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2005-02-22 - 9:45 a.m.

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Nick Drake and The Cambridge Poets - A Transatlantic Agenda

In his biography of Nick Drake, Patrick Humphries places his subject in the contemporary context in terms of UK rock music from the same time as the 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 Joe moved to LA and a job in that company.

The Elektra rosta is a good place to start - with Jim Morrison of the Doors - an Elektra act - and Nico whose Marble Index was released on Elektra. Nico and Morrison famously entered an intense liaison at “The Castle’ (cf Love’s Da Capo).

The link with Nick comes through John Cale who arranged at least two songs from Bryter Later - in his autobiography he claims there was a greater involvement. This involvement with Drake coincided with Cale's burgeoning interest in song forms and techniques. Cale was in London to arrange and produce Nico’s third album, Dersertshore, when he was drawn into involvement with some tracks from Bryter Later by Boyd, particularly Northern Sky and Fly.

There is a clear flow of ideas about the nature of 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, 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. So we see that some of the most innovative US songwriters circa 1970 - Browne, Nico, Morrison, Nyro - networked through Cale to the evolution of Bryter Later. Browne later went on to join the new Asylum label and indeed Geffen was interested in early 1972 in taking Drake into his stable. Unfortunately nothing came of this.

We can see this cluster take shape on Nico’s first solo album, Chelsea Girls, where songs by Browne and Dylan co-exist with radical sound experiments by Reid and Cale and excellent string arrangements and wind accompaniments.

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 UK 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 Loafers.

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 who 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 by this and other means the pair 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 started in the early 1980s and includes the innovative Cambridge 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.

Frith’s 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 NYC Downtown Scene - according to Kyle Gann (composer and music critic of the Village Voice) bringing a strong European flavour to proceedings.

I can remember Frith and Ian MacDonald (whose interpretations of the Drake ouevre are justly celebrated) jamming the blues together in Kings Cellar during my first year at the University . 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.

So we see already an agenda embracing the innovative extension of blues based guitar picking, radical poetics and the urge to push forward song forms.

The most celebrated literary figure to emerge from this mix is Peter Ackroyd the author and critic who also studied English and was an exact contemporary of Paul, Ian and myself. At about the time of the Caius May Ball, Ackroyd, Macdonald and others including the poet and theorist Nick Totton produced a slim volume of poetry entitled 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 have been 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. Riley has been read as sharing some of the existential concerns of Sylvia Plath - concerns which can also be traced in Drake’s lyrics.

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 discussion. He homes in on the passage from the Seven Lies in her most widely read collection, Mop Mop Gerorgette.

"an old self magnifying wishto 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 Morrison’s 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. Ackroyd crossed the Atlantic to study at Yale after Cambride and here became much more deeply with the poetry of John Asberry. Again I am going to rely on Gregson's criticism. He describes Ackroyd's poetry in terms 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

Such as

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 Drake’s. We might - following Schoenberg - say following Morrison that is on the side of Dionysus whereas Drake is with Apollo - but the agenda is common.

I want to move onto a rather mysterious figure on the Cambridge scene - Veronica Forrest Thompson (1948-75). Today after some years of neglect, she has 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 (see the analyses of Andrew Keeling and Robin Frederick) - 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.

Another exercise would be to look at Duncan’s characterisation of Oxford’s poetics and its media-friendly tropes and to assess the extent to which Drake while superficially fits the Oxford mould in the earlier part of his career . Certainly the album which would most easil is Bryter Later. At the other extreme is its sucessor, Pink Moon.

On his website www.andrewkeeling.ukf.net , composer Andrew Keeling discusses each of the three albums from a number of different points of view. He has just updated his analysis of Pink Moon with an annex drawing on information which has come to light in the last six years - and especially the fifth song from the last recordings - Tow the Line.

In both the 1998 analysis and the 2005 appendix Keeling utilises the White Goddess by Robert Graves as a source of imagery and discursive positioning. This aspect of the writing has particularly caught my attention for two reasons.

Following the publication of ‘Tuning Up at Dawn’ by Graves son, last year, it is now much easier to relate Graves and his circle to the cultural forces we are discussing here. The first and most obvious link would be via the Canterbury School of progressive rock, exemplified by Soft Machine, which now has extended so far as to include the Cambridge band Henry Cow. Core Cantetburyists, Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen, were part of the Majorca progressive music scene in the mid 1960s. Indeed that is where Wyatt learned his drumming technique. This lively scene even even attracted the Jimi Hendrix Experience early during their career.

Tomas Graves also reveals that his father Robert was a fan of the most advanced American jazz of the early 60s and would take pains to hear artists like Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane whenever he was in New York.

Daevid Allen had been part of Terry Riley’s circle in Paris during the crucial tape looping experiments based on Chet Baker’s version of the Miles Davis classic, So What He brought that experience and perspective to Majorca. At the very least this all suggests a certain congruence between Robert Graves’ outlook and the emerging radical music aesthetics of the mid 60s.

