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

This item is taken from PN Review 7, Volume 5 Number 3, April - June 1979.

Editorial
It's not only that we have little Latin. We have little culture. There is no surviving cultural context into which this imaginary work could settle and come to affect us. There is only a specialist academic context for it. The Latin heritage has apparently done its job. It affects us largely as it has been assimilated into our culture-no longer directly, but mediated through our own past literature. And yet that literature, too, begins to seem remote to many readers and not a few writers. Is this perhaps because, having forgotten the point de repere, they no longer feel the binding fibres of the tradition? And if the binding fibres are not felt, can they still hold?

Professor Marjorie Perloff, in a special issue of Contemporary Literature (University of Wyoming Press) which she subtitles 'The Two Poetries: the Postwar Lyric in Britain and America', tells us that British poets are crushed by the weight of tradition, that they cannot write because the British tradition inhibits them. She is wrong. We do not in England feel strongly enough a vital tradition, There is among some a strong feeling of convention, but that is another matter altogether.

I say 'we' do not feel strongly enough . . . There are exceptions, but they are made exceptional by the mediocre cultural commissars who shape our educational institutions, journalize about books, and outlaw writers with large or eccentric ambitions. In proseletyzing for 'relevance' in literature, they balk at the notion that Virgil may be as much to the point as-shall we say-the demotic 'relevancies' of the present day; may even be more to the point than they, being one of our cultural points of departure. In the church, these commissars perpetrate the new liturgy and the new translations of the Bible. In the schools they have children study Kes and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead rather than Wordsworth and Hamlet. There is of course considerable value in teaching through 'relevant' texts; but an equal value in the lessons learned from what is not so immediately relevant-those lessons which extend rather than merely confirm a child's cultural experience, which enhance his perception, fortify his imagination, which by the contrast of otherness more richly develop his understanding of what is.

The European intelligence, founded on the culture of Rome and the Christian heritage, has been able to assimilate and transform diverse material and modes. It has responded to the force and effect of realized ideas. It is a rare property today. Dante walked with Virgil and Dryden with Horace. Robert Pinsky's work in the pages of PNR reveals how live Horatianism still is. But, for the most part, contemporary European and American writers assume that those mutually intelligible, inter-related cultures are at an end. For all the exchange between modern literatures, we experience (through translation) more a traffic in information than a communication of cultures. However skilfully the English language poet imitates the Latin American or East European model who catches his fancy, he cannot approximate the original because he has no cultural common ground with it.

There is very little real exchange of contemporary literature across borders. Poetry in particular tends nowadays to stay at home. Even between English-speaking cultures there is a frontier-less of availability than of diverse prejudice. Professor Perloff's magazine is an instance of this. We are in a world of formulas, codes, critical orthodoxies.

And critical fashions do find their way across borders, though they sometimes leave behind them at the customs post some of the actual literary works which they grew fat on. It is as though the substantial modern poem is rooted to its native ground, and only the critical formulations that hover over it can disengage and travel. The '-isms' of critical orthodoxy are privileged. Where Chaucer read Boccaccio and Eliot read Laforgue, some of us rest content with reading the footnotes, and to find our way take-not Virgil, but Lukacs or Frye or Barthes by the hand.

Even within the borders of a national culture, critical formulations seem to hypnotize many young readers. My students alarm me: they invariably demand reading lists of critical books and articles about modern poetry-poetry published ten, five, two years ago, in their own dialect, their own country, addressing realities they too have perceived. They distrust themselves before the plain text. They are keen to accept critical formulations, but not the poem itself. Desperate for an 'angle' or 'point of view', they flee from the responsibility of evaluation. Education seems to have provided them only with uncertainty-self-distrust and a distrust of the primary text. Is this not because their cultural perspective is foreshortened? This matter is more crucial than a mere lack of information: it is a lack of identity; it reflects a terrifying cultural inertia.

Where a direct commerce exists between the writer and his extraordinarily insecure readership, the relationship often does the writer more harm than good. When certain critical or political orthodoxies prevail, the second-rate writer will compose work which corresponds to those orthodoxies. Hence I begin to distrust the poem that responds too readily to any popular method of criticism, as I do the poem that caters rhetorically to a political cause-poetry arranged to comfort a critic or flatter an audience. Of the modern poets whose work I present to my students, there are very few for whom classroom exegetics are finally irrelevant. Those few are the best.

Philip Larkin's poems respond to critical analysis, but having done so they remain undeniably poems. This is because the best of them have, more than mere technical assurance, a realized subject. They focus upon the world, not upon reader or critic. Those of his poems which seek to be merely effective fall below the unarguable standard set by his best work.

