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.

Reports & Letters
Sir: In an editorial in your sixteenth issue, C. H. Sisson takes issue with my assertion that English and American poetry are now discontinuous.

With much of what he argues in this editorial I would not disagree. When I wrote that the 'poetries of England and America have become discontinuous', I meant to imply that they were once continuous; I do not maintain that 'American poetry is so much a thing on its own that we are not to regard it as part of the stream which stems from Chaucer and beyond.' If it is a stream-even a stream that stems-then much of it originated in English hills; but these streams parted at some geologic point, and now enter the sea at a distance from each other.

My article, addressed to Americans, supposed that contemporary Americans and English read each other badly. 'If Americans read English poetry without a preconception of discontinuity,' I said, 'they read very, very bad American poems; perhaps they leave grudging space for Charles Tomlinson or Tom Raworth. If Englishmen read American poetry without expecting differences, they praise John Crowe Ransom and find Whitman "untidy". . .' (I was quoting C. H. Sisson.)

The differences between the two poetries are historical and genuine. English and French literature in large part derive from the stream of Latin and Romance; one might argue that they are tolerably different, and that the difference is historical. America began as a colony separating itself from England. For the Puritans leaving England was exodus from Egypt to the New Israel. Calvinist Jeremiads translated themselves over the centuries into Enlightenment progressivism-by a route and with a rhetoric considerably different from Great Britain's. There have been three and a half centuries of a geographical separation which intended to fulfill a difference of religious thought. There have been two centuries of political independence. Immigration to the United States has produced a population much of which has no ties to Great Britain aside from the approximate lexicon of our speech.

Later in the same issue C. H. Sisson writes in his brilliant 'Apology': 'It is one of the popular delusions of our time that discourse across cultural areas of a more or less mountainous kind must be more fruitful than the refinements which arise only in the intercourse of more or less homogeneous groups.' I submit that America and England look at each other across cultural barriers of a more or less mountainous kind . . . Perhaps this means that our interchange will not bear fruit. But I suggest that unless we admit that there are mountainous barriers, we will deceive ourselves by thinking that instead we exemplify the intercourse of more or less homogeneous groups. Under such delusions we may commit errors of judgement, like the Frenchman calling Shakespeare 'a drunken savage', or the Englishman finding Whitman 'a lout' and 'a liar'.

DONALD HALL
Danbury, New Hampshire

'GAY' AND 'MARKET'

Sir: I was a little unsure of the tone intended in your 'Note' (PNR 18) alluding to the Gay News literary supplement. What puzzled me was the way you put quotation marks around the word 'market', as if sneering. What were you sneering at? What is your editorial attitude towards the Gay movement? As a Gay myself, and as a regular reader of PN Review and a long-standing subscriber, I hope you will answer my question.

EDWARD PARTRIDGE
Leeds

This is one of several letters received from readers on this subject.

The General Editor writes: We have no 'editorial attitude' towards the Gay movement or towards Gay people. The quotation marks around the word 'market' were not intended to have a sinister overtone. All our readers will be aware that a recurrent polemical thread in this magazine is a strong hostility to the application of 'market values' in the world of serious literature, the distortions implicit in the view that books sell if they are good and do not sell if they are bad. Parallel with this polemic is another, evident from some of the essays on politics and political writers, and that is a wariness of any literary programme that seeks, on thematic grounds or on grounds of subject-matter, to transvalue works of literary merit. Our intention in reporting so significant a development as a new literary supplement was to keep our readers informed. It is an event of some significance. The sexuality of our readers and contributors, however, is not in our minds when we reach editorial decisions.

LETTER FROM GERMANY

October 1980

' 'Tis pleasant, sure, to see one's name in print,' wrote Byron; 'a book's a book, although there's nothing in't.' The Frankfurt Book Fair, now in its thirty-second year, might have been arranged with the express purpose of proving the poet's point. October saw over 5,000 publishers in Frankfurt, exhibiting nearly 300,000 titles, 86,000 of them new titles. Angola, Botswana, Curacao, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Niger, Upper Volta and Zimbabwe were this year represented for the first time at a Fair featuring publishers from ninety-two countries. The jamboree was certainly well-attended.

