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This item is taken from PN Review 145, Volume 28 Number 5, May - June 2002.

Letters from Belle Randall, James Aitchison, John Wakeman, Simon Jenner, James Sutherland-Smith, Warren Hope
Whitman and Williams


In his essay 'Donald Davie in the West' (PNR 143), Peter Campion argues that Donald Davie is mistaken in perceiving William Carlos Williams as rejecting history: 'what we have here is more of a misunderstanding than an argument... Williams's In the American Grain for instance, is nothing if it is not history'. Davie of course is well aware of In the American Grain, he devotes several pages to it (Two Ways Out of Whitman, pp.14-26). The great shift in affinities which occurred in American poetry in the 1960s was a revolution in which Williams overturned Eliot. It is in contrast to Eliot's self-conscious expatriatism that Williams is chosen, and is in contrast to Eliot's poetry that Williams' poetry represents a denial of our historic and cultural past. 'I find William Carlos Williams in our own time still castigating his contemporaries, Eliot and Ezra Pound, for having lived abroad and having seemed to conceive of themselves as contributing to a European or world culture' (p.3). Besides, as Davie notes, In the American Grain is largely concerned 'with the fate of the Redskin'. Here, as in imagining poetry from 'the speech of Polish mothers', Williams proposes an alternative to the then pervasive view of American history as distinctly Western, and American literature as distinctly English in tradition. As is demonstrated by our current multiculturalism, Williams' views have prevailed.

If I may say so as an aside, one of my students was surprised to find Williams grouped with Whitman, but, as different as they are Whitman long-winded, Williams economical; Whitman oracular, Williams unassuming Whitman and Williams are alike in their shared belief in the American vernacular and their view of the American poet as Adamic, inventing himself from scratch, and 'self-reliant' in Emerson's sense, in his independence from institutions. Indeed, from the 1960s, Whitman's reputation rose in tandem with Williams's and by now they have achieved a supremacy in the general consensus that is as overbearing as Eliot's hierarchical authority must have been in 1950. The claim of self-invention is easily challenged, but it is not meaningless, and, indeed, underwrites the great democratic dissemination of poetry which has occurred in the United States in the last half century. Poetry is now available to everyone. The poet begins, not in a tradition, but in nakedness. As one of The Movement who instigated Eliot's overthrow, a fait accompli at the time of these writings, Davie cannot and would not want to raise his example, yet, circa 1960, with Pound in the nut house, who was to supplant him? Williams defined himself in opposition to Eliot, but Davie had misgivings about embracing Williams even then, misgivings that have proven apt. Nowadays American students are invariably taught that Whitman is the first truly American poet, and invited to see each individual self as Adamic, the first to discover freedom and democracy, and on a mission to disseminate it rhetoric that perfectly prepares the way for our current President's statements about our expanded Peace Corps and military presence in the world.

To acknowledge one's place in history is to acknowledge one's place in a fallen world. If other nations dislike Americans perhaps it is in part for the very reason that we remain so incredulous that we are disliked and persist in seeing ourselves as innocent. I learned recently that Whitman was influenced by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz. If Americans were accustomed to acknowledge that 'the first truly American poet' was influenced by an ancient Sufi dervish, might we not meet the Arabic world differently?


The Article the DNB Will Not Print


Robert Nye suggests (PNR 144) that the editors of the New Dictionary of National Biography (NDNB) are working to their own agenda.

His summary of his correspondence with NDNB leads one to think that the guiding principles of NDNB editors include academic orthodoxy, which is a form of ideology, and literary taxonomy, which is a form of bureaucracy.

In his article on Martin Seymour- Smith, Mr Nye's concern is the ways in which the creative imagination transmutes the facts of our existence, our raw experience, into truth. The same concern is an implicit theme in Mr Nye's poetry, fiction, editions of Walter Ralegh, Laura Riding and other poets, and his literary journalism.

The truths that Mr Nye creates in his work are forms of wisdom that reveal the dimensions, including a spiritual dimension, of our humanity. Your readers will understand that such values are unacceptable, perhaps incomprehensible, to bureaucrats and ideologues.



I refer to Robert Nye's article about the late Martin Seymour-Smith published in your March/April issue. With it you had Nye's note explaining that the piece had originally been commissioned by the New Dictionary of National Biography, but not 'approved' because of its 'wrong and misguided' view that Seymour-Smith will be remembered more for his poetry than his prose.

Martin Seymour-Smith was a prolific contributor to an American reference book that I edited in the seventies, and later I was a contributor to a related reference book which he edited. We also published some of his verse in The Rialto, the poetry magazine I used to edit with Michael Mackmin.

