All entries for April 2007

April 23, 2007

'This is Just to Say' by William Carlos Williams

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

April 13, 2007

Raymond Williams’ Conclusion to Culture and Society

The history of the idea of culture is a record of our reactions in thought and feeling, to the changed conditions of our common life. Our meaning of culture is a response to the events which our meanings of industry and democracy most evidently define. (285).

In making his conclusions, a triad of influence that has preoccupied the book is raised again in the shape of culture, democracy and industry. Culture is according to Williams’ a reaction to changes ‘in the condition of our common life’ (285). Different reactions and resulting situations have created different cultures and consequently there are many different kinds of culture:

The idea of culture describes our common inquiry but our conclusions are diverse, as our starting points were diverse. The word, culture, cannot automatically be pressed into service as any kind of social or personal directive. (285)

Of the three major issues at stake in these developments (art, industry, democracy), each has three phases which Williams proceeds to describe. I outline his findings in the table below.





1. 1790 – 1870: a phase of working out new attitudes to industrialism and democracy.

The rejection of production and the social relations of the factory system

Concern at the threat of minority values by popular supremacy of the new masses.

A period of questioning the intrinsic value of art and its importance to the common life.

2. 1870 – 1914: narrower fronts, specialism in the arts, direct politics.

Sentiment versus the machine.

Emphasis on community, society versus the individual ethic.

Defiant exile: art for art’s sake.

3. 1914 – 1945: a phase of large scale organisations and the mass media.

Acceptance of machine production.

Fears of the first phase are renewed in the context of ‘mass-democracy’ and ‘mass communications’.

The reintegration of art with the common life of society centred on the word ‘communication’.

Some of these opinions concerning art, industry and democracy did of course cross periods, but they were not the common or general view according to Williams.

Mass and Masses

Williams notices that the word ‘masses’ is often associated with a ‘mob’ and he sees this emerging from three social tendencies:

  • the concentration of population in industrial towns;

  • the concentration of workers in factories;

  • and the development of an organized and self-organizing working class prone to social and political massing.

    Yet the masses was a new word for mob, and the traditional characteristics of the mob were retained it its significance: gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit. The masses, on this evidence, formed a perpetual threat to culture. Mass-thinking, mass-suggestion, mass-prejudice would threaten to swamp considered individual thinking and feeling. Even democracy, which had both a classical and a liberal reputation, would lose its savour in becoming mass-democracy. (288)

Williams sees the new problem as the power of the media to change public opinion. Yet he also finds a certain prejudice in the term, ‘mass-democracy’. Democracy is the rule of the majority and Williams wonders whether this might also constitute mass rule, mob rule of the rule of lowness and mediocrity. Williams considers the label, ‘masses’, and identifies it with working people:

But if this is so, it is clear that what is in question is not only gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice or lowness of taste and habit. It is also from the open record, the declared intention of the working people to alter society in many of its aspects, in ways which those to whom the franchise was formerly restricted deeply disapprove. (288)

For Williams, Mass-democracy does not exist, there is only democracy: ‘Masses=majority cannot be glibly equated with masses=mob’ (289).

In continuing to challenge the term, ‘masses’, Williams considers the notion of the individual or ‘man in the street’. Williams asks, are we each only the man on the street or are we something more than that? In a collective image, the masses are different to us as we are unique individual yet they are similar so that the public includes us yet is not us.

I do not think of my relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, as masses ; we none of us can or do. The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know. Yet now, in our kind of society, we see those others regularly, in their myriad variations, stand, physically, beside them. They are here and we are here with them. And that we are with them is of course the whole point. To the other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people. (289)

This way of seeing others is sometimes exploited though for political and cultural motives.

Mass Communication

The rise of the printing press was intensified in 1811 by the invention of the steam driven press and by rotary presses in 1815. Transport links have improved as have telecommunications. Broadcasting, television and film have emerged. From these developments, Williams notes a greater number of paper publications at a lower price, more bills and posters, the rise of RV and broadcasting programmes and the art of film. How valuable are these developments?

