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Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Spasmodic Gap

Posted by Ray Davis on 04/16/05 at 06:40 PM

In mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain, a group of left-wing lower-class poets publish autobiographical free verse epic dramas. Critics name them the Spasmodics.

It sounds like a Howard Waldrop premise. Could the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry be hoaxing us?

For a while, my answer was "Baby, I don't care." Editors Charles Laporte and Jason R. Rudy select well and structure novelistically. First, Herbert F. Tucker begins with a high overhead shot of exposition, a lightly satiric, lightly sympathetic tone to draw us into the story. Then, with admirably ethical opportunism, a series of contributors apply varied professional interests to bring out aspects of Spasmodic characters and times. Details and depth accumulate. Finally, Florence Saunders Boos, openly partisan, fully engaged, describes the movement's catastrophe, with heroes ambiguously vanquished and villains ambiguously triumphant, leaving the signature effect of alternate history: an exhilarating sense of possibility; a melancholy sense of possibility foreclosed.

When curiosity won, though, I found confirmation (if not texts) easily enough.

"But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness."
- George Saintsbury, Cambridge History of English and American Literature

How to excuse, or at least explain, my ignorance?

When I search my memory for verse of the 1840s and 1850s, I find Poe smouldering at one end of a long flat expanse of Tennyson, broken by a few Brownings, between the issueless extravagance of the late Romantics and the parentless extravagance of Swinburne and Whitman.

That bare spot is where the Spasmodic impulse once grew. Insofar as the Spasmodics could be construed as a group, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is what's left of them. Kirstie Blair points out that, for once, reactionaries had reason to welcome a major work by a woman. Despite its provocations, Leigh's redemption ("Oh, wait did I say Art was the most important thing? Sorry, I meant Marriage.") provided a reassuring ending all round. Domestication was what the Spasmodics most infuriatingly lacked.

+ + +

"A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. [...] USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!"
- Charles Olson, "Projectivist Verse"
"Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is reproduced in the imagination" ... "Depend on it, whatever is to live on paper, must have lived in flesh and blood." ... "certain rhythms and measures are metaphors of ideas and feelings" ... "the word of Man made flesh and dwelling amongst us."
- Sydney Dobell
(quoted in "Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology" by Jason R. Rudy)

+ + +

Pace (not really) Ron Silliman, the School of Quietude sometimes wins. Not by being remembered, but by making sure its competitors are forgotten first. (Silliman, for example, seems as ignorant of Whitman's Spasmodic interests as I was.)

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. And literary justice, like other justice, usually depends on a few outspoken individuals who refuse to let an injustice go. I'm not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is. (Most of the creative writing MFAs I've met could certainly benefit by deeper meditation on the subject.) In my own lifetime, Zukofsky and the other Objectivists might have stayed out of reach if weren't for Robert Creeley.

John Keats barely made it through the gates into the immortality of persistent reprinting. Thirty years after his death, plenty of authorities still wished he hadn't and wanted to ensure that it didn't happen again.

+ + +

"Take yourself, and make eyes at it in the glass until you think it looks like Keats, or the 'Boy Chatterton.' Then take an infinite yearning to be a poet, and a profound conviction that you never can be one, and try to stifle the latter. This you will not be able to do."
- W. H. Mallock, "How to Make a Spasmodic Poem"
(quoted in "Glandular Omnism and Beyond" by Herbert F. Tucker)
"What a brute you were to tell me to read Keats's Letters... What harm he has done to English Poetry. [...] But what perplexity Keats Tennyson et id genus omne must occasion to young writers of the όπλίτης [hoplite] sort; yes & those d-d Elizabethan poets generally. Those who cannot read Gk shld read nothing but Milton & parts of Wordsworth: the state should see to it...."
- Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, 1848
(partially quoted in "Victorian Culture Wars" by Antony H. Harrison)

+ + +

In this case was literary injustice done?

It depends. (See, that's what sucks about justice.)

Like George Saintsbury, the Victorian Poetry essayists admit more or less kindly that the core Spasmodic works aren't great. Although I've only found excerpts so far, they certainly don't seem to my own taste.

But tastes differ. I also dislike the Beats, hippie shamans, declaimed celebrations of groupthink, and most attempts at lyric confession. That hasn't stripped them from bookstores and libraries.

And tastes change. The Spasmodics don't sound more embarrassing than the well-reviewed self-pitying concept albums of 1970s prog rock. Or more embarrassing than I was back then, a teenage cracker in an isolated farming town writing imitations of John Berryman and arguing the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson with my best friend, soon to become a born-again journalism major. A year or two later, for a few months during an alcoholic nervous breakdown, I even liked Charles Bukowski. For me, as for so many overweeners, Keats's defiant blush has always been a beacon.

At the very least, if I'd heard of them, my college band would have been named the New Spasmodics.

