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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 33, Volume 10 Number 1, September - October 1983.

Letters from George Core, J. Hillis Miller, Y. Abrioux, I. H. Finlay, S. Tuohy
Sir: Stephen Fredman has written a succinct and generally persuasive account of the rise of prose in American poetry ('Why American Poets Write Prose', PNR 32). His synoptic historical survey has many virtues. But let us not overlook the fact that couched in Mr Fredman's high talk about Emerson and Heidegger there is nonsense as well as sense. For instance his tutelary figures offer everything from transcendental moonshine to Nazi hogwash. We do not have to imbibe Emerson, Heidegger, and Company to find the essential reason that American poets write prose.

Prose is easier to write than poetry. (British writers have figured this out too.) You expend a lot less mental energy in writing prose and disguising it as poetry by breaking it up on the page (by means of ragged-right margins and other dodges) than you do in writing what most people would agree is poetry, free verse or otherwise. Most contemporary poets have never learned the discipline of their craft: it is usually enough these days to write in a medium that doesn't begin to meet Pound's test that poetry must be at least as well written as prose. Pound proposed that test in an age when prose was better written than it is now-and when poetry wasn't largely prose. Resolved: That no one be allowed to publish poetry who has not mastered expository prose.
Sewanee, Tennessee GEORGE CORE
                              Editor, The Sewanee Review

THE CRITIC REPLIES

Sir: I welcome Nicolas Tredell's courteous and thoughtful discussion of de construction and of Dr Kenneth Newton's interview of me in PNR 32 ('Never Trust The Critic'). I rejoice to see that this mode of criticism can be a matter in England now of such civilized consideration and discussion. Nicolas Tredell puts his finger intelligently on a number of important points at issue in the contrast between so-called deconstruction and other more traditional forms of criticism. With much that Nicolas Tredell says I can agree, though usually feeling that there is 'one word more' yet to say. Just to keep the dialogue open, I'd like to suggest briefly here two of these 'one word mores'. I would agree that there is a danger in allowing the notion of indeterminacy and contradiction in literary texts to drift over into 'I don't understand this', but, it seems to me, there is an equal danger in the notion of organic form, that is, the tendency to ignore those features of a given work which don't fit the critic's theory of the organic wholeness of the work in question. As for the appeal to intuition, emotion, or experience from logic or language, the notions of intuition, emotion, and experience are themselves of course philosophical themes inherited from the tradition, not a priori givens. As such, they are features of language, whether in literary texts or in the discourse of critics, and offer themselves to the procedures of deconstruction in their turn. Jacques Derrida, in one of his first books, La Voix et le phénomène, explores presuppositions like Mr Tredell's about intuition and experience in the thought of Husserl. This I suppose is a way of saying that though I too would hope deconstruction would not 'harden into dogma', but would remain flexible and open, that openness is not at all the same thing as the pluralism in criticism Mr Tredell appears to advocate in his final paragraph. But it would be pleasant to discuss these matters face to face with Nicolas Tredell, and I hope to have the chance one day to do that. I would agree, by the way, that in some of these areas of literary theory the Russian Formalists were there already, but this is also the case with the work of the admirable Kenneth Burke.
Department of English, Yale University J. HILLIS MILLER


LITTLE SPARTA STILL AT WAR

Sir: In your editorial comment on the fate of the Garden Temple at Little Sparta (PNR 32), you note that Strathclyde Region's representatives persist in claiming that they have been eager to discuss with Ian Hamilton Finlay the matters at issue. This is, of course, what the Region says in public and, as you remark, it is patently untrue.

It would, however, seem that in less public circumstances the Region is no longer taking the trouble to pretend to be acting fairly and within the law. This I had occasion to witness when, after an earlier exchange of correspondence, I wrote to the Chief Executive's Department asking for clarification of two essential points. Firstly, I asked the Region-if such was its intention-to make it clear that its offers of talks implied giving Mr Finlay the possibility of appealing for mandatory rates relief on the temple (the Region having as yet failed to make such an explicit offer, and discussions on any other basis being, as they well know, meaningless). Secondly, I asked the Region whether it felt assured that its refusal so far to grant mandatory relief was based on the letter of the law, rather than on an interpretation of it. (In an earlier letter, the Region had quoted at length irrelevant passages of the legislation, but had been content to paraphrase the relevant ones . . .) The only answer I got to these questions was a brief letter stating that the 'contents' of my own letter had been 'noted'. The Region, then, took no trouble to deny that my fears were well founded. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that its letter was dated 15 March-the very day of the Sheriff Officer's successful raid on the Temple. I take this coincidence-together with the disgraceful way in which the raid and its aftermath were handled-as a tacit admission on the part of the Region that it is no longer interested in even appearing to observe the law or any standards of civilized behaviour. The Region has not seen fit to deny this allegation either.
Fontenay-sous-Bois, France YVES ABRIOUX

Sirs: As Sue Finlay is suffering from battle fatigue, and is too unwell to write, may I make a short comment on Robert Fraser's endorsement of her 'plea for a release from the "abuse of language by the bureaucratic state" '.

