Apocalypse: an anthology
Edited by James Keery.
IT’S NOT AN anthology of poems by the small number of poets who subscribed to a programme they called “The New Apocalypse” in the late 1930s-early 40s. It’s not an anthology of what got called “New Romantic” poetry of the 1940s-50s. It’s not an anthology of poets influenced by Dylan Thomas. It’s not an anthology of poets ignored by Donald Davie. In fact it’s not an anthology of poets at all, but strictly of poems with certain features.
It is actually quite difficult to say exactly what it is an anthology of. On the surface, it’s an anthology of British poems between the 1910s and the 1980s, with a strong emphasis on the 1930s to the 1950s, all bearing a certain manner, an effect, a substance, a species, a purpose… all of these, and others, becoming adjectivally the word “apocalyptic”. What constitutes this quality is varied in both matter and intensity, from not much more than an excrescence on a poem to a transformation of the poem’s entire substance. James Keery doesn’t really attempt to define it himself; his method is to show it in operation and let its nature manifest itself. That is probably the best way to understand it. It is tempting to define it as a reactive force against “norms”, which it really is not; it incorporates and transforms those norms.
Apocalypse is passionate. It represents a raised pitch and extended conceptual scope, a turn towards biblical and epic tone if only momentarily, and an amplification of address by which words may transcend even an excessive figurative function which remains controlled, such as Surrealism, and appear to violate the dialect itself, momentarily or consistently. There is also a characteristic rhythmic drive, frequently empowering a first-person declaration.
It is its own thing, with an ancestry going back, particularly, to Shelley and Blake, a recovery of an effusiveness which extends towards us from there through the nineteenth century (Swinburne, Hopkins). But having said that, we immediately put ourselves at fault. Yes, Blake and Shelley, so that fixes the genealogy of the thing to a particular option. But how can “Ode: Intimations of Immortality…” not be relevant? And the more unsettled side of Hardy? or even Housman, or any strongly lyrical poetry? For the procedures of song cannot wait to loosen the analytical bonds. Perhaps we may finally have to agree with the methodology of this collection, that this is not a kind of poetry, still less a kind of poet, but something that can happen to any poetry which is not closed to it, and always has, though with particular features in modernity. It is some kind of venture further than what was predicated, a sudden lurch or a transformation of the entire diction of the poem. Larkin (who was inimical to it) perhaps defined it acutely when he complained, “We are not suited to the long perspectives/ Open at each instant of our lives”.1
Perhaps those openings are exactly what apocalypse seeks out and plunges into; perhaps this incorporation of distance is a major poetical function which stretches over the entire history, with a particularly bright and sharp eruption before and after the 1939-45 war. Larkin is included in the anthology.
What is clearly shown, is that this thing did exist and rather than a short-lived extravagance of some kind, it has been a constant resource of the imagination the discovery of which redefines half a century of British poetry by bringing to life an enormous amount of forgotten work which in a society less obsessed with status-anxiety would have been recognised as a collective enhancement of our condition.
THERE ARE (SUBJECT to recount) 203 poets in the book, mostly with just one or two short poems each, covering a period of 50 years to which most standard histories would allot perhaps 30 or so, some half that quantity. Looking through the contents pages you become aware how even this selective tally, implying I suppose one or two hundred “non-apocalyptic” poets as also-rans, has been carved up into many small and mostly exclusive enclaves. Apocalypse over-rides all of them, particularly any attempt to separate traditional or formal writing from the various free-form practices. Whether rhymed and metricated or not makes no difference. The term “modernist” has been largely commandeered by the legacy of Pound and the Imagists, and I’m glad to see Keery claiming it for apocalypse, which he does in terms of “visionary” as against “ironic” modernism, the latter figure-headed by Auden. Modernist it is, even if some of its poets are distinctly not. When up and running it strains at the bounds, not of the received version of the poem, but of the capacity of the English language itself to cope with large-scale passionate script. And “vision” here has to mean not saintly apparitions but the enhanced depth and width of what can be perceived and notated. It does not make any sense to think of it as an “alternative” poetry; the bipartite division on which that concept is based hardly precedes the 1960s except in Poundian quarters.
THE TWO BEACONS of apocalypse are of course Dylan Thomas and W.S. Graham, both deeply engaged with poeticised language at its most evasive, Thomas grappling with sense, Graham with language. Thomas was in many ways the original when in 1933, to quote Keery, “…a poem in a sports journal by a provincial teenager, sent shock waves through literary London – acclaim which, as William Empson noted, ‘does some credit to the town’”. This was “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…”, by no means his earliest phase but a poem that among his many “notebook poems” represented a coming-together of symbolism, gospel lessons, Romantic effusion, rhythmic drive, and what might be called “existential desperation / inebriation”. But in Thomas’s entire output including the most outlandish in diction there was also always a sense of calm.
