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This item is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.

Editorial DONALD DAVIE

MICHAEL VINCE has reminded us, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the common reader is beloved of this magazine. He is right to have his tongue in his cheek, for we aren't always as good as our word. We say that we aim to talk about poetry and politics and religion in terms understandable to non-specialists-and this for the good reason that we think all these concerns too vital for the specialists to be allowed to hedge them off from the rest of us. But our performance rather often belies our professed intention. It's hard to see for instance how we would reply to the non-specialist reader who should ask indignantly what he's to make of this throw-away parenthesis: "American transcendentalism, on the other hand, had allowed itself to be recuperated by bourgeois society when it mistook the individual mind for a universal; a conceptual rather than a formal error." This is from Andrew Crozier's review of Pound's Collected Early Poems in PNR 5. And is it couched in the language of the common reader? Isn't it rather in the language of an advanced seminar in either American Studies or Marxist Aesthetics?

We sympathize with the reader who should protest in this way, and we're sorry for the predicament that we put him in. On the other hand, as editors, we have our predicaments too; and our reviewers have theirs. As editors we judged, rightly as things turned out, that Andrew Crozier would consider this important book at a deeper level, and in a wider context, than any one else who has reviewed it. And for his part Andrew Crozier (to judge from the piece he wrote) found himself in the situation of having to compress into a brief review a provocative re-thinking of Pound's entire career, if not of the whole course that Anglo-American poetry has taken in the present century. Who went wrong here? Should we have chosen a reviewer with less up his sleeve, less commitment to the subject that we asked him to write about? Or should Crozier have reserved his thoughts for the book that he plainly has it in him to write, and accordingly not shared with us anything like his full mind on this matter? The predicaments interlocked, and the outcome was six columns of strenuous and thoughtful prose, dense and elliptical in the extreme, which no doubt set many readers' teeth on edge. It is likely to happen again; and our readers must be asked to accept that it's inevitable from time to time. All the same our over-riding commitment must remain unchanged: for the sake of the poet, in this case Ezra Pound, we must keep open whatever avenues we can find which give the common reader access to the poetry; and we must resist discussions which, however penetrating and sophisticated they may be, convey the impression that the searching questions about the poetry can be asked and answered only in seminar-rooms. Andrew Crozier's discussion, it may be thought, conveys just that impression.

And this is a pity, because Crozier says things that challenge any poet or reader of poetry, not just the reader of Pound. For instance, speaking of what he sees as Pound's recognition that "the syntactic authority of the self might be transferred, by a process of exteriorization, to rhythm" (which is very difficult to conceive of, but not impossible), he contends:


The nature of poetic rhythm thus conceived is unlike that of rhythm with a metrical base, which is essentially a forward moving vehicle, governed by expectation. It is required, instead, to function as an instrument of arrest, control, and coordination.


Is this true? (The second sentence certainly feels true to one reader's experience of Pound's Cantos.) If it is true, then it's a matter of great moment to any reader of this magazine, since we print poems that have a metrical base to their rhythms, and other poems where the rhythms are "free". Is the distinction between the two kinds of poem as radical as Crozier contends? If it is, then those of us have been wrong, who thought that free verse and metrical verse are alternative means to essentially the same end. Or is Crozier right about free verse, but wrong about metred verse? None of the poets we print, and no reader of their poems, can be unconcerned about this, because it's a question of what we think we are doing when we write a poem, and what a poem does to us as we read it. And the latter question at any rate can't be answered except by introspection into our own experiences as readers, and a truthful report on what introspection comes up with; not by argument or theory but only by a truthful report on "what it felt like". Thus, this is not a specialized matter; and so there has to be a non-specialized vocabulary in which to speak of it. None of us, I dare say, spend enough time looking for that common vocabulary, and training ourselves to use it.

Andrew Crozier says some things that we seem to hear from other contributors also. In that same issue of PNR there was for instance David Trotter patiently and learnedly clarifying what for some of us had been wholly opaque: the poetry of J. H. Prynne since his first collection, The White Stones (1969). Those of us who stuck on The White Stones and could get no further can now learn what it was that blocked us; it turns out that we continued to expect what Prynne thenceforward was determined to deny us, as (so Crozier says) Pound denies it to us in The Cantos-that is to say, in Crozier's words, "the lyric syntactic closures of first person experience" or, in Trotter's, "lyric-meditative conviction, tone of voice instructing the reader how to use the information presented by the poem", a way of writing in which "the lyric 'I' is ahead of us and we can learn from its example". What is the meaning of this distrust of the lyrical first-person, or condescension towards it? And how seriously are we to take the implied distrust of the lyric, of the lyrical mode as such?

It may seem to be nothing new. Before the 19th century was out, Stéphane Mallarmé was saying, and Arthur Symons was translating, something that sounds very similar:

The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields place to the words, immobilized by the shock of their inequality; they take light from mutual reflection . . . replacing the old lyrical afflatus or the enthusiastic personal direction of the phrase.

And yet this, it seems, is a false trail. For Pound was conspicuously cool about Mallarmé and Mallarméan ways of writing; and David Trotter warns us against confounding Prynne's procedures with work by Mallarmé's heirs, "contemporary French writing which employs apparently similar strategies of estrangement". Instead he asks us to recognize that "whereas The White Stones had drawn on the Wordsworthian image of the poet as man speaking to men", Prynne's later writing-his latest is News of Warring Clans (Trigram Press)-is best approached by way of Blake and Shelley and perhaps Keats. Of course we do not have to take Trotter's word for it that Mallarmé is out of the picture, and it certainly seems odd to take Shelley as a model of how to escape "the lyric 'I' ". Doesn't he rather press that "I" to its limits, and beyond? Still, David Trotter's recommendation makes a sort of sense. And in any case we do at last have a clear alternative: either Wordsworth's "man speaking to men", or else Shelley and Blake and "modernist work which seeks to ennoble . . . by the estranging attrition of absurdity. . ." Plainly, on this showing, it is only the Wordsworthians among us who can continue to ask for a non-specialized language, common discourse, the language that men do use-whether in verse or prose. And some of us no doubt, while admitting the force of Andrew Crozier's argument about Pound, will still hear a man speaking to men-speaking indeed with unusual desperation and directness-in the poet who wrote:


To confess wrong without losing rightness:
Charity I have had sometimes,
  I cannot make it flow thru.


It is a poet with that much on his mind, that desperate need to unburden himself, whom we continue to look for in the manuscripts that reach us.

This item is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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