Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to email@example.com
This item is taken from PN Review 41, Volume 11 Number 3, January - February 1985.Editorial
'. . . they were great proficients in the French fashions . . . for although their information appeared to be none of the newest, it was very extensive; and the eldest sister in particular, who was distinguished by a talent for metaphysics, the laws of hydraulic pressure, and the rights of human kind, had a novel way of combining these acquirements, and bringing them to bear on any subject from Millinery to the Millennium, both inclusive, which was at once improving and remarkable; so much so, in short, that it was usually observed to reduce foreigners to a state of temporary insanity in five minutes.'
Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter 17
THE editor of an American magazine devoted to an avant garde-a weary one, now swallowed up by the Academy, University Presses, Writing Fellowships-recently complained that his particular group of poets had been so busy writing poems (one of them 'more than fifty books') that they had not got around to providing a body of criticism by which their work might gain acceptance. Readers, teachers and academic exegetes had not been given a serviceable tool-kit.
I told him that in Britain we had a number of writers with the opposite problem: they were critics without a poetry. Universities and polytechnics were their natural habitat. They too were a kind of latter-day avant garde, alerting students to the tyranny of tradition, of 'standard' English with its ingrained sexism and imperialism, of the hierarchical structure of places of learning and places of work. Their critical discourse often seemed remote from actual literary texts, except those that could be read as documents or adduced to prove critical generalities. Absent was the spirit of advocacy and radical engagement with the language of poetry which characterises the best criticism of even the dullest ages. Poetry is left untouched, for the most part, though these critics work in literature departments and acknowledge important debts to 'the French fashions', to continental and American writers who are advocates as well as theorists.
Actual revolutions in the form and language of poetry are accomplished by poets and are accompanied not only by manifestos but by new criticism. This is often written by the poets themselves, who in a pragmatic or programmatic spirit revise the literary map, evoke neglected antecedents and overturn established reputations. Such criticism follows in the wake of new creative work, the cart properly behind the horse. The canon of English poetry is never static for very long: it is like the sketch of a figure altered by a succession of artists, each of whom seeks to define as well as to restore it. The authority of tradition is invoked against the dead hand of convention. But the 'tradition' referred to is never quite what it was last time. Those critics who rebel against the tyranny of tradition confuse tradition with curriculum.
The critical debate which has rumbled on in recent issues of PNR has failed so far to establish a common ground. In PNR 40 Nicolas Tredell suggested that a meeting place exists in actual poems and the application of new critical techniques to new writing, especially to the poetry neglected by homespun critical establishments hostile to anything that reeks of Paris, Yale or Black Mountain College. Such critics are beyond our reach: their hallmark is impressionistic journalism or, at another extreme, parti pris and worn-out academicism.
Among radical critics whose work has been debated in PNR, Terry Eagleton alone has maintained an interest in new poetry, writing regular surveys in Stand. With Martin Dodsworth's independent-minded Guardian reviews, Eagleton's are some of the most lucid and succinct comments a poet is likely to receive in this country. But his reviews occasionally read as a function of his (albeit modulating) critical polemic. Usually he allows himself to be led by the poems he's considering; but sometimes he abandons that proper modesty. In a recent review of Christopher Middleton's work, for instance, he characteristically devoted generous space to an excellent but difficult neglected writer. Yet his review harnessed Middleton's poetry to an argument which it will support at best uneasily. Eagleton now has a predictably negative response to 'the sensuous empiricism of much traditional English poetry'. He praises Middleton not for being a fine writer but for being iconoclastic, unconventionally English, rootless; for creating his own 'bizarre' region which is 'consistent' but 'unstable'. Middleton 'transgresses' and 'violates' limits (those energetic terms are doubtful in their sexual and spiritual nuances-Middleton speaks of 'interdicting the code' of language, a more accurate, less empirical way of putting it). Middleton's work 'ceaselessly elud[es] the closure of determinate meaning'. Eagleton endorses Middleton's strategies-but that in the poetry which is not strategy escapes him. He does not approach even the periphery of assessment; he does not demonstrate; he tells us little that Middleton has not already told us about his own work.
But then, in certain essays in Bolshevism in Art and The Pursuit of the Kingfisher, Middleton has effectively offered himself to the radical critics, providing them with the critical tools which draw them to, if not into, his work; and thus he has proved the contention of that disappointed American editor. Up to a point, at least: for Middleton's work has not been accepted, and the endorsement of his strategies by radical critics brings his work only a little nearer to the general reader. To extend his enjoyment, that general reader requires a more complex criticism committed to poems and to what Nicolas Tredell will insist on calling 'literature'. MS
This item is taken from PN Review 41, Volume 11 Number 3, January - February 1985.