Truths, Half-Truths & Damnable Lies
poetry's counter-witness to political expediency
Should we leave it to writers or historians or politicians to remember events? It is a strange but important feature of British culture that we have in modern poetry, from Siegfried Sassoon to Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg to Ivor Gurney, Ezra Pound to Ted Hughes, W.B. Yeats to Geoffrey Hill, the deepest and best-informed tradition of resistance to the official memory of the First World War.
We already know what will happen on August 4th 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the day Britain declared war on Germany: the opening of the renovated First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum; a candle-lit vigil of remembrance in Westminster Abbey; a ceremony at a military cemetery in Belgium; and a service of commemoration at Glasgow Cathedral for Commonwealth leaders on the day after the closing ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. We can be certain that unctuous BBC commentators will not point out - a reminder of our still continuing democratic deficit having no place on such occasions as these - that the nations and peoples of the Empire were committed to fight in the war by a stroke of the pen of King George V, King Emperor of the British Empire; nor will they speak of the dissent in the Empire - and in Wales, Scotland and Ireland too - of which Geoffrey Hill reminds us in his recent Oraclau/Oracles, about fighting the Englishmen's war.
The government has set more than £50m aside for commemorating the centenary of the First World War. The cramped and dowdy Imperial War Museum in London has already received £35m to renovate its First World War galleries. Two children and one teacher from every state school will be able to take part in battlefield tours of the western front - at a cost of more than £5m. A committee, including four former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and two novelists, Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks (the proportions are telling) will plan a nation-wide programme of cultural and educational events. We will have valuable accounts of the female poets of the First World War and on the recently discovered Indian and African combatant writers of the Empire, but it is unlikely that the work of Pound, David Jones, T.S. Eliot, Hughes, Yeats or Hill will play any part in the centenary's unquestioning promotion of national pride.
We have a taste of the official view of the centenary commemoration from the words of Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary: 'We have a duty to educate future generations about the First World War to ensure that the role our Armed Forces played, and continue to play, in defending the liberties we take for granted today are remembered.' One thing is certain: this large-scale propaganda exercise already seeks to forestall dissent. Britain entered the war to defend 'the liberties taken for granted today', although what liberties these may be - then as now - Pickles leaves entirely undefined.
C.W.R.Nevinson: Paths of Glory (1917), courtesy Imperial War Museum
'Died some, pro patria, / non 'dulce' non 'et decor'…/ walked eye-deep in hell/ believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving/came home, home to a lie,/home to many deceits,/ home to old lies and new infamy; /usury age-old and age-thick/ and liars in public places.' So wrote Ezra Pound in 1920 in 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley'. Pound was unbalanced by the war - by the death of friends, the scale of its losses, the cheapening of culture by propaganda and the press; by the conviction - shared with T.S.Eliot - that the First World War had been no more than a trade war and one from which some on all sides - 'like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire' - had profiteered; above all by the fact that the decision to declare war on Germany was taken not in Cabinet or in Parliament but in private by three men: Herbert Asquith, Edward Grey and David Lloyd George, consigned in The Cantos to the lowest levels of the Inferno.
David Jones' In Parenthesis (1937) is rightly regarded as the one great poetic masterpiece of the First World War. Written by a man who served in the 1916 campaign on the Somme, in a London-Welsh division raised on the orders of Lloyd George, the text - part poetry, part prose - is an act of remembrance, recalling the suffering and sacrifice of those Londoners and Welshmen with whom Jones fought; but it is also an act of memory, the events of the Somme seen against the background of other wars and others campaigns. The title of each section is taken from the short and brilliantly detailed medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin, sung by the poet Aneirin, survivor of the arrogant march of an over-confident army of the original Britons of these islands who meet catastrophic defeat at Cattrick at the hands of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Jones' text, celebrating those who fought and died in the First World War, becomes at the same time a critique of the arrogant, over-confident and careless leaders who led them to their deaths. On the first day of the Somme campaign, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed as they followed orders to walk in slow extended file towards the German trenches. It was the first day in action of Lord Kitchener's New Army under the command of General Douglas Haig. Butcher Haig was the title by which he came subsequently to be known, his alleged comment in 1917 on the huge losses on one day at Passchendaele - 'only servants and gamekeepers' - signifying for generations the contemptuous habit of mind of those in the British military and political elite who sent millions of eminently disposable men to certain death and injury on the western front.
Recent British military historians have done what they can to rescue Haig's reputation: the Battle of the Somme, we are told, was a learning-curve and British strategy (rather than American troops or German collapse) eventually won the war; but a military victory can still be a human and moral disaster. In the First World War, 'something very decent was torn out of the heart of English society,' Geoffrey Hill said in an interview in 1988. 'English learning was torn out, English moral consciousness, a great deal, was torn out.' Anger, he continued, 'flares up from time to time when one considers some of the social evils, the cruelty, the injustice…of our time, and one thinks, was it for this they died?' No wonder Ted Hughes referred to the First World War as our 'national ghost'.
