Of Poetics and Politics

Mr. Attlee (wiki)
Winterbergen, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

How do you like your Poetry? Richly allusive, with detectable rhythm, a certain musicality about it? Or do you prefer a stripped-down, unembellished terseness-to-the-point-of-inarticulacy, a Tacitean, telegraphic brevity? Whichever, preference is yours, would you consider it right for your preference to be given a quiet signal of approval by the Government, and for the other style to be the object of marshalled scorn, writers in the one camp praised, in the other, denigrated in an almost Stalinist way? Perhaps, by merely posing the question, I have given myself away, since, for those of the latter school, there is only one way of poetising, and that is the stern, ‘neo-Brutalist’ way I have outlined above.

Some little while ago, I attended a course, during which, one of the highlights was a poetry-reading by R.S. Thomas, of pieces from his not yet published latest volume. On returning to my room, I penned this:

at a Poetry-Reading

The Poet’s face is lined,
The mouth compressed, lips turned down,
Hair white. His hand trembles and is barely able
To hold his spectacles or keep the places
Found in his book.
He leans against the pulpit for support.

Yet in the china-blue eyes a clear
Stretch of water fiercely moves;
And the voice moves with sure-footed precision –
Like a mountain-goat; with the irrefutable dogmatism
Of the Prophet – none of the
Uncertainties of the words.

When, much later, my lines were praised to the heights by someone with a deep and wide knowledge and appreciation of poetry, I ventured to protest: the ‘RST’ lines had been penned in a matter of minutes, and while I thought they gave a reasonable pen-portrait of the man and the occasion – perhaps, modestly echoing his manner – I felt that they hardly merited the claim to being poetry; that the words could have been set on the page in a multitude of different ways (you can try this out! Here’s one way of doing it: The Poet’s face is lined, the mouth compressed, lips turned down, hair white. His hand trembles and is barely able to hold his spectacles or keep the places found in his book; he leans against the pulpit for support. Yet in the china-blue eyes a clear stretch of water fiercely moves; and the voice moves with sure-footed precision – like a mountain-goat; with the irrefutable dogmatism of the Prophet – none of the uncertainties of the words.), with neither loss nor gain; that, apart from the unexpected ‘china-blue’ (every boy’s paint-box contains a small rectangle of ‘china white’, but none of ‘china blue’), and perhaps the image of ‘a clear stretch of water’, fiercely moving, there was little to engage the imagination in it, and virtually nothing to lift it up to Coleridge’s definition ‘the best words in the best order’. I had and still have, the strong feeling that the utterly prosaic (= ‘cloth-eared’) writers of the Church of England’s ‘Alternative Services Book’ were under the delusion that, setting out the words in the manner of ‘Modern’ poetry, by some miracle, Transubstantiated them. To illustrate the ‘cloth-earedness’ of Liturgists and translators further vide how, in the Roman Church, in ‘test-driving’ new versions of the Mass, they came up with:
“V. Mass is over;
R. Thank God!”
Well, it had all the crispness of
‘Ite, missa est’…
‘Deo Gracias…’ but, somehow, conveyed an unintended sense of relief.
Far better writers than I have bemoaned the sheer ineptness of academics, trying to ‘get down wiv’ da bruvvas’, as in the little-lamented ‘New English Bible’, and I have often ground my teeth at the – not just infelicities, but frequent mistranslations of the wretched ‘Good News Bible’. “…a dreaded skin disease”, needs Spike Milligan’s voice to give the full value to the hilarity of that word ‘dreaded’, where the Greek has simply ‘lepros’; nor is ‘mob’ a sufficient translation for ‘Legiwn’, and any Roman officer who allowed his Legion to become a mere mob, would not have survived long.

Go back a few years – decades –  and people who wrote, had behind them years of schooling in the art of translation: accruing the ability to accomplish that most difficult of things, writing ‘each form of wit/ in the same spirit that its author writ’, distinguishing between the literal meaning and the general, overall meaning. No less than King Alfred, in his valiant attempts to make his Wessex folk literate, had translated (or ‘had’ translated, as modern, minimising historians prefer) such things as Boethius’ ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ and ‘Gregory’s pastoral Care’, some times ‘word for word’ and sometimes ‘sense by sense’, recognising that there might often be a nuance above and beyond the literal, that required being taken into account.
The Poet whom I am hovering on the point of bringing to your attention here, was also a noted translator, as well as an original, and much-praised, lyric poet, throughout those dire years that fell between the two ‘German Wars’, as A. L. Rowse classified them.

