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This item is taken from PN Review 93, Volume 20 Number 1, September - October 1993.

THERE are prizes and prizes. A press release declares: 'The 1992 winners Thom Gunn, Simon Armitage and Jackie Key have set the standard and the race is now on to see who will stand in their shoes in 1993.' This is the Forward Prize, 'a bardic Booker'. In better times heads would have rolled for such copy-writing. Yet it catches the hectic tone and reflects the values of many entrants as it conflates the skills of Linford Christie with those of Thom Gunn. My bet is that, in 1993, Thom Gunn's shoes will be occupied by Thom Gunn. The more imitable Armitage and Kay may have room in theirs for other feet.

For the most part in this country literary prizes exist to generate renvenue for organisations, magazines and festivals - the Russian Roulette of poetry competitions - or to stir up excitment in a lack-lustre world of conglomerate publishing. The Prize has become a chief instrument conferring legitimacy on the writer: He or she only exists when laurels safely deck the brow. The prize or award-and even with the expery juries there is a substantial element of arbitrariness in the process-stamps 'merit' on the merchandise.

In earlier times recognition was earned: endorsement by experienced critics alerted readership. Though this could also be hit-or-miss, no doubt, it was not just the luck of the draw but a durable process. If readers liked what they read, a writer prospered. Legitimacy conferred by a panel of prize judges, more or less expert, deliberating, curbing individual enthusiasms to reach compromise decisions which please and hurt no one, is different in kind from one-to-one engagement of critic with book, reader with critic.

There are a few popular critics today, bred in that older school. But where's the community of readers? Perhaps the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, this magazine and a few others still draw them, people skeptical of 'The Best of Young' this or that campaign, of publicity that attaches to the celebrity marketing departments generate. When it comes to poetry, there's less and less space for reviews in quality papers and magazines, and a plethora of new books. In such circumstances -the manifest failure of our critical culture - for publisher and reader as much as for the young poet, and more so for middle-aged and older poets, the question of legitimacy has become a vexed one.

In the past, an unknown Seamus Heaney, ready for audience, sought out a sympathetic magazine editor to feature his poems, a shrewd publisher to make a collection; his book found critics of sufficient curiosity, astuteness and presence to appraise new talent. Readers learned the happy news and set out to welcome him by buying Death of a Naturalist. In short, he earned readers willing to commit their energies to his work. He may have won a few prizes as well.

Poets need readers not only willing but able to criticise their poems. Critical engagement goes with the effort of advocacy. The poet - as Robert Frost said of Shakespeare - is never sacred to himself, or if he is he ceases to grow. Readers demonstrate respect for a writer not only by applause but also by with holding it, by willing a writer to do better, by decrying faults, sell-outs, short changing. Some critics, Donald Davie among them, are considered harsh when at their most generous, because they insistently expect the very best they perceive a writer capable of. Such critics and readers keep writers to their mettle. The dialogue of reader and writer amounts to a kind of collaboration. It may cease at the moment when the poet achieves an intimidating success. After that - as Robert Lowell ruefully noted - the writer has no chastening readers, no articulate resistance, only adulators, enemies and competitors. In his case, a mortal peril set in; his closest readers fell ill, died, fell out with him. The big success made him a kind of tolerated monster.

At that stage posterity takes over. Posterity, and the biographers. It may come to seem that Omeros is Walcott's Maud and not his Odyssey, that Seeing Things is rather short measure for Heaney. But it's risky to say so when the tide of approbation is in. It was risky in a different way to engage the magnificent challenge of Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy - the poem demanded too much, and in a fast-food literary world it went virtually unappraised.

Various types of discreditation follow the demise of a monster -recent assaults on Henry Moore and Benjamin Britten demonstrate that this phenomenon occurs in other arts as in literature. A period of neglect gives way, as in Soviet times, to rehabilitation.That phase is usually selective and monitory, emphasising wrong turnings, stressing the merit of formative work which success is seen as having dissipated. Posterity corrects too late for the living artist. A culture of living readers is required.

The gradualist pattern, a process of engagement between writers and their various readers, has been eroded. Now we deal with literary commodities in a bourse. Critical space is congested, but there's always room for photographs and journalistic copy, personality and the high gossip of opinion. Committees which confer laurel or tinsel crowns often represent-are chosen because they represent-interest groups, ideologies. Critical rigour is not always a prime criterion. The false generosity of charitable endorsement weakens the wider literary culture. True generosity is strict, exacting and precise. Nowadays the pleasure principle is reduced to a meagre denominator; fewer risks are taken, whether the award is Booker or Arvon, Whitbread or Forward.

AFTER two decades of addressing subscribers, some of whom have been reading the magazine from its birth in 1972, P.N.Review begins its 20th volume and its 21st year on two feet, as it were.WATERSTONE'S BOOKSELLERS are making the magazine available in all their outlets in the British Isles.

P.N.Review has been redesigned for the occasion by Combined Arts, Edinburgh, to make it airier and more capacious, and a second colour has returned to the front cover.There are no plans for editorial change, though we expect to receive a wider range of correspondence and submissions from new readers.We are grateful to Waterstone's for an opportunity, and a challenge. The objective is to reach more of those genuinely engaged and living readers described above.

This item is taken from PN Review 93, Volume 20 Number 1, September - October 1993.

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