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This item is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

Letters from Leah Fritz, Steven Waling
Timeless Poetry


I wholeheartedly agree with your editorial objection [PNR 127] to the 'cheerleader' approach in the current marketing of poetry, which tends to rate it according to the 'star quality' of the poet rather than the value of the work. This approach, deriving from Hollywood's rating of films according to how much they 'gross' at the box-office, has sadly been extended to the other arts - for instance, how much money a Warhol painting (and other trivia relating to him) takes in at auction - and rather more absurdly to poetry, which (let's face it) rarely makes bestseller lists. The crass maxim 'If you can't beat them, join them' is totally inappropriate to poetry since what that reaches into, if successful, is the opposite of what properly belongs to Caesar.

But I do have a quibble with your remarks about the 'over-production' of poetry. There is no way of knowing in the present which poems will eventually prove 'timeless'. The many small presses giving exposure to a multitude of writers today keep that question open for the future. These presses are often run by discerning editors who encourage talent not only through their willingness to take risks, but also because of the close relationship between such publishers and often shy aspiring poets, a relationship less achievable when a publisher's list is very long. There is a regrettable tendency, too, on the part of critics to apply a star-system of publishers when judging poetry. I agree that the sheer volume of poetry published makes it difficult to get around this, but at least publication by small presses puts this poetry on record, whether or not - or how - it is subsequently reviewed. It was the small press Hearing Eye, after all, which first encouraged the work of Adam Johnson, later published by Carcanet.


Cheap Music


Ah the power of cheap music - especially, it seems, to cause arguments in literary magazines [Letter, PNR 127]. It's obvious to me that Neil Powell likes 'serious' music, and knows something about it. He likes jazz too, and knows something about that.

However, like a lot of his ilk, he obviously has no understanding of rock 'n' roll, soul or the various types of music that go to make up contemporary pop. If he had some knowledge of what he's so quick to condemn, he might have a point. But anyone who can dismiss the work of Bacharach and David, Lamont-Dozier, Lennon and MacCartney, Phil Spector, Smokey Robinson etc has obviously not been listening very carefully.

In any case, since when does anyone ever grow out of the music one liked when young? It doesn't happen to jazz fans, why should it happen to pop fans? One's taste broadens: I myself have come to appreciate Miles Davis, Shostakovitch, John Adams, Andy Shepherd, numerous others. Do I stop listening to pop music? In particular moods, it's just the right thing. I've been an Elvis Costello fan since I first heard him on TV all those years ago.

I've always followed the principle in my own reviewing of trying to pay attention to the genre of a book. You don't review poetry the way you review thrillers. Science books have to be good science; science fiction merely has to be plausible.

What I want from pop music is a good beat, does it move me, does it make me want to dance? I don't expect it to give me a fullyrounded intellectual experience. Sometimes I get good lyrics; Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan for instance. It's not poetry, nor was it meant to be. Dylan has more in common with Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie than Keats.

Maybe because pop music is generally urban, proletarian and appeals to the baser instincts (sex, for instance) Neil Powell as a middle-class intellectual looks down his nose at it. But that's not criticism, it's snobbery, even prudishness. Fortunately, the rest of the world is increasingly of the opinion that is it possible to have all kinds of music on your CD player and still be respectable. Where in his pantheon, for instance, would Neil Powell put soca, bhangra, Afrobeat, reggae, samba, calypso, and other forms of pop music in other cultures?

As Wittgenstein once said: whereof one cannot speak, thereof be silent.


Neil Powell replies: There are, indeed, times when silence is a wonderful thing.

This item is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.

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