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This item is taken from PN Review 94, Volume 20 Number 2, November - December 1993.

Letters from Paul Carey, John Hartley Williams, Neil Powell, Paul Millis, Patricia Jackson, Stephen Romer, Peter Robinson
St Andrey

I liked the idea, in PN Review 92, of asking two reviewers to discuss the same book, namely The New Poetry. The reviews provide an interesting contrast. Matthew Francis gives an open-minded assessment pointing out what was enjoyable, and also broadening into a consideration of wider issues; whereas Neil Powell provides a bizarre - indeed amusing example of how not to review.

Powell approaches the book as a means of reinforcing his prejudices, which the introduction unfortunately gives him an excuse to reassert. This reassertion is so thorough that he gives little space to discussing the poets included in the anthology. He considers only three poems, and names only eight of the fifty-five contributors, yet lists all eighteen contributors to Alvarez's The New Poetry!

Despite his negative tone, it seems Powell may actually like some of the poets, as 'at least a dozen shouldn't be in the book at all' and 'probably wouldn't have been if they had read the Introduction', but he doesn't tell us which ones. He seems to be criticising the anthology for having the temerity to include good poets! Yet if a book such as this conveniently shows the reader (as it did me and apparently did Powell, too) a diverse sample of current poets, and a dozen turn out to be to the reader's taste, hasn't it succeeded? It hardly sounds so far from success as to be, as Powell concludes, 'unspeakably tawdry:


In PN Review 92 there are, on and against & for principle, two accounts of the recent anthology from Bloodaxe: The New Poetry. Perhaps you will permit me to comment on the first of these? Neil Powell does a passably amusing impersonation of 'Infuriated, Cheltenham', whilst reviewing the introduction to the book (14 pages), but fails, unfortunately to review the body of the book itself (310 pages). He elects to reduce its editorship to one by using the collective soubriquet 'Hulnedley' so, whilst there are good reasons for thinking Neil Powell is not a collective, it seemed appropriate to find a few counter-soubriquets that wd inflate him, for the purpose of my following remarks, into a trinity. NP will hereinafter be indiscriminately referred to as Noddy Punch, No Popery & Noun Phrase.

The agenda of Noddy Punch's little review is quickly laid out. We are told that the 'ignorant & destructive pursuit of uninformed novelty [is not] a proper procedure for the poet.' No examples of this rather interesting-sounding project are given, but Pound is invoked as father to the thought. Then, by implication, the poets included in The New Poetry are accused of lacking 'the ability to write English, to\spell & punctuate adequately & to understand something of literary forms & disciplines.' This is quite a mind-swoggling accusation. What? An anthology of310 pages of badly written & spelt, inadequately punctuated poetry whose authors understand nothing of literary forms & discipline? And this published by one of the leading presses for contemporary verse?

Éclaircissement. Of course! Noun Phrase must be a schoolmaster. One of those schoolmasters who turns his back on the class, & whilst carefully writing in a large & looping hand on the blackboard, performs the charade of being able to see thru the back of his head: 'Smith minor, you better not be caught dead with a copy of that lytle boke in yr hand.' He turns to the class, sets his face into its sternest expression & fakes being able to see into souls. Horrid syllabuses loom ahead. Noun Phrase is not one of those schoolmasters who wd ever entertain his class with a joke or a story. The Minister for Education wd be proud of him. O yes. Very unamusingly serious is Our Noddy. 'What poetry needs is anew seriousness,' he says. The classroom's wrist moves under cover of the desks. The Future of English spurts dismally before their eyes. A whole serious series of textbooks takes orgasmic focus: Thru Poetry To Spelling: Thru Poetry To Grammar: Thru Poetry to Writing Adequately.

We all know about writing adequately. It's the best No Popery will let us hope for. He has impossibly high standards; so elevated, in fact, it is not possible, from ground level, to see what they are. He lets us know, tho, fairly soon that he knows 'one end of apoem from another' & that he is a Christian of some sort. One of those Christians who knows the business end of something from the non-business end. Papists, you may as well toss in the thurible. There's a practical, robust, no nonsense, shoot-the-buggers plain speaking about his manner which you have to admire right up to the moment when you can instantly see thru it. In fact, he has a schoolmaster's way with words. The 'way with words' poets ought to have, if only they'd take their hands out of their pockets & do something schoolmasterly with them.