Dates of composition are given where possible, and there seems to be nothing in the collection before 1933, though there are many poets much older than Thomas. But this is not a question of his influence, which is only distinctly manifest with poets a little younger than himself, including Graham. In spite of the dating it seems that apocalypse was already there, arising from normal practice or continental influence under the towering shadows of Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence, McDiarmid, David Jones, Wilfred Owen. You could say that through the 1930s and ‘40s a comparatively subdued apocalyptic practice, still unproblematic in its treatment of language, but increasingly excited and conceptually ambitious, was taken up (often episodically) by older poets (Edith Sitwell, Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Glyn Jones, and it is remarkable how by 1942 Stephen Spender had moulded himself into the complete apocalyptic poet.) This continued into the careers of poets who in the 1930s were themselves in poetical rebellions of a different kind, which certainly didn’t include ironic modernism (George Barker, David Gascoyne, Nicholas Moore.) It is incidentally interesting that Patrick Kavanagh, a poet dedicated to an anti-Yeats version of Ireland, could attach himself to a development from Yeats when raising the pitch of his poems, and do it entirely in his own terms—
My hills hoard the bright shillings of March
While the sun searches in every pocket.
They are my Alps and I have climbed the Matterhorn
With a sheaf of hay for three perishing calves
In the field under the Big Forth of Rocksavage.
I have mentioned some names which remain well known, but they are picked from among a hundred or so. The apocalyptic currency was quite widely accepted before and after Thomas, but most of its poets didn’t allow it to disturb their normal practices. The poem still makes its statements, recounts experience, presents a moralised scene or event, and all the other things poems might be expected to do, but something has happened to the words. They have started to have lives of their own. Some of the modifiers seem to have migrated from elsewhere, some nouns have become strange verbs, the sounds seem as determinative as the meaning,2 and both biblical and mythical theatres start interjecting their resonant tones and structures into contemporary experience. Thomas followed by Graham and a few others went far beyond this, in what amounted to an intensification and disturbance of it, until the entire poem threatened to become an unknown substance. Probably the most notable of the others was Dorian Cooke, who died in 2005, the author of two small pamphlets.
Hardly anywhere else was intelligibility so seriously threatened and in some cases banished as it was by these three, only one of whom, Cooke, was a signed-up member of the New Apocalypse grouping (indeed is said to have invented it), and two of whom were self-declared progeny of Thomas.
We have to admit that, however fascinating these practices were, and however rooted in Romantic poetry, they created problems. They put the reader into a difficult position, asked to “read” in an entirely new and undefined way, or possibly to agree to unspecified theories of subliminal reception, and they attracted a lot of very aggressive and obtuse criticism, especially from the University of Cambridge, specifically aimed in its anger at putting a stop to it, to prevent people from buying and reading the books and periodicals, which it to some extent did. However vicious, criticism rarely goes this far, in modern times at any rate. This met eventually a counter-criticism which rejoiced in the unintelligible as such, and from these confrontations arose a version of the history which placed a chasm down the middle. Contemporary British poetry became an endless and wasteful battle between “experimental” and “traditional” which continues sixty years later. Ninety per cent of apocalypse is manifestly both.
Some lines by Dorian Cooke will show the kind of disruption proposed —
Thick emblem to the danger’s end, to the weal
And scarecrow in the curse: five wounds and pierce
The mirror’s veins through the black hills’ pitchfork
And foul deluge in the prong.
More than my darkness a cold breath and spawn had lined
The shrieking myth with a symphony of madness.
Then swung from the throttled map and fang soft fury
Like a seed, token to fire and foul the deadness;
And across a crippled stranger fell the full-whipped
or W.S. Graham—
Being bound all sworn ways when fable in flood
Treads on the holy heel, to lay out green
The earthy eyes
That tread the iris-cobbled park of wonders
I pluck a lexicon of May-locked riddles.
There had never been lines of poetry like these. They are quite distinct from “normal” apocalyptic writing operating at a pitch somewhat below that of Thomas. None of these passages is incapable of careful explication and it could be a worth-while exercise. But it is understandable that to be made to feel confronted, disqualified or even insulted as a condition of entry into contemporary poetry could stir up a lot of resentment, especially as all three poets later (or quite soon) retracted to some extent from this extremity. It sometimes feels that the greatest achievement of this most confrontational lineage of apocalypse was reached when the poet gave in to strong and unitary emotion, without losing a vital sense of poetical language as a living and independent force. The elegiac mode seems to have proved a particularly rich resource: Graham’s poems on the deaths of his painter friends in Cornwall; Cooke’s elegies for Theodora Hendry and Dylan Thomas; Thomas’s poems on his father’s death and on the blitz, though he was always flexible, and a poem like “Fern Hill” exploits emotions which are both bright and wistful.
