Making space, taking space

Parking

The round trip to the baker—one of the bakers—takes around an hour. I walk on the long back road, on the shaded side if the weather’s warm. The black and green boxes are out on the pavement, which triggers an odd memory. In 2011 there was a referendum on the alternative vote, following what one commentator termed a ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’.[1] The vote went not as I’d hoped but more or less as I’d expected. At some point, walking along a pavement crowded with recycling boxes and looking at the state of them, I remember thinking that, if so many people had such problems sorting out their rubbish, they were not that likely to explore the intricacies of competing voting systems.

Skip forward five years and you might say that the phrase ‘bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate’ was still serviceable, though barely. Skip forward two more and I’m edging my way through parts of the city, thinking of the word ‘space’, ‘the final frontier’ as the first speech of every episode of Star Trek had it, recalling too how Charles Olson begins Part One of Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.’[2]

By way of contrast, space is mercilessly shrinking here as local government, starved of funding and agency, falls and fails. Private intrusion into public spaces; not only roads but pavements too now given over to cars, which block pedestrian pathways; neglected bushes and hedges jutting out onto pavements already littered with bins and boxes. No room for an Olson.

PNR

Opening the latest issue of PN Review, I see a review by Ian Brinton—reviews editor of Tears in the Fence (https://tearsinthefence.com/blog/ )—of Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door and Brinton begins by quoting precisely those words from Call Me Ishmael: ‘I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America . . .’ They are, he writes, ‘central to an understanding of the wide-ranging poetry written by Chris Torrance, British poet who was born in Edinburgh, raised in Surrey and who moved to an isolated cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales nearly fifty years ago’. The names cited in the course of his review include Iain Sinclair, Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Barry MacSweeney, and Brinton closes by quoting a letter from Torrance, who recalls how he ‘grabbed onto Olson mid-60s’ and concludes: ‘I’ve kept at Olson ever since. I love to take the big books outside in the summer, read those wide poems out in the open where they belong.’[3]

torrance_citrinas1

I’d quite lost track of Torrance yet, without moving from my desk, I can just reach a tall, slim volume, Citrinas, published in an edition of 300, ‘of which 15 are casebound and contain additional holograph material.’ In fact, I see it’s signed, with a personal inscription – though not to me.

the birds are lost, out of sight
though the food goes, mysteriously,
invisibly, except when the imperious jay,
flashing electric blue & snowy white,
with immense black mustachios
over his olive-smoked sheath
picks up crushed oats[4]

Remembered impressions I have are of landscape, place, the natural world, the mystery of things, prompting the thought of Pound writing—in an essay first published in Quest, edited by G. R. S. Mead, leading Theosophist and founder of the Quest Society—‘We have about us the universe of fluid force, and below us the germinal universe of wood alive, of stone alive.’[5]

In fact I have a little more Torrance in-house, a dozen pages in the anthology edited by Iain Sinclair:

straight from sleep
to chase sheep from the garden
a bloody, dead blackbird on the doormat
’mid thousands of feathers & catspew
the world jumps
from this to that
to break the ennui
of my own tense control
all goes into the melting pot of acid
over the hill kicking a dead lambskin
what to do with all this energy, lambent, unreconciled
an atmosphere almost of terror
the planet helpless with mirth
gold coins rolling in the streets
the skylark’s interminable raga
borne aloft on shivering wings[6]

These are early poems, several dated 1970-1971, at the beginning of the poet’s time in Wales. When this anthology appeared (1996), five books of The Magic Door had appeared. The recently published volume that Brinton is reviewing apparently represents eight books in all, reaching back over forty years.

A launch event for The Magic Door is announced on the Test Centre website: Wednesday 4 October, 7 pm, Swedenborg House, where Torrance will be joined by Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher. The author’s afterword to this edition, quoted on the website, includes the statement that, ‘With this collected volume, I am only halfway through.’

A life’s work, then. At least. . .

See: (https://testcentre.org.uk/magic-door/ )

 

 

References

[1] Iain McLean, ‘“England Does Not Love Coalitions”: The Most Misused Political Quotation in the Book’, Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics, 47, 1 (2012), 10.