A good many African nations found their way into that newcomers' list this year because the 1980 focus was on Black Africa. A continent in search of itself-according to Book Fair labels. Maybe the condescension of the formulation actually represents a truth, for what came across most strongly in the African hall was a desire to rid oneself of colonial influences once for all, a desire to find an unmistakable, indigenous voice. Ousmane Sembène of Senegal, interviewed by German TV's watchful and opportunist arts-mag Titel, Thesen, Temperamente, commented: 'The development of African literature is not dependent on the European market.' Well, why should it be? we ask ourselves. But possibly decolonization wants it both ways. 'We need Europe's moral support,' added Sembène, and Nigeria's Chinua Achebe remarked: 'To say that we should forget English is both unrealistic and irresponsible, because it's impossible.' The angles on post-colonialism offered by the TV programme revealed curious anomalies: on the one hand, resentment of the Oxford English Readers for Africa series, considered insultingly simplistic and too European; and, on the other hand, the interesting tale of Kenyans publishing with impunity as long as they did so in English, but punished with imprisonment the moment they wrote in native dialects. It's a strange continent. Everyone was there, certainly. Maybe even too many; South Africa (inevitably) was unpopular, and on Book Fair Friday Hall 7 was shut down on account of a complete boycott by all the other African delegations.

Yes, the Fair was well-attended. By the big names, too. V. S. Naipaul was there, civilized and lucid as ever, repeating for an obtuse TV interviewer some of the truths around which his work is built: 'we do not live in a tribal society any more', etc. Günter Grass was there, in a new role now that Helmut Schmidt's re-election makes his good if unwanted offices as SPD-pusher superfluous: this time Grass was plugging a Czech-oriented magazine featuring Pavel Kohout in its first number. Nearby David Hamilton was signing copies of his volumes of misty demoiselles; Sarah Kirsch came along to put her twiny scribble on the flyleaf of copies of La Pagerie, her new book, as thin as the rest, this time a collection of short prose pieces but so lyrical in temper as to be indistinguishable from her prosy poetry. Round another corner I happened quite unexpectedly upon Helmut Kohl, CDU-leader and one-time chancellor candidate, in those days of discretion when even the Union preferred the uncharismatic Kohl to steamhammer Strauss. Somebody had clearly forgotten to tell the press that Kohl was going to be there. At all events, there the poor man stood, his shiny face glowing with the effort of appearing interested, receiving hefty complimentaries at the stall of the People's Republic of China, with no one watching.

Over 5,000 publishers. 300,000 titles. 86,000 new publications. Up and down the passages, from hall to hall where the Bratwurst sizzles and feminist groups push pamphlets and shiver. Up and down the escalators, hall to hall, stall to stall, pushing, shoving, on the move. Every minute counts. After all, it's big business. Although there's nothing in't.

And yet the voices are disquieting. 'I've never experienced such an atmosphere of recession here,' said a German publisher friend. And he was speaking of the Germans, who aren't yet feeling the pinch at all badly. Among the British, many stalls have shrunk in size, many faces are longer. 1979 was a boom year for British publishing, and 1980, in spite of the sales squeeze, foreign competition, and the problems of a strong pound, looks like being even bigger. 1979 produced 41,940 new titles, up from 38,766 in 1978; during the first three quarters of 1980 34,965 titles were published, 17.2% more than in the same period in 1979. As The Economist pointed out (4 October): 'The book boom of 1978-79 seems too good to put down.'

The simple fact is that it will have to be put down. Sales are down. The British public, the schools and universities and the public libraries as much as the man in the bookshop, all are feeling the pinch, and they're browsing and turning away. Other English-language publishers (notably, of course, the Americans) are expanding; the present strength of sterling is a hindrance, and exports in 1980 are estimated down some 10%. The cash simply isn't available. 'We had sixty-six redundancies last month,' a friend at Macmillan told me. 'She went off on holiday,' said another, 'and when she came back her job didn't exist any more.' It's an all-round squeeze. Look at the prices of the latest paperbacks in your bookshop. Look at the note prefixed to October's Encounter: 'What we have been receiving in benefactions,' write Lasky and Thwaite, 'seems almost a pittance when one looks at the budgets of any little corporation's advertising campaign, the expenses of some minor governmental advisory committee, or the outlay for last week's television spectacular. No doubt about it, it's a cruel world.' Yes, indeed. Cruel it certainly is. But the British world of letters is going to have to put up with a fair amount of cruelty if things go on as they are.

