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This report is taken from PN Review 131, Volume 26 Number 3, January - February 2000.

Question of Culture (translated by Iain Bamforth) Robert Musil

Can you say what a poet is?

This question ought to be printed in big letters some time like one of those intellectual whodunnits in which people argue 'Who murdered Mr Stein? (in the novel whose next instalment appears in tomorrow's Sunday supplement)' or 'What should Roman-three do, if Roman-one plays a different suit from the approach recommended at the last bridge conference?'

It can't be expected however that a newspaper would drop everything else and follow this suggestion. If it did, then the editors would phrase it more coherently. Like this, for instance: 'Who's your favourite poet?' Or: 'Who do you think is the greatest living poet?' and 'Which was your book of the year?' (read also: 'month?'). These seem to be the questions that get people's attention.

So people learn from time to time what kinds of poets there are. Poets always come as the greatest, most important, most authentic, most acclaimed and most read. But what do you call someone who is just a plain and simple poet, that is, a poet without superlatives, and not 'the well-known author of' - nobody in human history has asked that question. It's straightforward enough, and yet the world's ashamed to ask such a question, as though it were a proclamation of its podsnappery. It wouldn't be long before you too can say exactly what Kaffee Hag, a Rolls Royce and a glider are; you'll be at a loss though, when the children ...


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