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This item is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

In PNR 240 we print the first PN Review Prize-winning poems (Poetry and Translation), along with the commended poems. The range and quality of work we received confirms that there is a place for such prizes, allowing one poem and one translation by each participating poet, and affirming that translation can be a primary poetic activity.

We also include a supplement celebrating our long-standing contributor Peter Scupham, on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday, pen in hand, inventing and reinventing his work. He has elevated the art of the poetry envelope, popular since the publication of Emily Dickinson’s, to a new level with his variegated satirical approach. His annotated book lists (he is a bookseller, too) bring the descriptive bibliographic catalogue into the realm of diary, memoir and high comedy. His mastery of traditional form frees him to experiment and invent ‘the selves we have become’, as he says in ‘A Birthday Triptych’, the poem he contributed, with a fine proleptic instinct, to Poetry Nation 1 (1973). His most recent PNR contribution is a review welcoming a first collection by Alex Wong (PNR 235, 2017). Over half his adult life he has been with us at PN Review, at the heart of things. Among his contributions was a series of seventeen ‘Shelf Lives’, reminding readers of work by poets who had not (and some still have not) received their due for the pleasure they give and the resources they add to poetry. Connections and continuities: he writes for readers willing to be alive to past and future as well as the present.

Poetry is not ‘a broad church’. It is not a place of relativities but of stable values, even when times and genres change. The art of reading poetry, too, develops. Reading can require effort, study. The rewards are considerable.

I have been manoeuvring my way around the elephant in the room, the subject of the letters in this issue of PN Review: Hollie McNish, one of the writers discussed in ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ by Rebecca Watts in PN Review 239. Jack Baker’s letter is succinct and merits a place in the editorial to this issue.

Rebecca Watts’s detractors are attempting to turn an argument about critical integrity into an argument about identity. Hence the predictable jibes – in blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts – that Watts is white, and ‘middle class’, and went to Cambridge. These charges are calculated not merely to prejudice, but to preclude, critical discussion. They force those damned as ‘elitist’ to advance their case in the face of scurrilous insinuation: as Watts herself did, with admirable patience, on Radio 4’s Front Row.

A familiar schism: aesthetics versus ethics. But might it be time to engage the populists on their own terms? What, precisely, is virtuous in the claim that the art is a transparent extension of the artist, or in the related assumption that the most valuable service of literature is to flatter our class-bound, race-bound or time-bound assumptions? The champions of Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish are perfectly free to wish their poetry ‘accessible’ – a term usefully glossed by Jonathan Meades as ‘comprehensible to morons’ – but they also lay claim to be defending a moral good. This delusion should not go unchallenged.

PNR 239 was published in mid-December. In mid-January the social and national media suddenly responded, as if choreographed to do so. Hollie McNish, already the subject of several features in the Guardian, a BBC writer and presenter, author of four books (the last from Picador), responded on-line.1 The World At One (BBC Radio 4), the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement and the Bookseller sprang to attention. What seemed to be at issue was that a young critic had drawn attention to the quality of poetry the media were celebrating. Only Front Row (BBC 4) invited a response from the upstart critic.

McNish’s reputation is rooted in the social media. Her wounded response was bound to land PNR in a bed of barbed tweets, short sharp messages with which even those of us not at home with Twitter have grown familiar from the current White House’s practice. McNish took Watts’s article, reprinted it in full, peppered with her objections and injuries. Her disingenuous, piecemeal response avoided the issues raised (of cultural appropriation, for example), and finessed her own educational background to make her seem more like her devoted readers.

Criticism of her work she takes personally because she writes about herself. She explains of one piece: ‘It’s interesting when someone guesses your intentions for a poem. In reality, this poem was the least thought through of the entire collection and was written as a commission for a TV series about a detective which I wrote to a piece of music in about ten minutes. I decided to include it at the last minute because it felt right for how I felt placed between two poems – one about the death of my grandma and one about the death of a friend. But yes, maybe it is also a crap poem but I am still interested in our obsession with murder mysteries and the likes.’

The controversy has demonstrated how ‘the establishment’ (media, commercial publishers, the book trade) accepts and privileges performance and social media poetry as ‘democratic’, ‘accessible’ and on the whole preferable to ‘dusty old books’, a phrase repeated almost as often as ‘a broad church’. The Picador editor, who once lectured against such writing, has had a road to Damascus experience. The trade media applaud poetry that puts money in tills. The poets and their advocates can no longer claim to be counter-cultural outsiders: they have taken the palace and command the traditional media high ground as well as the social media, Twitter and Instagram. They want to take control of critical discourse. There is no arguing with facts: in 2015, McNish’s YouTube videos notched up 4.1 million views. Her collaborations with Kate Tempest and George the Poet were popular. BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour broadcast a seven-part radio documentary series hosted by McNish entitled Becoming a Mother: A Hot Cup of Tea with Hollie McNish.

Twitter and Facebook responses, however, differed radically. On Twitter, name-calling. On Facebook, discussion, even-handed, and respect for dusty old books, for criticism and evaluation. A reader, disappointed with bad work whose apotheosis in the marketplace crowds out other kinds of writing and devalues (for new readers) the art itself, might be thought to have a responsibility to speak out. In 1975 Octavio Paz, under considerable political pressure to conform to the nostrums of the day, described what as editor of his magazine Plural he believed his task to be. ‘We wanted to reintroduce – against monologue and clamouring, those twin aberrations – the rational word, the critical word, which is always two-sided because it implies a questioner. We know of course that criticism cannot, by itself, produce good literature. That is not, in any case, its mission. On the other hand, we know that it alone can create that space – physical, intellectual, moral – in which a literature can evolve.’

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This item is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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