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

Letters from John Pilling, W.D. Jackson, David Kennedy, David Kuhrt

James Brockway has very kindly pointed out that my review of the Dutch poet, Gerrit Achterberg (PNR 91), should have read 'cryptogams' - a biological term meaning plants without seeds, and a very apt one given Achterberg's acute sense of his own barrenness - and not the much more familiar 'cryptograms: James Brockway has translated many modern Dutch poets, Achterberg included, but believes that 'one of the most vital demands the art of translation makes is knowing when not to translate', and feels Achterberg is one of the best proofs of this.

Knowing no Dutch, I am incompetent to judge whether the translations I reviewed were an accurate reflection of Achterberg; they must at the very least possess the merit of making Achterberg better known, and they certainly convinced me that Achterberg was a figure of exceptional stature. It would be nice to think someone else could demonstrate this, Brockway's reservations notwithstanding, especially now that J.M. Coetzee in his recent collection of essays has reinforced the claims Achterberg makes on our attention.

University of Reading


David Kennedy in his letter (PNR 91) on the subject of Christopher Middleton's'A Pasquil On The Poetry Scene' appears to take it for granted that poetry should be'popular'and an 'entertainment: Leaving aside the issue of whether we need entertainment, as Mr Kennedy claims (it is very possibly no more than a sign of our own decadence that we think we do), there is an insidious danger here: an entertainer is at the mercy of his audience. Applause is all-important and a professional is expected to get a lot of it. If he fails to entertain his audience, it will boo him off the stage or - more frequently nowadays -switch to another channel. His employers will be displeased. If he wishes to continue to work as an entertainer, he will have to change his act.

So why shouldn't a poet change his act? There would perhaps be less harm in his doing so if his audience happened to be trained in matters of 'spiritual authority', which Mr Kennedy admits we also need. Or if its everyday experience had kept it closer to the immediate reality of life than contemporary bureaucracy and technology generally allow. Or if, say, it were deeply versed in the classics of its own and other ages and cultures. However, if the audience which poets are so cheerfully expected to entertain is going to measure poetry by the yardstick of contemporary 'popular' culture - TV, the vast majority of movies, radio, the press, pop music, computer games-then this audience had better be treated with a good deal of circumspection. Art is deep before it is wide. And there has probably never been an audience on the face of the earth which has known so little about so much or been so easily satisfied (except that it isn't) with shallow things and shallow thinking. 'Don't we want to increase the audience of poetry?' Mr Kennedy naively asks.Well, don't we want to sell more of any product? As C.H. Sisson explains in his Commentin the same issue: 'The great aim of broadcasting, after all, is to reduce the level of public discourse on all subjects so as to amuse, or failing that to be tolerated by, the greatest possible number of listeners.This makes money for advertisers, and financially valuable reputations for performers.' One might have expected the expansion of higher education to help but, like it or not, cramming for and at university in order to compete on a diminishing job-market is one more form of shallow thinking. I am aware that this will sound harsh to many people. But what poets - and not just the younger generation - may fail to realize as much as anybody else is that each of us is in constant danger of selling more than his services: 'Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.'

The younger generation is sometimes compared - or sometimes compares itself- to pop musicians. But pop music has already been castrated (which may well be why some of it is howling so horribly!) by a classic catch: what it protests about- or used to protest about-is exactly what manages and exploits both it and its audience. Its status is now clearly no more emancipated than that of the singing and dancing on Heine's Das Sklavenschiff. At such a time the poet is likely to get further by going it alone - in the trational company of those who, in Auden's words,'challenge,warn and witness'. The business of the poet, at any rate, is tatell the truth as he sees it.The truth has never, when properly understood, been particularly 'popular' but it is - or used to be - a truism that poetry creates its own audience. 'For in cultural matters,'says Joseph Brodsky,'it is not demand that creates supply; it is the other way round. You read Dante because he wrote the Divine Comedy, not because you felt the need for him; you wouldn't be able to do so.'And in our time, as Brodsky points out in the same essay (his American Poet Laureate's inauguration address) we need such poetry more than ever, since'poetry is the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart: In the light of such perspicacity nothing could be more depressing than Mr Kennedys optimism. He appears to be quite blind to what Christopher Middleton means by distinguishing 'products' from'creations: If there is one question with regard to our age which every one of us in all humility needs to ask himself, it is how are we to think our way out of the vulgar, acquisitive and utilitarian mentality which the past three or four hundred years have very gradually but with ever-increasing thoroughness bequeathed to all of us. One might have been forgiven for supposing -since there are sufficientbooks on the subject - that it was as good as common knowledge that we have lost or are rapidly losing our sense of the sacred and that, socially as well as culturally this maybe very dangerous. Born into an age in which 'free' enterprise has led inexorably to increasing institutional and individual unfreedom, Crisis? What crisis? asks Mr Kennedy. He and David Morley, whose letter on Glyn Maxwell in the same issue ('Would that Keats were living at this hour'!) displays the same sort of youthful hubris, have little reason to be surprised if some critics feel that certain members of their generation appear to be fiddling while Rome burns. 'The rediscovery of multivalency in the 1980s and 1990s,'announces Mr Kennedy,'is why "the poetry scene" is such an interesting place to be right now… .'Anything goes, in other words. Anything which doesn't ask questions about why it goes, at any rate. And as long as it's entertaining, of course.


Ungenerous Rhetoric

Your editorial on The New Poetry(PNR 91) and its reference to my response to Christopher Middleton's 'Pasquil' would seem to be guilty of the ungenerous rhetoric you adduce to me and my co-editors.This underlies both the curiously selective account of our Introduction and the deliberate misrepresentation of my letter.

First, when you assert that 'the past is certainly too little with us' and takes us and our 55 poets to task for failing to take 'into account the continuum', you beg the questions 'whose past?'and 'whose continuum?' Many of the contributors to The New Poetry freely and gratefully acknowledge their debts to previous poetic generations: H&moul;lderlin, for example, is a visible presence in David Constantine as is MacDiarmid inW.N. Herbert. Similarly, as Peter Porter points out in his review of the anthology for the Independent On Sunday 'the legacy of W.H. Auden has at lastbegun to bear fruit in his native land'and 'Beyond Auden, figures from American and European poetry gesture, notably Stevens, Ashbery, Rilke and Montale.'

Second, The New Poetry did not set out to be politically correct. The aims of myself andmy co-editors were simple: to reflect the diverse activity in poetry in the 1980s and early 1990s and to give it a critical context. Beyond that, we let the poems draw their own map. It is a disturbing indication of how far the cultural politics of the extreme right have come to dominate debate about culture that a book that makes a positive statement about poetry as a popular, liberal, democratic and internationalist art can be so tagged.

Finally, your claim that my response to Christopher Middleton's 'Pasquil' answers his case by taking him to task for failing to recognize 'amazing youngsters' and 'abundance' misrepresents me and seems to me a high-handed attempt to close down further discussion of the subject. My point is quite simply that, on a number of matters, Middleton has his facts wrong and that remains unanswered.To say that I missed the point of the 'Pasquil' which addressed 'a question of kind' merely reduces the matter to a difference of opinion. The New Poetry, like my letter, has the courage and integrity to name poets in support of its arguments: your editorial and Middleton's 'Pasquil' seek to avoid the issues through selective and/ or incorrect generalizations.That is not only ungenerous to me and my co-editors, it is impoverishing to the culture we all value.


Writing Tight

Another problem for regular readers:
Is Clive Wilmer
By writing

Calms explosion.

If age
Resists change
Engenders zest.

It isn't wise
To prize
One principle
Or death's invincible.

I am, sir, ever yours faithfully


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

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