Graves’ White Goddess was published in the early 1950s and for a long while there was nothing quite like it on the UK cultural landscape , especially for anyone searching for a radical poetics amid the rigours and dullness of The Movement and FR Leavis.

At this point I would like to carve a chunk out of Jacqueline Rose’s book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, to open up the psychological and imagistic plane that Hughes helped to promulgate.

'I want to return to.... the interaction between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes - not in terms of sexual political drama - but in terms of the concept of sexual difference which is symbolically mediated between them.

For the idea of female transcendence takes on an added and crucial set of meanings when we discover it so clearly represented in own writing, and when we can trace it back to the to its own fullest articulation in the two main sources - Graves and Jung - on which Hughes and ,to some extent Plath herself, draws.

This is one of the sub-texts of Plath’s writing - a discourse, which is fully and historically specific, in which transcendence is not a way of being that women seize for themselves but something handed to them with all the weight of male fantasy and demand…………………………

a whole philosophy of culture. Celtic pre-Christian culture celebrated the female principle which survived into Catholicism but was finally destroyed or driven underground by the Puritain Revolution, that is responsible for the destructiveness of the contemporary world…………

Denied this principle becomes destructive. Above all it turns into an image of terror for the man………..

In Graves’ account, the ambivalence of the figure slides over on to its destructive pole.’

Rose goes onto review the way in which Hughes, Kroll and Uroff have used White Goddess cluster to give shape to Plath’s symbolic progression. She quotes Ulroff suggestion that the rising female of the last poems was ‘enlarged by her her absorption of the White Goddess…. A figure of power and fecundity - destructive and threatening, but in the end an identity to be celebrated and assumed.’

The mirror image of this is to be found in Keeling’s explication of Pink Moon and the five last songs. Having wrestled with Rose’s challenging analysis for some months and then drawn to Keeling’s latest contribution, I asked Andrew directly whether he thought that Drake was in the grip of a hostile feminine imago or archetype.

'This is what I've always felt. Realising the anima, for any man, is difficult. Women go through it in a more difficult way because the animus, for them, is more of the spirit whereas the anima is more earthy. Archetypes, when someone is in their power, can be destructive. That's why it behoves us to realise them. But with ND we also have to look at his background and the 'two worlds' which also rent him asunder.'

These interpretations push at our limits and this is one of the reason why we find the figures at their centre both haunted and haunting.

Within the contemporary critical orthodoxy, we would probably have to say that we don’t know what goes on in the poet’s or songwriter’s creative life or in their social and emotional life with any certainty. We have their work and their work engages us to make interpretations. The work creates an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ and as individuals with mutualities we are drawn into what they offer.

We feel compelled to try to make sense of what we are given and we do this with all the information and tools at our disposal. Fragments of biography inevitably find their way into our constructions.

I will leave the discussion by observing that as we engage with the work of a major female US poet and a major UK male songwriter various serious investigators are drawn to the same singular psychological-symbolic framework - a framework which has spawned a poetics which prevailed and overlapped with the more radical approach charted by Duncan. Within this framework we can see parallels and symmetries between the two cases and possibly with other cases

Back to Veronica Forrest-Thompson and in particular to ‘Veronica Forrest-Thompson and Language Poetry’ by Alison Mark. Mark notes that VFT approves of the use of parody by Ashberry, Prynne and Plath. Parody is a means of incorporating and balancing different systems of meaning. While Drake doesn’t parody (except with Mayfair Strange? ) , he is certainly a master at the use of multi-level structures within apparently simple song structures. There is of course a great irony in the co-existence of this creative balancing and the thought of an individual overwhelmed by psychic forces.

VFT disliked the over-easy identification of the biographical identity of the poet and the ‘I’ within the poem. The poet’s artifice encompasses the construction of the poetic identity. False naturalisation - to use VFT’s terminology - includes a premature rush to ground that identity. We are here at an interesting paradox - almost the Russell’s Paradox of Poetics. As the poet/songwriter artificially contructs a (lyric) identity for the work which is formally satisfying, might she or he nonetheless inadvertently give themselves away as larger structures engage at the margin of creative conciousness? Or are such structures always human creations, historically bounded, and subject to the logic of collective interest, however covert? Where is the solid ground?

On the one hand we have lived experience in all its idiosyncrasy and peculiarity - that of the writer and our own which presses us to make sense of the writer's; on the other we have the structures - shared and rule-governed that we use to make sense - create sense. Who knows what dirty history come with the structures to shape our own dirty secrets- and aspirations.

From Claire Colebrooke: Gilles Deleuze: “Not only structuralism but the history of Western thought have been based on being and identity. We have always imagined that there is some being that then goes through becoming…………………Post-structuralism rejected the idea that we could examine a static structure of differences that might give us some some foundation for knowing the world.” >

We can stop there - for what Plath, Drake and VFT offer is the invitation to share in their evolving structure - their trajectory - for their developing/dissolving foundations for knowing their worlds.

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