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This item is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

Letters - Tom Gunn, Michael Hulse, John Stathatos, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Martin J. Wilson, Dennis Keene, Anthony Rudolf, Clive Wilmer, Jon Glover
Dear Sir: No, faggot is not a 'neutral' term. Two of the most common graffiti that I see are 'Kill Niggers' and 'Kill Faggots'. British readers of Dudley Young's 'Still Life Inside the Whale' (PNR 18) may not know that the word is used throughout the United States as a term of abuse and contempt. Homosexuals like myself may sometimes use it in a jokey spirit of defiance, exactly as blacks use the word nigger-amongst themselves. In all consistency, Mr Young should have followed up his characterization of Gore Vidal as 'King Fag' by referring to Norman Mailer as 'a kike novelist'. Then his language would have stayed on the same level.
THOM GUNN
San Francisco, California

POSTSCRIPT TO 'LETTER FROM GERMANY' (I)

Sir: In PNR 19 I reported that an anti-Springer boycott had been launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October by Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and others who have long felt that the publications of the Springer house, in particular the daily tabloid Bild, are immoral and irresponsible. Now (third week in January) comes excellent news for the opponents of Bild and Springer: Günter Wallraff has won his year-long case against the Springer Verlag.

Wallraff, well-known (or notorious, depending on one's point of view) for his underground reportage, worked for several months on the Hanover editorial staff of Bild, under the alias Hans Esser, in order to gather material for books exposing the methods of the newspaper. Bild took him to court, complaining in particular about Wallraff's portrayal of an editorial conference, his repeating comments made by the Hanover editor-in-chief at that conference, the reprinting (in his book Der Aufmacher) of an edited page of manuscript, and his claim that Bild consciously appeals to emotions and prejudices in its readership.

The Federal Court (Bundesgerichtshof) did in fact express disapproval of Wallraff's espionage methods, pointing out that the right to free expression could not 'legalise journalistic research methods and the use of their results insofar as these are rejected by the law and moral custom'. It added that any business enterprise, including a newspaper, had the right to expect employees and ex-employees not to reveal the internal mechanisms by which it is run. However, the Federal Court went on to rule against Bild, stating that in the specific case under consideration the newspaper's transgressions ranked as more serious than those of the unconventional journalist. An employee's obligation to remain loyal, said the Court, could be restricted if the internal mechanisms in question concerned the state and the public in general. Thus Wallraff's anti-Bild publications, said the Court, revealed serious journalistic abuses and malpractices. The Court ruled out an appeal. Bild promptly announced its intention to complain to the Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgericht), which is the Federal Republic's last resort for litigants, testing as it does the decisions of the Federal Courts against the constitution.

Wallraff himself said he was 'very impressed' by the Court's findings, admitted that his methods of obtaining information might leave something to be desired, but added that these methods were morally justified 'when the weak take on those who are much more powerful, who misuse their power, and who reject any kind of public checks on that power'.

The Court's ruling is to be applauded, and it is to be hoped that when the case comes before the Constitutional Court-if indeed the Constitutional Court does consider Bild's case anew- the Federal Court's ruling will be upheld. A publication crammed with blood and tits and shamelessly exploiting the agonies of ravaged privacy should expect no support, for a democracy which' guarantees free speech should-through its Courts-recognise that that freedom can be perverted totally and viciously. Clearly this opens out the difficult problem of whether it is right for the state to defend its democratic constitution by undemocratic means; we may think also of the Federal Republic's Berufsverbot, which bans card-carrying members of the Communist Party from positions in the civil service although the constitution guarantees that political considerations will play no part in the assessment of fitness for employment. In the case of Wallraff v. Bild one has to conclude that each case must be judged on its particular merits-a lame conclusion, perhaps, but one which pragmatists find time and again to be the only basis of sensible compromise. In this case the Federal Court has, I suspect, skated very close to the limits of the constitution in its ruling. Like Wallraff, I am 'very impressed'.
MICHAEL HULSE
Nürnberg, West Germany

RESISTANCE, EXILE AND LOVE

Dear Sir: No translator should attack the efforts of others in his field without very good reasons, but loyalty to the language being translated sometimes makes it imperative. In his review for PNR 19, Dick Davis understandably recoils in horror from Mr Nikos Spanias's anthology of post-war Greek poetry, coyly entitled Resistance, Exile and Love. I don't know how this ill-edited and apparently only half-literate volume ever came to fall into your reviewer's hands, but it would be sad if his inevitably savage judgement were to seriously influence the British view of post-war Greek poetry as a whole. Dick Davis obviously made a heroic effort to evaluate the poems in their own right, but as he says '[their] style is suspiciously like the style of Mr Spanias's prose', of which the less said the better.