He fought in, and was wounded in, The Spanish Civil War, yet his literary reputation, already established, with the warm approvals of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and even T.S. Eliot, has since been sidelined, if not erased. He wrote, perhaps too much, but with passion, elegance, and panache – of landscapes, of animals, and of people – not least, of women, whose beauty entranced him, yet never led him to stray from monogamy. On the fringe of Bloomsbury, he swiftly saw through the vapid pretentiousness of those futile beings, excoriating some of them in Satires of which Pope would have been proud –  not least the grim Victoria (‘Vita’ ) Sackwille-West, whose infatuation with, and seduction of, his wife, had nearly destroyed their marriage, as it was to destroy the life of the frail Virginia Woolf (was she, perhaps, a trifle ‘bedint’, that snobs’-snob’s term, she and the bisexual ‘Haji’, Harold Nicolson, her husband, used to bedim and be-damn, the rest of us, who were as incomprehensibly excluded from company, as she was from inheriting and living in Knole.

Roy Campbell, Horses of The Camargue

In the grey wastes of dread,
The haunt of shattered gulls where nothing moves
But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
And, turning, saw afar
A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
The silver runaways of Neptune’s car
Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
Theirs is no earthly breed
Who only haunts the verges of the earth
And only on the sea’s salt herbage feed-
Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
For when for years a slave,
A horse of the Camargue, in alien lands,
Should catch some far-off fragrance of the wave
Carried far inland from this native sands,
Many have told the tale
Of how in fury, foaming at the rein,
He hurls his rider; and with lifted tail,
With coal-red eyes and cataracting mane,
Heading his course for home,
Though sixty foreign leagues before him sweep,
Will never rest until he breathes the foam
And hears the native thunder of the deep.
And when the great gusts rise
And lash their anger on these arid coasts,
When the scared gulls career with mournful cries
And whirl across the waste like driven ghosts;
When hail and fire converge,
The only souls to which they strike no pain
Are the white crested fillies of the surge
And the white horses of the windy plain.
Then in their strength and pride
The stallions of the wilderness rejoice;
They feel their Master’s trident in their side,
And high and shrill they answer to his voice.
With white tails smoking free,
Long streaming manes, and arching necks, they show
Their kinship to their sisters of the sea-
And forward hurl their thunderbolts of snow.
Still out of hardship bred,
Spirits of power and beauty and delight
Have ever on such frugal pasture fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.

Now that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is poetry, not ‘mere verse’, although it bears the face of verse; but poetry, and passionate, powerful poetry, as is this shorter, more poised, more poignant set of lines:

I love to see, when leaves depart,
The clear anatomy arrive,
Winter, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.

Already now the clanging chains
Of geese are harnessed to the moon:
Stripped are the great sun-clouding planes:
And the dark pines, their own revealing,
Let in the needles of the noon.

Strained by the gale the olives whiten
Like hoary wrestlers bent with toil
And, with the vines, their branches lighten
To brim our vats where summer lingers
In the red froth and sun-gold oil.

Soon on our hearth’s reviving pyre
Their rotted stems will crumble up:
And like a ruby, panting fire,
The grape will redden on your fingers
Through the lit crystal of the cup.

We might quibble whether ‘paragon’ should be replaced by ‘paradigm’, but
Keats’s magisterial, impressionistic picture of ‘Autumn’, ‘though full of realism, lacks, perhaps, this poet’s vivid immediacy. What could be more exact, more evocative, than his
‘Already now the clanging chains
Of geese are harnessed to the moon:’?
Skeins of geese, we have heard of; the honking of geese we are familiar with: clanging of chains is familiar, but the picture, subtly sketched in here, is of geese, flying before a full moon, making their unearthly baritone sounds, as though they draw the moon along the Autumnal sky, bringing us round to the golden olive oil, bubbling beneath the press, and the red foam (Keats’s ‘Beaded bubbles winking at the brim’?)  of grape must in the vat. And what marvellous alchemy transmutes the little light of moonlight, filtered through pine-needles into needles of light. And see how far he takes us, from fingers red with grapes from the picking, to those same fingers, reddened now by the fire-light, flickering on your wine-glass.
Wine meant much to him, perhaps too much, but even the mere wine, was always for him, an image of the wine-that-is-no-longer-wine, of the Chalice. And therein lies the clue to his dismissal from the ranks of Spanish Civil War heroes: Roy Campbell had dared not merely to see the savagery of both sides in the fighting, but to prefer, despite its equal savagery, the winning side: but, being a ‘Carlist’, he has been endlessly enrolled in the ranks of Fascists, a Franco-supporter…
He was that most despised of things, a ‘convert’, having been brought up in Irish Protestantism, like many thoughtful souls brought up in the years post WWI, he and his wife converted – enough to chill the cold blood of Victoria Sackville-West, and make Virginia Woolf shudder! Nor would present-day feminists be less than scandalised by his having dangled his wife, by her ankles, from an upstairs window, to impress upon her that, in a marriage, the husband alone rules…
So, the leftists – Tolkien referred to people like Auden, as the “corduroy Panzers”, as they fled to America – hated him, the pansies hated him, the Prods hated him; all the ‘cradle Catholics’ will have hated, or at least despised him… not all bad, then!

