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This item is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

Professor Frank Kermode is 70. To mark the occasion, though uninsistently, he has published An Appetite for Poetry (Collins, £15.00). The title - and the occasion - seem to promise personal indulgence, a literary Desert Island Discs. The subtitle, Essays in Literary Interpretation, is more monitory.

Indeed the main title, when we read the Valéry epigraph from which it derives, becomes polemical:

As bad luck will have it, there are among these men with no great appetite for poetry - who don't understand the need for it and who would never have invented it - quite a number whose job or fate it is to judge it, discourse upon it, stimulate or cultivate the taste for it; in short, to distribute what they don't have. They apply to the task all their intelligence and all their zeal - with alarming consequences.

The phrases 'who don't understand the need for it' and 'who would never have invented it' stand out. Need, a strong word, calls to mind King Lear, when his daughters begin to trim his retinue. Understand is also strong - and in Valéry's context unambiguous: not logical or theoretical understanding but something at once instinctive and generative. And 'who would never have invented it' suggests secondary intelligence, the property of people who make a living in service of a discipline, an art, whose nature they do not or cannot encompass. In order to practice their 'job or fate' they categorise, traduce, diminish or betray poetry: teachers estranged from their subject.

Professor Kermode devotes an urgent 46 page Prologue to these men and women which no one with an interest in the art of poetry, or doubtful about the claims of theory, should miss. These pages, quite apart from the memorable essays which follow, demonstrate the tact of one of our finest critics and also, vividly, the state of criticism within the institutions in which he has moved for several decades. He passes recent literary theory in review and is at pains to point out what it achieves and where it fails. Theory is impertinence as deployed by those without 'an appetite for poetry'; impoverishment follows from certain discourses and strategies that approach the primary text from strictly pre-determined perspectives, not susceptible to alteration or attenuation by feeling.

Surely Kermode himself, after his long service in education, after his sometimes bloody public battles, has a theory? An Appetite for Poetry suggests at first a pragmatic approach, the critic availing himself of those elements of different theories serviceable to a particular reading, as a composer might avail himself of atonality when he needs it, without committing a whole work to the mode. This is not theoretical eclecticism: it is a matter of giving primacy to the text. Each essay in his book employs a variety of approaches, usually in an exploratory spirit. Assert nothing, he seems to say: watch the writer. His careful, adjusting focus casts new light on Milton, Eliot, Empson and Stevens in a mode refreshingly essayistic in the old sense.

It is in the chapters on Canon and Plot that we begin to appreciate, with a degree of excitement, that Empson may have been right: there is in Kermode a natural hunger not for the authority of history but of something that transcends it. His long interest in the Bible and in exegetics is more than merely textual or literary, and in the arguments of Biblical theory and construction he has wisely weighed up the value of different approaches, different ideologies. In this book he maps a possible common ground between disparate approaches.

The poetry for which he has an appetite - that of the Bible and that which stands out in our insistently secular world - is not play but a language of quite different aspiration and construction. The tutelary spirit which has long whispered in his ear, Wallace Stevens, is evoked again, not only in an essay devoted to the Connecticut poet's distant fascination with Hölderlin and Heidegger but in an essay called 'The Plain Sense of Things', on exegetics, which opens with a haunting passage from a late Stevens poem and concludes:

Among the thousands of commentators there have been literalists of the imagination and also extravagant poets. But all have in their measure to be creators, even if they wish to imagine themselves at the end of imagination when the lake is still, without reflections; there may be silence, but it is silence of a sort, never zero silence.

These, he seems to suggest, are real poets, real critics - men like Marcion who was, 'however unwillingly, responsible for the preservation of the book [the Bible] as a whole, as "inspired unity" concealing behind its stories an occult plot which is master version of the plot of our world.'

I wonder whether in his tactfully emphatic way Kermode, in An Appetite for Poetry, does not stand in the vicinity of George Steiner in his book Real Presences. There could hardly be a greater divergence of temperaments, a difference as much of style and tone as of reference. Kermode is quintessentially English, remaining close to particularities, drawing his conclusions tentatively in the language of a layman who would feel out of place in the pulpit. Yet he, too, seems to propose that wager with a validating transcendence which has the immediate effect of discriminating between poetry of local and historical contingency and poetry which satisfies the different appetite of which Valéry wrote.

In the end this book is a drawing back from the inconsequential divagations of theory to serviceable theory and to the imaginative centre, the actual poem, the imagination that produces it, the understanding that engages and values it. It is a valediction not to theory but to the false or impoverishing sirens of contemporary theory in its multiple guises: they are still heard, still attended to, but here to be discriminated and dismissed. This is a book by a man weary of conjecture, detecting abiding sense, abiding value. In his way he too confronts theory with the question of value, of presence.

This item is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

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