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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 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.

Letters
DEAR SIR, In the third sentence of his article 'Critic of Crisis' (PNR 53) Nicholas Tredell makes the bewildering claim that Georg Lukács - the intellectual who may accurately be defined by his loyalty to 'actually existing socialism' - 'could easily have gone West. . . but. . . chose not to do so', citing his reported remark after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that the whole Soviet project had failed. Does Tredell not perceive the significance of the fact that Lukács nowhere expressed such thoughts in print? His undeviating public stance was one of 'My party right or wrong'; he never intentionally committed himself to actions or statements which might threaten his perceived solidarity with the party leadership - unless, arguably, in 1956, when he joined Nagy's revolutionary government (an episode he later dismissed as 'a political mistake').

Near the end of his article Tredell says 'there are dark questions of ideological complicity in oppression that demand answers and unsparing judgement; but, particularly in Lukács' case, do we yet have these answers? And, he concludes, his subject's work has 'salutary firmness', praising the 'endurance of his Marxist commitment, and the moral, political and physical rigours that it entailed.' Tredell should not let fear of 'the shifting signifier' drive him into the - certainly contemptuous - embrace of Georg Lukács, whose complicity in the crimes of Stalinism and what followed Stalinism is surely not as ambivalent and complex as all that; nor was his role as effective legitimizer of 'actually existing socialism' - something never mentioned in the article. And to speak this way of his commitment and risks, etc., is, to say the least, an injustice to those citizens of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries - great writers among them - who spoke up for the liberty of individual conscience at the price of prison and death.

I respect Tredell's intention of stirring received ideas, but suggest that Lukács cannot be assimilated to liberal democracy, and that it is poor argument which asks such crucial questions without clarifying its own position towards the issues they involve.
Norman Smith

DEAR SIRS,
I find your article Force and Fragility by Kenneth Cox (Volume 13, no. 3) something of a mystery as I am not sure whether it is an essay on two French poets, or two book reviews. If the latter, then surely it is normal to quote publication details at the start.

Your reviewer states that an attempt 'to translate Laforgue at all is daring,' and then rebukes Peter Dale for accepting the challenge. In an attempt to even the balance I should like to quote Peter Dale on translation. 'I believe that verse-translation offers a better guide to the pleasures of French poetry than a dictionary defended prose drift. As Pound once suggested, even when we read easily in a foreign language we do not really feel the poem till we see it in our own.' (Introduction to Narrow Straits. Poems from the French, Hippopotamus Press, 1985).

Peter Dale has attempted to follow this and to make acceptable English poems of his translations. In general he has reproduced Lagorge's form and given us the flavour of the rhymes. As this is a bilingual edition any infelicities may be overcome by referring to the opposite page.
Roland John

SIR: James Sale's and David Orme's Schools' Poetry Association continues to deserve all our support but their article in PNR 51 ('The Teaching of Poetry') calls for some response. As Head of English in a state Comprehensive school which has long subscribed to the S.P.A., perhaps you will allow me to rehearse some misgivings here.

The authors are right, of course, to acknowledge the problematical status of 'literature' and, by extension, of a literary 'hierarchy', and they are right, too, to imply that such matters are not to be resolved by appeal to any 'back-to-the-classics' movement, or to any other simple ideology come to that. But their use of inverted commas for 'élitism' and 'relevance' ought to alert us to the damage already caused by these two notions. They are the most unhelpful terms and the sooner teachers jettison them the better. On the one hand, it has become, in some circles, 'unsound' to applaud any text as superior while, on the other, any teacher browsing in a children's bookshop in order to put together a class library cannot help but be struck by the formulaic gloom and doom of the scenarios on offer: broken homes, death, prejudice, nuclear holocaust, the perennial Second World War ('relevance'; what Brian Morton calls 'a sugar-coating to "problems and "issues'"). But if Sale and Orme, too, are unhappy about this manifestation of 'relevance' and claim that we should understand the term to refer not to what is immediate to the experience and 'needs' (another of education's sloppy usages) of young people, but to what it is that makes a classic a classic, then quite what are they saying if not that 'relevance' is what makes a text 'good'? In which case, 'relevance' becomes appropriate in only the most trivial of senses.