One of the surprises is the inclusion of a few poets one would think of as strongly inimical to apocalypse, as they were — Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, and Roy Fuller. Amis even gets three poems, undoubtedly apocalyptic, as are all the others’ and there is no point in trying to single them out as early poems when most of the poems in the anthology are. There is also the case of Norman MacCaig, who after his first book (1943) denounced the attachment and would never allow his early poems to be reprinted, an anecdote much used by anti-apocalypse snipers. Seeing three of them now in this context one wonders why the fuss, especially as two poems from 1946 and 1955 are added without the faintest jolt.
In fact most of the remembered British poets of the 1930s-50s are present, and a great deal more of the unremembered. This allows for discoveries, especially among women poets, who are largely absent from the standard histories until we reach Sylvia Plath (who is included). Some of these were discovered quite recently and have been integrated into at least the Modernist agenda (Mina Loy, Rosemary Tonks, Lynette Roberts); others have already been excitedly discovered in comments on this book (Antonia White, Freda Laughton, Shiela Legge, Gloria Komai).
While there was some constancy in the apocalyptic script over all this period and from all sorts of poets, it is clear that there was a peak episode when the “Thomas crater”, as Keery calls it, not only invigorated a lot of “standard” ventures into the maelstrom, but also set in motion through direct influence a stronger and more fiery succession. Membership of New Apocalypse was not relevant; it mainly set up an easy target for its enemies to focus on, and some of the mildest adherents were involved in it as well as some of the extremists. It was basically the trio of Thomas, Graham and Cooke, who started pushing apocalypse further than anyone can have expected. J.F. Hendry was also important, though I usually find a mechanical quality in his poems, a planned and manipulated modernism. So was Henry Treece, whose writing I find, on the other hand, too heavily and instinctually emphatic.
THE PROXIMITY OF this poetical eruption to the 1939-45 war and the build-up to it raises a big question of contextually, whether we might understand this poetry better if we relate it to the cultural, political and social climates in which it was conceived, so that the modernism of the poets is the result of the modernity happening all round them, especially the disasters of politics. The coincidence is not exact, and one of the histories corrected in this anthology is the belief that the whole thing began in 1939 as a reaction to the war. It was as much a 1930s as a 1940s thing.3
This contextualisation can be and has been done,4 and it is tempting to diagnose a sense of total crisis which never reaches it terminal phase (which would pass straight into “alternative” poetry of the 1960s). Certainly there is a tendency to gloom and even despair among the later apocalyptics, a feeling that the world has passed its sell-by date by a long way, which must have been deepened by the war. But there is also a common melancholy inhabiting it which goes back at least to the 1890s. The trouble with setting up modernity as the occasion of the poem is that the critic always knows what modernity is and can relate it in particulars to the poet’s acts, with documentation if necessary, and the poet’s task slides into reaction rather than invention. The terms used by Baudelaire to characterise modernity included transient, fugitive, undefinable, inexpressible… It is one of the “somethings” that escape you.5
The war is not enough. Thomas addressed his poetry to the actual destruction and deaths of the blitz of 1940-41 rather than succumb to a pervasive pessimism; Graham was in his language laboratory testing poetry against the heroic self and pastoral flirtation; Cooke was in Yugoslavia at the time fighting as a partisan.6
THERE IS A persuasive introduction by the editor, emphasising how much more there is that in principle could have been in this collection, from older poets who remain well known, such as Wilfred Owen and Walter de la Mare, and much longer works by some of those who are included, such as the whole of Graham’s “The Nightfishing” and Thomas’s “Altarwise by owl-light”. But he also sees apocalypse as something which lived far beyond the historical and geographical constraints of the anthology, if not under that name and not in exactly the same terms as apply to mid-Century Britain. In America, he points to Hart Crane and John Berryman, and to Derek Walcott in St Lucia, and in Germany to Georg Trakl and Paul Celan. This is nothing like a complete list of possibilities, but the point being made is that there is an “interfluentiality” (a term from gospel scholarship) at work which connects poets by similarities of intent, shared tone, and imagery, a similar kind of move into excess, without claiming close affinity or replication, and it works locally and internationally and across genres (thus bringing in Joyce and Lawrence). In the earlier poetry of Celan you may find “dark meditations” on human atrocity which recall lines of Hendry or Cooke but in a different manner, occasionally with shared images (including “black milk”). He could have mentioned that Johannes Bobrowski wrote a poem entitled “Dylan Thomas”.
