How modernism raised the drawbridge
The first of these essays – So cold no fire could ever warm me – looked at the great divide between those who believe that contemporary poetry is a vital force in the world and those who consider it to be, for the most part, obscure and irrelevant.
To explore how poetry arrived at this point, I draw here on the ideas of two academic authors whose thoughts on the matter coincided so well with my own much less well-informed views that it was with a sense of relief that I came across their writings. Sadly, there is a degree of truth in the notion that we read to confirm our prejudices.
My first witness is the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who died in 2002 and is widely regarded as one of the most important social theorists of the last half century. The second is the academic and literary critic John Carey who has addressed this issue in two controversial but, in my view, outstanding books: “The Intellectuals and the Masses” (1992) and “What Good are the Arts” (2005).
Both of these authors, in their different ways, offer explanations for the great poetry divide.
Pierre Bourdieu argues that preferences and taste in the arts are internalised, even subconscious, acts of social positioning. Although not a Marxist, he widened Marx’s theory of capital in order to include cultural capital. By this he meant all non-monetary assets which confer status and power – including not only formal titles, degrees and qualifications but ways of speaking and relating to others, accent and vocabulary, and ease and familiarity with the dominant culture. In particular, an individual’s tastes and preferences were, in Bourdieu’s view, “symbols of cultural authority” and this applied not only to tastes in music, literature and the visual arts but also to preferences in such everyday things as clothing, furniture and food.
Much of Bourdieu’s research focused on how this cultural capital is acquired and internalised and on the robustness of its association with birth and background. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste” (1979), sets out his conclusions and argues that a familiarity with what the dominant class considers to be admirable in the field of culture is an ideal “strategy of social distinction.”
(Incidentally, the suggestion that state-educated pupils in Britain should be given special tuition to better prepare them for Oxbridge interviews is an acknowledgement that they are disadvantaged by the lack of cultural capital. Bourdieu would no doubt have said that they are being “required to express a status-induced familiarity with legitimate culture”. Elsewhere, he describes this hard-to-define ease, imbibed from ones earliest social environment, as a “feel for the game”.)
Many would agree that Bourdieu has a point. But it would surely be taking his ideas too far to conclude that social positioning and the cultural capital imbibed from birth and background are the only drivers of taste and preference in the arts. A certain kind of background may make it significantly more likely that one will attend the opera or the theatre or open a book of poetry, but it does not follow that the enjoyment and value derived from such activities is not genuine.
In any case, hasn’t it always been the case that appreciation of the arts is, in varying degrees, mixed up with social prestige and the pleasures of belonging to an exclusive club? Aren’t we talking about the same social process which leapt to life in the Renaissance as newly wealthy merchants embraced the classics and became patrons of the arts as a way of acquiring the kind of social status that could not be achieved by money alone? Towards the end of the 15th century, Botticelli began producing paintings strewn with visual references to Ovid and Lucretius that could only be understood by those educated in the classics. For his admirers, being seen to be a part of this exclusive club no doubt increased their pleasure in and praise for ‘The Birth of Venus’ or ‘The Rites of Spring’, and if the lower orders felt mystified then wasn’t that part of the point? But – the argument bears repeating – it does not follow from this that Botticelli’s paintings have no other merit or their appreciation no other motive.
At least since Botticelli’s time and probably much earlier, this suspicion of badge-wearing and ‘social positioning’, if not outright snobbery, has lingered over ‘high culture.’ Is there, then, anything new or different about the charges of obscurity, elitism and pretentiousness so often levelled against modernist poetry?
I believe that there is, to say the least, a significant difference in degree. And in suggesting how and why modernist poetry has traced its trajectory of obscurity, I have found no better guide than John Carey, Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University.
Carey’s starting point in attempting to explain the direction taken by modernism in the early twentieth century is that the cultural elite of the day suddenly found itself in a very different world.