It is the appropriation and trivialization of meanings that bedevils much impassioned argument about literature in education (indeed, about education in general). The GCSE syllabuses in English Literature are a case in point. Half-understood and/or the over-hasty accommodation of post-structuralist theory has led (given the 'crisis in confidence' it legitimately and seriously provokes) to a position in which, apparently, anything goes. Constructing a newspaper article based on the death of Tom Robinson (To Kill a Mockingbird) or writing a letter home, as it were from the trenches (Owen, Sassoon et al.) may in their separate ways be useful and interesting activities, but it is difficult to see how they can produce anything which will enable an examiner to discriminate amongst (or even to recognize) literary responses. Once you have, in the first instance, the facts right and your submission looks and reads like a newspaper report, or, in the second, captured the 'pity', what else is there to be assessed? The traditional essay-type question is often too restrictive but imaginative responses, however admirable, while they can evince literary response, will not necessarily do so. What is worse, however, is the inverted snobbery of preferring structural commentary on Adrian Mole or East Enders to that on Jane Austen or Shakespeare. There is a whole range of ability to cater for, of course, and my examples are deliberately extreme, but what use are imprecisions like 'élitism' and 'relevance' to the serious debate such problems invite?

What renders a text 'good', then, according to Sale and Orme is 'superior internal coherence to normal language', poetry enjoying 'the highest degree of patterning'. Will this even begin to do? What are we to make of any comparison such as that between, say, Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Woolf's 'Kew Gardens': poetry and prose, but which has the superior internal coherence and which the higher degree of patterning? One is tempted to wonder whether the answers to such questions matter. One wonders, too, whether it isn't too great a propensity for definition that undermines so much educational debate. One may treasure mystery without surrendering meaning to the land of rapture. Teachers of literature do well to remember (as 'skills'-obsessed advocates of pre-vocational education apparently do not) that just as one does not become proficient in writing reports by continually having to write the things, so one does not become a lover of poetry by simply being confronted by more and more poems. Some of what Sale and Orme have to say about the teaching of poetry strikes me as bizarre. While I accept, for example, that enthusiasm for poetry on the part of the teacher is infectious, enthusiasm does not need to be of the flag-waving variety. Poetry is essentially about the private encounter between reader and poem. A word need not be spoken; thus, the quality of performance in reading as a generator of enthusiasm amongst pupils becomes questionable. Certain kinds of attention in reading are what really matter. When W.S. Graham asked visitors to read out one of his poems aloud to him, he was (however tetchily) testing their understanding of what they were reading. Of course, one expects any reading by a teacher to issue from understanding, but the performance itself is hardly as crucial to the success of a poem in the classroom as Sale and Orme seem to suppose. How many of us deplore the BBC's recent adoption of 'professionals' for their poetry readings? I for one would prefer to hear the poets reading, however 'ineptly'.

The choice of a cummings poem to demonstrate their approach is also regrettable, for one cannot escape the suspicion that novelty will win over against poetry, that pupils will always regard one such as this as a 'fun' (i.e. 'odd') poem. Isn't this rather like those Practical Criticism chapters on rhythm in verse that discuss Auden's 'Night Mail' and thus miss the point in the interests of an expedient clarity? Might they not have served their cause the better by attending to a more conventional, less immediately striking example? One has not begun to convert pupils to poetry by intriguing them with cummings (whom, by the way, I have no wish to decry).

There are, indeed, a number of conceptual confusions attending the teaching of literature in schools, and they are confusions we need to resolve if the central place enjoyed (at least ostensibly) by literature in the school curriculum is to be preserved. I attempted to discuss some of these issues in an article published in PNR 48 ('Against Excess'), and I share Sale's and Orme's concern for a synthesis of some kind, but we need to get a lot clearer on quite how theoretical pre-occupations impinge on the teaching of literature before any such synthesis becomes possible.
Paul McLoughlin
Hounslow, Middlesex

This item is taken from PN Review 55, Volume 13 Number 5, May - June 1987.



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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