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This item is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.

Letters from Belle Randall, Donald Davie, Dr M. Jacobs, Roger Pooley
The Stately Homes

I'm writing in response to Donald Davie's essay 'The Canon: Values and Heritage' (PN Review 103; May-June, 1995). I went to it expecting to find support for my own conclusions, and was delighted to find I had to amend them instead. This was a familiar experience for me during the years (1969-73) I was his student at Stanford - in the California Bay Area, whither he fled, he tells us in the article, to get away from the sixties, though if that was his intent, it must have been out of the frying pan into the fire. I was corrected by his essay because I am one of those who had been thinking we need to decide what to save. As his objections to this are several, I will reply severally. First, he points out that 'electronics have supplied us with what can be called an infinitely extensible data-base.' We needn't question what to save because with the new technology we can save everything.

This doesn't sound like Davie. I would have expected him to be the first to point out that saving everything is the same as saving nothing. For a piece of literature to be saved means saved not merely in the archives but in our hearts. But, again as he points out, the model of the canon is as much in jeopardy as the particulars. And so is the faith in the processes that shape it, the wisdom of the collective, working itself out over generations.

As it has been passed down to us, the canon is arranged in a hierarchy. On the top (if you could save only one poet, who would you save?) - the star, and near the bottom, among the underskirts, the Countess of Pembroke two tiers below John Clare. If our impulse toward egalitarianism prevents us from using and handing down (the gestures are simultaneous) this structure, what a shame.

In America since the sixties it has been generally agreed that the model is inadequate. Our tastes and religions are too diverse, the classes too fluid, for a single poet to be representative. As Stanley Moss observes, 'The American Jerusalem is being built like the fortress-monasteries of old Spain by artisans who contribute a single signed stone, perhaps several. Nobody builds a wall.'

Looking at the anthologies, this seems to be the case. The names of poets listed in the tables of contents constitute a veritable Vietnam memorial. Yet as recent history demonstrates, walls fall. And when the egalitarian wall of poetry crumbles, what do we save? Any chunk of it? Is one piece of poetry as good as another?

Granted, no critic, board or committee decides what is saved; granted it is pompous to pretend to such authority; nevertheless, one can think of individuals - from Aristotle to Donald Davie himself- who arguably have had an influence.

A culture too vast to be comprehended by any single soul within it existed long before the computer. A wonderful amount of culture has been saved for our edification and delight. It is for the very reason that so much can be saved that we need a model for sorting it out. What is hierarchy but a useful filing system? In literature, a canon.

'How can we, each of us cramped inside a lifetime, legislate for a thing that changes sluggishly, over many lifetimes?' Davie rightly asks. But he does not say what must follow - the canon is sorted out and selected slowly and also - even more frustratingly -collectively and unconsciously out of habit and use, worn like stone by water, the way language itself changes. Are we like people trying to improve sleep by keeping their eyes open, failing to trust what we know in our bones, because we insist on thinking it out in our heads? One could argue that a more truly rational course lies in acceptance of, and even reverence for, these great mysterious forces.

Nevertheless, we will continue to attempt to influence social change. As for those who disagree? I am offended even in church, where 'God the Father' is routinely replaced by 'God the Creator,' and so forth - feminist interests having taken precedence over those of poetry (to me the superiority of 'Father' as poetry is self-evident, the failures of our mortal fathers notwithstanding, yet I doubt that I could find agreement on this superiority even among my colleagues). Davie writes that the most an individual has the power to effect is the fashion. I wish I could believe this. I fear that 'the fashion' will have far-reaching effects. How can the next generation 'recover' what is has never known?


Donald Davie replies: I'm delighted that my piece in PN Review elidted such a frank and full response, and in particular that it comes from you, whose sentiments I have for many years respected and learned to trust. It's rather urgently therefore, and with some distress, that I write to assure you that in my own estimation I am still the person whom you affectingly recall from 1969-73, when we were closely assodated in the Bay Area.