It would not be the first time that Greek poetry has suffered at the hands of well-meaning translators, and this is perhaps the right place to comment on the curious gulf which has opened between Britain and North America as far as Greek studies are concerned. There is in this country a long and respectable tradition of translation from modern Greek, the results of which are never less than readable and sometimes superb; among the names which spring to mind are Philip Sherrard, Rex Warner, Peter Levi, Lawrence Durrell, Bernard Spencer, Paul Merchant and Richard Burns. All are more than competent poets in their own right; all approach the original with proper humility, producing translations for which both Greek and English poetry have reason to be grateful.

The situation, alas, is rather different across the Atlantic, where Greek translations are being published in increasingly large numbers. With the single honourable exception of Edmund Keeley's invaluable work, the great mass of these translations is totally undistinguished. Often larded with ludicrous errors, their style ranges from impenetrable translationese to misguided attempts at 'poetic' rendering by patently untalented versifiers.

One reason for the flood of translations is probably due to the proliferation of Modern Greek Studies departments, often based on relatively obscure campuses. With certain obvious exceptions- Harvard, for one-one might hazard a guess that the proliferation is due less to an enthusiasm for European culture than to to the easy academic credits available to those students who come equipped with rudimentary Greek. This approach to the study of literature, no matter how impressive the appearance, is in reality nothing more than the stitching of its shroud.

The situation is not helped by an opportunistic harping on those elements in Greek writing which are most likely to grab the public's attention; I mean the pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, pretentiousness masquerading as passion, and local colour slapped on with a trowel. Vices of this kind are common to the poetry of most countries, but there is something of a transatlantic industry to the peddling of 'Greekness' in its most horribly affected form.

As far as the actual translations are concerned, and in view of the excellent translations from other languages that originate in America, it seems a pity that no real poets have (to my knowledge) tried their hand at modern Greek; perhaps this is due to the inevitable linguistic difficulties. In the event, the field has been abandoned to academics on the one hand and amateur poets on the other.

Anybody interested in evaluating postwar Greek poetry could do worse than glance at these volumes: George Pavlopoulos's The Cellar translated by Peter Levi (Anvil); Yannis Ritsos's Selected Poems translated by Nikos Stangos (Penguin-but sadly allowed to go out of print); and Eleni Vakalo's Genealogy translated by Paul Merchant (Interim Press). Any one of the three is a salutary corrective to Mr Spanias.
JOHN STATHATOS
Haslemere Road, London N 8

'A DYING FALL: A LYING WORD'

Sir: When I noted, among announcements in one of your issues of forthcoming contributor-items, a title 'A Dying Fall: A Lying Word', the element 'A Lying Word' of course pointed my thought to my poem 'Poet: A Lying Word'-the title-poem of the collection of my poems of 1933, Poet: A Lying Word, a poem included in the final collection of my poems, Collected Poems, 1938, and in the 1980 edition of these (in which the poems-content of the earlier is exactly reproduced). My experience with literary mischief-doing in attention and inattention to my work has prepared me for meeting with instances of it without astonishment as at something new, and also taught me, by its abundance, to sift out the worst, from the standard automatic yapping or hoity-toity dismissive censoring me out of mention, for acting upon in some manner, and also to give the benefit (to myself) of assumption of something accidentally, as in mere seeming, amiss-unless fact of it obtruded unignorably. PNR 17 establishes unignorably, with the published article of the title 'A Dying Fall: A Lying Word' by Mr Dennis Keene, a something amiss that is, in the first place, sheer vandalism.

Mr Keene has torn 'A Lying Word' out of my poem's title, and the colon preceding it there, and thrust into place before it the phrase 'A Dying Fall' which has no existence in my poem at all, botching up the rhythmic, and syntactical, and sense identity of my title for the vandal pride of treating that of which he has made a creation of his own into a case against my poem, its sense, its form, its parts, its rhythm (this prater on 'rhythm'!). There is no ado of justifying the introductory vandal flourish of his article of flatly identifying my poem as 'prose poem' and brazenly reeling off characteristics of 'prose poetry or poetic prose' according to his poetics, and fastening them upon my poem-he having with preliminary contempt of vandal advertised that he neither likes nor understands my poem. Mr Keene's palaver on the nature of poetry, and the special character of a poem, things of which he considers me ignorant on the basis of his judgement of my poem in question as a play of prose upon native qualities of a poem (despite his not understanding it, which necessarily includes his not understanding what it is), is not what, mainly, has moved me to write on his article. It is the lawless atmosphere of this vandalistic exhibition. What are the limits-where are limits?

