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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.

Letters from Timothy Hyman, Don Coles, Herbert Lomas, Vera Maron, Geoffrey Minish, Bernard Berconzi
FRYE

Sir,
I would be grateful for clarification, from any of your readers, following the recent obituaries of Northrop Frye. When I first read Frye's work in the sixties, there seemed evident parallels between his approach, and the Shakespearean 'interpretations' of Wilson Knight in the 1930s; both were, in their 'archetypal' emphasis, heirs to the Nietzche of The Birth of Tragedy. Only later was it pointed out to me that Frye had indeed, at a very early stage in his formation, come to know Knight in Toronto. Yet Wilson Knight has remained unmentioned in any account of Frye I've read this year. Knight is currently a very unfashionable voice - but isn't this a case of fashion rewriting history?

TIMOTHY HYMAN
62 Myddelton Square, London EC1R 1XX

HATCHETS REVISITED

Sir,
T.J.G. Harris seems to have it in for Michael Hulse ('In The Labyrinth', 8 May 91), and as one who has found considerable pleasure in MH's poetry ever since it began to be offered in UK and Canadian journals I would like a word or two.

For starters, what's the point of introducing Campion to this galère? Who among us would willingly enrol her lines, or his, to go one-on-one with a Campion lyric? No one more than I values being reminded of the best that has been thought or writ, so to all general-purpose Campion-evokings I say yes and bravo, but this sort of singling out strikes me as disingenuous bullying.

Harris writes that 'despite what many people think' the possibility of analysis is no index of quality, and this is true and distinctly worth writing - however, the sort of 'analysis' he himself brings to his review rather lessens the reader's willingness to allow that word to function as seriously in the mind as it otherwise might. Because look what he does in order to demonstrate Hulse's venality. Aside from a concentrated out-of-context series of (six) one-or-two-line quotations, almost all of these clearly chosen on the basis of their unsubtle use of alliteration, there is only one halfway-substantial quotation, and this is no more than four lines in length. I can report that Hulse's use of alliteration is not, on any fairminded estimate, excessive: if you're hunting for alliteration you can usually find it, and I mean anywhere, and if you string a lot of what you find together it will then susurrate sillily or Chinese-firecracker itself foolishly but you may thereby have proven nothing at all about an individual poem, only, instead, that the artifact you have now put together out of another's dismembered work has all the flaws you say it has.

As for the above-mentioned more-substantial quotation, the four lines from one poem ('Adultery'), these we find being put to very hard labour indeed: they are condemned to demonstrate not only Hulse's alleged tin ear but, later on, all of these three additional crimes and misdemeanours: his 'savage linebreaks'; his cleverness; and his 'rough stabs at a notional sublime'; the last of these, unkindest cut of all, not even being 'consistent with the style of the rest'.

This is the heart of my problem with (no less than the entire first half of) Harris's review: the mileage he gets, or thinks he is getting, from four lines. Lines that are not, in my view, the strongest lines in this book, on the other hand lines which, again in my view, aren't nearly so meekly mockable as the reviewer seems to think they are. (For instance, 'the black and fractured gentleness of water' is perfectly OK by me; water does that, let's not get so hung up on stresses, Harris; I wouldn't have allowed 'tenderly' into the preceding line, as Hulse does, in my view the adverb drains off some of the effectiveness of 'gentleness' before the poem ever gets that far; what's interesting to me, though, even here, is that although Harris doesn't like anything else at all about these lines, the 'tenderly' escapes his notice; one more reason for me to doubt the equipment he's bringing to this job in general.)

I could go on in this vein but all this negative stuff serves Hulse very ill and l'd rather, having registered these several objections to Harris's review, emphasize that there are fine moments in this collection. What I've in the past liked about Hulse's poetry is his relaxed homme-plus-que-moyen-sensuel reports on that aspect of all of our lives. It was present in Propaganda often, a bit less often here but still enough of it to warm the maybe-cooling heart. Anyhow, without tramping heavily around what is subtly and delicately offered here, as delicately as Douglas Dunn, the early DO, used to manage it, let me mention just a few lines from the poem 'At Avila':

A poet's distributing photocopied verse
for a few pesetas and a pathetic boy
         tries begging from the woman who
   pulled up in the Porsche in a squall of dust

and now sits testily scanning La Revista,
sunglasses cocked in her mane and pendent
                                                        breast

           relaxing out of her T-shirt
whenever she leans for an olive. Me,

I'm watching her over the top of a battered
Penguin Classics Life of Saint Teresa, drinking
          an Aguila beer and thinking
   of Teresa's image of the waters -

the difficult and laborious water drawn
from a well …


It goes on spendidly, too. It is, I. suspect, Hulse's special track just at this stage of his life, he's very good whenever he gets wind of it, I recommend to him that he travel it, snuffling in his relaxed way, for all it's worth for as long as it keeps showing itself to him.

