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Monday, November 10, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Objectivism and John Seed: Reznikoff, Shelley and the Peterloo Massacre

Objectivism – particularly as a poetic hygiene of concision and attention – can be traced in the poetics of many writers of the British Poetry Revival (and after), often allied to a general interest in Pound through to Olson, the whole technical inheritance from Imagism to Projectivism which, because retrospectively experienced, arrived at once and often without temporal discrimination. (After all, it was chiefly being read for pleasure or to provoke and stimulate literary production, not critical analysis or historical account.) There were direct contacts: Zukofsky visited Gael Turnbull and Roy Fisher in the 1950s, for example, and writers as different as Jonathan Griffin and Charles Tomlinson can be found associating with both the writers and writings of Objectivism. Two particular British contexts are important. One was the work of poet Andrew Crozier in re-discovering Carl Rakosi in the 1960s (indeed, re-energising him to write again, an extraordinary circumstance that continued until Rakosi’s death, aged 100 in 2004). The other was the existence of a British (he might have insisted upon English, even Northern English) Objectivist poet, Basil Bunting. It may be no accident that his native North East (where he had re-settled after a lifetime’s wandering) was not only the specific site in terms of subject matter and place of writing of Bunting’s late masterpiece Briggflatts, but of admiring and younger objectivist-orientated writers, from Tom Pickard in 1960s Newcastle to Richard Caddel in 1970s and 1980s Newcastle and Durham. And also of John Seed (from Chester-le-Street, near Durham).    

 John Seed’s recent book – though not his most recent – Manchester: August 16th & 17th1819 (London:Intercapillary Space, 2013) is a gift to a project I had already agreed to undertake before it was published, a piece on Seed in relation to ‘After’ Objectivism (the word ‘after’ in scare quotes). My proposal promised to look at the influence of Objectivism on British writing.

Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819  was a ‘lost’ manuscript (a bit of a theme on Pages, what with the publication of the ‘lost’ Lowry novel being the feature of this year’s Lowry Lounge) – but of course, like Lowry’s text, someone unscheduled, as it were, had kept a carbon copy (even if Richard Caddel, in my memory a rather fastidious editor and publisher, had lost the typed original).

I have a post about Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ project here, largely written before my encounter with this early little gem, but one that is consonant with it, since it analyses Seed’s techniques of appropriation, both clearly derived from Reznikoff and analogous to developments in ‘conceptual’ writing. I won’t be pursuing that second avenue in this piece, but looking at the inheritance from Reznikoff. Seed’s lyrical poems owe (in terms of lineation) to Oppen, and that connection (through dedicated poems and echoes) seemed paramount, even perhaps to the level of an anxiety of influence (though we don’t need Bloom or the whole thing there). Some of the poems from Pictures from Mayhew themselves may be read here on Pages.

Forced, perhaps, by the text’s brevity, to provide a fuller ‘Afterword’ – that old TS Eliot circumstance – Seed outlines the writing of Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819 and presents his direct communications with Reznikoff at some length. In July 1973 Reznikoff replies to a letter containing a copy of the poem (or part of it; perhaps another copy lies in a Reznikoff archive?), not with a critique, or a patronising pat on the head, but with a series of practical suggestions for publication, even offering to send it to his publisher Black Sparrow, though Seed thinks Reznikoff was just being kind. (I’m not so sure; it looks genuine to me.) Seed in return indicates that he had been using Testimony in his student teaching practice, with Hull schoolchildren (as stimulus for their own creative appropriations of local news sources). This is worth thinking about as a pretty radical gesture ‘for those days’ (I was going to write, but actually there were some pretty radical things going on in schools at that time, as not now, and some contemporary school poetry anthologies of the era were quite advanced, with works by Cobbing, Harwood, Paul Evans, Adrian Mitchell in them. I was at school then and I’d discovered collage techniques, via The Waste Land as taught, and Children of Albion as bought (from WH Smith’s, even).) BUT I didn’t come across the objectivists until I was at university. That famous George Oppen video, recorded, yes, in that fateful year 1973.)