Mr Keene speaks modestly of his 'pretentious title'-his initial messing around with my words (and punctuation) by appropriating three to knock around with three of his. It is a peculiarity of the presumer, and likewise of the snob, to criticize some behavior rated by him as minor or just of past youthfulness, as if the vice were of course one abhorred by him. Let readers (and editorial personnel) look with me at Mr Keene's statement that there was 'born' of 'that quotation'-a single two-sentences unit that constitutes the fourth verse of my poem, quoted by him to precede his article-what he calls the sequence 'lying word, lying wall, dying wall, dying word, dying fall', which he charges with producing the 'pretentious title'. The so-called sequence was not born of the fourth verse of my poem, which contains no phrase of the five elements of it but 'lying word'. None of the others appear either in that verse or in any other verse of the poem. Mr Keene's very vandalism has intoxicated him with the confusion it has produced in him as to what the vandalized poem contains before being jumbled-junked into an occasion for discoursing on poetry, poems, rhythm (any pretentiousness attributed to the discourse to be blamed upon the portion of my poem quoted that he used for his second title-phrase-or the portion of the title of my poem itself identical with it).

Mr Keene's vandalistic avant-propos spills over into his second paragraph with the presumptuous ascription to me of words that are not mine either within the poem in question or anywhere outside it-a presumption of one who, in his careless confusion as to what comes within the reigning laws of literary discourse, assumes that all will be forgiven him as he forgives himself. It may be that very, very few besides myself would have no forgiveness for this offering of the insult of such foolish messing around with my poem for creating a setting for the bunch of respectful allusions to poets and critics present and past with which he furnishes the supposed-to-be-taken-for the no-nonsense main substance of his article. The idea that some nonsense over a poem, and a course of report of poet-experience, of Laura Riding's is within the law of the literary permissible of the time has acquired a rowdy attraction in literary quarters of a stock refinement of behavior quality. I think that Mr Keene's saying of me, in his second paragraph, that I was led by 'the crafty aspects of poetry' -vulgarizing my very strictly used term of 'craft' (as, for instance, Mr Julian Symons has, in his own way, recently vulgarized it)-is a rowdy indulgence of this order. And I think the same of his saying to what I was led by aspects of poetry of his vandalizing distortion of my account of their character: he describes me as having been led 'to reject the lying words of the poet'. I have nowhere, in the poem on which Mr Keene has thrown his light of non-understanding of it (all the fun-having of fooling around with it evidently achieved without reading it), spoken of 'the lying words' of the poet, or anywhere else charged poets with being committedly speakers of lying words. This is a worse than frivolous or presumptuously careless pluralizing. It is expressive of a sense of being secure from challenge on any literarily important ground of what is said in my regard. My own challenges, however, have to be faced, whatever may be thought as to the ground from which I address them. I add to the substance of challenge I have here made of Mr Keene's dealing with my poem, my thought, my statements, the disregard of the signature affixed to the preface of the Faber selection from which he quotes (the signature supporting this letter). And the disingenuous identification of my word 'sensuosity' as centering on rhythm its implications with respect to poetry. And the final sentence of his article with its final vandalizing spree of distorting my poem's fourth-verse, calling a poet a wall-'a wall that closes and does not', into 'the poem . . . a wall that closes and does not'.

