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



I was interested by Neil Powell's review of A Proper Gentleman by Vernon Scannell in PNR 7. It was one of the few considerations of the book which examined with any seriousness the issues raised by Mr Scannell's residency in Berinsfield, but I would like to take the opportunity of answering some of the criticisms of Southern Arts which are implied.

Part of the problem is that the book does not tell the whole story. I would not wish to carp too much about this because Scannell is out to tell a tale and a certain licence is therefore in order. Nevertheless it should be set on record that Southern Arts did not impose the Fellowship on Berinsfield in quite the Olympian fashion which has been windely assumed, and was, in fact, responding to a local initiative in doing so. Evidently there were problems with the residency, and we would accept that in agreeing to the proposal which was made to us, we are partly responsible for the difficulties which arose. We do not, however, regard Mr Scannell's appointment as an unmitigated disaster since he undertook an enormous amount of valuable work in schools in the area. The Fellowship was held from September 1975 until June 1976 and it is remarkable that, from time to time, we still receive letters from appreciative teachers asking if further visits by poets and novelists can be arranged.

In a different way, the poet's clash with Berinsfield had important effects in stimulating a sense of community in the immediate estate. This was so particularly as a result of the publication of A Proper Gentleman. Vernon Scannell's description of the local residents caused considerable outrage; the paradox is that they are now endeavouring to prove that the village can be made a better place to live. This of course has nothing to do with literature but it is important and has not been noted in the press except by the News of the World, which published the only accurate summary of the affair (and was, by the way, the only publication to ask for our side of the story).

The role of the Literature Panel of Southern Arts is twofold; it assists the development of an informed interest in contemporary literature by offering financial aid to magazines, societies and by promoting writers in residence, 'Writers in Schools', etc.; it gives assistance to practising authors by offering Bursaries, Fellowships and other awards. We take the latter part of our role very seriously and we do not attempt to exploit writers by giving them impossible tasks. It was therefore particularly disturbing to read Vernon Scannell's charge (regularly repeated by the press) that we had hoodwinked him by concealing the nature of the arrangement. The truth is that he was taken to Berinsfield and given a chance to assess the problems before he accepted our Fellowship. As I have said earlier, we readily admit the difficulties which were encountered but we have been repeatedly portrayed as devious bureaucrats out to entrap the unwary poet.

Many lessons were learned in Berinsfield in 1975 and by taking them into account we have felt justified in continuing with the annual Writer's Fellowship. Mr Powell makes a number of observations to the effect that all writers are "in residence" somewhere. This is of course quite evident, but not every writer undertakes the role of developing literary interests in a given location-why should they? The purpose of our Fellowship was and is to engage a writer to undertake this type of work, a task at which it is not easy to succeed and at which not all novelists or poets are adept. In view of the doubts about the legitimacy of such a venture I feel that it would be right to draw attention to the unqualified success of Vernon Scannell's successor. The novelist Wilson Harris was attached to St Edmund's Arts Centre, Salisbury for a year from September 1976. In the course of only a few months he had formed a writers' workshop in the Centre, which achieved great support and a very high level of work. The group was conducted with an exacting standard by Harris and it continues to meet long after his departure. It is now conducted by the local "writers in residence" referred to by Neil Powell, but the important point is that it took Harris's particular ability to make the start. It is worth adding that during his tenure of the Fellowship Wilson Harris wrote a novel (subsequently published by Faber) and a number of critical studies.

Mr Powell's view that aid should be channelled exclusively through publishers raises more questions than can be answered here. Suffice it to say, then, that much state patronage does pass to authors in this manner, although it should be questioned whether (given the premise that literature should receive subsidy) we should rely entirely on the publishers' judgment. What chance for the youthful Bunting in such a future?

Yours etc.
Literature Officer, Southern Arts Association
Winchester, Hampshire


Neil Powell's "The Poet, the Public, and the Pub" raises a few points which triggered off some thoughts on attitudes that often seem to come through in PN Review.

I can't disagree with a lot of what Powell says. The idea of putting a poet in the middle of a council estate is ridiculous. I live on one myself, and I'd be annoyed at the arrogance that assumed I wanted or even needed a poet.

But Powell is naive when he talks about the differences in attitudes in his local pub towards music and poetry. The reason he can't talk about poetry is because, rightly or wrongly, most people think it has nothing to do with their lives. Music they can use, but so much poetry is little more than personal indulgence, or stuff contrived to impress other poets and academics. Now that's perfectly all right-write the way you want, and for your own purposes, though don't whine if no one reads you-but let's not fool ourselves as to the real reasons for the dislike of, or disinterest in, poetry. As it happens, I don't think it can have mass appeal, which isn't to say that more individuals couldn't enjoy it.

Another factor is that music has obvious skills attached to it. People respect them, even if they don't know much about them. What gets through, though, is the emotion, whether linked to sadness or humour or whatever. The problem with poetry is that it has techniques, but they're less obvious, and you have to rely on other aspects (subject-matter, content, emotion) to initially reach people. And most poetry just isn't about anything as far as many people can see. Much of it isn't about anything as far as I can see, and I've been reading, writing, reviewing, and editing for around twenty years. The mischievous in me inclines me to suggest that perhaps the fault lies in the fact that too many poets are also academics.

