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

Letters from Anthony Thwaite, B.C. Bloomfield, John Needham, Brian Lee, John Greening, Clive Milmer, Tessa Ransford, Ben Coulthard

I can partly understand Donald Davie's ugly attitude to my edition of Larkin's Selected Letters (P·N·R 89). Davie is one of the people Larkin tended to mock, and here (as with Davie's vauntings in his repeated attacks on the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse) it is much as Larkin commented (letter dated 14 May 1973 to Jon Stallworthy): 'See old Davie labouring on in The Listener - he must feel like a mill that he has been given a lovely big lot of grist.' It was disingenuous of Davie not to point out his own role as an object of Larkin's jokes in several of the letters.

I am not, of course, suggesting this accounts for Davie's equation of selection with censorship, or his curious view of Oxford and Oxonians, or his priggish and sanctimonious posturings.

What I must refute is the apparent conviction, stated twice in the Editorial in that issue, that Larkin 'didn't want such a book published' and that this was made plain in his will. Evidently the writer of this Editorial hasn't read Larkin's will, or misremembers it.

In appointing his Literary Executors (Monica Jones, myself, and Andrew Motion), Larkin specifically drew attention to 'major matters such as the writing of my life or the publication of my letters', asking that his sister should be consulted. This was done: Larkin's sister was given a typescript of the volume, gave her ready agreement, and the book went ahead. Again, in a letter to me (14 April 1985) Larkin referred to 'such projects as an official life or the publication of letters' in a way that makes it plain he left these matters open to the discretion of his executors. Though there are ambiguities elsewhere in the will, there are no ambiguities about this.

Low Tharston, Norfolk

When the new issue of P·N·R arrived just before Christmas (although dated February 1993), I read your Editorial and noted that the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin was reviewed in the 'Reports' section, to which I next turned. The first sentence reads 'This is a hateful and disgraceful book', which I thought an odd way to begin a review in a serious literary journal. But the so-called review becomes odder and odder, and goes on to attack Anthony Thwaite, Philip Larkin, a supposed Oxford 'establishment' or coterie in the literary world, and culminates in a definition which requires any admirable poet to be an admirable man in his/her personal conduct.

I was once instructed that the duty of a reviewer was to tell the reader what the book is about, estimate how well the author or editor has carried out his task and on what principles he has proceeded, and, lastly, to try to give some flavour or characteristic of the work. Mr Davie accuses Mr Thwaite of selection amounting to censorship, but without trying to indicate how the selection is done. It might be remarked that Larkin's letters to his mother are not present, that Larkin's professional correspondence as a librarian is little represented, that his correspondence as a poet with Faber & Faber is not much in evidence, and that as he never employed an agent, his correspondence on rights, reprints, royalties is not adequately represented either. And personal letters to Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan are few and far between. If Mr Davie had troubled to enumerate such limitations, his objections might have carried some weight. As it is, his critical statement is worth very little. I can say about the letters addressed to me, they are fairly edited and reprinted, and where excisions are made they are usually to avoid repetition of points or anecdotes made to other correspondents. Can he exemplify a contrary view? If so, he should have done so.

I think Mr Thwaite has tried to present an uncensored view of what Philip Larkin was really like in his relations with literary contemporaries and because Larkin was such a prolific letter writer, often repeating himself to his various correspondents, some editing was necessary. Mr Thwaite has been accused elsewhere of cutting out 'racist' remarks and other comments that might show Larkin in an unsympathetic light. I doubt this accusation too, since Larkin was Librarian to a university which housed a major centre of South-East Asian Studies and where he regularly met scholars and distinguished people from those countries. He was unfailingly polite and indeed punctilious in dealing with such visitors, and although he may have thought privately that such ceremonial duties distracted him from his literary life, his professional work he carried through with rigour. What one expresses in private conversation is not evidence in a court of law. However, Mr Thwaite might profitably perhaps have gone into more detail in explaining the principles on which he worked in his editorial task, so as to pre-empt uninformed comment of the kind that has been made.

Mr Davie says nothing about the physical book itself, priced at £20. It is well-produced and printed by Faber & Faber, illustrated with photographs, adequately indexed and sparingly annotated. In essence, his review appears to be no more than a cry of pain at slighting remarks in Larkin's letters about literary contemporaries. The printed letters are often very funny, as was Larkin himself most of the time, contrary to his popular image. I think, sir, you should exercise more care in selecting your reviewers and try to ensure that they do the job properly in future.

