Iain Cameron's Diary
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2004-08-16 - 10:53 a.m.
Robin gave me the thumbs up so here it is:
Nick Drake and The Cambridge Poets - A Transatlantic Agenda
In his biography of Nick Drake, Patrick Humphries places his subject in the contemporary context by reference to other UK rock music happening at the same time as he events in Nick's life which he describes. This is so uncontroversial that it hardly requires comment. In what follows I am going to have a shot at relating Nick's music to contemporary poetry or poetics and also to some transatlantic artistic developments.
To start with "transatlantic" is easy enough. Nick's producer Joe Boyd was born in the US and educated on the East Coast at an Ivy League university, he was involved with the Newport Folk Festival and the emerging San Francisco Underground Scene and he had links with the New York based label Elektra which supported adventurous non mainstream acts. When Elektra's proprietor Jac Holzman sold the label to Warners he moved to LA to a job in that company.
In this context I think it can be very interesting, to look at Jim Morrison of the Doors - an Elektra act, Nico , John Cale, Cale's burgeoning interest in song forms and techniques, and Cale's input to Bryter Later in relation to Nico's third album, Dersertshore which Cale was producing when he met Nick Drake. In particular there is a clear flow of ideas about songwriting from Morrison through Nico to Cale which is likely to have coloured his approach to Nick's work. Jackson Browne who was initially Nico's accompanist at Warhol's club in New York, the Dom, also features in this flow of creative thinking. At this point Browne was friendly with Laura Nyro who herself was close to Miles Davis. Nico was watching Browne's career with interest and drawing his innovations to the attention of Cale.
I have tried to make the case elsewhere to look at the way that Nick drew on contemporary US jazz to deepen aspects of his song construction and I don't intend to go over that ground this evening. I do want to look at the link between Nick's songwriting and the contemporary poetry scene at Cambridge University which itself was more influenced by certain US poets and poetical approaches than by the mainstream English poetry of the 1960s.
The history of English poetry over the last 40 years or so is crammed with bitter quarrels and factionalism that its difficult to make neutral statements about it. In the simplest terms there is a mainstream which includes Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, James Fenton, Craig Raine, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Motion. The mainstream gradually takes on post modern techniques to provide newer clothes for its core realistic poetics.
Then there is a radical stream which is fervently elucidated and defended by Andrew Duncan in his recent book The Failure of the Conservative Tradition in English Poetry. This book is a magnificent polemic.
To the mainstream Cambridge poetry in the 60s and 70s (plus the related poetry from London and elsewhere) is seen as dangerous, obscure and elitist. None more so than the poetry of J H Prynne who inspired a number of young poets at this point in time. Prynne was librarian at Caius College - Robert Kirby, Nick's arranger and Paul Wheeler, his friend, were both members of that College and they invited Nick to join the Caius Breakfast club called The Loungers. Steve Pheasant the jazz saxophonist and founder of the band HORN was also a member of Caius and indeed within Caius there was a cell of individuals with very catholic tastes in music who Nick would hang out with and this almost certainly broadened his musical horizons. It was for the Caius May Ball that Kirby arranged a string / wind band including Pheasant to accompany Nick's songs and various members of the Caius "progressive" music circle appeared in other bands at that event.
Prynne was Wheeler's Director of Studies and both Wheeler and Drake were English scholars which meant that they came in for various kinds of privileged treatment. I cant absolutely prove that Nick met Prynne but I think its very likely as Prynne took a keen sympathetic interest in the creativity of undergraduates especially where it had a radical edge.
Nick was a member of Fitzwilliam College and the other significant musician from that College in the last few decades - Simon Fell is on record as having been influenced in his approach by J H Prynne. Fell's record label Bruce's Fingers which he stated in the early 1980s includes the innovative singer songwriter Su Lyn.
Cambridge during Nick's time was very involved with the issues emerging from the avant garde scene in New York. Fred Frith came to Cambridge playing Jansch-Renbourn style guitar and soon formed the art rock band Henry Cow. Fred started his studies in the same year as Nick and studied the same subject - English.
His attention was directed towards avant garde music and in particular the NewYork School of composers by Andrew Powell who studied music at Kings and went on to produce the first Kate Bush album. Fred is now Professor of Composition at Mills College in Berkeley Caifornia having moved to New York in the late 70s and during the 80s worked closely with Bill Laswell and John Zorn on the Downtown Scene. But I can remember Fred and Ian MacDonald jamming the blues together in Kings Cellar during my first year. Ian also studied English. Powell and Macdonald attended "good" schools in South London - near the blues centres of Streatham and Richmond - before coming to Cambridge.
Peter Ackroyd the author and critic also studied English and was an exact contemporary of Paul, Ian and myself. At about the time of the May Ball, Ackroyd, Macdonald and others including the poet and theorist Nick Totton bought out a slim volume of poetry with the title PAWN. Nick Totton is a close associate of Paul Wheeler and went to the same South London school as Ian Macdonald and Patrick Humphries.
Nick Totton was involved with the Cambridge Poets as a writer, editor, and organiser of readings and events. His poetry has been described as 'surrealist', 'non-representational' and 'difficult' with its focus on political, sexual, metaphysical and psychological. Like much Cambridge Poetry it uses multiple styles and vocabularies, According to Peter Ackroyd, Totton's work 'redefines the possibilities of political or "public" poetry at a time when it has fallen into disrepute'. Totton's allegiance is not to the current UK poetic orthodoxy as far as British poets are concerned with writers like J.H. Prynne, John James and Denise Riley.
So - I am trying to paint a picture where a generation of students are interested in the avant garde - an agenda which is shaped by ideas from the US and in particular NewYork, but also with songwriting and guitar techniques- there are links with the modernist poetics of J H Prynne - a poetics which at least in the case of Simon Fell can be applied to musical endeavour.
