Lucifer Falls over Lancashire: an obituary for Mark E. Smith

Like anyone my age who crawled reluctantly out of adolescence into adulthood listening to late-night John Peel sessions on a tinny transistor radio tucked under the pillow, I have always been aware of Mark E. Smith and The Fall. And, like many who were never hardcore aficionados, such as Peel himself, I would never have described The Fall as my favorite or even one of my favorite bands. But it was a sound and an attitude that was always there deep in the mix of the soundtrack to my career as a person, always there in the wing mirror as I hot-rodded my way clumsily through life, always at least vaguely visible out of the corner of my eye.

In the weeks and days leading up to Mark E. Smith’s death last Wednesday, I oddly found myself humming Lucifer over Lancashire over and over to myself in my mind, as I taxied—cripple that I now am—around this crippled city of Recife, to a dark backdrop of impeachments and coups, recrudescent poverty, politically-motivated corruption trials, and fake news.

And, like many, I imagine I am one of those, who, when I woke up on Wednesday morning and read of the death of Mark E. Smith, for the first time, started working my way methodically through listening to his entire oeuvre. And, like many, I kicked myself and told myself I should have done this long time ago. Everyone, I know, says that when someone close, important or famous is suddenly gone.

Smith’s is indeed an incredibly powerful body of work and does not need death to garnish it. But it does need to be read as a whole, not in little poppy snippets. It follows a very straight, if perverse, line, yet somehow over time reflects all the other kaleidoscopic elements of a life sound-tracked by independent music and buffeted by the vicissitudes of a post-Thatcher Britain and world.

Dead pop stars and artists come in all shapes and sizes. There are those whose deaths shock and seem unjust, those who go out in a blaze of glory or after a descent into ignominy, and national treasures who fade away peacefully after a long productive career. All of these make us feel a little sad. Mark E. Smith was none of the above. Nor would he wish to be. There was never anything mawkish about him. He had always scrupulously eschewed celebrity and sentimentality. It is just as if last orders had already been called and he had been drinking after hours—living too late, in the words of one of his most famous songs—and chucking-out time finally came. The natural order of things. Rest in Piss.

The evening star sets over Manchester this evening, but will appear again in the morning as the morning star amidst a million new stirring angry points of light and life. Just one part of the cycle. A worker’s life well lived. Much work still to be done.

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17 Prologue Selva Oscura

[This is the first tranche of a new long poem, entitled simply 17. It is both a prologue to this longer poem and a free-standing piece. While the overarching setting and theme of my previous long poem (64) was the sea, 17 is set around a forest landscape. It has a very different tone.]

17 Prologue Selva Oscura

The place reeks of life and death entwined;
buds reaching up heavenwards above the canopy,
catkins drooping sneezy sweet-smelling pollen
through blent, intermittently sunlit, dank air
amongst the tangles of rotting branches and living roots.
Rodents scuttle through the undergrowth of decay
and feed uncurling ferns and sleek moss and blooming
bluebells with their gift of excrement. Sun is tempered
by leaves and berries swell and drop and rot in the dripping rain
and are eaten up and carried away.
And bark peels away as the xylems and phloems of expanding trunks
keep careful record of weather and the glacier-march of time.
In winter, it is a graveyard of frost, crucifixes and icicles.
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And the men in green and black
force their slithering stealthy way on their bellies
through the undergrowth, like snakes,
knife clenched in teeth,
trap, garrote or musket at the ready for rabbit
or fellow human being who strays this way.
When shots ring out, the grouse flee through the treetops
and the leaves of elm and ash and birch and beech and oak
quiver in fear. The forest is a place set aside by law
for the rich, overseen by a corrupt local judge. The jury of owl and eagle,
weasel and wild boar, stag and hare and hen, eagerly await their turn.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 9b: Playing the Language Game

“Play” is another word that is on the rise. But it has brought together a whole different array of complex connotations from those of ‘game’. It means pretending, stage-acting; it distinguishes the main free action of a sport or game from its surrounding bureaucratic structure. Musical instruments are played. Children play. In contract bridge the ‘play’ is distinguished from the ‘bidding,’ although both are equally important parts of the game. People who like to joke are regarded as ‘playful’ and valued socially as comics, even, perhaps even especially, if they are not ‘playing the game’. Play has even—graced with a duly respectable-looking Latinate prefix—become a scientific word in the word ‘interplay,’ meaning the way that various forces interact with each other. A graceful ‘play of forces’ as opposed to a violent ‘game of thrones’.

