Monday, December 17, 2007

The Man in Black

This new volume of poetry from David Caddy, editor of the excellent 'Tears in the Fence' dropped on my doormat last week,and very welcome it was too. In his review of Kelvin Corcoran, Kris Hemesley sees that poet as working on a project to define Englishness. Caddy could be seen as engaged in a similar project, and within the same radical and dissenting tradition; his journal "So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England", is fascinating contribution to that project. Poet of rural South-West England with echoes of Bunting and the MacSweeney of 'Ranter', Caddy enlists to the cause, among others, Coleridge, Johnny Cash and Lady Jane Davy. There's a search for a sense of identity:

Look, we lost ourselves and choices
some time ago, when the land
was untied, overfed, resold
and the local animals were driven away.

Caddy looks to the people forgotten by globalised urban society, like the Quakers who found common cause with poachers and the rural poor, or people who 'have the thumb, can work the hopper, mesher/...have steel to fill these tenant boots'. In some ways, this poetry reminds me of Geoffrey Hill, though Caddy has more sympathy with ordinary people, and the language seems influenced by Basil Bunting in places:

Wide Scatter of bull, clenched
rewinced, disputes the human frame

The book is nicely produced by Penned in the Margins (saddle stitched and good quality paper). I've been reading a lot of New York and Californian poetry recently, and this book is a reminder of a home-grown tradition, both of poetry and of radical politics.

Details: Paperback: 48 pages, (Penned in the Margins, 1 Nov 2007). ISBN-10: 095538463X ISBN-13: 978-0955384639. Price: 8.99


John B-R said...

So: when you have a moment to breathe: what's Englishness? And/Or, what's Englishness these days?

penned in the margins said...

delighted you enjoyed the book alan. i know david is delighted with your eloquent comments.

john, i wouldn't want to broach this topic too much, but merely to say that i think david caddy's work (and possibly the work of other english poets) represent a specifically localised version of englishness. ie. a cultural identity not conditional on any central national authority, but on local, regional traditions and lived experiences.

John B-R said...

So, "Englishness", to paraphrase a Chinese poem (of which more later if you are interested), is something like

That is to say, only after more of the local
can there be more of the fucking world


I guess my question is "why???" Not, "why root poetry in 'local, regional traditions and lived experiences'", that makes perfect sense to me, and is a totally understandable artistic strategy, but rather "why cultural identity?".

I'm not English, so I don't understand the desire for a cultural identity. As a USA American, a cultural identity is something I certainly want to shake off and transcend, "so there can be more of the fucking world", not something I want to embrace.

Please don't read "I don't understand" as anything more or other than "I don't understand."

penned in the margins said...

'as a USA American, a cultural identity is something I certainly want to shake off and transcend'

isn't that something of a contradiction in terms?

beyond pedantry, i agree with you that cultural identity (which may or may not include ethnicity, religion, geography, tradition, class etc etc) is something *ultimately* to transcend. i also think that cultural identity is moving away from more easily definable terms such as race and religion and towards more complex groupings. the internet, with its vast array of virtual 'communities' is a main driver of this diffusion of identity. i know, for instance (and rather presumptively talking for him again), that david caddy regards his work as active within both a local (south-west england) and international context. echoes of global-local, international situationism et al.

interested to know how you aim to transcend cultural identity, why you find it uncomfortable or undesirable etc. cheers!

Alan Baker said...

Hi Tom (it is Tom, isn't it?) and hi John.

Very dodgy subject this. One has to be careful. One could ask, don't Geordies and lowland Scots have cultural and historical commonalities that run back to ancient Northumbria? Don't the people of South Wales have more in common with those of South Yorkshire than with Welsh-speaking rural Wales? Does a second-generation Pakistani immigrant share a common Englishness with a St.Albans bell-ringer? So Englishness is hard to define. Of course English is the common language... but it's also the language of Scotland, wales and Ireland. I think that writers like Caddy and Corcoran both talk about England as opposed to Britain because the latter is hopelessly linked to Empire. They also attempt to keep alive the radical tradition - dissenters, ranters, levellers - and republicanism, and link this to (as you mentioned Tom) a local sense of community. So Englishness, to them, might be this radical, 'alternative' culture and the people who engage in it at a local level within that particular part of the British Isles.


