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This item is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.Letters from Clive Wilmer, Anthony Rudolf, Drew Milne, James Keery, Anthony Easthorpe, Raymond Tallis, Anthony Barnett
When Roger McGough was awarded an Honorary Professorship at the newly constituted Thames Valley University, he gave his acceptance speech in irregularly rhymed verse. The speech - quoted in a recent issue ofPoetry News (III, 1 (1994))-included the following lines, which comment reflexively on this mode of address:
Yes, you've noticed, it's all in verse.
But don't leave your seats, it could be
Composed in Latin - a Pindaric ode,
Plutarchan sonnets by the load.
I was struck by both these unusual possibilities and it occurred to me that you, Sir, as Editor of a distinguished poetry journal, might be persuaded to run a competition for the best original example of one of them, the Plutarchan sonnet. This, as I am sure your readers are aware, is an extremely strict form consisting of roughly fifteen lines, most of which more or less rhyme with something or other. Line-length is subtly various. Subject matter, as one would expect of a form named after the author of the famous Lives, almost always concerns major public figures, such as statespersons, TV personalities and honorary professors. Such a competition would surely add new bite and vigour to the contemporary poetry scene.
P.S. The Pindaric ode in Latin could perhaps be held back for a subsequent competition, perhaps reserved for those of your readers whose tastes are more recherché.
Like yourself and for the same reasons I admire Agenda, but you are wrong to say it is 'the last of the authentic British little magazines'. This sad honour it shares with Adam International Review whose 500th issue is being prepared now by Miron Grindea. But if we apply Cyril Connolly's terminology -namely that little magazines are either 'eclectic' or 'dynamic' - then we can say that Adam is the last eclectic, Agenda the last dynamic.
I understand that you consider most of the poetry which the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry (CCCP) seeks to promote as being without merit. Accordingly, I applaud your generosity in alerting your readers to its efforts by giving space to James Keery's review of 'The Third Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry' in PNR 95. Nevertheless, I can't help but deplore the heavy impasto with which Mr Keery defaces the art of caricature. However grateful I am for the attention given in his piece to CCCP 4, to Parataxis, the journal I edit, to my own poetry and to the poetry of others, your readers would be seriously misled if they took the triumph of attitude over argument in his piece to be anything other than misleading and badly judged. The devil is not just in the detail. His clouds of vapour make it difficult to gain access from his own chaos of opinion to the other worlds alluded to.
Mr Keery takes his unfortunate stand on a mode of Leavisite pontification which repeats Leavis's inability to recognise that there is more to argument than opinion, while his comments on poets and poems manage to degrade even Leavis's brittle approach to reading and canon promotion. Mr Keery's own particular resistance to theoretical discussion - and philosophy more generally -involves the reduction of thought processes to the names of individual thinkers whose work he seems neither to have read with any care, nor understood. For example, the list with which he links Derrida, Adorno and ultimately Nietzsche, as a reading of Rod Mengham's work, is little short of scandalous. The differences between these thinkers are more compelling than he allows, and his use of name-calling as a theoretical blunt instrument insults Rod Mengham's more careful wariness with such theoretical name-calling. The textual play in Rod Mengham's writings on J.H. Prynne has a quality of readings as writing more akin to Prynne's own writing than he seems able to recognise. With regard to what he calls John Wilkinson's 'rodomontade' in his 'Cadence' piece, he simply fails to engage with the context of Wilkinson's argument if this is spoof then the spoof is on Mr Keery's grasp of rhetoric.
As for his comments on poetry itself, his judgements fail to show that they are genuinely affected by even the material he purports to support, and his criticism of those he does not like flounders in abusive waves of an authoritarian blackboard duster. Thus the flurry of illiterate chalk marks with which he describes John Wilkinson as a 'gifted practitioner of poetical karaoke, an Ash to Prynne's Ashbery', quickly descends into a bizarre kind of unlikely comparison. Wilkinson, he splutters, is also like Geoffrey Hill and Coleridge. This mixture of half-witted whimsy and continually misleading reference by comparison of dissimilar poets, perhaps marks Mr Keery's claim to be developing a McGonagall style of schoolteacher criticism, When his Leavisite pomp and circumstance wanes, it is eked out by Bloomian bloomers purporting to reveal anxieties of influence. How else is it possible to understand his vapid suggestion that I represent 'Prynne's third generation', when neither the cardinal number, poetic history nor understanding of the different poetries involved in this remark are intelligible. My own poetry is also compared in this unhelpful kind of name-dropping to John Wilkinson and Dylan Thomas, as though Mr Keery's ear is not only deaf to meaning but hears echoes like a train-spotter records numbers. Those interested in a more sustained discussion of Denise Riley's work, which Mr Keery dismisses in similarly clouded fashion, might like to consult John Wilkinson's refutation of his comments in a searching review of Denise Riley's recent book Mop Mop Georgette in issue six of Parataxis, but other poets to whom he alludes will have to suffer his indignities with as much good humour as they can muster.