You speak of my piece as an essay. In fact it is the script of a public lecture (as was in fact indicated, though perhaps not with enough prominence). It was a lecture to a British-organized conference, .and addressed to a British audience; and at least some of the difficulties you have with it derive from the enemies that poetry has in our two nations. You have what you rightly call egalitarians; we have subversives. Our influential scoundrels want not to abolish the canon, but to subvert it, i.e. turn it upside down. This has been true since the 1960s, when I didn't regret changing British bad faith and resentment for Californian idiodes. This London conference was called by subversives (I take care not to name 3 or 4 of them), and I can't imagine why I was invited to speak except that since I retired I've kept out of the public eye. The plan was for the submissions to the Conference to be printed in a volume, and although the organizers give other reasons I like to think that it was my lecture, so different from what they counted on, that torpedoed this venture, releasing me to offer my piece to PN Review. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the evident extinction of the Soviet dream, British ex-Stalinists have looked for new slogans to regroup behind: feminism is one of them; this sort of enterprise, masked as egalitarianism, is another.

Of course you are quite right to think that new technologies in writing and publishing don't set my pulses racing. Not even a word-processor at this address! But when only a few weeks before I lectured I heard about electronic archival storage (in relation to a lunatic 'museum of ephemera'), I saw it was something with which I could turn the flank of my opponents, who would expect from me anything but an argument from technology. And the electronic break-through is real enough it appears, for good and ill. I don't like it or the idea of it, but since it serves my purposes I'll adduce it. You say that 'saving everything is the same as saving nothing', and that's true and much to the point when dealing, as you are, with egalitarians. But I repeat, I'm dealing with subversives; and for them it's hurtful to have to admit that, if everything is to be saved, that must include the tiny number of things which you and I think worth salvation, things which they are vowed to drive to oblivion. You see, I think that our situation in the UK is more desperate than yours in the US; we are dealing with people who hate Shakespeare, you with people who will quite like him so long as he isn't preferred before Jorie Graham.

Where I think we really disagree is on your insistence that the canon as it has come down to us is hierarchical. I suppose my sense of the canon is hierarchical insofar as I'm sure that Shakespeare is to my mind a greater poet than Robert Herrick (whom I love). But beyond that, establishing a hierarchy within the canon matters much less to me than to you. To take your own example, the Countess of Pembroke and John Clare - given the different ages they worked in, and the different genres they practised (leaving aside the gender difference) - how can the one be ranked in relation to the other? I wouldn't know how to start doing so, and I don't concede that I ought to try. Clare and the Countess are equal so far as I'm concerned: equal among the chosen. What I take to be more important is that the canon is of its nature exclusive. That's why I press so hard on one scandalous instance: the de facto restoration to the canon (an Anglo-American venture, managed by an Oxford press and an Virginian professor) of Felicia Hemans, whom our grandparents had for sound reasons excluded from it. Of course this outrages your egalitarians as much as my subversives: exclusivity is a self-evident wrong to the one mind-set as to the other (though my lot has its own hit-list of those to be excluded, once they get to power). It is the religious concept of 'the chosen' that outrages both your antagonists and mine; and yet in our shared experience of discriminating among poets and poetic reputations, isn't the Scriptural distinction borne out? There are those (Byron?) who despite acknowledged and even flaunted duplicities in human relations, must nevertheless be reckoned among the saved, and others, who despite a lifetime of honest endeavor and of meeting familial responsibilities, must all the same be discharged to Limbo. This is unfair? You bet it is unfair. But who said God was 'fair'?