The Final Restraint Room
The problem of the over-production of verse in England - Ireland, Scotland and Wales are undertaking their own urgent investigations - is now regarded as so serious by officialdom that four local authorities are rolling out a scheme that is likely to take effect almost immediately, budget cuts notwithstanding. In Oswestry, Stretford, Dewsbury and Marlow, existing facilities within various de-commissioned care homes for the elderly are being used to pilot a scheme which will involve, we understand, various simple and easily regulated forms of incarceration and re-education. Here, in little, is what will happen. (All this information comes courtesy of the private security company that put in the best overall bid to undertake the work, having first taken into consideration three criteria: cheapness, effectiveness and compassion - CEC for short.)
There are in all these homes facilities that have always been popularly known as Final Restraint Rooms. These are rooms that have no tangible features whatsoever other than the fact that they are room-shaped, triangular boxes. The walls are are of no particular colour to set the mind or the heart racing - a greasily funereal dun of sorts, gradually edging off to grey - and they are without texture. Ditto the floors and ceilings. There are no furnishings of any kind, no desks at which to sit and dream, no windows opening out onto vistas that positively thirst to be described. The rooms are lit, but extremely dimly. When the poet arrives, he is rapidly introduced by a small posse of gentle minders to the onesie that he will wear for the duration of his stay. The arms conclude in sealed mitts so that no implement of any kind - a pen, a pencil or any kind of manual recording device, for example - can be held in the hand. The intention is to render the fingers unusable. Nothing must be written down, not even scraps or the merest dregs of the beginnings, of a stanza. Needless to say, there will be no paper in the room either. There must be no mark-making of any kind whatsoever because small marks quickly squirm their way into the shapes of letters, which then join hands to produce words, and in no time at all, there is an entire elegy writhing and bawling around, yearning to be read out loud, printed and even published. But what of the mouth? I hear you ask. Does poetry not issue from the mouth? Is not the mouth the orifice of choice for any poet who aspires to greatness? Merciffuly, a state-of-the-art mouth plug has been developed by Poetical Systemics, CI, which inflates as the mouth broadens and widens to accommodate the sheer sonic amplitude of, say, the alexandrine or the fourteener.
And what of the brain? How does one stifle the insatiable urge to versify inwardly at all hours of the day or night? (You may remember that in Soviet times over-productive poets committed their verse to memory.) How is this problem to be overcome? If sedation (light or heavy?) is to be the answer, what kind works fastest and lasts longest? Any feedback from readers would be most welcome. There is a long way to go yet.
A Letter from the Editor
I personally have never trusted dogs. I have a finger in a desk drawer to prove it. But when the blue dog was interred in Drumcliff Churchyard last November, in the long, gloom-struck shadow of the tomb of the blessed William Butler Yeats, I had no reason to suppose that his death-bed assurances were not veracious.
Yes, I had told him, we would be true to the conditions of the will, which included a strict demand that there would be no further issues of The Bow-Wow Shop. How could a magazine of that very particular kind continue without its editor? Imagine my amazement then when an old drinking-bowl companion of the cur in question slipped out just the other week that the will had never been witnessed. It was utterly invalid. We could do what we liked.
It is for this reason that The Bow-Wow Shop rises from its own ashes, with a small and relatively care-free bound. I use that word relatively with some care. Every magazine, large, medium or small, demands care, and the dog - why mince my words in what is proving to be quite a jolly aftermath? - was a taskmaster amongst taskmasters. Now things will run a little more easily. That nonsense about publishing individual numbered issues as if this were a print magazine leaning pantingly, all letters bared, from the upper shelf of the news-stand has been done away with. From now on, there will be just the one Bow-Wow Shop, and we will add to it incrementally, as the stories and poems flow or fly in, sometimes slowly, at other times - we can only guess - at a faster pace. It will be a repository of rolling news, views and commentary about the ever richly farcical and deeply serious world of contemporary poetry, and it will also contain what the old Bow-Wow Shop contained - poems, features, interviews and reviews.
And the blue dog is still our mascot. Can you not see how he hovers at the top of this page, mock-menacingly? Let us salute him. Let us not readily forget him, toothless or not.
A Rant by John Hartley Williams
21 June 2013
The critic and her audience
Facebook is not my cup of tea, but I go there occasionally as I have friends (and I do mean friends, not 'friends') who prefer to communicate that way. I came across an interesting comment from a poet who had read to a student audience at a university, shall we say, somewhere in Britain? It read as follows:
Click here, if you want to read the worst review I have ever received. In fact the whole evening was dreadful: 'As the evening unravelled it quickly transpired that the general standard was poorer than expected - as English students we were disappointed with the intellectual and academic standard of the entertainment.' Cheers guys - we love you too!