The Attlee years were, however, dedicated to expunging all that went before – as all Leftist states do, from Pol Pot’s ‘Year Zero’, to Stalin’s photographers’ use of the air-brush, and to the de-platforming and un-personning now so prevalent. If this bold claim needs referencing, read Giles Uday’s great book, ‘Labour and The Gulag’, which unveils the sheer nastiness of the little man as well as that of, among others many, Ramsay Macdonald. My one quibble about his book, being that the grim men in hats on the dust-jacket are left unidentified, and apart from G. B. Shaw unknown to me.

About forty years ago, my wife and I visited Germany, staying with relations. Her uncle Hans, who’d been active in WWII (in the railways…) took us around Munich, and showed us how post-war re-building meant you could hardly, if at all, ‘see the join’; he also took us to view the remains of a ski-jump, built for the 1930’s Olympic Games, and confided to me, ‘Not all Hitler’s ideas were mad, you know!’ I regret now, feeling that the obligations of being a guest, meant I could not say, ‘I’ve never thought of him as mad, just evil.’. In much the same way, when he took us to I forget where, Fursten-Feldbruck?, I refrained from remarking on the wooden signpost that said, ‘Ravensbruck’. In Cologne, we were shown heaps of boulders: ‘The RAF did that.’ we were told.
Meanwhile, here in what was to become Englandostan, Attlee’s government was presiding over a kind of quiet ‘punitive expedition’  against everything that stood for continuity, for the traditional, for crafts, for craftsmanship, for an hierarchy of skill and insight, since Communism Socialism denied the existence of a scale from good to better, from bad, to worse.

Royal Festival Hall
Stephen Richards / Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Road (1)

It is now widely recognised that it was Mr. Attlee’s false accounting, in directing Marshall Aid towards ‘the New Jerusalem’, rather than to repairing the damage to industry in WWII, that forced the Americans into calling in their loans. Craftsmen were no longer required in that ‘New Jerusalem’ – as ‘modernism’ eschewed delicacy, tact, and inherited skill, encouraging instead the soulless vapidity of Brutalism: think of the ‘Festival of Britain’, of the Royal Festival Hall, with its impossibly dead acoustic, and its huge but unimpressive  – and, now, scarcely-used – Organ. At least the Austrian Corporal and Albrecht Speer achieved a kind of grandeur in building. The RFH squats, like some venomous amphibian, all horizontal, despite those prison-bars of pillars.
The trouble with Progressivism, is it is always away from: any ‘towards’ being ill-defined, nebulous, immaterial: it is essentially an Adolescent’s inchoate rage against his progenitors. Think how, for decades, the absurd William Glock at the BBC, pushed the skeletal harshnesses of Berg and Schoenberg, while denying air-time to more grateful sonorities, such as those of Havergal Brian, Herbert Howells. and other native composers. Meanwhile, this great white-elephant has needed numerous corrective attempts over the years – particularly to its acoustics – at vast expense (of course) yet Simon Rattle, for one, has declared how playing there makes musicians ‘lose the will to live’. It was known that in antiquity, acoustics had been aided by means of ‘vases’, buried in walls – ‘Helmholz’ Resonators avant la lettre – used to enhance certain frequencies, but Herbert Morrison’s favoured men for the construction of this building specifically rejected such un-progressive notions, turning belatedly instead to electrical amplification – a cure that was so unsuccessful, that it was turned off after several years of trial. Nor were the carefully-chosen furnishings of the ‘RFH’ much more successful, being replaced several times to try and coax more reverberation/ less acoustic damping out of/into this inert concert hall. At least The Albert Hall, with its notorious echo, had a vibrant acoustic, where, as Sir Thomas Beecham drily observed, English composers were assured of a second performance.  All sorts of claims are now made for the ‘RFH’ and its Organ, but it’s taken decades and great wodges of money, to get it to where it is now… Notice from any of the pictures which feature Ralph Downes’ organ, how the pipes are all arranged asymmetrically. In the early days, organ builders knew that if the pipes were not carefully arranged, all the weight would be at one end, so they evolved building the wind-chests to a C- and C-# side, and even this could be made more eye-pleasing, by adjusting the non-speaking parts of pipes, their ‘feet’, to give pleasing graduation in lengths and diameters, and in the ‘mouths’. All these nuances were cast aside in the rush to make the whole organ look as unpleasing as possible, as naked and unadorned at could be.