He is however just - which is something else, a matter of faith, not of rational demonstration. How many poets do you and I not know of, whose achievement has been denigrated or merely passed over, in favour of self-deceiving charlatans and self-promoters? We know of so many that it would make us suicidal if we did not believe in a heavenly court that will revise or reverse the judgments of earthly courts of opinion. I admit that this is something I didn't recognize, or not firmly enough, in 1970: how the judgments we make of poets and poetry depend upon a divine court of appeal that will vindicate us. Whether or not we know it, we are appealing to, and trusting, something other than 'posterity', that blank and rubbery check. In this, as I'm sure you perceive, I'm at odds with Thorn Gunn, our mutual friend whose trust (apparently) in posterity depends upon a trust in unredeemed humanity - such as I cannot share.

I must protest, though without animosity, when you say that I don't allow how the can is sorted out slowly and collectively, even unconsciously, out of habit and use. My latest (probably my last) book of criticism was The Eighteenth Century Hymn in England, which concerns itself with how poems, by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, have forced themselves into the canon by precisely such sub-academic means.

Honestly, there is nothing that divides us except your being American, and my being, ultimately by choice, British. It is the least of the divisions that nowadays murderously divide humankind.


Sobering Effects

I was surprised and sorry to see Michael Schmidt's giving prominence to Robert Graves' line about there being 'only one story' (PN Review 103). Apart from this being a major theme running through Laura (Riding) Jackson's Collected Poems 1938, and the backcloth to the whole of her work up to 1991 when she died, referred to throughout as 'story', it is also clearly stated in her preface to Progress of Stories (1935; republished by Carcanet in 1982) where it is phrased as 'there is only one subject, and it is impossible to change it' (p.xii).

Much else of what Mr Schmidt has to say of Robert Graves, prior to his bringing, to his credit, Laura (Riding) Jackson on stage. two thirds of the way along his article, are all features of Graves' life and work due entirely to the sobering effect she had on his work-and-life practices from the day she first met him in 1926. Before that period began his work illustrates graphically all the incoherencies and inconsistencies of literary dabble-dam that Mr Schmidt praises him precisely for not having; and after that period his work (and life) recidivistically goes into immediate decline.

Since the many commentators on Robert Graves have gone to great pains to promulgate the views he put forward in his article, initially promulgated by Graves himself, Mr Schmidt is not much to be blamed. After all, Graves was assiduous in cultivating the 'one story' idea as springing from his very own carefully placed crown of genius. But justice requires it to be pointed out that the genius is hers, the crown a stolen one.


A Vulgar Tongue

You're bound to get fed up at times, keeping such an admirable enterprise as PN Review going against the odds; but I felt your editorial lament showed a strange sense of history as well as an underestimate of current critical practice. 'The personalisation of the prodUct came later' - but hasn't it always been the case this century (to go back no further) that the interesting, or scandalous, or glamorous personality has often sold more books and attracted more coverage? As Nicholas Tredell points out later in the same issue, it has been part of the mission of the modem critical hero, at least since Leavis, to puncture such puffs. Admittedly, it is confusing when Tom Paulin becomes the licensed rude boy of late-night arts TV and then produces a book significantly richer and more interesting than most of his pre-celebrity collections.

I'm curious, too, that you want to demonise the academy - on the one hand slaves to novelty (theory, fragmentation into gender, race etc.), on the other hand resisting it in new works of literature. Most of the literature academics I know spend more time reading new novels and poems than they do books of theory; and you can see the results of it in the academic quarterlies like English, as well as the range of contemporary works that are taught around the country. What certainly has changed in recent years is the contemporary novel; poetry is getting less attention at the moment because there is a perceived renaissance of good, serious fiction in English. Poetry has also taken a double blow from a drop in attention at A-level and the reduction in poetry readings as a result of funding policy changes. Plus there are still more writers than readers.

The last ten years have not suddenly invented film, or cultural discontinuity; the clash between an educated language of criticism ('common language', in your terms) and those of journalism and publicity, is also of long standing. Perhaps the debate you have suggested might be taken forward in two ways: historical and polemical accounts of what 'a common language of criticism' might mean; and a series on 'post-canonical' works of the last fifteen or twenty years.


This item is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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