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This article is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.

Forgetting How to Read Neil Powell

What a little thing it is, a century. Here is an evidently massive one, stuffed with world wars and revolutions, unprecedented social, political and technological changes; and yet, all around us, there are still ordinarily intelligent people who regard as threateningly new or incomprehensibly modern works by Eliot or Pound, Braque or Picasso, Schoenberg or Stravinsky which were created before the First World War, before my parents were born. There is a case to be made - though it's a seriously flawed case and I don't propose to make it - for the proposition that in cultural terms the twentieth century has got us absolutely nowhere at all. And there is another case, more tendentious but also more persuasive, to be made for the notion that, in England at least, an ideal of cultural well-being which flourished only the other day, in the middle years of this little century, and even seemed tantalisingly within reach, has gone seriously adrift. To get, eventually, to the implications this has for poetry, we shall have to start with that fragile ideal.

Let's consider a cultural snapshot in the mid 1950s. Here are my parents, neither of them educated much beyond the minimum school-leaving age of their day, leading unexceptional lives in Surrey. They buy the Times and the Telegraph: my father takes the former to work with him, while my mother is perfectly capable of completing the latter's crossword, most days, and would think herself a fool if she couldn't. ...


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