In Germany things are not yet so bad. Plush, pretty books, expensively-produced and prohibitively-priced, are still put out for the very good reason that they still find a market. The German bookshop is glutted with health books, cookbooks, travel books, art books, and anything with big and glossy photographs: the Germans love it all, and why not? The books are undoubtedly interesting, or lovely, or at least worth having, if only to fill a space: so why not? Why not indeed.

In the Book Fair 'Literatur' section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (7 October-the day before the Fair began) there appeared an article by the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, in which German publishing in 1980 was described as complacent, self-indulgent, well-nigh moribund. The emperor's clothes, Reich-Ranicki calls his piece; or, the twilight of German literature. 'To put it in a nutshell,' he writes, 'literary life in Germany is alive and kicking, our literature has everything it needs in order to flourish. But is it flourishing? Is it not rather the case that we are well on the way to having literary life minus literature?'

Where, then, is the problem? After losing himself in hilarious parody of Suhrkamp blurbese and attacking Suhrkamp boss Siegfried Unseld, Reich-Ranicki identifies the problem as originating-where else, after this long catalogue of exonerations?- with the writers themselves. After listing the latest publications of Martin Walser, Adolf Muschg, Jurek Becker, Dieter Kühn, and poet/polemicist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Reich-Ranicki comments: 'These books do not come even remotely close to the major works of their authors and could even give rise to the fatal and, doubtless, unfounded suspicion that these authors, young as they may be, already have their good, their best period behind them.' And again: 'Anyone who writes so soporifically is incapable of competing for the reader's attention.'

Without necessarily agreeing with Reich-Ranicki's conclusion that this is German literature's feeblest autumn for many a year', I have to agree that a good deal of the writing coming out of Germany today does indeed seem to me enfeebled. Enzensberger's new poems do nothing to add to or detract from his reputation; they are simply there, uninspiring. Walser's Das Schwanenhaus is in the bestseller lists; but then, so was Ein fliehendes Pferd (available in English as Runaway Horse, from Secker and Warburg) and that was a masterpiece of ennui. Grass and Sebastian Haffner are both in the Spiegel bestseller lists too, but with polemical writings. Beyond that . . . Medusa are pushing their rediscovery of Expressionist Carl Einstein, and the biggest hit may well be Erich Loest's biography of adventure and western writer Karl May, long time a children's favourite in Germany. 'May,' says Loest, 'was at his happiest when writing in his room.' And so say all of us.

There are reasons, no doubt, why German writing, which kicked off to a splendid renaissance phase after its 1945 zero hour, should today have dwindled to a seminar-room dreariness. One reason, maybe the most significant, is that a society which has goodies by the bucketful sooner or later kills its own mental and intellectual life. Black Africa may strike us as offering perceptions just a little on the naive side; but then, maybe naivety is preferable to the exhausted lassitude of outworn consumerism.
From Das Kleine Rotbuch (Rotbuch/Kursbuch, Berlin) 1980
One interesting offshoot of this year's Book Fair was an anti-Springer boycott, aimed at blockading the notorious publications of the Axel Springer Verlag. Worst of these publications is of course the heinous Bild, Germany's most horrible daily newspaper, which has recently been the subject of two books by the controversial underground reporter Günter Wallraff, and which was Böll's model in Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. Böll was in fact among the first signatories of the boycott agreement, along with Günter Grass, Peter Hartling and Kurt Sontheimer.


The aim of the anti-Springer boycott is to cut off the Springer publications from the mainstream of today's German writing. Thus authors signing the agreement will give no interviews to Springer publications, nor will they permit advertisements for or reviews of their work to appear in those publications. Whether such a boycott can do great damage to the Springer Verlag is doubtful, but it is nevertheless important that such a gesture should be made, and it is fitting that it should have been made by authors with as clear a social conscience as Böll and Grass. Since the boycott gathered its first sixty-two signatories at the Fair the number has risen (last week of October) to well over a hundred, with Wolfgang Koeppen and Luise Rinser among the most recent.