The development of the media has brought a means of communication that is more impersonal: using photography of actors rather than actors, radio broadcasts rather than meetings. However Williams says that we cannot always compare conventional and mass communication fairly. The result of mass communication has simply been a change in the activities on which time is spent. Some critics dislike the one-way sending of information, but Williams points to reading, which has been providing information with no immediate possibility of response for centuries.

Williams uses the term ‘multiple transmission’ to describe the expansion of audience that mass communication has provided. The audience has grown as a result of growing general education and technical improvements and by some it is labelled mass communication. With such a large audience, the media can no longer retain such a personal feel, yet Williams bel;ieves that it is useful for some kinds of address. His question though is, what information is being communicated and how? It depends of course on the intentions of the broadcaster. Williams suggests that broadcasts can be, ‘art. education, the givingf of information and opinion’ or ‘manipulation – the persuasion of a large number of people to act, feel, think, know, in certain ways’ (292).

Mass Observation

Are the masses a mob? If it were so, then this would be a negative aspect to mass communication and also to mass culture or popular culture. Williams believes though that it is a question of interpretation. There is always bad popular art, ‘written by skilled and educated people for a public that hasn’t the time, or hasn’t the education, or hasn’t, let’s face it, the intelligence to read anything more complete, anything more careful, anything nearer the known canons of exposition or argument’ (294). However there is some popular art that is ‘bright, attractive, popular’ even if it is mediocre in comparison with high art (294).

Popular culture supposedly emerged after the Education Act of 1870 when a mass literate public developed. However points to the 1730s and 40s when a middle class reading public demanded ‘that vulgar phenomenon, the novel’ (295). Williams points out that there was literacy before 1870.

Williams notes also that much of the art produced for the working classes came from institutions on high, ‘for conscious political or commercial advantage’ (295). The working classes did produce some publications such as radical pamphlets, political newspapers and publicity, but this was quite different to the literature produced for them. This new bad literature from institutions was also absorbed by the middle classes and the masses cannot so easily be equated with the mob.

Contemporary historians concentrate on this bad literature and ignore the fact that as an introduction of a greater literate society, followers of all art forms have increased. Williams thinks that the problem is that of the high art critic comparing his own tastes to popular ones. What Williams calls strip papers (probably equivalent to our tabloids) reproduce the kind of communication that go on in working class communities to produce ‘that complex of rumour and traveller’s tales which then served the majority as news of a kind’ (298). Popular culture is not necessarily low in taste although appreciation of literature should be significant in a society’s education.

The problem with the mass media is that in order to make profit it needs huge audiences, and thus it will draw audiences in as much as it can and profit from people’’s ignorance. Williams praises the local newspaper which is higher in quality than the strip newspaper and is read by working class people: ‘Produced for a known community on the basis of common interest and common knowledge, the local newspaper is not governed by ‘mass’ interpretation’ (300). The regional newspaper is not based on the reader’s lack of education but on a regional and social grouping.

Communication and Community

Williams notes that communication, ‘is not only transmission, it si also reception and response’ (301). Williams shows anxiety about mass communications use of enticing psychological and linguistic strategies, but he states that, ‘any real theory of communication is also a theory of community’ (301). Williams believes that there has been a dominative theory of communication that has called for the science of penetrating the mass mind:

It is easy to recognize a dominative theory if, for other reasons, we think it to be bad, A theory that a minority should profit by employing a majority in wars of gain is easily rejected. A theory that a minority should profit by employing a mass of wage slaves is commonly rejected. A theory that a minority should reserve the inheritance of knowledge to itself, and deny it to the majority, is occasionally rejected. (301)

Mass communication has been though to be a minority exploiting a majority, yet Williams states that we are all democrats now. Some may wish to educate the majority through mass communication, but Williams questions their methods, because what is really called for is, ‘telling as an aspect of living; learning as an element of experience’ (302). Where education fails, it indicates a failure of communication which produces a reaction. Williams is adamant that people will not be told what to believe but must learn by experience. A dominative attitude indicates distrust concerning the masses with their strikes and riots, but Williams explains that there are not marks of untrustworthiness, but ‘symptoms of a basic failure in communication’ (303). Strike are then, ‘a confused, vague reaction against the dominative habit’ (303). Some governments rely on apathy and inertia to control the masses (this strikes a chord), but this is disastrous for democracy and the common interest. Transmission must be ‘an offering’ that recognises equality of being (304).

