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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 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.

Editorial C. H. SISSON

ONE OF my worries about this magazine is that it is not doing enough for the suppression of what is called poetry. The Arts Council-against which the same charge could be preferred-is more to be excused, for it is a political institution, and when it says "poetry", everyone with the beginnings of political sense knows that it means something different. They are merely bandying the currency of the day, as their function is. "What are you doing for the Arts?" "This and that." "For what is called poetry, in particular?" "We give the tax-payer the opportunity of expending money-as he would never have thought of doing for himself-on readings of the stuff; why, there are hundreds of readings, and scores of 'poets' get up and say the stuff: there may be thousands-I must refer to my books-and the poets may run into hundreds. We publish anthologies, though to be sure only a hundred and fifty poets or so got into New Poetry 2. Chickenfeed!" They are not doing enough, of course, but we may have every confidence that they will not rest until everyone who has not the strength to make his writing reach quite to the end of a line of print, has some facility for speaking or printing his effusions, or both. Just as everyone who wants to have an appendix out shall do so, under the National Health Service, if only the money will stretch that far.

That is all very well for that august body. But the responsibilities of a magazine like this are more exacting, so far as the health of literature is concerned. It is not, certainly, for a man in his sixties to lay down a programme of contemporary reading-let alone of admiration-for the young, but I recall that, in the more vivid epoch in which I was acutely sensible of such influences, I never found more than a very small handful of contemporaries who mattered. But very small. And looking back, one sees that time-which is the real sorter-out-has made it plain that in that small handful there were several whose existence was evanescent even in the perspectives of the half-century. It is not wicked to read verses which are not going to last, but it is silly to make much of them and, in so far as one's interest is in literature and not in trade or in social circulation, it is a waste of time. For an interest in literature means that one keeps longer perspectives always in view, not as a tiresome act of duty or as an aid to academic viability, but because what really moves one is the speech which sounds across the centuries, the voices which reach one from three hundred, four hundred, seven hundred or two thousand years ago. It is this durable speech which is literature, and it is nothing else. And it is an ear for this speech which is both the starting-point and the reward of a care for literature, as it is the reason why literature is and will remain the basis of anything which can be called a humane education, that education which will give a sense of what is valuable, and of what is fallacious and frivolous, in the endless verbal manifestations, whether oral or written, of the world one lives in.

Rigour in these matters is hardly to be achieved without unkindness, though that is the least of the difficulties. It is not to be achieved by a determination to be rigorous, which can in itself lead to results as silly, and more unpleasing, than any. It is in fact a function of a sense of pleasure, accurately recorded by a mind free of cant-or as free as may be-and not deflected by aspirations after something which is not literature. And that is itself a subtle conception, because literature is produced-has been produced, it is perhaps safer to say-by people whose minds have been set on something they had to say, not on the fripperies of a fashionable or precious form of language which has already won applause for somebody else: so that the durable work has often been produced by people who seemed to be turning their backs on literature as it appeared to their contemporaries.

A sobering reflection, which should never be far from the minds of anyone concerned with the promotion of poetry, is how very few-but very, very few-poets have remained alive to us even from the most fortunate and productive ages. Of which perhaps this is not one? How many poets have you really wanted to carry in your pocket, to read in the most unpropitious circumstances? And we have, at the most modest reckoning, over two thousand years to choose from. It would be disappointing to the Arts Council, if they had to care for such things-which, fortunately for them, they have not-that, in whatever are the multifarious conditions which produce a poet, numbers play a very small part. There is no evidence at all that the more people who have access to pens and paper-or whatever the equivalent at the time may be-the more writers of significance there will be. Alas, such evidence as there is, is that there is an optimum tension between the literate and the illiterate, and that once this is past, decline sets in. So-to turn our eyes away from home-it is vain for America to hope for a minimum of two or three poets on every campus. It simply will not happen.

