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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 38, Volume 10 Number 6, May - June 1984.

Letters from Antony Easthope, James Hansford, Paul Smith, David Spooner; replies from Nicolas Tredell and Donald Davie
Sir: Joining the attack on the essay on poetry in Re-Reading English (PNR 30), Nicolas Tredell makes three points, each with some general implication for the reading of poetry in contemporary British culture It is argued that to analyse how a poem creates the effect of an author's presence as a living voice is 'absurd' because every reader knows 'the poet is not there'. Analysis of this kind is opposed to pleasure, being an attempt 'to combat the seductions, the seven veils, of poems'. It thus starts from a 'moral stance', though one which fails to acknowledge itself as such.

Each assertion is incorrect. The dominant form in which poems are at present constructed in our culture (that is, literary criticism) precisely disavows the author's absence in its constant and typical reference (e.g.) to what 'Wordsworth says here' or what 'Eliot is now speaking about'. This disavowal is fetishistic ('I know these are only words, but all the same . . .' = 'I know this is only black latex, but all the same . . .'), and while few would want to deny fetishists their pleasures, there are serious grounds (including political ones) for preferring the radical excesses of bliss to the conservative repetitions of pleasure. Finally, although every position one can argue for correlates somewhere along the line with ethics, this does not mean it starts from ethics.
Didsbury, Manchester
ANTONY EASTHOPE


Sir: It is perhaps not surprising that the word 'fashionable' should be 'in fashion'. Certainly it has become fashionable, as the debate surrounding literary theory in English studies continues, to castigate contributors to the Methuen New Accents series as 'fashionable', and Nicolas Tredell ('The Politicization of English', PNR 37) cannot resist doing so. I do not wish to tackle him point by point but there is something 'uncanny' about the way so many of his arguments and proposals have already been advanced by those he purports to challenge and rebut.

Having begun by attacking the more overtly political theorists of recent years he then, unwittingly, aligns himself with those already conscious of underlying 'political' assumptions and positions in reading and criticism. This, of course, is as a result of misrepresenting such theorists who when studying texts are said to 'begin with deconstruction or polysemous readings'. How is this possible? The Russian Formalist concept of 'defamiliarization' and the Structuralist notion of 'literary competence' both testify to the acknowledged fact that certain habits and conventions of reading and understanding (broadly speaking politically constituted, as Mr Tredell confirms) are fractured and disturbed by literary discourse of a high order. It may be that he is suggesting that appeals to literary competence have been less conspicuous in deconstructive criticism; this might explain his plea for 'constructive' readings of literary texts before post-structuralism can be permitted its (deconstructive) turn. But how, one asks, can 'constructive' reading not be implicit within deconstruction? As Catherine Belsey ('a chic guide to the vanities of critical enlightenment', as Mr Tredell sees her) explains in Critical Practice, it is only because a text is recognised 'as a construct' that it is made 'available for deconstruction' (p.104). As for polysemy; 'polygamy' would not be a word available in the language were not monogamy normative.

Mr Tredell is right-of course he is right, this is my point-to claim that no 'deconstructive or polysemous approach' can operate without an understanding of a text's 'unifying possibilities' (I am less happy with his equivalent phrase, the 'overall meaning of a text'). Derrida himself is very conscious of the danger of elevating deconstruction to precisely the position of totalizing power occupied by the metaphysics of presence he seeks to dislodge. A reminder of this might have deterred Mr Tredell from launching his attack on there being 'canonical authors' (Foucault, etc.) for a post-structuralism which avowedly despises the notion of a canon.

Mr Tredell is also right when he says: 'Arguably, in fact, the texts which seem to form the best "organic wholes" are also among the most deconstructable or polysemous (Middlemarch for example)'. Ergo the greater the possibilities for unity, the greater they are for disruption. But presumably the reverse is not the case when he, again rightly, points out that there are 'modernist and post-modernist [texts] which appear to be already deconstructed'-they are not more amenable to 'constructive' reading, but we are, Tredell may be suggesting, more conscious of the conventions undergoing exploitation and disruption. The turns of this argument are dizzying, but one feels happier acknowledging the inter-dependencies than agreeing to the kind of strict methodological 'programme' Mr Tredell advocates in his essay. As George Eliot remarked towards the end of Middlemarch (to instance a canonical text), 'Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending'. It is precisely the challenge presented by 'possibilities' which creative reading of whatever persuasion (constructive or deconstructive) serves to meet.

