Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

In The English Auden, in a footnote to his ‘Introduction to Poems of Freedom’, Auden writes, ‘during the last hundred years, artists have tended to become a social class of their own, in parallel with the general trend to specialisation, or class division, in social organisation, a tendency which has had serious consequences for both the artist and the public’. This ‘social class of their own’ becomes ever more specialised and defined: many individuals who identify as poets have teaching jobs in universities and colleges. Academic institutions provide relatively safe environments. They pay, protect – and some of them homogenise. If social media are a measure, poets can develop a uniform set of political and civic opinion. They police their environment tirelessly, severely. Aberrant opinion, contrary argument, are promptly slapped down. There is always the threat of cancellation.

This ‘class’ teaches. In some cases, they seed and replicate in their students an officious like-mindedness about poetry, about history, about theory. They can spread their concerns, prejudices and priorities. Auden, ten pages after his prescient footnote, but still writing ninety years ago, declares, ‘We live in an age in which the collapse of all previous standards coincides with the perfection in technique for the centralised distribution of ideas…’ It’s almost as if he foresaw social media. ‘[S]ome kind of revolution is inevitable, and will as inevitably be imposed from above by a minority; in consequence, if the result is not to depend on the loudest voice, if the majority is to have the slightest say in the future, it must [now] be more critical than it is necessary for it to be in an epoch of straightforward development.’

To be critical, however, is to be confronted by a righteous, high-handed intransigence for which formal victory, however pyrrhic, is obligatory. A recent instance: MEAS (Measuring Equality in the Arts Sector: Literature in Ireland) published a fifteen page report entitled ‘Poetry Reviews in The Irish Times 2013-2018’ – ‘with reference to gender, nationality, race and publishers. It presents data on reviewers and reviewed authors, considering what books are reviewed and who reviews them.’ Though in fact it tells us nothing of the reviewing ‘practices’, only reporting patterns (no specific review is adduced), the facts are clear enough: more reviews of books by men than by women were published between 2013 and 2018. A MEAS report published the year before, produced by the same two researchers but not instanced in this report, demonstrated that published poetry books by men outnumbered books by women in Ireland by a ratio of 63:37, and no books by authors from ethnic minorities was mentioned – facts that might have been considered relevant here. To the Book Editor Martin Doyle’s response on behalf of the Irish Times, published on 31 January, the researchers replied, ‘We understand that it is your obligation to justify the actions of the organisation in which you are employed, but you must also understand that we are compelled to defend our own principled, unbiased, and impartial analysis of data collected with honesty and in good faith.’ The Irish Times, among major newspapers in these islands, has a fine record in reviewing poetry. A substantial review appears each month, and the range of books selected is wide. The ‘culture of reception’ is intact, and feature coverage is also given to writers and trends, Irish and otherwise. Nowadays three reviewers take turns, each contributing four substantial pieces a year. The MEAS report correctly showed that more books by men than by women had been reviewed in the period covered. But the statistical trend was shifting during that time. Had the researchers allowed us to look beyond their allotted period, they would have seen that in 2019 the ratio favoured women 60:40. They knew this, but because it was beyond the immediate parameters of their quantitative analysis they thought, being principled, unbiased and impartial, that it was unnecessary to acknowledge it. Just as they failed to acknowledge their own earlier MEAS report on gender bias in publishing. The failure to join up research, within a single programme, is regrettable. It may not be deliberate, but it looks that way, as though the researchers knew the desired result before they set out. Karl Kraus ridiculed this sort of imperative; his imagined editor tells the reporter, ‘The headline is set, go find the event.’

Martin Doyle’s exasperated response on behalf of the Irish Times (31 January) was comprehensive. His paper maintains a critical commitment to an art form that is not popular and seldom newsworthy. Seamus Heaney died in 2013, after all. Analysis, to be of any moment, having separated shes and hes, must do more if it is to be of any value (a risky word to use in this quantitative context). A newspaper is a particular kind of literary vehicle (academic scholars might concede). Research, to be rigorous and answerable to the medium with which it engages, might be expected to itemise what was being published in each month in question. It might give examples of titles wrongly overlooked or mis-valued, and critical reasons for naming those titles (a cultural, within a quantitative exercise). It might acknowledge which books in each month inevitably command review space in a newspaper, because of the poet – Paul Muldoon, say, Eavan Boland, Ciaran Carson, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. It might also ask small independent Irish publishers (a quantitative exercise) whether they supply review copies to the Irish Times. Not all do.

Martin Doyle had Auden in mind, too. He writes, ‘W.H. Auden may not have foreseen this report’s particular use of statistics when he wrote his commencement address for graduating Harvard students, “Under Which Lyre”, a poem which poked fun at quantity-measuring approaches to art, and life: “Thou shalt not sit / With statisticians nor commit / A social science.” However, he – and most readers of poetry – would understand the problem of reading poetry from a populist, levelling perspective, which sets aside national and international reputation and achievement, and dismisses the painstaking discussion about quality and value, alongside the obvious editorial concern with representation, which inform our critics’ choices.’

This item is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image