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This item is taken from PN Review 136, Volume 27 Number 2, November - December 2000.

Letters from Richard Boden, Matthew Francis, Alan Clark
Pushing Poetry


Having noted your comments on teaching poetry (PNR 132) 'Bringing the poem and the reader together [ ] is [ ] harder than ever' I thought you should know how the new AS/A2 English Literature syllabus will affect the teaching of poetry in sixth forms. The old, dying 'A'-level course enables students to discover the work of contemporary poets in generous selections and encourages them to read numerous single poems (including, in my own classroom, poems published in PNR). Such wonderful opportunities are about to end, however. In the new AQA Specification A course, for example, the only modern poetry text a teacher can sensibly focus on is either Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings, Duffy's Mean Time or Fanthorpe's Safe as Houses. That's all, for two years.

Literature students as poetry-lovers? Fat chance. My one hope is that, sideline as it has been, doing contemporary poetry will somehow come to be seen as alternative, illicit, maybe even addictive, a bit like doing drugs, perhaps?


Graham's Grievance


In his excellent review of The Night- fisherman, Michael and Margaret Snow's selection of the letters of W.S. Graham (PNR 135), James Keery speculates that the phrase 'cage without grievance', which Graham used as the title of his first published book, may be a reference to his dislike of nationalist politics and of Hugh MacDiarmid's 'litany of grievances'. The phrase in fact comes from the poem 'The Seventh Journey', part of his collection The Seven Journeys, which was written before Cage Without Grievance, but not published till two years later:

Somewhere in distilled harmonies a tumult spins
One for each human constellation in a skull,
And blows a world of faculties in a watched bubble
And ribs my magpie comet in a cage without grievance.

 I see these lines, and indeed Graham's work in general - both the difficult early poems and the apparently more approachable late ones - as basically metapoetic. The cage is text itself, which he regularly depicts (in poems such as 'Clusters Travelling Out') as a prison, cut off from the comforts of community. The passage contrasts the apparent harmony of the poem with the tumult of interpretations in the minds of its individual readers 'one for each human constellation in a skull'. The poet's soaring writing (black and white like a magpie) is given human form ('ribs') by these readers, and although this is also a form of imprisonment (a ribcage), he insists that he does not resent it. Any grievance, then, is Graham's own when confronted with the isolating properties of text, and, though he denies it, it was to provide him with a theme for the rest of his career.


Reeves and Riding


Peter Scupham's thoughtful and interesting 'Shelf Lives' essay on James Reeves (PNR 135) includes some justice-doing to Laura Riding as one of Reeves's central friends of the 1930s. Your readers may care to have this expanded a little.

Scupham does not record (perhaps because Paul O'Prey (1982), his source here, does not do so) that the Seizin Press collection he mentions, Reeves's first, is The Natural Need (1935). That title employs a phrase found in the poem by Laura Riding, 'Preface To These Poems', which introduces the volume. (Uncollected elsewhere, this 52-line poem might well bear reprinting by PNR?)

Other published indications of Reeves/Riding activity as collaborators as well as friends are the presence of Reeves poems in each of the three issues (1935-7) of Epilogue (Editor: Laura Riding; Assistant-Editor/Associate Editor: Robert Graves), together with Reeves's substantial essay, 'The Romantic Habit In English Poets', in Epilogue I, and the collaborative essay, signed by J.R. and L.R. (in that order), 'Humour And Poetry As Related Themes', in Epilogue III.

Many of Reeves's poems of this period are found under patient and detailed discussion in the significant Riding/Reeves correspondence (1933-40), sold by Reeves and acquired by Cornell University circa 1964 (Kroch Library collection #6304; see also #6301). This fascinating poets-at-work archive is still much under-explored. Riding sends Reeves drafts of her own poems, sometimes reworking lines in response to his suggestions; tellingly, Reeves writes to Riding that she is 'the only living poet' whom he 'would have do anything to my poems at all'.

Finally, Peter Scupham should certainly have named Riding alongside Graves as corefuser (in part on Reeves's account) of contribution to Yeats's Oxford Book Of Modern Verse (1936). Although co-authors of A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928) - and consistent decliners of anthology-invitations through the years between - in 1935-6 Riding and Graves were already working with the unYeatsianly cooperative and thoughtful Michael Roberts on his celebrated Faber Book Of Modern Verse (1936). That the Riding-Graves refusal of Yeats was indeed specific, not routine, is perhaps underlined by their presence, before long, in a little-remarked, though much reprinted, school anthology. In The Modern Poet, edited by Gwendolen Murphy (1938), notable for containing extracts from an uncollected 'account of the poet at work' by Laura Riding, their poems are again companioned, as in the Faber Book, by those of James Reeves.


This item is taken from PN Review 136, Volume 27 Number 2, November - December 2000.

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