THE decade of Dallas, fast followed by Dynasty.

The Bay City Rollers scraped the depths.

The lower depths. Punk rock scaled the heights. And went right over the wall. Swindlers were everywhere. Some had more energy than others. The high tide of literary theory launched its attack on traditional realism.

“Literary theory” grew up alongside the “Nouveau Roman” – the new French novel – whose practitioners had worked small wonders in the great wake of James Joyce. Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet were experts in fictionalising indeterminacy.

In Simon’s novel The Flanders Road, an army captain is killed by a sniper but the attempt to reconstruct his death leaves only uncertainty about what “really happened”.

Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers – Les Gommes – is ostensibly a thriller, where police agent Wallas spends 24 hours investigating the murder of a professor of economics. But by the end, we’re left in the dark about whether the professor was actually killed or whether Wallas himself might have been the assassin.

The critical theorists continued to ride shotgun on the Nouveau Roman stagecoach long after it had gone over the cliff. Foucault, Barthes and Derrida deconstructed and post-structuralised, riddling what had seemed realities with questions:

Was the author dead? Was there only the text? But any text is made up of other texts, so isn’t it an intertext? Everything requires qualification. Nothing can be trusted. The world was all signs, and most of the signs were decoys. The work of these novelists and theorists had developed through the 1950s and 60s but it caught on in the Anglophone academy in the 70s in a big way.

It was difficult at that time to suggest that L’Année dernière à Marienbad would have been a better film if Buster Keaton had had a starring role, or that jargon is the sort of language that just “stinks up the joint” (as Duke Ellington said when he was asked if he was influenced by Debussy). There was no shortage of scholarship, intellect and cerebration, but there was a conspicuous retreat from the embarrassments of presence – grief, hurt, passion, risk, were all held at a policeman’s long arm’s length.

The antidote is found in Norman MacCaig’s short poem An Academic:

You sit at your fat desk, starching

your brains; you’re the tone-deaf man

in the orchestra, you’re the frog

who wouldn’t a-wooing go.

What a job is this, to measure

lightning with a footrule ...

And what a magician, who can

dismantle Juliet, Ahab, Agamemnon

into a do-it-yourself kit

of semantic gestures. [...]

I’m a simple man – I believe

you were born, I believe it

against all the evidence.

I would like to give you

a present of weather, a

transfusion of pain.

The passions of presence were most actively felt in the new work coming from former colonies. The novels of Wilson Harris may seem theoretical and dense – sometimes the prose works as a metaphor for the impenetrable forests of the interior of the Guyanas – but they’re full of tangible things, characters, ideas, and colours.

The paintings of Aubrey Williams, the songs of Bob Marley, the novels of Jean Rhys, George Lamming and VS Naipaul, the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Andrew Salkey, EK Brathwaite and Fred D’Aguiar – all these speak of an unsuspected richness of presence and thought emerging from the West Indies – a truly farraginous outpouring.

Here’s Wilson Harris, one of the very great and almost entirely unread writers of the modern era, in his novel Black Marsden (1972), bringing Scotland and South America together in one semantic upheaval and global reconciliation:

Now all of a sudden, as if with a wave of a wand, Goodrich was struck by a fantastic assembly of features – to which he already possessed a prelude on the rickety road of sea across which Knife drove – features which may have been plucked from the loneliest reaches of the Highlands of Scotland like transplanted snow from the Cairn Gorms to the Cordillera Real in the Bolivian-Peruvian Andes which reach to Lake Titicaca on one hand but on the other descend phenomenally to the American basin.

Such a spectre in which blister turns to cool, ice beckons to fire, snow to rainforest was a family tree of contrasting elements.

As far as eye could see it may have been carved or erected as a vast nameless cradle by a refugee chorus of mankind dispersed from Pole to Pole, who celebrated within this mosaic overlapping features of their original heartlands: When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall.

Or it may have been borrowed from diverse peoples and inhabitants (stretching back into pre-Columbian mists of time) who had been shepherded out of sight in order to create a theatre of infinity.

The theatre of infinity which Harris imagines here is the cradle for all his writing and returns as an evocation and moral force telling us something about national regeneration in his earlier novel The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965): “One’s ‘native’ land [is never] fixed and anchored in place. In this age and time, one’s native land …is always crumbling: crumbling within a capacity of vision which rediscovers the process to be not foul and destructive but actually the constructive secret of all creation wherever one happens to be.”

AS the international language of modernisation, English effectively covers up a multitude of local and indigenous languages, so it might function as a mask. It might conceal or reveal meanings obliquely. It might be possessed and inhabited by different spirits. It seems no accident that this is also the period in which the first Maori novel in English was published, Witi Ihimaera’s Tangi.

The hybridisation of culture was spreading. Its greatest poet was Walcott. Here he is responding to a TV interviewer’s question about whether he resented learning Latin as part of his “colonial education”:

Stuart Hall: [Didn’t you find that Latin was] oppressing?

Derek Walcott: No, not at all, no ...

Stuart Hall: Its denial of the local ...

Derek Walcott: No, no, no. Not at all. It was great to be able to do Latin and then step outside and speak patois. It was wonderful to be able to do it, because neither of them was more, you know, irritating, or, neither of them was a punishment, in a sense – yeah, Latin was a punishment if you had to do it. But I wish I’d done more Latin and I regret the loss of Latin in West Indian schools, very seriously, I do. I regret the loss of Latin anywhere, because it’s just, it becomes so exciting ...