Advances in agriculture and industry had seen populations treble across much of Europe and the United States and this, along with the widening of the franchise and the onset of mass literacy, were seen as a threat to the established social order. In particular, it represented a threat to those whose status depended more on cultural than on economic capital. H.G. Wells, for example, considered the rise of the masses to be “the essential disaster of the 19th century.” And so distressed was W. B. Yeats that science and agriculture were supplying “everyone” with the necessities of life and removing “the last check upon the multiplicity of the ineducable masses” that he recommended the ideas of Nietzsche as “a counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity” (presumably because Nietzsche argued that “a declaration of war on the masses by higher men is needed”). D. H. Lawrence, to take another example, believed that “The mass of mankind is soulless, most people are dead … three cheers for the inventors of poison gas.” On the other side of the Channel, Flaubert agreed: “The mob, the mass, the herd,” he wrote, “will always be despicable.”
Such attitudes, expressed in varying degrees of insensitivity, were especially prevalent among those who considered themselves, and were considered by others, exemplars and guardians of high culture. Many of the great names of the period, from Eliot to Pound, Yeats to Lawrence, Huxley to Woolf, Forster to Shaw, Wallace Stevens to E. E. Cummings, nursed political and social views that were not only crude and bigoted but frequently crossed the line into eugenics and fascism.
Compounding the disaster, from the point of view of many of those in the cultural elite, was the rapid widening of education to include the lower orders (the Elementary Education Act of 1870 had sought to put all children aged 5 to 13 in school).
T. S. Eliot (in his essays if not in his life) was especially critical of this development, arguing that the numbers receiving higher education in England and America should be cut by two thirds. D. H. Lawrence, typically, went further in arguing that “the great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write”. Aldous Huxley worried that education was creating “an immense class and what I may call the New Stupid.” The newspapers now available to the literate man and woman in the street were a particular source of despair to those looking down on them from the windows of Belgravia and Bloomsbury. Eliot’s view, for example, was that newspapers proved the working classes to be “a complacent, prejudiced, and unthinking mass”.
In such a context, it is perhaps not surprising that exclusiveness and elitism came to be prized more than ever. Pound mused delicately that a poet could not reasonably ask for more than thirty serious readers. Eliot’s own “Criterion” magazine, often seen as a landmark of modernist culture, derided ‘suburban democracy’ and never achieved a circulation of more than 800 copies. “Scrutiny”, Leavis’ critical review, peaked at 750 readers. Anything that appealed to the masses, said Leavis, was to be despised.
The message could not have been clearer: high culture was for the elite: the masses were to be kept at bay.
This view, though not necessarily reflecting the attitudes of all those who participated in the arts, was clearly so much a part of the climate of the times that the major literary figures quoted above felt no compunction in proclaiming their distaste for the masses and their desire to exclude them. This it was that set the tone and direction of much modernist thinking. It was, I would argue, a process of social corruption that poisoned the cultural well for many years and still, today, leaves an unpleasant taste.
Raising the bar of difficulty
Bourdieu’s explanation for this extreme, almost panicky reaction to the rise of an educated mass relies on the fact that appreciation of the arts and literature had long been a clear demarcation line separating those who possessed cultural capital and those who did not – the finer souls from the common herd. But it was a demarcation line now threatened with erosion as literacy, and potentially art and literature, came within reach of the majority.
There was to be no stopping the rise of literacy. But with a little effort it might still be possible to keep the masses out of the inner citadels of higher culture. This was sometimes disguised as paternalistic concern: denying higher culture to the masses was obviously for their own good; they would only make themselves unhappy by aspiring to things that were beyond their reach. Who can forget the embarrassingly heavy-handed symbolism of E. M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” in which Leonard Bast, a lowly clerk who pathetically aspires to appreciate music and literature, is killed when he reaches for the top shelf of a book-case which topples on top of him?
The most obvious and available way of keeping the masses at bay was to raise the bar of difficulty, making higher culture less accessible to those who were merely literate rather than educated in the true sense of the word. And so it was that a powerful new impetus was given to the tendency to value and promote difficulty as a way of ensuring exclusivity.
