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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 135, Volume 27 Number 1, September - October 2000.

Letters from James Persoon, Michael Alexander
Bly's Psychobabble

Sir,

I am perhaps not the best person to write in response to David Ward's review of The Best American Poetry 1999, edited by Robert Bly, for I am tarred by having actually spent a week observing one of Bly's 'men's movement' retreats. Ward notes Bly's 'two careers' and tells us in passing that while the first one, as a poet, is the more important, the second, spent in social movements, is just so much 'psychobabble'. I would maintain that Robert Bly's long and deep presence in American letters and life is far more complex than that, and deserving of greater understanding and a bit more respect than the at times flippant and complaining tone of Ward's review.

As Ian Tromp notes in his nuanced review of Eating the Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems, Bly is a contradictory and somewhat larger-than-life figure, capable of making grand and quite unscholarly pronouncements and just as capable of admitting error, changing direction, and 'educating [himself] in public'. The point, I think, is that he does do this in public. He is a presence in a world where community action, social action, is too easily abdicated, especially by poets, who far from being today's unacknowledged legislators of the world are too often content with being what Orwell called the 'armchair intelligentsia'. Bly has only one career, it seems to me. The poetry on the page, his popular readings, his work in social movements, whether about mothers, fathers, war, or whatever else, are all the work of a man who does not wish to separate our intellectual, social, political, and personal lives.

The bulk of Ward's review may be quite correct, that there is not as much 'heat' in Best American Poetry 1999 as Bly may have wished. If so, how does the charge that Bly is guilty of 'psychobabble', thrown out and then dropped, explain anything? One of the few poems that Ward does like, Tony Hoagland's 'Lawrence', sums up my feeling with more 'heat' than is perhaps fair to Ward, whom I have never met: 'It's a bad day when people speak of their superiors / with a contempt they haven't earned.'
JAMES PERSOON



English Beowulf

Sir,

The reviewer of Heaney's translation in PNR 134 writes that Beowulf was a text without readers between the Norman Conquest and 1833. This is slightly inaccurate, and may more seriously mislead. The poem's text was readable, and probably read, for generations after the Conquest. It was read by scholars before 1837. A translation into modern English was then made by Kemble, who had edited the poem in 1833. Versions of Beowulf were then read more often than the text. There are translations into twenty-two languages, and sixty-seven modern English versions have been published, several into verse. Modesty forbids my suggesting which is the best of these. Beowulf can live in translation, but lives first in its own words.

Beowulf is written in English words: early English and contemporary English are both varieties of English. Your editorial refers to Beowulf as 'a harsh Danish poem'. It is so, in the sense that Hamlet is a harsh Danish play. It might be less misleading to describe Beowulf as an English poem. Although the story begins in Denmark, the poem was composed in English for an English audience, and concerns the ancestors of the English.
MICHAEL ALEXANDER
St Andrews


This item is taken from PN Review 135, Volume 27 Number 1, September - October 2000.



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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