John B-R said...

How do I hope to transcend my culture? A contradiction as you note. But considering that my culture is insular imperial and ignorant besides ... what else could I want to do BESIDES move into a more cosmopolitan way of being? Possible? I dunno. perhaps just a vain wish. I am clearly a southern Californian ... I'm happy to be part of a community. Just not the current US American one. Alan, you write: "They also attempt to keep alive the radical tradition - dissenters, ranters, levellers - and republicanism, and link this to (as you mentioned Tom) a local sense of community." If one adds Wobblies, Emma Goldman/A Berkman, etc and all the 60s-70s ferment to the list, well, that's a community/culture I'd cut off an arm to be eligible for. I guess what I was and now am really trying to say is, I don't want to be any more provincial than I have to be, especially when the USA is such a slimy province at the moment.

areopagitica said...

I'm afraid this isn't a response to your post, but on a different matter.

Would you be prepared, as a poet, to do anything to take up the case of Yusuf Juma. See

Support from poets would be appreciated so anything you could do to pass on information about Yusuf Juma's case might help.

I hope you had a good Christmas.

collectedworks said...

Thanks Alan for the discussion tho' it simultaneously attracts & enervates me! I feel obliged to participate given that it was apparently triggered by your approving reference to my thoughts regarding K Corcoran's defining Englishness (on etc Well, re- PITM's remark that one's not talking abt cultural identity "conditional on any central national authority, but on local..." : yes, of course. I guess one assumes so much... I realize I talk out of an eternal conversation, especially with myself; we have to get on the same page...but part of the adventure of meeting & exchanging is the diversity of origins... Anyway... JB-R's dramatic recoil before "cultural reference" obviously expresses his (citizen) disaffection with government & society much as I probably felt when a teen & twenty in England & Australia in the 60s & 70s. I understand JB-R's emotions, therefore, but can't agree with the implication of his final flourish re- America as "slimy province" & his need to transcend it etc...
I think that existentially one doesnt have the luxury of disposing of cultural identity &/or legacy so glibly. I dont think one can be culturally defined in some respects & not others; that is to say, I dont think the defining complex is so neatly divisible... there is a kind of warts-&-all about it, to deal with which one requires a heap of humour I'm sure! (I've been writing about this recently in a take on John Mateer's collection of poems from Zero Press, Johannesburg, Southern Barbarians... entailing thinking through the post-colonialism project...)I'm reminded of my late son Tim, then in his early 20s, challenging me that, as Melbourne raised & formed despite his US & English music & literary references, he didnt have the luxury of saying, as I seemed to be, that tho' I lived here (in Australia) I didnt feel defined by the place (that is, its dominant discussion, its typical references), that I could claim to commute between Australia & Europe, Melbourne & Dorset (England) and participate in different discourses & cultures. (And this also recalls conversation with English poet John Hall back in 1970 in Southampton,Hants., when he responded very strongly to my "but I only live here" quip about Southampton, that it was a dangerous attitude, psychologically, ethically, politically... Yes, and I've thought about that over the years, believe me!) Being constrained, economically, Tim could rage about Australia but not travel anywhere else. Perhaps it's as simple as that : the level of equanimity can be measured against the level of mobility. And is it the perception of intellectual cramping more than physical constraint that's most galling? Naturally, at the point of injury the physical & intellectual imposts probably conflate.
Re- dissent : I think that to dissent is one thing but its application & efficacy differs according to whether egotism or compassion, rage or love informs it... The biggest change I cant help but note in myself since the 60s, say, is the acquisition of humility, that is to say perspective, humour --as much an echo of the realism taught to Arjuna by Krishna in that wonderful passage in the Bhagavad Gita as anything found in Jesus' or the Buddha's message, but all caught up from where we are now as 21st century Westerners and serious & sincere about every bit of the this & that we're melding into our ethics, politics, philosophy in global & multicultural society. Now this isnt about peace & love, pacifism vs militarism, anarchism vs the rest --it's the attitude with which one encounters the world. I call it humility-before- the-fact. The most profound fact in the world of ideas is contradiction and humility implies acceptance of contradiction. For example, global & multicultural society juxtaposed with the local... Recall Hugh MacDiarmid who when asked how his communism was compatible with his (Scottish) nationalism replied, "you've got to have some nationalism to be inter with! "...
Now of course we're talking here about cultural reference but indulge me to stray slightly... Christmas Day in Melbourne, around the table with friends, I described the discussion on Alan Baker's blog to which I'd become attached... And the poet & now historian, Robert Kenny (see his The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, Scribe Books, Melbourne, 2007), said that from my precis he sympathized with J B-R's attitude! So i described my take on the local... the quality of an English West-country lane, for example, & its unique affect upon me. The way such a feature descriubes space, thus one's negotiationor expression of that feature in & as art, poetry, politics, whatever; --the way, I said, I could sometimes almost touch both sides of a lane, spanning the width, is also an encapsulation of Englishness for me, English & not Australian! And it is a related issue that the same circumstance could be found elsewhere in the world where topography & climate &, of course, disposition, imagination, so combine --which doesnt, to my mind, disqualify the langauge (or discourse) of specific characterization; if anything it proliferates the original reference : the resonance amplifies the local : particularity is substantiated & not dissolved! (When the late Australian poet John Anderson persuaded me to look for the Dorset coastline on Victoria's South-West twenty-odd years ago, he had in mind a walker's access to the apposition of sea, cliff & greenery... But I also found semblance within the Port Campbell National Park, where I was rambling with Cathy O'Brien,of gully, glade, brook, replete with mud & shade's expression as ditch-like dank in the heart of cliff-top bushland : a few seconds descent into Englishness, Alice-like, qualitatively different to simpoly tracking a trickle to its physical welling!)
New Year Greetings to you all! Kris Hemensley

