Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 124, Volume 25 Number 2, November - December 1998.

Letter from Alfred Corn
Look Up 'Passion'


An unwritten law of literary life is that an author must never object an unfavourable review. Since Brian Henry's account of my book Present in your July-August number was mostly favourable, I may be allowed to take issue with some of his views; and do so partly because they epitomize a misconception often rehearsed in current critical discussions. Others besides myself have been trounced on this basis, and it's time one of the trouncees did something. I'm referring to Henry's false division of the poetic terrain into, on one side, learning, technical skill, brainpower in general; and, on the other, 'obsession', 'irresistible urges', and 'passion'. Get out your OEDs, and look up 'passion'. The meaning is closer to 'patience' (hard thing!) than to 'obsession'. Certainly the desire that poetry should express strong feeling has never authorized the sort of rant monotonously celebrated in the quarterlies as 'passionate'. Poetry readers usually remember to describe saccharine or lachrymose verse as sentimental - just as the majority usually fail to apply that term to poets whose unresolved agonies spur them to flail about with attention-getting histrionics.

If learning and intellect gag passion, then Dante, Milton, Donne, Sor Juana, Coleridge, Browning, Eliot, Mandelshtam, Celan, Paz, Milosz, and Walcott, to name only a few, are not passionate poets. If technical skill and controlled expression are 'placid' literary qualities as Henry believes, then 'The Collar', 'Tintern Abbey', 'Ode to Autumn', Adonais, 'Ulysses', and 'One Art' are placid poems. The fact is, contemporary reviewing's bias against cultural allusion and/or controlled expression in poetry is so widespread, anyone bullheaded enough to persist in them is clearly being led by strong internal sanctions. Henry zeroes in on a statement found in my book about the 'loyalty' I have felt to the tradition of art; for him that (in his view) placid disposition is no substitute for passion. The notion that loyalty can hang tough in the absence of passion is a stunner. consider just one instance of a passionate usage of the term: In the 1930s, when the legally established and libertarian government of Spain was assaulted by Franco's fascist insurgents, those who did not capitulate, ultimately at the cost of their lives, were known as 'Loyalists'.

New York

This item is taken from PN Review 124, Volume 25 Number 2, November - December 1998.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image