Persuasive advocates of art and language

Powers of Being - The Polemics of Imagination
April 26, 1996

These two books have a close affinity of subject matter and concern. Powers of Being is an appreciation of David Holbrook on the occasion of his 70th birthday; The Polemics of Imagination is a set of essays by Peter Abbs. Both men are artists, writers and educators, both are extremely well read, both concerned with the unsatisfactory relationships which exist between arts, culture and society, and both grew up in rural Norfolk.

I came across Holbrook through his hectoring and dogmatic letters to the local press about films he considered pornographic, so for me Powers of Being is welcome, bringing to light a different personality - one that is caring for individuals, generous, warmhearted, affectionate and whose overall contribution to life is much appreciated by the 15 contributors to this volume. Though not uncritical of his writing all are concerned that his work as a teacher of English, educator, poet, novelist, critic and thinker has not been properly recognised by the academic and literary world nor by the public. This book is intended to rectify this state of affairs.

A substantial part of it is concerned with his teaching of English. That he enjoyed and succeeded in helping bottom-stream secondary school children become literate through encouraging and supporting their creativity gives his approach to teaching real credibility, especially as conventional methods have so often failed - and continue to fail. His English for the Rejected, followed by his English for Maturity, and his various anthologies and reading lists, remain seminal works for those faced with the increasingly difficult task of helping ordinary children become literate in today's world dominated by visual communication. Michael Charles in his essay sums up his debt to Holbrook: "He armed me with a sense of purpose."

Several contributors write about Holbrook's continuing battle over the teaching of English which started with the publication of the Bullock committee's report, Language for Life, with its emphasis on gaining knowledge about language and developing competencies necessary for adult employment, rather than on using the spoken and written word as a means of cultural development which will have a more lasting effect. Roger Knight sees Holbrook's approach as the antithesis of all that the Schools Examination Council is demanding of teachers today in the form of mathematically based assessment.

John Paynter in a most illuminating essay pays particular tribute to Holbrook's "persuasive advocacy" which stimulated him to help children approach and understand music through composition; he sees the need to try "to come to terms with what is assessed, what is felt, rather than what is measured and calculated".

The essays relating to Holbrook's studies in philosophy and psychoanalysis reveal the wide range of his enquiry and reading and show how his concern - to use Edwin Webb's words - "to understand oneself in relation to the world and the world of others" has led him to examine cultural issues subjectively and thus open him to academic criticism.

As Andrew Brink writes: "While the cultivation of fine intellects is well understood in universities, the meaning of affect is not." He also suggests that much of Holbrook's subject matter "directs attention to basic questions of cultural health and disorder I and involves us in unpleasantness we may wish to avoid". Hence the discomfort he causes in some academic circles.

The last three essays are concerned with his work as a writer. John Ferns says of his poem, My Father's Gay Funeral: "We feel the force of his courageous creativity, the sense of what an impressive poet he is." Ian Robinson concludes: "His poetry and verse are unfailingly easy, fresh and close to the author's life." Geoffrey Strickland writes: "It is absurd that writing as powerful and intelligent is not better known." One can only hope that this book will achieve its aim.

In his introduction to Abbs's The Polemics of Imagination, Anthony Storr says it should be required reading for everyone engaged in education. It certainly provides helpful and illuminating historical contexts for issues which affect those of us who wish to see the arts having real meaning in the lives of most people.

In "Modernism and postmodernism", Abbs traces how from the beginning of this century great artists rejected traditions of the past. By the second world war it was accepted in the arts world that the essence of art lay almost solely in innovation and being abreast of the latest scientific and technological achievement.

In education this led to a belief that pupils should be left to develop their own creativity without interference by the teacher or reference to the art of the past. In the adult world, art produced and presented publicly, though valued highly by the cognoscente, was believed to have nothing emotionally constructive to offer ordinary people. In postmodernism Abbs sees a welcome reference back to past traditions but also sees the presence of superficiality: "It is seen as a book of motifs, not as a living source."

Abbs also provides an admirable historical context for his concern, shared by many others, that the educational process is dominated by the inherited belief that it should be exclusively rational and objective, largely ignoring the need to cultivate and inform the senses even though they play as great a part in human life as the intellect. He takes us from Plato through Descartes to the present day with its overweening confidence in information technology. He provides us with a rationale for treating the arts as a generic group of subjects as important as the sciences and the humanities.

This slim and readable volume has much else to commend it: a valuable section on autobiography, as a subject in itself and as a tool in education; an intriguing account of being "born rural working class"; and a final section on "Myth, poetry and the collective imagination".

Peter Cox was founder-principal, Dartington College of Arts.

Powers of Being: David Holbrook and his Work

Editor - Edwin Webb
ISBN - 0 8386 3529 6
Publisher - Associated University Presses
Price - £32.50
Pages - 288

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