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This item is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

A few months ago The Times devoted the best part of a page to a profile of John Ashbery. I confess to having been surprised, for who any longer expects the daily press to pay anything but the most superficial attention to poetry? Ashbery, moreover, is a 'difficult' poet, experimental and American - and the market for American, to say nothing of translated poetry, has shrunk out of sight over the last ten years. The article was, as these things go, reasonably serious, but the true state of play stood revealed in its headline: 'The major genius of a minor art'. Forget the easy attribution of genius. If poetry is indeed a minor art, then the state of our whole culture is unprecedented. For poetry has always been the central, focusing art - not necessarily the most important at any given time, but the one which has been thought of as standing at the threshold of a culture and calling it into being; and then sustaining it by continually renewing the instrument - language - with which the social animal understands and communicates experience.

For most of this century, the popular appeal of poetry has been in decline. During the 1960s it seemed, for a brief period, as if this was no longer the case. That the earlier pattern has re-established itself, therefore, is all the more troubling. But must we really now accept the correlation of cultural centrality and popular success that the Times headline implied? Seminal work has been written before in the narrowest of circumstances. The literary movement that eventually gave birth to The Divine Comedy, for instance, was a private coterie, esoteric and patrician in its outlook. Much the same can be said for the poets surrounding Sidney and Donne. In our own age of notorious inaccessibility, the influence of Hardy, Eliot and Lawrence on our language and culture is a continuing phenomenon, though rarely recognized as such. This is not to argue that in a mass democratic society like our own the maintenance of a tiny clerisy is adequate, or that the situation of poetry is satisfactory. It is rather to suggest that the art is far from dead and that we have a basis on which to build a wider understanding of its role and function.

This June, twenty-four poets (including John Ashbery) will be taking part in the sixth biennial Cambridge Poetry Festival. If such events have any point at all, it is that for a few concentrated days they remove the burden of cultural isolation suffered by poets and their art. The issues and concerns that link poets to one another and poetry to its readers are brought to the public stage. The place of poetry in the culture at large is thus exposed to view, and a segment of the republic of letters briefly becomes a visible and audible community. Of course, audiences attend festivals mainly in order to hear poets reading their work. One hopes that they come away with a broader sense of the range of contemporary achievement. As the Cambridge Festival is also uncompromisingly international, this sense of poetic possibility is further enlarged by evidence of what is being written abroad, both in English and in a selection of other tongues. It is not, however, a rigged and formal accolade. Though the honouring of established achievement is one of a festival's proper functions, the atmosphere remains unpredictable. Unforeseen connections are likely to be drawn and unexpected talents to emerge.

The first Festival took place in 1975 and was the brain-child of its co-ordinator, Richard Burns. Effectively a product of the remarkable expansion of poetic activity that took place during the 1960s, it reflected many of that period's values and achievements. It is sometimes forgotten that, before the 1960s, public readings in Britain were much less common than they are today. Readings by foreign-language writers were still more rare. In its insistence on the international principle, the Cambridge event's most obvious antecedent was the London-based Poetry International, held annually at the Queen Elizabeth Hall between 1967 and 1975. Though in this respect Cambridge followed the International, it sought in most others to correct its limitations. The London readers in 1967 were all acknowledged 'masters' and the readings had the character of recitals. There was no access to the poets themselves and little opportunity for discussion. The Cambridge Festival was, and remains, more open, informal and participatory. From the outset, the 1975 committee drew attention to the existence in the U.K. of important work that owed little or nothing to the metropolis. Poets of international repute appeared on the same platforms as the young and the little-known. Achievement and success, it was argued, are rarely commensurate; and in accordance with that principle, all participants were paid the same fee. (One of the Festival's enduring achievements has been the way it has awakened interest in poets neglected by the currents of fashion or cut off from a wide audience by restrictions of language and culture. Examples of the first category in 1975 were David Gascoyne and John Heath-Stubbs and of the second, the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean.) The metropolitan version of contemporary poetry was further challenged by the prominence given to bookstalls displaying small press publications, little magazines and foreign books alongside the products of the London publishing-houses. The informing vitality of small-scale publications was further stressed by readings that focused on particular presses and journals, featuring the writers they published and promoting their values. Musical and dramatic performances, lectures, exhibitions and films emphasised the links between poetry and other arts and disciplines; discussions and debates related poetry to the issues of the day. Efforts were made to involve children, young people and the teaching profession, notably by means of a children's event in the week leading up to the main festival. (In subsequent years this pioneering event has been expanded to include carnival-style entertainments, school visits, workshops, a poetry competition and talks to teachers.) The emphasis throughout was on informality and audience participation, and to preserve these characteristics the Festival organization was made non-institutional. Thus, every Festival since 1975 has been run by a different co-ordinator and administered by a changing committee answerable to a subscription-paying Festival Society.