If Mr Keene were not infected with the spirit of contemporary literary lawlessness that allows the literary discourser to risk his personal neck unrestrainedly, on the liberty-principle that the right to hurt oneself covers all other hurt or damage that might result from the operations of discourse, he might have reconsidered the temptation of this adventure of messing around with my poem, and saved himself from the consequences of damaging it for the use it could have had for him of illuminating, in his reading of it with intelligence of rhythmic sense, what, by the poetic prescription of rhythmic procedure, makes it a poem, besides other elements of it contributing to its being this. Indeed, the exercise of putting the text of this poem upon the page in standard poetic columnar lengths, following its rhythmic demarcations of continuity progress, could be instructive if the result were compared with the general run of poems of this time, in which so much arbitrary strait-jacketing of text into poem-form by painfully awkward emergency line-breaks covers a false rhythmic structure corresponding neither to the necessities of prosaic spaciousness nor to those of poetic concentration. This is a genre of literary composition in which the congruities of rhythmically sensitive diction are dissipated in concern with the potentialities of poetry as a categorically literary profession, its problems of professional practicality and contemporaneity, private to itself. Where such special-privilege taking with linguistic proprieties in poem-composition is countenanced as literarily unexceptionable, poetry has ceased to be a human profession, and literature in the whole to be dedicated to the end of framing in language what can be yielded up by human beings to one another, for the union of their knowledges of who, what, and why, they are what they have called 'human'. The orientations of Mr Keene's article, into the excuse for and the reference paraphernalia of which he has dragged my poem, and myself, are of a world of poetry, literature, human actuality, formed of bottled-up exhibit-specimens. Such vivaria, which have now a quite wide literary-world existence, can teach us nothing but the futility of substituting diminutive models of large problems for the problems themselves, and displaying them as solved in the diminution.
     
     I am, respectfully,
LAURA (RIDING) JACKSON
Wabasso, Florida

Sir: I have nothing essential to say; my points are relational, relating principally to Dennis Keene's 'A Dying Fall: A Lying Word'.

His basic error lies in his transforming personal response into 'universal' aesthetic law. 'Stopping the record and repeating the passage' does not destroy the music, but may dilute (or intensify) your response to it, the music as a structure of your consciousness.

Most of his arguments follow a similar pattern; revealingly, several different pronouns signify the critical protagonist. In his discussion of the lines from Macbeth ('nothing ambiguous' about them!) he passes from a reader-embracing 'we' (for the quotation) to a blankly apologetic 'I' (for his 'answer') and finally to impersonal generalisation from this answer: 'Such analyses are as arbitrary . . .'

He says, in effect: I find this moving, but cannot say why, testing what critical tools I have against the experience; thus no one can or will ever explain its effect.

-Hoping to close 'critical discourse' by assigning to it a predetermined, final signified of 'invalidity'. Critical statements have 'nothing essential to say', tell us 'nothing that really matters'- because Keene assigns this (lack of) meaning to them before they are written or read. There is 'nothing essential' in 'critical discourse'-because he has given it a negative essence!

-And as to 'essence': 'The essence of poetry (when contrasted with other forms of language) is its ability to move one profoundly.'

First, how can an 'essence' be revealed by a contrast, i.e., a relationship? Surely what is 'revealed' (what is simply evident) in a linguistic opposition or relation is 'difference'. 'Essence' signifies (Keene's use of it) the mythology of the 'hidden meaning' of which we guiltily or humbly admit our ignorance: God's will.

Second, has he never been 'profoundly moved' by prose?

More specifically, of music: Mr Keene's most flagrant conceptual confusion becomes apparent if his remarks about Pound and Tomlinson are related to those on the line from Mallarmé. The 'music' 'essential to poetry' is 'a music or rhythm underlying the whole' which can survive translation. Since it cannot then be 'melopoeia' he is guilty of a misuse of terms. For what is 'music or rhythm' (note that those terms are not interchangeable!) in a poetic context if not a sequence of sounds? If 'music' is metaphorical here, may I ask him for a more precise exposition of its mysterious referent? His own invalidation of critical discourse is no excuse for intellectual laziness. Further, if this 'music' underlies the whole, how can it be manifested in the autonomous 'power' he claims for his examples?

Mr Keene seems ignorant of or insensitive to the highly intelligent contributions to our understanding (not something which can ever be 'complete'; how can one posit 'total understanding' as even an 'ideal' aim, given the dynamic nature [or rather, 'culture'] of the linguistic sign?)-our understanding of various musical/verbal effects, which have appeared in the last twenty years. May I recommend to him, on 'verbal music', Jakobson, e.g., Linguistics and Poetics (he should apply what he finds there to the Mallarmé example); on 'the poem as poem rather than as representative . . .', Riffaterre's Semiotics of Poetry (Mr Keene seems unaware that he invokes in this sentence a textuality which is quite-even dangerously-self-contained).