And then we come to the question of subsidies. Powell seems to support the line of doubting whether the policies of the past ten or fifteen years have been worthwhile. There is a debate going on at the moment, mostly amongst academics and literary establishment types, and "values" or "standards" are usually quoted as the reasons for concern. It's really all to do with those old subjects, power and money. The past twenty years have seen some healthy changes in British poetry. The 60s broke the stranglehold of London, and put the schoolteachers in their place. Poetry was taken into the streets, and out of the academies and into bohemia, and the latter is a better place for it to be. A variety of styles blossomed. Mistakes were made, and excesses committed, but better that than the drabness that typified much poetry in the 50s.

The establishment is now trying to reassert its control, because there's only a limited amount of money around, and it wants to make sure it directs the flow in what it sees as the right direction. Not exactly conspiring with the literary establishment, but often being just as reactionary, are certain academics, terrified because their opinions no longer count as important. They have to try to reimpose their definitions of good and bad, because if they can't, they're impotent.

What academics never seem to realize is that the money for subsidies comes from the wealth produced by people working in industry, commerce, etc. I know that teachers pay taxes, but they are paid out of wages drawn from the money produced by industry. I also know that teachers train the people required for industry, etc., so play their part in the grand scheme of things. That's true of teachers at a basic level, and of academics in science, medicine, engineering, etc. But what do Eng. Lit. types do? However, I believe that the wealth and health of a nation lies in more than its industry, which is why I think there should be Eng. Lit. departments. And Arts Centres. And subsidies for those outside the magic circles of the London literary establishment and the academies.

Incidentally, do all those concerned academics, anxious about the corrupting influence of state subsidies, never stop to think that their places of employment are part of the state system, their wages funded by the state, their job to put across the state message, mild though it may be.

Let me say that I do agree with Powell that money should only be paid for work done-a book, some poems, or stories, in a magazine, a reading, etc. But he does worry me when he talks about "responsible publishers". Who decides that? We're back to the old problem-if the establishment controls things then the "responsible publishers" will be those printing establishment-approved poets.

But isn't it time we stopped squabbling amongst ourselves, and got down to working together to ensure that as wide a variety of poetry as possible gets printed and performed, and that it reaches a broad audience, though not in the mistaken ways sometimes tried by professional arts administrators. I doubt that anyone can produce evidence to show that this would result in a lowering of "standards". Powell rightly points out that poets can spring from all kinds of circumstances, but how will we ever hear them if we don't keep all our channels of communication open?

Yours etc.
Preston, Lancashire

NEIL POWELL replies:

False assumptions tend to result in false conclusions. Leaving aside what I take to be deliberate coat-trailing errors in Jim Burns's letter (e.g. "wages" for "salary"), there are some mistakes which he can't have intended to make. He implies that I don't practise what I preach, that my reservations about subsidies are hypocritical since teachers are paid by the state and "their places of employment are part of the state system". But my salary as a teacher is not and never has been paid by the state: it is paid by "An Educational Charity registered in England as a Limited Company" and ultimately, therefore, by parents who as customers choose to pay for the work I do. This is precisely consistent with the argument in my article that the writer should be rewarded for a job well done, again ultimately by customers who choose to pay for his work. Burns's fondness for subsidies, on the other hand, is all of a piece with his fondness for telling us he lives on a council estate. Perhaps I value independence and initiative more highly than he does.

I cannot understand Burns's point about the "use" of music, given in context of my comment-about difficult and unfamiliar works in the Proms (I had in mind something like the Berio or the Buller from the 1977 season). As for the view of poetry which underlies Burns's letter, it is really too transparently silly to argue with any further.



Many thanks to Grevel Lindop for reading my book with such generous intelligence, and to you for printing him (PNR 7). A welcome antidote to the (only somewhat paranoid) suspicion that no-one has actually read the prose one has laboured so to finish. "We are too few", as Randall Jarrell said.

There is, however, one unsettling moment in Lindop's piece when one suspects he hasn't been reading with due care and attention. Strangely enough, it's a moment when I'm beïng made to look rather silly:

A curious example occurs in Dr Young's discussion of "Blood and the Moon", where the attitudes of the poem are harshly yet not unfairly criticized, but without reference to the horribly unwieldly metre that reduces the second section of the poem to cacophony and doggerel:
And haughtier-headed Burke that proved the State a tree,
That this unconquerable labyrinth of the birds, century after century,
Cast but dead leaves to mathematical equality.
This is poor stuff, clumsily expressed, and critical discussion which does not face the problem will fail to tackle the meaning of the poem as well as its form.

This is indeed poor stuff, and if Lindop were right about my not noticing it, I would be a poor critic. However, this is happily not the case. Hear this from Out of Ireland:;

When one contrasts this [piece of paratactic genius] with the adjectival glut that almost paralyses the second section of "Blood and the Moon", one senses on purely formal grounds that Yeats is having difficulty addressing his subject.

Yup, it's right there on p.119. You could look it up.

Yours etc.
Abberton, Essex

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

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