I am not suggesting that the cruelty of suppression should go so far as to stop people writing poems, perhaps aided by a special squad of detectives to enforce the law. There are several objections to this, but the conclusive one is that, in spite of publishing, patronage and other desiderata for the emergence of poems into the light of day, poets have to be self-selected. Nobody can sit in effective judgement on the rising generations-or on the decaying generations, for that matter. A man who really wants to write poems will write poems. "Even if he is no better placed than John Clare," I was about to add, but that would put the matter in a false perspective. For Clare was well placed to write the poems he did, and he wrote them. That some have been "born to blush unseen" must be true in a sense, but in what sense exactly, nobody knows. For nobody has any idea whatever of the sequence of influences-even if you get the right foetus in the first place-which will produce a poet in particular circumstances of place and time, or could direct the world accordingly if he had. Better concentrate on making and keeping the best literature of the past available, and making sure that a sizeable number of people have the education which will enable them to read it-not least in Latin, Greek and modern European languages. For we at least know that some of this literature will be fruitful in the incipient poet, if he comes along. And let us not, after all, forget readers.

Curiously enough, they are sometimes forgotten. It sometimes seems as if the Arts Council has helped to inflict on the country its great rash of poetry readings, not because anyone much wants to listen to them but because so many electors wish to give readings, and of course be paid for this little stage turn. Is it not the right of every man, woman and child, in a democratic country? The answer of course must be, that anyone may compose poems if he pleases, but what should happen after that is uncertain.

The second part of this editorial is about a different subject, in the hope of stimulating a little internal discussion. When I read in PNR 7 "Nobody, one might think, has ever seriously advanced a theory of poetry as unconsidered utterance," my eyes started out of my head. I for one was under the impression that many persons of repute had been doing precisely that, since Plato anyway. I must have misunderstood Donald Davie. Poets were turned out of the Republic lest "the reason of mankind, which by common consent has ever been deemed best" should not have things all its own way. Yet here is my fellow-editor trying, by some adumbration of a theory of poetry as "considered utterance," to entice me to read the poems of Yvor Winters-and, truth to tell, something more than the rather insipid examples he gives would be needed before I turned libraries upside-down to find the volume.

There is a counter-theory which is allowed by Davie to be "among the more sophisticated" of those entertained by apologists of "unconsidered utterance:"


Over by far the greater range of his daily activities modern man is required to be all too "considering" . . . at every point man and woman in our technologically advanced societies are required to calculate, to anticipate consequences, to reckon up the odds. This necessity (so the argument develops) thwarts and chokes our capacities for spontaneous behaviour, so that for instance even our sexual behaviour becomes calculated, all too monstrously "considered". On this showing poetry has a duty to be "unconsidered", at least in some respects and to some notable degree, because only by being so can it discharge its therapeutic and social duty to defend such threatened areas of our experience as our sexuality.


I am surprised that this alternative view should be thought so sophisticated. Whether or not poetry has the effects there attributed to it, the personification which represents it as having such duties gets us nowhere. If it means anything it means that we should say to the poet: "Don't you think you should make your poem a little more therapeutic?" I am far from suggesting that there are not people who put and answer such questions, for in the vast and idiotic world of what passes for poetry anything might be said. But the whole argument, you observe, has nothing to do with the distinction between good work and bad; it is one more manifestation of that drift of the times which looks for social improvement through uncontrolled behaviour, here called spontaneous-though once there is a recognized duty to be spontaneous, spontaneity is exactly what is not to be found.

So I am with Donald Davie in rejecting that alternative, though no nearer to accommodating, or understanding the "considered utterance" as promulgated. What "considerations" had Shakespeare in mind, when, never blotting a line, he took up this language which "is a product of quite exuberant spontaneity, continuous and continuing"? Maybe he wanted to write another play. But that is not, I think, quite the sort of "consideration" Davie imputes to Winters or, more generally, to "the poet who seeks to make of his poems considered utterances." The idea seems to be that he thinks out what he is going to put into his poem, and then puts it in, if the language will let him. This seems a poor account of the elusive discipline of poetry, if not indeed a recipe for the production of boring non-poems. Without citing poets who might be thought not addicted to rationality, may I quote Valéry: The poet is one to whom the difficulty of writing verse gives ideas. "Est poète celui auquel la difficulté inhérente au vers donne des idées-et ne l'est pas celui auquel elle les retire."

This item is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 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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