[2] Call Me Ishmael, in Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 17. As in Moby Dick itself, this ‘beginning’ is preceded by a prologue, here ‘First Fact’.

[3] Ian Brinton. ‘Reading in the Open Air’, PN Review 243 (September-October 2018), 78, 79.

[4] Chris Torrance, Citrinas: The Magic Door, Book II (London: Albion Village Press, 1977), unpaginated: this is ‘Retreat’, from the book’s first section.

[5] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (1910; New York: New Directions, 1968), 92. The essay, ‘Psychology and Troubadours’ became Chapter V of this book.

[6] Chris Torrance, ‘Straight from Sleep’, in Iain Sinclair, editor, Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology (London: Picador, 1996), 453.

 

The Heights of Poetry

Haydon-WW-Helvellyn
(Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, © National Portrait Gallery, London)

‘Great writers in our time have tended to be tall,’ the six-feet-four Hugh Kenner remarks in the context of his first meeting with the five-feet-ten Ezra Pound. ‘T. S. Eliot, five-eleven-and-a-half—a figure I obtained after bumping my head on his six-foot office door. W. B. Yeats and James Joyce, each five-eleven; Sam Beckett, six-two. Save for psychic height, the physical Pound was a midget among giants.’[1]

Such considerations have cropped up before. I find—dear, dear, the Internet again—that Havelock Ellis, physician, sexologist, eugenicist, in an 1897 article, ‘Genius and Stature’, and his 1904 book, A Study of English Genius, asserted that men of genius—sorry, women, not this time—tended to be either shorter than average or, more frequently, taller than average. Those of average height scored markedly less well and the findings were complicated by the social class of the subjects (the poorer classes, unsurprisingly, tended to be physically smaller). In 1885, a certain Henry Troutbeck claimed to have examined Chaucer’s remains during the preparations for Robert Browning’s burial: he was five feet six inches (not bad for the fourteenth century, surely). Alas, further investigation showed that Browning’s grave was far enough away from Chaucer’s to to make this a bit implausible; then, too, it seems that, in any case, ‘the location of Chaucer’s bones remains somewhat doubtful.’[2]

Certainly, poets come in all sizes. Measuring them precisely is a tricky business, though Benjamin Haydon, when beginning his portrait of Wordsworth on Helvellyn, surveyed the poet in detail and found him to be exactly 5 feet 9⅞ inches tall. (He also did a drawing of him ‘with and without his false teeth.’)[3] Alexander Pope, apparently, came in at four feet six inches, while Edith Sitwell measured around six feet—or five feet eleven inches, by official reckoning.[4] On 20 October 1915, Wilfred Owen underwent his second medical examination at the Artists’ Rifles headquarters. A year earlier, his height of five feet five inches would have disqualified him but the standard had been lowered since then. He officially entered the British Army the following day.[5] Keats was around five feet and one inch—‘around’? Timothy Hilton has him at 5’ 0¾” , as does Robert Gittings, while Andrew Motion has ‘five feet and a fraction of an inch’—but what fraction?[6] And Keats was how much shorter than Charles Olson?

charles_olson_writing_at_black_mountain_college
(Charles Olson writing at Black Mountian College)

Olson (born 27 December 1910) was roughly six foot eight or nine, Robert Creeley wrote; or six feet seven inches, as some say; twenty-one inches taller than Keats, Guy Davenport remarks (‘in his stocking feet taller by half again than Alexander the Great’), which would make him six feet ten inches.[7] Damned tall, anyway, large, everything about him large, the ambition, the format of the volumes of Maximus poems from Cape Goliard, vocabulary, geographical and historical reach.

Sometimes he’s absurdly overpitched, sometimes opaque, sometimes just crazy, sometimes inspired, sometimes visionary. Sometimes he’s just on the money.