Some comments on his account of my own critical work might nevertheless suggest how these indignities turn Arnoldian touchstones into playground pebble skiffing. His discussion of my critical work in Parataxis -particularly of my account of Arnold, Habermas and Marx - simply resorts to misrepresentation. Where he says that 'Arnold's instinct for disinterestedness' is sarcastically dismissed as incompatible with 'most theories of instinct', his claim can only be made by denying the fact that what I wrote was that Arnold's putative 'instinct' is paradoxical, not incompatible. This is because it is difficult to conceive of 'instinct' in relation to knowledge without either severing instinct from all bodily conceptions of where instinct comes from - while at the same time we are encouraged to obey this instinct without it being clear where the appropriate sense of submission is to come from, or whether you can obey an instinct without losing the quality of discrimination Arnold is concerned to generate. Since I take Arnold more seriously than he suggests, Mr Keery's intention would seem to be to make my discussion look dull, rather than confronting its more specific arguments with counter-arguments. Perhaps because Mr Keery lacks the ability, patience or inclination for argument. Indeed, with more patience with my account of Habermas, or if he knew more about Habermas's work, he would recognise that I don't offer a respectful summary but a critique of Habermas's work, which although brief is as trenchant as my account of Arnold or Leavis, The passage quoted as if from my own vocabulary is simply a quote from Habermas, and the apparent attempt to play at pseuds-corner scorn reveals only anti-intellectualism. Similarly, he misses the force of: 'The poetry of the future, of which Marx wrote, remains to be written!' presumably from ignorance of what Marx wrote about the poetry of the future. If he understood the reference to Marx, which is explicitly drawn attention to, he might not have abused the ethics of quotation by referring out of context without understanding the internal coherence of the context cited. Thus his suggestion that I come out a thicket of prejudices might be returned by the suggestion that the thicket is of his own making, and that he might at least have the intellectual courage to state what he thinks my prejudices are, rather than sliding around in innuendo.
Since Mr Keery has generously promoted the fine poetry of Michael Haslam, I can only repeat that I am grateful that he has made possible some recognition of the various poetries associated with the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry. Nevertheless, this generosity threatens to be a smoke-screen if it precludes a more illuminating and informed understanding of these various poetries. Readers of P.N. Review who are curious enough not to be put off by Mr Keery's vapour-clouded pretence at conning tower submarinades, might do worse than to consult the brief conference anthologies published by CCCP and Equipage (c/o Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge, CB5 8BL), or the discussions of poetics in Parataxis. Since I understand that P.N. Review does not wish to publish my own poetry so as to offer evidence that its scope extends beyond 'anti-bourgeois mephitis' -and despite Mr Keery's kind observation that some of this work is 'unfortunately unpublished' - your readers might also like to be advised of a collection of my work forthcoming from Alfred David Editions, entitled Sheet Mettle. In lieu of such evidence, your readers would do well to take Mr Keery's pebble skiffing with a pinch of basalt, if not a generous helping of The White Stones of J.H. Prynne.
DR DREW MILNE
Drew Milne has read books that I haven't, so he refers to my 'ignorance'. John Wilkinson has disagreed with my opinion of Denise Riley's poetry, so Milne refers readers to a 'refutation' of my view. I teach in a school, not a university, so Milne refers to my 'illiterate chalk marks' and 'McGonagall style of schoolteacher criticism'. And I do not have a PhD, so he delivers the coup de grâce by signing himself 'Dr Drew Milne'.