And I hadn’t bought any Reznikoff, as John Seed had at the Ultima Thule bookshop in Newcastle (which probably held the same function for him as the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton about the same time, 1971, did for me). The point about the teaching is that Seed saw Reznikoff’s work as directly applicable as a method, in teaching others to write, and (as we shall see) in his own work. ‘I was very interested in how historical materials were used in Testimony…/ Reznikoff’s method was simple and direct. Working through thousands and thousands of court cases from the late nineteenth century for a law publishing firm in the 1930s, he occasionally spotted one that grabbed his attention. He then edited it, cutting away extraneous material but not significantly changing the language of his source, until he was left with a crisp concise narrative of an event or description of a situation.’ (Seed 2013: 48/9) The textual nature of this, the archival fever (to allude to Derrida), is emphasised: ‘The testimony is that of a witness in court – not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard’, or – more accurately – read. (Seed 2013: 51) This legal analogy is important, but Seed, as an historian – also notices the similarities between 1930s ‘people’s history’ (think Mass Observation) (52) and his own work as a ‘New Historian’ as they were called in the 1970s, and Seed notes, ‘Reznikoff imagined a history of the United States as the testimony of many different witnesses, a chorus of voices’, (52), or what Reznikoff himself called (rather encyclopaedically) ‘from every standpoint’. (52) 

Seed’s ‘testimony’ concerned the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, which he read about (standard reading of the time, and perhaps slightly pre-dating Seed’s decision to teach History rather than English) in EP Thompson’s monumental The Making of the English Working Class. He lists some supplementary texts (as he should, as an historian). But why this incident, rather than any other? He interestingly explains: ‘Maybe subliminally it particularly interested me because of the experience of being confronted by mounted policemen in and around Grosvenor Square on several occasions between 1969 and 1972. Thompson’s was a text for the times.’ (Seed 2013: 44) (Perhaps just as Seed sees fit to explain (to the youthful) that photocopies in 1973 were rare, thus explaining the lack of copies of his poem, perhaps I should explain that Grosvenor Square was the site of the US Embassy and the ‘occasions’ innocently referred to by Seed would have been demonstrations against the Vietnam War.) On that afternoon in 1819, the Manchester Yeomanry were responsible for breaking up a radical meeting, which was attended by 60,000 men, women and children at which the radical Henry Hunt was speaking, and at which they attempted (and succeeded, eventually) to arrest the great orator. The inept Yeomanry were unable to control the now riotous crowd, aroused by the death of a child. The more professional Hussars were then dispatched to assist, but the Yeomanry were largely responsible for the ensuing massacre, as the unarmed people fled. There were (officially) eleven deaths and over 400 injuries, a hundred of them women. After as little time as ten minutes, ‘the field  was virtually deserted except for bodies, abandoned hats and flags, and dismounted Yeomanry wiping their swords and easing their horse girths’, in Richard Holmes’ colourful summary. (Holmes 1995: 531) Such detail, reported by the many witnesses, some from the national and local press, sealed the incident in the memory of nineteenth century radicals (and beyond. There is a plaque in Manchester still; see my note below) and it also supplied Seed with the materials (the equivalent to Reznikoff’s ‘court-cases’, though Seed may have used material from the well-documented trial of Hunt as well, thus making his practice accidentally close to Reznikoff’s). Many of the sources Seed used came from Robert Walmsley’s book Peterloo: the Case Reopened (which is a heavily detailed but ‘contentious defence for the authorities,’ ironically enough! The devil has the best footage, maybe.) (Seed 2013: 45) Seed reminds us – quoting accounts that quote the banners – of the wide demands of the Reformers that day:


            About half-past eleven

the first body of Reformers

arrived at the ground,

bearing two banners,

each of which was surmounted by a cap of liberty.


The first bore upon a white ground the inscription


and on the reverse side: NO CORN LAWS.


The other

bore upon a blue ground

the same inscription,

with the addition VOTE BY BALLOT. (Seed 1973: 11)


There had, of course, been a famous poetic response to this repressive outrage against radicals and reformers before Seed’s: Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy, Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester’, which, against Shelley’s wishes, remained a rallying cry without a rally, and was kept out of print for almost as long as Seed’s poem (for a different reason, fear of prosecution):


As I lay asleep in Italy

There came a voice from over the Sea,

And with great power it forth led me

To walk in visions of Poesy. (Aveling: 41)

