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This item is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.

PN Review has had certain tutelary spirits-writers whose work and example have given shape and weight to the magazine. We have drawn attention, in re-assessments and celebrations, to important achievements which have been unaccountably marginalized. Some writers have suffered by the accidents of publishing, journalism, critical and political fashion, or other fardels which dedicated but essentially solitary talents bear.

It is melancholy, with our fiftieth issue, to mark the death of one such tutelary spirit, W.S.Graham. He wrote his most compelling poems in the last two decades of his life, and PN Review had the privilege of publishing some of the best, including 'To My Wife at Midnight' and 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Flute Lessons'. We also benefited from his criticism, offered in a generous spirit of endorsement or outrage. He despised the occasional cutenesses that disfigured the review pages: they were cheapening, unworthy. He refused to let us feature his work in a celebration. He was indignant when I told him that my students loved his poems, either because-like Larkin-he was sceptical of classroom study of poetry, or because he felt I should not witness to the responses of others. Poetry was a one-to-one adventure. I am told that when he was visited by admirers, he sometimes invited them to read his poems aloud to hear whether they understood them: a hard test, but a fair one. His illustrated, humorous and eloquent letters were a treat and an instruction to receive. The severe illness of his last years deprived us of that tonic. I suspect that an exhibition of the graphic work of this friend of-among other painters-Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton would reveal a genuine talent, and that a large volume of his letters would be wonderfully instructive.

It is hard to understand why a poet of Graham's patent originality and accomplishment should have remained eclipsed by lesser writers. It was bad luck, perhaps, that he was impatient with interviewers and disliked the media (apart from radio, where he gave memorable readings). Public performances he undertook to great effect (few poets have such stage presence), but one felt he was reluctant and exposed on these occasions, like a great bear tied to a post. At least, this is the impression he gave at the Cambridge Poetry Festival of 1981, where I last heard him perform.

It was bad luck, too, that his first major collection, The Nightfishing, appeared in the same year as The Less Deceived. After he emerged from the shadow of Dylan Thomas, he was always swimming against the current and he grew strong and single with the effort. He found his Scottish 'timbre', as he put it, the skill of changing tone and key in the space of a line, an authority of rhythm remarkable in any age, especially our own. As he gained independence and confidence, his diction became simpler, his syntax and rhythms increasingly expressive. Obsessed with language, its limitations and liberties, he explored the tragi-comedy of human communication in terms analogous to Beckett's. He was accomplished in every genre he attempted, most of all the elegy and the dramatic monologue. The flute-master addresses his pupil in Graham's finest poem in these terms:

Do not be sentimental or in your art.
I will miss you. Do not expect applause.


Readers looking back on PN Review from the perspective of this fiftieth issue will have noticed how often a magazine dedicated to poetry and its wider context has published material relating to fiction. In Poetry Nation I, for instance, there was an essay on Beckett's novels, in Poetry Nation IV an interview with Christopher Isherwood, in PN Review 1 an essay on Solzhenitsyn, and then in early issues work by and about Ford, Musil, Lewis, Biely, Pasolini, Hesse and Josipovici. Recent issues have included work by and about Natalia Ginzburg, Michel Tournier, Rene Behaine, Elias Canetti and Leonardo Sciascia, among others. The editors of PN Review intend, with PN Review 51, to introduce more work by and about story-writers and novelists, and our review pages will include reviews of fiction on a regular basis. In order not to reduce the attention to poetry and its context, the magazine is likely to increase somewhat in extent to make room for fiction, and-unfortunately-the price, which has remained steady for so long, will have to rise. The masthead will change with PN Review 51 to include Michael Freeman as a General Editor, with Stuart Hood, Gabriel Josipovici, Robyn Marsack, Ruth Morse and Mark Thompson as new contributing editors. PN Review has changed shape before: from its twice-yearly hardback format to quarterly, then to six-times-a-year. This latest change is our most ambitious. We will welcome readers' responses to it, and to the new layout and design.
Michael Schmidt

This item is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.

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