DON COLES
York University, Toronto

WHEN AJAX STRIVES

Sir,

I can't let T.J.G. Harris's reply to my letter (Sep. '91) pass. He confuses scansion, the study of the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables, with intonation, emphasis - and even context. He actually resorts to an imaginary actor 'whose overdramatized delivery one has learnt to expect when a poor actors gets teeth, tongue and lips into a poem'.

He has a slippery way with words, and it's difficult to grasp his tail: he not only obfuscates but alters his points: in order to be 'right', for instance, he changes 'whose falling movement is controlled through the relationship with the metrical norm established in the preceding lines' to 'the cadence of those lines depends on their being read as metrically regular'!

The main muddle is that he regards metre as a 'stiffening' context: 'Read /'naturally", outside the metrical context provided by the poem and without the metrical stiffening this context lends, these cadences do not exist'. No: they do exist: they exist because of the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables. Such cadences exist in prose as well as poetry, and in Pound's Cantos. And an iambic pentameter line is perfectly recognizable out of context. A single line, quoted from a poem one does not know, and not stated to be poetry, will be recognized as an iambic pentameter, if the writer is a poet and the reader has an ear.

Of course context and intonation do enter into reading and interpretation, but only on the foundation of the physical arrangement of sound, which corresponds to the notation on a sheet of music before an interpreter goes to work on it.

A related error Mr Harris appears to be promoting in his original review (p. 67) is that metre is not principally mimetic: 'the misconception … that the principal function of metre is, or should be, mimetic (of movenlent of one kind or another) … ' l'm not sure of the emphasis here, or his terminology in what follows. But let us remember that Pope proved, by controlled experiment, and as far as such things can be proved, that, in the right hands, metre is mimetic.

When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight
     to throw,
The line too labours and the wordsmove
     slow.
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims
     along the main.


The mimesis here depends not on the context of the other heroic couplets, nor on some particular actor's emphases. It depends on the piled-up stressed syllables (and clashing vowels and consonant-clusters) in the first two lines, and on the spaced unstressed syllables, the extra foot (and the easily-speakable vowels and consonants) in the second two lines.

Metre is, of course, mimetic of other movements besides external movements.

HERBERT LOMAS
Aldeburgh, Suffolk

AKEN

Sir,

I wish I'd never mentioned Edvard Kocbek's At the Door of Evening! While some readers may guess that his language is Slovenian rather than Slovak (ian), how many will reconstruct the name of the translator from Lazar(us) to Lo&zcirc;ar, even after being warned by Oskar Mazerath's translation almost to Nazareth?!

MEVA MARON
Bracknell

LEFT & RIGHT

Sir,

In his interview with Roger Scruton, Nicolas Tredell quotes a list of Thatcher ideologues compiled in pairs by Perry Anderson of New Left Review. They include 'Joris Ivens and Digby Anderson …'.

Of course, Joris Ivens, who directed the Hemingway-narrated Spanish Earth in support of the Republican cause and was the most dedicated left-wing filmmaker of them all. Who wrote his autobiography, The Camera and I, in English rather than his native Dutch but published it in East Berlin. How about a combined subscription to New Left Review, P·N·R, and the Salisbury Review to the first reader who can identify the Tory sage masquerading as 'Ivens'?

GEOFFREY MINISH
133 rue St Dominique, 75007 Paris

ETYMOLOGIES

Sir,

Raymond Tallis, in his reply to Grevel Lindop (P·N·R), repeats the statement that he made in In Defence of Realism, to the effect that George Gordon, Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford in the 1920s, believed that the study of English 'will save our souls and heal the state'. In fact, Gordon believed nothing of the sort; he was a cynical reactionary who had no time for Arnoldian claims about the spiritual value of literature. The words Tallis quotes do indeed occur in Gordon's inaugural lecture, but in a tone of dismissive sarcasm, as an instance of what he deplored, 'the growth of a religious jargon about literature and literary genius'. Tallis gets it wrong because he takes the quotation from Eagleton's Literary Theory, where Eagleton also got it wrong; Eagleton was turn quoting Gordon's words from Chris Baldick's The Social Mission of English Criticism. Baldick correctly understands Gordon, referring to his 'biting scorn', but Eagleton hastily missed the sarcasm and the scorn, and assumed that Gordon's words were to be taken at face value. (Gordon's lecture can be consulted in his book, The Discipline of Letters, 1946). Tallis reproduced Eagleton's error, and so did John Bayley in an essay in The Order of Battle of Trafalgar. This is a bit hard on Gordon, like describing a master-butcher of bygone days as a pioneer of the vegetarian movement.

BERNARD BERGONZI
Leamington Spa

This item is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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