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This item is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.


Chris McCully's review of Timothy Steele's Missing Measures in P·N·R 77 nowhere suggests the loathing which the book expresses for its subject. McCully's erudition is employed in a balanced, thoughtful way: Steele's is aimed obsessively at rubbishing free verse.

McCully points out that Steele's view of the extent of free verse domination in this century applies more to the United States than it does to Britain. In fact this is part of something wider in the book - Steele seems fanatical and therefore to combine loathing with fear. So he paradoxically exaggerates the importance of free verse and makes no reference to the importance that formal verse has had in this century. On the other hand his failure to quote any poetry at all by T.S. Eliot suggests an anxiety about its power.

Instead his strategy is to attack free verse theory, but his account of it is riddled with contraditions and non sequiturs. Steele wants to maintain, for instance, that Eliot and Pound 'felt that to dispose of Victorian idiom, they had to dispose of metre' (p.31). This ignores the fact that they knew lots of pre-Victorian verse in metre and also that they had a profound respect for some of the Victorian poets, especially Browning - a point which Steele himself later makes when he quotes Pound saying that a combination of Swinburne and Browning would represent the 'whole or perfect poet' (p.91).

It also ignores the fact, that, as well as writing free verse, Eliot and Pound wrote tight iambic quatrains in a selfconsciously modern idiom (Eliot in his 'Sweeney' poems, Pound in 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley'). This draws attention to a crucial failing in Steele's book: those poems are modernist but metrical. Although Steele is aware that free verse was written before modernism, Missing Measures assumes for the most part that modernist poetry and free verse are synonymous. He often so equates modernism with free verse it's difficult to tell which he's attacking. Yet W.H. Auden and the early Robert Lowell, for instance, were modernists who wrote metrical poetry. By contrast, Whitman wrote free verse but was not a modernist. Similarly, the contemporary poet C.K. Williams, who employs a long Whitmanian line, is a realist, rather than a modernist poet.

The blurring of this distinction invalidates much of the book. It's especially damaging when Steele's argument reaches its climax:

Though the experimentalists frequently claimed that they represented progress, their movement carried a strain of reactionary violence. This is not, I stress, to suggest that all experimentalists were reactionary ... Yet a number of leading modernists - Gabriele D'Annunzio, Marinetti, Lewis, Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Celine - were apologists for Nazism or Fascism and its leaders. (pp 274-275)

Missing Measures is supposed to be about free verse but here (by an attempted, but clumsily visible, sleight of hand) Steele's shifted to talking about modernism, and tries to paper over the crack with the word 'experimentalists'. This is flagrantly distortive not simply because, as Steele concedes, William Carlos Williams was both an experimentalist and a conspicuous democrat, but because the charge relates to a specific moment in the history of the modern movement. It has nothing to do with the quite separate history of free verse whose practitioners in the generations before and after Pound's (like Whitman and Adrienne Rich) have shown no reactionary tendencies. Refusal to keep your feet iambic needn't make them jackbooted. On the other hand, writing ottava rima didn't save Yeats from fascism, or from what Steele regards as the experimentalist sin of 'superstition and irrationality' (p.274).

Perhaps it's because free verse and modernism are so inextricably linked in Steele's mind that he doesn't explore the relationship between the two. For him there's no relationship but an identity. So he doesn't examine what it was in modern experience that Eliot and Pound felt required such a radical change in technique.

The modernist poets constantly refer to the sense that human experience has fundamentally changed. They were not alone. Other artists had the same feeling and adopted similarly radical techniques to express it (abstraction in painting, atonality in music). However, instead of comparing the poets with other modernist artists, Steele compares them with Euripides, Horace, Dryden and Wordsworth. This misses the point. For although these poets initiated literary changes none of them did so in response to a sense that human experience was quite different from what it had been.

If readers of P·N·R want to buy a lucid history of free verse they should not buy Missing Measures. If they share Steele's preference for formal verse they will be embarrassed to have such an inept polemicist on their side.

English Department
University of Wales, Bangor


I was interested to read Raymond Tallis's article 'Newton's Sleep (1): Poets, Scientists and Rainbows'. His theme about the importance of science over and above any aspersions cast on it by the Romantics or indeed by any others found an answering chord in me and makes, I think, a great deal of sense. The rigour of his attitude is to be congratulated.

However, just as he is demonstrating how vital scientific thinking is to the progress of western civilization, he displays a strangely uncharacteristic determination to be as unrigorous as possible in his treatment of William Blake's prophetic books.

These books do not derive their authority from Blake's lyrics, as Tallis quite unreasonably asserts, but from their own internal psychology. This is highly original and difficult, but it is there and any serious student with or without academic tenure ought to be able to detect it. To give just one example, Blake's theory of four basic psychological types (The Four Zoas) predates Jung's theory along similar lines by over a hundred years. Psychological Types, first published in England in 1915 postulates thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation as the four basic predispositions in people, and sets out Jung's findings from his clinical work. So far as I know, he was unaware of William Blake's prophetic books, which postulate the same thing, for the four Zoas are thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation.

Surely opposition to Blake's system is better derived from understanding rather than dismissal of it? Its chief flaw, to my mind, is that while it places human imagination at its centre, drawing the world into a viewpoint which is solipsistic except insofar as it is linked to the world by a private vocabulary (Golgonooza, Urizen, Los, etc.), it underestimates the power of human evil for the sake of an internal harmony in its overall theoretical structure.

Blake had not in fact found a satisfactory solution to human cruelty and evil, as his exclusion of 'A Divine Image' ('Cruelty has a Human Heart') from Songs of Experience indicates. Nonetheless, his system is an attempt to come to terms with human psychology - an attempt which comes to seem somewhat crude and superficial only when we notice how much psychology has developed since the late 18th century. It is then that we see how much Blake derived from a dismissal rather than an understanding of the historical record, in which, of course, the scientific record is found.

22a Lawford Road
London NW5 2LN


I am grateful to James Keery for his in-depth review (P·N·R 78) of Veronica Forrest-Thomson's Collected Poems and Translations, our fifth, latest and, with little doubt, last volume of collected editions by recent English language poets. Your reviewer describes our book as 'beautiful both as text and object' and finishes 'Allardyce, Barnett are to be congratulated on this magnificent book, and it is, to put it mildly, sad that it seems likely to be the last in the series.' In the same issue another reviewer writes that another publisher 'had an occasional [sic ]tendency to resemble' a 'Home for Retired Schoolteachers'. Your readers may (or may not) be interested to know that as well as being in receipt over a number of years of very substantial funding from the Arts Council of Great Britain, the publisher's regional Arts Association, and the District Council (equivalent avenues being closed to Allardyce, Barnett) they recently were also awarded £12,000 from a trust managed by the friends of Sussex University Library, in competition with other publishers including Allardyce, Barnett.

Although there was a brief, unresolved exchange of correspondence between us and the Arts Council's Literature Director in the London Review of Books some time ago, no doubt one day the full story will be aired of how a number of administrators, publishers' editors, and other persons close to us, in positions to do quite the opposite, wilfully contributed to undermining the future of our publishing programme with a combination of deliberation, ignorance, and bad manners. But, of course, as they say, it's an old story.

Editorial Director, Allardyce, Barnett
Lewes, East Sussex

This item is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.

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