The Springer Verlag has so far refused to comment on the boycott. Its ethics are no longer the subject only of literary or journalistic attack; the German judiciary is beginning to sit up too, and recently found two Bild photographers guilty of flagrant violations of the right to privacy. Whether these tokens of opposition and condemnation will greatly affect a Verlag whose most repellent rag is by far the most-read German daily remains to be seen.

MICHAEL HULSE
Nürnberg, West Germany

A NECESSARY NOTE

Dear Sir: The difficulty of translating poetry is widely discussed. Such difficulty is at least doubled if you try to translate eastern poetry into western languages because of the contrasts in culture. But then, translation is an art in itself. A recent successful example of this art is The Penguin Book of Turkish Verse, edited by Nermin Menemencioglu. (See 'International Poetry?' -a review of recent anthologies by Dick Davis, PNR 16, p. 49.)

If you know anything at all about Turkish poetry, you can imagine the difficulty of editing an anthology that represents this literary tradition of almost seven hundred years. But if you know nothing about Turkish poetry, then this Penguin anthology is an excellent introduction-that is, if you are interested . . .

The anthology is not perfect, but I think it gives a fair idea of the past and present of Turkish poetry. For a more comprehensive job, very much more space would have been necessary, and this would not have been very practical or profitable for the publisher.

But what I have in mind is more important.

In his review of the book, Dick Davis goes beyond his brief as reviewer, dismissing one of the major modern Turkish poets: ' . . . wretched Nazim Hikmet is much in evidence, both his own poems and his influence-someone should have told him and his audience that a spell in prison, regrettable though it may be, does not ipso facto produce a major poet'.

Mr Davis seems to know a lot about 'classical near-Eastern poetry'. What he does not know is that Nazim's work is crucial in leading us from classical to modern verse. He advanced the language of poetry. He is an important link between classical and modern. It is unfair to explain away his achievement with prison stuff . . . His greatness lies in the fact that he fully assimilated both the 'divan' and traditional folk poetry. From these natural sources he derived his own poetry. He is a master of the Turkish language who has been able to express himself in a very rich imagery that is part of traditional Turkish culture. Though he wrote in free verse mostly, he did use the rhythms and rhymes of the classical poetry-in an original way. This is why it is as difficult to translate Nazim as it is to translate Yunus Emre or Nedim . . .

Since it has been dominant for the last couple of hundred years, Western culture is quite intelligible to us; but a Western mind must find it very difficult to understand the sophisticated parts that constitute the whole of Eastern culture. It is not surprising therefore that Mr Davis's Western mind misleads him in judging Nazim's poetry. Yet it is rather shocking to see him dealing not with the poetry but with the poet himself, who cannot answer. Isn't this an easy way to dismiss difficult work?

A poet must be considered in relation with his own language and culture. Our tastes might vary-and this is quite proper. But if a poet of an entirely different culture has been so highly loved, and so deeply influential in his own language and culture, one must think twice before ignoring his art and his audience. Especially if he is able to read the work only in translations, however excellent they may be . . .

BILGIN ADALI
Izmir, Turkey

BROOKE, BENN, HILL, CELAN

Sir: William Mayne ('Reports and Letters', PNR 17) should have had the courtesy to spell my name correctly, and you should have had the courtesy to print it correctly. I took Mr Mayne's indignation to be protective of Benn. Personally, I cannot stand him, not only because he was an enthusiastic Nazi, something I find humanly unforgivable, but also because I think he was an ass, and independently of these considerations, I do not like his poems.

Mr Mayne asks, with the formalized bad manners of a certain kind of philosopher or schoolmaster, what precisely I mean. It seems to me he knows precisely what I mean. I mean that Paul Celan is a fine, perhaps a great poet, and anyone who reads his work should sense this quality; I further implied that exactly the same can be said of Geoffrey Hill. I assumed it was common ground that no such claim could be advanced for Rupert Brooke, the flaws in whose character and upbringing and social milieu produced terrible faults in his poetry. He is not negligible, but he is not to be compared with the greatest poets in the century, even among our contemporaries. I think preferring Benn to Celan would be a mistake of the same kind as preferring Brooke to Hill. I think Celan's superiority to Benn is of the order of obviousness of Hill's superiority to Brooke. This is not a facile aside. It is an explanation of the less familiar in terms of the more familiar, a constant device of criticism.

