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

Letters from Richard Poole, David Jesson-Dibley, Avril Horner, Ian Higgens

Sir: When I came to read the English Tripos, Part I, in 1923, I. A. Richards and Mansfield Forbes stood where your 'new orthodox' stand today. They applied outside method to the study of literature. Richards used close scientific analysis, a scientific technique which taught us to read more attentively, and led incidentally to Empson's explorations of ambiguity and, in Spain, to Dámaso Alonso's analyses of Góngora. Manny used psychoanalysis, myth and any other insights that occurred to him. And the traditionalists went on about 'the idea of tragedy'. The Cambridge school was split then and it has been ever since. Richards and Forbes were only attacked in private; the war against Leavis was conducted in academic journals; the MacCabe controversy spilled into the common Press. And now, with your conspiracy theory, you are inviting non-academic interference which may affect the teaching of literature in general.

We are living, in Walter Benjamin's phrase, 'unter der Regierung des Hausknechts'. And the Hausknechte are only too anxious to cut the teaching of Arts subjects in the Universities. By suggesting that English faculties are in the hands of crypto-Marxists you are playing into the hands of people who can see no value in Arts teaching in their monetarist terms. And potential students may be put off reading English if they think that teaching will be biased in sectarian or cryptopolitical ways.

As I see it, civilized values are on the defensive, and I believe that your 'new orthodox' opponents are on our side. What threatens is the trivialization of literary teaching exemplified in David Lodge's Small World and by the new 'trahison des clercs' evident in such writers as Kingsley Amis. The Hausknechte make good use of them to show that culture's only a racket.
Pangbourne, Berkshire
(This is an edited version of a much longer letter)


To construct love, it seems
I must first construct myself, the lover,
leaning in the half-dark
of an afternoon behind curtains
above you in the half-light.
Who is the subject, who the object
here, among these shadows?

As the words for what we have and are
crawl in slender ink across
and down the white page,
I look at you looking at me
and do not speak, having
nothing to say you haven't thought
already, sensed already in my posture.

The silence holds our love in place,
sufficient, abstract, pre-existing
what I am constructing now,
the one who loves the one who loves,
our two discrete bodies which owe
nothing to linguistics,
and their mutual temperatures.

Harlech, Gwynedd

Dear Sir: Antony Easthope has written elsewhere (English, Summer 1985) that 'A post-structuralist approach. . . would deconstruct entirely the notion of the text as expression of an individual.' In that case, how are the various expressions of argument and opinion that you have published in PNR 48 - and indeed this letter or the essays that my students (adult) write - to be appraised and evaluated? As responses from various cultural, social and ideological life-styles to which the writers have been conditioned?

In the same article, the named writer, whose identity is irrelevant, asserts that, 'In being author-centred, English today is deeply permeated by a particular ideology, liberal humanism.' May be so. But the fact remains that English Literature (poetry, novels, autobiographies, essays, play-texts) is written by authors. And there is a lot of it for one man in his time to get through.

If well-read critics are to be of value to teachers and students, they must not lose sight of their primary function: as professional enablers (Paul McLoughlin's sensible word). They enable us to experience more fully, pleasurably and illuminatingly, what writers have written; why, how and to what effect.

Students of mine have been reading and studying recently three novels written and published in the Edwardian era: Tono-Bungay, The Secret Agent and Howards End. These three novels carry along with them quite a substantial load of Edwardian 'cargo'. I would like to assert that they are the products of three distinctively creative imaginations. But 'imaginations' is a concept that the 'New Orthodoxy' appears to have deconstructed out of the vocabulary of English studies.

What I do assert is that the experience afforded by these novels to my students, who have elected to attend a 'literature' Course, are of more relevance to their cultural interests, more pleasurable and more meaningful, than an alternative study that I might have prescribed: the advertisement columns of the Northcliffe Press, metropolitan police and Home Office records of the period, reviews of Beethoven concerts and the contents of Edwardian telegrams, with or without anger.

These are relevant connections, but some connections are more important to the experience of living than others, as Wells, Conrad and Forster demonstrate.

One practical point: to provide such textual material, the Department's Extra-Mural Library would have had to cut back not only upon the purchase of contemporary novels, etc., but also upon the vitally important critical studies of Edwardian novels that may have been published over such signifiers as 'Antony Easthope' and associates.
London SW11

Sir: Whilst fascinated by the abstract theorizing of the post-structuralists, I am once again disappointed by the practical application of that theory to the text. I find little to quarrel with in the first half of Antony Easthope's article ('Why most Contemporary Poetry is so Bad', PN Review 48) but his analysis of two contemporary poems seems to me partial and contentious.