This rhetorical acknowledgement of Shelley’s removal from the events, the distance in terms of physical space, could not be further from the Reznikoffian techniques of documentary appropriation (outlined here) with their appearance of immediacy. Perhaps only a young poet of 23 like Seed would have dared to pit himself against the majesty and power of Shelley’s assault, but in fact he did not know the poem at that time; his innocence of it shields the text from the risk of literary intertextual contamination, and he relies upon the immediate ‘testimony of many different witnesses’ as sources, and not on an imaginative response like Shelley’s. However, Shelley also relied upon documentary evidence (in the case of the Examiner, pictured on the cover of Seed’s book, the same sources): ‘Peacock had especially posted a set of English papers by the coach mail from London which took only two weeks. These arrived on 5 September,’ and fed immediately into Shelley’s allegory of Murder, Fraud, and (Holmes: 531) Anarchy, the last of which is the deity of disorder presiding over contemporary England, ‘Like Death in the Apocalypse’, we are told. (Aveling 41) (Anarchy, remember, is not Anarchism.) ‘In the first twelve days,’ after Peacock’s package arrived, ‘he wrote and clean-copied the ninety-one stanzas’. (Holmes 532)  An impassioned address, from the ‘maniac Maid … Hope’, (Aveling 42) she pleas with the populace to ‘Rise like Lions’, and concludes not just with ‘triumphant solidarity with the underprivileged’ (Holmes 537), as Holmes puts it, but with the brilliant, stubbornly minatory, encouraging (and central) democratic truth: ‘Ye are many – they are few’. (47) But amid the impassioned argument of the poem there are glimpses of these documentary sources that both Shelley, separated in space, and Seed, separated in time, relied upon, operating via the device that literary critics have mysteriously called the ‘image’1: Shelley’s ‘Troops of armed emblazonry’ transform into ‘the charged artillery’ which



Till the dead air seems alive

With the clash of clanging wheels,

And the tramp of horses’ heels. (Aveling 1979: 46)


They are also ‘described’ in Seed’s poem, in the first person voice of a survivor:


                        I heard the bugle sound –

                        I saw the cavalry

                        charge forward

                        sword in hand

                        upon the multitude.


                        I was carried forward

                        almost off my feet,

                        many yards nearer the hustings

                        than I had been. (Seed 2013: 24)


The aim of the oppressors, in Shelley’s allegory, is to make


the fixed bayonet

Gleam with sharp point to wet

Its bright point in English blood. (Aveling and Aveling 1979: 46)

Seed’s ‘glistening’ rather than Shelley’s ‘gleam’ may be on a ‘sabre’ rather than a ‘bayonet’ (which were not used at Peterloo), but they are both references to the same summer day’s events:

                        Their sabres

glistening in the air

on they went,

direct to the hustings. (Seed 2013: 23)

However, the contrast between the synecdoche of the bayonet with its symbolic ‘English’ blood and the matter-of-fact ‘I heard the bugle’ or ‘on they went’, couldn’t be clearer, the one part of a larger politico-poetic rhetoric, an un-masked masque divested of its courtly pretensions, the other a cooler act of appropriation that leaves us not with the sonic compensation of rhyme (‘Poesy’) but something that sounds distressing like prose (which is why lineation is vital as a marker of an ironical poeticality) or prose’s extempore cousin, speech. Speech, of course, is the documentary source of Seed’s Mayhew project of the early twenty-first century, and it is the transcription of speech, as I’ve argued elsewhere, which gives both the Mayhew books and Seed’s poem, its incredible power. This urgent first person voice is rare in Manchester August 16th & 17th 1819, but Seed has other tricks, relating to his ‘cutting away extraneous material’. One section reads entire: ‘Hunt’s white top hat,’ which emphases Hunt’s trademark (or target?) attire. This triumphant beacon of liberty (as it may have been seen) contrasts with the habilatory aftermath:


                        over the whole field

                        were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls and shoes,

                        and other parts of male and female dress,

                        trampled, torn and bloody. (Seed 2013: 30)


Seed uses the same source as Richard Holmes (quoted above), but not as a summary as Holmes does in his biography of Shelley, but as ‘simple and direct’ presentation:

                        The yeomanry had dismounted:

                        some were easing their horses’ girths,

                        others adjusting their accoutrements,

                        and some were wiping their sabres. (30-1)

Seed, like, Shelley, moves the poem away from the actual massacre, but while Shelley issues proclamations and prophecies, Seed moves (in Part VI) to ‘Night of August 16th and (in the concluding Part VII) to ‘August 17th’, in other words, to the historical sequence of events, as relayed by sources, first concerning an hour and half of rioting, in which shots were fired, ‘leaving three of four persons/ on the ground with gunshot wounds’. (Seed 35) In Part VI the city of Manchester under curfew (‘soldiers posted’) is misleadingly ‘in a state of tranquillity’ (37), but there are signs of continued unrest, though perhaps unreadable by the authorities. ‘Near a petty public house’ (38) were espied


A new hat,

a tea-kettle,

some other  articles of little value

… displayed at the window,

as is customary

to display the prizes

at walks or feasts ….

