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This review is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

THE DEFENSE OF POETRY Henry Gifford, Poetry in a Divided World (Cambridge University Press) £15.00

It is not difficult to agree with Gifford that the problems of the age are the problems of poetry. Whether our own times are as exceptionally strained and confused as he maintains is open to debate, but it is clear the late twentieth century needs poets as much as ever to ensure that language can still express purity of consciousness and purity of intent. By taking the example of Russian poetry early this century and, inspired by Czeslaw Milosz's Charles Eliot Norton lectures of 1981-82, the poetry of post-war Poland, Gifford summons poetry once again to bear witness. He speaks to an audience primarily concerned with writing and speaking English and, more importantly, one which has not yet been persuaded by overt political tyranny to grant poetry rightness and truth automatically.

Gifford's four 1985 Clark Lectures, 'The Function of Poetry at the Present Time', 'The Nature and Validity of Poetic Witness', 'Isolation and Community' and 'The International Code of Poetry', ask us to agree that on either side of the European divide private consciousness is menaced, there by the pernicious encroachment of politics, here by commercialism and media imperialism. Gifford calls upon the poet to vindicate common experience through fidelity to the language and tradition. The rightness of the poet is decided by that common experience, not by the political judgements of history and fashion.

This is of course edifying and good. In order so to bear witness the poet must preserve his central ability ...


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