John B-R said...

Dear Kris, of course you are right when you say that "existentially one doesnt have the luxury of disposing of cultural identity &/or legacy so glibly" as I'd like to. I know that, hence my whining. Note: I whine instead of whinge ... pretty USA American, eh? I'm glad, tho, to learn that Robert Kenny sympathizes with me. The problem, my problem, is not a lack of humility, I think (tho if we ever meet I'll let you be the judge of that!); it's just anger at my country, vis-a-vis what it's become ... (what it always was, maybe, but writ so LARGE right now ...). You reference your 60s-70s self, as if that self has entirely died. Not knowing you, I neverless venture the guess that, if you lived here, 7 years into the Bush regime's terror war against the world, that self would again rise. Honestly, that's what all my jabber here is about. I'm angry, I don't WANT the karma, tho here it comes, rolling straight at me, all mine ...

Alan Baker said...

Hi Kris

Nice to hear from you and Happy New Year to you. I enjoyed your eloquent post, especially the bit about humility as the way to accept contradiction. Yes, I suppose trying to resolve contradiction often seems a way of trying to impose a dogmatic truth.

As for as national identity goes, it seems a good idea to me to maintain a sense of shared humanity and to identify with that as a balance to identifying with a country/tribal group. But... we are all the product of a place and culture, and of course its history, whether we reject it or embrace it, or (as in most cases) do a bit of both. I've always been scornful of Scottish and Welsh nationalists, at least the political parties that claim to represent them - nationalism is a political force, usually an ugly one - but loving a country and its people and feeling part of it seems perfectly reasonable. I love English beer (the best in the world), The Northumberland coastline and the way English people apologize to you if you step on their toes. There are plenty things I dislike about the place, and some of them are things I dislike about myself. But let's not go into them... As for English poetry - maybe it's best to think of English language poetry with regional variations.

As you pointed out Kris, leaving one country to live in another makes you more aware of feelings of belonging, and I guess, free you to appraciate national characteristics which previously you might have felt hemmed in by. As I've always lived in England, my sense of English identity is largely unconscious - I certainly don't think about it much or agonize over it. But other people identify me as English/British and how other's see us is as important as how we see ourselves.


collectedworks said...