Culture and Which Way of Life?

Williams points out that while in the past culture was the pastime of ‘the old leisured classes’ it is now ‘the inheritance of the new rising class’ (306). For Williams, ‘working class culture’ is key. Working class culture is not the dissident element of proletarian writing such as post-Industrial ballads. Neither is it a simple alternative to Marxist-defined, ‘bourgeois culture’, a term that evokes Williams’ scepticism. Williams writes that, ‘even in a society in which a particular class is dominant, it is evidently possible both for members of other classes to contribute to the common stock, and for such contributions to be unaffected by or in opposition to the ideas and values of the dominant class’ (307). Williams is not then setting up Working Class Culture as an opponent to tradition, but suggests something more complex.

In the development of culture, Williams believes that the common language of English plays an important role. Williams criticises the upholding of standard English and he wonders whether the English language could be put to more interesting uses (308-309).

Williams wonders whether there is ‘any meaning left in “bourgeois” ’ and he notes that education has enabled a more even access to culture. Yet a culture is in turn dictated by a subject’s way of life:

We may now see what is properly meant by ‘working-class culture’. It is not proletarian art, or council houses, or a particular use of language; it is rather the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intention which proceed from this. Bourgeois culture, similarly, is the basic individualist idea and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intention which proceed from that. […] The culture which it [the working class] has produced […] is the collective democratic institution, whether in the trade unions, the co-operative movement or a political party. Working-class culture, in the stage through which it has been passing, is primarily social (in that it has created institutions) rather than individual (in particular intellectual or imaginative work). When it is considered in context, it can be seen as a very remarkable creative achievement. (313)

The Idea of Community

Williams believes that there are two notions of community: one of service (middle class) and the other of solidarity (working class). Williams describes his experience of growing up in a community of solidarity and his difficulty in understanding the servant system in England. He turns to a political pamphlet entitled How we are Governed which demands conformity in a kind of national service system, but Williams states: ‘The idea of service, ultimately, is no substitute for the idea of active mutual responsibility’ (316). The notion of service offers someone a role in which they simply perform a function and without the solidarity of Williams’ community must climb the ladder of promotion and success alone.

The Development of a Common Culture

Solidaity in contrast with service is, ‘potentially the real basis of a society’, yet Williams realises that the negative, defensive aspects of solidarity must be changed (318). Williams recommends that ‘diversity has to be substantiated within an effective community which disposes of majority power’ and that the aim must be that of ‘achieving diversity without creating separation’ (318, 319). Solidarity does not mean exclusion: ‘A good community, a living culture, will […] not only make room for but actively encourage all and any who can contribute to the advance in consciousness which is the common need’ (320). Neither does solidarity mean being closed to possibilities, since ‘while the closed fist is a necessary symbol, the clenching ought never to be such that the hand cannot open, and the fingers extend, to discover and give shape to the newly forming reality’ (320).


Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society 1780 - 1950. 1958.  London: Penguin, 1985.

Towards a Minor Literature (Article for PN Review)

Not rated

Gwyneth Lewis, Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe, 2006). £9.95.

Creu gwir in these stones
Fel gwydr horizons
O ffwrnais awen sing.

This untitled poem is Gwyneth Lewis’ most prominent, as it appears in carved letters on the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff. The poem is preoccupied with gwir or truth and the difficulty of communicating authentically. The problem of defining place is significant, since stones hold fragile horizons of gwydr (glass). The role of the poet is to melt the transparency of glass or truth in the ffwrnais awen, the furnace of the muse or poetic gift. These themes – communication, home, poetic inspiration – are present in Lewis’ Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, which brings together three collections to create a formidable body of work.