Two further points: does Mr Tredell really believe we can equate Mrs Thatcher's talk of 'higher productivity' with notions of 'critical production' pursued by Benjamin, Macherey and the like? And if, as Mr Tredell rightly suggests, Scrutiny has 'rather strangely perhaps come to represent "traditional English" ', this is surely testimony to our understanding that today's 'new accent' can well become tomorrow's old dialect-distance precisely does not lend enchantment to the view. But it was Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory, a book, Mr Tredell snipes, `automatically in' the alternative canon, and from which I quote, who said that Scrutiny 'has yet to be surpassed in its tenacious devotion to the moral centrality of English studies, their crucial relevance to the quality of social life as a whole . . . No subsequent movement within English studies has come near to recapturing the courage and radicalism of their stand' (p.31).
Ludlow Road, Guildford
JAMES HANSFORD


Nicolas Tredell writes: Antony Easthope cites expressions such as 'Wordsworth says here . . . 'as evidence of a naive belief in authorial presence: in that case, he himself holds such a belief. For example, in his recent book, Poetry as Discourse, we find 'Saussure speaks of . . .', 'Derrida defines . . .', 'Lacan means . . .'. His privileged sources are rarely poets, of course. But those sources should surely have taught him that binary distinctions are out: there is no clear-cut division between a conservative 'pleasure' and a radical 'bliss'. 'Bliss' is now a fetishized commodity in the market-place of critical politics; you can come all over your texts and believe you're making out in the revolution; but you remain, politically, impotent.

Easthope's poetics and politics both rest on a moral condemnation of the 'bourgeois state' as unjust, unequal, etc. The notion of authorial presence must be extirpated, not primarily because it is a philosophical error, but because it supports an individualist ideology which helps to sustain that state. Moral outrage is displaced on to literary criticism; ethical, political and poetic complexities are thereby evaded. Easthope is representative, in this evasion, of radical criticism today. And he is among those 'New Accents' authors-I do not, of course, condemn them all-who can justly be termed 'fashionable' because they have been elevated, in some influential quarters, to a status-as 'recommended' or indeed 'required' reading-that their minor achievements hardly merit. Post-structuralism theoretically despises the notion of a canon-James Hansford is right to that extent- but in practice, in literary studies in England, a canon of theory, and of sub-theory (Easthope, Belsey) is hardening, as much recent critical writing (Poetry as Discourse is one example) demonstrates, by the authorities it invokes. And James Hansford's own invocation of Derrida, in the very act of denying that a new canon exists, looks very much like an appeal to a canonical author.

My main quarrel in 'The Politicization of English' is not with Formalists or Structuralists who retain a concept of literature, but with those, like Catherine Belsey, who wish to dissolve literature into politics in their naive belief that this will help the revolution. Literature does not float in a transcendent realm above politics, but it is distinct from politics, and cannot be dismissed as a mere bourgeois mystification. As James Hansford says, Belsey does acknowledge, sometimes, the need to 'construct' texts in order to 'deconstruct' or 'pluralize' them. But an approach like hers, if fully implemented, would deny students those sustained encounters with complex literary texts by which this 'constructive' ability is developed. From Belsey's politicized perspective, we can dispense (for instance) with Shakespeare: 'literary value becomes irrelevant: political assassination is problematised in Pickering's play Horestes (1567) as well as in Hamlet' (Literature and History, Spring 1983, p.25).

Thatcherish talk of 'productivity' cannot, of course, be equated with, say, Macherey's concept of production litteraire. But the frequent use of terms like 'production' in contemporary critical discourse is one mark of the fundamental complicity of 'materialist poetics', politicized post-structuralism, and the reductionist drive of advanced technological societies. For example, the post-structuralist notion, so beloved by Belsey, that 'individuals' are nothing but vacant lots, stirred by the winds of desire, and traversed by ideological discourses which constitute their illusory subjectivity, fits in very well with the assumption that human beings are endlessly manipulable by advertising and/or propaganda. And while we cannot revive the moment of Scrutiny, one reason for that journal's great influence (and for Terry Eagleton's compulsion, despite himself, to conjure its ghost) is that, at its best, it stood out against reductionism as 1930s Marxism, in literary criticism and elsewhere, did not; as today's politicized English does not.