He questions my 'intellectual courage' on the grounds that I failed to specify his 'prejudices', but his remarkable letter has saved me the trouble. And what's 'courage' got to do with it, at all? Or 'risk', for that matter? The 'risk of exchange', the 'community of risk' -these are among Milne's favourite locutions.
Yet I meant it when I said that I admired his intensity, and I am happy to find, and to acknowledge, that there is more to his poetry than 'anti-bourgeois mephitis' (specific enough, I should have thought, but still…. I've seen some of the poems that are to appear in Sheet Mettle, including the sonnet sequence, 'A Garden of Tears', which is a striking and intermittently beautiful work: 'The more's the pity, as to two touching/Any rainbow appears a bridge over war…'
Another olive branch: I agree that my collocation of Derrida, Adorno and Nietzsche is unfair to Rod Mengham. Milne's point that Mengham's writings have 'a quality of readings as writing' is well taken. As regards John Wilkinson, however, I take it Milne misreads: 'Wilkinson, he splutters, is also like Geoffrey Hill and Coleridge'. Or does he really imagine I meant a comparison with Coleridge as an insult? In fact I can commend Wilkinson's 'refutation', which points out that an echo-spotter such as myself should have detected echoes of W.S. Graham - further intriguing evidence of the interrelations between the Cambridge school and the Apocalypse.
Again, I accept that there is 'misrepresentation' in the substitution of 'incompatible' for 'paradoxical' (though with no malign intent). As to 'whether you can obey any instinct without losing the quality of discrimination Arnold is concerned to generate', I think it's the word 'obey' that's causing the problem. Milne tends to see discrimination, or (if he'll accept the substitution) value-judgement, in terms of 'Leavisite pontification', as though to judge were always to pronounce sentence. I take it to cover an immediate as well as a pondered response, or the way a poem grows on you unconsdously, or a line just comes to mind. These judgements can arrive with a deeper kind of certainty altogether. And certainly they can be disinterested. In such cases there's no question of judgement depending upon your own interests or prejudices or personality -it's not just you valuing, yet the valuation's there, there's no getting rid of it. I'm not saying that all my judgements partake of this certainty! But it's in this sense that I subscribe myself'a Leavisite when the chips are down'.
It is true, too, that Milne offers a 'critique of Habermas's work', and that this might not be deducible from my sentence. But he also offers 'a respectful summary' - since when were the two things mutually exclusive? And of course the quotation's from Habermas himself&exel; My target, though, was indeed Milne, or rather his double standards. I wasn't poking fun at Habermas, nor at Milne for engaging with his ideas. I just meant that sauce for the goose is sauce for the Gadamer. Milne takes Habermas seriously, yet seems to find Leavis and Arnold rather absurd.
At any rate, it's nice to know that we agree on important things: that 'the poetry of the future… remains to be written', and that 'a generous helping of The White Stones' is enough to be going on with.
Douglas Oliver's letter is a friendlier one, but he scores a direct hit (PNR 97). Women do get comparatively 'short shrift', there's no denying it. What can I say? Some of my best friends are… no, forget it, no. In mitigation, then, not in defence, I thinks it's a bit much to take me to task for not reviewing two performers I didn't see - I wouldn't mind, but I paid £9 for The Europe of Trusts by Susan Howe. £9! And may I return the compliment? The distinction between 'the high male intellect' and 'emotional urgency' (which owes nothing to my review) strikes me as itself profoundly sexist.
While I'm at it, I'd like to point out that I didn't dismiss Alice Notley (I compared her to Pynchon). It was a tiny paragraph, admittedly, but the following one is even tinier, and in that I recommended the poet's only (tiny) collection. Neither did I say that Notley had been influenced by either of her husbands. I said her work was reminiscent of theirs - for once I didn't enter into the question of who influenced whom.
That ruler-method of reviewer-appraisal is an amusing as well as a polemically effective one. I do have my doubts about it, though. For one thing, my ruler makes Milne the star of the piece! And is he purring?
Davie and Modernism
In his reply to a letter (PNR 97) Michael Grant raises the important question of Donald Davie's understanding of modernism. Davie has written brilliantly and sympathetically on a number of poets, both contemporary and modernist, including notably Pound, and his view of modernism may be uneven and hard to determine. However, one version is clear and distinct because it reproduces the dominant English view of modernism.
