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This article is taken from PN Review 123, Volume 25 Number 1, September - October 1998.

On Ignorance Clive Wilmer

English is widely recognised as one of the world's great literatures. It is also one of the oldest and is unusual among its peers in having an unbroken tradition of nearly five centuries, to say nothing of the substantial but broken tradition which precedes it. Central to that tradition, indeed the constant and binding factor within it, is English poetry. I do not intend the word 'English' chauvinistically. Some of the greatest works in the language were written by Celtic and American writers and the later twentieth century has seen an enormous expansion of work in English from all over the world. This points, I think, to the great strength and value of the English tradition: its ability to incorporate so much experience and so many influences that were in their origins foreign to it. It has been able to do so, I would suggest, not because the English are notably open to other cultures but because our uniquely heterogeneous language is hospitable to novelty and because the forms it has borrowed or created tend to be flexible. The great seminal metre of English verse, the iambic pentameter, is a case in point: extremely complex, subtle and demanding on the writer, yet also adaptable and strikingly various.

But this is by no means the current myth. The great Modernist poets and many of the critics who have learnt from them have encouraged us to think of our poetry as insular and conservative and of our reading public ...


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