Who were the ‘coming men’, if the expression may be pardoned, in those years? Auden, of course, whose verbal dexterity hardly needed any puffery from government further to propel its momentum, Louis McNeice (who became a champion drinker, rivalling Dylan Thomas), Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis…
I remember we had to read Spender’s ‘The Pylons’ at School, and, looking at it again now, I am even less impressed than then. It seems so muddled: concrete bases they might have, but the pylons are steel lattice-work constructions (nor are the wires black, except viewed against the light). Tennyson’s short-sightedness, meant he thought that Railways were kinds of grooves along which trains rolled (‘Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.’): is Spender here guilty of a Locksley Hall moment? His apparently loose quatrains, make a kind of mockery, with their poor abumbrations of abba rhymes, where anger-danger are mere ‘eye-rhymes’ and endures-future, no rhyme at all
‘But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.’
Well, yes, electricity is very quick, and, as the enamel warning signs on pylons pronounce, there is ‘lightning’s danger’, although at a far more moderate voltage than Lightning’s

‘Quick perspective’? It almost seems as if he had been asked to write something singing the praises of the newly-nationalised electricity industry, and found it an impossible task, so that his brief line or two about country cottages sound a note of regret more loudly than his synthetic hymning of the 1940’s. Then there’s MacNeice:, a ‘30’s poet’ of far greater depth, who is unafraid to use rhyme and rhythm, and incantatory repetition, and whose ‘Prayer before Birth’ compresses the horror of those years when those bad Socialists, the ‘right-wing’ ones, were strutting up and down just across the Channel from us, articulating the premonitory fear for the lives of those as yet unborn.

I have been perhaps deliberately unfair to Major Attlee, suggesting that he almost personally extinguished good taste in favour of a brutally Modernistic aesthetic, and espoused the tactics of the Fabians to subvert and undermine all our values. Reading through a collection of Attlee quotations, however, I was struck by the fairness and middle-groundedness of his position – not only pre-Blair, but pre-Wilson, loyal and patriotic, seeing the Empire-Commonwealth as our repository of good sense and fairness, yet feeling a kind of bloodlessness about a man who casually dismissed Christianity in those terse words, ‘approve the ethic, but not the mumbo-jumbo’ and, in a calculated snub to most of the Articles of the Creed, in true ‘Christian Socialist’ style declared himself an agnostic – not least about Eternal Life. It might well be that, in holding together all the strands of Labour feeling and thought, it was necessary for him to hold back the wild horses such as Aneurin Bevan, relying on the rock-solid sense of an Ernest Bevin to push things through in a moderate, centrist way he could only proceed cautiously. Yet, letting Herbert Morrison have his head at LCC  over things like the RFH and Festival of Britain – all to be re-hashed a generation later, under Morrison’s grandson Mandelson – shows, to me, a deficient sense of the importance of symbols and any feeling for Transcendence. But I think it is fair to say that the aesthetics of post-1945 Labour were little different from those of 1930’s German Socialism, in many cases, inferior. The impetus given to progressivism also meant the virtual killing off of an entire school of poesy, neatly packaged as ‘The Georgians’, so ‘old-hat’ Conservative, derivative, hide-bound, and so on. Read some of ‘The Squirearchy’ – not least Sir John Squire himself – to see what craftsmanlike stuff has been, in effect, committed to the flames.