Most pertinently, authors can change if they're given the chance. Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers, and usually more interesting than any volumes from their most hostile enemies. If there was a Spasmodic "school", it was shut down before the students matriculated. I was able to read this academic journal as alternate history partly because it so often emphasizes their lost potential.

Their pop-scientific poetics anticipated twentieth century avant-gardes. Their class diversity anticipated the GI-Billed New American Poetry. Their sprawling yet motionless epics of young writers struggling to produce sprawling epics anticipated the Thomas Wolfe subtype of the Great American Novel. Their shameless invocation of neuraesthenia as muse should have interested Eliot and the poet-professor crowd. That poor sap R. H. Horne anticipated the New Directions paperback with his one-farthing-cheap Orion. The young Alexander Smith was advised to produce one long poem rather than a collection of short ones, and that's a fairly early example of narrative trumping lyric.

Smith chose to embed his lyrics in an autobiographical fantasy epic drama, since that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. And it did indeed attract attention. It got him and his advisor whacked by viciously conservative William Edmondstoune Aytoun, first from the sniper tower of Blackwood's, and then in a book-length parody, Firmilian.

"Other 'spasmodic' impulses migrated into fiction, most conspicuously the 'sensation fiction' of the 1860s, but the shadow-movement's preoccupations with romantic populism, formal experimentation, and unguarded honesty endured. Aytoun played successfully to a receptive claque, but subsequent generations have largely consigned his sensibilities to a literary and political backwater. Then as now, it was easier to be a clever critic than it was to write a memorable poem.

"More disspiriting were the enduring triumphs of the iron laws of class and education that Aytoun exploited. No acknowledged 'major' poet of Victorian Britain came from working- or lower-middle-class origins, and none of the 'spasmodists' is likely to gain more than token entry into any twenty-first-century anthologies. Even here, however, Dobell, Smith and the others might have found a measure of vindication in the vast palette of subsequent generations' preoccupations with despair, recovery, aberrance, marginality, and self-examination a palette they helped, in the face of withering critical abuse, to configure."

- Florence Saunders Boos, "'Spasm' and Class"

Snobs produce memorable satires and parodies because reactionaries depend on reaction. Without venom, their tongues go dry. Without a victim to strangle, they lie limp and tangled, a heap of parasitic ivy. Having deadened the nervous impulse that gave it life, even Aytoun's Firmilian vanished from collections: an Acme-brand hole slapped onto the cliff face, and then peeled off and thrown away.

+ + +

"The calm philosophy of poetry, in its addresses to the understanding and the domestic affections, now holds the ascendancy; but as the fresh and energetic spirit of the present age advances, a contest is certain to take place in the fields of Literature on the above questions. The sooner, therefore, the battle is fought out, the better; and to this end, the poetical antagonisms shall at once be brought into collision."
- Richard H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 1844
(quoted in "Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics" by Charles Laporte & Jason R. Rudy)
"... and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas


Not that it’s terribly relevant to your very interesting post, but one of the things I admired about the Gilliam film was how it acknowledged how banal that dope-addled sentiment was, especially in contrast to the ominous clarity which preceded it.

By Jonathan on 04/16/05 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I was embarrassed to let such a tired conclusion intrude itself—the Thompson quote disappointed me even in its original context. But that’s what intruded, and the Spasmodics are nothing if not embarrassing, so....

By Ray Davis on 04/17/05 at 10:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Spasmodics don’t sound more embarrassing than the well-reviewed self-pitying concept albums of 1970s prog rock.

Is there a particular album in mind, or just the memory of Rick Wakeman looking foolish in a satin cape? I bet it’s the latter, but (taking it as representative of an endemic species of bluff) I’m very happy to have caught this because I believe it illuminates the mechanism behind a really excellent observation above:

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. ... I’m not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is.

These contingencies are related mostly not to the literary merits of works but to the social perception (style, habits, other patterns of personal charm) of the authors. You could say that prog rock, for example, was a line drawn around lots of bands who had nothing in common musically (of course most were bad, c.f. Sturgeon’s law) but shared the same atrocious taste in clothes.

Of course, successful writers understand that precisely this phenomenon is operative in all the arts, and present themselves accordingly, if they can. I’m not naively suggesting we wish this historical reality into the cornfield, but I would be gratified to see a critical theory acknowledge the cynicism of the thing and develop explicit methods for engaging and addressing the literary content of a work, separately from the questions of what strings they shrewdly pulled (or lucked into) to further its acceptance.

By pierre on 04/18/05 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Probably my phrase explicit methods for engaging and addressing the literary content of a work itself sounds impossibly naive, but I can elaborate. Working writers do exactly this. Remember when Allen Ginsberg “rehabilitated” Walt Whitman? This is another way of saying Ginsberg was able to read Whitman for content, rather than through the lens of expectation that had been created by literary politics.

