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This item is taken from PN Review 81, Volume 18 Number 1, September - October 1991.

Letters from Micheal Hulse, David Morely, Glyn Maxwell, Herbert Lomas, Alan Massey, Raymond Tallis, Neil Powell, John Powell Ward


Replying to a hatchet job such as T.J.G. Harris's review of my Eating Strawberries in the Necropolis may be neither 'correct' nor productive, and is certainly not much to my taste. I want only to tell Mr Harris and the readers of P N·R that over the last twenty years, ever since I began first to read and then to write poetry with a sense of what the poetic act means, I have experienced a deepening repugnance for poetry of 'effects'. The word is our bond: on this, I am entirely of Geoffrey Hill's opinion. First, over what can be a very lengthy period, I try to find out what it is that moves me to write, what it is that I really want to say, and then I try to find the best words in the best places, to say it. For me, the poetic act involves considerable human (which implies: emotional, social, political, philosophical, aesthetic and linguistic) responsibility. I find Mr Harris's accusation that I work in order to create 'effects' both presumptuous and offensive.

Cologne, Germany


T.J.G. Harris has shown before that he cannot hear most of the registers, inflexions and rhythms of contemporary poetry, but his deafness to Michael Hulse's Eating Strawberries in the Necropolis is staggering. Hulse is not Campion. In that, Harris is quite right. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to Harris that there might be reasons why Hulse sounds different, and that responsible craftsmanship is at work in his poetry, albeit of a kind very different to Campion's. The line breaks Harris dismisses as 'savage' presuppose that the unit of rhythm is not the line alone but something rather subtler, perhaps more difficult to hear: the syntactic shape and the shape of the stanza or even of the whole poem, in mutual interaction. I suspect Hulse owes debts to Marianne Moore, Richard Wilbur and Derek Mahon: there is a similar architectural energy that outstretches the mere line, a similar intellectual passion warmly felt and articulated. The same species of architectural energy can also be detected in Charles Tomlinson's poetry: I noted Harris's side-swipe at Tomlinson. Alarming that Harris allows his blunderbus to scatter so freely; had he not read of this particular writer's debt to Miss Moore in Tomlinson's Some Americans?

'I leave the readers of this article to work out what is wrong with the examples above', writes Harris, after quoting a higgledy-piggledy batch of phrases from Hulse; but in fact what's wrong is that Harris is too lazy to wonder in what respects the phrases he quotes might be right. In 'An American Murder', the 'bloodied Bostonian' is sensationalized in lurid terms because the nature of the response to a murder, by the media (as well as by the police and the Boston community), is the poem's subject. The phrase 'pounding with panic's / pulse-beat' comes from the fourth poem in a five-part sequence charting the loss of faith; this poem is 'about' the hubris of the artistic ego in usurping the place of a god, and it is quite logically modelled on Ted Hughes's 'The Thought Fox', and uses aggressively clogged alliteration such as was characteristic of the early Hughes. Hulse provides a note pointing us to Hughes's poem, which is helpful, but Harris couldn't be bothered with the notes, it seems. And so on.

The poems in Hulse's book, whether they come from first hand or borrowed experience, are invariably well-considered in idiom, and the rhythms seem to have evolved naturally and inevitably out of an attempt to say what had to be said. Recently I was Hulse's companion for a month at Hawthornden Castle. I'd admired his poetry before, but after the conversations of that month, and the opportunity to observe him at work, I came away with a sense of a deeply responsible craftsman and human being. Of the poet I met, the poet who so palpably wrote Eating Strawberries in the Necropolis, there is no trace in T.J.G. Harris's demolition job.



To carp or complain about one's review in a literary journal is both pointless and vulgar, but I would like to draw attention to one of the foundations upon which Mr T.J.G. Harris's criticism of 'Tale of the Mayor's Son' is based, for I believe it perpetuates a widely-accepted but wholly fallacious notion about the writing and publishing of verse.

Mr Harris asserts that 'this book . would have been better shorter'. As a general point, I believe this is incorrect criticism. A book of verse is neither a novel nor a treatise, neither story nor argument. It is a 'book' only in the sense. that book-form is the most economically intelligent way of collecting a poet's output over a few years and making it public. This particular volume is merely a collection of the poems I wrote between birth and a deadline. If a collection contains one true poem, it makes no difference to the poem whether it is printed alone, or shares its berth in the binding with a hundred mediocrities. In the latter case, the writer is guilty of recklessness, or his editor of dereliction of duty, but the one true poem still makes the writer a poet.

