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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 153, Volume 30 Number 1, September - October 2003.

Editorial
In the English Association Newsletter for Summer 2003 (Number 173), Martin Dodsworth, who many of us remember as one of the best poetry reviewers of his time (a regular in the Guardian), reflects on a recent enquiry which reveals that `few teachers of literature in the schools... believe that they are instilling in their pupils a sense of English literature as an inheritance'. He reflects that there is still considerable interest in the past, its history, its architecture and archaeology, but literature is on the whole not a part of this culture of curiosity. Dodsworth is concerned less with a decline in literacy, more with a perception that inheritance, heritage, especially a specifically English heritage, has a stale and incorrect odour in (and beyond) the schools; he looks at the newspaper he contributed to for so many years and finds contemporary English journalists a little shamefaced when they own up to a liking for specifically English elements in our culture. Ian Jack refers to `troubled nationhood'.

Dodsworth urges us to consider that there is an acknowledgeable entity, complex though it is, which can be called Englishness, whose qualities can be inferred from works of literature, art, architecture, and from the landscapes of a specific if diverse place in time. Beyond that, he writes of a cultural community which is that of `English speakers and readers'. This is where the crisis, for it is a crisis, in teaching becomes pertinent. `To foster a sense of belonging to that community involves giving its members a sense that the community does indeed belong to them and that it is a historic community... Avoidance of the topic of Englishness and what it is to be one of its heirs is a mistake in the teaching of English at whatever level.' Dodsworth is not a bumptious nationalist or a reactionary: to understand Englishness is to understand how the concept has been appropriated and manipulated; there must be a critical and theoretical awareness, but most of all there must be an awareness.

One aspect of current examination strategy is that the texts chosen are mainly from the last one hundred years, are relatively few, and are treated like dots which cannot be joined up except by a degree of violence to the line or by falsification of the text itself. Set texts are seen not as part of a nourishing continuum (heritage) but as single, separable, textual in a narrowing sense. Their formal properties and derivations are of less importance than their interpretation. They are pretexts to stimulate the student to think, but much of the thought is deployed on issues of content rather than form. For every 100 students who has read Brian Southam's explicatory notes to The Waste Land we are lucky to find one who can understand the way Eliot has assembled the poem, its formal properties.

Recently I was asked to teach a sixth form group `how to read poetry'. I took Philip Larkin's `Church Going' and Elizabeth Bishop's `Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance'. My intention was to consider the poems' forms, to show how they fit together, to indicate the tonal changes and how they were conveyed, to define the kinds of irony that were at work. A New Critical exercise, perhaps,

but I wanted to draw the students away from the `higher gossip' of biography and show how a good poem tells us what we need to know. A teacher was present who, shortly after I began, instructed me that some of the students did not know who Philip Larkin was. Perhaps I would like to give them a sense of the man. Anything, it would seem, rather than trust the poem, and trust the reader, even the uninformed student reader, to trust the poem. The extraneousness of much instruction, the provision of irrelevant context and the general, patronising acceptance that continuities and formal connections are too difficult for GCSE and A-level students to comprehend, contribute to a poverty of expectation and the impoverishment of the student. These students are not only the readers but the potential writers of the next generation.

`The more I see of modern pictures,' says Coleridge in Table Talk (24 July 1831), `the more I am convinced that the ancient art of painting is gone, and something substituted for it, very pleasing, but different, and different in kind and not in degree only.' Coleridge, looking at modern painting, and in particular at a picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds whose work had aroused Blake's hostility, too, uses the words `affected' and `meretricious' in connection with it. It may be that we, too, are on the brink of such a `difference in kind'.

News & Notes in this issue reveals how busy the Reaper has been on the slopes of Parnassus. Reflecting on the deaths of Frank Prince, Kathleen Raine, Ken Smith and Peter Redgrove, a poet-friend of my generation commented on the deep respect we felt and feel for poets who have nourished us by example and sometimes by generous engagement with our work. When we were starting out as writers and editors, we lived by the long perspectives, by a sense of informal apprenticeship, by following the examples and suggestions of our betters, as we knew them to be.

When the Mexican poet Octavio Paz was greeted by Spanish-speakers, he was addressed as `Maestro', which means `Teacher' or `Master'. It is in that spirit that we read Prince, not to imitate him but to understand what, in his originality, he had done, what changes had occurred in his work, what he could give and what he could teach. For us modern poetry was itself largely a matter of living inheritance. Prince pointed us to Milton, and to the Italian and French writers. Kathleen Raine made us turn to Blake and the Bible, and so on. With the foreshortening of critical, journalistic and educational perspectives; with the emphasis on the new, on competition between poets; and with the anathemas that have become attached to the fact and the idea of Englishness, something profound is occurring in our poetic culture, something for which we have not yet accounted, assuming that there is still a `we' interested in these issues and aware of the changes that are afoot.

153 is not a magical number, but PNR 153 is also the first issue of a new volume and will be known bibliographically to posterity as Volume 30 Number 1. It seems an appropriate moment to express warmest thanks to a long-standing contributor, Lawrence Sail, whose work for the Reports pages, starting with PNR 97, becoming regular with PNR 102, ran, with even brilliance, to PNR 150. With his remarkable European intelligence and wide-ranging essayistic style, his keenness to explore and find rather than to prove an argument, he never disappointed. Poetry was not always his subject-matter but it was invariably his subject. His contributions have already been missed by many readers; but there is more than a substantial book of contributions available in the issues to which he contributed, a book which will one day be published. He is, simply, a fine, cogent and humane essayist, possessing a skill that is rare today.

With this new volume issue of PN Review, in response to pressure from our library and some of our individual subscribers, we have changed the magazine's style to perfect binding and the cover price has risen to £6.99. This will not affect the price to subscribers, individual or institutional. The advantage of the new binding is that issues henceforth will have a spine with issue details, and shelving will be easier and sturdier. Subscribers to the journal now have automatic access to the on-line magazine as well, and further advantages will be added in coming months.

This item is taken from PN Review 153, Volume 30 Number 1, September - October 2003.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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