I have not read the reassessments of Benn and Celan that Mr Mayne mentions. My own view of Celan has broadened but not altered. I think he was a very remarkable writer. Reassessment of Benn must I suppose be upward. I have little sympathy with that. As for the political content of my remark, Brooke was a socialist of the Attlee type. I know nothing about Geoffrey Hill's politics except their profundity and decency; I do not know or ask how he votes. I believe Paul Celan ended in some despair, but I did not have that, or anything else about his history, in mind. If Mr Mayne's suspicion of political content should indicate the view that it is improper to dislike Nazi poets for their Nazism, then I would disagree with him; but I do not suppose he is so naive. Even with Pound, a far greater poet I believe, it is not right for a critic to ignore his fascism.

I hope all this long and boring explanation is satisfactory. But if the questions were worth printing, I suppose the answers were worth giving.

PETER LEVI
Stonesfield, Oxford

Michael Schmidt writes: As General Editor I sincerely apologise for having reproduced Mr Mayne's spelling of Peter Levi's name in printing Mr Mayne's letter.

William Mayne writes: It is as I imagined: Peter Levi had based his judgement of Benn on an at least partly ill-founded animosity. Ill-founded? Yes-Benn was not 'an enthusiastic Nazi'- Walter Michel thoroughly documented that. Nazism was a phase through which he passed, and passed quickly, and the consequences of which he suffered, and suffered long, and still suffers judging from Peter Levi's diatribe. It is interesting that German writers today value Benn in part at least because he saw through the Nazi experience, in both senses: his disillusion, and the power of his prose analysis, are instructive in ways that writings more flattering to left-liberal sentiment in the West are not instructive, are distorting. Celan, of course, is immeasurably a greater poet than Benn-no doubt. But Benn had more strings than that of poetry to his literary bow. Celan is superior not because his political sentiments were more congenial, rather because he had a great integrating imagination working on the very disintegration which Benn's work continually witnesses to. Peter Levi seems content to dismiss Benn on political grounds largely; while judging Celan (and Hill, for that matter) on the strength of their writing. I suggest that, should he he re-read Benn-and re-read work from every phase of his development, and re-read his prose as well as his verse, and stick with the intolerable stuff of the 'Nazi period', and see how actual experience brought Benn to his senses, and see the great power of the later work, he would re-value Benn in much the way that Walter Michel has done in the pages of PNR, and in the way that poets and prose writers in Germany-many of them on the left-are doing.

As for the 'bad manners' Peter Levi imputes to me, I should say that they are of a piece with his bad manners in his reply. His review made me indignant because it was using what he calls 'a constant device of criticism' (the operative word being 'device') to blur a distinction. 'Preferring Potatoes to Carrots is like preferring Begonias to Rhododendrons.' Well, yes, I suppose so.

FOILED (PNR 15, p. 60)

Dear Sir: In his review of Images au Mirroir/Mirror Images, your Mr Sail rebukes the illustrious French translator M. Dominique Grandmont for his lack of 'logic' in translating a poem of mine.

Careful scrutiny shows M. Grandmont's fault to have been this: that he rendered le sentiment du fer, a technical term in fencing, valid in English, by le sentiment du fer, a technical term in fencing, valid in French. And how, I wonder, would Mr Sail translate chauffeur or garage?

He is perhaps one of these newfangled academic critics who know more and more about less and less: his ignorance of fencing is therefore quite forgiveable. But should his uncertain grasp on the principles of translation go unnoted?