To test their resonance I have taken some of Noun Phrase's master strokes & interpolated the word buffalo so that the full glory of their syntax may be displayed, as it were, without any hindrance of actual meaning getting in the way. We have, for example: 'Countless buffalo spring to mind.' 'If buffalo are viewed as buffalo … discord inevitably follows … as this lamentable buffalo demonstrates.' 'It must make being a buffalo terribly easy.' (Bit of a give away that one.) 'On the contrary it is not merely a buffalo of ideas but also a buffalo of poetic authority.' 'It sounds well-intentioned, liberal, perhaps, perhaps almost plausible but buffalo is pernicious nonsense.' Such prairie-like periodicity of utterance wd be charming were it not 'preposterous', almost 'unspeakably tawdry', (buffalo words). A conflatulation of blimpish opinion without substance or justification.

Well, that's quite enough about Noun Phrase's prose style. It is the prose style of a man who is upset. Offended. Disgusted. Something that sends waves of disgust up his penman's arm is the concept of plurality. NP hates plurality - it has to be admitted there is a plurality of poets in the book. Even 1am in it. Off putting, indeed downright horrible tho this maybe to a man of NP's unswerving singleness of idiocy 'it has to be said that the general notion of an anthology has always been to put a number of disparate (& not even necessarily compatible) writers between the covers of one book. There is no way round this that I can see, unless perhaps we were to have an anthology of NP himself in his triumvirate manifestation. So, plurality will include dialect users like Linton Kwesi Johnson (& also, tho as Noddy Punch has only read the introduction he has not discovered the interesting fact, Grace Nichols, WN. Herbert, & Tom Leonard as well.) Fortunately he did not spot the lady writer who had quite failed to write in English at all. The oversight spares us yet more of his prose style.

Linton Kwesi Johnson is castigated for 'a wilful piece of phonetic phoneyness: (It's unfortunate he had picked on LKJ, as there is a nasty racialist tinge to this.) What is wilful or phoney about reproducing the dialect speech of the community you live in? There's quite enough standard English (particularly of the Noun-Phrase-opinionated variety) to go round as it is. When DH Lawrence remarks (a casual aside in one of his letters to Blanche Jennings): 'I have drunk beer in a pub, where they talked in lovely Sussex that I couldn't understand' the contemporary reader feels the deprivation that has been suffered of the loss of forms of speech, the old speech, that have been eradicated by schoolmasters like Noun Phrase & the homogenising forces of standardised 'education The last time when English teachers 'might still have been presumed literate,' says Noddy was in 1963. Another of his ludicrous assertions. Would that it were true. This is old-fogeyism, brain-damaged & over the top, charging an imaginary enemy with uplifted sabre, whilst the imaginary enemy sits on a hilltop & eats its sandwiches, watching old Noddy Punch run hither and thither on the plain below. Why is he allowed out? Shouldn't we tap him tenderly on the shoulder, coax him into the little white van, take him back to the bin?

Any tolerant culture must allow for standard, polite forms of speech as well as dialect forms. But when No Popery writes that Shakespeare 'must stand triumphantly at the core of our standard English' - yr heart sinks. Why triumphantly? Who is this booted despot of standardism? Does Noddy really mean to suggest that Elizabeth English, different in syntax, word order, tense distribution & lexis from modern English shd suddenly become a 'standard'? I can hear Ezra's raspberry from here. Yet Our Noddy begins his article with an approving reference to that Ezra Pound whom we must suppose Noddy holds in esteem. He refers - hold me up, brothers & sisters - to the 'dazzling brilliance' of the word 'new' in Ezra's phrase Make It New. (We might equally well talk of the 'incandescent murk' of the word 'fatuity'.) Actually, Ol'Ez was a man who wd never eschew an attention-grabbing bit of wilful phoneticism if he thought it necessary, as anyone who has read the Cantos wd know. And what's wrong with grabbing attention, anyway? At no point in his review does Noun Phrase engage properly with any of the poems in the book, but then his development as acritic has clearly been hampered by the inability to read more than fourteen pages of any book. He has manifestly read no more of Pound than the titles on the dust jackets at his local lending library. If he had he wd know that an important Poundian principle regarding the function of acritic is the amelioration of what is being written. The ill-mannered & fatuous expostulations he offers us in his review contradict everything Pound stood for: intelligence, attention, scrupulosity. All Noddy can do is express blanket disapproval. Carpet disapproval, rather. He is not just a school master. He is a Persian stitcher.