He claims firstly that Heaney's poem complacently suggests a 'commitment to a supposedly unified, centred and autonomous subject'. But the liberal use of the first person pronoun does not automatically mean that a poet is projecting the narrative voice as a transcendent 'I'. Indeed, a close reading of the poem might suggest the opposite. The emergence of the Grauballe man out of the bog ('bruised like a forceps baby') and, as subject-matter, out of photograph into memory, out of memory into poetry, suggests an uncomfortable awareness of the tempting and assuaging powers of art. The poem does not simply offer the 'truth of the human being as victim' as Antony Easthope claims; it also guiltily draws attention to itself as text and artefact and, by implication, to the disturbing gap between the cultural presentation of suffering in art and the reality of 'each hooded victim,/ slashed and dumped'. The 'preserved face' of John O. Thompson's poem is exposed in this poem too: the basalt egg, the cast, the photograph, all suggestive of an 'opaque' and 'perfected' vision of reality, culminate in the image of 'the Dying Gaul/ too strictly compassed/ on his shield'. The Dying Gaul is suggestive of a certain heroic attitude to death, persistent until the very end of the Middle Ages and commemorated on tombs by dramatic effigies of struggling knights, drawing their swords in the face of oblivion. (Phillippa Tristram, Images of Life and Death in Medieval Literature London, 1976). In closing the poem with this stylised image of suffering, Heaney draws attention to poetry itself as a lapidary art and fictional discourse and sets it against the chaos and horror of political murder in an (inconceivably) uncharted present. The text suggests obliquely that a poem can also 'too strictly' encompass violence; that 'beauty and atrocity' coexist uneasily (or perhaps too easily) not only in the preserved body of Grauballe man but also within poetry which can subsume political dialogue to a discourse of aesthetics. 'The Grauballe Man' is much more aware of itself as text than Antony Easthope gives it credit for. Heaney's uneasy exploration of the sense of a transcendent 'I' that lurks within his writing is continued, of course, in later poems such as Part VIII of Station Island in whch he accuses himself (through the voice of his dead cousin) of having confused 'evasion and artistic tact' in an earlier poem 'The Strand at Lough Beg', which evoked words of Dante - 'the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio - in order to 'saccharine' the fact of murder. Such sincere attempts to expose the coercion of the bardic voice ought not to be misrepresented as the complacent acceptance of a banal truth (although I suspect that the notion of human being as victim might seem less trite from the other side of the Irish Seas).

Conversely, Antony Easthope presents John O. Thompson's poem 'Montana' as an ideal text since it 'accepts the "I" as relative and situated, not absolute and transcendent'; yet to this reader at least it seems clearly to suggest a voice 'really' speaking, despite the lack of the first person pronoun and the slippage of tone. (I accept, of course, that both my reading and Antony Easthope's are only two of a number of possible readings). It is a voice which sardonically questions the romanticisation of sexual desire ('The nymphs get to be/ transform'd to laurels, lucky girls!), especially in language, whether it be myth (the story of Echo), classical writings (Ovid) or English poetry (Samuel Garth - and I suspect, Donne, since there seems to be a distinct echo of 'The Sunne Rising' in the sentence 'And as no State is Narcissus the star/ on any flag'). It is a voice which speaks in a casual, plain, informal language in the first stanza; which sardonically echoes past literary voices in the second and third stanzas, and which, by the last stanza, resorts to statement and imperative (however ambiguous in tone) in an ironic presentation of patriarchal dynasty. Whereas Montana, in his tomb, has 'preserved face' (with all the pejorative associations that 'saving face' in such a situation brings to mind), Echo is presented (sympathetically I think) as trapped and oppressed whilst Narcissus (a non-conformist in this system) is written out of the culture altogether. The poem presents both Narcissus and Echo as rejected by a social system which seeks to confine sexual desire to patterns of marriage within patriarchy and both are punished (at least according to this narrative). The final admonitions of 'Love whom you like but not a mirror./ Hide in what cave you like but lock the door' ironically reassert the constrictions of such a culture. As such the voice is loud and clear: it does attempt to present a 'truth' - that the social construction of 'love' is the product of a patriarchal hegemony - and it uses traditional rhetorical devices such as irony and understatement to present that 'truth'. It is, therefore, in this reading, quite possible to perceive a subject corresponding to the object in spite of Antony Easthope's attempt to dissolve them. A voice need not cease to suggest a unified entity simply because it does not label itself as 'I'.

For practical purposes we all live with the fiction of a unified 'I' however fervently we agree with post-structuralist thinking, just as the adherents of Bishop Berkeley's philosophy were happy to eat their meals off tables which they could not prove to be real. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the curious gap between the convincing nature of much post-structuralist theory and its woeful failure to convince when transmuted into a technique for close reading. As for Antony Easthope's admiration of writing which attempts to subvert the sense of a unified tone and which 'slide(s) between tragic accent and joke' - I share that too; and would suggest that its greatest living exponent is Geoffrey Hill, an undoubted heir to modernism. Perhaps the state of contemporary poetry is not quite so bleak as Antony Easthope would have us believe.
Stockport, Cheshire


Sir: It was good to read James Woodall's letter in PRN 47 on the Maison de la Poésie in Paris, and his references to Pierre Seghers's involvement with it. It is, however, a sad fact (and one confirmed by Mr Woodall's silence on the matter) that even in France, where anyone will tell you that Seghers is a publisher of poetry, few people realise that he is also a considerable poet. In Britain, he is virtually unknown. I am writing to you, then, to ask if I might mark Seghers's eightieth birthday by giving readers of PRN a brief outline of his career.