I believe there is more in common poetically and culturally between Larkin and-for example-William Carlos Williams, than there is between Larkin and Robert Conquest or Kingsley Amis. Larkin writes from a recognizable and general world; and through it we gain access to recognizable experiences. Larkin's Hull is as polluted and poetically achieved as Williams's Paterson; and his very different technique is as assured as Williams's. The poems look outward. Of course, they're deliberate, adjusted, cautious. What distinguishes them from the poems of other poets of his generation-and his imitators-is not only their superior craft, but their worldliness and their resultant superior humanity. His ironies are not self-satisfied; his terror is not factitious.

Few contemporary poets can frustrate the insecure young reader into relinquishing all aids and trusting himself, alone with the poem. Of those whose work I present, the few who do this include my fellow editors, and Geoffrey Hill, W. S. Graham, two or three others-poets who tease us out of thought. I take it as a measure of their poetic achievement that they do so.

Is this a negative formulation? Isn't it to suggest that a poetry which finally baffles exegesis and analysis, a poetry in prose terms obscure, is superior to a poetry which is conveniently susceptible to critical mediation? I think not-for it is the poetic clarity of these writers, the consistency and completeness of their articulations beyond prose meaning, that I admire. If I come equipped with my critical toolkit to Larkin's poem 'Ambulances' and set to work, I soon come to the lines 'the solving emptiness/That lies just under all we do'. I must lay by my tools and interrogate not the poem but myself. Such lines, such poems, once parsed and scanned and teased for ambiguities, will not lie down. They work upon the quick.

And yet, not for all readers. There are those whose critical biases are too strong to let them feel the poem. Their orthodoxy is as pernicious as that of the Little Englander who cannot, because he will not, read Williams or Pound (or, for that matter, George Oppen). These are, I suggest, readers who can't evaluate the poetry of the present at least in part because they can't read the poetry of the past. They are without bearings and prefer the security of dogma to the testing perils of a text. We all have preferences of taste: but they have rules that settle matters of discrimination a priori. This is not to say that the poetry of the past-and not only English poetry-dictates standards; but it does suggest them and clarify the diversity and continuity of literary perception. It provides a perspective.

My rediscovered Latin epic is a fiction. But its hypothetical oblivion is only at one remove from the actual condition of some outstanding modern writers. Neglect can be either passive on the part of an audience (on account of ignorance) or active (rejection of the difficult and unfamiliar). And neglect of an original, critically intractable writer can affect not only the writer himself but the culture that neglects him. Wyndham Lewis is still an imaginary figure in English culture. So too, in another sense, are Pound, David Jones, Basil Bunting, and other writers who have drawn a partisan following often so clamorous and insistent as to have hindered their assimilation into our always reluctant consciousness. Intractable they are, but illuminating figures, who question our conventions while they extend the potentialities of our tradition. They may have academic champions in this country; but their hovering absence from the general English feast is a serious matter. Their absence now impoverishes not only our present literary culture but-thereby-the future as well. They will doubtless eventually be assimilated into the regular syllabus, but long after their pertinence to us as readers and writers, their force for good and ill, can be generally felt.

Why are they intractable? In part because they startle the contemporary critic and puzzle the casual reader. They have come to terms with a tradition which the critic and the reader busy with the merely contemporary, and the poet who is competing for space in the New Statesman, have no time for. A culture with no serious interest in its forebears, in the cultures which share its roots, ceases to be generous and catholic; becomes eclectic, riven by rival orthodoxies, enamoured of critical formulas. It becomes a factional culture, careless of the world which provides the experiences that fix the imagination. It short, it becomes-if not illiterate-illiterary, replacing direct perception with mediation.

Recently I tried to suggest to Ian Hamilton Finlay that the hostile treatment by some reviewers of his fascinating Arts Council exhibition of poems at the Serpentine Gallery in London was of no consequence. Finlay asks, of a particularly ill-natured review by Neagu, 'Is it possible to answer this review on a cultural level? I suggest that this is quite impossible-that it offers only the alternatives of silence, (always our liberated culture's first choice, needless to say), or counter-warfare on an equally shrill and offensive level.' The Spectator reviewer and A. Alvarez on Critics' Forum were similarly unanswerable, not because their criticisms were damning, but because they were quite simply unable to move out of the circle of their own predispositions, to grasp an originality firmly based in our tradition, but re-viewing it in a radical spirit. In their failure of perception we can read the more general cultural crisis which makes discriminations so difficult for many. And though, sub specie aeternitatis, the critical gadfly is of no consequence, in the now he sets a tone, has an effect on cultural choices and discriminations. Criticism partially defines the space within which the artist is free to move, to discourse and develop. As it becomes tired, narrow, dismissive, or casually irresponsible, it does more and more lasting damage than it knows.
-Michael Schmidt

This item is taken from PN Review 7, Volume 5 Number 3, April - June 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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