THE REVISION OF the accepted (by most people) history is so radical , especially as regards quantity, shattering the not-very-long-established pseudo-academic obsession with an essential fewness as the ultimate goal of negative criticism, that I wonder what it forebodes. What would happen if this account were carried forward to the end of the century? Would Graham be found to have crossed over into a quite different, plain-speaking mode, alongside several others? It is no secret that the majority of poems in the book are early works, as a natural result of the degree of novelty involved (though with exceptions), and these poets may well have gone elsewhere after 1950, which as long as the bulk of them remain unknown, we shall never find out. I suspect that a lot of them went on to abandon poetry.
The only information given about the contributors is the year of composition of poems (if known) and the published source of the text. There is no biographical or bibliographical information. I miss it, but have to agree that the addition of 200 short notes would have made the book entirely unwieldy, and in any case, strictly speaking they would all have been distractions. We only get the one thing it is supposed to be about: the poem itself.
So what did happen to all these people or poets? Do we close the book with a shrug and recognise “a generation which squandered its poets”?7 When I was researching Nicholas Moore in the 1980s I met a few of them. Some were still conducting successful careers in poetry, mostly from within the academy (Christopher Middleton, Roy Fisher, Sorley MacLean); Sean Rafferty looking after the chickens in one of Ted Hughes’ country estates; Dorian Cooke, retired from the BBC World Service, offering a choice of twenty kinds of Coffee in Surbiton; Tony Connor in retirement from both teaching and poetry in Connecticut, revisiting the northern sites of his poetry biannually; Moore himself invalided in a chaotic flat in suburban Kent and still trying to repair the career he lost sixty years ago by endless writing; and perhaps especially John Bayliss, in his office in the City of London, rather surprised that anyone wanted to see him about poetry now, viewing it as simply a hope which wasn’t realised. He gave me a signed copy of his second book, Venus In Libra, Outposts Publications 1977 (his first was 1944).
And in Chiswick House the madmen are throwing their clocks
into the lake and the wild clack of the geese
echoes the wheels of black coaches drawn up on the gravel:
and dark flowers are breaking the concrete roads of Kew,
and the bridge is burning above the ebony river
in an arch of fire: and the terrace to Richmond Park
is covered with silk and lace and satin and red
and blue and green and silver dresses, that preen
and flutter and pause as they did the day they died,
and the dress was laid in the press and the wearer laid
in the marble vault smoothing her last brocade.
Not a masterpiece perhaps, but a demonstration of a kind of poetical invention, a conceptually large-scale one, which the current success-market would immediately rule out of order in favour of yet more domestic tropes or self-advertisements. Perhaps if you want a healthy, or any kind of, poetry scene you need to stop worrying about masterpieces, or imagining that they can be got on demand. Keery’s anthology proposes a spread of ability beyond the relevance of experts or judges, poems which are sent out into the world to fend for themselves, enlivened by attachment to a strong history.
This anthology must have taken an immense amount of dedicated work; in fact I can’t imagine how he managed to uncover so many worthwhile poems hidden away in forgotten poetry magazines and old small-press books. The history of British poetry in the twentieth century will never be the same again.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.
Note: This review was edited 23 December 2020, subsequent to publication, to correct an editorial error.
- I cannot resist quoting James Keery’s comment on this announcement: “In the face of the aplomb with which such influential figures tend to speak on our behalf…” To this I’ll add my own observation, that it is instructive to find Larkin intelligently identifying a major condition of modern poetry in relation to experience, and then running screaming from it into a rabbit-hole called the first person plural.
- This is not a version of the anti-Dylan brigade’s favourite chant: “All sound and no sense”. To say that the poetry is sound-led as a compositional process is not to say that there is no interest in saying anything.
- This is stated directly several times by Keery, and is a major item of his interpretation, especially with regard to Dylan Thomas’s work in 1933. But the publisher’s on-line blurb (repeated by Amazon) seems to have been written by someone who did not get the message: “This first anthology of Apocalyptic or neoromantic poetry since the 1940s….many poems are reprinted for the first time since the 1940s.” It seems to me that this will be read to imply that the anthology is principally an apologia for the spectral ”1940s poetry” which has been so mercilessly attacked ever since.
- e.g. by me in “Thomas and Apocalypse”, Poetry Wales XLIV/3, 2008-9. Here I traced an increase of anger, self-disgust, futility and other negative emotions in the imagery of poets of New Apocalypse in the early 1940s. Faced now with a much greater number of examples, I am less certain about this.
- In Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne (1860): transitoire, fugitif, indéfinissable, contingent, le quelque chose…
- Hence his absence from the London or any other poetry scene at a time which might have established some kind of reputation for him. When he returned after 1945 it was in certain aspects all over.
- The title of an essay by Roman Jacobson written following the suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1930. But in Britain the binning went on for far more than one generation.