Two cultures, and an (un)discovered gem: Liz Venn


Three big influences when I was growing up..or growing older. Richard Hoggart’ s Uses of literacy; Raymond Williams’ Culture and society and The long revolution; and C P Snow’s lecture on The two cultures. It’s a curious triumvirate. The son of a Welsh railway worker, a working class lad from Hunslet, and then C P Snow, riddled with class insecurity, a scientific career civil servant, Private Secretary in the Wilson government, a man with a PhD on spectroscopy, and successful writer of turgid novels that, unaccountably, I read avidly at the age of 17. What they had in common, apart from the fact that they were never quite seen as ‘one of us’ by the great and good of academe, was a deep and heartfelt concern about the fragmentations of ‘culture’. The fact that Snow and Hoggart in particular set up a rhetoric about dichotomies didn’t help the cause, but they were, at the time, enormously influential. Snow had an immediate impact on sixth form education, in as much he he threw a strong light on the grammar schools division of their 6th forms into Arts and Science Sixths ( he was, I think, also indirectly responsible for the appearance of the Use of English exam I sat in 1961, and which I ended up teaching a few years later). This division led to earlier ones. I dropped all science subjects at the age of 13. The choice in my school was between History/ Geography, and Chemistry/Physics ….there we were. O level courses sorted. It seems unthinkable…and Snow was right. It was absurd that,culturally, a knowledge of Literature and Art and Music (with capitals, so you know what sort we’re talking about) had cachet. F R Leavis regarded Snow as little more than a PR man for engineers. It seemed OK in polite society, as Snow pointed out, to be effectively innumerate, and ignorant of how the world was physically put together. Maybe it’s something to do with the snobberies that are the truly unpleasant thing in English culture and society. But it’s an old division. Dickens saw the damage done to education when it chooses between Mr Gradgrinds ‘Facts Facts Facts’ and the fancy of Mr Sleary’s horseriding. Maybe it goes back to Descartes; maybe it’s even older, even though we may no longer believe in angels or think science is witchcraft.

So what’s this to do with a chatty poetry blog on a Sunday afternoon? You didn’t sign up for this, did you? It’s just that at one time art and science and music and maths and literature weren’t compartmentalised. Maybe the Industrial revolution, and the mechanisation of print and imagery have something crucial to do with it. And maybe that’s for another day. But painters like Joseph Wright were fascinated by science and its attendant technologies. Milton thought it obvious that Adam and the Angel would pass the time discussing the structure of the cosmos. Da Vinci was fascinated by the structures of everything, the way water fell, how a tree grows, the technologies of destruction, the wonders of human anatomy.

My art teacher in the 6th form was more concerned that I dabbled with Taschism and Cubism, so I didn’t get to know much about the Renaissance. But I did get Metaphysical poetry as a set book for English A level, so I got Andrew Marvell, and coy mistresses, and above all, John Donne and those ‘stiffe twinne compasses’. For the first time in my life I thought I could see how and why a metaphor worked, and fell in love with that fusion of sex and wit and science and passion and religion, and all that cleverness. Well maybe it’s predictable, that appeal to a smartass grammar school adolescent. But I’m still glad of it, and still happy to find poetry that embraces politics and passion and technology…and, well, knowledge. I like poems that think it’s OK if the reader sometimes has to look things up. You can see why I like Tony Harrison…when I read his early stuff I thought I’d met a real-life Metaphysical poet. I got the same buzz when I first saw Bronowsky’s  Ascent of Man, which I can watch again again (thankyou BBC DVD) but less of a buzz from the patrician Kenneth Clark’ Civilisation. Though I still watch both. Technology, eh?

And, if you’re still with me, this is why, when I met her at a Poetry Business writing day, I was much taken by one of Liz Venn’s poems, and why  I want to share my enthusiasm. I would have loved to have posted The bone man and the way it easily wove a knowledge of bones and antomy into a poem full of a sense of wonder; but it’s out with a magazine at the moment. I shall look out for its acceptance with some eagerness. I said at the top the page that she’s an (un)discovered gem.  This is to cover my embarrassment…I discovered her in much the same way as Europeans discovered America, as though the Oglala Sioux and Commanche and Seminoles and all the Nations had not previously noticed they were already living there. Liz is actually the House Poet for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series of poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. She did a distance learning writing course tutored by the immensely-talented Bill Greenwell; she did a creative writing MA at MMU. In the same year as Kim Moore, and at the same time as David Tait. It’s a small world, and I still don’t know much about it. Mea culpa. She’s been published in the splendid CAST** anthology: The Poetry Business Book of new and Contemporary Poets. She’s been published in lots of quality magazines..The North, Iota, Magma, Smiths Knoll. She won the 2014 Poets and Players prize. So all of you who knew this can smile quietly….keep up, Foggin. Keep up. She also teaches creative writing for science communication, to undergraduate life scientists, and I think her easy synthesis of scientific knowledge and poetry is what I responded to. She can write matter-of-factly, and with a great sense of fun (as she does in The women I’ve worked with) and a nice ruefulness about her dad who’s out shopping for grout and wishing I’d found a man to do these things for me, but I’m going to choose just one poem today, and tell you to check out the magazines, to buy your copy of CAST**, and to visit her website:

I’m assuming that I’ve made you want to. And think on; next week I might be asking questions. Just in case, here’s the poem.

And though I’m not the believing type

I’d believe in the iron souls of trains,

a hollow soul for carrying things

with a spark blown through its fingers.

I’d believe in the souls of drystone walls,

that rise up in rough hands and hold themselves.

That wear the wind on one side, moss on the other

and stand fornothing, except to turn sheep back.

I believe in the fragile souls of light-bulbs,

metallic and easily broken, or dig

to find the ugly clay soil of the North.

I’d believe in souls like chocolate buttons,

that start to melt as you hold them,

in souls that aren’t actually souls,

but chemistry, in the way that carbon breaks

and heals itself through all its different faces,

from the slippery memory of pencil lead,

to the beautiful laboratory of leaves.

There are great images, here. I like the blown spark, and I particularly like the walls that (ambiguously) stand for nothing. But what’s memorable for me is that ‘beautiful laboratory of leaves’ and that conceit of carbon, metamorphosing itself into the souls of everything. So there you are. I’m delighted to have (un)discovered Liz Venn’s poems. Just one thing before I go. Distrust those who spell Culture with a Capital, and equally, Literature, Art, Poetry and Music. They’re trying to keep it for themselves, behind their upper-case fences. Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart got me starting to see that (and, later, John Berger). When was the last time you saw science, and mathematics, and physics and chemistry and biology in capitals (except on an exam paper or a university prospectus)? C P Snow got me to think about that.

Next week, we’re coming from Spain. I want you to meet a Hungarian sculptor who writes poems in English. I was lying about the questions.

**CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets ed Simon Armitage, Joanna Gavins, Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom [Smith/doorstop. 2014] £10