There is a plangent irony when the two words are combined as in First World War propaganda (“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”) used to exhort cannon-fodder, or the modern concept of ‘gameplay’. A recent ad for Dell brandishes the double-imperative slogan: “Don’t just play. Game.” Underlining the extent to which the online gaming industry takes itself way too seriously.

To return to the beginning of this two-part post, there is a connection between the distinct metaphors of playing and gaming and the way that linguists and philosophers of language have traditionally viewed their prime object of study during the still brief existence of this novel social science.

Saussure effected a foundational revolution by establishing a distinction between langue and parole. He famously compared language to a game of chess: the form of the pieces and the board can be changed but this does not alter the rules of play. This metaphor already rigidifies the originally radical idea to some extent, in so far as it is not only the form of the pieces used in the game, but also the relation between them, and the very rules, that can be changed. Within that works the play.

Wittgenstein also saw language as a game, or a series of games. This has often been interpreted by post-modern philosophers as suggesting that Wittgenstein introduced an element of playfulness into the philosophy of language. It is worth looking a little into Wittgenstein’s biography to find the extent to which this was definitely not the case. Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher, in that (by his own insistence) he actually had experience of teaching children. Reports of his teaching methods, clearly show, however, that he regarded language learning and language as such as more ‘game’ than ‘play’. It is more about the imposition of the herd instinct of a rugby match by force than allowing children naturally to play. In the much-quoted passage of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein’s description of the primitive ‘language game’ sounds more like a chain-gang or a production-line than anything it would be fun to be involved in. Michel Pêcheux, in Le Discours: structure ou événement uses a strip cartoon to mock precisely this kind of factory-floor approach to language learning writ large as linguistic theory.

Wittgenstein’s game-theory of language is echoed to some extent by the Sapir-Whorf approach to language, in which language determines or is determined by the core values of the tribe, giving it a sentimental but no less authoritarian twist. Structuralism picked up this essentially sentimental and conservative linguistic anthropological ideology, especially in the work of Lévi-Strauss.

Enter Chomsky.

Chomsky emerged on the scene in the 1950s with a set of investigative tools far in advance of anything that Saussure or Wittgenstein could ever have imagined. He was concerned to counter both the apparent arbitrariness that Saussure had unleashed and the culture-bound relativism that Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf seemed to propound. He was also spurred by an unflagging, very American, view of the nobility of the rational human spirit, and was funded by IBM.

To this end, Chomsky set about fusing Saussure’s revelations with a more conservative grammatical approach to language, while attempting to eschew the illiberalism that, according to Wittgenstein and Sapir-Whorf, this approach would tend to entail.

Grammar, according to Chomsky, is normative but confined to the mind. It is not therefore something that governments or ideologies or cultures can impose. It is, of course, a pared down sort of ‘universal’ grammar and Chomsky’s theories immediately came up against an overwhelming body of empirical evidence to the effect that such mental grammars are invariably overruled by cultural conventions and pure playfulness. Chomsky and his colleagues thus ‘invented’ the notion of ‘transformational’ grammar to account for this mismatch, thereby fusing Saussurian arbitrariness with a sort of neo-Kantian prescriptivism.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Chomsky cashed in his intellectual chips at this point and turned his attention to a variety of liberal/left-wing causes that have sometimes verged on conspiracy theories. His followers were left with the messy business of cleaning up the contradictions he had left behind.
Leaderless yet uncomfortable with dissent, they opted for the arbitrary, while maintaining Chomsky’s originary faith in the rational human mind. A flurry of ‘transformational rules’ have subsequently merely re-written the traditional grammar books around a descriptivist but arguably less tolerant basis.