Chaotic Angels covers ten years of Lewis’ writing in English encompassing her early collection Parables and Faxes (1995), the playful Zero Gravity (1998) and the pinnacle of her achievement, Keeping Mum (2003). For the first time, the reader is able to map her journey towards the role that Lewis played as the National Poet of Wales. The book suggests the importance of Lewis’ English-language work, yet she is also a poet of Cymraeg (the Welsh language) who describes bilingualism as a feeling that ‘not everyone understands the whole of your personal speech’. One cannot help wondering why a volume mapping the trajectory of Lewis’ work does not include her poetry in Cymraeg, even if we admit the difficulties of co-operation between publishers. (Barddas publishes Lewis’ poetry in Cymraeg.) Yet this choice would seem to fit with Lewis’ poetics when she writes how remaining within one’s native tongue ‘will only take you so far along the route of your experiential journey’.

In their definition of a minor literature, Delueze and Guattari suggest that in order for a minor culture to represent itself it must subvert a major language by de-territorializing that language and making it their own. Lewis’ style is certainly idiosyncratic in its use of the English language, as she synthesises conversational banter and paradoxical sounding maxims. The form looks orderly on the page often in regular stanzas, yet the line breaks often disrupt a train of thought. The metre works to a tune of its own, part influenced by the rhythms of cynghanedd and part devoted to the colloquial dialects that dominate the South Wales Valleys.

The garrulous gossip of English speakers and the ancient rhythms of Cymraeg are often pitted against one another as in ‘Her End’ where Cymraeg is figured as a dying matriarch:

The end was dreadful. Inside a dam burst
and blood was everywhere. Out of her mouth
came torrents of words, da yw dant
i atal tafod, gogiannau’r Tad
in scarlet flower – yn Abercuawg
yd ganant gogau – the blood was black,
full of filth, a well that amazed
with its vivid idioms – bola’n holi ble mae ’ngheg?

The gossipy tone falls into a fairly regular rhythm, but the placing of ‘everywhere’ in the second line induces a pause to contemplate the profusion of the image, of the blood. The expectant line-break after ‘Out of her mouth’ propels us on to the inclusion of the expunged and bloodied language. The phrases in Cymraeg are emphatic (‘good are the teeth to stop the tongue’), avowed (‘the glories of the Father’) and nostalgic (‘in Abercuawg sing the cuckoos’). In contrast, the English-language is associated with examination, description and fascination and cannot build up a similar rhythm. The more cadenced monosyllabic words are broken up when the English speaker becomes self-conscious about language using the word ‘idioms’. The beat of Cymraeg continues even if the message is confused (‘the stomach asks where the mouth is?’). This juxtaposition sets two languages at odds. The English language maintains distance and detachment, while Welsh is inconsistent, confused and elliptic. It is not that Lewis prefers one language over the other, but she displays the extent to which language defines one’s thoughts and identity. The gwir or ‘truth’ desired by Lewis exists in the fragile relationship between minor and major languages.

Like many Welsh poets, Lewis has an ambivalent relationship to home. In ‘Hedge’, the speaker fails to escape her origins; rather she has only ‘pulled up a country’ which is ‘still round my shoulders, with its tell-tale scent’. Yet Lewis will not be bounded by nationality. To Lewis, ‘voracity is a sign of plenitude’ and Lewis is voracious. From the arid culture of the early sequence, ‘Illinois Idylls’ to the perambulatory poems of ‘Parables and Faxes’, Lewis demands new material for Welsh poetry and this desire propels her into the cosmos in ‘Zero Gravity’. Subtitling the sequence, ‘A Space Requiem’, Lewis confounds the journey of her astronaut cousin into space with the death of her sister-in-law: ‘Out of sight? Out of mind? / On her inward journey / she’s travelled beyond…’ Here Lewis is concerned with the invisible and the unseen. The line-break after ‘beyond’ teases and it is never clear what freedom the unknown will bring. Lewis synthesises the macrocosmic and microcosmic so that a journey into outer space becomes a voyage into inner space, yet the outcome of such an experience is nothingness and silence.

