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

Letters from Roland John, James Keery and Brian Lee


I suppose a small press, particularly a small press that specializes in verse, should be grateful for any coverage of its books. However we feel that your review (P·N·R 82) of Humphrey Clucas's Unfashionable Song was something less than a review.

Normally a reviewer would indicate whether the poems were in metre or otherwise and whether the poet handled his chosen form well or badly. The point of a review surely is to indicate to a potential reader whether a book is worth reading. Your reviewer's bland, 'those who like Clucas's song will like his Song' says nothing about the quality, or otherwise, of Clucas's work. It may say something about T.J.G. Harris's temperament.

Hippopotamus Press
Frome, Somerset


I wonder if I am the only reader of P·N·R who has read T.J.G. Harris's reviews with deepening admiration? I notice he began as your Japanese correspondent, but it was his review of Tomlinson, Redgrove and Hughes in P·N·R 72 that first, for me, brought his gifts into focus. As Marilyn Butler observed in the TLS, 'you rarely see a tribute in print to the intellectual feats regularly performed by the best reviewers, as they summarize a new book, place it, and probably refute it, all in under three thousand words'.

The rub, of course, is 'probably refute'. Harris's detractors would perhaps agree that a small minority of the poetry collections that fall to a reviewer is likely to prompt ecstasies such as Michael Hulse's: 'With 588 pages (I jest not) of Ewart in my hand, what can I do but throw up my cap and shout hooray?' None is responsible for the unfortunate combined effect of their letters (no reader of Hulse's needs to be told he was not jesting). They may even have shared some of my dismay. Still, at the risk of appearing 'presumptuous and offensive', there are one or two points I would like to take up.

According to Herbert Lomas, Harris 'gives what looks like disproportionate space to metre, and yet one often finds oneself having to reread in disbelief'. I too reread Harris's writings on metre. A book would not seem 'disproportionate space'. As regards the Yeats, Lomas considers Harris to be 'incontrovertibly wrong' in an analysis that is not only accurate, but also compatible on key points with Lomas's own. It is true for example, that the first foot of each first line is 'irregular' (a spondee and a trochee respectively, staple substitutions in regular iambic verse), but both are nonetheless 'rhythmically strong' as contrasted with 'the second lines which contain a number of weakly stressed syllables'. Lomas scans the line, 'It was the dream itself enchanted me', as five iambs, whereas the first foot at least is (incontrovertibly?) pyrrhic. As for the last, surely 'me' should score no more than 2, on the numerical system? Again, I'd scan the line, 'And not those things that they were emblems of', as follows: 1212111412. But Harris pinpoints in his reply the most inadequate of Lomas's notations, 'those for the second half lines of the first lines'. Anyone who can stress 'took all my love' as two spondees ought to try his hand at a duet for daleks.

I do, however, share Lomas's interest in more sensitive notation, which Harris too readily dismisses. It doesn't follow from Edward Thomas's beautiful definition that 'notations … necessarily crudely misrepresent what the ear hears or the (sensitive) voice speaks'. In case they don't know it, may I recommend to both writers Poetry and Narrative in Performance by Douglas Oliver (MacMillan, 1989). Oliver uses diagrammatic data - ranging from intuitive freehand graphs to printouts from a 'real-time speech intonation spectrometer' - to develop some original arguments.

The other point concerns the poetry of Charles Tomlinson. Harris's full-length review of this poet was one of the most intelligent pieces of dissent ever to appear in p.N.R, and what David Morley describes as a 'sideswipe' is on the contrary (to appeal to him in his own pompous vein) a 'deeply responsible' observation, consistent, illuminating and (in my opinion) accurate. It arises out of a sceptical analysis of analysis that transcends its particular text (Hulse) in Johnsonian fashion:

despite what many people think, the possibility of analysis is no index of quality … I want to create a 'striking' effect, so I make a savage line-break, between, say, a noun and its article, or I write 'the black and fractured gentleness of water', which combines a kind of oxymoron ('fractured gentleness') that some may find clever with a rough stab at a notional stylistic sublime (in the application of a material adjective to an abstract quality that some creature or thing is said to possess) …

I recall an analysis (by Rainer Lengeler) of Tomlinson's 'In Arden', which celebrated the line, 'Into a chiaroscuro of the heat' ('chiaroscuro, complicated by synaesthesia … light and colour and heat run together'), my impression of which is that precisely that comment is almost indecently solicited (and note the pedantic but still padded pentameter). Not that an unhealthy symbiosis between analysis and a certain kind of poetry ought to discredit analysis itself: as Empson puts it, 'unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch' (Seven Types of Ambiguity). A sense of 'unexplained beauty' is the point of departure for further discoveries; what is in question is analysis in the absence of any beauty to explain.

Incidentally, I suspect I may have diagnosed the irritant in Harris's writing (apart from adverse criticisms of specific poets): a vein of world-weariness, almost of the laudator temporis acti, as shown in the following cento (from #80 alone): 'one should not have to say … but these days I suspect one does have to'; 'the genuine article, and how little of it there is about'; 'a very good and noble poem, one that can be read and re-read, as few poems can nowadays' … Excellence is sparse, relatively speaking, but the poets, from Heaney to Constantine, whom Harris has praised highly would by themselves refute any suggestion of a dearth. His warm commendation of Allardyce, Barnett (P·N·R 82) is sufficient reply to Morley's accusation that 'he cannot hear most of the registers, inflexions and rhythms of contemporary poetry', for the poets published by that 'excellent small press', and in a number of associated magazines, have given the seventies and eighties a voice of their own. A silver rather than a golden age, perhaps. But 'nowadays' need no apology!

Harris has shown his ability to discriminate even where his sympathies are not engaged, as in excepting Michael Palmer and Bob Perelman from his strictures in #70 on 'Language' Poetries (ed. Douglas Messerli, New Directions, 1987; though he might also have excepted Charles Bernstein). I like some poets he doesn't (Sansom, Armitage), and vice versa, naturally, but he seems to me always to have avoided both the 'hatchet job', of which Hulse unfairly complains, and the worthless puff, of which Hulse's review of Ewart is a beautiful specimen.



Offering myself as an independent witness, I suspect that T.J.G. Harris will think that the letter from Don Coles is proof (as near as you can get in these matters) of what he had to say in the first place about Michael Hulse's poetry. For what brings Mr Coles to Mr Hulse is a shared element, journalism: in Don Coles's words 'relaxed' 'reports' that 'warm' his 'heart' as Mr Hulse 'snuffles in his relaxed' (second time) 'way', and as Michael Hulse does around Gavin Ewart in his review of the latter's 588 pages, and allowing him to get away with everything, though told to do 'a little bit more'.

And if the request to do a little more in poetry by means of a comparison with Campion is seen as 'bullying' then the liking for relaxation may be seen as a desire to be left alone to what one likes. Mr Harris's remark in a more recent review about the style of things that is 'rather too well-liked at the PBS' (and at the Poetry Review) suggests the development of a new contemporary genre or kind, of journalism-of-oneself: quasi-anecdotes about me, clever-and-immediate me, fluent, proficient, knowledgeable and knowing. Perhaps, looking about, it is the kind of the moment.

Benton, North Tyneside

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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