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This article is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

The Word in Time 6: The culture of watery pebbles Chris McCully

6: The culture of watery pebbles

At a recent symposium on metrics held at Magdalene College, Cambridge, the poet, novelist and critic Sophie Hannah* confessed to her enviably large audience that she was sometimes mystified by the nature of the contemporary English verse whose merits she was occasionally asked to judge. 'There seem to be a very large number of watery pebbles in competition submissions,' she said, 'and an equally large number of mumblers-to-themselves in cathedrals.' This comment seemed to outrage a young man in the sixth row. His lengthy riposte, full of Cambridge fluency, could perhaps be summarised as 'Who are you to judge?'

I enjoyed the spat, and liked the young man whose ambition was so intent on public challenge and the self-reflexive preening of intervention. Yet my sympathies were with Sophie, largely because I've spent so much imaginative time myself hanging about with watery pebbles. And as for the School of Cathedral Mumbling... I probably invented that.

Behind the spat, though, something has gone wrong. Read and heard from the perspective of those few contemporary poetry journals that I try to listen to as they flow across the desk, then Sophie is quite right: watery pebbles rule. Or rather, not so much watery pebbles, but the poet trying to capture 'my awareness of trying to look at watery pebbles'. My awareness... Precisely. My mumbling in a house of God... Precisely. Hughes, ...

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