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This item is taken from Poetry Nation 3 Number 3, 1974.Editorial - Obituaries and Births
'. . . the vast reading public which is led by the nose by the high-class literary journalist-poet type, its tail tweaked by the paragraphist with pretensions not rising above personal gossip . . .' Edgell Rickword
IN MARCH and April of this year we were called upon - by all the media, including television - finally to mourn the passing of the Review (d. 1972), but at the same time to celebrate the advent of nothing less than The New Review - bigger and better in every way, staking out its claims in the realms of Fiction, Drama, and the Arts, as well as Poetry. The editor declared in public that he intended the new magazine to be a landmark in the Seventies, a literary monument, presumably aere perennius. Its issues will doubtless decorate many an affluent coffee-table in months to come. It costs £12.00 a year.
With fanfares and publicity, then, the well-endowed and resolutely establishment-minded New Review was born. The contents of the first issue and the prospectus for the first year declared the limits of the magazine's adventurousness, the riskless course it was plotting. It would sail between the Scylla of Angus Wilson and the Charybdis of Robert Lowell, and visit Edna O'Brien on Circe's isle. Among the burning problems discussed in the first issue was anonymous reviewing in the TLS. Ian Hamilton and his group, called once by their own apologists 'the new lyricism', completed their putsch and in the open celebrated their arrival (though they arrived clandestinely long ago). They are now, perhaps, the naked 'ism' of the day. One can only wish them health and a warm winter.
Donald Davie (Poetry Nation II) traced the inevitable rise of this group and adumbrated its fall; for it is in the nature of all such palace revolutions on our impoverished journalistic Parnassus to fall. Time and again a small group of poets assembles, takes control of some tributary of the media or starts its own magazine, gives itself a title and lays down rules for membership; and then, like a community of fish, begins energetically to spawn, until the little backwater is filled with like-faced fishes and, together, they seek out the big river, swim down it as far as the Embankment, emerge and assume the familiar forms of literary critics, journalists, and academics. Several will even stand upon their poetry.
Thus, even now, two tiddler magazines (recent arrivals on the scene, crude in their rhetoric but tastefully produced) are conceiving two brand new isms by which to identify their school. We may hear more from them. And we have a quantity of recent isms and quasi-isms (whether voluntary groupings or the journalists' creations is another matter): the Group, the Liverpudlians, the Novocastrians, the Ulster poets, and so on. Academics go for groupings - they make classification easier. Journalists go for groupings - they make simplification easier. Within each ism or quasi-ism itself, no doubt, most of the specimen members are similar to some degree, share one complexion, one style. But now even Stand, a magazine which, though it has a predilection for anguish and a staunch resistance to humour, evinces a moderately catholic editorial policy, has identified 'its sort of poem' - a poetry of 'Commitment' which, judging from recent issues of the magazine, is as vague, ill-conceived and misleading as Alan Bold's notion of Socialist poetry in his notorious Penguin anthology. Stand publishes poems which the editors like: that is its policy - and when it pretends that it stands for a certain type of poetry it deceives itself.
Of course, in the days of the Imagists, for example, forming a group was sometimes a necessity. Anyone doing anything new, difficult, original, had little chance alone in the then milieu. When like-minded talents came together, they joined forces - not to create a coterie or merely to advance their reputations or assume the reins of journalistic power, nor specifically to change the popular and critical attitudes towards poetry but, more importantly, to exchange ideas and work, to advance as writers. As Peter Jones illustrates in the Penguin Imagist anthology, 'Imagism' was a group of young poets learning and renewing the craft of poetry. They had their polemics, of course, but it was technique, form, and subject matter they were exploring, not 'power'. The later, mature work of individual 'imagist' poets is as different as the poetry of writers from different ages. One could no more confuse D. H. Lawrence's mature work with Marianne Moore's than one could Marlowe's with Dryden's.
So, too, with others of the early isms - they were embattled either because the cultural establishment forced them to be, or because they did not wish (as it seems today the Ferry Press poets do not wish) to have any truck with what they regarded as the corrupting philistinism of the reputation-makers of the day. They were groups only so long as they had something vital to explore or convey within a hostile (or hostility inspiring) milieu, and when they finally disagreed, or history took a wrong turning, they had the passion and integrity to disband. We still, however, easily confine Amy Lowell and H. D. to the same 'imagist' pigeon hole, and leave Wyndham Lewis slotted in among the 'proto-fascist' Vorticists. His release is long overdue.
The situation since the late Twenties has of course changed. Now most embattlements are not so much defensive and creative as promotional. They are not knit together by a concern with poetic technique but by the sociable, coterie minds we associate with Senior Common Rooms - or Football Changing Rooms. They have their initiation rituals and their fetishes. The Thirties poets perhaps inaugurated this change, though the Georgians have much to answer for.
But readership has changed, too. There is no general consensus any longer (except among certain schools of critics and journalistic arbiters of taste). Most poets will find someone to praise them; and even the best will meet with condemnation in other quarters. No one now is much shocked by novelty. But what looks like healthy pluralism is in fact apathy or indiscriminate hedonism on the part of many readers. To distinguish the good from the bad in the diverse literature of the Sixties and Seventies is not an enviable task, nor an easy one.