Transformational grammar merely revives a late-19th century debate that should have been laid to rest a long time ago. Should we respect people’s local way of speaking or encourage them, for the sake of self-advancement, to adopt a supposedly more rational norm? This is a very serious sociolinguistic contradiction dealt with playfully by George Bernard Shaw and George Cukor in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Like Henry Higgins, Liberal Chomskyan linguists tie themselves in knots to this day trying to reconcile these two contradictory aims.

Stephen Pinker, a liberal-minded Chomsky hanger-on and radical neo-Darwinist, bends over backwards to blandish the African-American community by suggesting (generously but patronizingly) that their argot is just as ‘rational’ as that of the white liberal élite, the implication being that, with tolerance and instruction, they could be incorporated into this elite. Black activist intellectuals argue that their discourse has more to do with a history of oppression and protest than with a common core of rationality shared with their historical oppressors. Pinker fails to do a similar analysis of the language of white trash, wherein lies a tale. In fact, he fails to do any serious analysis at all, basing his arguments on anecdote, presumption and hearsay. He arrogantly states at one point, that his argument could be proved true by a statistician in the course of an afternoon. So far as I am aware, no statistician has yet answered this puny call to arms.

Back in the trenches, a few linguists have started bucking the Chomskyan gravy-train. Word has it that the ouster of Chomsky is almost complete, as a result of a combination of serious scientific research and changing mores.

Chomsky is like the Queen of England. The grand old man whose dotty outdated view of the world academic linguists and language teachers who depend on his patronage will politely accept until he finally kicks off his clogs. After that the gloves are off, the game is on… I look forward to the fight.

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Indie

In 1871 Arthur Rimbaud wrote a poem called Les Chercheuses de Poux (The Nit Pickers) . It is one of the few pieces I would include in a very slim anthology of truly all-time great poems. Rimbaud was 15 at the time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7HDznbYwjw He subsequently, with a self-confidence that makes modern rock stars look lily-livered, trudged across the war torn fields of Northern France and went to Paris to meet up with Paul Verlaine.

Rimbaud’s first foray into poetry was obviously heavily based on the work on the Charles Baudelaire, whose style he had already mastered and to a certain extent outdone. Verlaine was also working on furthering and radicalizing the Baudelairean legacy, but his work was cramped somewhat by the Parnassian mode in which he chose to operate.

The two famously became quarrelling lovers. Rimbaud would later give up poetry to pursue a career as an arms dealer and Verlaine’s subsequent mediocre literary output was forever overshadowed by the scandal. Only in the next century was Rimbaud’s radical slash and burn approach to poetry (or for that matter Verlaine’s radical if somewhat mincing minimalism) taken up with any degree of seriousness by the modernist, Dadaist and surrealist movements.

Modernism too, however, would go astray in the desert or give up the ghost in the bistro and, with a few notable exceptions—Ponge, Plath, Berryman maybe—poetry would go back to ploughing the increasingly elitist increasingly lonely furrow it had always been inclined to pursue.

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In 2016, the ageing singer song writer, Bob Dylan, was controversially awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Rock star style, he refused to turn up for the ceremony and cribbed his acceptance speech off the Internet, as if in a deliberate last-gasp attempt to shrug off his critics.

Debate in literary circles circled superciliously around the question of whether Dylan was a worthy laureate. Snobbery apart, different, for example, from his contemporary Leonard Cohen, who died the same year, he had never actually written anything purporting to a novel or a poem. But perhaps that is precisely why the judges in Stockholm chose him over Cohen—an apparently much more worthy candidate. Dylan was Rimbaud. Cohen Verlaine.

Dylan obviously moved in Beatnik circles in the late 1950s and is clearly influenced by this literary style. A similar driving force unfurls the long rambling lyrics of Like a Rolling Stone or Desolation Row.