As I see it the main narrative runs like this. In the name of a would-be populism rejecting the modernism of Pound and Eliot as elitist and fascist, the left poets of the 1930s reinstated a liberal-humanist poetry of the self. Their theory and practice established a beachhead consolidated by A. Alvarez in the well-known introduction to his collection, The New Poetry, published by Penguin in 1962. Here, in move one, Alvarez dismisses the break with the pentameter and traditional metric forced through especially by Pound's Modernism on the grounds that they are not English: 'the experimental techniques of Eliot and the rest never really took on in England because they were an essentially American concern: attempts to forge a distinctively American language for poetry' (one notes in passing the 'essentially American' nature of modernist experimental techniques in Kafka, Pirandello, Joyce, Apollinaire). Move two insinuates that such experimentalism leads to right-wing politics: after mentioning how Eliot came out for Anglo-Catholicism, royalism and classicism Alvarez says, 'the whole movement of English verse has been to correct the balance experimentation had so unpredictably disturbed'.
In Thomas Hardy and English Poetry (1973) Davie writes that the 'most far-fetching influence (in British poetry) of the last 50 years' is 'not Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, not Lawrence, but Hardy'. He dismisses the relevance of Eliot and Pound to the English tradition on the grounds that they were American, and implies a link between modernism and right-wing politics. He also cites with entire approval Hardy's remark to Robert Graves that 'vers libre could come to nothing in England' just as Alvarez had done (Alvarez, p. 17; Davie, p. 131). It is dispiriting to find Davie endorsing the prevailing climate of prejudice against modernism.
Jacques Lacan suggests that 'the slightest alteration in the relation between man (sic) and the signifier… changes the whole course of history'. If modernism is symptom and instance of just such an 'alteration', the very English idea of by-passing modernism in a return to the Hardyesque tradition cannot be taken seriously. After such knowledge what forgiveness?
I have only one quarrel with Michael Grant's patient, comprehensive, and decisive reply to Anthony Easthope and Anthony Mellor (PNR 97): it is based upon the false premise that Easthope is instructable.
When Easthope previously attacked my critique of Lacan (in PNR 62) on the grounds that I had misunderstood the latter, he was in the grip of precisely the same muddle about recognition and mis-recognition and the fictional or non-fictional nature of the subject/self/ego that Grant tries to sort out for him. I thought I had spelt the whole thing out so clearly that even Easthope could have seen the light. Alas, I was wrong.
It is easy to see why Easthope so consistently misses the point: he is too busy wool gathering, widening his 'argument' to vague denundations of xenophobic, conservative rags like PNR, to pay attention. Previously, Easthope attributed my critique of Lacan to 'xenophobic Protestantism' and a defence of 'good old English Protestant common sense' against 'foreign Popery'. It just goes to show that being the atheist child of atheists does not protect one from religious bigotry, or at least being accused of it. Actually, I disagreed with Lacan not because I was a reincarnation of Titus Oates but because (a) he got his facts wrong; (b) his arguments from those wrong facts to his theories were flawed; (c) his theories had no explanatory force; and (d) he developed a style and a personal presence that caused impressionable individuals like Easthope to overlook (a) to (c).
Anyone who wishes to read my critique of Lacan may consult Not Saussure (Macmillan, 1988; 1994), which is appearing in a second edition at the end of this year and In Defence of Realism (Edward Arnold, 1988; Ferrington Press, 1994). My lengthy reply to Easthope's muddles are in PNR 62.I won't repeat what I said in that letter because the confusions of the uninstructable are boring rather than illuminating. Likewise, I shall not add to Grant's clarification of my defence of consciousness, and of 'presence' unmediated by sign systems. Anyone who is interested in the detailed arguments may wish to consult The Explicit Animal (Macmillan, 1991).
There are errors of transcription in 'Ice, Fire' in John Pilling's considerate review of my work (PNR 97) whereby 'the' is given as 'he', 'to' is given as 'o', and lines 6 and 7 are omitted altogether. Unfortunately the two lines were previously accidentally omitted during the typesetting of the essay by Michael Grant from which John Pilling has quoted the poem. If you would agree to reprint the poem as it appears in Blood Flow (1975) and The Resting Bell (1987), it reads:
You and I,
if it is silent,
if it is crippled,
if it is blinded.
You are alone, I am in a loved one's arms;
to the heart-beat.
This item is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.