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This item is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

Letters from John Lucas, David C. Ward
Silly Ideas


James Keery is an astute and persuasive reviewer who is nevertheless stuck with some very silly ideas. When he writes about Peter Riley he does it so well that I can't imagine many readers not wanting to buy the two Riley collections under review. (Even though the price of one wasn't given. Having now purchased an Alstonefield I can however report that it comes from Oasis Books at £5.95.) But when Keery reaches for his generalisations I find myself wanting to reach for the off-button. Of a weak poem by another poet, he remarks that it 'offers to reanimate the reactionary conventions of the aubade and the sonnet, but despite his escape from the straightjacket of metre and rhyme, Corcoran remains entangled in the lyrical solipsism of bourgeois subjectivity.' 'But' ought surely to be 'and', although I'll let that pass. What can't be allowed to go unchallenged are the statements on either side of the conjunction. What exactly are the conventions of aubade and sonnet? The former simply means 'morning song', and the best modern example of an aubade I can think of is Empson's, which is as far from reactionary as may be. As to the sonnet: well, yes, its customary fourteen lines require 'closure' and it's certainly been used to promote or explore subjectivity. But is all subjectivity 'bourgeois', because if so Keery's phrase is otiose, or are there other, acceptable kinds of subjectivity, and if so what are they? I suspect the truth is that Keery is merely hanging out banner phrases of contemporary critical orthodoxy according to which the recognition that we all live in 'ontological insecurity' has given the lie to 'essential selfhood', even though the despicable bourgeoisie haven't yet got around to understanding as much, haven't, in Pessoa's words, realised that 'to be one self is not to be'.

But Pessoa made that remark some seventy years ago and at a very different historical moment. We may not be untroubled selves, but without some awareness of selfhood we can have no feeling for moral or any other kind of responsibility. And although in a letter I can't develop this assertion into argument, I will risk saying that there seem to me good reasons for thinking that an assumption of subjectivity may be neither deluded nor uncherishable. (Of 'subjectivity' the OED say: 'The quality or character of being subjective, esp the ability or tendency to present or view facts in the light of personal or individual feelings or opinions' - my italics.) Subjectivity may, after all, mean resisting current orthodoxies, including that which takes for granted the sonnet's reactionary conventions. When did the sonnet acquire these conventions? Presumably after Gurney's 'Sonnet - September 1922', or Elizabeth Daryush's 'Children of Wealth', or Auden's 'In Time of War', or Harrison's 'The School of Eloquence', or even the fractured sonnets of Canaan. But then that brings us up to date. The truth is that the sonnet, as with any form, is endlessly renewable. And even closure may have its propriety, although I have deliberately cited examples in which the sonnets end problematically or in which, because they are conceived as sequences, apparent finality is repeatedly undone. As to the straightjacket of metre and rhyme, would Keery care to defend that statement after reading Edwin Morgan's 'The Poet, the Planxty, and the Bagatelle', or Paul Muldoon's 'Long Finish', both of which appear in the very same number of PNR as his confident dismissal of what Robert Lowell called 'blessed structures'.

And finally, and in view of the certainty with which he dismisses subjectivity, would Keery like to explain the last sentence of his review, in which he hopes that in future Jennifer Chalmers's 'voice will prove to be very much her own'. Some slight hint of contradiction there, perhaps?

Beeston, Nottingham

Rebel Angels


I seem to have confused both Mark Jarman and James Hatch with my use of the word 'cogent' in my characterization of Rebel Angels' preface. I meant it descriptively - 'forcefully concise' - not qualitatively, i.e. convincing.

Finally, Mark Jarman is disingenuous in arguing that nothing binds the disparate poets of his anthology besides their use of metre. On their own perhaps, but not packaged together with Jarman and Mason's preface in a context in which the 'New Formalism' has been a lively issue of cultural politics. When Jarman and Mason put William Blake's 'The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child' on their cover they were clearly making a point about something more than iambics. And if you're going to make an issue of your technical prowess, then you had better deliver. As to Jarman's 'theories' about my motivations: I quite like formal verse, I just don't like bragging.


This item is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

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