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This item is taken from PN Review 41, Volume 11 Number 3, January - February 1985.Letters from Claire Harman, Peter Mullen, Geoffrey Ward, Stan Smith, John Ash
Sir. In his review of Geoffrey Moore's revised Penguin Book of American Verse (PNR 40), Dick Davis laments the absence of a number of poets. The absence that most struck me-in this anthology, as in Peter Porter's revision of the Michael Roberts Faber anthology of modern verse-is that of Laura Riding. Surely this major poet, whose work was central to the development of so many poets this century, cannot be edited out of the canon? Her critical and poetic work was crucial to Michael Roberts's own thought, and to the poetry of many of the lesser and larger figures in the Moore anthology. Quite apart from her influence-acknowledged and unacknowledged-there is the matter of the excellence of her poetry. No anthology-map of American or English language poetry is complete without her. And yet I understand that she is being omitted from the new Norton anthology as well. A generation of readers will be the poorer for it.
Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire CLAIRE HARMAN
THE WRONG SORT OF PROFESSORS
Sir: Richard Harries (PNR 40) must have been meeting too many of the wrong sort of 'Professors of English Literature at parties' if he imagines that the liturgy and theology of the Alternative Service Book can be satisfactory while the language remains unsatisfactory, as if the liturgy and theology were things that exist 'behind' the words. On the contrary, words must actually be about something; or as Sisson himself said somewhere: 'The choice of words affects what is being said.'
As for the supposition that 'a great poet' could, out of the blue, compose a new liturgy-well, this is just to misunderstand the connections which are there between language and public life. The sort of liturgy which our society could create-and many would say has created in the Alternative Service Book-is not something which could be prayed by anyone who has seriously used the Book of Common Prayer and understood the profoundly accurate delineation of the human predicament to be found there. The new liturgy just does not bear the weight and meaning of what it is to be human, and because it is a psychological failure it is bound to be a spiritual and moral failure as well.
One example makes the case: 'With this ring I thee wed' (BCP)-six words, each of one syllable; the rhythm exactly suited to the act. 'I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage'- eleven words of abstract theory. And, crucially, if the bridegroom has to tell her the ring is a sign, well that just means the sign isn't working. Did the authors of the Alternative Service Book give us this 'modern' version because we could not understand the old version, or what?
Harries says the Revised Standard Version is better than the New English Bible. No, it isn't except in surpassing squeamishness : the dead Lazarus-
'He stinketh' (Authorized Version)
'There will be an odour' (Revised Standard Version)
What helpful modern lines we find in the Jerusalem Bible, another book for which Harries has high praise:
'If you live in the shelter of Elyon
And make your home in the shadow of Shaddai,
You can say to Yahweh . . .' (Jerusalem Bible)
'Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty' (Coverdale)
I think Richard Harries should go to better class parties.
Tockwith, York The Reverend PETER MULLEN
Sir: Though I was interested to see Peter Larkin's reply (PNR 40) to my criticism of Thomas A. Clark's Twenty Poems (PNR 37), I find myself in sharp disagreement. In his attempt to demonstrate how little 'latter-day pastoral' there is in the book, Larkin (not surprisingly) refuses to look at the text. I offer him this brief but representative quotation: 'well roofed and pleasant/is my hut in the woods/with its lintel of honeysuckle/with its thatch of faith'. Surely I may be excused for seeing at least some element of latter-day pastoral in this? The meanings generated by poems may be multiple and indirect; it may indeed be that over and above their immediate significations, these lines attempt to convey overtones of Heidegger, undertones of Zen, or many other things. What is more certain is that a poet cannot afford to neglect the obvious meaning a reader is likely to find in the lines; and that, in this case, is chiefly a matter of pastoral retreat conveyed with undoubted verbal skill but little attention to social reality. Larkin speaks of 'Clark's (political) strategy' but fails to describe it, and those squeamish parentheses do not help him. Worst of all, I am instructed that Clark's is 'a practice of writing always more language-than-world-centred'. To someone who can divide the two so glibly, obviously preferring the former, words and poems can of course mean anything under the sun. Poetry's urgency, its morality, and its availability as an instrument of knowledge all then collapse into precisely that 'self-protective and rather brittle marginality' from which your correspondent seeks to rescue the art. From my twelve years' acquaintance with his work, I would guess that this is far from being Clark's aim; but with friends like your correspondent, his poetry needs no enemies.
English Department, Liverpool University GEOFFREY WARD
A NEW GENRE
Sir. I note with interest the emergence in your pages of a new literary genre: the Letters page written largely by or about Nicolas Tredell. At the current rate, you will soon be able to dispense with other correspondents altogether. I leave the rest of this sheet blank for Mr Tredell's reply.
English Department, Dundee University STAN SMITH
Nicolas Tredell writes: Dr Smith's critical perception is acute. I look forward to reading analyses of the new genre in terms of its structural and rhetorical properties, subtexts and intertexts, unwitting repetitions, polysemous pluralities, and (a topic for Dr Smith himself, perhaps) the precise conjuncture of historical forces in which it emerged.
Sir: I was interested to discover in a review of the Oxford Book of Death (PNR 35) that your reviewer considers 'Wagner's "Funeral March" from Siegfried, perhaps the greatest [example] of the genre in European music'. It is not, for the simple reason that it does not exist. Siegfried's Funeral March is to be found in Gotterdämmerung where one would expect it to be, after the death of the hero. I might also point out that three of the 'German' composers your reviewer mentions were Austrian. The Anschluss did not occur until 1938.
Whalley Range, Manchester JOHN ASH
There were two substantive errors in PNR 39, the issue devoted to the work of C.H.Sisson. The date of On the Look-Out is variously given as 1958 and 1956. The actual date was 1965.
In Geoffrey Hill's essay, an error was perpetrated in the act of correcting an earlier typographical error. On page 12, column 2, twenty lines from the foot of the page, the passage should read:
'In an essay written in 1961, on the Dorset poet and philological scholar William Barnes, he quotes Barnes's note on the "Character and Intelligence of the Britons" and adds that "he exhibits the prejudices and loyalties of a race untouched by liberal delusions" (Collected Essays, 196). Sisson's difficulty, a fascinating one, and so intractable that I doubt whether he ever satisfactorily resolves it, is how to reconcile the kind of prejudice which one admires (as in Barnes) to the kind of prejudice which one does not. He writes in English Poetry of "the easy flow of prejudice which is of all things the most inimical to poetry" (26). I say "reconcile" quite deliberately, because I would acknowledge that Sisson distinguishes between them clearly enough in his own mind.'
This item is taken from PN Review 41, Volume 11 Number 3, January - February 1985.