Difficulty may perhaps be forgiven when what is being attempted in art or literature is complex, subtle and elusive. Less forgiveable is difficulty deployed as a means of exclusion, of ensuring that the higher pastures of culture are less accessible to grazing by the common herd. Unfortunately, the boundary between these two kinds of difficulty may not always be clear and may even, to a degree, be blurred by the climate of the times. Once inaccessibility and obscurity become prized and lauded by the culturally dominant, they have a tendency to become a part of the climate. Thereafter, even unpretentious poets and readers cannot help but breathe its air.
Two castes of men
How conscious and deliberate was the process?
I have not read the work of Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher and cultural critic who was a major voice in European modernism during the early part of the twentieth century, but he is one of the principal witnesses summoned by Carey in his investigation of whether and to what degree the process of exclusion was conscious and deliberate:
“… Ortega y Gasset reckons that It is the essential function of modern art to divide the public into two classes – those who can understand it and those who cannot. Modern art is not so much unpopular, he argues, as anti-popular. It acts like ‘a social agent which segregates from the shapeless mass of the many two different castes of men”. Ortega welcomes this process. For, being aristocratic, modern art compels the masses to recognise themselves for what they are – ‘the inert matter of the historical process’. It also helps the elite, the ‘privileged minority of the fine senses’, to distinguish themselves and one another ‘in the drab mass of society’. The time must, Ortega predicts, when society will reorganize itself into ‘two orders or ranks: the illustrious and the vulgar’. Modern art, by demonstrating that men are not equal, brings this historical development nearer.”
John Carey, “The Intellectuals and the Masses”, 1992.
Such views pre-dated Pierre Bourdieu by half a century, but they illustrate his message that taste in art, music and literature can be and have been deployed as ‘strategies of social distinction,’ a means of identifying oneself as a certain class of person. Always with the reservation that taste and preference may also have more genuine roots, and acknowledging that Ortega may represent an extreme, it remains the case that inaccessibility came to be prized and that this played an important and openly acknowledged part in the shaping of modernist poetry. Eliot, for example, consciously scattered his verses with lines or stanzas in Greek, German, Italian, French, with abstruse literary allusions and references to delight generations of academic commentators, and with famously unanswerable questions and unintelligible passages, all the while arguing that poetry “must be difficult … the poet must become more and more allusive, more indirect.”
The attempt to trace these developments in a brief essay inevitably involves sweeping generalisation. But not, I think, more sweeping than the conclusion reached by Carey after reviewing the attitudes and practices of many who exerted such influence on the development of the arts in the modern era:
“I would suggest, then, that the principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity”.
Such attitudes continue to cast a shadow over contemporary poetry. Geoffrey Hill argued that difficult poems are “the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings”. I can understand almost nothing about the Geoffrey Hill poem ‘September Song’ reproduced in the first of these essays. This either excludes me from being an intelligent human being or it means that the above statement is disingenuous. Feel free.
Philip Larkin, by contrast, despite an often gloomy disposition and dubious attitudes, wrote poetry which loses nothing in depth and subtlety by being, for the most part, accessible to the majority. Thousands of readers would agree with Alan Brownjohn whose essay on Larkin described his work as “the most technically brilliant and resonantly beautiful, profoundly disturbing yet appealing and approachable, body of verse of any English poet in the last twenty-five years.”
Despite all the exceptions that could be cited, despite all the other social and cultural forces at play, and despite the many writers and readers of poetry who take no delight in culture for the sake of social positioning or difficulty for the sake of exclusion, I would argue that the forces discussed here have helped to create the current climate of writing, publishing and appreciating poetry and that this is, in large part, responsible for the widespread feeling that most contemporary verse is obscure, elitist and in many cases pretentious.
Culture is in the end just as corruptible as politics, religion or business. It is arguable that nothing corrupts a culture more than its deployment as a means of exclusion – surely an ignoble cause which those who participate in the arts should neither contribute to nor benefit from.
The third essay in this series – The mind’s darkest corners – looks at how far the culture of obscurity has carried some acclaimed contemporary poets.