I smile with John at his American / Australian, "whine" / "whinge" distinction... My admittedly older editions of the Concise Oxford & the New Websters only record "whine" but maybe Neighbours & other Aussie t.v. soaps have now influenced the major dictionaries! "Whinge" is often used in Australia as meaning having a bit of a moan or grizzle; it's something one might even volunteer of oneself. The "whinger", tho, is the persistent complainer, the condition Australian prejudice attributes to the English en masse! But whine is a certain kind of whinge I think, and in my mind has something of the mealy-mouthed about it --which isnt how I interpreted John's commentary. This reference to Australia almost has me describing at length the recent event here which many people regard as epochal (it's slap bang in the middle of the cultural identity discussion) but it's a huge & complicated subject in itself so I might just give brief summary... The other day the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, issued an apology on behalf of the parliament to what's called "the stolen generations", that is the victims of that aspect of successive Australian administrations' assimilation policy whereby Aboriginal children were separated from their families causing widespread trauma to already wounded communities. Eleven years ago the Wilson Report recommended that the government of the day issue an official apology as part of the reconciliation process, however John Howard declined to "say sorry", preferring "practical reconciliation" over, in his view, legally fraught rhetoric & empty symbolism. Now, my purpose isnt to critique this tragic history; what affected me last week was the euphoria of supporters of the apology and most mainstream commentators upon it... I didnt quite understand why a belated apology, eleven years on, should precipitate such feeling. And it occurred to me that perhaps the anxiety I'd always felt about the kind of Australian I was supposed to be was perhaps more generally experienced, because the euphoria was like that which a formal treaty might excite and assuredly Kevin Rudd's "sorry" wasnt a treaty... I'm not talking about the indigenous but the non-indigenous response here... The reason why I could never follow poet John Kinsella's usage "the landmass known as Australia" rather than "Australia" or other poets Peter Minter & Kate Fagan's reference to "the genocidal landscape", notwithstanding my own anxieties about living here as though I ethically belonged, is because I have never believed for a moment that any of them,or any of the subscribers to "stolen land" & "illegal occupation" rhetoric & politics,were ever about to voluntarily leave their houses & histories and return the country to the "traditional owners". And, over the years, when many of these folk pointed the finger at other countries apparently also founded upon the dispossession of original inhabitants without the slightest blush about the similarity to the Australian situation, my antagonism to their unconscious hypocrisy strengthened. Not that it relieved the anxiety. If it were possible that the prime minister's apology and its acceptance by an overwhelming number of indigenous leaders is actually going to create a new ethical foundation for "Australia" then I would share the euphoria... Until then I'll quietly deal with my continuing uncertainties...
I must confess to John that I maintain a paradoxical or apparently contradictory politics --and its evolution is described in discussion of Dale Pendell's Inspired Madness in Bernard Hemensley & my Dharma Bums correspondence on the Poetry & Ideas blog --for despite a continuing responsiveness to libertarianism I have significantly departed from the leftwing politics of my youth. So John, it's a yes & a no regarding the demise of the 60s 70s Kris Hemensley...
The persisting question for the poet is : what has any of this to do with the life of the poem, with the life that the poem is --not its social historical context but its unique shape & sound, its poemness? Even in the '70s I was wont to ask of that "political" imperative, what are the political implications or possibilities of the poem rather than what is the poem of this or that politics? What does the poet make of it (emphasis on the making) rather than subject's or message's a priori determination?
Alan's suggestion to me that the ex-pat is "more aware of feelings of belonging" etc than the native is interesting... Addressing this issue in a poem in 1993 (Nostalgia / Paul Nash / Dream, published in '96 in Arena, a leftwing mag as it happens, whose poetry editor was the Catholic & Derridean poet & philosopher Kevin Hart!) I offered : "Nostalgia's devoted pilgrim / renovates solipsism in the vow to live the Dream." Further : "that nothing is what it seems / isnt the only caveat here / Nostaligia is recovery not the small beer / of wistfulness & the broad-in-the-beam / dreamer in the corner isnt the solipsist / i prize i have in mind the witness / to God's wink one who's wise to the look / in which all is disclosed who reels / at the lucidity of the unexplainable fact" & etc
Although I've lived in Australia on & off for 42 years & became a citizen in the late '80s, I consider myself English (albeit with an Alexandrian mother!), living in Melbourne or visiting Australia rather than "Australian". I am a Melbournian though, and thus a player on the Australian poetry scene. I'd love to know if anyone's written about other ex-pats' self-definitions --what kind of an American was Auden or Isherwood or Thom Gunn or Nat Tarn or Denise Levertov come to that? What kind of English was R B Kitaj or David Miller or, being cheeky, Jonathon Williams? Perhaps the situations of Heaney, Muldoon, Delanty & co, Irish in the USA, is closer to the home from home I find, at best, either side of my"commuting"? In England I regard myself as south-west or West Country, Hampshire & Dorset within the magical aegis of Devon, Somerset, Cornwall! But, in another of my 90s poems, my maternal Egyptian grandfather, Abdullah Alexander Tawa (& what cultural legacy does that name suggest?), asks me "but when will you come home?" And all my selves here reply : but where?!
Best wishes, Kris

