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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 110, Volume 22 Number 6, July - August 1996.

Letters from Peter Forbes, Bernard Needham, S.L. Graham
New Look

Your comments on our new look were based entirely on a 300 word press release. it would be hard to find a press release that wasn't 'facile' as you put it but I hadn't realised that PN Review now subscribed to the sweet-wrappers-are-as-good-as-Shakespeare school of literary criticism.

There was one thing wrong with the press release, though. It was intended to whet the appetite for the real thing. Yes, we are coming clean on our orientation, but it's not what you think. The article your quote is taken from is one of a series that begin with 'Why the new popular poetry makes more sense' (Vol 85 No 3, 1995), which comes down hard on the pernicious equation of undemanding plain-style poetry succeeding in the market place to the exclusion of much better work. The article in the new issue discusses the damage that the myth of modernism (that all poetry since Eliot has been necessarily difficult) has done. It isn't about modernism as such. i really don't think I could have decanted such an argument into a press release (which, in case I didn't write, although I think it's rather good).

Your piece goes on to associate my 'attitude' with the philistine publishing philosophy rightly castigated by Neil Belton in Index. I could get cross about this, but when you see the issue you'll realise that to be called antielitist could prove to be a useful antidote to some very different criticism that will follow.

Editor, Poetry Review, London

Surprising Voices

Poets like other people have to make a living. In your editorial to PN Review 109, you suggested that the 'wrong kind of democracy' was at work in English poetry, and you seemed to vilify certain writers - Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Tony Harrison among them - for being victims of this democracy, or for exploiting it. I wasn't quite sure which way your polemic was tending. Have you ever heard these poets read in public? Have you seen how they affect their audiences? It seems to me that your argument is unfair to those writers and to the ways in which our poetry today is opening out, is including and encouraging -in a word, tolerant - where in the past it has not been, or has been less openly so. I am new to poetry, being in my twenties. But even in the time I have been reading I have seen barriers fall and the new making way in. Even in PN Review itself I have found surprising voices - they have surprised me, anyway. I wonder if you are not writing editorials with one hand and editing with the other - let your right hand not know what your left hand is doing? If you got your two hands co-ordinated, you could really make a mark.


Discriminating Tolerance

You have in the past been quick - though perhaps not quick enough - to point out in 'Editorials' how certain poets seen as 'new' are in fact 're-inventing the wheel'. Some years ago you demonstrated how the late lamented Norman MacCaig was a Martian avant la lettre; who now regards Craig Raine and the Tribe of Craig as anything more than a faded phenomenon of the 1980s? In a recent editorial, however (PNR 109), you seem to suggest that something new is happening, and the mechanisms which promote writers like Armitage, Duffy and Harrison are new. Yet you have been inveighing against those mechanisms for as long as I have been reading PNR, and that's a long time, though I have not written to the magazine until now.

There is nothing new except a generation, and a generation with some merit (all those poets, even Ian Duhig, have something to offer). Maybe it's time you changed the record on your old Victrola and took a deep breath. Clearly you work close to the coalface, picking at the same seam issue after issue (though there is an abundance in recent issues which sets PNR apart). Take a break - a holiday in a less inclement coal-mine - and come back with new perspectives.

It was a surprise and an enormous treat to discover Mark Doty, Stephen Tapscott, James Tate, Jorie Graham in your pages. Maybe a bit of time in America would bring some of their freshness into the weary - and, frankly, wearying - region of your editorial statements. Or try the Antipodes with Murray and Manhire. We've had almost enough - at least I have - of Net Book Agreements and your settled dislike for popular culture.

Donald Davie touches a real nerve in his essay on Mandelstam and Milosz, where he talks about Orthodoxy and Heresy, and insists that 'habitable' is a more meaningful term than 'humane'. Would that he were still with us. In his absence, your own orthodoxy is poor in theology and seems to be, as you put it in an editorial some time back, 'knee-jerk'. Give us a more discriminating tolerance, not only in what you publish but in how you frame it.


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

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