In the preface to Keeping Mum, Lewis writes how ‘wordlessness is usually a clue that something more truthful than our account of the world is being approached’. The summit of Keeping Mum and its poetics of silence is the sequence, ‘Chaotic Angels’, from which this new volume derives its name. Lewis creates a new order of divine beings concerned with the invisible, the minor, the silent. ‘Pagan Angel’ transforms the compact muscle of the heart into ‘a chamber whose broody dead / stage pagan rituals’ while the invisible breath of wind creates an Aeolian Harp from ‘stone lintels, making a tune / about absent bodies’. When the question is asked, ‘Where’s the angel acoustic?’, Lewis must answer enigmatically and elliptically: ‘My dear, the curlew. The quickening rain.’

April 11, 2007

Gwyn Thomas: Different Views

Gwyn Thomas (1913 – 1981) originated from the Rhondda Valley, South Wales and while working as a schoolmaster, he became one of Wales’ darkest, funniest and most insightful novelists. He is not to be confused with Gwyn Thomas (born 1936) the poet who is currently Wales’ National Poet.

Owen Sheers

The writers in the Library’s initial selection were all aware of this delicate relationship between Welsh lives and English governance and this awareness informs the strong political vein running through the novels. This is perhaps handled most deftly in Raymond Williams’ Border Country and Gwyn Thomas’ trio of novellas The Dark Philosophers. In the title novella Thomas (who described his work as “Chekhov with chips”) switches neatly into the inclusive first-person-plural voice that would become his trademark, thereby planting his narrator firmly within the “we” of common experience, reflecting the communal living of the South Wales terraces where he both learnt and set his fiction. In all three of these stories Thomas carries his politics lightly yet also gives it an eloquent, arresting voice. “We cursed within our own minds,” says the narrator of The Dark Philosophers, “the sterile cold and loneliness we had lived in for many years when misery and anger killed the music within us, and we thought sorrowfully of all those many voters lying around about us in the Terraces who had been made numb and stupid by poverty, dead even to the divine beauty created by man.” (The writers in the Library’s initial selection were all aware of this delicate relationship between Welsh lives and English governance and this awareness informs the strong political vein running through the novels. This is perhaps handled most deftly in Raymond Williams’ Border Country and Gwyn Thomas’ trio of novellas The Dark Philosophers. In the title novella Thomas (who described his work as “Chekhov with chips”) switches neatly into the inclusive first-person-plural voice that would become his trademark, thereby planting his narrator firmly within the “we” of common experience, reflecting the communal living of the South Wales terraces where he both learnt and set his fiction. In all three of these stories Thomas carries his politics lightly yet also gives it an eloquent, arresting voice. “We cursed within our own minds,” says the narrator of The Dark Philosophers, “the sterile cold and loneliness we had lived in for many years when misery and anger killed the music within us, and we thought sorrowfully of all those many voters lying around about us in the Terraces who had been made numb and stupid by poverty, dead even to the divine beauty created by man.”
On the Guardian Website

Peter N. Williams

Caradog Evans did not conform; his works condemn what he saw as failings of the Welsh character. Whatever the opinions of his writing, Caradog Evans has a firm place as one of the founding fathers of Anglo-Welsh literature. His loathing was matched by that of Gwyn Thomas, who had nothing but contempt for the Welsh language and for those who wrote in it (notably those from the northern and western areas of Wales where Welsh stubbornly remained the first language of the majority).
Suite 101

Rachel Tresize

Gwyn Thomas, who was a very famous south Walean author, said that most of people in the valleys were people that missed the boat to America and I think that was very true…

