Eric Mottram (1924-1995)

Our focus today – Eric Mottram, (1924-1995), author of  (among many other titles)  the brief survey, Allen Ginsberg in the Sixties – a poet, critic and scholar, a central figure in the English/transatlantic connection, one of the earliest, most astute and most passionate, readers and observers and commentators on Allen’s work.

Mottram on Ginsberg, from a lecture, given  at Kings College London, circa 1970

“He [Allen]’s very conscious now of finding strategies for being very very private in public.”

He goes on:

“But if you are going to say, “okay, private life is primary, the body is primary, our one-to-one relationships, between us, is where you start”, you have to find ways of putting your private self forward in a public place, publicly, in a hall, which means you’ve got to find,  – and I’ve learned an awful lot from Allen about this, myself –  a middle area, which is not public and not private, you know.”

“And one of the most difficult things to do is to find that middle ground, where you’re sufficiently safeguarded to be private in public, without exposing yourself to total destruction, (either by complete introspection, or (by) giving yourself entirely to the public). And to my mind, he manages this very well, by a series of complex processes and strategies, which I admire quite a bit, But it’s a very difficult thing to do.”

The full lecture is available here (buried in Mottram’s remarkable and illuminating archives), (following observations on Wallace Stevens, and, starting at approximately seventy-one minutes in)

Mottram quotes William Carlos Williams, at the outset (from his Introduction to “Howl”):

“It is a howl of defeat. Not defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a trivial experience. Everyone in this life is defeated but a man, if he be a man, is not defeated.

and Williams goes on:

It is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from life in these pages. The wonder of the thing is not that he survived but that he, from the very depths, has found a fellow whom he can love, a love he celebrates without looking aside in these poems. Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith-and
the art! to persist.”

Mottram’s gloss:

“That will do, to start off with, quite a bit, because certainly Allen’s early career moves to the point of crisis, that is registered in “Howl”. And it is the crisis that his mother experienced, and that is the crisis of, perhaps, one of the most difficult and appalling things to talk about in our life – that is, what happens when stoicism and public neurosis and private neurosis fuse? –  I had a phone call last week from certain people who were asking me how to.. (what). to  do with a Portuguese living in exile in this country, a woman who was, in fact, experiencing fear…There’s this terrible thing, – she feel she’s being  persecuted… and in fact (she is). Now this is a the point at which private and public neurosis are, like, fused in our lives, right? ..this means that, whether one knows it or not, (unless you are absolutely a part of the society all the way up, you know), at any given moment, you are threatened…Now, Allen Ginsberg is the poet of that relationship, to my mind. Extremely. He is the man who really (saw that).

Now the ironic thing is he’s a poet of it, not in the (nineteen) ‘thirties, but in the post-thirties,  post World War II,, non-ideological America, do you see? – Now that means that the tensions are even severer because he has neither Communism, Judaism…”.

“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!/Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!”
That isn’t to do with God…That is to do with a recognition of, like, the sphere of action, the wonder, the beauty, of energy in the universe. Nothing to do with. (religion). He has to believe in a God for a start off. And, as far as “America” is concerned, he’s got some pure….  – it isn’t ideological, it’s some weird thing that you find (also) in (Norman) Mailer’s work – and that is – this belief that America still has the potential to carry through some of the ideals that went into its foundation. It’s quite as simple as that.

( I don’t think it’s much more than bare, at the moment, I must say – and it’s getting pretty thin!)

But certainly, there isn’t this… what I mean by “non-ideological”, there isn’t this waiting on an ideology to inform you, a view or plan of action, do you see? – or anything of that kind, There isn’t a joining process, there’s a creative process – that’s something different. And I think the creative process begins by saying bodily touch, erotic relations opening up. (I don’t mean, immediately, sexual ones, I mean it’s, like, body-to-body in the environment). That cuts right across the whole program of… intellectual conditioning. And that’s why he starts getting arrested, because he plays (it) out in public, and he’s talking straight out in public, and one of the reasons he gets arrested is that everybody feels this – (which is a very important thing) – that even the arresters? –(yeah, “the arresters”? – that’ll do!) – even they feel it.”

But the poem [“Howl’]  ends with a challenge to America to provide an alternative. I mean, I think Allen Ginsberg’s greatest thing is, what Seymour Krim once said, in an article… – (the) thing Allen Ginsberg meant for his generation of writers was (that ) he actually accused America of letting him down – And this is very true. This is exactly what he did. And this is his strength – again and again and again.

(re “Howl”)  – “Allen found a strategy for, like, not making it exceptional. The point about “Howl” is – this is happening, you know, all the time. It’s not a lament for one or two exceptional people. It’s a description of a continuous happening of disaster.”

Here’s Eric. (from (a part of) a wide-ranging interview/conversation with Robert Creeley in Buffalo in 1992), regarding Allen Ginsberg’s reception in England

“One of the things that Allen taught us, Allen Ginsberg taught us, was how to be utterly vulnerable and fearless at the same time. It may sound strange but the fact that this guy just sort  of spoke out (I mean, we’re talking about the (19))60’s and (19)70’s), just talked about himself in this apparently astonishing open way, whether… we didn’t know whether it was true or not… there was this performance of vulnerability, that was absolutely extraordinary (so unlike anything the British were supposed to do, I may say, you know). I mean, you don’t talk about the things he talked about in public…”.

Eric, always effusive, is interviewed, ten years earlier, in a lively  interview/conversation here with Erik Bauersfeld of KPFA 

and follows it – here with a reading of his own poetry

see also here  (a reading in New York in 1984 – introduced by Charles Bernstein), here (Buffalo, 1982, introduced by Robert Creeley), here, 1990, (in the fabled Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, introduced by T.Wignesan), and here (similarly unedited footage), shot ten years previously, at the October Gallery in London.

The latter two tapes (indeed, much of the material here) is courtesy the generosity of his good friend,, John Whiting. For Whiting’s invaluable memories  and placement of Mottram – (don’t miss it!) –  see here

John Calder‘s obituary note that appeared in  The (London)  Independent, a generous over-view and appraisal,  may be read here

So when are we going to see the follow-up (a volume two)  to  this essential book?

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