THE POLITICS OF POUND'S NEW CRITICS

Sir: I'm certain that when Ezra Pound, writing to C. K. Ogden, said that he wanted to produce 'a licherary and mule-drivin' language capable of blowin' Freud to hell', he wasn't expecting that he would fail. But Freud hasn't gone away just yet and so it's quite to be expected that committed Poundians will still be erecting all sorts of defences against his work. Donald Davie's 'Adrian Stokes Revisited' (PNR 35), featuring my book Pound Revisited and Alan Durant's Ezra Pound: Identity in Crisis, is merely another attempt at a defence-and not a very thoughtful one at that.

It would be tedious to rehearse the arguments for psychoanalysis against Davie's utter rejection of it. It would be equally tedious to have to defend one's own work against Davie's supercilious attack. All I would want to say in the latter regard is that I find it totally ironic that Davie, while characterising psychoanalytical work-and thus Stokes', mine and Durant's-as 'reductive', feels free to reduce my book to an exercise in tracking down 'what always tediously awaits us at the end of every . . . chain in Freudian discourse: the penis'. To the extent that I do undertake such a task, it's because that organ happens to have had an enduring fascination to Pound. However, my book (consisting-as Davie neglects to mention-in seven chapters, with one each on Joyce, H.D. and Zukofsky) is more concerned with unmasking what lies in wait for us beneath every Poundian discourse: politics, and specifically fascist politics. I don't believe, however slim or grotesque my book may be, that Davie should be able to ignore that this was its project without himself incurring a charge of reductionsim. The point of my book (and, I believe, of Durant's) is to re-open within Pound studies the question of Pound's adherence to fascism; thus the critique of Pound's phallocentrism which so much annoys Davie is only part of my attempt to show that Pound's use of language is inextricably bound up with his espousal of fascism and certain idiosyncratic philosophies of the far right.

On the question of phallocentrism, by the way, I'd like to make it clear that Pound Revisited, for all its faults, never charged Davie himself with such a crime! I find it strange, given that this is the case, to see Davie defend himself against this charge which, he says, wouldn't disturb him over much in any case.

But beyond the attack on my book, I'd like to object to another aspect of Davie's article. I wonder about the sensitivity, not to say the morality, of one who will attempt to compare Pound's suffering at Pisa (while he was incarcerated as a result of his own decision to espouse fascism, come what might) to the suffering that Adrian Stokes must have gone through while dying of cancer; and who will laud Pound for staying and comforting himself 'in extremis' with the beauties of art, and then condemn Stokes for being too 'indoctrinated' by Freudianism to have the good sense to feed from the same fount of ineffable comfort. If Davie could put aside his tendency to yawn in dis-appointment at all the Freudianism in Stokes, he might benefit from reading Stokes' warm and careful article, 'On Resignation'; a comparison of that article and the radio speeches which brought about Pound's 'suffering' might also be rewarding.

In any case, if Davie, explicitly aligning himself with Pound the fascist against Stokes the humanitarian, wishes to attack my book, I can scarcely be displeased. The peculiar defensiveness of his reductive brand of venom can hardly have failed to impress itself on your readers and given them some sense of why work like mine and Durant's is necessary in a field of studies in which Davie is still a dominating presence.
Department of English, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
PAUL SMITH


Donald Davie writes: Paul Smith insists on disclosing that aspect of his book which I mercifully passed over in the account I gave of it: its being politically partisan throughout. We are so far apart that this aspect of his work, in my eyes the most disgraceful, is for him the most virtuous. It is not true that there was a need for his book, or Alan Durant's, 'to re-open within Pound studies the question of Pound's adherence to fascism'. That question has never been closed for responsible readers of Pound -how could it be? What he and Durant want to insist is that this question can never be discussed except with the vengeful self-righteousness that Smith's letter so patently indulges in.

Human suffering is just that; and it is endured by anti-Semites and fascists as well as by other people-what but the partisanship of politics could lead Smith to think otherwise, so as to feel compassion for one case of suffering (Stokes's), and nothing but vengeful satisfaction at another case (Pound's)? There could hardly be a clearer example of the inhumanity that ideological allegiance in politics promotes.

