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This article is taken from PN Review 91, Volume 19 Number 5, May - June 1993.

Suspense and Ambiguity John Needham

IN THE CORRESPONDENCE columns of P·N·R recently I suggested that one of the key mistakes of 20th-century literary criticism has been to separate verbal ambiguity from narrative suspense, and that we urgently need to rectify this. I can best explain myself more fully by picking up some remarks of Donald Davie's, in Under Briggflatts, about Keith Douglas and Ted Hughes. Davie adversely compares the clogged verbal density of Hughes's 'The Hawk in the Rain' with the 'rapid transits' and the 'athletic speed and energy' of Douglas's best poems_ His particular judgement seems well-founded, but he ignores suspense and makes the judgement purely in terms of diction, and he thus implies that speed and density are mutually exclusive. To do justice to Douglas, or to any other poet, we need to see speed and density together; and we can only do this by focusing on points of suspense and their shifting relations with each other.

This can be illustrated from the poem by Douglas that Davie himself singles out - 'Cairo Jag'. It opens:
 
 
Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake,
a pasty Syrian with a few words of English
or the Turk who says she is a princess - she dances
apparently by levitation? Or Marcelle, Parisienne
always preoccupied with her dull dead lover:
she has all the photographs and his letters
tied in a bundle and stamped Décéde in mauve ink.
All ...


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