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This item is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.Letters
I read with disbelief the central contention in Paul Wilkins's review (PNR 8) of Peter Redgrove's From Every Chink in the Ark: 'Redgrove's recent work gives me no insight into what being alive means.'
It is easy to parody what is unselective, repetitive and superficial in Redgrove's work and I fear that many readers will have dismissed all Redgrove's poetry because the poems they have encountered belonged to the large number of uninspired peripheral ones. But what seems colossal folly to me is the determination to laugh off a man who is frequently obsessed with important matters and whose poetic voice, uneven and clumsy as it can be, is, at certain moments, issuing from recesses of experience deep enough to produce a strange compelling awe and to call up a whole range of feelings usually banished by our 'hygienic' but unhealthy society. Indeed, the distance between Redgrove's concern and those which are ostensibly of greatest significance to current literary thinking seems symbolic of the massive disjunctions afflicting the English mind.
I tried in a recent review to describe what I take to be Redgrove's essential powers as a poet and the fitful but definite survival of his inspiration (Delta, No. 58). May I, here, just make two assertions about his poetry?
First, Redgrove still possess that 'vibrant skill' which Paul Wilkins praises in the earlier work. It is there in that amusing celebration of the fantastic and dreamlike sea-bed world, 'Three Aquarium Portraits', which your reviewer quoted so scoffingly. Here is the lobster, described with humorous exactitude and much joie de vivre.
It walks like three headless armoured dancers
Of a machinetooled Masque of Industry
Who set their precision clawsteps down
With computered watery stilts on feathery ooze
That sends up gunpuffs. It sees
But it sees through sucked black stones on skinny telescopes.
Its swept-back aerials are the only red instruments.
Since he is a poet with a world-view, however, Redgrove's images are often vividly interpretative, like this one of a seance:
The spirit force in the roof of her mouth
Started squeaking and asking questions, the answers
Groaned in the rafters over our heads, all we could do
Was to sit still listening in her lamplit mouth. (`Miraculets')
My second contention is that From Every Chink in the Ark contains some profound poems (`On Losing One's Black Dog', 'Tapestry Moths', 'The Sleep of the Great Hypnotist', 'Miraculets'), where that sense of the unbroken continuum of man and the universe, past and present, which Redgrove expresses theoretically in his novel In the Country of the Skin, and in The Wise Wound (written with Penelope Shuttle), emerges intensely and with calm authority. I would simply ask readers of PNR to read, if they have not already done so, the poems I have cited. The sequence 'On Losing One's Black Dog', in particular, is an extraordinary exploration of the seasons experienced (differently) by man and woman and of the fiercely contrary (and yet inextricably linked) forces which urge everything into life. It is quite impossible to suggest the accumulative richness and energy of the sequence; perhaps something of its deftness and of the awareness it offers comes through these lines describing an encounter with an elated child who 'looked at me milkily' but whose excitement at visiting a battleship stemmed from man's inherited savagery:
He was about eight
Like a flower grown in milk
`The Battleship!' he said
So lively supernatural
His soft thumbprint
Creeping among the canines.
Humour and tenderness coexist with the recognition that 'In the beginning it was violence only and the shedding of blood/ That started the gods singing'.
To conclude: these quiet lines about another child's instinctive knowledge of the continuum of existence may suggest something of Redgrove's 'insight into what being alive means':
He is fed on bread and water and tucked up
Into hazardous beds of old grandmothers
Who shine like ancient lanterns of horn and he always
On another story, another bedtime story
From the ghosts, he will have their stories before he sleeps
among the ghosts.
Ely, Cambs. GEOFFREY PAWLING
Michael Schmidt's editorial (PNR 7) is interesting merely for the use of the word culture. Behind his discussion of it lies an elitist position which he tries to mask by allusions to Larkin and Williams. Of course students want the critical theories rather than the original texts, and that's Schmidt's fault as a member of the teaching profession and its tradition. For he, in a bourgeois tradition, has long ago missed the salient points of reality, that the turning point in history came with the industrial revolution and the mass culture. If he wants to harp on ancient culture just see what Faber's Book of Modern Verse has made of it - look at Sacheverell Sitwell's 'The Farnese Hercules', Gascoyne's Miserere', or Raine's The Crystal Skull' - all is abstract, vacuous, decadent romanticism. The kind of sentiments which brought Hitler to power on a tide of untidy, irrational, imprecise feeling. Without the mass culture is dead, a toenail dropping off. The masses are the arbiter of taste. The masses reject what does not concern itself with their problems. The poetry of the mass is revolutionary in the best sense of the term. The poetry of the PN Review is the poetry of whiners, concerned merely with their own neurosis in the tradition of the German Idealists, Coleridge, Novalis, etc., Wordsworth. In a class divided society the dominant ideas will be those of the ruling class - hence consciously or unconsciously statements about antiquity reflect the longing for individuals who share the ruling class ideas to perpetuate them against the flow of an alternative and increasingly powerful revolutionary force, the proletariat. (Ah, I see you wince! But wince not, buddy, for the terms which are of use in philosophy are the historically defined terms.) The proletariat no longer exists as defined by Marx for society has changed, now we have a meritocracy which Larkin reflects, but the meritocracy is effete. Larkin is always afraid of emotion, afraid of violence. This is mistaken for a common characteristic of us all, hence his banal generalizations which make Michael Schmidt put down his critical tools. (Here I may say that one of the characteristics of antiquity is the use of metre. No modern British writer with the exception of Thom Gunn uses it with any kind of dexterity. Why? Because the language can no longer bear the straight-jacket of antiquity, the iambus - Pound knew this.) Michael Schmidt's culture is above the people. For his own purposes he needs to redefine it so that he write the better - his fist of stars is not sown. Gods change not the world despite the double edged irony of Schmidt's miracle. ['Carol', a poem in Poetry Review, Vol. 68, No. 2). Neither did History's Christ, for he was myth as Frazer's Golden Bough showed. Gore Vidal is right, Christianity is a fuck-up. The Gods (plural did more for Man) - the Gods metaphysically, of course-showed Man the dialectical pulls. The One-God-Christian Metaphysic left no room for the one Star-(truth)-see Schmidt's poem. No poet can find the truth without the right structure, for, all language is structure-see any scientific treatise.
The Industrial Revolution, Science, and all the class stratification that went with it broke the grip of classicism-see the tensions in the poetry of Tennyson who used every classical device with great skill, busting his guts for humanity who still misunderstands him with their ready tool kit of Freudian nonsense.
The longing for classicism is the longing for order in a disordered psychopathic world which instead of bursting, or being busted apart, Michael Schmidt leaves to rot because he has no vision.
EVAN GWYN WILLIAMS, B.A.
ANDREW WATERMAN'S LETTER FROM AMERICA
It is no wonder that Andrew Waterman finds Robert Bly's poetry difficult (PNR 8) and gives so hostile an account of it. His stylistic 'joke' against American speech (the `gee' etc. on page 56) shows him peculiarly in the clutch of a stereotype of the American language which makes this reader, at least, doubt of his competence as a critic of American poetry. If PNR, which has shown itself open to American writing and criticism, can admit this sort of crude stereotype, what hope is there for communication between that continent and this island? It makes me the more sad because I admire Andrew Waterman's verse and prose much of the time.
This item is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September - October 1979.