He does quote a few lines from an excellent poem, 'The Song of the Grillbar Restaurant,'
but only because it happens to have been quoted by the editors themselves in the introduction. He gives no indication that he has read the rest of the poem, but goes on to say that these few lines are an 'inept rehash' of Peter Gunn's novel The Corridor, about the mirrors of a hotel, in which people glimpse themselves, like Narcissus adjusting his forelock, or Noun Phrase himself, patting his fly before he goes off to deliver a lecture. He doesn't of course, call it a mirror, he calls it a pier-glass thereby demonstrating his awfully educated vocabulary - & rounds the corner, chuckling to himself, only to fall nose first down the lift shaft. Noddy, old bean, I am the author of these lines. I have never read Archibald Gunn's drama' The Torrid Floor', with its consciously overwrought idea of a mirror as something for looking at yourself in. How then cd my poem be a rehash of something so blindingly obvious? And what about the rest of my poem, which is about clothes, & not about mirrors at all?

At the end of No Popery's splenetic futterings comes the nose-tapping, wink-wink, here is the message the cognoscenti have all been waiting for: 'There are at least a dozen poets in The New Poetry who know better than this, who probably wouldn't have been [in the book] if they'd read the introduction.' Ah, yes, & who might they be, these secret friends of Noddy Punch? We are not told. They obviously belong to the undercover group who have penetrated the anthology the better to subvert its intentions. (Now how, I wonder, will they do that?) The editors are ritually lambasted for their omissions, but a sneaking suspicion does sneak up on the reader that one of the major omissions may have been Noun Phrase himself. His last thrust (twiddle wd be a better word) is to accuse the editors of ageism. Too few writers under the age of fifteen have been included. (None have, actually) And the editors have regretfully excluded anyone over a mental age of eighty

In conclusion our reviewer writes: 'We live too close to the buffalo of our own time to know for sure whether they are any good or not: my own guess is that the buffalo may be rather less than golden.' One begins to wonder why PN Review, which purports to be a magazine of poetry & criticism, has seen fit to print this stuff. A vision of Noddy swims before our gaze, plaid rugs over his quivery knees, piles of unpublished haiku round his the wheels of his chair. Hulse, Morley & Kennedy left him out of The New Poetry & Palgrave wouldn't have him in The Golden Treasury. He has, indeed, fallen between two toadstools. All his life he has enjoyed the harmless hobby of verse, &' now there is mould down the lapels of his brown Norfolk jacket. Not long now to his ninetieth birthday With a feeling of sadness we realise we will probably never get the chance to read those haiku. And we know only too well what happened to the buffalo.


NEIL POWELL replies:
There is really no need to respond in detail to John Hartley Williams's letter, which in tone and content sufficiently answers itself. Brief notes on four of his sillier misunderstandings may, however, be of use - though not, I fear, to him.

(1) I didn't say 'What poetry needs is new seriousness': A. Alvarez did. Thorn Gunn, not I, used the word 'pierglass'. By proving himself unable to recognise such references, Williams nicely exemplifies what I called 'a false state of cultural innocence in which editors may express surprise at the obvious and para-phrase the familiar.'

(2) No, I'm not 'a Christian of some sort'; I just happen to value the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, to acknowledge the cultural significance of an established church, and to remember a little of what I was taught at school.

(3) I'm sorry, though not altogether surprised, to learn that Williams doesn't recognize Shakespeare as 'triumphantly at the core of our standard English': perhaps exile has put him out of touch with the way the English speak and write. The simply observable fact is that Shakespeare continues to enrich not only the written language but, through habitual allusion and quotation, everyday conversation too. Pound would have understood this.

(4) Williams detects 'a nasty racialist tinge' in my description of Linton Kwesi Johnson's spelling of 'Inglan' as 'phonetic phoneyness'. He exactly misses and indeed reverses the point, which was that a writer who has lived in this country since he was eleven years old, in 1963, could if he wanted to spell the word, 'England'; Williams' implication - that immigrants can't spell or may be spared the trouble of learning to do so - is, on the other hand, obviously and offensively racist. Incidentally, if he cares to read my article called 'The Case of Rossiters Rabbit' (PNR 58), he will find an equally forceful denunciation of illiterate banality in gay poetry, from which he will no doubt be able to conclude that I'm a homophobic queer-basher.


