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This item is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

Letters from Robert Nye, Clive Wilmer, Patricia Jackson


So Donald Davie considered me a 'Gravesian' (PNR 126). No doubt I should be honoured, but I don't think it's true. Nor do I think that my friends James Reeves and Martin Seymour-Smith can be called 'Gravesians' either, as Davie calls them. Their best work is demonstrably their own, and written in no one's shadow.

Robert Graves was an excellent poet, but as a matter of fact I never had anything to do with him. He wrote to me just once - to complain about an adverse review I had given one of his books. I did not reply, though later I took his advice and put my fee for that review in a box for the blind.

Behind Davie's remarks (it may be time to say it?) lies a common critical mistake. It was not Graves who reminded a few modern poets to look in their hearts and write; it was the poet who was Graves' muse, Laura Riding. Norman Cameron and James Reeves learned from her in the Twenties and Thirties, as did Graves himself. By the time I had first to do with her, in the Sixties, she had long renounced the writing of poetry as inimical to the telling of truth, but that's where I learned too.

Perhaps Davie meant no more than that we were all what Graves in The White Goddess called Muse-poets, rather than Apollonians? I'd accept that, with gratitude, glad to be so rejected by one of the great Apollonians of our day.

Ballinhassig, County Cork, Ireland



May I lodge a gentle protest at your reviewer James Keery's use of the phrase 'conservative Cambridge Wintersians' to describe me and two of my friends, Dick Davis and Robert Wells ('Marred in a way you recognize', PNR 126)? Keery is an intelligent critic and a good poet, who should know better than to play the old game of substituting categorisation for criticism. By the same token, I don't see much value in the phrase 'Stanford formalists' as an umbrella for three poets as different as Edgar Bowers, Timothy Steele and the late Janet Lewis; nor can I imagine Peter Robinson thinking much of the idea that in editing a magazine with me he was somehow crossing the floor of the literary parliament. Keery must know that poetry never works like that and that it is perfectly possible to admire - as I think Robinson does - both Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne. Indeed, to suggest such possibilities was part of the point of founding the 'eclectic' magazine that Numbers was.

But let me deal with Keery's category. To begin with the least contentious part of it, why should the fact that a young man studied at Cambridge for three years mean that he is to be branded a 'Cambridge poet' for the rest of his life? You, sir, are not known as an Oxford poet. Neil Powell is not described as a Warwick poet. It is true that I personally live in Cambridge, but Davis and Wells have not lived here for thirty years. What is more, they didn't meet until they had left the place, and none of us writes in a way that can be identified as peculiarly Cantabridgian.

Then we are said to be 'Wintersians'. It is perfectly true that all three of us admire the poetry of Yvor Winters and that Davis has written an excellent book on him. As far as I remember, we all came to Winters because we admired Thom Gunn and Gunn had written a marvellous tribute to Winters. But how does that make us Wintersians? I am a passionate admirer of Ezra Pound, a poet of whom Winters was severely critical, but nobody calls me a Poundian. I am even, like Robinson, an admirer of J.H. Prynne, but nobody connects me with 'the Cambridge School'. ('Cambridge' seems to mean something different there!) I suppose it is because Winters had a theory of poetry, somewhat dogmatically held, and built a body of criticism around it. But although there is much of value in his criticism, it is not something I have ever followed, and nor have Davis and Wells. Indeed, if Keery were simply to glance at the poems I contributed to the same issue of PNR, he would notice how inapposite his category is.

And then 'conservative': a difficult word, for it seems to have a political inflection. Winters, however, was in no sense a conservative. In the context of American politics, in fact, he was way out on the left - a socialist in his youth, a Rooseveltian liberal in middle age, and a founder member of the NAACP. Nor was he a conservative in literature. He called himself a 'reactionary', by which he meant that he had reacted - deliberately and systematically - against the innovations of the modernists. But this reaction was not a sort of lapse back into an outworn mode. It was a vigorous response to modernism that included awareness of the movement's great achievements. In his first decade as a poet, Winters had published several volumes of radically experimental Imagist verse, which he never disowned though he came to regard it as inferior to his maturer work. He reacted against it because he came to believe that the gains made by modernist experiment were slight in comparison to what is lost when orthodox metre and consecutive argument are abandoned. His rebellion was also against Romanticism and the ideas that had led to it, which he saw as having contributed to modernism, as well as to the forces of irrationalism that were plainly afflicting the modern world as he wrote in the 1930s. One does not have to endorse this view entirely to see that it has a point and that the point is a serious one. It is in no way inflected with nostalgia or sentimentality about the past. It is notably in touch with modern history and, indeed, Winters's use of a more overtly traditional method was enriched by his understanding of modernist achievement.

As for the 'Stanford formalists', I wonder if Keery has actually read their work. If he had, he would have noticed how little they resemble one another. The marvellously supple blank verse of Edgar Bowers' book For Louis Pasteur (1989) owes a great deal to Stevens and Valéry, and its method, discontinuous and associative, is unthinkable without some modernist precedent. The Janet Lewis poems published in Numbers are mostly in free verse, so in what sense are they formalist? Used in this way, the word strikes me as meaningless. Since all poetry is by definition formal, how can some poetry be formalist? If Keery were disparaging standard metre to the advantage of free verse - which incidentally I wouldn't expect him to do - he would thus be selling the pass by conceding that free verse was inherently less poetic than verse structured in the traditional way.




Oh come on, Neil Powell (PNR 125) - a childish thing, popular music? Natural transition to Schubert with maturity?

I fell in love with Sinatra, mid 1950s, listening to 'I've Got the World on a String' in a record booth. This led to absorption of 1930s and 1940s lyric, how to sing a lyric, and jazz, so that Sinatra was not just a musician/ actor but a major means of cultural transmission for me and others. The excellent recent Radio 2 series has confirmed all this.

I'm afraid I see Schubert in a wide tradition with Sinatra and Sondheim and Thomas Moore, inclusive, not exclusive.

Harrow, Middlesex

Neil Powell replies: Patricia Jackson misrepresents me. My point was that people of my age, who were at school in the 1960s, might have been expected to 'put away childish things and reject the Beatles' quartets in favour of Schubert's or Shostakovich's'; in other words, to extend their cultural and intellectual reach instead of remaining trapped within the noisily reductive pop culture of the late twentieth century.

But I said not a word against the popular music of a slightly earlier period. Indeed, I'd argue that the recordings made by Frank Sinatra for Capitol, or by Ella Fitzgerald for Verve, in the 1950s are artistic achievements of a very special kind - not least because they brought together exceptionally gifted singers, arrangers (such as Nelson Riddle), musicians (including assorted jazz soloists) and composers (Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins and so on). In a recent Private Passions conversation with Michael Berkeley, the conductor Leonard Slatkin - whose father was Felix Slatkin, session musician and leader of the Hollywood String Quartet - recalled how his childhood home life would be interrupted by grumpy great men called Stravinsky or Sinatra barging in: nothing much to choose between them, he implied, and his dad worked happily with both.

In case I'm suspected of a change of heart here, could I immodestly refer Patricia Jackson to my article on the demise of the standard song ('Collusive Responses', Poetry Review, 82:4, 1993) and to my book The Language of Jazz (1997) - for jazz is surely twentieth-century popular music's other strong claim to be taken seriously. How that claim developed, and how it was largely squandered, is brilliantly explored in Donald Clarke's The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995).

This item is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

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