This was to serve as a pretext

for their meeting together. (38)

This ‘custom’ (I have vague memories about arcane regulations concerning the assembly of more than a meagre number of people under Lord Liverpool's government) though is for a potential encounter with the authorities. In a presentation of the fact that ‘Ye are many – they are few’ (Aveling 47): ‘The magistrates were assembled’, not at a ‘petty public house’, but

at the Warren Bulkely Arms,

before which the soldiery was drawn out

as that was the first point

against which the rioters had declared their intention

of making an attack… (Seed 2013: 39)

The poem ends thus, inconclusively, or rather, it ends with an ellipses that carries the force of ‘to be continued’, historically speaking. This was only one moment of the potential confrontation of the many with the repressive few. The poem deliberately ends with this potentiality, whatever the historical record. I’ve no idea: was there further rioting or did this confrontation not occur? Was it, even, only in the minds of the magistrates? This is one point where history and poetry separate. It is the historian’s duty to analyse cause and effect; it is the poet’s to present an effect (and affect).

Yet indeed, it is Seed’s sense, as it was Walter Benjamin in the Arcades project (which Seed cites as an influence, though it was for the 1970s, a dream of a work, represented by various excerpted essays). ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy,’ (Benjamin 476) writes Benjamin thus uniting Seed’s ambitions as historian and poet, and while Seed knew he was ‘doing something else’ than history, Benjamin’s Arcades as a ‘method of writing’, for Benjamin, like Reznikoff in some ways, was framing quotations, arranging them in categories, often juxtaposing mutually illuminating examples. (Seed 2013: 46) Using the analogy of photography and the way Benjamin responds to photographic evidence, Seed finally defines his ‘something else’; it is to make present ‘the sense of / another reality filtering through the language of historical documents.’ (Seed 2013: 52-3) (This phrase might have been of crucial importance when I was writing earlier, for blog and book, of his Pictures fromMayhew project, but at least it confirms the analysis I undertook there.) It also touches upon the poetics of the piece, on Seed’s poetics in particular, and upon the way in which he has approximated Objectivist method. Benjamin speaks of ‘something that goes beyond testimony’ in this method, a phrase that evokes Reznikoff’s book title (and poetics), although oddly Seed does not make play of this phrase (which I am taking from a quotation in Seed’s ‘Afterword’) which unites and separates the two projects. (Seed 2013: 54) We could argue that Seed’s poetics (as outlined here and in the blog post here (not posted yet) seek something that goes beyond Testimony.


It’s Saturday 1st November 2014. I have just delivered a poetry reading with Patricia Farrell for Richard Barrett and others and we walk to the pub through St. Peter’s Square. I’d seen it on the map earlier in the day and I’d thought about the massacre. There are now no remnants of a field there and, in fact, I always thought of this as the centre of Manchester when I lived here in the early 1980s, so Manchester must have shifted its weight at some point in the nineteenth century. The race for beer is perhaps stronger than the historical flicker that passes through me: that I am on or near that site. Then I recall that outside the Town Hall (is it?) I saw EP Thompson (Seed’s first reference point for knowledge of Peterloo) on its very steps in the early 1980s delivering a speech for CND. I cannot help thinking that the events of the massacre could not but have passed through his mind as he delivered his anti-government warning to ‘protest and survive’. 1819: 1973: 1981: 2014. ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.’ It may also be about peeling dates away from the physiognomy too.

1. I have scrupulously avoided the term image (except where we are talking technically in terms of ‘imagism’) after reading (years ago) PN Firbank’s (sic?) Reflections on the Word Image which proved (to me, I doubt it was the aim of the book) that it was a meaningless term, or an overused one.


Works Cited


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project.  
Holmes, Richard. (1995) Shelley: The Pursuit. London: Flamingo.
Aveling, Edward, and Eleanor Marx Aveling. ( 1979) Shelley’s Socialism and Popular Songs … by Shelley. London and New York: Journeyman.
Seed, John. (2013) Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819. London: Intercapillary Space.

Other recent Seed posts may be read here and here.