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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 71, Volume 16 Number 3, January - February 1990.

Letters from Paul Green, James Keery, John Matthias, Clive Wilmer
Sir,
It should be true that a literary feast does not require picky eating, and yet T.J.G. Harris's conclusions about Douglas Messerli's 'Language' poetries anthology demonstrate such a pickiness as to relegate its scope, through only three indifferent quotations, as might describe a banquet as showing three peas, one carrot, and a wing of chicken.

In no way does Harris introduce the poets he quotes, nor does he seem to allow that all three are capable of very divers styles, and that his drawing attention to a few brief lines does not mean that each poet's entire oeuvre has to relate itself to them. It cannot, and it would have been better if Harris had taken some pains to describe Barret Watten as one of the editors and publishers of the American Poetics Journal, while his writing and his theory are very much laden with Russian Formalism. Clark Coolidge is all American, even though it is easy to affix some surreal connotations to him; which would make him not wholly original, which he is, and entirely demonstrated in the quote that Harris gives. Notoriously, it is early Coolidge from 1972, and it would be a great mistake to assume that the continuing poem doesn't resolve itself, or assent its writing to the direction of Gertrude Stein. Below is even more Coolidge, from Solution Passage Poems 1978-1981, and given in full in the anthology:


Thin Places
As if the sun were winding round
a spool, this blaze and shutter, the
thread of occultation. Thus, the
swimming tenseness to arrive at
surprise. The shadow of a man,
arrow of an avenue otherwise
cheerily null....


Doyen as I am to the writing of Hannah Weiner, even Harris's three line snippet brings a lustre to my his readers and his review's attention to, a clairvoyant; and her poems and prose pieces are largely described in a variety of voices, either her own, or of other, clairvoyant, origins.

So, Messerli's anthology is drawn through a sieve, and I'm not certain what intention Harris means his review to impart; nor can I stand his parrying of the 'Language' poets against the English poet, Geoffrey Hill. There is no mistake in Hill's originality, and yet to note it in this context makes eventual comparison seem almost ludicrous; almost like 'chalk and cheese', or Constable and Turner, or, even better, Jean De Berry and Pablo Picasso - all capable of standing on their own merits, and not intended to be bludgeoned into a 'better than' or 'worse than' condition.

If 'evil, suffering, and grief' are being 'carefully excluded' from the work of the anthologised poets, as Harris wants his readers to believe, then I have misread these lines by Bruce Andrews completely:


from Confidence Trick
Equality demands no less; history
begins with old man crying, logic
you know, airplay your fingertips
is not freedom - The
disintegrating slop situation on
outlaw; read it in the voodoo
prospectus, keep trying death
squads paid for by our Christianity.


Well, I'm not sure that I have; nor do I, at this moment, care if the power comes from either 'procedure' or 'end'. I think it a balance of both, although it might be interesting to note which, if any, could gain the upper hand.

Lastly, it is not entirely convincing as an argument to concoct a roll-call of names to throw against those legitimatised in the anthology, but if Harris wished to make a point more salient, he could have dropped the names of Christopher Middleton, Edwin Morgan, Roy Fisher, and John Ashbery, to perhaps insert Peter Middleton, Allen Fisher, Paul Buck, Chris Cheek, and Glenda George - all truer English counterparts of America's 'Language' poets, even though the familiarities are surface, and are sometimes at variance with what the 'Language' poets have experimented with.

I believe that 'Language' poetry is an interesting, and disturbing, phenomenon; and that anthologies like Messerli's 'Language' Poetries, or Ron Silliman's In The American Tree are helping map the phenomenon, to track its origins, and place its role as literature. It is not possible, at such an early moment, to distinguish a set result. Within the movement are many embryonic concepts, even if the theory and the writing are not always equal, or if the theory achieves different nuances to those the writing relates with.

Harris's review does not really darken the doorway to 'Language' poetry, because it is a doorway that he has hardly dared to enter. In the light of the anthologies, he, or others, should not have to consent to be triflingly blind.
Paul Green

Sir,
Grevel Lindop wishes I'd 'tackled the central points' of his article. I'm glad of the opportunity, in doing so, to acknowledge the 'valuable exactness' (Donald Davie, in that long-awaited review of A Various Art!) of a good deal of what he writes; I found myself quoting him extensively in a recent review of Ian McMillan's Unselected Poems (Wide Skirt Press).

1) 'Does Keery agree, or disagree, with my judgement on the poems of Ackroyd and McMillan? Keery disagrees. He has all McMillan's collections, and wishes he had a copy of The Diversions of Purley. Perhaps Grevel Lindop would be willing to part with his? I didn't know Ackroyd's poetry, but I thought 'the empty telephone...' dreamy and intriguing, not tediously somnolent', and I also liked the bit beginning, 'But the purlieus rivet our gaze...' As regards McMillan, Grevel Lindop's portrait is a lively, lifelike and attractive one, missing only one aspect of its subject: his best poetry. 'Tankersley Tunnel' and 'Elegy for an Hour of Daylight' are perhaps little more than 'banal language-games'; but 'Screenplay', 'Rhythm Method', 'Melton Brand', 'Conquering Death' and 'The Christmas Tree's Press Conference' are certainly not 'poems without a poetic impulse', 'less interesting than most prose' or 'cheaply and irresponsibly attained'; they do not imply 'disdain for the traditions of formal skill and mimesis', nor are they 'nihilistic and destructive'! The beautiful close of 'View of Mexborough Church Belfry' articulates a rather finer response to 'inherited wisdoms' than 'sarcastic condescension':


But for a reason which
I cannot pin down,
I preferred the bells silent
and the wheels still.
It could be that promise fulfilled
is always ambition disappointed;
only doing that which you were
    made for
seems such a waste of creation.
Above the canal and the railway
the bells swing on wheels and
can speak only inherited wisdoms,
cranking simple songs into a view
of the sky netted down by power
     lines.