Tony Bianci

Wales generated neither a vigorous modernism nor its own agencies of mass popularisation. Instead, it conversed with itself in (or against) the idioms of its two dominating collective pieties: one religious, the other political and industrial. These pieties certainly had their dark underbellies, and there were writers bent on exposing them. ‘Mice and rats, as it is said, frequent neither churches nor poor men’s houses.’ The opening words of Caradoc Evans’s ‘Be This Her Memorial’ (My People, 1915 and Seren 2001) set the scene for a tale as sombre, brooding and claustrophobic as any noir narrative. And its brand of the monstrous, like the Gothic mode of his contemporary, Arthur Machen, and the later, incarcerating ‘Terraces’ of Gwyn Thomas’s The Dark Philosophers (1946), are all close relations of the noir. Indeed, a distinctive Welsh noir idiom might have been their legacy. But the collective narratives of class and nation prevailed, and the shadow of their decline has been a long one. We had to wait for post-modernism’s questioning of all such narratives, together with its hybridisation of genres, before a shift was possible.
Welsh Literature Abroad

Other Links
BBC pays tribute
Bibliography on the Fantastic Fiction Website
Wikipedia Entry

April 03, 2007

Women Writing Rape (28th April 2007)

Writing about web page

This is just a note to remind you about a symposium that is being organised at the University of Warwick entitled ‘Women Writing Rape: Literary and Theoretical Narratives of Sexual Violence’ (Saturday 28th April 2007). The symposium emerges from the failure of feminism in theorising rape. It seems to have been left to women writers to interrogate the representation of women and rape and this event aims to analyse how these writers have subverted terms such as ‘victim’, ‘experience’, ‘survivor’, ‘active’ and ‘passive’.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Ananya Jahanara Kabir of University of Leeds, will be speaking on the politics and polemics of how rape is represented in contemporary South Asia. Her talk is titled: ‘Double Violation? (Not)Talking about Rape in Contemporary South Asia’. There will be two panels of speakers on the topic of women writing rape. In addition, there will be a reading of cutting-edge creative work by the novelist Patricia Duncker and a creative writing workshop. The event is supported by the Feminist and Women Studies Association and by departments at the University of Warwick including the Centre for Caribbean Studies, English and Comparative Literary Studies and the Centre for Women and Gender.

If you could pass on this information to colleagues, I would be extremely grateful. I include the programme in the body of this post. For more information see our website:


Women Writing Rape: Literary and Theoretical Narratives of Sexual Violence

Saturday 28th April 2007

All papers, readings and workshops will take place in the Social Studies Building, Ground Floor, Room S0.20.

09.30 Registration and Coffee (Social Studies Café, Ground Floor)

10.00 Welcome and introduction

10.10 Keynote Speaker: Dr. Ananya Jahanara Kabir, University of Leeds: ‘Double Violation? (Not)Talking about Rape in Contemporary South Asia’

11.00 Panel 1: Women Writing Rape Chaired by Dr. Rashmi Varma (3×15 minute papers plus fifteen minutes for discussion)

*Dr Zoë Waxman, Royal Holloway, University of London – ‘Testimony and Silence: Sexual Violence and the Holocaust’
*Fiona McCann, Université Paris III – ‘Writing Rape and Torture: Dissolution, Dismemberment and Resistance in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins and Zoe Wicomb’s David’s Story’
*Catherine Marks, University of Southampton – ‘The Power of Dreams: Sexual Violence in Frantz Fanon’s ‘Algeria Unveiled’ and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood’

12.00 Lunch (Social Studies Café)

13.00 Panel 2: Women Writing Rape (Chair tba) (3×15 minute papers plus fifteen minutes for discussion)

*Dr Lisa Fitzpatrick, University of Ulster – ‘The Representation of Rape in the Work of Sarah Kane and Marina Carr’
*Deborah Finding, London School of Economics – ‘“Thanks for making me a fighter”: Sexual Violence Narratives in Popular Music’
*Christine Holly, University of York – ‘“To Have and to Hold, but not to Violate”: Deconstructing Newspaper Representations of Marital Rape’

14.00 Fiction Reading By Prof. Patricia Duncker

14.45 Coffee Break

15:15 Creative Writing Workshop Run by Zoë Brigley

16.15 Summing Up and Close

April 02, 2007

'To the Harbormaster' by Frank O' Hara

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

In Meditations in an Emergency .


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