He was an excellent critic, biographer and editor, learned, versatile and decisive, sometimes entertainingly or infuriatingly perverse in his opinions, with a gargantuan appetite for work. As a poet he was shamefully underrated, not least because of his contempt for the literary establishment and its rules. He said, 'I write for I suppose about six people' but those who admired the disconcerting honesty and originality of his poetry included C.H. Sisson, David Wright and Robert Nye. His range extended from quiet love lyrics to painful or ironic meditations on the plight of the feeling individual in an unfeeling society. All of his work was informed by his wide reading in anthropology and psychology. The quality of his poetry was uneven but the NDNB was quite wrong to call it 'very undistinguished', 'wrong and misguided' when it tried to foist this foolish judgement on Robert Nye.

Co. Cork, Ireland


Robert Nye's 'Martin Seymour-Smith: The Article the DNB Will Not Print' raised an appalling comedy of manners. On the first count, mssrs Potter and Parker seem ignorant of the common courtesy accorded to all critics publishing more than one poem: 'Poet and Critic' is a convention honouring one function above the other, 'critic and poet' an anomalous solecism unique to the DNB, perhaps to this case. Either the 'experts' are ignorant, and thus not qualified for instance to comment on how distinguished a poet's work is, or they are pursuing other agendas. Even if so, such a strong objection to another distinguished poet and critic's judgement would not be based merely on hearsay, and with valid readings of the poet's work. If not, bad faith, or worse ensues. 'Should be described' reads like an Orwellian signed confession.

The many poets admiring Seymour- Smith's poetry have already been listed: poets of such distinction, of whom the subject was one, have the last say. Another, no friend of Seymour-Smith, was Peter Porter, himself the recipient of several of the subject's barbs. Nevertheless, he told me he recommended Reminiscences of Norma (1971) as a Poetry Book Society Choice, but was overruled. Seymour- Smith, a good-humoured anarchist who tactlessly baited academics, reviewers and certain compilers, would have appreciated the irony had he known. It's time we too forgave the ironist.



... and the letter that the TLS wouldn't print (Jeremy Treglown 'I hope you understand that we can't possibly print this letter' following a review of Martin Seymour-Smith's book on Kipling)...

In 1976 when the Poetry Society was still in Earls Court Square I went to a talk on Shakespeare by Martin Seymour-Smith and afterwards to the White Horse Hotel which had an after-hours bar. I was with a girlfriend who, to understate things, was something of a flirt, and MS-S was with his daughter and her boyfriend. Also in attendance were Bob Cobbing and assorted acolytes. Drinks were imbibed and my girlfriend, who was taken by the MS-S thesis that Shakespeare was a homosexual, told MS-S (she was even shorter than he was which perhaps aroused his protective instincts) that I was a poet. When MS-S surveyed me he asked if I was homosexual. (I think I was wearing my velvet suit from Take 6.) Barbara replied in the affirmative, whereupon MS-S said he was going to beat me up for being a pansy. I was taller than MS-S and felt disinclined to fight. I felt he would get the worst of it. However, he persisted despite his daughter becoming distressed, and I suggested that if he wanted to fight he should remove his heavy gold ring (I note that from Robert Nye that it was a Gnostic ring) as he might mark 'my pretty, pansy face'. (I suppose I was narked by the imputation.) MS-S looked a little baffled, removed his ring and hit me on the chin.

His daughter collapsed in tears, Barbara started screaming, 'No, no, he isn't a homosexual!' and a team led by Bob Cobbing proceeded to disengage the combatants who weren't actually doing anything more except staring at each other with baffled rage on the part of MS-S and incomprehension on the part of JS-S. Barbara and I left.

I note that Robert Nye says that MS-S was a 'formidable amateur boxer'. My experience was that the blow he delivered wouldn't have knocked the skin off a rice pudding (there was no mark on my face) and neither would the examples of verse that Robert Nye quotes. MS-S's biographies, on the other hand, are another matter and I quite understand the DNB's reaction to the article by Robert Nye. My chief delight is that I was rescued by Bob Cobbing from being 'beaten up'.

Presov, Slovak Republic


It might be well to remind your readers that Martin Seymour-Smith once offered advice to those guardians of culture who, like the editors of the New Dictionary of National Biography, try to potty-train poetry into what they think it should be, in the closing lines of one of his satiric poems entitled 'The Administrators':

Put out of mind the slightly embarrassing
Writings of dead men who led different lives,
Though trapped on their shelves and sealed
With fullest explanatory annotations;
Ignore most studiously of all
The letters of refusal they have to write
To those less fortunate but still living
Whose breathing is it? somehow stops their pens.

Seymour-Smith would have himself very much enjoyed reading Robert Nye's submission on him to the NDNB, and would have whooped loudly, I'm sure, at the reaction of the sub-editors to it. Thanks for making the documents public for others to enjoy.


This item is taken from PN Review 145, Volume 28 Number 5, May - June 2002.

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