Some of these figures have become quite visible in the ensuing decades - Ackroyd is the obvious example, but another is Denise Riley - a close friend of Nick Totton's - whose sophisticated language poetry with its feminist slant has become more accepted than some of the others in the group. As is the case with some of Nick's later songs, Riley can be read as sharing some of the existential concerns of Sylvia Plath.
In what follows I draw on Dialogue and Estrangement by the academic Peter Gregson who takes a more conciliatory line that Andrew Duncan in linking Cambridge poetry to other cultural trends. Gregson picks out Riley's poem "Disintegrate Me" for comment which includes the passage a reference to:
"an old self magnifying wish
to throw away the self so violently that interrogation has to pause since its chief suspect has sloped off to be a cloud or wavery coloured bands."
The interrogation of the suspect sounds to me like a line from Totton and being a cloud sounds like one of the Hums of Pooh. The notion of rigorous self interrogation recalls Jim Morrison's 1969 article about how to interview oneself - an activity which requires very strict standards of self disclosure. Throwing yourself away violently sounds like Morrisons theory of rock performance.
Lets look at Peter Ackroyd's poetry mostly written in the 60s and 70s although it was collected in a slim volume published for the mainstream in 1987. Again I am going to rely on Gregson's criticism - he describes Ackroyd's poetry as an going through the process of sceptically peeling off layers of reality in the frustrated attempt to understand and engage:
"Reality looms and then recedes - activity in the world through the distorting process of being perceived and then transformed into language becomes a narrative and men and women become characters"
I have selected bits of Ackroyd's poem to illustrate what I think Gregson is getting at:
This beautiful fruit broken off the tree
A veiled remembrance of all this reality
At night I like to look up at the stars
And when I wake up I am glad to be alone
Just as things are brightest when they are stopped in mid-career
This sequence of feelings
Is described in the head
As a hymn to feeling
Leading me forward
He said, the day is like a code
No she said it is clearly over
We must wait for the collapse
Before we start a new life
Indistinct now as the sky fills with wings
On waking up and looking at the day
Like an engraving in a penny dreadful
Look down and read the faces in the crowd
Silent as if seen through a window
Now its my opinion that's whats going in those lyric examples is quite like some of the best loved and most quoted sections of Nick's songs
There's really no way of ending your problems with things you can say
Leave the things that are making you be what you really don't want to be
If he tells me all he knows about the way his river flows I don't suppose its meant for me
If lines in a song were part of a conversation the situation would be fine
Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that's past
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast.
Do you hope to find new ways
Of quenching your thirst,
Do you hope to find new ways
Of doing better than your worst.
All the things which the singer might have been first
And I was strong, strong in the sun I thought I'd see when day is done
Now I'm weaker than the palest blue Oh, so weak in this need for you.
Stay indoors Beneath the floors
Talk with neighbours only.
The games you play Make people say
You're either weird or lonely.
A city star Won't shine too far
On account of the way you are
And the beads Around your face
Make you sure to fit back in place.
Gregson uses the expression "Estrangement" to describe this existential state - which of course brings to mind the signature Doors tune People Are Strange. The estrangement arises because the subject is to use Heidegger's term "thrown"into a world where meaning is elusive and engagement slippery. Or as Morrison says of the Rider on the Storm - into this world your thrown like a dog without a bone - threatened by the killer on the road and the banality of children's games.
We noted that at one stage Morrison thought you could break on through to the otherside - via a performance style which was quite clearly the opposite of Nick Drakes. We might say following Morrison that this is Dionysus as against Apollo but I would add that the issue or the agenda is common.
I want to move onto a rather mysterious figure on the Cambridge scene - Veronica Forrest Thompson. Her dates are 1948 to 1975 and she has today a growing reputation both for her poetry and her theory of poetics which drew heavily on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. On the net you can find J H Prynne's memoir of this extraordinary individual. One of VFTs principles is as follows:
"If poetry is to justify itself it must assimilate the already known and subject to a reworking which suspends its categories"
And she illustrates this theory by explaining some of the complexities of Prynne's poetry where for example a Haydn String Quarter and its sonata form gets entangled with a domestic emotional development. As she puts it:
"In the best rational obscurity external contexts are brought into the poem and a new ordering which is also rational emerges"
An example perhaps
"Godard, the anthropological swan
floats on the Cam when day is done.
Levi-Strauss stands on a bridge and calls:
Birds love freedom; they build themselves homes;
They often engage in human relations.
Come, Godard, come, here, Godard, here. The halls
of Clare and Trinity, John's and Queens'
echo the sounds with scraping of chairs
and cramming of maws."
To make this work properly - so that the mechanism is smooth or judders in the right way you need a very sure technique - as VFT herself explains:
"The only coherence is on the level of technique. I think our metaphysics is the new technique of disconnected imagery which is the doom or the fate of the 20th century poet - who must simultaneously be detached and involved with language. That means he or she has all the old techniques of rhetoric but she or he must never make the mistake of thinking they solve anything."
VFT suggests that - in the words of the critic William Empson one must "learn a style from despair".
And of course that's what we find in the Drake songbook - fantastically high level of technique - and a style that is taken from despair - not in the expectation that this will solve anything - rather it will beautify and express estrangement and alienation.
If we had enough time we could take this idea further and look at the links between the techniques of Cambridge poetry and Nick's songs in the way I have tried to do with mood and theme. Andrew Duncan has identified 40 technical aspects which characterise the radical poetry of the 60s and 70s and there is an interesting exercise looming which would be to take each aspect and assess the extent to which it does or doesn't apply to the Drake songbook. That's for later perhaps.