One does not have to read all the poems in a collection at a single sitting. One does not have to read the poems in the order in which they happen to be presented. One does not have to read all the poems, and it is highly unlikely that one would enjoy them all. The only grounds upon which a verse collection can be challenged for inappropriate length are economic. Does one criticize a box of chocolates for containing too many chocolates?

Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire


T.J. G. Harris gives what looks like disproportionate space to metre, and yet one often finds oneself having to reread in disbelief. Often pinning down is difficult, but here is a case where the writer is incontrovertibly wrong:

For a simple example of how dependent cadence can be on measure, consider Yeats's lines, from 'The Circus Animals' Desertion, 'Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said / it was the dream itself enchanted me' and 'Players and painted stage took all my love I And not those things that they were emblems of': in both cases, there are rhythmically strong first lines, in which the metrical stresses coincide, more or less, with natural stresses, whereby a norm is set against which are played the second lines, which contain a number of weakly stressed syllables or syllables that do not bear a natural stress, and whose failing movement is controlled through the relationship with the metrical norm established in the preceding lines: the cadence rides on the measure.

Quite the contrary, the first lines are more irregular than the second lines:

- - | x x | - | | x - | - -| x -|
x - | x - | x - | x - | x - |
- x | x - | x - | - - | - - |
x - | - - | x - | x - | x - |

Of course, this is a crude method of notation. As Jesperson long ago pointed out, the ear distinguishes at least four degrees of stress; but giving 4 for the strongest stress, and 1 for the weakest, and allowing for personal variations, the mathematics is still roughly the same:

44114 143414

411414 4434

The cadence depends on the 'norm' of the second line itself, which dips at the end onto a stress slightly weaker than expected. This is usual and works the same way in prose, where 'a succession of cadences without measure' - if 'measure' means stress-metre (though Pound obviously includes quantity) - can cohere. If in prose, why not in the Cantos, which Harris says fail for lack of measure? Pound has enough genuine faults.

Of course, the first Yeats lines end with a strong monosyllable, and the second lines end with a slightly weaker monosyllable - not all that weak: the normally unobtrusive 'of' is strengthened by position and rhyme - and this is contributory. Probably this is what Harris is responding to but not describing. But in that case he has no right to remark of Hulse (p.70) that he 'wasn't listening to what he was doing', and his inferences are wrong.

Aldeburgh, Suffolk

T.J.G. Harris replies:

I do not usually respond to letters, feeling that since I have been allowed my say, others should be allowed theirs. But Mr Lomas raises an interesting point, if rather in the manner of a ploy, that of trying to show that I am wrong in one respect in order to claim that I cannot be trusted in others. Edward Thomas once described the iambic pentameter (if memory serves me right) as 'an infinitely varied line of ten syllables', and notations, however many degrees of stress or degrees of quantity they try to incorporate, necessarily crudely misrepresent what the ear hears or the (sensitive) voice speaks. I am sorry to say that Mr Lomas's notations for the lines, and particularly those for the second half-lines of the first lines, seem to me to be unspeakable - or to represent the kind of overdramatized delivery one has learnt to expect when a poor actor gets teeth, tongue and lips into a poem. But this is not the central point.

An iambic pentameter is recognized first of all because it exists within a context of other pentameter lines, and the whole of 'The Circus Animals' Desertion' is written in such lines, none of which has a pure '1212121212' rhythm. Within this context, the first lines of the two examples I quote are perfectly recognizable and 'normal' pentameter lines. Mr Lomas is right to say that the second lines are more 'regular', but this is connected with precisely the point that I was making: that the cadence of those lines depends on their being read as metrically regular. That is why I said the cadence 'rides on the measure'. Read 'naturally', outside the metrical context provided by the poem and without the metrical stiffening this context lends, these cadences do not exist. No doubt one could say a great deal more about these pairs of lines, but I was making a single point.



Grevel Lindop is mistaken. I did not say that freedom of expression, as an absolute, had taken centuries to win. It's clear that I could not simultaneously claim absolute status for the freedom in question and assert that it took time to acquire. Except, perhaps, in a context of Bergsonian or Shavian creative evolution; I admit to finding the idea attractive, but I'm not sure that an evolved absolute would be philosophically respectable.

