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This item is taken from PN Review 110, Volume 22 Number 6, July - August 1996.

In a cool-headed and informative essay entitled 'Megaphones for the Dispossessed' (Index 3, 1996), Edward Lucie-Smith comments on the American educational publishing milieu.

As an author of books on contemporary art who occasionally ventures into the educational field, I have in the last few years been subjected to transatlantic editorial pressure of a type previously unknown to me. The pressure starts when the synopsis is first submitted, and a count is made of the number of female artists I intend to include (the question posed is not 'are there enough?' but 'are there more than in any other work which might be considered a direct competitor?'). It continues even when the text is already very late in going to the printer, with a list of additional artists, mostly ethnic and/or female, whom I must include in my final chapters, 'because these are the names our people expect to teach'. The attraction of those included in the list seems to be, in almost every case, that the artist concerned is pushing a very crude, very simple racial or feminist message. Untrammelled, as it happens, by aesthetics - which must make teaching them a lot easier.

Twenty years ago the poet X. J. Kennedy made a similar point about poetry anthologies. The publishers' point is understandable on other than commercial grounds: in an ethnically and culturally diverse society, a mix must be represented or one group will be seen, and see itself, as culturally superior, another inferior. And for a Black, Chicano, Polish, Italian, a gay or lesbian adolescent, it's important to find that their experience has a language, or a place in language. Later, for those who go further, the quality of that language and that place can be appraised.

Yet a tone of regret colours Lucie-Smith's essay, a regret tempered by knowledge of how these editorial pressures have developed. There is at once enhancement and deprivation in backgrounding aesthetic criteria at primary and secondary level. Pedagogically, a sense of community and collegiality emerges from an integrated curriculum. Yet, pedagogically too, a debilitating relativism can arise, as in 'comparative' religious education, a sense of the arts as instrumental in a coarse sense which it may be difficult to subtilise or refine later on. 'Reverting to Victorian attitudes,' Lucie-Smith says,

the American educational system increasingly values art not for its own sake but as a purveyor of moral messages. At this point the radicals within the museum system and the conservatives outside it shake hands with one another.

'The American educational system values' - no, it's not that monolithic. What's more, it is hard for so informed and liberally European a critic as Lucie-Smith to feel at home with the hard educational needs of America today, needs which some British educationalists theorise and apply here in educational policy before the time has come, or in Scotland and Wales after the time has passed. What has emerged in parts of the United States as an educational necessity - artistically to enfranchise 'the dispossessed' - is pressing elsewhere too, but for that enfranchisement to be real in the long term it has to find strong voices, radical pallettes, or critics whose hands are dirty with classroom toil, to make the case solid.

Educational and political necessities are not - and here conflict necessarily emerges - artistic necessities. Beyond classroom texts, the editorial pressures to which Lucie-Smith has been subjected ought not to operate in the same way, as compulsion, even when they exist as suggestion or persuasion. The politicisation of aesthetics led to many notorious polemical excesses of Modernism. The process can be seen in reverse, in aestheticising certain political axioms and projecting them, via the media, subsidy bodies and other 'shapers', on artists, writers and the institutions which make their work public. Official questionnaires for appraising not organisational but aesthetic criteria prioritise race, gender and disability. It is not what a poem does with and in the language, how its takes shape and what it gives shape to, but who makes it, that comes to matter.

And 'who makes it' does matter to a school child, whether possessed or dispossessed. It matters deeply. Yet it matters, after school, when the child grows up, that he or she get a purchase on that early experience and learn to assess and value it. It is hard, until cultural enfranchisenlent is based on work of equivalent (not equal) merit, for judgement to develop. It will keep tripping over the comers of the 'democratic' carpetwhich, in the end, reduces art and literature to pretext.

PN Review 111 will look different from this issue. We might say that the change marks our twenty-fifth birthday. With PNR 111, we attain our quarter century - an achievement, but far short of Agenda, London Magazine, Stand, Poetry Review. We might say that a new look promises a new orientation. But the change is modest. Ellington typeface is wearing on the eye, a severe filter for poems. To avert the need for a Braille edition for long-time readers (and editors), a variation of typeface is essential. It has to be admitted, too, that ever since PNR adopted its austere approach to covers - the 'naked' look, the sucked-pastel shades of recent issues - some readers have been unhappy. PNR now promises a looser layout, elements of illustration. Poems will be more respectfully displayed, And we will publish a comprehensive Index covering six issues of Poetry Nation and 110 issues of PNR. No longer will subscribers wander without compass. The magazine is a remarkable resource for poets, poetry readers, critics and scholars. The Index will open out that resource.

It can seem that the latter part of this century has been lavishly preoccupied - when it claims to be preoccupied with poetry at all - with other things, with poetry's context, its use, its 'witness', its moral probity construed in the light of the age's shifting concerns. It is hard to think of a period in which the eyes of editors and critics have been so resolutely blind to inappropriate achievement. In the mess of work available, an editor seeks a significant continuum of poets and poems, a constellation. He is less in love with 'the new' than with continuities which reveal what is actually new in poems. Those continuities are not only with the past but in the present. It is to them that PNR remains devoted.

This item is taken from PN Review 110, Volume 22 Number 6, July - August 1996.

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