2) 'Does he accept my diagnosis of the theoretical basis of their work?' Much of it, yes. 'The concept of the status quo is a purely theoretical one; modifications occur hourly ...' runs an epigraph to Now It Can Be Told; while the 'Arab proverb', 'I offered myself a tent, but I did not accept it', does imply an uneasy relationship with the 'self'! But some of Grevel Lindop's observations are reductive and crude: annoyance at 'a habit of comparing things that have no similarity whatever' doesn't suggest a very intelligent reading of, say, Ashbery, where colour-by-numbers literalism will often draw a blank. Take these two similes, for example, from The Double Dream of Spring: 'A corresponding deterioration of moral values, punctuated / By acts of corporate vandalism every five years, / Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts, / But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression / Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside some day / When it had been outgrown.' I find one unintelligible, the other inexhaustibly fascinating, which is what reading Ashbery is like. Does this make him an 'Empty Telephone Boy'? Grevel Lindop's 'theoretical basis' is uncomfortably close to the lowest common denominator; ought we not to be looking for the highest?

For much as I like McMillan, I like the best of the 'Cambridge' poets even more, and still find Grevel Lindop's slighting dismissal of their poetry dismaying. He did not, indeed, name names; nor does he deny that the poets I named were those he had in mind. I could hazard others; but perhaps he'll enlighten us? He insists on his view that Prynne's 'influence has been "baleful",' even though 'he has developed techniques that can be applied elsewhere', notably, it seems, by Grevel Lindop himself: 'My real response to Prynne is probably in my poems'! Are these positions 'quite compatible'? I look forward to reading Tourists, and to the piece on Prynne, if it materializes; who knows, even to one on his 'dreary . . . disciples'?
James Keery

Sir,
It's probably idle to respond to negative reviews - and, besides, I too admire (with reservations) the work of Peter Levi and Anne Pennington in Marko the Prince so enthusiastically endorsed by T.J.G. Harris in PNR 69. More than that, I agree that of the two brief passages quoted in his review from 'The Downfall of the Kingdom of Serbia', the Levi/ Pennington and the Matthias/ Vu&ccaronkovik, the Levi/Pennington is superior. A selection of other brief passages for comparison would, I think, tip the scales the other way. But in the case of these narrative poems, the elusive spirit of which both teams of translators have tried to capture in English, brief passages do not tell the tale. To my ear, the Levi/Pennington line often turns to prose, and it does not always serve, as Harris rightly says it should, to move the narrative on in a swift and rhythmical way consistent with the oral origin of the poems. Further, the line which Vladeta Vu&ccaronkovik and I evolved for our translation is only like the stepped-down line of William Carlos Williams's later poems in its visual appearance on the page (which is intended to acknowledge the invariable presence of a caesura in the original with highly variable and sometimes minimal emphases in English; the guslars themselves often sang through the caesuras without pause, swallowing syllables, eliding). Our line is, in fact, an iambic line (sometimes modulating into the trochaic rhythm of the original), and it should not - does not to my ear -'slow the reader down', but rather speed him up and drive him on. The comparative effects of the two lines in question might best be heard by reading aloud the two versions of 'The Kosovo Maiden' ('The Kosovo Girl' in Levi/Pennington).

Mr Harris implies that my introduction claims that all the Serbian singers were 'unknown'. In fact, I specifically discuss the unique contributions of Filip Višnjik, Tešan Podrugovik, and others. It's not entirely fanciful to suggest that, had the tags from Yeats and Pound that annoy Mr Harris been around to lodge in the mind of a Višnjik or a Podrugovic while he recited for Vuk Karadzik, we'd have had them right there in Volume II of the Vienna Edition of Serbian Folk Poems. But there are only, after all, two such tags in the hundreds of lines of our translation, and my note, solemnly quoted back to me by Mr Harris, was a note of levity. (I was serious, however, when I said that 'it was the tradition of oral composition and improvisation itself that made me feel free' to take some of the other liberties to which he objects.)

It strikes me as a good thing that there are two very different translations of these poems available in the 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Kosovo itself. I trust there will be others. These wonderful poems have been ignored in the English-speaking world for far too long.
John Matthias

Sir,
In my Introduction to the supplement 'Thorn Gunn at Sixty' (PNR 70), there is a printer's error of a kind that most writers only have nightmares about: a sentence that, appearing to make perfect sense, says almost the contrary of what I wrote and virtually insults the man I meant to honour. May I draw this error to your readers' attention? In lines 15-17 of the printed text, Gunn is described as a poet 'notable for his avoidance of emotional attachments -expatriate, homosexual...'. What I actually wrote was 'avoidance of conventional attachments'. I do apologise to Thom Gunn - not to speak of other homosexuals and expatriates - for the unintended suggestion.
Clive Wilmer

This item is taken from PN Review 71, Volume 16 Number 3, January - February 1990.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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