Norman Nicholson: A Conscious Modernism

In Uncategorized on July 1, 2014 at 3:17 pm

**Reflections on poet Norman Nicholson, born Millom 1914**

‘Have you been to London?
My grandmother asked.
China dogs on the mantelshelf,
Paper blinds at the window,
Three generations simmering on the bright black lead,
And a kettle filled to the neb,
Spilled over long ago.

The constant tension within the English spirit is between its strong provincial roots and the demands of modernity. The distinctiveness of our region, its shared meanings are in contrast with what Aldous Huxley referred to as the ‘dreadful joy’ of the ephemeral. Nicholson’s resolution with his provincial self seems peculiar for a man of his period. A fully modern existence of the 20th century kind embraces disconnectedness as good. To disjoint from the patterns of the natural world, and no longer be located by our position beneath the arc of the sun above our heads is the foundation of modernity’s freedom-giving-power. It’s the escape from what Bakhtin calls the ‘didactic gloom of bigots and moralists’. But along with the freedom of ‘hopping on a train’ to escape time and space came alienation. You arrive in the concrete jungle with a shocking self-consciousness created by the urban environment’s demand that you co-opt their speech and manners, thus implanting further unease alongside your clumsy efforts to ‘fit in’. Although in the metropolitan environment there is no ‘fitting in’. Nicholson seems to avoid such contortions, as did Benjamin Britten, embracing a place where ‘the self’ could speak. In so doing Nicholson disrupts the inexorability of modernity, which in the 1940s and 50s, was Britain’s only answer to its fragmenting markets.

The modernists of the late 19th century and early 20th were in a protracted frenzy of unpicking the crumbling of modernity’s promise of ‘peace through The New’, and attempted to create otherworldliness through new representations. Tragically Britain missed this useful introspection and reflection. It was too invested in the mass market. There was little or no mainstream lingua-franca of critical reflection on Britain’s place in the world and the values that had wedded it to solid-industrial principles. Renewal at the level of ‘the self’, the region, and the collective was eclipsed by imperial values of top-table power. Wagner had offered a new sound world, pre-fixing the arrival of modern composers who were to offer a polyphony of new experiences, of which none really coalesced into anything we can agree on today, but they did create an active dialogue for those interested, such as the Europeans and Americans, who industrialised at a different pace, adapting to changing markets. They possessed the self-consciousness of modernism, and its space for thought. Britain, desperate to conserve its lead, maintained the perpetual anxiety of falling forward into ‘The New’. Even pre-eminent modernist T. S. Eliot became more English than the English as his self-consciousness appeared to switch to conserving an English establishment that was in need of re-understanding. Orwell’s message had also been swept aside.

But Nicholson’s provincialism comes with an assertiveness, maybe indulgence, which is transcendent. This is because looking at his language now, at a time when modernity is as much of a dogma as its religious forebear, it is easier to grasp why he found faith and the physical enduring. His sensibility towards the patterns of the physical world offer modernist impressions: “See it doddering in the ripples of the vapour”. Wittgenstein referred to modernity as a constant restless quest. One which he gave up. Nicholson’s world avoided this questing. In his world the word ‘rock’ meant something he could stand on and something which could transport us. Nicholson’s language stands between positivism and postmodernity, which at the time was a difficult balance. C. S. Lewis’s treatise The Abolition of Man decried the suggestion that the wonder of the waterfall could be created outside our experiencing the waterfall directly . To break free from our rootedness, our createdness and inhabit an entirely constructed world sourced from our passions and creativeness alone, was an ambition that had dire consequences for ‘who we are’. Nicholson looked long and hard at what modernity had sought to escape. He noted we are finite, created and rooted. This was provincialism with a new self-consciousness: “And children suffocate in God’s fresh air”. He invites a fresh look at that finiteness. While Kafka noted that unconscious rootedness led to a descent into the mundane misery of a stuckness in provincial drudgery, Nicholson makes an appointment with it, choosing to see its relationship with the eternal. K., the protagonist in Kafka’s The Castle, didn’t notice his physical world at all, only the barriers to his future status. As a good capitalist does. In this sense Nicholson is profoundly modernist, seeing through the friable state of modernity’s promises, and the stultifying effect of not adopting new language to renew our existence in The Now. Proust talks of an unconscious rootedness, the potential of being ‘trapped by our own soul’ implying even when we do travel through to pastures new we take our ‘own world’ with us like a comfort blanket, adding to any imprisonment. Nicholson chooses to be exigent with his place, not passive, but drawing out from it what he requires. I am provincial, but, importantly it is a conscious choice not a Kafkaesque victimhood.

While Britain was still blackening its landscape Proust and his ilk at the end of the 19th century observed that institutions of modernity had lost their ability to deliver modernity without dulling the soul, in addition to the already wracked bodies. He observed that the skeleton of the modern world created, however, a space for individuals to meet. Nicholson is appealing to the existing frames offered by the natural world. If you walk down the corridor of your office building, like the backdrop of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, it repeats itself on a loop. You are forever back to your starting point. Everything looks the same. You walk across the Yorkshire or Cumbrian landscape and you are constantly being located by the 3D shifting of the irregular patterns of trees and randomness of the river. The trees are moving as you walk. Every image is new and fresh. You know where you’ve come from, where you are now and where you are heading. You are fundamentally located. Therefore a Nicholsonian conscious provincialism need not be a euphemism for decay or scapegoat for metropolitan spirits but for a widening metaphor of ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’ and ‘rescuing’. He adds “What if I listen? What if I learn?” If ‘to be modern’ means leaning into simulated realities constantly and telling ourselves ‘this is progress’, and ‘this is better’, what David Collinson calls Prozac Leadership, then Nicholson’s language-set is in stark contrast. He is saying capital-P ‘Progress’ isn’t ‘learning’ and implies it is novelty in place of learning. Learning takes place here and now, with what we’ve got between us. Alienation is only broken by this admission ‘we’re both here now’ and the willingness to ‘see’. There isn’t progress at all then, only difference and disconnection. Philip Gardner quotes Kathleen Raine with “Nicholson [feeling] himself to be a living particle of the natural world”. This immersement has attracted its critique but in essence ignoring the prevailing mood was modernism’s core, a breaking of faith with the season’s patterns, an asynchronous life. This wasn’t the message they wanted. An unlikely modernist.

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