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This item is taken from PN Review 84, Volume 18 Number 4, March - April 1992.

IN RECENT YEARS, the poetry in translation with the greatest vogue in Britain has been the dissident writing of eastern Europe. The writers who experienced the trauma of World War II and then the secular rigidities of Communism, had much to tell.

The subsequent generation of dissident voices was less distinctive but no less disaffected. Some critics in the west expressed almost a nostalgia for life under a system which took poetry sufficiently seriously to censor it, to kill, imprison or expel poets. Such a world was more real than ours.

When eastern writers came west they experienced a shock: a gulf of incomprehension, bridged by open-handed and largely uncritical adulation, not for their work so much as for their heroism. The voices raised against the politics of Solzhenitsyn were cried down: what right had they to speak against one who had endured so much and witnessed so passionately against the evil empire? The best criticism of Solzhenitsyn I read was two essays by Octavio Paz published long ago in P·N·R. Paz admired Solzhenitsyn's analysis of Stalinism but questioned, with characteristic prescience, the political models Solzhenitsyn seemed to favour, the spiritual rebirth he longed for. Not that Paz would oppose what happened to the old USSR, but he would withhold endorsement of the violent new nationalisms and racism emerging from under the hulk of international socialism, the recrudescence of a 'spiritual' order, in Germany and, very differently, in Poland, so Erastian that the age-old controversies rise like Lazarus from a tomb that had seemed safely sealed.

Josef Brodsky, scathing about the land he fled from, was even more scathing about the land he fled to, its passive, consumerist culture, its unbounded ignorance. His was another form of tendentious nostalgia, for a hierarchy in which culture had an acknowledged and prominent place.

This most hubristic of writers has been a scourge of the 'flabby', liberal bourgeois society that lionizes him. He earns his living as a scourge, and prospers.

How will these writers, and greater exiles like Milosz and Herbert, and the dissidents who stayed at home and are now in positions of authority, be valued in decades to come? How will their politics develop and change now that history seems to bend its course in their direction? How will we read those testaments of endurance, in which the distinctive Czech or Polish or Slovenian geist survived the commisars, if that geist, revived, returns to its ancient blood rituals? And where now - in Albania, North Korea, China? - will western liberals find the conscience-salving writers with 'real experience' against whom to measure, and with whom to cajole, their compatriots?

During the years in which the iron curtain grew brittle and the last old men were borne off wrapped in flags, to reappear as giant statues in deserted squares, in Britain we had our 'dissident writers'. But we lived in their world and couldn't bring ourselves to credit how real their subjects were, how firm their grip on history. Just as a man in Warsaw might have misvalued Zbigniew Herbert or a Russian Josef Brodsky, we failed to take the measure of those poets with civic vision among us. Poetic witness in a liberal society, being unopposed, is often unrecognized. Yet such poets define, in the partial response they elicit from their readers, the other censor. It is not, as Brodsky would have us believe, indifference or ignorance but something more curious: the habit of irony, an unwillingness that has become an inability to experience on the pulse the otherness of a writer's witness, if that-writer lives just down the street. Almost as a reflex readers translate the familiar image, the familiar social tone, assimilating it to their own world, and resent the obscure, the taxing elements as affronts. The common undergraduate complaints - that Larkin is patronizing and sexist, Hill obscure, Hughes politically unsound, Tomlinson cold, Davie intellectual, Sisson curmudgeonly - do not extend to Heaney, because he has the harsh reality of Ulster to validate him, or to Harrison, whose social credentials are impeccable, or Fenton, who has actually seen wars and has, therefore, 'a subject'. It is as though English readers have persuaded themselves that their own experience, and by extension the experience of writers with whom they share a social environment, is attenuated; that the world they endure, being endurable by them, is entirely bereft of monsters. The tolerated monsters are the psychological ones that haunt Plath, the political aunt Sallies and Margarets that trouble Adrian Mitchell. The complex pain an English writer suffers in witnessing the Holocaust, or the fate of Charles Péguy, or the devastation of loved landscapes, or the spiritual and material impoverishment of his fellow countrymen, has not the same authority. Distortion, deformity and eccentricity in verse - the voyeur's banquet - are applauded; so is social satire. But the larger civic vision has become indecorous. We must be addressed in our own terms, unless the person who addresses us comes vested in the authority of a history more colourful than ours. As readers we undervalue the poets in our midst who speak of, and to, our condition; reductive irony has become a terminal ailment for some readers.

This item is taken from PN Review 84, Volume 18 Number 4, March - April 1992.

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