Try:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings
(the canals, the pits, the mountings by which space
declares herself, arched, as she is, the sister,
awkward stars drawn for teats to pleasure him, the brother
who lies in stasis under her, at ease as any monarch or
a happy man[8]

or

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

or

I am not at all aware
that anything more than that
is called for. Limits
are what any of us
are inside of

or, ah:

The upshot is
(and this the books did not tell us) the race
does not advance, it is only
better preserved[9]

George Butterick, the Olson scholar who edited the Collected Poems (nearly 650 pages of non-Maximus poems) and The Maximus Poems for the University of California Press, cites in this connection Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’: ‘Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes [… ] but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken.’[10]

T. S. Eliot, along similar—though not the same—lines wrote that the artist must ‘be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same’. And that the mind of Europe ‘is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.’[11]

On a more individual note, David Jones, putting on his wall in 1958 a drawing of a dancing bear he’d produced in 1903, at the age of seven, wrote to a friend: ‘“It’s much the best drawing I’ve ever done, which shows how, in the arts, there ain’t no such thing as getting better as you get older!”’ Again, in 1967, Jones wrote of this drawing, ‘there are few of my subsequent works which I prefer to that.’[12] The assertion held in a wider perspective in Jones’s case too. Though moved and impressed by books that he read by Teilhard de Chardin, he thought Teilhard’s ‘idea of evolution towards union with God naïve — like any belief in general progress. In art, for example, “Picasso is no improvement over Lascaux.”’[13]

Jones-dancing-bear
(David Jones, ‘The Bear’ (1903), via Apollo magazine)

Is that true? Individually, the issue is complicated by a general acceptance of the fact that advancing age must inevitably be accompanied by a loss of powers—but it’s a fact often confounded by extraordinary artistic performances from writers and painters in their seventies, eighties and even nineties: among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Tomlinson, Rose Macaulay, Sybille Bedford, W. B. Yeats, Titian, Thomas Hardy, Penelope Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, Louise Bourgeois, Ezra Pound—and David Jones himself.

And more generally? Those of us who grew up with the unexamined optimism common enough in those days, a version of the Whig interpretation of history (the inevitable and continuing advance of progress over the forces of reaction) have had rude awakenings enough in this new age of unreason. As for the arts—it’s a good, a constant question. In the essay already quoted, Eliot wrote: ‘Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did”. Precisely, and they are that which we know.’ That actually accounts for a large part of the confident assertion that painters, poets, novelists—and critics—are better or smarter or more profound than those in earlier periods: they are simply positioned later in history. Our own age knows a great deal that people in the early twentieth and nineteenth and eighteenth centuries didn’t know; but we’d be fools to think that those earlier ages didn’t know a great many other things that are completely lost to us now.

It has to be said, though, that, as a general rule, we’re taller than they were.

References

[1] Hugh Kenner, The Elsewhere Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 35.

[2] Thomas A. Prendergast, Chaucer’s Dead Body: From Corpse to Corpus (London: Routledge, 2003), 106, 108, 59.

[3] See Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Robin Clark 1992), 142-143.

[4] Pope mentioned in Hugh Kenner’s review of Maynard Mack’s Alexander Pope: A Life (1986), in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 253; ‘Sitwell’s passport recorded her height as five feet eleven but she was often reported as being well over six feet’: Rosemary Hill, ‘No False Modesty’, a review of Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet (London: Virago Press, 2011), in London Review of Books, 33, 20 (20 October 2011), 25.

[5] Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), 164.

[6] Timothy Hilton, Keats and his World (London: Thames & Hudson, 1971), 56; Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 135; Andrew Motion, Keats (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 36.

[7] Robert Creeley, ‘Introduction’ to Charles Olson, Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966), 1; Guy Davenport, ‘Olson’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80.

[8] Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155. The reference here is to the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut, arching over and around her earth-god brother and lover Geb (‘her starry belly was painted inside the sarcophagi of Egyptian kings’): Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 145.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 57, 21, 59.

[10] George Butterick, A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 86. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 279—I’ve quoted very slightly more than Butterick does.

[11] Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Selected Essays, third enlarged edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 16.

[12] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 11; David Jones, ‘A Note to the Illustrations’, Agenda, Vol. 5, Nos. 1-3, Special David Jones issue (Spring-Summer, 1967), 2.

[13] Dilworth, David Jones, 314.