More palatable to him would be Hugh Kenner on 'Knot and Vortex' in The Pound Era: a very beautiful exposition of what Keene thinks of as a mystery to which we should (so he legislates) remain blind: the 'patterned energies' which can persist through different languages. (This is what he seems to gesture towards in saying that the poem is 'unharmed by translation').

I am sure he would applaud Bunting for saying that 'the theoreticians will follow the artist and fail to explain him'. But he should mark what follows: 'the sound, whether it be in words or notes, is all that matters.'

-Forget the over-statement; remember 'the sound', and remember that music is nothing more (or less) mysterious than organised sound. If he wishes to investigate our responses to that, he could make a cautious start with Deryck Cooke's The Language of Music. (Of course, these writers have nothing essential to say to the present Mr Keene; I hope Mr Keene can change, and discover the relational.)

However, if he finds the music (as sound-sequence, patterned energy, or even in his own vague terms) of Pound or Tomlinson 'drab', he should seek to rectify that insensitivity before venturing into print on the matter.

Summary diagnosis:


A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know. (Bunting)

Within this principle of blemished air
We hear a god who isn't there. (Porter)


MARTIN J. WILSON
Chestnut Avenue, Liverpool 23

Dennis Keene writes: I regret the considerable offence which I have caused Mrs Jackson. The tone of her letter implies that she does not expect me to face her 'challenges' in any way that might give her satisfaction, and so there seems little point in making any prolonged attempt to do so. However, I confess that I have messed her poem about, but this was done with no pernicious intent, and I am unable to believe that any other reader would feel that it was. The statement that I did not like nor feel I understood her poem was an attempt to protect the poem rather than vandalize it, being a prior warning to the reader that any words of mine about it must be seen as lacking that objective validity which a proper grasp of the poem would give. The linking of three words from that poem with three words of William Shakespeare's (not mine, as Mrs Jackson seems to think they are) was an attempted demonstration of how sensitive the craft aspects of poetry indeed are, for something offensively pretentious is thereby produced. There was no implication that I was blaming Mrs Jackson for this result, any more than that I was accusing Shakespeare of being pretentious.

My brisk remarks about 'the lying words of the poet' are, because of their very throw away nature, unable to give anything like a true account of Mrs Jackson's prolonged and profound thought on these matters. But surely no reader would assume that they were meant to do so, and as a statement of the basic reason for Mrs Jackson's refusal to write poetry, they are, I think, as true as one could hope for in so brief a phrase. I have felt for some time that Mrs Jackson's example has not been given the serious treatment it deserves and I had hoped that making this, admittedly inadequate but at least prominent, passing reference might be a useful thing to do. I feel not only bemused and mystified by her response, but actually mortified as well.

Mr Wilson's objections on various matters are sometimes more or less valid and sometimes not, but since they miss the main point of what I was writing I see no virtue in dealing with them all one by one. For example, his objection to my statement about 'total understanding' seems to me quite valid, and I wish I had not made it. On the other hand my switching from 'we' to `I' in my discussion of the lines from Macbeth is a movement from a position in which I posit my certainty of the reader's assent, to one in which I do not, and I am unable to see on what grounds I can be condemned for so doing. I consider this a form of courtesy, and it was that courtesy I attempted to extend throughout the essay. The very naivety of tone, the simple, even imprecise statements of large problems (there are worse things than those Mr Wilson has mentioned, as I assume he is aware, and so I thank him for remaining silent about them) were an attempt not to impose upon the reader. My principal point is that the very rigour, the brilliant precision of our prose accounts of poetry, lead us away from its truth rather than towards it. My essay is a statement of the conceptual confusion which will arise from a recognition of that, and I demonstrate myself being led into impressions which I state quite plainly that I see as 'critically disastrous'. It is no use Mr Wilson asking me for 'a more precise exposition of this mysterious referent', since the meaning of what I have written is that it is either not available or, if it is, it is of no proper use.

I hope these words do not sound too dismissive, for I am not out of sympathy with the irritation which Mr Wilson has felt, and which has perhaps been shared by others. I see it as misplaced since I was not attempting to write any critique of critical methodology, but merely indicating all that is left unanswered by even the most brilliant exercises of that methodology itself (and this would include the works which Mr Wilson rightly admires). Such an essay can not hope to be persuasive, for it makes no attempt to use the tools of persuasion, but asks only for the reader's assent, which is either freely given or it is not. I assumed that the readers of PNR could spot the crudity of various key statements immediately, and I wanted them to do so. In a different context there might be the danger of misleading what would then be a much less critical audience, but I assumed no one would be taken in in this case, and so felt it was permissible to make a number of throw-away statements which the reader could object to if he so wished. Either the reader would be with me or he would not, and I wanted that to be clear.

