills
Shut out by the imposing will
Yet hurl their livid storms across
To smash the fence and flood the fosse
And all his dictates and his laws
Cannot restrain that surging force.
For the whole land is my power still,
Divided, fenced, and no less real.
And one man only mourning goes
By day through the stiff planted rows
By night through tangled wood, to gaze
On the vast savage wilderness.
The born surveyor, he that would
Turn the whole acreage to good,
Subject to one coherent plan
Dispensing the whole power of man.
But he between the fences dour,
This organiser of my power,
By rigid areas is confined
That sever impulse, hand and mind.
For he is only paid to see
That the fields grow obediently
And that the woods do not encroach
Nor the trees part to show the marsh.
For if the power that lavish there
Breaks into a sterile air,
Were planned and planted, fibre and juice,
And all my earth enlaced with use,
Then evil for his ruler's case
Whom to maintain in idleness
My fields of power are bought and sold
And all their goodness changed for gold.
Thus the land that is my life
Divided, ruled, and held in fief-,
All the power it could produce
He cannot sell, but I could use.
And my surveyor, grim and harsh,
In secret now reclaims the marsh
That cultivated acres there
May bear a fruit for all to share.' (4)
To put it simply, Modernist technique was not the only way of responding to
Modernity in the 1930's or 1940's, when Modernist technique did not seem
especially radical. If anything it was identified - via Pound, Marinetti, Celine
and Eliot - with the enemies of culture. Even a second-generation Bloomsbury
writer like Julian Bell - hardly a Marxist -felt it necessary to turn to
pre-Modern poetic forms to write about the contemporary world.
By 1949 Julian Bell was dead, killed defending 'culture' in Spain. That year
Eliot articulated a rather different conception of culture in Notes Towards a
Definition of Culture. Beginning by ridiculing UNESCO and ending with an
attack on the Butler Education Act, Eliot rejected the extension of educational
opportunity ('a high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for
a civil society than is a respect for learning') and denounced the 'Mute
Inglorious Milton dogma'. For Eliot, of course, one Republican Milton was
enough. 'In justice to Thomas Gray, ' he argued, we should remind ourselves of
the last and finest lines of the quatrain and remember that we may also have
escaped some Cromwell guilty of his country's blood':
'there is no doubt that in the headlong rush to
educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more
abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our
culture... are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready
the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will camp in their
When The Cocktail Party opened at the
Edinburgh Festival that year, it was clear that Eliot (recently awarded the
Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize) had come in from the cold. The
anti-democratic, early twentieth-century Modernism enshrined in Eliot's poetry
and criticism was now orthodoxy. The 'barbarians' took their poetry home, where
it flourished - and continues to flourish - among friends, in provincial
newspapers, parish magazines, trade union journals and small presses, 'left
behind' by the victory march of Modernity.
The speed with which Eliot was rehabilitated after the War was not unconnected
with the ideological needs of the Cold War, during which the least interesting
aspects of Modernism were re-invented as part of the defence of 'Western
Values'. While there was no room of course for the Modernism of Mayakovsky,
Brecht, Picasso, Leger or MacDiarmid, the combination of authoritarianism,
mysticism, elitism and difficulty which Eliot represented became orthodoxy
overnight, his work presented (despite its hostility to 'traditional' forms) as
the exclusive bearer of the English poetic tradition.
This was the defeat of a generation of poets in uniform who had never heard of
Eliot (or Auden for that matter) but who had found themselves part of the
'cultural upsurge' of the Second World War, contributing poetry to the hundreds
of small magazines which came out of the Forces during the War, in Africa, Italy
and the Far East. Expressing the battered sensibility of the soldier, this
amateur poetry used 'traditional forms' to articulate the shared experience of
warfare, of landscape and loss, private hopes and public aspirations, grumbling
and cheerful and radical all at the same time. In the war-poetry of Communists
like Swingler and Matthews you can hear the self-conscious echoes of Edward
Thomas and Wilfred Owen. It was, of course, exactly the kind of poetry which
John Hayward and the Arts Council did not wish to encourage.