Sue Finlay was not referring (as it seems Mr Fraser supposes) to the crude bureaucratic jargon of forms. What she had in mind -having personally suffered from it-is that sometimes slick, deliberate destruction of language achieved by bureaucrats, where a superficial 'propriety' is preserved, but where the whole intention is to create an impasse, to pervert, to obscure, to lie. This is language without good will, in which words may have any number of meaningless meanings-in which, as J. F. Hendry once put it (brilliantly), 'Words mean whatever they say.' (Or They say they say-which is as it suits Them.) For example, a recent letter from the Director of the Scottish Arts Council, to the Chairman of the Finance Committee, Strathclyde Regional Council, says: 'I was of course sorry that it was not possible to postpone the warrant sale planned for last Friday.' (This refers to the Warrant Sale of the artworks in our garden temple.) In fact, though the Warrant Sale was not postponed it was perfectly possible to postpone it. A Warrant Sale is not weather, but by speaking of it as if it is some impersonal, wholly inevitable event in nature, the Scottish Arts Council Director is able to cover himself as regards sentiment, while avoiding saying anything which might lead to Strathclyde Region ceasing to fund Scottish Opera or The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow. An earlier Warrant Sale was in fact postponed (by the Region, to our detriment). The Warrant Sale so glibly invoked (with a suitable pinch of 'proper' feeling) led in fact to the theft of a number of artworks, and the closing of our garden, and garden temple. Facing this fact would bring the Scottish Arts Council Director up against the Arts Council Charter-'to develop and improve the knowledge of the Arts, to increase the accessibility of the Arts, to advise our Government'-which is in conflict with the facts of the Scottish Arts Council's behaviour (its silence over the Region's illegalities, theft of artworks, separation of artworks from their documentation, deception of the Scottish Arts Council itself-and so on). In order to preserve 'propriety' the whole idea of language as having an aspiration towards truth, is destroyed. And it is destroyed in the recipient. When 'communication' of this kind is offered, it is intended that the citizen be at a loss for words. I refer the reader to the French poet Roche's idea of the French Revolution as a battle over language: a battle which (for those who enter it) may be Unto Death.
Little Sparta, Lanark IAN HAMILTON FINLAY

MISREADING LARKIN?

Sir: Neil Powell is surely mistaken in his reading of Larkin's 'Reasons for Attendance' ('Art, if you like,' PNR 30). It is a poem he describes as 'extraordinary'. But in this sentence he hardly shows us why: 'The final ' Or lied", given special weight by its syntactical separateness, is not an evasion but a statement of genuine puzzlement which refocuses the entire poem.' Now there is a certain truth in each component of this sentence, but as an articulate whole it is quite insufficient, not to say naive, as an explanation. What Powell's ear has missed is the gravity of 'Or lied', the isolation of which indicates that it never was, nor ever could be-save in the most frivolous sense-an 'evasion', that it is indeed essentially the reverse of a gesture of puzzlement. It is its concreteness which 'refocuses the entire poem', for what the poet has realised is the irreducibility of man's apparently inexhaustible capacity for self-deception, and in the light of this the sheer flimsiness of his reason (which is the title's final irony). The 'syntactical separateness' is surely intended to provide a clue to the reader's ear, enforcing as it does a dramatic arrest of the iambic pulse: 'If no one has misjudged himself. Or lied.' The 'genuine puzzlement' is merely the velvet glove of meaning. Of course, in grasping the iron hand it contains we are in danger of losing the subtlety of the poem's reasoning. But surely for that reasoning to work as poetry the absolute sense of 'Or lied' must be present to the reader's understanding. No doubt its intensity will vary according to his mood, temperament and the priority of his poetic values, but it must immutably be there.

To be fair to Powell, he goes on to discuss the 'dead-rightness' of what he calls Larkin's 'random emblems of "our losses" ', with sensitivity. But again, he hardly plumbs the poet's mastery. For instance, 'That vase' in 'Home is So Sad' is so much more than exactly evocative-it has the property of life-absorbency, taking back in the very instant of evocation the emotions that evocation has excited. Thus its peculiar radiance: it is an authentic symbol, though receding as such. But for Powell the gift of writing 'magical and memorable' poems seems to be no more than a 'knack'. No wonder he is grudging and condescending in his final commendation of Larkin's 'lyrical skill and memorable transformations'. Oxford STEVEN TUOHY

This item is taken from PN Review 33, Volume 10 Number 1, September - October 1983.



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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