One case in point is the cavalier treatment of Charles Tomlin-son. I assumed a considerable admiration for his work among the readers of PNR, and thus a context in which the statements about him could not be harmful, for if they annoyed anybody they would direct sympathy towards Mr Tomlinson and away from me. I made them because, in the handling of ideas about rhythm and music which I am unable to define properly, I needed to make indications of the kind of image of poetry I was putting forward. This was not an attempt to attack anybody, for it is the very aggressive nature of critical discourse which I am arguing against. If I were not aware of the very good reasons why the poetry of Ezra Pound and Mr Tomlinson should be admired, then I should not have mentioned either of them.

Anyone's response to poetry is founded upon ideas about poetry and life itself which are never grasped completely. The aspect of the criticism of poetry I find particularly dangerous is that unreal confidence which the forms of rational prose seem to impose upon us. What I wrote was not any dismissal of criticism as such, nor any rejection of rationality and precision in prose discourse, but just one more reminder of how little they do for us. I was trying to account for the desperate feeling which even the best criticism gives of continually allowing the poem to escape. Since I cannot overcome that feeling (and I believe there are many others who cannot either) the best answer seems to be to stop being desperate about it. That is all I wanted to say.

THE OPEN UNIVERSITY

Sir: Donald Davie, in his review of the two recent Pan guides to American and British poetry (PNR 16), pays tribute to the 'mostly admirable enterprise' of the Open University. Has he forgotten that without the personal commitment of the Prime Minister of the day and his admirable Minister for the Arts (Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee) there would have been no Open University. Davie might care to reflect that in a recent PNR he made grave accusations against Tony Benn, David Owen and Michael Foot, stating that their purpose was to impose an East German-style dictatorship on Britain. Perhaps he should think carefully before shooting off smears against politicians who share the same broad philosophy as Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee.
ANTHONY RUDOLF
Fitzwarren Gardens, London N19

Donald Davie writes: Tony Rudolf will never be cured of his notion that British party politics is a game of Cowboys and Indians. Yes, dear Tony, I approve certain persons and policies of 'your side', while regarding others (both persons and policies) with indignation and alarm. No one besides you finds this incomprehensible. A 'broad philosophy' indeed! Soon you'll be telling us of 'this great movement of ours'.

ONE OF THE TWO POETRIES

Sir: Professor Marjorie Perloff in her review of British Poetry since 1970 (PNR 19) is surely too modest. It should be possible to condemn the whole tradition of British poetry since the adoption of accentual-syllabic metres in the fourteenth century in the terms she reserves for Robert Wells and Jeffrey Wainwright. Only those who have learned from Ezra Pound need feel exempt.

Let us take by way of example 'A slumber did my spirit seal'. If she were to look at Wordsworth's 'text' as closely as she looks at 'After Haymaking' by Robert Wells, she might discover that it is not a poem at all-on the grounds that it is written in iambic quatrains (tetrameters alternating with trimeters) and a rhyme scheme of abab. The metre is almost entirely regular, its sequence being that 'of the metronome, not of the musical phrase': 'With rocks and stones and trees' would be a typical line. Also 'poetic' at this elementary level is the use of assonance (seemed-feel, earth's-diurnal), alliteration (slumber, seal/had, human), and internal off-rhyme (earth's/course).

Generically, the 'poem' falls into that dispiritingly large class of nature poems in which a sensitive witness records particular sensations that bring him or her to some small epiphany. After the loss of someone he has loved, a man experiences a momentary intimation of mortality. The poem, moreover, employs nothing but the 'interstices' of language-articles, prepositions, function words, flat epithets like 'diurnal course' (for orbit) and colourless verbs (`had', 'seemed', 'feel', 'has', 'hears', 'sees', 'rolled'): in short, all those verbal devices which in other forms of language make possible what is commonly known as 'syntax'. (Poems, of course, should have no truck with anything so retrograde.) Nouns and adjectives in this context have no resonance: they point to their referents as in ordinary expository discourse, and that is all. Thus fears, not surprisingly, are 'human', years are 'earthly', and the earth is decked out in, of all things, 'rocks and stones and trees'. There is, moreover, no real relationship between the process of perception Wordsworth presents and his chosen sound structure. The transformation of life into death, sleep into waking is gradual, yet Wordsworth allots one quatrain to each as if death came on with a little leap. The climactic final line is rhythmically almost identical to the second, fourth and sixth, and the rhyme 'sees'/'trees' is semantically neutral as are the other three pairs.

