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This article is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

The Mandelstam Syndrome and the 'Old Heroic Bang' Chris Miller

I want to place side by side two trends, the resignation of thematic ambition in English poetry in the post-war period and the attraction exercised by Eastern European poetry on English poets over that same period. I cannot do this in scholarly terms, though I can present an initial map. I believe that this 'resignation' (which at times amounted to proscription) has long since waned, largely thanks to the resurgent influence of Irish poetry. Of course, nothing is commoner in amateur poetry than misplaced thematic ambition and its almost invariable concomitant, literarity: the imitation of the features of an earlier high style in an attempt to write a recognised 'dialect' of poetry. But self-imposed constraints - a fear of literarity - can be as inhibiting as censorship and this is to some extent a study in the paralysing effects of embarrassment and inhibition.

The attraction exercised by Eastern Bloc poets on Western ones seems to have lasted some three decades, starting perhaps in the mid-1960s and tapering off with the establishment of democracy in what had by then become Central Europe. In my own personal experience it began with the publication of Miroslav Holub and Zbigniew Herbert in the Penguin Modern European Poets series in the late 1960s; others must have been interested before that. This attraction reached a high point as it moved back from contemporary poetry to the martyrs of Stalinism, to Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Tsvetayeva.

I refer in the title to ...

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