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This item is taken from PN Review 86, Volume 18 Number 6, July - August 1992.

IN THE EDITORIAL to P·N·R 85 I used a phrase unguardedly. I said Ted Hughes had appropriated Keith Douglas's work to his own ends. I should like to retract that.

On a recent visit to Canada I discovered how ideologically charged the word appropriate has become: men who speak in the voice of women in a poem or novel, white people wihout ethnic licence who write as Blacks or Inuits, in shot any writer who adopts or adapts a voice to which he or he (usually he) is not entitled by gender, gender preferece ot ethnicity, is seen as trespassing on privileged terrtory, perpetrating, as it were, a colonial act. Judgement is passed regardless of the aesthetic propriety of the 'appropriation'.

Were such judgements enforceable, the impact would be far worse than the most excessive application of the rules of decoruin in the 18th century - worse, for literature, than the Index and the Secret Police. Applied retrospectively, of course, they would mark the end of drama, the survival - in literature - of only the most innocent lyric poems, which might of course be found culpable on other grounds.

This sense of 'appropriation' is certainly not what I meant in relation to Ted Hughes's use of Keith Douglas. Hughes performed an act of advocacy of Douglas's work. My concern was that his reading distorts (as, it can be argued, all committed reading will do) the actual achievemerlt of Douglas. He admired Douglas's work but seemed in his suggestive introductory essay to be enlisting him as a clause in a wider Hughesian programme.

The argument about appropriation in Canada surfaces in different forms in the United States and less stridently in this country. Many readers felt uneasy about the ambitious poem-sequence by Peter Hughes published in P·N·R a few issues back, which 'appropriated' the voice of Simone Weil. Alison Brackenbury has spoken in Elizabethan voices and in one of her long poem sequences John Clare has found voice. W.S. Graham spoke in the person of Quantz the flute master.

I have felt unease in reading poems which borrow the voice of Mandelstam, or Eichmann, or the victims of Enclosure, of the Holocaust, or the yobs of Leeds. The unease is not at the appropriation of voices as such (what about the 'voiceless' ones to whom Harrison, Brathwaite and Ken Smith claim to give tongue?) but at the uses to which that appropriation is put. The judgement is, in the end, not ideological but aesthetic.

Not all instances are appropriative. When Donald Davie evokes Mandelstam, he does so allusively, in the manner of tribute or celebration, rather than ventriloquistically, to borrow the authority of Mandelstam's particular historical circumstances, his 'privileged' suffering. It is in the same spirit that Davie enlists HD or Pasternak, not hitching a gratuitous ride on their lives but insisting on the otherness, the distinctive otherness, of their words which extend his own by their force, not by his.

But bold dramatic monologues, even if the biography of the imagined speaker is penetrated by the poet's own autobiography, can (when a poet is intensely tactful) work - in Jeffrey Wainwright's poems on Thomas Müntzer and George IV, or in Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hylnns and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. It is a matter of tact: not a rhetorical strategy to make a big voice and borrow historical legitimacy, but a dramatic strategy, to connect with a period or events that open a theme, which need to be presented in the first person to be real. Literal appropriation invariably raises moral questions - as when Lowell incorporated in his poems the words of actual letters he received, or when Berryman created Mr Bones - but more urgent are the aesthetic questions. Is the appropriation necessary? Is it honourable?

The bien-pensant critics who argue, as a matter of dogma, against all forms of 'appropriation' in contemporary writing and look askance over their shoulders at Spenser's Ireland, Shakespeare's Moors, Dickens's soppy women, can evince a revealing double standard. It is their profound desire - a generous fantasy, as it must seem to them - to imbue the writers of whom they do approve with the benefit of their own system of values, to make them 'like us'. The 'if only' approach is itself a kind of appropriation which, whatever respect it pays to gender and ethnicity, is a denial of the particulars of a writer's history, of that writer's eloquent otherness.

Earlier this year Lorrie Goldensohn published a book called Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, which deals, in the light of new material, with intimate themes in that writer's work. Goldensohn's book is useful in what it tells of the chronology of composition of the poems, and in the light it casts on the sexual themes. My unease began with her tetchy, 'isn't it a shame' tone when she considered Bishop's attitudes to racial difference, so remote from her own. This remoteness might have told her more about Bishop's development had she been able to approach it without condescension, to probe it and measure its impact on the work itself.

But there was greater unease to come. She quotes a poem in draft full of sexual detail, then draws the reader up short with the following:

Unfinished and sketchy as the poem is, it also lifts a curtain on possibility: if Elizabeth Bishop had been born thirty years later into another public decorum, and if her keen, [Marianne] Moore-trained observer's eye had been released from the Moore prohibitions, the same poet who can see the sexual body as one more interesting object in the world's cupboard might have given us brilliant description, wholly original and incisive in its daring. This tantalizing little proto poem is in its quiet ambition, and in its penetrating vision of the private body, far more revealing than much writing that later passed for 'confessional' by both men and women.

If Elizabeth Bishop had been born thirty years later, it is assumed she would have had courage to come out of the cupboard. But wait a moment: she would not have had the benefit of Moore's and Lowell's friendships; her bisexuality or lesbianism would have been defined for her much earlier, by social pressures quite as reductive as those which ensured her unhappiness. The if only critic believes that the artist of whom she or he approves would be refined in the crucible of the present, that refinement bringing the artist closer to an approved moral norm. While conceding the impossibility of the proposition, such critics still make their appropriation, proving that they misunderstand the historical, biological and imaginative particulars that constitute their writer. They misunderstand their writer.

Critics of the if only school, like those who dogmatize about 'appropriation', should be treated with an intolerance at least as severe as their own. Such approaches impoverish writers and readers - denying the dimensions of difference literature offers us - impoverish us quite as much as the most unreconstructed Marxising theory. Yet it seems that, as one form of critical intolerance is survived, another rises up, rooted in grievances which have little to do with the life of language or the imagination.

This item is taken from PN Review 86, Volume 18 Number 6, July - August 1992.

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