John B-R said...

Kris, I appreciate that you aren't the 60s 70s KH and only meant/mean to suggest that life under Bush etc is enough to push anyone back into a concern w/politics as such. After attending my 40th high school reunion this past weekend I certainly HOPE you're not the same person, as way too many of my classmates displayed too much similarity to their old selves for my comfort. I understand the psychosocial factors that may have impelled a regress on their part, but nevertheless ... In any case, if we haven't grown and changed, we can't really be poets ... speaking of which, you write: "The persisting question for the poet is : what has any of this to do with the life of the poem, with the life that the poem is --not its social historical context but its unique shape & sound, its poemness?" I would say that formulation aestheticizes a little too much for me; I'd put it (which does NOT mean that you should put it) thus: "The persisting question for the poet is : what has any of this to do with the life of the poem, with the life that the poem is --its social historical context, i.e. its situatedness, AND its unique shape & sound, its poemness?" Which is a way of saying that the social life of the poem is as much a part of it as its more "formal" qualities. For me a poem doesn't fully exist til it's shared - thus out there, in the world. Thank you for sharing your relation to Rudd's recent "sorry" and the subsequent reaction. What you call your ambivalence is what you called me on earlier. I tend to overstate. When I experience ambivalence, I tend to whinge? "Get me outa here! I'm a stranger in this world! I can't be one of THEM?!?!?!?!?" Cheers, John

Alan Baker said...

Hey, this is like the old days of the british-poets list! Thanks Kris for an insider's take on the Rudd apology, which was big news on mainstream TV over here. But your judgement on the apology's non-indigenous supporters seems harsh. Non-indigenous Australians are born and raised in a country - they have no choice about that - which is a social and cultural reality, and, I agree, more than 'the landmass named Australia', but they somehow need to acknowledge, and maybe try to rememdy, past injustices. This is the dilemma of 'colonial' peoples everywhere. They can't just walk away from the colonised land - it's their land too. That's the problem - from Israel to Northern Ireland to Australia. Equally, I enjoy the lifestyle I do arguably at the expense of the world's poor, or maybe some of Britain's poor. I criticise the system that causes this, but don't really do too much about it, at least nothing that involves sacrificing my westerm comforts. I guess that makes me a hypocrite. It's hard not to be a hypocrite in a world of such inter-related injustices.

collectedworks said...

Yes, that's right! The problem is exactly as Alan describes...the situation's not such that one can ever get up & leave (tho' the dire need for "exodus" has always been with us)...but for contemporary migrants, yes, it's rarely a voluntary option... So it is that one's politics should be qualified by that fact (people in glass houses)... And John's "situatedness" is right (suggestive, interesting) too... How the poem sits in a place (a particular discourse) or how it opposes it (often the case) or how it ameliorates or hybridizes it...yep... Best wishes, Kris 9/3/08