Saturday, 3 April 2010


I was checking through some old cassette tapes, and came across Herbert Read's voice reading To a Conscript in 1940.

The former Great War officer speaks to the recruit of 1940:

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud'
. . . .

We think we gave in vain.  The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial fued

Of rich and poor.   Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

The theme of history repeating itself, especially perhaps the history of the labour-style left, and especially in a time when communism or even socialism lacks a voice, and the idea of 'class' is smiled away - there seemed a reverberation.  I thought of this in one sense in a simplistic way,  of my daughter, a would-be art student who has read some of Herbert Read, trying find a place at a time when art is beginning to be perceived as expendable, because there's 'not enough money',  but also the wider 'power retained where power had been misused', which none of our electioneers has dared to bring out. 

Read is thinking, I take it, that yes, Hitler was defeated and some social referms were made, but as is well documented, other essential ones were not, such as making land and banks publicly owned.    We have all this fuss about the politician's fiddling their expenses, and yet the huge scandal involving so much more, and with so much wider implication is the casino bankers  who get hardly a mention by comparison.    Which politicians, I wonder, are their friends, advisers, former employees!?

Read's poem is, I admit, over rhetorical and a little uncharacteristically up front with its ideology.   His  thinking, 'behind' this, and in his Shelleyan, way is  about the 'change of consciousness' so often longed for, now again in the context of global warming driven by the mindless consumerism upon which we are told 'recovery' depends.  

He ends the poem on a heroic note, saying to the conscript:

                                                       '  ...if you can go
Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use
In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,
The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.'

Kipling might almost have assented to this.    And to my mind the poem comes out 'wrong'.   But, I'm always ready -  too ready perhaps - to forgive Read because of my gratitude forhis writing when I read them as an eighteen-year-old.    The idea of the 'false heart' -   'false consciousness' in another form -   is worth even so rethinking and rethinking, though it's been an ideological football from all angles since at least Eliot's 'partly living'  and 'Shakespearean rag'.      I have read the critiques of Adorno, and my daughter sometimes shows me non-'classical'  music which has something deeper in it, but overall I fear.  

Perhaps something akin in jazz is all there is.  But then, agreed, 'I grow old'.

Read talks about his own illusions in Moon's Farm

'. . .  the illusion
   that my words would open men's hearts
       and give them understanding. . .

the illusion that it is not yet too late
  for any of these illusions to be re-established.
The illusion
   that a voice in the wilderness echoes in some green valley
the illusion that the wind . . .

Which brings me back to Shelley and his own  wind,  Shelley who I had in mind going through the cassettes preparing for a talk I'm giving at Winchester University about Romanticism and Nature and Pastoral.  

My children both think they didn't learn anything at school, except for hoop jumping, of course.  My daughter, very Read-like, thinks she only began to learn anything worth while when she started to take art seriously.   My son (14) sees society's problems as people not really being 'educated'.   I have to remind him of Marx's comment, 'But first the educator must be educated'.

I'm just revising some poems I'm doing 'to' him, about that and about his interest in the free-will question, and I keep coming round to thinking of classrooms, and have a few pieces which are about 'lessons',  and I think back - coming back now to Winchester - to my teacher training at what was then called King Alfred's College Winchester, where I first came upon the Wordsworthian, Rousseauesque approach to learning as experiencing and doing and being 'lost' in that.   The second poem in the piece to my son is about our neighbour - sadly this last month moved away because of the death of his weife -  who was a builder in the sense that he could make walls and ceilings, and he it was who converted our outside brick garage into this study I'm in now.   When I look at what I've written I see this idea of 'inter est'  of 'being in'  coming back and back., some way in which you learn (like a sculptor, a poet)  by making stuff (poesis), and that of course was Read's big idea of his Education through Art, and is what Shelley is, in part, talking about in his Defence.  

But I can't get away from the fear - for all my neighbour's working  class background -  that for most people this idea isn't on the map of life at all.  And so there's the idea, the threat of being called 'elitist'.  Read, in the introductory words to his reading of Conscript talks of the composer and reader of poems as being 'special' people, and art having to do with talent and 'genius'.       I suppose you can put this beside some of the writings of Althusser and Gramsci and see the corrosive power of the bankers' power forming the ideology of our works and days, so that having more and better as a way of life seems 'natural' .  

Blake talks about the 'worm in the night' of corruption,   not only syphillis,  now HIV,  or loss of the innocent eye,  but also control, and  greed, which we get told is so good for the economy.

Well.   I think, of course that traditionally poets are not only blind but dumb.