In France, the name Pierre Seghers in fact evokes two things, poetry and the Resistance. His poetry is full of questions which, paradoxically, affirms the fragility and toughness of human creation. It is a poetry of movement and change, and of light brought into labyrinthine dark places. The suite of poems Piranèse (1960), a metaphysical, political and aesthetic meditation on Piranesi's Carceri, best epitomises these qualities, together with a mastery of the rigour and fluidity of vers libéré characteristic of Seghers's mature work. Hugo and Verhaeren are obvious predecessors, but he is unmistakably of the same generation as Emmanuel, Frénaud and Tardieu. His writing is itself resistance, resistance to the threat and temptation of silence, immobility and resignation. Seghers is a man of action, who refuses to live in the past. 'Vivre se conjugue au présent' is the title of one poem. Yet so essential is language to human beings that this man of action could also write, while risking his life in the Resistance, that 'Il n'est de réél, que de dire'. Hence his contribution to Resistance writing and publishing: defending humanity means defending language. Hence, too, the chronicle of these activities which he completed in 1974, La Résistance et ses poètes: not an invitation to relive past glories, but a warning to look to the present.

Seghers was born on 5 January 1906. After school and various jobs, he set up as a self-employed installer of bars in cafés and hotels. A poetry-lover from his early teens, he learned about the publishing and printing side from Louis Jou, whom he met in 1932. Jou was a craftsman printer and engraver, who designed and made his own type to match the spirit of the text he was printing. His influence is clear in the many fine editions produced by Seghers.

From the outbreak of war until the Armistice in 1940, Seghers was stationed in the south, and saw no military action. The whole experience was 'a monumental, imbecilic Punch-and-Judy show'. Far more useful would be to start a soldiers' poetry magazine. The first issue of Poètes casqués appeared in November 1939. There were four issues before the Armistice. Before the last one came out, Seghers was one of the few who actually heard de Gaulle's broadcast on 18 June, calling on the French to resist. He decided to stay in France and use his magazine 'to bring together those who wanted to keep hope alive'; poetry and Nazism were incompatible; poetry was to be an invaluable weapon against propaganda and censorship.

Poètes casqués accordingly became Poésie 40 (Poésie 41 in 1941, and so on). Poésie, Confluences and Fontaine were the three main 'contraband' literary journals in occupied France. They were published legally, to ensure a big readership, but had consequently to be submitted to censorship. So the problem was how to slip in subversive material without the censor being able to object - hence the term 'contraband'. Reading wartime issues of Poésie, it is hard to say which is more striking, the courage of its editor or the obtuseness (or complicity) of the censor. At all events, the magazine and the volumes published under its imprint functioned just as Seghers had intended, both as outlets for good poetry (Pierre Emmanuel and André Frénaud were among his 'discoveries') and as rallying-places. The editorial office, at Villeneuve-les-Avignon, became a Resistance meeting-place and distribution centre. Meanwhile, Seghers's full-time work as a bar-fitter was proving doubly useful, both in helping to keep the ever-expanding magazine in the black (although it was printing 15,000 copies by the end of the war) and as a cover for his Resistance work, which involved frequent travel. Throughout the Occupation, Seghers wrote his own poetry, legal and illegal, as well as publishing other people's. The Gestapo inevitably took an interest, and he several times narrowly escaped arrest before eventually taking part in the liberation of Paris.

Perhaps the farthest-reaching venture of the newly-created éditions Seghers in 1944 was the launching of the 'Poètes d'aujourd'hui' series. This was a new concept. The volumes were cheap, pocket-sized, but well-produced, containing a substantial selection from the poet's work, along with an introduction, illustrations and bibliography. The series has been a great success (the first volume alone, on Eluard, had sold 300,000 copies by 1972), and now includes over 250 titles. In this and other series, Seghers has published, often for the first time, over a thousand poets from all over the world.

In 1969, Seghers handed over his publishing house to Laffont, although the poetry side in particular retains the Seghers imprint. Since then, he has tirelessly sought new ways of arousing the poetry he believes to be dormant in everyone. He travels widely, in France and abroad, giving lectures and readings (he is an excellent reader, neither academic nor bombastic) and organising discussions and debates. In June 1975, at the age of 69, he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Paris for a thesis on the place of poetry in contemporary society. While continuing to develop his own poetry, he has compiled anthologies, written French version of Persian, Japanese and Chinese poetry, broadcast, made films and produced large-scale multi-media poetry evenings at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, playing to a full house almost every time. Recent such shows have been devoted to Persian poetry, Chinese poetry, Breton and surealism, Hugo, Saint-John Perse and others. And of course, as James Woodall mentioned, Seghers was a co-founder of the Maison de la Poésie, and edits its excellent magazine, Poésie 85.

Seghers has just celebrated his eightieth birthday. He has recently undergone surgery, but it is inconceivable that he will not soon be back to his fifteen-hour working day. Poetry owes him a great debt, and not just in France. His poetry has been translated into a number of languages, among them German, Russian, Spanish and Italian, but not yet into English. It is greatly to be hoped that this omission will soon be put right, so that we can at last give Seghers's poetry the attention it deserves.
St Andrews

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

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