Wye, Kent


On the face of it, Nicolas Tredell's remarks about plot (in his review of Perry Anderson, in P·N·R 88) seem admirably balanced. On the one hand, he sees some merit in Anderson's view that historians can't simply tell whatever story they like: 'evidence constrains emplotment'. But on the other, he praises post-modernism for its scepticism about narrative, and its emphasis on 'discontinuity'; and he goes on to suggest that Anderson himself was insufficiently aware of the seductions of plot.

In some abstract sense I suppose this even-handedness may be right. Plots - like hypotheses in science - can evidently be used (intentionally or not) to suppress or distort the evidence; and this of course constitutes the element of truth in post-modernism. But plots at their best (and value judgements here are essential) are more than constrained by the evidence; they are the indispensable instruments for exploring it; that is, for exploring the world; and this is the element of truth that postmodernism is currently responsible for obscuring.

At this point the value of Tredell's even-handedness has to be questioned. We have to consider historical actuality as well as abstract ideas. Post-modernist scepticism about plot is of course a continuation of a dominant century-long trend. The modernist emphasis on discontinuities of all kinds was so heavy that it is hard to see anything really new in post-modernism; indeed, as some have argued, it ought rather to be called 'late modernism'. And in academic criticism the trend against plot goes back to people like Wilson Knight, who saw structure in terms of symbolic significance, rather than in terms of the narrative dynamic that preoccupied Aristotelian theory. Frye and the structuralists further developed the Knightian movement; and the post-structuralists saw plot as mere illusionism. These days we find that while any theorist can, and frequently does, rehearse the stock arguments for 'discontinuity', none seems remotely capable of arguing a serious case for plot. In these circumstances, what we need is not even-handedness but redress of the balance.

Negatively this entails insisting on the fatuities (Tredell's word) of postmodernism; and its central fatuity is the view that plots are purely arbitrary constructions. This of course is closely related to the Saussurean claim that words themselves are likewise purely arbitrary, though it was given added impetus in the sixties when a Humean scepticism about causality started being applied to narrative. It was in fact the Saussurean claim itself that was purely arbitrary (in its desperate attempt to exclude psychology from semantics), and it is hard to imagine any serious attempt to defend it now; it survives through mere inertia. As for the Humean approach, it wasn't so much 'wrong' (for within the modern western analytical mind-set Hume may well be incontrovertible) as simply wrong headed. Of course we can't 'prove' that fire 'causes' the pain in our fingers but we nonetheless know that it does; and this is the sort of knowledge that counts in literature as in life. It tells us, cumulatively, that human experience is a mixture of pattern and chance. And this is also the essence of a good plot. In the work of the great story-tellers plot is always a subtle mixture of continuity and discontinuity, causality and contingency. In this respect it is the most accurate model of experience.

The positive requirement for redressing the balance is a way of talking seriously about plots again. And in itself this isn't too difficult to imagine. The key move of 20th-century analytical criticism - engineered by critics like Empson and Knight - was to separate ambiguity from plot; and we can readily put them back together again by focusing on suspense. In its simplest form suspense allows two contradictory possibilities to co-exist: Will the heroine be run over by the train or not? In its more sophisticated forms it indicates the points at which the critic can translate richness of verbal ambiguity into richness of dramatic possibility; and this provides an effective tool not only for analyzing plot but for expressing value-judgements about it. Of course my suggestions are far too undeveloped to be satisfactory, but they serve perhaps to indicate a further problem: any method of analyzing plot is likely to feel very much like bread and butter, after all these years of half-baked theoretical fruit-cake. On the other hand, I suppose that a little bread and butter might actually be welcome. I hope so, for there are good grounds for regarding a renewed interest in Aristotelian plot as literary criticism's most urgent need.

Dept of English, Massey University
Palmerston North, NZ


This 'writer of a recent letter (P·N·R 84) stigmatizing the work of both Don Coles and (Michael Hulse) as " 'journalism' " has reconsidered his opinion after reading Mr Coles's poem and Mr Hulse's article, The Chinese Woman's Feet - to come to the same conclusion. He was unable to make any connection between Mr Hulse's claims for the poem and the exract from the poem itself (this, however, not being true of what he had to say about that from Dinah Hawken). The looseness of the ready, and heady formulations of journalism (leading to a certain minor form of unscrupulousness, or, if you like carelessness, or indifference …) show in the word 'work' above. For the writer of that recent letter had only connected comments of T.J.G. Harris of some poems of Mr Hulse's, with a subsequent letter from Mr Coles in defence: the word 'journalism' offered the plain connection - and the word was Mr Harris's.