JACK BEECHING
Paris

Lawrence Sail writes: I am grateful to Mr Beeching for writing- as for the opportunity to riposte to his parry, which I think must, in fencing terms, come into the category of 'the simple or instinctive parry'. I am sorry, though, that crossing swords over fencing terms should lead him into speculation of a kind that betrays irritation rather than objectivity: I am not 'one of these newfangled academic critics', whoever they may be, but a schoolteacher as well as a writer, and I take my reviewing seriously-that is, I try to do my homework properly and to think of the general reader, as well as of the author(s). Happily, his letter allows me to explain why I suggested that the phrase 'le sentiment du fer', which he correctly identifies, ought in my view logically to have been translated. When reviewing the book I tried in vain to locate the expression in the following English and French books: the Oxford English Dictionary (Full-length edition, 1933); Grand Larousse de la langue française (6 Vols., 1971 onwards); Dictionnaire de l'Académie française (2 Vols., 1834); and Fencing with the Foil by Roger Crosnier (Faber, 1951). It may be of interest that in the Crosnier book the term appears neither in the list of fencing terms at the end of the book nor in the text itself. What does appear in the text, in English only, is 'A blade sense' (p. 125) and 'sense of blade' (p. 235). It seemed to me and, I must confess, still seems, that either of these would have been more logical, given the title and purpose of the book (the reflecting process ought, after all, to be complete), as well as less esoteric for the general reader. Since receiving Mr Beeching's letter, I have asked both the master of fencing who instructs at the school where I work and the French 'assistant' whether they are acquainted with the French expression, but neither of them is-this seems to me a fair enough test. As to the analogy with 'chauffeur' and 'garage', I hope that in the cold light of day Mr Beeching would agree that the comparison is hardly a fair one, since both these words have a far wider general currency in both French and English. Finally, his accusation of an 'uncertain grasp on the principles of translation' sits oddly with his interesting failure to comment on the simple confusion, in the book of poems, of 'ou' with 'où', and the rendering of 'the scream' by 'le rire', to which I alluded in my review. Points of linguistic accuracy such as these are not answered by the reference to M. Grandmont as 'the illustrious French translator', any more than I intended any personal slight by drawing attention to them: after all, to be illustrious is not to be infallible.

Most of all, I hope that it still may be possible to conduct literary criticism, and criticism of critics, with courtesy and reason. My thanks to Mr Beeching, then, for enlightening me about a French fencing term of which I was ignorant until I read his book.

MANDELSTAM IN CAMBRIDGE 1981

Dear Sir: The fourth international Cambridge Poetry Festival will take place from 5 to 10 June 1981. Among the events will be a one-day conference on the poetry of Osip Mandelstam, which will include a lecture, readings and discussions. To mark this conference, an anthology of poems will be published entitled Homage to Mandelstam. This will contain poems either dedicated to Mandelstam, or directly indebted to him or influenced by him, by poets writing in many different languages.

As the editors of this anthology, we are keen to receive submissions as soon as possible, and no later than the end of January 1981. Poems in languages other than English which are published in the anthology will be accompanied by English translations. All submissions will be acknowledged.

The Cambridge Poetry Festival, which occurs biennially, is now the largest regular event devoted to poetry in Britain. Next year's festival will include the following writers, among many others: Elizabeth Smart (Canada); Miroslav Holub (Czechoslovakia); George Barker, David Gascoyne, W. S. Graham, Kathleen Raine, Anthony Rudolf, Peter Russell, Iain Crichton Smith, Robert Garioch, Norman MacCaig (Britain); Edward Brathwaite (Jamaica); Janos Pilinszky (Poland); Göran Printz-Pahlson (Sweden); and Clarence Brown (USA). Information about the events and participants can be obtained from Mick Gowar, Co-ordinator, Cambridge Poetry Festival 1981, 11 Eltisley Ave., Cambridge CB3 9JB, England.

RICHARD BURNS
GEORGE GOMORI
Cambridge

AGENDA-one of the oldest and most distinguished current literary magazines-is 21.We invited WILLIAM COOKSON, founder-editor of Agenda, to outline its history for us.

AGENDA 1959-1980: A Memoir

FOR me, editing a poetry magazine was to continue a family tradition as my father founded English in 1936 and edited it until his death in 1949. Before the war, he ran it from the self-same mansion block that has always been Agenda's H.Q. But his tastes in twentieth-century literature were different from mine; English had affinities with the Georgian poets and published at least one article attacking Ezra Pound.

I began editing at prep school by founding a newspaper called The Morning Yawn, to which, unlike Agenda, I was the sole contributor. At Westminster School, some friends and I resurrected the school literary magazine, The Trifler, which had an intermittent history dating back to the eighteenth century. Here I reviewed Pound's Rock-Drill cantos and to my amazement he liked what I had written. He began to correspond with me regularly, and, with unfailing generosity, tried to educate me and put me in touch with people all over the world. I have printed a selection from this correspondence in facsimile in our twenty-first anniversary issue.