I am an enormous admirer of Bob Dylan, but I opposed his being awarded the Nobel Prize. He is not a poet or a writer and, even if he were, true to his radical pacifist roots, he should have rejected the accolade, established as penance by an arms peddler. Perhaps he felt the pull of his Rimbaudian roots.

There should be an Oppenheimer Prize for literature. That might focus minds more closely.

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This Christmas I discovered Dandelion Radio https://www.dandelionradio.com/index.htm , which purports to continue the time honored tradition of the late John Peel’s democratically culled Festive Fifty best independent music tracks of the year.

I am struck by how so much of it is now Parnassian-style techno-music, but also by how a counter-cultural tradition still persists through this diverse genre. Gavin Osborn’s folksy, Billy Bragg influenced “I am European” made me cry for the first time in years.

I was especially impressed, however, by the number of ‘charting’ songs that involve a kind of dead-pan pared down poetry accompanied by a musical backdrop rather than singing. In the case of the No. 1 song, Paul Rooney’s Lost High Street, a lengthy and amusing discourse recited to both a musical and various sung backtracks.

However, it is questionable whether these arty pieces or Dylan or Cohen or even rap for that matter truly constitute poetry, if the words are dissociated from the music. For me, a defining feature of poetry is that it should stand up independently of any musical accompaniment, specific performance or recording. Poetry, I like to say, is ‘music without sound.’

It is worth noting that both Dylan and Cohen were failed writers who turned to popular music as a way of making more money and reaching a wider audience. The same goes for Morrissey and many other classics of popular songwriting. Rooney, like many of the artists in the contemporary indie scene, hails from an art school background and his work is arguably more video installation than the product of a master songsmith. I shall leave rap to one side for now, as I think that it is a special case that deserves special consideration in a separate post.

Previously on this blog, I have reflected on why contemporary poetry has taken such a different and much more conservative route from that taken by contemporary art. The same question could be asked regarding contemporary independent music.

Independent (or Indie) music grew out of the 1970s punk movement and evolved as an explicit rejection of the highly commercialized and hence conservative form that popular music and youth culture had already assumed by that time. Indie music, as the name suggests, is normally produced by small-scale record labels and its artists and producers are more interested in artistic quality and/or political messaging than in profit-making or widespread popular acclaim. History will probably judge these works much more highly than their mainstream pop and rock contemporaries. But that is for time to tell. The indie music scene is nevertheless a thriving cultural movement often explicitly linked to left-wing political activism, feminism and environmental issues. Contemporary poetry is not.

In my previous post on this subject, I argued that contemporary art differs from contemporary poetry primarily in the way it radically and playfully subverts the relation between surface and support. https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/why-poetry-didnt-go-dada-the-waste-land-of-contemporary-english-language-poetry/ The very provocation Dada originally posed, flirting with the scorn of the masses, eventually turned this scorn to its own advantage and it has now found a comfortable and lucrative niche within mainstream culture.

Indie music has operated differently, but no less effectively. Although there is some deviation from the norms of mainstream music, much Indie music is in fact structurally quite conservative, compared to rap, for instance. Indie music continues to thrive because it has consistently tapped into an undercurrent of otherwise voiceless popular discontent and successfully created social networks of performers, producers, DJs, political activists, visual artists and the disaffected underclass in a way that contemporary poetry could not even dream of doing.

I put the title of this post in the form of a question without a question mark. It is indeed a question that is more rhetorical than literal, a fact that requires no real explanation. Contemporary poetry could, if it wanted to, move more in the direction taken by contemporary art and indie music and would be much the richer for it. It has simply chosen not to do so. It has neither challenged tradition nor reached out to a wider network. And no matter how much writers whinge about short attention spans and poor literacy (complaints that are as hackneyed as they are untrue), there is no getting round the fact that poetry does not nowadays enjoy the same cultural status as popular music or the visual arts (or film and TV for that matter) because it has opted not to seek out this path. Poets have no-one but themselves to blame. And, given poetry’s long history of radicalism and relevance, it is a crying shame.