What I said was that the right to free expression had taken centuries to win. Naturally the dominant orthodoxies of church and state long refused to recognize that right and did their best to silence or destroy anybody who emerged from the crowd to claim it. But people wanted it (absolutes 'will out'), and demanded it, and went on demanding it, and insisted upon having it; and at last they got it. A few moments' reflection on the history of that bitter struggle will summon the familiar 'luminous details': Joan of Arc's 'voices' (c. 1425); Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle (1517); Galileo's 'Eppur si muove', whether he said it or not; Descartes burning one of his own books 'to escape being burnt for having written it' (Shaw, postcript to Back to Methuselah); and so on to our own century, with the prosecutions (and burning) of Ulysses in 1921- 23, the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in 1960 . and on indeed to The Satanic Verses. Perhaps the process is not complete after all; perhaps it never will be. All the more reason to persevere.

My view of this matter of absolute status, if I may summarize, is as follows. It is in the subjective consciousness, immediate awareness of which is all we have to go on, that freedom of expression has the character of an absolute. Even before expression takes place, freedom is experienced as potentiality, 'perpetual possibility' - not in 'a world of speculation' but here and now. Rudimentarily present in a baby's first cry, the faculty of speech necessarily implies an absolute power of free expression. Contingency enters with society, with the law; but if we did not possess unqualified freedom of expression, how would it be possible for us to have laws at all, or to propose changing them? Freedom of expression, experienced as absolute, is a de facto possession of the subjective consciousness, common to all human beings.

Windsor, Berkshire



I am sorry to learn that K. Turner of Leamington Spa (KTLS) has again cancelled his subscription to P N·R (Letter, P·N·R 80) and that I am partly responsible for this decision. (I am relieved, rather than disappointed, not to have been the last straw, though the office of penultimate straw, or even antepenultimate straw, carries a heavy burden of responsibility.) Those of us who value P N·R as a rare forum for intelligent discussion of cultural issues must regret the loss even of a subscriber as difficult to please as KTLS.

To characterize Leavis's savage and spiteful personal attack on C.P. Snow as 'urbane amusement' is a curious misuse of the English language. Even those who shared Leavis's viewpoint were shocked by his nasty tone, and dispassionate commentators such as
George Steiner and Lionel Trilling deplored it. Leavis had many qualities - not all of them flaws - but urbanity was not among them. He was a tragically intemperate man whose extraordinary intelligence was often defeated by a rage he never thought to examine. Whether or not he appreciated the benefits bought by science, Leavis was not a friend of rational debate about the proper application of science or its place in contemporary culture.

Since the Hell to which KTLS damns me also includes Mrs Jackson, I shan't be too glum. She will be excellent company and she might also be able to explain to me why Leavisites such as KTLS feel that the memory of their Master is served by ill-considered rages that ape his.

I am less sanguine about the attack on P N·R. The claim that it exhibits 'an unconsidered acceptance of whatever the drifting tides of academe might throw up' is profoundly unjust. KTLS should do his homework. He might start with P·N·R 58 and P·N·R 60 where he will find articles by a certain R. Tallis subjecting fashionable post-Saussurean critical theory to detailed criticism. There are of course many other instances, considerably more distinguished than my pieces, exemplifying P N·R's dissent from academe and from current fashions. The editorial in the issue in which KTLS's letter appears is a case in point.

KTLS's letter is so wide of the mark that I suspect he has seen something else he wants to spend his £21.50 on and the reasons he has given are mere pretexts. In case this is entirely unjust, may I suggest that (a) he re-considers his decision (particularly as there is an onslaught on academic criticism coming up in P·N·R 82) or (b) uses the liberated capital to buy The Pursuit of Mind (Carcanet, just out) ed. R. Tallis and H. Robinson.

Bramhall, Cheshire



Anthony Barnett has every right to feel sour about the lack of support he has received as a publisher, but he doesn't improve his case by distorting what I wrote about a quite' different publisher. A number of Peterloo poets are or have been schoolteachers: this is part of that excellent and resilient list's particular character, and it's hard to see how anyone (even another publisher) could draw the derogatory inference which Barnett laboriously squeezes out of it. I used to be a teacher myself, so I reckon I was allowed to make that sort of joke.

Aldeburgh, Suffolk



Many thanks for the mention (P N·R 79 pp. 4 - 5) of the Seren Books Border Lines series. However, your notice rather gave the impression that the series begins this year, and your readers might like to note the three titles already in existence from last year, when we began. Frances Kilvert (David Lockwood), Mary Webb (Gladys Mary Coles) and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (Donald Hunt). Obtainable along with the 1991 titles from: Seren Books, Andmar House, Trewsfield Industrial Estate, Tondu Road, Bridgend, Mid-Glamorgan CF31 4LJ.

(Series Editor)
Horton Kirby, Dartford

This item is taken from PN Review 81, Volume 18 Number 1, September - October 1991.

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