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This item is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

With this issue PN Review marks its sestercentenary or, if you prefer, its semiquincentenary, or its bicenquinquagenary. As usual, the editor is on a steep learning curve, aware that we are talking 250 issues, not years.

When PN Review turned 200 issues old, the editorial recounted the history so far. With 250, the relief of long survival is tempered with sadness. Death has paid too many visits to the poetry world in the last two months. As I was writing this editorial, news of John Giorno’s death reached us. His name joins those commemorated in News & Notes. Two losses belong in this editorial. They were of the first importance to PN Review. One was a co-founder of the magazine, the other a constant companion as poet, translator, essayist, reviewer and friend, from Poetry Nation VI (1976) to the present issue where some of her last poems are published.

Elaine Feinstein’s most candid and telling prose contribution (PNR 224, 2015) was ‘Forms of Self-Exposure’, the text of a keynote lecture delivered on her behalf by Eleanor Bron at Newnham College, Cambridge, earlier that year. In a kind of life narrative, she related her experiences as woman and writer to wider contexts of world and world poetry, sharpening definitions of what she did with greater particularity in prose and interviews down the years. Her life and work unfolded in ways that enabled many writers to find vocation and ‘voice’. The lecture is a summation. I like to look back to points earlier in our fifty-year friendship: we never quite agreed, there were the kinds of friendly resistance that led to illumination.

We shared the experience of editing magazines, and her motives as editor were not unlike mine. As an undergraduate, she edited Cambridge Opinion, ‘an issue called “Writer out of Society”, based on my enthusiasm for Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and Allen Ginsberg.’ There was from the start an apartness in her sense of her place in relation to prevailing politics and culture. ‘When I began to write I was very well aware I didn’t have the right voice for current English poetry… It was partly because I was so influenced by Americans… I started my own magazine, Prospect, not to publish my own poems, but to introduce Olson, Paul Blackburn and others who weren’t yet known in this country. That’s how I came to meet Prynne. In fact, I sold Prospect to Prynne.’ By ‘sold’ she meant, ‘I gave him my overdraft and the title, and on that he built his connections, using my addresses… He made something much more out of them than anything I had.’ The Black Mountain poets intrigued her. Olson sent her his famous letter defining breath ‘prosody’.

As well as the Americans, she was alive to her family origins in the Russian-Jewish Diaspora. She developed a deep affinity with Russian poets of her century. Crucial are her translations of Marina Tsvetaeva, first published in 1971, in which she developed a ‘gapped’ technique to choreograph voice pauses and runs, an instinctive-seeming but deliberated Modernist technique. She translated other Russian writers and wrote biographies of Pushkin, Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova.

In her second collection, the poems are domestic, but not comfortable: instabilities, of relationship, of habitation itself. (A later poem, entitled ‘Home’, begins ‘Where is that I wonder?’) There is a tension between ‘recapturing lost territory’ and escaping into imagined territory. Fantasy ‘encourages a steely rejection of humanism, a fashionable resistance to compassion, which I believe is as much a luxury of an English innocence as the euphoria of the affluent flower generation’. So much for the short-cut mysticisms of some of her beloved Americans. Epiphanies when they come are hard-won. I said to her in an interview in 1997, ‘Risk has always been a theme with you. In 1972 you published At the Edge. Had I picked it up at the time I’d have thought it somehow related to Alvarez, to the edges that Alvarez talks about, but at no stage have you risked the kind of edges he advocates in the introduction to New Poetry.’ She replied, ‘I remember his introduction well. Not for me. If you’ve escaped the holocaust entirely by the serendipitous chance of your family deciding not to settle in Germany, and you’re conscious of that – as I was from about age nine onwards – you don’t look for suicidal risks much. That’s not exciting. Death is not exciting.’ Pressed further, she added, ‘The risk I’m thinking about is the sort of risk you take in living, not playing safe.’ In ‘Journal’ in this issue of PN Review she is true to the discipline of lived risk:
I remember during childbirth thinking:
well at least I can make sure this doesn’t happen again,
before my first taste of a drug that allows you to cheat,
to float up to the ceiling and look down
at the hurried midwife and doctor bent over your body.

A moral, not a moralizing writer, she practices humanism in a world where poets tend to value myth and the arcana at the expense of the empirical and human. Her metonomies are not literary gestures, her images are literal and laden. She is direct with a passionate voice she found out through reading and translating Marina Tsvetaeva. Tsvetaeva ‘enabled me to write without embarrassment. Because she doesn’t feel embarrassed about sounding undignified’. This was a further step away from English irony towards candour. She shared her discoveries with three generations of writers. Without her, writing, especially by women, would sound different in diction, measure and tone. Without her PN Review would have been a different magazine.

The other loss was of James Atlas, the literary biographer and essayist, who died at the age of seventy in September. He was at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship from Harvard when we became friends. I was developing Poetry Nation. He had worked on the Harvard Advocate and was to go on to become a notable editor (at the New York Times), a critic and biographer, first of Delmore Schwartz and later of Saul Bellow. Shadow in the Garden: a biographer’s tale was published in 2017. He helped shape and temper the first issue, contributing a substantial poem and an essay on translation. He continued with us for five years, writing on Beckett, Lowell (who taught him at Harvard), and a key essay on literary biography. Without him, too, Poetry Nation and PN Review would have taken a different form.

I accompanyied him to interview the first Mrs Delmore Schwartz in London. He was working on his biography of the poet and he already knew a lot about her. She was eager to tell him that Delmore had sexual difficulties with her, which he already knew. Each time she edged towards the subject he asked distracting questions. She never got to make her revelation. Later I remonstrated with him. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t going to let her say it’: a biographer’s revenge on his subject’s behalf.

His last e-mail to me, in May, ended: ‘The bad news is: poor health. I just turned 70 and have a chronic lung infection, cardiovascular disease, and lots of other stuff, including gout! I don’t know how long I’m going to last, but long enough to see you again, I hope. You’re a dear fellow. We had fun, didn’t we?’ We did.

This item is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

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