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This item is taken from PN Review 85, Volume 18 Number 5, May - June 1992.

…IT CAN HARDLY BE EXPECTED that I should be even-handed about this,' wrote Donald Davie in a review of Daniel Weissbort's anthology The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe (London Review of Books, 27 February). Even-handed Davie is not. For him Weissbort's book epitomizes the bankruptcy of a movement which began in the 1960s and served the career ambitions of Weissbort, Ted Hughes, A. Alvarez and others: a short-cut, borrowing thematic seriousness from Eastern European writers who could be represented as 'witnesses' to an historical and social experience more appalling than ours, whose 'extremity' was exemplary.

I can set Davie's mind at rest on a few scores. Weissbort is not a careerist: if he were, he might have had a career. His own poems, stories and translations have met with little attention in this country. This anthology is two years late in appearing, hence the sense that history has overtaken it, as Davie notes. Then, Weissbort is a meticulous translator as I know from working with him on the Carcanet translation list early in the 1970s. His Natalia Gorbanevskaya versions evince unusual understanding of the formal properties of Russian and the host language. Weissbort's argument with Josef Brodsky which appeared in this magazine (P·N·R 75, 'An Age Ago or The Maturing Ego'), is further evidence in his favour. He has long advocated context: the only way in which we can begin to appreciate the poetry of modern Russia in more than a touristic way is with a sense, through good translations, of the great antecedents. His essay is a telling meditation on the difficulty and limitation of translation. His commitment to Larkin and Davie (and admittedly for Hughes) is attested to in his teaching and (privately) in his letters and conversation.

But there is in the P·N·R essay, as in the introduction to his anthology, an expansive unguardedness about Weissbort's prose, a belief in readerly benevolence, a social tone which is guileless and generous (and a little careless at times). Weissbort can be angry but not ironic or sarcastic. He lacks a crucial English ingredient. His poems, too, are candid in ways which offend severe readers: there is too little evidence of struggle in the language for their liking, the forms seem incidental to the statements, the speaking voice patently that of the poet himself. Yes, he's touched more deeply by content, it can seem, than by formal properties. His openness to the writing of Eastern Europe - sometimes in indifferent translation - is evidence of this. Quite as much as Davie, I resist some of the gifts he seeks to bring us. There was an uncanny coincidence of attitude between Davie's harsh review and the editorial to P·N·R 84.

But Davie's rage, as he concedes with a pungent candour different in kind from Weissbort's, partakes of 'my own special interest' which is 'too obvious for me to declare it'. That special interest is of a poet whose work in verse and prose, with that of his generation, was eclipsed by forces unleashed in the early 1960s and conveniently represented in Weissbort's book.Weissbort speaks blandly of the 'inertness of the English scene at the time'. In retrospect the late 1950s and the early 1960s hardly look 'inert'. Inertia followed - on account of the rejection, rhetorical and self-interested, of the challenge of the Movement by poets and polemicists wanting more spice and less formal substance in the feast. A coup de grâce was delivered by Alvarez's The New Poetry. It put out of court for two decades, with a few dismissive adjectives, the early achievement of the most intelligent and coherent generation of writers to have emerged in England since the 1930s. The Movement had its brief day, then darkness. Dismissing it seemed to entail a wider liberation. Reaction against the strained disorder of the 1940s was at an end, and though the Group and others did not return to the heady excesses of Fitzrovia, the odds was gone again.

The Movement itself was not characterized, in its early days, by generosity of spirit. It was G.S. Fraser who rescued Keith Douglas from oblivion: in Douglas the Movement poets might have found an enabling antecedent. But Ted Hughes appropriated Douglas to other ends. The Movement's success in the teeth of the 1940s obscured for two decades the achievements of W.S. Graham, whose The Night Fishing appeared in the same year as The Less Deceived and drowned under a wave of pragmatic good sense that prevailed in critical circles. Only Davie seems to have recognized Graham at the time. Graham was not alone in neglect: his generation was discredited. The 1940s, like the 1950s, have yet to be measured.

I go a long way with Davie's claim that bad translations of poets ill-understood and misvalued had dire effects on our poetic culture, that as readers and poets we have tended to value strange gods, whom we can hardly claim to understand, more highly than we do our domestic manes, and that what is involved in misvaluation is something political rather than poetic, though it has consequences on our reading - and writing - of poetry.

The vehemence of Davie's argument obscures, however, other aspects of the 1960s which contributed to the eclipse of his generation. In the 1960s three generations of American poetry - traditional and modernist - became available to a British readership hungry for alternatives to a poetic culture it was prepared to believe was 'inert'. Before Alvarez turned to Eastern Europe for exemplars of extremist writing, he was able to turn to Lowell. Others, perhaps more formally experimental in inclination, or of a political kidney, looked to the American texts washed up on our shores rather than to the slower ripening fruits of the mediocre translation industry, for alternatives: the Beats, Projectivists, Objectivists, the Black Mountain. Some of these poets were entertained on our campuses. Davie himself played host to Dorn and others at Essex, and to their English admirers.

In 1970, a cogent essay of advocacy, 'The Black Mountain Poets: Charles Olson and Edward Dorn', was published in Martin Dodsworth's critical anthology The Survival of Poetry. The essay made major claims for Ed Dorn's The North Atlantic Turbine - especially the passages wagging a finger at England, attacking Oxford, our bankrupt language, our small-mindedness, endorsing Tom/Pickard' as alone in making 'his own sense' - and Gunslinger. The essay discriminates between the formal and thematic seriousness of Olson and Creeley and Dorn as compared with Ginsberg and the Beats (though they, too, are treated with respect). Olson, Dorn, Milton and Pound make analogous demands on the reader, we are told: and this collocation of four names suggests, I think, a valuation which young readers at the time would have found inspiriting: Olson and Dorn were then in print in England, and what they did, what they represented, was so radically different from the main-stream poetic culture that flowed through Faber, Chatto, The Listener, Spectator, New Statesman, Encounter that it must have seemed like emancipation. Emancipation from constraints that the translated poets of Eastern Europe offered, too. Emancipation from subtle texture, semantic nuance, closure, metre, rhyme; license of the unattenuated I rejection of what the literary culture, even through the dark years of the 1940s, had seemed to hold sacred in the canon. This 1970 essay is by Donald Davie, and though he demonstrates the 'very learned' quality of the poets he advocates, and suggests the qualities that readers must bring to the poems, he helps to open that other Pandora's box which arguably held more perils for his generation than the translation box ever did. A casual welcome by less serious readers of these writers and their programmes has done more to disable British verse than the poets of 'witness' represented in Weissbort's anthology ever did.

This is not to say that Weissbort's poets have more, or less, virtue than the Black Mountain or other American poets; it is not a judgement on poets but on our poetic culture which has proven so insecure in itself, so susceptible to infection rather than influence, that it is hardly likely to recover. Memory is short. The poets of the 1950s overlooked Douglas just as surely as the poets of the 1960s tried to bury the Movement and the Martians claimed never even to have heard to MacCaig. Since the 1950s our sense of poetry has lost root. No blame attaches to Davie, for whom this is not true, but to readers who took Dorn, Olson and Creeley on board without the quality of discrimination that Davie brought to them. I lament too that, in the ebb and flow of reputation, large-scale figures remote from the critical battle-field get scant recognition. In the 1960s it might have been thrilling to hear the voices of A.D. Hope, James Baxter, Judith Wright (who was so justly awarded the Queen's Gold Medal in February) - in short, those English voices whose substantial energies had found rule and energy, who spoke in our language made strange and new.

This item is taken from PN Review 85, Volume 18 Number 5, May - June 1992.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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