Stuart Hall: “Reading the classics under a mango tree” – that’s one of your lines.

Derek Walcott: Yeah, right. You know, the thing, Stuart, is not that, it’s the excitement, say, of enjoying Ovid, at the same time that you’re eating a mango.

Walcott, who has called himself a “mulatto of style” produced poetry throughout the 1970s which is thoroughly marinaded in the Caribbean Sea but which also draws upon the great tradition of magniloquent poetic language – from Homer to Milton and Wordsworth. In The Schooner Flight, his sailor-hero, Shabine, is the voice of this new hybrid identity:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart –

the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know [...]

But things must fall, and so it always was,

on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;

fall, and are one, just as this earth is one

island in archipelagos of stars.

My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.

I stop talking now. I work, then I read,

cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.

I try to forget what happiness was,

and when that don’t work, I study the stars.

Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam

as the deck turn white and the moon open

a cloud like a door, and the light over me

is a road in white moonlight taking me home.

Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

Walcott’s polyglot Caribbean Odysseus, reaching through time and across widely separated geographies, carries the day.

That reaching across cultural differences can be heard in the music of the period too. The New Zealand/ Scottish composer, Lyell Cresswell, premiered his orchestral work Salm in 1977, taking inspiration from the Scottish Gaelic method of singing the psalms in church.

Traditionally, the first lines are sung by a leader and are then taken up independently by every member of the congregation. The result is a vast chorus of sound, an ocean made up of distinct and individual voices, deeply moving and powerful.

Cresswell transposes the ancient form to the orchestra, letting the cello lead the way. The eerie, austere melody is gradually developed and taken up by the whole orchestra.

The sound is unmistakably derived from Scotland, but I suspect only a New Zealander, with a global sense of loneliness and distance, could have written it.

Moving in another direction, the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson completed work on his second piano concerto, entitled The Continents – an astonishingly eclectic work evoking musical idioms from almost every culture he could find: Australian aboriginal music; Vietnamese song; Hindu raga; Scottish pibroch; Russian march; Negro spiritual; blues; and African drumming – they all find a place.

THE magnitude of Stevenson’s vision is remarkable. He had already composed one of the most challenging piano works in the repertoire with the long Passacaglia on DSCH – dedicated to Shostakovich and most recently recorded by the brilliant pianist Igor Levit (On DSCH, Sony Classical 19439809212).

But Stevenson can be a finely restrained composer as well as a virtuoso. His Recitative and Air – also in honour of Shostakovich, who died in 1975 – possesses trembling delicacy as well as unfaltering strength.

Contained strength characterised much of the better-known poets of the 1970s. This was the time of Ted Hughes’s Crow, Philip Larkin’s High Windows and Seamus Heaney’s North. Heaney was writing from the complex position of a northern Irish Catholic at a time when the IRA was engaged in a concerted programme of violence.

Heaney’s poetry is a patient and sensitive negotiation between the acknowledgement of atrocity in human behaviour and the desire for peace and social balance in the local community.

This thematic concern is evident in his poems on the discovery of the Tollund man, a reminder that mortal sacrifice or ritual murder is nothing new.

This isn’t toleration but sensitisation, a call from the deepest levels to readjust facile dispositions. But the concern is also intimately present in Heaney’s language, with his idea of combining “Irish vowels” and “English consonants” to make “vocables adequate to my whole experience”. You can hear it work in his poem Homecomings:

Fetch me the sandmartin

skimming and veering

breast to breast with himself

in the clouds in the river.

At the worn mouth of the hole

flight after flight after flight

the swoop of his wings

gloved and kissed home.

A glottal stillness. An eardrum.

Far in, featherbrains tucked in silence,

a silence of water

lipping the bank.

Mould my shoulders inward to you.

Occlude me.

Be damp clay pouting.

Let me listen under your eaves.

Listening under the eaves to the poetry of the 1970s, you might have discovered the most haunting book to appear in the decade. David Jones spent more than 20 years working on a group of seven poems finally published in 1974, the year of his death. Of these, The Sleeping Lord is the masterpiece.

It is a meditation on the Arthurian legend, but where conventional myth has “the once and future king” sleeping with his knights under a hill, Jones turns the myth another way in the closing lines of his poem.

He identifies the “Sleeping Lord” not as some mythical person, but as the land itself, with its ferns and forests, horses and ridges and rivers and, implicitly, all who sleep with the land, awaiting its awakening.

Yet he sleeps on

very deep in his slumber

how long has he been the sleeping lord?

are the clammy ferns

his rustling vallance

does the buried rowan

ward him from evil, or

does he ward the tanglewood

and the denizens of the wood

are the stunted oaks his gnarled guard

or are their knarred limbs

strong with his sap?

Do the small black horses

grass on the hunch of his shoulders?

are the hills his couch

or is he the couchant hills?

Are the slumbering valleys

him in slumber

are the still undulations

the still limbs of him sleeping?

Is the configuration of the land

the furrowed body of the lord

are the scarred ridges

his dented greaves

do the trickling gullies

yet drain his hog-wounds?

Does the land wait the sleeping lord

or is the wasted land

that very lord who sleeps?