Keith Silver, reviewing my book HalfMoon Bay in PN Review 93 mentions its 'disturbing acquiescence … exasperating fatalism' and 'an astonishing assertion that things (the new world order, national governments, etc) are being managed for the best.' While I am grateful for his approval (or what I take is approval) of an 'imagination largely absent from contemporary British poetry' in my book, I must protest at the accusation of acquiescence and fatalism. The acquiescence is not mine; in the poem 'View From A Hill' to which he refers, it belongs to people of my class (upper working/middle) and generation (born into the fifties) who are reaching a point in their lives when as the text makes clear 'However success impinges, many will probably have it.' The final statement'… I never/hear from them, only how people/of my generation out there/are managing things, and for the best/we assume - It must be so' is not mine either, but that of a baseless and placid faith that the big institutions really can be trusted to manage things and do what we pay them for.

Rebellion was easy for my generation because of the sense of people of ability keeping the show on the road - however much we disliked them and the show: But now the show no longer is on the road. I recognise that faith because I grew up with it; it lived next door; I was taught it in school, but I do not share it for one second; on the contrary it deeply worries me (I think of the Tory voters in the last election and the sense of living with insoluble problems on a scale which far exceeds those of earlier decades), and, unlike the effect of some forms of mimicry I haven't even the slightest affection for it. I'm very pleased it meets with his disapproval; I wouldn't wish it to meet with anything else. His reading misses the iron~ but it is the kind of irony that risks contamination from the very thing which is distanced, since placing it at too much of adistance would be to invite a possibly worse smugness.

The ending is about feelings unconsciously believed but not expressed (except it seems through votes in general elections). And being unconscious they can't be expressed and believed at the same time. Keith Silver's review is a short-cut reading that matches the short-cut writing he also accuses me of, but I felt that accusation was fair game. I don't mind criticism, but it's uncomfortable to be bound up with attitudes I intensely distrust and which worry me, and strange that he hadn't heard the tone of dissent, or, if not an arch dissent, then surely a serious anxiety.



Sir, Among other things, Kate Chisholm's unfair to snails (PN Review 93 - the snail, 'that most slimy and repulsive of garden pests').

In a July of steady rain this summer, one late evening we came across eleven small snails at once on our path and our doorstep. Neat, fast footed (one foot each) unafraid of us or the porch-light, with dark brown and yellow shells to put a potter to shame, they negotiated vertical steps and walls like little tanks. No bad persona for a poet.

Perhaps she meant slugs? Though they eat with utter delicacy…



Remedies for Depression

I wonder if TJ.G Harris's right hand knows what his left is doing? Throughout his review of my book Plato's Ladder, he persistently concedes qualities, only to snatch them away at the end, with the pomposity and hauteur that others besides myself have noticed on earlier occasions. He seems perplexed that, in the face of his prejudices, a certain poem should 'succeed'. He reverts to a tricky word that has caused trouble in the past: 'effect Any poem at all is made up of certain effects, both stylistic and semantic. But in the case of the poem in question, these are apparently 'only' effects. Yet the poem is successful, Eh? His snide inference rests on shaky logic indeed. However, if in doubt, put on a stern voice, brandish the factotum 'major art' and close the argument.

I should also like to express my distaste at his excessively unjust (and verbose) account of Peter Robinson's poetry. In both Robinson's books, This Other Life and Entertaining Fates, intricate emotional engagement with other people is the very heart of the matter. Harris's charge of solipsism seems to me absurd.


Tours, France

Some of my poems have 'plunged' your reviewer TJ.G. Harris 'into acute depression' and I should try to help him out of it. He struggled through Entertaining Fates 'four or five times', gained 'little or nothing', and concluded that 'something is wrong: Perhaps he will begin to feel better if he doesn't try so hard. In the course of a full page notionally devoted to reviewing the book, he cites Hugh Everett on quantum theory Hans Keller's Music, Closed Societies and Football, John Ashbery responding to Kenneth Koch, Mallarmé rebuking Degas, Wittgenstein making what he (Harris) describes as a 'startling assertion … as to the nature of the human individual', and casually alludes to Derrida, King Lear, Kafka and The Trial, John Cage, Lewis Carroll and others. Having to deploy such a jumble of cultural baggage merely to dismiss a poetry book may not be helping with his condition.

