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This article is taken from PN Review 92, Volume 19 Number 6, July - August 1993.

On Poetry and Opinion Christopher Middleton

EVERYBODY IS FAMILIAR with Schreiner's sketch of the old Hölderlin, in left profile, with sharp features, balding brow, a forefinger lifted, pointing forward - a didactic or admonitory finger. Not only initiates cite Roland Barthes's early essay (1960) in which, discriminating between 'author' and 'writer', he emphasized the sentence 'The writer's function is to say at once and on every occasion what he thinks', and expatiated: 'This function of immediate manifestation is the very opposite of the author's …' (his italics).1 Icon and emphasis profile respectively poet and writer as articulators of thought, challengers of opinion. Yet there has occurred in recent British and American poetry a conflation of thought and opinion, poet and 'writer', which exposes a blind side of the icon and the emphasis. Poetry can degenerate into a mere indication, writing into a mere pronouncing of consciousness. Mallarmé, with his utter disdain for the 'immediate', would have written off either kind of expression as bavardage, verbal merchandise, the dead opposite of poetry conceived as 'the precious cloud floating over the intimate abyss of every thought' ('Le mystere dans les lettres'). Considering the subjection of poetry nowadays to doctrinal and ideological pressures, as well as the mushrooming of opinion on a scale that suffocates thought, the conflation needs to be questioned. If it still makes sense to consider the words of the world as the life of the world, plainly the vagaries of opinion (in poems or otherwise) need to be identified as mechanical parts of the ...

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