Thursday, April 12, 2012

Some Gentle Thoughts on Gentility: A Quiet Word

There was an interesting review in the London Review of Books recently about the exhibition, Picasso in England, at Tate Britain. this exhibition pits Picasso against his English imitators, which include Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and others. It's obvious who comes off the best: there are few painters of the 20th Century who come anywhere close to Picasso; but when I went to see it, I didn't think the English painters did all that badly.

The reviewer of the LRB, however, went for the usual argument that the trouble with the English was their gentility. Picasso took risks and was revolutionary and did things that no-one else would dare; while the British 'prettied things up' and made a much more modest modernism that was more acceptable to the patrons and buyers in Britain. Britain as usual is portrayed as being suspicious of Modernism, hanging back and trying to incorporate a more 'traditional' approach.

Well, yes, there is some force in this argument; but it's also somewhat unfair to suppose that British artists were always hampered by their 'gentility'. Ben Nicholson, for instance, was not just influenced by Picasso, but  by the neo-plasticism of Mondrian, the 'folk art' of an old sea-dog and other things. His pictures have a quiet grace about them that insinuates itself into your head. Graham Sutherland's tortured landscapes are not conventionally pretty, and seem as influenced by his Catholicism as by Picasso.

We English people have a habit of doing ourselves down. Self-deprecating humour was probably invented by an Englishman. We also like to think of ourselves as somewhat apart from what is going on elsewhere. Sometimes, our modernist instincts are quieter, less noisy than, say, Cubism or Dada; despite its desperate attempts to be radical, Vorticism seems like a late guest to the party, who's only dressing up in radical chic.

Sometimes European and American modernism can seem a bit shouty: look at how radical I'm being!!! Sometimes we need to shout more, and not be so gentle.

With poetry, I find myself loving the quietness of a poet like Lee Harwood; whereas I've only ever been able to admire Charles Olson's more insistently radical poetry. Again, with Roy Fisher, I find a quietly insistent voice, not an inyerface shouty man on a soapbox, which is how Olson sometimes comes across.

Gentility definitely has its bad side: too many mainstream poems read like 'polite literature', not really saying very much. Not that you could accuse Larkin of gentility; but many of his followers seem like they'd never frighten anyone's horses. Edward Thomas is the very model of a modest voice; which is all very well, and no-one can deny he was a good poet. Not, I think, a great one though; because, like so many mainstream poets, he was afraid to take risks. He rejected Pound because he was too scared of the opinions of others.

So: I do like the gentleness one sometimes finds in English poets, at least some of the time (though there are radical poets like Maggie O'Sullivan and Geraldine Monk for whom that's not a good adjective.) But I dislike the way much mainstream poetry is almost afraid of its own shadow. Explore the shadow of your English reserve, however, and you may just find something deeper than the nicely modest poetry of an Andrew Motion.

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