And what of the consolations that Pound in his suffering had recourse to, which Stokes in his suffering seems to have ignored? Smith calls them 'the beauties of art' (whereas in my article I specified rather precisely what beauties of which arts); and he jeers at such beauties as 'the same fount of ineffable comfort'. If that is what art and the arts mean to him, what business had he writing, as he reminds us, a book about four artists: Joyce and Pound, H.D. and Zukofsky? If the name-calling of party politics is what he feels at home with, then let him disport himself in that arena, not pretend to an unprejudiced interest in literature or for that matter in psycho-analysis.

THE MATTER OF IRELAND

Sir: 'All carroughs, bards, rhymers and common idle men and women within this province making rhymes . . . to be spoiled of all their goods and chattels and to be put in the stocks, there to remain till they shall find sufficient surety to leave that wicked "thrade" of life.' (Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy of Ireland, 1571)

The Britain of the past 450 years could not have existed as a world power without the subjugation of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There have been, of course, the obvious diplomatic and military aspects of the situation: the threats to British hegemony in the politics of the relationship between Roman Catholicism in Ireland and Spain, and the suspicions aroused by the special relations between Scotland and France in the Auld Alliance. But there is the far more profound aspect-indeed it is more a characteristic than an aspect-of the central pillar of British culture having been formed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages: everything from Kyd through Marlowe to Shakespeare, Donne and beyond. Once Henry VIII had broken with Rome, then the empirical needs of the independent modern state could only be met by bringing separate and fissiparous cultures to heel.

Going to the centre of matters-the work of Shakespeare-we find in The Comedy of Errors that Ireland is associated, rather like Holland (Hole-land, the Low Countries, and the Netherlands) with the lower functions: 'In what part of her body stands Ireland?-Marry, sir, in the buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.' Eric Partridge goes so far (in Shakespeare's Bawdy) as to propose that already at this time 'the bogs' were slang for latrine. By Shakespeare's time, Ireland has been thoroughly woven into a new British world view and its place defined in the body politic. In this connection, it is worth recalling that the use of the title Britain in modern times to designate the totality of peoples of the two main islands dates from Henry VIII, being ratified in the Proclamation of 1604 making James VI and I 'King of Great Britain'.

The occasion for these remarks is the description of Belfast youths as 'clawing one another' in a letter from Jeffrey Wainwright (PNR 35)-though the H-block protesters were duly sanctified in the same letter, notwithstanding that their origins lay among those very youths. Since this exploitative society rests upon the perpetual imposition on the ruled of the concept of the unregenerated (animal) nature of humanity through the ideology of Original Sin, I can see no reason to deliver up the rawer youths as hostages to the ruling class. His metaphor resurrected if not the Irish ape of Victorian caricature, then most certainly 'the Blatant Beast' of Spenser's Faerie Queene. The Irish Cerberus has surfaced again. As is well known, it is only in dealings with Ireland that the perfectibility of the knighthood in Spenser's epic is seriously flawed. Perfection both in love and public deeds remains at the end of the book elusive for Sir Calidore whose task it is to catch and subdue the Blatant Beast on behalf of Sir Artegall (Lord Grey). To this day, Ireland is the semi-exile of politicians who take principles as part of career, rather as in the sixteenth century the careers of both Philip Sidney's father, Sir Henry, and Lord Grey were seriously blighted by their time in Ireland.

Whilst not disputing the full horror of the more sensational events occurring in Ulster at the present time, the deeply inculcated traditional British syndromes of thought and feeling do not hold the seed of potential resolution of the problems. The primary cultural divide in these islands in modern times is that between the English-speaking and Gaelic-speaking peoples. All the artistic and political resources of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain had been brought to bear to defeat and discredit Gaeldom. Indeed-to digress slightly-Shakespeare's Macbeth had direct propaganda effect in the direction of legitimizing the accession of James VI and I to the throne, the actual historical Macbeth being the last of the indisputably Gaelic kings to occupy the Scottish throne. As a contemporary scholar puts it: 'Shakespeare's Macbeth, through no fault of the bard's, is a travesty of historical truth.' It is very probable that only when the Gaelic language and culture prevail in Ireland will that country be free both of its own and foreign armies. Despite the prolific hagiography that has ensued, it nonetheless remains a bitter irony that Bobby Sands learnt to speak and read Gaelic only when he was undergoing the imprisonment that was to lead to his death.
Dunfermline, Scotland
DAVID SPOONER


There will be further correspondence on these issues in PN Review 40.

This item is taken from PN Review 38, Volume 10 Number 6, May - June 1984.



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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