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This item is taken from PN Review 90, Volume 19 Number 4, March - April 1993.

IN JANUARY, AT St Antony's College, Oxford, editors from what was the Soviet Union and its satellites met with British editors in a two-day conference. The burning question was: how can cultural journals survive in a free market environment? Representatives of the large journals - The Times Literary Supplement was in the chair - were joined by smaller fry including P·N·Review. The answer cannot have been heartening to the guests because they had been there before the world changed: one way or another, it translated as: Subsidy - subsidy by profitable sister journals, or private donors, or the state through its agencies, and advertising, with its pitfalls. In addition, the Czech, Lithuanian and Slovene editors had to contend with the very finite nature of their language readership. The 'universal language', English, privileges English magazines in ways which made the good counsel of their editors superfluous or irrelevant to many of the guests.

The conversation of editors, like that of writers, tends to gravitate towards money: fees, the cost of paper and print; then print runs and subscriberships. Eventually, when they exhaust number-talk, other questions arise - politics, the pressures and commitments which lead to the establishment of new journals or the reinvigoration of old ones.

Most magazines seem to be conceived in disaffection and dissent, though these motives are often masked by noble rhetoric. Looking back twenty years - that's how long ago the first issue of Poetry Nation was published - I discover that this journal is no exception, and that what has led to its cycle of rebirths and alterations of perspective is a recrudescence of dissent, sometimes broadly cultural, as in Crisis for Cranmer and King James, sometimes more local, as in the anthology of younger writers, and sometimes academic, as in the issue which debated the ascendancy of Theory. There is too the positive dissent of the celebration issues, when we focus on a single author or theme in the face of perceived neglect. Somehow the magazine never quite settles down.

In a brave 'Editorial Note' to the first issue, remarkable for its evangelical fervour, I - then in my mid-twenties - wrote of 'the growing consensus which can be traced in the critical writing of authors as different as John Bayley, Donald Davie and Terry Eagleton; in the poetries of Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, C.H. Sisson, Philip Larkin, and others'. Davie and - Eagleton? Tomlinson - and Larkin? What could have possessed that callow youth? Did he actually believe what he was writing, or was it posturing, wilful thinking, or ignorance? Even in that first issue, a Trojan Horse was within the walls: Terry Eagleton was grazing in the meadow of theory. Davie - gentler in those far off days -remonstrated with his naive colleague-to-be, opening out my twisted arguments about conservatism, radicalism, and my definitions of form in suggestive ways. Perhaps the main achievement of that first issue was to draw Davie and Sisson into the same ring, a ring in which their tetchy and fruitful friendship has been played out in public view down the years, a conflict of approaches at once challenging and instructive.

That editorial note, and an essay I wrote on 'The Politics of Form', compounded my analysis into what now reads like an endorsement, in awkward Marxising terms, of 'the new formalism' avant la lettre. Clearly this was not going to be a journal for modernists of any kidney; or for postmodernists either. Judgement and taste, however, were out of sync, for the poems in the issue were remarkable. Poetry Nation One opened with Charles Tomlinson's 'The Way In', title poem of one of his best collections, and concluded with Sisson's most celebrated poem, 'The Usk'. By their works ye shall know them - it's the poems in those early hardback numbers that distinguish the enterprise, poems by Geoffrey Hill and W.S. Graham, Molly Holden and Padraic Fallon, Christopher Middleton and David Wright, Robert Garioch and Michael Hamburger - an unusual juxtaposition of disparate talents. From this distance it looks like an attempt to create a centre from the brilliant peripheries, made peripheral by the prevailing tastes of the day. Each of these writers had come to terms with modernism in ways I came to understand later.

While I was bridling at the spent political poets of the 1960s, their 'failure of nerve before the extreme disciplines of good writing', their 'failure of perspective', my own perspective failed. The prose in the first issue contains the germ of many of the things P·N·Review tilted at later on. Theory I have already mentioned, a Pandora's box out of which new and ever curioser creatures continue to crawl. The vexed future of the political Left after the defeats of 1968 were much in the air, not only in an interview with Edgell Rickword but in some of the essay contributions. With the collapse of the review in 1972, new and spurious groupings were assembling, some of them geographical (an essay on Heaney, Muldoon and Montague appeared in Poetry Nation One). Modernism was rejected in an essay on the Imagists and elsewhere. The Translation Industry, another Pandora's box, was celebrated.

It would be wrong to suggest that, after these first stumbling steps, Poetry Nation and later P·N·Review found its feet with complete assurance. The magazine was tardy in recognizing some fine new talents, in registering the excesses of the Martians and questioning the 'ludic' orthodoxies which came to dog us and, in new forms, dog us still; even now I detect a reluctance to reappraise work valued for other than poetic reasons and to question critical language whose political correctness makes discrimination culpable if issues of gender, ethnicity or 'appropriation' arise. There are, too, public issues which might have been more vigorously contested, from Clause 28 (which was not addressed at all) to the crisis in the library services.

Yet, looking back over six issues of Poetry Nation and 90 issues of P·N·Review, there is some remarkable poetry there - the magazine has made discoveries, rediscoveries and restitutions. The errors and wrong turnings remain instructive. P·N·Review never aspired to be a magazine of record, but it does record, both in its emphases and its reticences, some of the abiding concerns of the last two decades. There is - to quote that 'Editorial Note' again, a tradition, 'a living language' and 'a living community' worth serving. And the magazine has survived thanks to that community and its agencies.

This item is taken from PN Review 90, Volume 19 Number 4, March - April 1993.

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