There have been five Festivals, including the present one, since 1975. Each of them, inevitably, has had different qualities and contrasting emphases. But in spite of such differences, all the principles I have outlined as determining the first Festival's character have been maintained. Predictably, the most significant changes have been brought about by economic recession. The Arts Council's role as chief financer of the first Festival, providing about half of the budget, was taken over in 1977 by the Eastern Arts Association. This contribution has remained constant, more or less keeping pace with inflation. Other sources of finance, though, have fallen away. As a result, where previous Festivals have run for four or even five days, this year's will run for three. In 1975, something like a hundred participants (poets and other performers) were invited; this year that number will be roughly halved. The largest expense the Festival has to meet is usually the cost of foreign air-fares. This has had to be cut and, in consequence, the foreign contingent - though it remains central to the whole event - has been sorely reduced. Yet the Festival still manages to look like a strikingly healthy survivor from an era more hopeful than our own, with most of that era's follies now discarded. Whether it can continue beyond 1985, in the face of the present government's arts policy and its approach to the funding of local government, remains to be seen.

This issue of PNR is intended as a guide to the 1985 Festival and includes the proposed programme of events. In undertaking to edit it, I agreed in effect to represent a list of poets and events already chosen by the Festival committee (of which my Assistant Editor is a member). My brief was to invite contributions from the participants and to commission essays, translations and interviews from writers of my own choice. I have therefore been slightly less independent than is normal for an editor, though final responsibility for the selection rests with me. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to represent every participant. Some never responded to my invitations and others failed to produce material they had offered. Others again were invited by the co-ordinator at a time when the issue was already planned and even (in one case) ready for publication.

One section of the magazine may prove controversial. 1985 sees the centenary of the birth of Ezra Pound and a number of items in the Festival programme recognize that occasion. There will be readings of his poetry by participating writers, an exhibition of the visual art he championed, performances of his music and, inescapably, a discussion of his politics. Essays on these and other aspects of his work have therefore been included in this issue. It is difficult to write poetry in English today without some attention to the lessons Pound made it his business to teach. I am thinking mainly of his struggle to renovate poetic form and language: the clear delineation of images and the feeling of haecceity that derives from it; the cutting away of surplus vocabulary; the sensitivity to appropriate form and length; the particularity of rhythm, with the musical phrase (even in metrical verse) as the unit of prosody. But in crucial respects Pound failed. His adoption of the ideogrammatic method, to which much of the edge and sparkle of his verse is due, caused him to reject the syntax of reason and, with it, the use of abstract language, necessary as that is for the understanding and evaluation of experience. These rejections, I believe, help to explain Pound's attachment to a brutal and brutalizing political movement, whose power was based on the very evil he had committed himself to fighting: the obfuscation of language. I claim no originality for this view. I merely state it as my justification for including in a 'celebration' of Pound essays by writers who have learnt from him yet turned away from his influence. It is perhaps significant that none of the contributors I approached was interested in writing a simple eulogy. At any event, in Pound's centenary year, and as he begins to look like a classic, we surely need to examine the nature and extent of his failure - if only to make more sense of the glories of his work. We need to know what from that tragic life can be salvaged, and what cannot: for few lives in our century have been so devoted to the art of poetry and the health of our language.

In concluding my work on this special number of PNR, I should like to acknowledge the help and advice I have received from a variety of individuals. Notable among them have been John Alexander, Massimo Bacigalupo, Richard Burns, Robyn Marsack, Anthony Rudolf and Charles Tomlinson. Most of all I want to thank my Assistant Editor, Alison Rimmer, without whom I should not have been able to put the issue together.
Cambridge, March 1985

This item is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

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