I anticipate one small objection to all this. Wordsworth, Professor Perloff may feel moved to remind us, died 130 years ago and, history being what it is and the human race so changeable, there can be no comparison between then and now. No: young poets should be attending to-well, not their contemporaries, but to Ezra Pound, who was born 62 years before Robert Wells. Less than the average life-span. One might reasonably compare Shakespeare (67 years older than Dryden), Pope (69 years older than Blake) and Arnold (63 years older than-well, Ezra Pound).
CLIVE WILMER
Cambridge

Sir: It is hard to tell whether Marjorie Perloff's distress faced with the state of modern British poetry is derived from a consistent vision of its genuine inadequacies or from personal shock at the discovery that it is not like American poetry. Her Introduction to a group of essays on recent poetry in Contemporary Literature (XVIII, 3) complains that Heaney sounds 'foreign'. 'Constabulary' and 'bullying sun' (from 'Summer 1969' in North) are given as examples of 'unusual diction'. The point could, of course, be value free; 'British poetry sounds like that, how interesting!' But her comments on some widely praised poets in PNR 19 make it clear that surprise has given way to exasperation. Of course, she has some points. Much British poetry is dull and much criticism of it is unconscious of its own theoretical assumptions. But it seems hard to win. In Contemporary Literature she implicitly criticises echoes of Hopkins and Dylan Thomas in Heaney. Such linguistic riches do not fit in with current American 'anti-poetic'. But in PNR she implicitly praises the richness of Basil Bunting. On the one hand we are asked to accept an 'anti-poetic' and on the other she asks 'Is economy always a good thing, and, if so, what about Whitman?' What indeed? The limited vocabulary of critical praise ('loaded tags') available to the covert Leavisite: 'marked honesty and integrity', 'muscular vigour', 'compassion', 'sympathy', etc. are, I am sure, never used to describe the Song of Myself.

However, I want to concentrate on Marjorie Perloff's attack on 'Thomas Müntzer' by Jeffrey Wainwright. Her criticisms seem to be as follows:


(a) The poem's rhythms and verse forms are inept, 'not even good prose'.
(b) The poem is a thinly disguised mask for the author.
(c) Müntzer is given no historical identity or visible context.
(d) The ideas of the poem are 'newspaper' or 'cardboard'.
(e) The subject of the poem is trivialised and sentimental.


Many of the points are, in fact, related, though the basis of the attack is so diverse as to make it difficult to know how to reply.

Professor Perloff sets out two tercets from the start of 'Thomas Müntzer' as prose and complains that they do not make good prose. This may, perhaps, be something to do with the fact that, without the line breaks, some of the important pauses, with the ambiguities they imply, are lost. That is to say, the tercets were designed as verse and should be read as such. Whilst she does not say why it is not good prose she does say it is 'neither graphic nor suggestive'. Faced with this, 'practical criticism' reaches its boundaries. How could one deny that there is enough detail to make it visualisable (Müntzer as one of those stiff angels of medieval pictures floating against the background of a mine instead of the conventional heaven: that sense of 'graphic') and is there not a tension between the cool tone and Müntzer's vision, or delusion, that is very 'suggestive'? It is possible to imagine a reader agreeing about the words on the page but still claiming that they do nothing for her or him but this is hardly because it is bad prose (or bad verse!). Indeed, when Jeffrey Wainwright does use less economical evocations of Müntzer's state of mind he is accused of 'Roethkean musings'. It is interesting that in her Introduction in Contemporary Literature Professor Perloff quotes, with implicit approval, 'Milkweed', by James Wright who actually is an early influence on Wainwright:


While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.


How the 'graphic' and 'suggestive' qualities of the opening lines of this differ from Wainwright's is hard to imagine, and they are oddly similar in movement. Moreover, does one sound American and the other British? Set out as prose, could Professor Perloff prove that Wright uses good prose? And could it be proved that Wright's vision is not sentimental or trivial in those last lines if a reader wanted to hear them like that?

