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This review is taken from PN Review 102, Volume 21 Number 4, March - April 1995.

COMPREHENDING IT NORMAN NICHOLSON, Collected Poems, ed. Neil Curry (Faber and Faber) £25

Norman Nicholson has an adjective problem, not so much in his poems as in the way he's been pigeon-holed. Neil Curry, his editor, confronts the matter in his Introduction: 'an obituary in The Times described him as "the most gifted English Christian provincial poet of his century", which is a true and fair description, and yet… how limiting, and how smugly patronizing'. As if to compound it, Faber's press release appears to reproduce the phrase, but, perhaps with an eye to the market, drops the word 'provincial'. Curry might have been advised not to make this issue the starting point of his Introduction, and not to call the obituary's words 'true and fair' - which they are not, as his qualification implies. Each adjective contains at least one question begged, and the word 'provincial' is such a tangle of description, evaluation, and mere prejudice that it could not be what Nicholson's editor concedes.

The poet's own 1954 defence of the provincial as a person who 'may be all the more aware of that which is enduring in life and society' seems, forty years on, in danger of looking circular. Provincials know about what endures because most of life is provincial and will remain so; but what if it doesn't? The danger is not that we would all become metropolitan, rather that the more common experience will not be of rootedness but of displacement. Nicholson's own 'On the Closing of Millom Ironworks', from A Local Habitation (1972), indicates ...

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