Invited to click here, I did so, and read the following: 'After the interval, the quality of the poetry rapidly deteriorated. We first were subjected to the work of (our protesting poet, who shall be nameless). That she was a visual artist was apparent from the very first 'stanza' of her first poem. The ideas were fragmented, ill-informed and lacked coherence, leaving the audience unguided through a range of themes and motifs with no evident subject matter to uphold the work. She revealed that her poetry was a reflection of her subconscious; this was clear, but despite the fact that it all seemed sincere, true and as though spoken from the heart, her use of language was insufficient in communicating any message. In addition, the language was bereft; inadequate in every sense. It was impossible to engage with and provided little pleasure.'
There were various things about this which interested me. First was the compulsion the poet obviously felt to lay out these criticisms before a wider audience. Had she not done this the comments would have remained within the parish served by the university paper they appeared in. The poet's rather desperate sign off: 'Cheers guy, we love you too!' made it apparent to me that she, at any rate, as a practitioner of poetry, would consider herself to belong to a mutually supportive band of sisters (and brothers) for whom the intrusion of a critical voice would constitute a schism. It is largely true that there is no such thing as criticism of poetry today; there is only the gossip of those who write it, a great deal of private opinionating, and very occasionally a review in a national newspaper or magazine of a recent publication by either a friend of the poet or of the publishing house. We have no critics of stature - people who grasp that there is a tradition in which poetry unfolds, people who have spent their lives thinking about poetry, reading it, coming to possible conclusions about its life in the unpropitious environment of a digitalised world. But the student critic of the poetry performance (a woman) seems to me to have written a perfectly clear exposition of its faults. There was no 'evident subject matter to uphold the work'. 'All seemed sincere' but 'the language was bereft' and 'insufficient in communicating any message'.
What does the critic mean by 'no evident subject matter'? This is something the criticised poet might have done well to consider. Wordworth remarked that "It is the honourable characteristic of poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind." That is true. But the matter of a poem finds its realisation through the hieratic force of the language which grapples with it. The human mind is also capable of infinite gossip and gossip is not poetry. I am not saying that the subject of a poem needs to be grand; it might be a war, it might be a cup of tea, but the language in which the subject is expressed must rise to the specificity of its occasion.
Perhaps even more interesting than the cri de coeur of the poet reporting her distress at these indictments of her work were the reactions of facebook 'friends'. Here is one: 'Personally I think writers ought never to respond publicly to inept critics - it only encourages them, and lends them an importance they don't deserve - unless we can be sure of making them look foolish.' This 'friend', who does not appear to have been at the performance, uses two key phrases: 'inept critics' and 'lends them an importance they don't deserve'. But there is nothing 'inept' about the language of the critique; it is clear and concise. What a critic says is, as always, a matter of opinion, but if those opinions are expressed in a logical and considered manner they should at least be given the benefit of the doubt. The second phrase throws into question the entire validity of criticism as a practice by suggesting that those who write it are somehow engaged on a project of personal self-aggrandisement. But without balanced and well-supported criticism, how else is the stream of literature to run clear? As for the phrase 'making them look foolish', the 'friend' then recounts, vindictively, how she revenged herself on a critic who had made a factual error in his criticism of her work, and how the error enabled her to write to the TLS and point out the mistake: 'I really enjoyed writing that letter and was careful to keep it polite so it got printed.'
This reduces the whole matter of a public engagement with art to a dismal level of puerility. A factual error is a factual error and does not diminish - or should not - the force of a piece of writing. If the writing itself is slack or misses its target, that of course is another matter.
Another 'friend' writes: 'I presume someone angered the reviewer. I presume that person was you. (ie the criticised poet). Did you not flatter the fledgeling (sic) ego enough? Whatever you did, this piece reads like revenge. Or maybe jealousy?' And yet another 'friend' records: 'Just read the review to X who says "what an arrogant little bitch, who the hell does she think she is?"'
There's a bit of the witch's coven about all this, and perhaps we should dismiss it as silly, which it is, but it does illustrate the extent to which social media turns everything into gossip, trivial knee-jerk reactions, theatrical 'luvviness', and a fundamental arrogance which it pretends is the stock-in-trade of the critical opposition. This exchange is between poets who have published their work with small presses. What are we to make of what it reveals of the poets' motivations and preoccupations? Do we no longer have an environment in which poetry can be critically appraised? No one in this exchange thought to reflect on what the critic had said, not a single doubt was expressed. But what is subject matter? How important is it? What use is a poet without a subject? And what would a language be like that is NOT bereft, NOT inadequate to communicate any message? What kind of poetic language do we want, those of us who feel a readerly need to engage with writing that will give us pleasure?