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This item is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

Letters to the Editor
Topless feminists running amok

Vona Groarke writes: Much as I love the idea of topless feminists running amok around County Tipperary, the ‘Femen’ cited in my book, Woman of Winter (reviewed by Gwyneth Lewis in PN Review 276), is, in fact, the Plain of Femen, from which arises Sliabh na mBan, (which translates from Irish as ‘Mountain of the Women’, and is probably better known to folk singers as ‘Slievenamon’).

That said, I’m sure the locals would be only too delighted to offer a hospitable (if rather rainy) and semantically apt base to the Ukrainian activist group of the same name.

Political Content, and Discontent

Dave Wynne-Jones writes: I’d like to commend Andrew Hadfield on the hard-hitting opening paragraphs of his review of John Sutherland’s Triggered Literature and indeed the analysis forming the body of that review, ‘Welcome to the Culture Wars’. However, the culture wars he describes are more widely located than the campuses and literary targets that he and his subject focus on in PNR 275. In the same edition, Isabel Galleymore examines the effects of a shared imagery on environmental thinking, almost a displacement activity, and Horatio Morpurgo, writing on Lipkin, draws our
attention to the way ‘the role of literary magazines in supporting the structure of truthfulness as a language is subjected to immense distorting pressures’. In an article in which he manages to air his views on the war in Ukraine, Morpurgo never once mentions the roles of NATO and the US in a conflict that has been going on since 2014. With intentional irony on page 4 of edition 274, PNR noted the censorship of an anti-Zionist Jewish poet and his reviewer practised by Chicago’s Poetry magazine, whilst also commenting on the ‘Funding Crisis’ which undoubtedly bears some responsibility for less obvious editorial decisions in the UK, as Arts Council funding shrinks and magazines find that they risk closure if readers cancel subscriptions because of controversial content.

An eco-poet and academic who has been published for decades described to me how a submission to a particular magazine was systematically filleted of its political content before publication. Last year’s Cheltenham festival promised better with an eco-poetry event featuring Ruth Padel and Jonathan Porritt, but the shared poems said little beyond ‘isn’t nature wonderful!’ whilst in follow-up discussion, satire was deemed to have become the province of social media and stand-up comedy, rather than of poetry. And where is the political poetry that we might have expected to emerge from the salutary experience of Covid?

Since 7 October we have seen an immense mobilisation of establishment power to censor and cancel views that are not in line with a sponsored narrative, comparable only to the anti-Corbyn mobilisation in this country in the years leading up to the 2019 election. Regarding campuses, we have seen McCarthyite
interrogations and resignations of the heads of prestigious US universities. German authorities have axed funding to organisations, withdrawn literary prizes and cancelled events not only for Palestinians but also for Jewish artists and writers who have condemned the actions of Israel in Gaza.

At a time when the establishment has never been more concerned to maintain its control over the narrative expressed in the mainstream media, the suppression of dissident views can have profound and insidious effects, not least on poetry. Anne Boyer’s resignation as the Poetry editor of the New York Times draws attention to the effect on language of such suppression: ‘I can’t write about poetry amidst the “reasonable” tones of those who aim to acclimatize us to this unreasonable suffering. No more ghoulish euphemisms. No more verbally sanitized hellscapes. No more warmongering lies…. If this resignation leaves a hole in the news the size of poetry, then that is the true shape of the present.’ Cinnamon Press has rushed into print with Omar Sabbagh’s RIP, but, even though some Palestinian poets are being featured online, where else is the political poetry about the catastrophe in Gaza?

Within my workshop group, poets seem to be struggling with the enormity of what is happening, but the performance poetry circuit could have been expected to have more resilience and nimbleness in its responses. Unfortunately, there seems to have been a marked lack of engagement there too. As we saw post-Covid, most performers have returned to the same old mixture of identity politics, adolescent angst and comedy rhymes. One poet suggested to me that the effect was similar to what he’d experienced growing up in his minority ethnic community when people ‘kept their heads down’, not wanting to draw attention to themselves because of the unpredictability of the responses they might receive. It’s unfortunate that so often attempts to write about Gaza draw accusations of antisemitism, despite anti-Zionism having recently been established by legal precedent as a philosophical belief protected under the 2010 Equalities Act in the UK.

Understandably, writers are likely to avoid getting drawn into such a potentially damaging arena, but the effects on poetry and society can be equally harmful. For the individual, an inability to validate their thoughts and feelings in what they read and hear can result in repression and associated cognitive dissonance. For the poet, a turning away from controversial subjects can lead to a rigorously subjective, self-centred focus that discourages engagement with larger and wider issues. For society, dissent ‘goes underground’, government becomes less responsive to those it governs (as we have seen in this country with legislation to curtail the right to strike or peacefully protest) and views are increasingly polarised. Ahead of her review, published on 25 March, Dame Sara Khan, the Government’s independent social cohesion adviser, has revealed that polling for her report found that more than 75 percent of the public feel they have to refrain from speaking their mind.

In a culture war it’s not so much a question of taking sides but of shaping a supportive community in which conflicting views can be expressed and heard, in an effort to reach a better understanding (even agreement, as we discovered in Northern Ireland). Peace negotiations need to recognise both parties. Poets may no longer be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, but poetry still has a part to play in ‘the creative faculty to imagine that which we know’. Given the current economic and political pressures on the academic and the publishing worlds, it’s a moot point whether they can rise to the occasion.

Giving credit where it’s due…

Anthony Barnett writes: Further to ‘AI and Poetry’ by Robert Griffiths (PNR 276) there’s more than one kind of AI: For example, the review Snow lit rev is edited by A(nthony Barnett) and I(an Brinton) and published by A(llardyce) I(ntelligence).

Thank you, AI.

This item is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

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