He seems firmly to have believed in the ‘planned Economy’: as though ‘capitalists’, never planned their endeavours! That is to say, he believed (by an unacknowledged ‘act of /Faith’ in this faithless man:  Q: Are you an agnostic? A:“ I don’t know.”) that ‘the man in Whitehall knows best.’; that those who govern us, are above and beyond any scrutiny, their motives, above all, being all-benign and entirely beneficent. Of late, such notions seem to most of us, I think, to be positively Byzantine. So, whither did Attlee’s people turn for advice? Not, obviously, to those whose artistic endeavours had been successful, their paintings bought, their books sold.
Down ‘ere, you can’t step out of your front door without falling over an artist: I have neighbours who are artists, acquaintances who are ‘sculptors’ (and have web-sites); the County Council is currently spending who-knows-how-much on building what promises to be one of the evillest-looking building here, in this modest, not unhandsome ‘Railway Town’, to become a ‘hub’ for artistic ventures… My guess is that this otiose laying out of tax-payers’ money, will not usher in a new Renaissance of the Arts, but rather an ‘expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, almost. ‘Artists’ and ‘sculptors’ seem to have been managing quite well on their own account not least since the piercing clarity of the UV-rich light led real, craftsmanlike painters hither in the Nineteenth Century – without, it seems, the agency of any Government ‘help’.

He, the sainted Major, believed that only with Government help, could any endeavour thrive – and he was a great ‘committee man’, renowned for his chairmanship. No doubt it was only the most cynical who thought that a Camel was ‘a Horse designed by a committee’.

Of all people, the Americans are possibly the last you would suspect of having become awakened to the idea that a reason that Poetry is so little esteemed now might be because what can now be claimed to be ‘poetry’ (or, for that matter, Sculpture), is not worthy of the name. However, the Society of Classical Poets, exists exactly to propagate this belief and, for instance, puts forth the notion that mere solipsism lies at the base of Walt Whitman’s oeuvre, a kind of ‘It’s poetry, because I say it is!’

But for Major Attlee, I claim, we would not need to have this argument!
I had a sense of ‘deja vu’, a week ago, when somewhere near where I live, was temporarily closed to traffic, for the delivery of wide-loads of Portakabins, to what is the ever-growing site of what once was simply ‘Penzance County Grammar School (for Boys)’, with an admirable,  handsome main building all of dressed granite in that Elizabethan style the Edwardians loved. Now, of course, it has been de-Grammarised, thoroughly Comprehensivised, and now marketed as a ‘Music College’. A few years before I went there, Attlee’s government having willed the end, but not the means, had enlarged the school’s intake, meaning that, one Summer, a load of ex-Army huts was dumped on the School grounds. The new council estate that surrounded the School, was, even then, renowned as a, shall we say, bastion of Socialism’s wishful-thinking, so in the six weeks of summer holidays, a lot of the parts so capriciously dumped there, were harvested, while the volatile temperatures and humidity-levels, did nothing to improve their condition. When, finally, these ungainly rejects were set up, the roofs leaked, the windows were neither rain- nor wind-proof, and we were inured to being taught in deliberately uninspiring, indeed, dispiriting surroundings.
So, what was all that about ‘planning’? When the Commissioners examined the health provisions
before ‘nationalising’ it all in 1948, their conclusion was, ‘it’s all very good, but there is no planning.’
A cleverer man than I, could produce one of those ‘alternative histories’, in which Churchill did not lose the post-war election… a tantalising dream!
Attlee’s own vision of his success, is, perhaps, summed up in his own neat Limerick:

There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

Interesting that ‘the greatest Prime Minister’ according to some, was so concerned about these meaningless trifles- except, perchance, in a kind of ‘nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa’ way.

‘To quote Leslie Martin, “The suspended auditorium provides the building with its major attributes: the great sense of space that is opened out within the building, the flowing circulation from the symmetrically placed staircases and galleries that became known as the ‘egg in the box’.”[11]

The hall they built used modernism’s favourite material, reinforced concrete, alongside more luxurious elements including beautiful woods and Derbyshire fossilised limestone.[10] The exterior of the building was bright white, intended to contrast with the blackened city surrounding it. Large areas of glass on its façade meant that light coursed freely throughout the interior, and at night, the glass let the light from inside flood out onto the river, in contrast to the darkness which befell the rest of London after dusk.[12]

The hall originally seated 2,901. The cantilevered boxes are often described as looking like drawers pulled out in a hurried burglary, but none has a compromised sightline. The ceiling was wilfully sculptural, a conceit at the very edge of building technology and, as it turns out, way beyond the contemporary understanding of acoustics.[8] [my emphasis]Robin Day, who designed the furniture for the auditorium, used a clearly articulated structure in his designs of bent plywood and steel.[10]

One might have thought that an auditorium, a place designed for things to be heard in, might have taken seriously the ‘sound’ of the building, rather than making it secondary to the look.

© Jethro 2024