Unfortunately it is hard to make close reading move on to proof of value though it is at such points that criticism gets interesting. And it is hard indeed if the close reading is misreading. She quotes:


I lie out all summer spread like a coat
Over the earth one night after another
Waiting to catch her . . .


and comments: 'But the simile is merely inept: bodies, even the emaciated one of Thomas Müntzer cannot be spread like coats over the earth. Again, the body, longing to merge with the earth, is hard to imagine as "catching" it. But then in what sense do coats "catch"?' Here Müntzer believes the earth to be a malicious female who makes the surrounding fields stony and therefore unproductive. If he 'spreads' himself on the earth the implications are complex. Unable to sleep in his bed, in comfort, because the earth is in a sense out of control, his control, he lies on the stony ground hoping to catch the miscreant. Painfully, thus, he punishes himself for his dreams whilst affirming his belief in them. Absurdly personifying the earth, Müntzer attempts to grapple with its spirit. Surely this mixture of visionary self-denial and visionary, sexual self-indulgence is frighteningly evoked. And it should be obvious that the simile, 'like a coat', refers to the act of lying and not to the act of catching.

The more general criticisms are harder to counter. The poem is, surely, comprised of several main areas of concern. There is the actual Müntzer and, by implication, the fate of most revolutionaries; the frightening ironies involved in the attempt to test a vision against reality; the brute reality which turns concepts like freedom into 'mere' vision, unreliable and ephemeral. There is a sense in which the poem also constitutes an investigation of the possibility of poetry in which the imagination is continually and brutally reminded of the dangers of re-making the world. Many of the sections culminate in, or make some allusion to, an explosive moment when vision and reality meet and clash. At such moments compromise is rejected and Müntzer's attention, and the reader's, become diverted towards some compensatory image or inarticulable cry: 'This is not/A vision.' 'His red blood cracks the air and saves me.' 'Now I explode.' 'I believe in God.' 'I see it/I see it.' It seems that the poem as a whole turns on the contrast between the moments of calm, lucid perception (Roethkean musings?) when privately, at least, for Müntzer anything is possible and the moments when the bullets are there and cannot be caught, the torturer asks his absurd question, 'They ask me what I believe,' and he is forced to write himself out of history. The energy of the poem derives from these closely worked but mutually destructive positions. Müntzer is made to speak through and in history but also, as does Hill in 'Funeral Music', timelessly, because the purpose of the poem is to re-enact problems of vision rather than to provide a re-assessment of 'the meaning of Reformation history as does a writer like Brecht in Galileo.'

How, then, to counter the assertion that these are 'newspaper ideas' and 'more like the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan than the voice of a prophet'? Perhaps, as the moments of explosive vision testify, Müntzer himself is perplexed by the potential banality of his own beliefs. That is to say, Professor Perloff is right but with the wrong emphasis. Wainwright points out, in effect, that the relationship between public role and private belief is complex and by no means guiltless. Is Müntzer's protestation 'I see it,/I see it', as the old woman is dragged out by the soldiers, a vision of compassion and protest or of self-aggrandising in which he suffers ridiculously on behalf of humanity? Wainwright's language here is so nicley poised that we are left querying our own beliefs: when the bullets fly, what price the poet's compassion or the newspaper headlines?

A critic whom Professor Perloff respects, Merle Brown, has written of the divisiveness of English poetry, and its refusal to settle for a 'total effect'. He writes, in Double Lyric,


The poet strives to shape his subject objectively, so that the drama seems to be an illusion of reality, a conflict as it is, in and of itself. But knowing that that illusion is the product of his own effort, he tends to include within his dramatic presentation some sense of his own privileged and determining position as maker. . . . Recent English poetry, when it works as poetry, has not renounced conflict, but depends on it. (pp. 2-3)


This seems to me to help account for Wainwright's distaste for filling the Müntzer story out into something documentary or didactic. The simple persona poem is precisely not what is intended. The conflicting and unresolved tones in Wainwright's poetry can, I think, be heard for what they are in much the same way as Brown has indicated in Silkin and Hill. Müntzer's musings, his similes, for example, are chosen both to reveal the visionary's fragile self-consciousness and to provide a critique of the poet's own act of making. It is not surprising, then, if the mask slips; it was never really there. Sadly, Merle Brown cannot examine 'Thomas Müntzer' in the light of his commitment to English poetry. I hope that Marjorie Perloff will.
JON GLOVER
Bolton, Lancashire

This item is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.



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