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This item is taken from PN Review 100, Volume 21 Number 2, November - December 1994.

A poetry magazine is defined by its contributors. If it survives for two decades plus, its trajectory defines rather more than its editor's vagaries of taste.

Brian Cox, with whom I set up Poetry Nation in 1972, was of the opinion that a 'little magazine' was by definition an enterprise with a death wish: it had its moment, made its mark, and perished. PN Review remains a little magazine. It has had its moments, religious, political, critical, all at root poetic. Devoted to appraisal, reappraisal and discovery, it has insisted on the centrality of poetry in cultural life and on the necessity for critical engagement with poems at a technical as well as a thematic and theoretical level.

This issue celebrates the contributors who shape and reshape PNR at a time when establishing continuities is as urgent and necessary a task as that of discovery: new writers who emerge through PNR seem to me to share common ground with figures of earlier generations who, when the magazine began, were neglected or misvalued in this country. A serious magazine provides a validating, even a legitimising context. PNR has been serious in that respect. There is a readership, not a market; there are poets whose work it remains a privilege to publish. After what seemed a lean period in the late 1980s, new writers of moment are emerging.

This anthology in its range of contemporary writing has turned out to be among the most ambitious since Michael Roberts's 1936 Faber Book of Modern Verse, with its run from Hopkins to the 1930s. There are ideological affinities with that compilation, so formative of the taste of my generation of readers. It insists on the responsibility of poets to language, to subject, to the poem, and therefore to readership. This is not Leavis's moralism but more complex and challenging. Clearly Roberts did not believe that poetry makes nothing happen: it has effects in and on the reader, and on the language which follows it. A poem 'may change the configuration of the mind and alter our responses to certain situations: it may harmonize conflicting emotions…' He adds a caveat: 'the poetic use of language can cause discord as easily as it can cure it.' This view is shared, in different degrees, by many poets of his and later times. Two figures formative to PNR, Laura Riding and Edgell Rickword, from very different political perspectives, would have seconded Roberts's declaration. Indeed, Laura Riding claimed to have had a hand in drafting it.

Roberts's moral approach - that loaded word must be used without quotation marks - defines in a general way the 'pre-poetic' ground of this diverse anthology which is unusual (as Roberts's book was) in blurring the markers between generations. Roberts would not, however, have taken the step I did in this issue. For over twenty years I have chosen work I like by poets I respect. Here I asked them to edit themselves, to select a clutch of poems, or extracts from longer poems, to 'characterise' their work. This abdication has been instructive to me, as it will be to readers at large. The poets choose unpredictably, yet what they say about their selections gives credence to Thorn Gunn's argument in PNR 98 that we no longer have opposing camps but a continuous spectrum within which poets can be located. PNR has been dedicated to this hopeful possibility from the outset, talking of pluralism, fighting shy of 'post-modernism' and other -isms, of endorsing one school or movement. The rhetoric of pluralism gives way here to a manifestation of it: there are poems, and poets writing about the work they do, the world they do it in, the connections they make. It is a way of defining - as I'm often challenged to do -what PNR is about.

It would be wrong not to start this anthology with a writer and editor who inspired PNR. Though he had stopped writing verse long before the magazine began, he contributed to our debates and was the subject of an early special issue. Edgell Rickword edited several magazines with death wishes, including The Calendar of Modern Letters with its famous Scrutinies. As an oblique tribute we adapt the title of his magazine for this issue. In later years he thought of starting a literary and political journal: PNR he welcomed, despite its cloudy political definition. His widow Beatrix Hammarling selects his poems.

Three other poets who died during the lifetime of PNR need to be remembered. Laura Riding, like Rickword no longer writing poetry in 1972, was a severe and generous presence. Robert Nye, her editor, selects from her work.

There is W.S. Graham whose poetry PNR was instrumental in re-appraising. His widow Nessie has chosen his work. Finally, George Barker- a supplement was devoted to him and Anno Domini appeared in full in our pages - has a place: Elspeth Barker makes the selection. These poets remain large presences. So does David Wright, who died while PNR 100 was at press. Many of the poets included here sought his approval of their work before they exposed it to the public. He remains a defining creative presence, through his own work and, invisibly, through the work he did for others.

The largest presences for me are those of C.H. Sisson and Donald Davie. Without them the magazine would have had less focus - or fewer focuses - than it has done. They opened my eyes to many writers. To them this issue is dedicated.

Few of the writers represented here are 'mainstream' in any useful sense. I cannot claim that this issue is 'representative' of the new, reflects a demographic reality or is just in gender distribution. I do say that it celebrates continuities, that these are poets whose work I love, or like, or respect, in different degrees, writers who make the poetic and critical debates that have filled the columns of this magazine for 22 years real: in the end the practitioners of an art, not its critics, theorists or editors, enliven our habits of hearing and feeling, our instinctive and analytical appraisals.

This item is taken from PN Review 100, Volume 21 Number 2, November - December 1994.

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