Between the announcement of the Arts Council competition and the prize-giving in
1951, the Communist publishers Fore Pubs issued a series of one-shilling poetry
pamphlets called 'Key Poets'. Edited by Swingler and Jack Lindsay, the
series was an attempt to challenge the new orthodoxy of Eliot-Modernism by
'breaking down the barriers between poet and audience, and giving poetry a
chance to rediscover itself as activity':
'Poetry is the most intense and intimate form of
communication between men. Apart from any other significance it may have, it
is therefore a thermometer of the condition of the human commonwealth. If
you find contemporary poetry difficult, it may well be because in the
present decadent condition of capitalist society the relation between men
and women and their world are difficult and complicated. It may also be
because the mechanism of modern life tends to squeeze out the creative
spirit and the personal equation. But poets who are alive to the conditions
in which they have to live are neither so despairing nor so arrogant as most
of those who enjoy the reverence of the reactionary reviews.'
In the climate of the Cold War, it was left to
Communist poets to try to keep open a space for new poetry that was neither
despairing nor 'difficult, that was experimental and traditional; as well as
poems by Lindsay, Swingler, Maurice Carpenter and Jack Beeching, Key Poets
included Edith Sitwell's post-Hiroshima Poor Men's Music, a long
'folk-poem' in Cumberland dialect by Jonathan Denwood, and George Barker's
The True Confessions of George Barker. Swingler contributed a series of
sonnets drawing on his experiences in Italy during the War:
'On the hither bank of battle
He made a deal with Death, to take away
The aching pack of Fear should he gainsay
All hope, all expectation, all regret.
Death signed, and kept his pledge.
The soldier laughed and sang in the sweat of hell,
And by sheer accident defaulted on his debt,
Emerged bewildered on life's further edge.
Haunted, returning to the source of hate,
He kicks the dust of ruin which he made
But finds no key ; and is not justified.
He owes a debt to death and has not paid.
How will he ever expiate
The guilt of being alive?'
This seems to me to be one of the truly great poems
of the Second World War. But it was, by any standards, 'old-fashioned,' and it
certainly went unheard (the Key Poets were studiously ignored by reviewers).
This kind of poetry was left behind' by the backward movement of British culture
in the Cold War, in the same way as the greatest Georgian poets (Thomas,
Sassoon, Owen, Brooke) were 'left behind' by the publication of The Wasteland
in the early 1920's.
In other words, formal innovation per se is neither progressive nor regressive:
'traditional' verse forms can be backward-looking or open to new feeling and
ideas. It depends on the purposes to which the form is put and the causes which
it is asked to serve. And there are perhaps some cultural movements by which it
is well to be 'left behind, 'as Jack Lindsay suggested in his Key Poets
amid a titter of teaspoons praising the
amid the telephone directories praising silence,
amid the impotent fairies praising love,
between the clique and the claque praising poverty
between the cocktail and the brandy praising renunciation
between the comma and the coma discovering integrity,
with hey for the yogi
whistling up a commissar bogey
and ho for the dope
the Absolutely Independent Intellectual,
with no hope,
no damned hope at all,
but cashing in
on the crapgame and the pope
though he keeps his conscience as clear as it's ineffectual
and believes not in Wall street but in Original Sin
somehow or other it's found
Original Sin suits Wall street down to the ground...'
1 See my 'Betrayed Spring: The Labour Government and British Literary Culture'
in Jim Fyrth (ed) Labour's Promised Land? Culture and Society In
Labour Britain 1945-51 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1995).
2 See my 'Politics and Beauty: the
Poetry of Randall Swingler' in Keith Williams and Steven Matthews (eds)
Rewriting the Thirties Modernism and After (Longman, 1997).
3 See my 'Authors Take Sides: Writers and the Communist Party 1920-56' in
Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman and Kevin Morgan (eds) Opening the Books
Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party
4 For Swingler see Arnold Rattenbury 'Total Attainder and the Helots' in
John Lucas (ed) The Thirties : A Challenge to Orthodoxy