Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 19, Volume 7 Number 5, May - June 1981.

THERE was a letter in The Times of 20 October which has an interest far beyond its immediate subject-matter, so that one need not apologise for going back to it so long after most of the matter of that day's issue has evaporated. Mr Stephen Tunnicliffe was protesting about an earlier correspondent's notion of 'a nationwide contest' for amateur musical groups and individuals.

Mr Tunnicliffe wrote:

One of the less desirable side-effects of Thatcherism seems to be this fanatical belief in the magical power of competition. How often must it be spelt out that in the creative and re-creative arts, music in particular, the only true 'competition' takes place within each individual participant? In my experience competitive festivals, eisteddfoddau, etc., encourage the subordination of music to technique, and set up false criteria for young musicians when they are at their most vulnerable.

It bears thinking about. It would be unkind to attribute the current National Poetry Competition to an outburst of Thatcherism, but the organisers are certainly not setting their faces against the spirit of the eighties, as manifested by the Great Establishments of the media, and the subordinate establishments of politics, which extend their baleful influence daily further over what ought to be the fields of independent invention. Matthew Arnold's Philistines were a simple, knock-about lot as compared with those who now present themselves for our daily and hourly delectation.

The fauteurs of the National Poetry Competition can be left to look after themselves. There is no direct parallel between the musical performer and the writer (including the poet), although the same public influences bear on both. But Mr Tunnicliffe's remarks about the special risks to young performers 'when they are at their most vulnerable', certainly have their application to the young who might turn out to be poets but, in the nature of the case, are not yet sure that they will. The destructive attack starts at school, where there is often pressure for, or at least an invitation to, 'self-expression' without any sense, on the part of either pupil or teacher, of what prejudices are concealed and imparted in that dubious cliché. Or of what illiteracies are encouraged by the invitation to write a poem, when what is meant is that the ordinary disciplines of prose do not matter and the only requirement of form is that the lines should not reach the right-hand side of the page. An instruction to write verse in a set form is another matter, for that is something which can be done and judged well or ill done-and moreover the mere practice of it conveys some training which is of value to the reader as well as the writer. If you train the reader, the writer will fend for himself. The attack on literacy which is begun as bad teaching is continued, for the young man or woman, by all those institutions encouraging 'the arts' which expose them to pressure to compete for attention in the public arena before they have engaged seriously in that much more sobering competition with themselves of which Mr Tunnicliffe speaks. The 'poetry reading', as practised from the sixties onwards, can be a special peril, for a certain circulation in a not very exacting social milieu, with a 'turn' of more or less acceptability, may result in a deflection from, or even a complete omission of, the poet's painful reckoning with his own work, which can be made only by that attention to dead masters which any serious writer will find himself impelled to give. I once met a young man who said in all innocence, 'I've got a reading coming off in three weeks; I must write some more poems for it.' Of course there is no harm in somebody who has written poems, in the manner in which poems actually are written, selecting a bunch for a bunch of judges and hoping he might thus win a useful fifty (or even five thousand) pounds, so long as he does not attach any importance to the success or failure-but that requires a degree of moral discipline for which poets are no more famous than other people.

The public world of our own day is debased to a degree without precedent in recorded history, as far as the recognition of the arts is concerned. Not only are the forms of pseudo-recognition louder, funnier and more numerous than ever, but the public world we live in is media-soaked, a world in which the sober reality we know face to face is for ever being perverted by those whose trade is to reach larger and larger audiences at whatever cost to truth and to the modesty and elegance which the truth requires. What remedy? Of course one has no remedy, and to suppose there is one is to succumb to the media's own blandishments, the reductio of everything to a simplistic absurdum. We should all, however, do what we can to cultivate our few square yards of solid ground and look with renewed suspicion on all over-sized pretensions.

* * *

It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. A few months ago I found in a bookshop in what I shall persist in calling Cumberland, a set of the eight volumes of An English Garner, that delectable collection of odds and ends in prose and verse, mostly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, put together by Edward Arber and published round about 1895-7. 'Few of us adequately realize the immense Literature which has descended to us from our ancestors', his preface begins. Arber wanted to restore this corpus 'to the knowledge and enjoyment of English-reading peoples', and his collection was not intended simply as something to be put on the shelves of university libraries, for the prying of specialists.

And, sure enough, my set was bought by the Barrow-in-Furness Free Lending Library, whose labels remain in it. The volumes must have had readers, in those unenlightened times- underprivileged people many of them, I fear, without degrees or other diplomas. But what were the authorities in Barrow-in-Furness thinking of when they got rid of this treasure? Perhaps this reading-matter was no longer suitable for an educated democracy, or was thought not to be so by some diplomaed librarian. I know nothing about libraries, except as a user, but I think I have detected a growing pre-disposition to regard the old book as ipso facto less worth having than the new. How many good books are thrown out to make room for worse ones? Of course one understands that there are problems of space, and problems of demand, and there must be pressure to value each book simply on the basis of the number of times it is borrowed. There will even be those on Library Committees-as in the Arts Council-who believe that any non-numerical basis for judging quality is out of place in institutions dependent on public funds. If it is, so much the worse for those institutions. Admittedly the judgement of quality by persons controlling public funds has its risks, but in the other direction there lies only the certainty of waste and disaster. And as to libraries, can anyone who knows what a book is doubt that a librarian who is literate is to be preferred to one who is merely numerate?

This item is taken from PN Review 19, Volume 7 Number 5, May - June 1981.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image