PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Subha Mukherji Dying and Living with De la Mare Carl Phillips Fall Colors and other poems Alex Wylie The Bureaucratic Sublime: on the secret joys of contemporary poetry Marilyn Hacker Montpeyroux Sonnets David Herman Memories of Raymond Williams
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to

This item is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November - December 1979.

THOMAS HARDY, who had reason to know, wrote that poetry 'is not at bottom criticised . . . as a particular man's artistic interpretation of life, but with a secret eye on its theological and political propriety.' If we replace the word 'theological' with 'ideological', we will find Hardy's statement as relevant today as it was eighty years ago.

On a recent trip to Latin America I was reminded how the world of day to day politics and the abstract world of ideological utopianism can become the very places in which poetry and criticism choose to exist. There is some reason for this: in countries without representative institutions, the writer may attempt to undertake critical tasks which belong in other systems to elected parliaments. He may see himself as something of a one-man parliament, keeping a wary eye on his tyrant and speaking either plainly or in riddles, depending on his own assessment of the frontiers of his liberty. He speaks cautiously for he speaks always with consequences to himself: he might be executed, he might disappear, his books might be confiscated, or some quieter form of persecution might be invented.

Or he may be blacked by his fellow writers. Opposite the Scylla of state censorship is this ugly Charybdis. When a literature is thoroughly politicized, the 'united front' or 'fronts' which writers create against tyranny or against mere government can become a force as negative as that of the official censor, only subtler because not generally visible. The devices of the state are obvious: the knuckles on the clenched fist are white. The writers' `united front' uses a gloved fist. Its instrument is defamation. The question asked of the 'aberrant' writer is not, 'Is what he says true?' but 'Is what he says acceptable, agreeable, expedient, in the terms of our movement? Is it useful?' There may be two or three fronts, but these should not be confused with genuine plurality. They are wittingly or unwittingly tools of political faction. They provide artist and critic with ready-made axioms and free them from the responsibility of individual witness. The best independent writers- Paz, Fuentes, Borges and others-have suffered from this in various ways, but have not been silenced.

Ironically, a similar phenomenon is visible in Western Europe -where there is no tyrannical catalyst. France and Germany have literary establishments that are thoroughly politicized. The fate in France of the work of René Béhaine is a salient example. And such orthodoxies have developed in Britain as well. Our literature has always been, to a degree, 'politicized'. Today the politicization is becoming more open, the fronts are forming, and as in the 1930s the independent writer and reader may begin to feel a little uncomfortable.

The Guardian in 1977 characterized PNR as the most forceful thrust 'from the right' since the 1950s. Why did I find this categorization disturbing? Because it was untrue. Because 'the right' is one of those catch-all terms borrowed from the world of practical politics which-in the literary context-is meant to include all sorts of political perversions. It means nothing very much, but it implies a great deal. My fellow-editors and I were not part of that game. All of us are constitutionalists-people who prefer specific and practical measures to hopeful talk about the benefits of cataclysms. To the shriller radicals of both left and right camps we would say with Burke: 'You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.' We were attempting to suggest the validity of a critical particularism, to escape party and intellectual fashion and to consider artistic works on their diverse kind of witness. It was what C. H. Sisson called 'pre-political' considerations.

Inevitably we turned our attention to major writers, and some of them 'right wing' (and some of them 'left wing'). We suggested that if one really must use the word 'commitment', there was no evidence of its being the sole possession of writers devoted to the interests of a social class: it might be that a writer could have a broader commitment, to a society at large, to its institutions, its history and its continued integrity. We set out to discriminate within the work of some literary pariahs- among them Lewis, Pound, Benn, to say nothing of the overtly political Charles Maurras-the artistically and intellectually valid and invalid material, between achievement, limitations and errors. We were interested in imaginative processes, in the way thought was communicated as experience in the wide context of a writer's oeuvre. 'Thought is always and only thought,/The thinking's different, thinking's in the blood,' wrote Burns Singer. This process, this thinking, this feeling a way among forms and images, has a content which qualifies and validates, or which subverts, the actual thought imparted. It may not be fashionable to suggest that writers can mean more and less than they intend, or than a cursory critical categorization can illuminate. Indeed, it may be dangerous to do so in a world where faction defines reality in its own terms.

Our attempt to set poetry in a wide context, to wrest imaginative work from the clutch of the academy, of coterie and of party and to set it back within the world, was itself portrayed as a form of factionalism. Perhaps the difference was that, where the reductive social and ideological orthodoxies we were standing back from define themselves in terms of what they reject, we were attempting to define ourselves in terms of what we critically accepted or, at any rate, valued. We were of Goldsmith's persuasion. He wrote in the epistle dedicatory of 'The Traveller':

But there is an enemy of this art [poetry] still more dangerous. I mean party. Party entirely distorts the judgement and destroys the taste. When the mind is once infected with this disease, it can only find pleasure in what contributes to increase the distemper. Like the tiger, that seldom desists from pursuing man after having once preyed upon human flesh, the reader, who has once gratified his appetite with calumny, makes, ever after, the most agreeable feast upon murdered reputation.

We were with Coleridge, too, who wrote to John Hookham Frere:

. . . wherever I look, in religion or in politics, I seem to see a world of power and talent wasted in the support of half truths, too often the most mischievous, because least suspected of errors. This may result from the spiritual habit of partizanship, the supposed inseparable accompaniment of a free state, which pervades all ranks, and is carried into all subjects.

This was and is our 'orientation': an attempt to maintain critical catholicity, to serve no party or faction. It is by the example of PNR itself that we answer the editor of Stand and his recent polemics.

The poet Michael Hamburger wrote to me on 5 March and has given me permission to quote from his letter:

I have just read the recent number of Stand with all those polemics, and feel that these are not a healthy or promising development. (I have watched the politicization of West German literature since the war, and it has done nothing but harm.) . . . When poets try to formulate their (poetically valid) emotional commitments in political terms, nothing comes out of that but dangerously divisive misunderstandings. . . All their political statements will be misunderstood, inevitably, because they will be understood in terms of present political realities. . . . I hope that you will do your best to avoid this kind of pseudo-political polarization in PNR, because no good can come of it. (There will be quite enough real political polarization in this country in the years to come!)

* * * * *

As general editor of PNR, I have wanted since 1977 to increase the periodicity of the magazine to six-times yearly. This appears a real possibility now, and we are hoping to publish six issues this year. Readers will have noted certain changes: we are using lighter paper and a lighter cover-board. In future we intend to increase the point-size of type (out of consideration for our readers' eyesight) and to lavish rather more attention on design. The magazine will remain for the foreseeable future at its present 64 page length. Subscription rates are being raised to £6.00 per annum for this year and will be adjusted once again in 1980, but subscribers who have already renewed at £4.90 will of course receive a twelve months' issues at the old rate.

Our intention is to become more au courrant in the review pages, to develop the correspondence columns, and to attend more closely to developments abroad.
-Michael Schmidt

This item is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November - December 1979.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image