Amongst these shows of reading he manages to quote 11 lines of a104 page volume which contains more than 60 poems. He does not attribute any of the quotations to particular pieces, but does manage to name one other which he calls 'charming: Perhaps I should also be grateful for his noticing that there are 'some moderately attractive and mildly successful poems', which he doesn't deign to name. I realize that wanting to know what he's talking about is another example of my prime failing. Harris confesses that he 'felt like shouting out in exasperation "Can't you leave your feelings alone for one minute and realize that other people and their feelings exist!'" Perhaps if he'd done so it would have helped him feel better. In one respect, I am astonished by Harris's mental health. He is confident enough of a continuity between his own consciousness and the world to recognize in me 'a self-absorption amounting almost, if not in fact, to solipsism.'

Harris opens his review of my character and poetry by quoting a line ('What am I doing in this other life, what good?') which concludes a poem made up of twenty other lines. It names a river, two cities and the sister of the poem's subject. It refers to her father, her brother-in-law, her near-fatal car accident, and, discreetly to old family difficulties. It thanks the people involved for their 'kindness to a stranger: The poem's title, 'The Memories in Feelings', refers, in my mind, at least to the return of early mem0ries in the present feelings of the person whom the poem is about, and then to the inscribed poet's. It concludes by asking whether involvement in this other life is a good or right thing. This Other Life is another of my books, so the phrase might allude to the life of writing and its involvement in others' lives.

These observations perhaps show how the poem is not made of language as 'a self-referring and opaque absolute'; nor do I think it 'just words', for as Harris triumphantly discovers in the face of no opposition from me: 'words have reference and emotional and other connotations: Pardon me then for referring to place names, a person's Christian name, other people, their and my feelings, other writings, a musical instrument and objects contained in this one world where all lives are lived and poems written.

Harris also thinks poems will deceive him into mistaking 'effect' for something else. He praises Stephen Romer for producing in one poem 'a chilling effect', but adds, 'Still, it is only an effect.' Harris seems troubled by his need to have special access to truth, reality; other people and their feelings. He announces that while my cited last lines 'have the ring of not being arbitrary', nevertheless he is nagged by he suspicion that they merely 'give the appearance of what in the past would have been called a poetic statement intended to express a truth or discovery'. What he describes here was called 'a pseudo -statement' by I.A. Richards and offered in explanation of the lines about truth and beauty which conclude Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. Let me reassure Harris that I would never cling to that particular fig-leaf, nor to any of the others he suspects will deceive him. My conclusion are statements which 'have the ring of not being arbitrary' because perhaps (though as an almost solipsist I could not dream of insisting on this) the poems arrive at some simple observation or discovery; despite Harris's inability to see how or why.

Harris cites Milosz's reductive remark that if philosophy 'does not help us judge a man, a piece of sculpture, a literary work, it is dead'. Harris likes to judge. He offers the concluding six lines of a poem called 'In Summer Wind' and declares them unsyntactical, without stopping to explain why. The poem is about persecutory anxieties produced when a poet claims to be atoning for, and so implicitly or explicitly judging, the sins of this world. Perhaps the poem manages to imply (but again I couldn't insist) that we are not in a position to judge the world. The line immediately prior to those quoted reads: 'tourists disappear into a restaurant. Let them be.' There I go again in my syntactic fog, not realizing that other people and their feelings exist.

Harris's depression might lift if he judged less peremptorily. He might feel better about judging if he presented more evidence, and in context. His judgements might be respected more if he could correlate them with plausible accounts of the bits of poems he brings himself to cite. He passes sentence on Stephen Romer: 'What success there is is of very minor artistic order.' But the sentence has at least three faults: note Harris's struggle with the use of the verb 'to be' in the stuttering middle; note the inert intensifier 'very'; note his reliance on vague abstract diction referring to an artistic order vouchsafed only the critic. I'm sure Harris would feel better if he worried less about philosophico-cultural fashions. 'Why does one have to insist, with Vagn Holmboe, that the poem … belongs to the individual who cares for to no-one else?' Why indeed? Ezra Pound wrote that 'What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee', and, besides, enjoying a poem does not require or entail exclusive mental property rights.

There are signs of hope. Beginning paragraph Harris announces 'I read Andrea Zanzotto's poems with interest, but have not had time to think about them and do not feel competent to judge them.' Lucky Andrea. My heart goes out to Timothy Harris girding himself to pronounce judgement whenever he reads. It must be depressing. I do hope he begins to feel better soon.


This item is taken from PN Review 94, Volume 20 Number 2, November - December 1993.

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