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This item is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

One of those quiet, almost unnoticed transitions has just occurred. Modern Poetry in Translation has published its twenty-second number in the new series, the last to be edited by Daniel Weissbort, who established the sporadic journal with Ted Hughes back in 1965. The magazine has an afterlife: future issues will be edited by David and Helen Constantine (who collaborated in this issue, a celebration of the role of Bush House and the BBC World Service in the opening out of modern poetry). When the transition is complete MPT will no doubt reflect a different sense of `Modern', `Poetry' and `Translation' from that of Weissbort and Hughes. The twenty-first issue included, among other things, Weissbort's tribute to Hughes the translator, including his substantial work on Ferenc Juhasz and (astonishingly) drafts of early Yves Bonnefoy.

Thirty-nine years is a long time in the world of modern editing. But a record of having published only twenty-two issues, one every eighteen months or so (though it was never that regular), might at first sound - thin. Publication followed no regular schedule but MPT was seldom physically thin and its sporadic frequency - there were eventually sixty-nine issues - was a function less of the upheavals that accompany any little magazine's progress as of the editors' ambitions. MPT never seemed to be an anthology of miscellaneous work. It had a mission and most issues are points of coherence, we have a sense of things coming together with purpose. The purpose is historical, critical and, especially, creative.

MPT is about poetic resources. At a time when English poetry in particular was mired in formal and tonal ironies, MPT brought news of more headlong strategies, of unexpected risks and experiments. While the lyric `I' was re-emerging after the attempts to dissolve it in the critical and ideological turmoil of the late 1960s, MPT brought us news of a poetry in which the `I' was no longer central and the lyric was being re-invented. Not all the translations were excellent, not all of the advocacies were persuasive. But the magazine made a difference for readers, and it made a substantial difference for many significant writers, as well. Poets, and critics. Hughes himself was in part shaped and directed by discoveries he and Daniel Weissbort made. The stimulating and irreplaceable Penguin Poets in Translation series, edited by A. Alvarez, drew much of its energy from MPT.

Some reviewers of his enormous Collected Poems have suggested that Ted Hughes was actually in some way impoverished, mislead, damaged by his enthusiasm for East European and Russian poetry. It is true that what he wrested for himself from the poetry of Vasko Popa - the use of a modified ballad measure, the image dismembered, the evanescent narrator - was thematically and technically remote from Popa's own usage: Popa had survived experiences which Hughes could hardly imagine, and his style grew from those experiences (as Pilinsky's, Milosz's and Herbert's did). Having found through his writing new forms, new images for his experiences, Popa added to the resources not only of his national poetry but of poetry itself. The lessons Hughes learned from him, as from many others, may not have resulted in equivalent work, but they freed him to question some of the complacencies in his writing and in the writing of his immediate generation. It was always possible to resist his emphatic persuasions, whether he was writing an essay or translating a poem; but even in resisting them one had to define a contrary position. The absence of such a committed catalyst, of a poet whose advocacies put everyone on their mettle, is palpable in the current poetry culture with its anti-Modern bias, its recrudescent Georgianism and insular workshop ethos.

Daniel Weissbort, with a customary, wry impatience, draws attention to Sean O'Brien's review of Hughes' Collected in the New York Review of Books. O'Brien praises Hughes but laments these foreign influences upon him. They distracted him from his wholeness of vision and replaced it with a `bag of tricks'. Weissbort knows otherwise: these poets helped to free Hughes from the tricks of irony and rigid formalism he had inherited and with which he felt, to say the least, uncomfortable. Here were modern poets with whom he felt he belonged, poets deeply alive to their world, in a present informed at every point by a sense of the terrific and terrible past. He wrote to Weissbort, `what I see as their common quality is their simple and direct presence - even within quite elaborate fantasies. Each phrase has a matter of fact tone.'

When attacking the persisting effects of Modernism on British poetry, O'Brien assures his readers that he has the books of Pound and Eliot on his shelves. I suspect he may have, gathering dust beside his copy of the Cantos, the poems of Popa, to which he refers; or beside his George, a lightly thumbed Zbigniew Herbert. If Hughes actually matters to O'Brien, then so too should these writers, not only because they affected Hughes's sense of form, of what the first person is and does, and how history weighs upon traditional and conventional resources, but because Hughes took the trouble to understand them. He does not try to parrot Popa, or to borrow his `authenticity', and O'Brien's characterisation of Popa will prove unrecognisable to anyone who has read the Pennington translations. Hughes needed to understand these others, and he needed to understand their otherness. It was for him, in a different sense than for them, a matter of survival.

Others of his generation found release through Modernism, through other English-language poetries, or through experimentation. Release was necessary then and it is or soon will be necessary once more. It should not surprise us that fashions change or that writers' fortunes rise and fall. A fickle bourse of reputations determines `critical' evaluation. The whirligig of time: the same old reaction, the same old atavisms come round.

Alert readers will have noticed the appearance of Frank Kafka on the cover of PNR 155, and charitable ones may have tried hard to detect an intentional witticism. It was, alas, a simple keyboarding error, doubtless induced by the recurrence of the letter `k' in `Franz Kafka's Amerika': my fingers; my fault; my apologies. Next time: Franz Zappa.

This item is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

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