Along with the poetic coteries we have had critical ones. There has been a considerable British Marxist critical literature, but it has left poetry unaffected. Perhaps this is because Marxist criticism is too much a criticism of content, rather than of technique or form. Despite Raymond Williams's protests, our Marxist critics have developed no vocabulary capable of dealing in depth with form. Williams sees form and content as inseparable - and they are, in a finished work; but in the making, the poet is forming content.
Critical schools are, as Mr. Dyson notes in his essay on Lawrence's criticism (p. 48), generally as partial, self-deceiving, and finally restrictive as the poetic coteries. In a real sense, the last valid movement combined creativity with criticism, reacting against a literary consensus which was drably permissive and technically undemanding. We are speaking of the much-maligned 'Movement'. The grouping has since been called 'strategic' - but it was something more: from one another, a generation of poets learned to consider diction, syntax, technique: in short, their craft. The best of them have come a long way since-though even the best still, in some critics' eyes at least, like poor corpses clench the 'Movement' dog-tag between their teeth.
Despite embattlements, critical movements, media putsches, and despite the long, sterile successes of the Review group over the last decade in infiltrating a number of influential periodicals, publishing houses, and academic citadels, poems are still being written. The number of choices open to the poet is as great as ever. Poets write out of any number of faiths, social contexts, landscapes - even traditions. There are not 'two poetries' or even three, but as many as there are poets. The old isms were defences against philistine narrow-mindedness; new isms ought to react against hedonistic mindlessness, not against the rich multiplicity of choices itself. The critic's task is no longer polemical on behalf of one orthodoxy or another. He, too, has choices. George Steiner wrote in a letter to The New Review, in which he refused to contribute an essay to the first issue, 'One trusts critical ferocity when it has behind it either a manifest creative achievement or a parallel impulse to advocacy.' Not Ian Hamilton but Randall Jarrell and Edgell Rickword, two very different writers but both accomplished poets and considerable critics, could be the models on which we base a new discrimination. Their criticism reveals a catholicity of response, an intensity and lucidity of insight, well beyond that of the critics around them; and they had the courage unabashedly to admit their errors when they made them (which was not often). They also had the stylistic power to decimate bad work. Their criticism was often useful to the writer they were criticising. It was seldom ad hominem. It considered the work on its own terms and then assessed the terms by which the work existed. Theirs was not 'high gossip' or flashy journalism. It was the sensitive responses of profoundly literate and humane men. A good or a great work of literature received from them the advocacy it merited.
Writers still make poems - beyond the fray, beyond the head of Auntie's 'Poetry Now' microphone, beyond the reaches of unbalanced Grigsonian scurrility and the anonymous approbation and censure of the TLS - even beyond the reading circuit. These writers are part and parcel of the pluralistic literature we as readers do well to accept. It has been with us a long time. We are the richer for being able to respond to poetry in its various registers, to the quite different religious poets we have - including Sisson and R. S. Thomas; to the nihilists like Beckett and Hughes; to the Augustan acerbity of Davie and the modernist-informed work of Tomlinson and Middleton; and the social poetry of writers as dissimilar as Larkin and Hill; and to poets like Austin Clarke, W. S. Graham, George Mackay Brown, Roy Fisher, Peter Porter, and Elaine Feinstein. We have the experience of Scotland to register as well as that of Hampstead; and Ireland in its many guises apart from the well-publicised Belfast poets; and Cornwall, too; and Orkney.
Can a periodical be embattled when it accepts the pluralistic literature of its day and points out varied achievements, publishes poems in a number of forms, different in content, by poets who are not socially acquainted with one another and are not particularly ambitious for journalistic accolade? If the periodical is to be of interest, its liberal approach, its catholicity of reference must be vindicated by some clear mode of discrimination, choosing out the good from the multiplicity of work available. Each work can be judged in terms we as editors feel are definable in general terms. We tried to describe them in Poetry Nation I: how the poem succeeds in reconciling its individual experience with the community of experience, and vice versa; and more important, how the work achieves wholeness within the system of values it proposes. We can question its system of values - but if it is successful, the poem allays our misgivings by the form its self-qualified acceptance takes. In Poetry Nation I we spoke of I. A. Richards' view that the function of form in a poem is to bring into tension and to retain in tension opposites or contrasts; to give us a whole rather than a partial truth. The more achieved the formal synthesis, the better the poem within its particular range. To approach a poem, in whatever form, from this point of view, to respond to it on its own ground and then to assess its 'truth' and 'wholeness', is the only catholic approach. Putting aside rigid predispositions, forgetting whatever isms we may adhere to socially or critically, we can again establish a responsive catholicity, even foresee a critical consensus capable of recognising the rich diversity and individuality, the unclassifiable nature of the good poetry we have. We may also be less reticent in our assessment of new talents, new poems; and less hesitant about consigning the unformed rhetorical gesture, the unwholesome poem, the sterile poetics, to the useful dustbin.
Despite the late Review's and its friends', jeremiads, despite the small-mindedness of coteries currently in the ascendant or fizzling out, the English language houses a literature as vital and varied as usual. Our policy is to present something of this variety and vitality.
This item is taken from Poetry Nation 3 Number 3, 1974.