Monday, October 20, 2014

A Silver Lining on the Wartime Paper Shortage

I've been in the British Library working on popular front Communism and its interest in the revival of an oral tradition in poetry. Like Jack Lindsay (see previous post), Edgell Rickword believed that capitalism was closely linked to print culture and mass literacy, so that Communism in England must involve a revival of pre-capitalist, oral forms. In a short essay published in Poetry and the People in July 1940 (also cited by Ben Harker in the essay I mentioned), Rickword discerns a silver lining on the wartime paper shortage:

Whatever happens about the paper shortage, it is certain that the big combines will feel the pinch less than the small concerns. So if things go on as they are, the material difficulties in the way of a genuinely popular cultural movement are going to increase. But difficulties create opportunities, and it would be no bad thing if the rationing of paper helped to restore the balance between the written and the spoken word which is now weighted so heavily in favour of the latter. Reading is a solitary act, it is often a means of escape from reality, but speech is necessarily social. So it may be a very good thing for us to be thrown on our resources and unable to stuff our heads with the crudities and sentimentalities of the millionaire Press. Then the natural storytellers and poets will come into their own, making conscious the feelings of their group, be it large or small. They are the organisers of emotion, one of the factors directing the collective effort to a common aim. Round the camp-fires of the armies of freedom, on the steppes and on the sierras, many stories and ballads grew up celebrating popular heroes and staunch leaders of the people. During the Spanish war it was no exaggeration to say that thousands of such ballads were composed by “amateur” poets and circulated in the village or the regiment, whilst scores of them became popular throughout the country. So it has been, so it will be again with us. It is not want of paper but only lack of conviction that could hamper a popular revival of poetry. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poetry and Phonocentric Communism

In the British Library today reading up on Jack Lindsay, a Popular Front poet. In his 'Plea for Mass Declamation' in Left Review (October 1937), he links the revival of poetry as an oral form to the Communist transformation of society.

‘Poetry has always found its vitalisation in a socially valuable relation to the speaking voice...
Only when capitalism started coming into its own was there driven a wedge between poetry and the speaking voice. Wordsworth tried to rediscover the poetically potent relationship in theoretical terms, thereby enabling a partially successful renaissance to appear. But this outburst failed; the impetus towards a fresh realisation of the living intonation (expression of the human potential in the great economic advance) was smothered by the discords of capitalism.
The wedge driven between consumer and producer had drastic effects in poetry and the criticism of poetry. The ‘literary product’ became the subject of consideration, quite apart from social process. The result could only be a poetry losing content and reality, whatever virtuosities its obsession with formal elements might induce at each spasm of the death throes.’

And as he puts it in a footnote:

‘The invention of printing, of course, had much to do with the deflection of poetry from the living voice. But printing did not arise in a social void. As a spreader of knowledge, it has a concrete good-effect; as a part of the capitalist forces, it intensified the forms of abstraction arising from bourgeois individualism. To analyse the way that these two aspects of the printed book—its uniting and dividing powers—operated, we would need to go into much detail. It is enough here to note how the book helped the severing of poetry from its communal basis.’ 

Perturbed by the 'dividing powers' of the book, Lindsay looked forward to a version of what Walter Ong would later term a 'secondary orality', associating this with the Communist dawn. To this end he wrote poems for 'mass declamation', which were recited by groups of workers at political meetings. 

(Ben Harker has written about this in his excellent article ‘Communism is English’: Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front. You can hear Ben Harker discussing his recent research on Jack Lindsay at the next reading group of the Anglo-Russian Research Network, at Pushkin House on 21st November.) 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I love working on George Bernard Shaw....

I found this gem among his papers in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin:

‘It may seem only a laughing matter that we have to spell the common word “though” with six letters instead of two as the time lost is only a fraction of a second. But multiply that fraction of a second by the number of times the word hasto be written in the British Empire and in North America every hour, every day, every month, every century, and its cost grows from the fraction of a farthing to pounds, tens of pounds, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of pounds; and the cost of a change becomes unspeakably negligable. The fact that Russia, with its 35 letter alphabet, can spell my name with two letters instead of four, may conceivably make it impossible for us to compete economically in the world with Russia.
I am ready to bequeath all I posess (if the war taxation leaves me anything to bequeath) to anyone who will establish a new 42 letter alphabet with it. I have saved years by using such an alphabet for my own works; but they all have to be transcribed and typed and set up and printed in Phenician; so that nobody’s time is saved but my own.
If only the British Government was as intelligent as I am!'