Now that there is a poem from Mr Coles and prose from Mr Hulse, the continuity remains. Mr Coles's 'loose quatrains' (Hulse) are loose, and cliché-studded, asking little of themselves in rhythm and rhyme, accepting the present world of words as it is, without critical resistance; Mr Hulse's chatty article on the best poetry of last year has consonant qualities. Does that word 'work' mean 'something done for a living', or does it have pretensions to something more serious, as in 'The Works of …' usually conferred honori-fically by others. (The suggestion that Mr Hulse and Mr Coles have received stigmata from a letter to a serious journal is serious: much too serious to take seriously.)

There's a lot of it about - in the reviews and the Reviews, at the Society and in the winning of prizes. And, fair enough, it wouldn't be proper to pick on it if it weren't a sign of something general and debilitating, that is to poetry (a serious matter, where one shouldn't take oneself seriously) as 'easy list'nin" is to music. Did the rot set in in middle Auden? Is John Ashbery the laureate of it at present - the loose amiable flexibility which allows one to talk about oneself in something that looks like 'form', neither prose nor verse, that can be very long or very short without compelling reason, and always seems to be about the same thing.

Hexham, Northumberland


Thanks to Keith Silver for an attentive review of my collection, 'The Tutankhamun Variations', a title which he calls 'disagreeably apologetic'. Apologies, then, are also due from J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten …

Huntingdon, Cambs.


A problem for your regular readers:

Does Les Murray
At all
About sprawl?

I am, sir, ever yours faithfully,



Anne Stevenson's 'Letter to Sharon Byron' does, perhaps inadvertently, reveal the situation of women writers and 'tradition', especially in Scotland.

There may be no theory that deliberately restricts, ignores or marginalizes women writers, but there is a practice (and this is highlighted by the quoted dictionary definition of tradition). The practice is the process of alcoholic osmosis by which a writer becomes accepted into the circle where grants, publication, reviews, readings, residencies come 'his' way.

At the bar from which Anne excluded herself in order to fulfil her duty as hostess, there would have been no serious discussion of poetry. There would have been laughter and fun certainly: stories, jokes, anecdotes (many of them oft-repeated), wit, repartee, off-the-cuff opinions and disagreements (often with the admittance of not having read the work in question!).

Women's lifestyle, especially if they have children, does not allow them (even if they wanted to!) to spend late nights in pubs and this may partly be why they have often remained on the fringes of the literary scene, even when they have been acknowledged as good writers and successful in terms ot publishing, prizewinning or selling.

The academic route has been a less direct one in Scotland, Oxbridge being over the Border, but it, too, has been less accessible to women.

I have a sense that there is almost a world 'underground' of writers/poets who care about their own and others' work for its own sake. They are the ones who in the end carry the tradition, pass on the flame - as Anne points out they are often those less acclaimed in their own time. It is to this group that women can belong and contribute as valuable tradition-bearers and renewers.

Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh


In her essay, 'Some Observations on Women and Tradition' (P·N·R 88),Anne Stevenson contradicts herself oddly when she asserts that seeing men as distinct from and opposed to women is folly, but proceeds to do exactly that: 'How much academic clout and sense of importance have the theorizing men of the 20th century attracted to themselves? …)' and suggests that women should be opposed to this and draw from their 'own branch of the literary tree' a bit of Austenish perception. This own suggests immediately the separation of women from literary tradition, which will only be true if emphasized in this way. Austen did not write for women, or draw solely on female writers or female experience. And which 'tedious -isms and -ologies' is Stevenson casually criticizing?

I'm also unhappy with the rigid boundaries which Anne Stevenson sets up between 'literature' and 'criticism'.

She defines neither. To say that 'the writing of … literature is far more impressive and admirable than writing … lit crit' doesn't get us very far; as this article perhaps demonstrates, the writing of criticism involves extending one's neck rather further. Some excellent literature in the traditional sense consists of critical documents. The Waste Land is at least as referential as many essays. How distinct are criticism and literature?

She avoids addressing the question of women's education and what they were taught to think about themselves. Her feeling that 'women writers are now … neither better nor worse off than they were a hundred years ago, given a modicum of time and money' rather misses the mark: she should notice that what women writers were often criticizing (yes) was their subordinate position - what Virginia Woolf tried to achieve was progress towards the equality and independence needed to operate a life and to write as freely as a male writer could. Women writers have benefited from some of the improvements campaigned for in their writing. Anne Stevenson has not aligned writing by women with what that writing was often trying to achieve, not least suffrage, the reassessment of social conventions, financial independence - that 'modicum of time and money' is a very big given!

The pace of change to equality may accelerate. But we must keep our eyes open for false rhetoric and arguments that miss the point.

U 6th, Fearnhill School
Letchworth, Herts

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

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