It’s too simple to say Ginsberg or any other creative artist was a “genius” and that’s why he was able to do this common thing called rehabilitating a forgotten unappreciated predecessor. What are the methods and approaches that working writers use in their reading? That is the question.

By pierre on 04/18/05 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Pierre, congratulations on your pseudonym (or nym), and apologies for the length of my response. I’ll split it in two.

“Is there a particular album in mind, or just the memory of Rick Wakeman looking foolish in a satin cape?”

“Prog rock” were far from les mots justes, I’ll grant. When I get a chance, I’ll try to revise some meaning into that sentence. “AOR” would have been a better handwave, though. My first thoughts were of The Wall and Wish You Were Here, but in the background were Running on Empty and Ziggy and the too-late Who and Captain Fantastic and Too Old to Rock and Roll and Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One and Sweet Baby James, and some of the weaker songs of Van Morrison and Neil Young, and (exception!) the best album by any Beatle. Fore and aft, the impulse was satirized by Randy Newman, who wrote “Lonely at the Top” (for Frank Sinatra) in the ‘60s and wrote “The Blues” (for Paul Simon) and “My Life Is Good” (for himself) in the ‘80s.

The point, though, was that a young lyric artist grasping for some greater truth or significance than’s graspable by their little half-formed hands will instead grab what’s closest at hand (their own gripes) and try to inflate it. You’re right I didn’t convey the point.

By Ray Davis on 04/19/05 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"What are the methods and approaches that working writers use in their reading? That is the question.”

I agree that there’s some interesting cultural physiology to research. But even if we start from the artist-championing artist instead of the world at large, there’s more than that going on. (1) The author’s personal canon and private “genre”—that is, the works she more or less consciously replies to in her own work. Those are pretty often pretty far from the author’s officially allotted genre, and therefore pretty far from critics’ minds. (2) The works the author decides to champion outside her art and inside journalism, editorship, interviews, blurbs, and so forth. (3) The works which are successfully brought into the notice of reprinters and curricula.

The transitions between these subsets might as well be called stochastic, given how many variables are involved and how limited the changes are at any one time. The one thing thing we can be sure of is effort and good will aren’t guarantees.

A body of work can stay in stage (2) almost indefinitely, in which case it becomes “a Someone’s Someone.” That seemed likely to be Zukofsky’s fate before Creeley force-fed him to Hugh Kenner (a dark horse in his own race, come to think of it).

And the transitions vary wildly not only from time to time, but from place to place. I’d love to read a comparative international history of critical tellings of Chester Himes’s career. Patricia Highsmith seems to have been accepted as a major author in Germany and France long ago, and Grahame Greene must’ve been fairly successful promoting her in the U.K., judging from all the Penguins I relied on. But it took a while before Ph.D.s analyzed her right here in the USA.

Besides the canonical transitions I’ve lived long enough to witness from a distance (Delany? Dawn Powell? Whoa! But what’s with those creepy dismissive reviews of the Library of America Chandler, Hammett, and Lovecraft?), I saw the deformation process close-up when Jonathan Lethem started off wanting to draw attention to Carol Emshwiller and ended up defending Thomas Pynchon against science fiction fans two decades gone. Little by little, nudged towards what wouldn’t rock the boat, too unnoticeably to point to a villain, just the way hegemony is supposed to work. (My formal response is on the web. Our less formal correspondance on the subject was published in the New York Review of Science Fiction.)

By Ray Davis on 04/19/05 at 12:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the response! Much food for thought.

Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers ... If there was a Spasmodic “school”, it was shut down before the students matriculated.


the works (the author) more or less consciously replies to in her own work ... are pretty often pretty far from the author’s officially allotted genre, and therefore pretty far from critics’ minds.

Speaking of working writers. Your latter comment hits the nail on the head: why doesn’t criticism more often address the works the author is conscious of replying to? (Although the answer to this may be the answer to the question “Why is there an official disregard of authorial intention?” Which turns out to be no mystery, even if I dislike the answer.) But the former comment speaks to the practical necessity that writers face in building momentum in order to develop their potential; there must be some interaction with the external needs of the community, which will of necessity be extrinsic to the work, to make this happen. There’s no dispute that this is important to study and understand, even from the practical writer’s point of view, even for someone with the approach that there is something of every work of art which partakes of the eternal, separate from political contingencies.

I don’t know that I have a point now except acknowledging you’ve sharpened my original division.

By pierre on 04/19/05 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

always had a warm spot for the Spasmodic School:


they were more like us than lit history’s winners…

now i’m listening to Wishbone Ash alot…

but remember, the canon itself is a moment in time that has (probably) jumped the shark already--what’s left are the shards of a big smash-up--whether there will be anyone after to put them back together is a good question (not the one we seem to want to ask though)--& if it’s not written in Chinese, or the argot of “Riddley Walker”, it might well be LOJBAN…


By graywyvern on 04/20/05 at 09:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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