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DAVID KENNEDY - MARCH 2000 FEATURE  

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FEATURE

Stephen Dunn
Philip Dacey interviews his friend Stephen Dunn and discusses Rilke, T.S. Eliot, and New Jersey.

John Kinsella
Sleep's Zeitgeber: The next installment in John Kinsella's fast-paced and exclusive autobiography series.

David Kennedy
The Days of '49: Whether you remember the era or not, David Kennedy reviews the book by Alan Halsey and Gavin Selerie.

David Kennedy

David KennedyDavid Kennedy was born in Leicester, England in 1959.  He co-edited The New Poetry (Bloodaxe Books 1993), and is the author of New Relations: The Refashioning Of British Poetry 1980-1994 (Seren 1996).  A selection of translations from Max Jacob’s surrealist classic Le Cornet à Dés (The Dice Cup), in collaboration with Christopher Pilling, is forthcoming from Atlas later this year.  He lives in Sheffield.
David Kennedy - Book Review

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Days of '49
by Alan Halsey and Gavin Selerie 
pbk, £12.95, WestHouse Books, ISBN 0 9531509 1 7


When the cultural historians of the future come to survey the poetry of the twentieth century, it seems likely that one focus of their attention will be the anxious relationship between poetry and history. It is an anxiety that is discernible in Yeats' "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?"; in Auden's refusal to let "September 1st 1939" be reprinted in his lifetime; and in the New York School's camp disregard for the Cold War '50s. As the example of O'Hara and his friends might suggest, the relationship between poetry and history is not just a matter of arguing whether poetry can or should comment on world events or current events. The particular nature of poetry—the private action that is also a form of public cultural, political and social behaviour—makes that relationship into a question of what the British poet Sean O'Brien has called "a private occupancy of history, the way in which events make themselves felt in the private life."

But to imagine and describe this private occupancy is to imagine and describe an extremely complex thing because a private occupancy of history is no longer just a case of each individual being born at one particular time and living through another. The development of various communications technologies throughout the twentieth century have not only made the present recordable: they have made the past infinitely recoverable. We are not yet be able to purchase the neural memory implants in Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the fiction which was the basis of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Total Recall." But we can buy birthday cards, videos and facsimile newspaper editions which tell us all about what happened in the year and on the actual day of our birth. In this sense, we are located in and have ownership of histories that we can't remember and have never actually experienced.

It is this occupancy of history that is partly behind Alan Halsey's and Gavin Selerie's beautifully produced collaborative text Days of '49. The book contains a number of poems but is probably best described as a collage which mixes original poetry and prose, found texts, visual collages and a vast body of quotations from sources as diverse as Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, George Orwell, Paul Bowles and Raymond Chandler. The idea of Days of '49 is best conveyed by quoting from its back cover blurb:

In 1949, the USSR exploded its first A-bomb, Goree Carter sang Rock Awhile, [...] Charlie Parker played at the Paris Jazz Fair, Ezra Pound won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, William Burroughs lived in Algiers Louisiana, Bette Davis starred in Beyond The Forest, the People's Republic of China was established, a foot X-RAY first appeared in a movie [...] and Alan Halsey and Gavin Selerie were born. In Days of '49 they celebrate their fiftieth birthdays.

However, I think that Days of '49 is more than a celebration or a book-length list of amusing juxtapositions, more than just Alan Halsey's and Gavin Selerie's own birth year "video". In this sense, the blurb is a part of the work because it both directs and misdirects the reader. Like birthday history videos, it promises an encyclopaedic account of 1949 in which the People's Republic of China is not more important than a minor Bette Davis movie, but reading the book disappoints this expectation. On the contrary, reading the book confirms how, like its blurb, Days of '49 generally privileges particular cultural events over global political ones. And this raises a number of really interesting questions for the reader. For example, are Halsey and Selerie writing history or autobiography? What does it mean to write these things and what sort of writing is Days of '49? Another set of questions revolves around the actual text which not only collages well-known novels but in a series of four "Raised Documents" quotes from, among other things, letters by Nancy Mitford, W.S.Graham, Malcolm Lowry and Sylvia Plath's diary. How do such writings celebrate the individual? Are they designed to deflect us away from or direct us to the very heart of what might be termed Halsey's and Selerie's secret selves?

One possible answer to these sorts of questions is detectable through several references to and quotations from the poet W.S.Graham. Graham—perhaps best known for his long sequence "The Nightfishing"—is an often overlooked but nonetheless important writer whose work and its reception can be said to stand for a self-reflexive strain in postwar English poetry and the way it has been deprivileged in favour of variations on social realism. Graham's work is notable for what the critic Neil Corcoran calls "its radical sense of identity as an unstable dispersal among the letters of a text" and its conception that "the poem is always dialogue, community, invitation and intertext." This might make Graham's poetry sound forbiddingly theoretical but it is always clear and accessible and often humorous. Days of '49 certainly enacts a similar sense of self and of text as intertext. Indeed, by presenting us with a temporal network of particular cultural events and writers' voices, Halsey and Selerie are both writing themselves into that network and asking us to consider how they are written by it. This suggests a conception of poetry not as confession or self-expression but as record and recognition that the individual is somehow an expression of history as well as being expressed by it. And this, in its turn, suggests a conception of cultural production in which, to quote the novelist Ronald Sukenick, "form is not a thing, it's an activity".

Form as activity clearly involves the reader. Days of '49 brought to mind Umberto Eco's observation in Six Walks In The Fictional Woods that "every text is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work." Alan Halsey's and Gavin Selerie's compelling celebration of their fiftieth birthdays challenges you to become what Eco calls a "model reader" and in so doing invites you to participate in a kind of performative meditation about history, poetry and texts and about the private life and global systems. And this makes Days of '49 particularly timely and valuable when the end of one millennium and the start of another seem to have been reduced to matters of mere journalism.

 

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© 2002 The Cortland Review