Another association, which later did much to shape Agenda, also began when I was at Westminster, when my friend, Edmund Gray took me to Harrow-on-the-Hill to meet David Jones. We became friends and I continued to visit him regularly until not long before his death in 1974. In 1961 he designed the lettering for the title of Agenda which we have used on our covers ever since.

Pound was released from St Elizabeth's Hospital ('the bug house' as he called it) in 1958 and in the autumn of that year my mother and I took a three-week holiday in Italy. For the final week, Pound invited us to stay at Brunnenburg-a castle in the Italian Tyrol belonging to his daughter and son-in-law where he had gone to live on leaving America. He was in good health at this time and showed no trace of bitterness, or ill effects from his thirteen years of incarceration. In the mornings he was putting the final touches to the Thrones cantos and every evening he read aloud to the family-his two grandchildren were particularly attentive listeners. I shall always remember the moving reading he gave of Ford Madox Ford's long love poem, 'On Heaven'-it expressed Pound's innate gentleness and humanitas-a quality which the rage and fanaticism of some of his writing can never wipe out.

At this time I was a painfully shy and serious youth ; I wish I had met Pound a few years later when I could have talked to him more easily. He immediately set me to work, giving me a pile of notebooks of the Cantos. Most of these consisted of material he had rejected. He asked me to go through them, putting in white paper markers where I considered there were lines or passages worth rescuing. It was typical of his simplicity and openness that he should have entrusted such a daunting task to a young man who had just left school and about whose abilities and understanding he knew very little. I assiduously tore up much white paper, inserting it throughout the twenty or so books, with, I hope, a little perception. Whether he found what I had done useful, I shall never know. I wish I could remember more of what was in those notebooks; I think they mostly concerned nineteenth-century European history; there was a good deal about Bismarck. There were also references to Hitler: 'Even Adolf was human/playing Wagner on the piano to keep his nerves calm' . . . 'Adolf infected/in Germany no free expression of opinion' are lines that have stuck in my memory, though I don't claim I've quoted them exactly.

The idea of Agenda grew from this visit. Pound had a scheme that I should organize a four-page section in an existing publiccation, possibly Time and Tide-my mother was a friend of Theodora Bosanquet who was at one time literary editor of that paper. After my return to London, this plan came to nothing. Then the English poet, Peter Russell, suggested I start my own publication, and thus Agenda was born. He introduced me to Czelaw and Krystyna Bednarczyk of "The Poets' and Painters' Press" who have been our printers ever since. Without the high quality of their work (and at times generous credit!) we would not have survived so long.

Pound wanted Agenda to be called Four Pages-a continuation of a periodical which he had similarly instigated. I avoided the name, because, although I was only groping my way at this time, I was vaguely aware that the title left no room for expansion!

The first editorial was largely ghost-written by Pound. I inserted sentences drawing attention to the work of David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid. Then, of course, I had no idea that one day we would be in a position to produce substantial special issues devoted to these writers. Our first number also included a translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam by Peter Russell. This may have been the first English translation of that poet to be printed ; we continued to publish translations of his work. Peter Russell has received inadequate recognition for his virtual discovery of Mandelstam.

Pound regularly sent in items for publication, many to be used anonymously, for about six months. After he had received a particularly boring issue (No. 5) he suggested I should stop the magazine, but he soon relented, sending £5 towards the printer's bill to help me continue, saying: Oke Hay / Fluctuat, But get some GUTS into the next issue, and something that isn't watered down E.P. / and that shows desire to FOCUS various energies.'

For more than a year Agenda remained only a folded sheet. Then, in 1960, the actress Virginia Maskell gave me about £10 to pay for the first cover. Arts Council financial assistance only began five years later, but no account of the history of Agenda should omit mention of how much we owe to the unobtrusive support of that much criticised body.

In the autumn of 1960, I went to New College, Oxford, to read English, taking Agenda with me. Here it gradually grew in size and I started printing long poems-the first, Alan Neame's memorable translation of Jean Cocteau's Léone. We still pride ourselves on the fact that we are possibly the only magazine that will occasionally devote the bulk of an issue to a single poem.

The next major turning point occurred about a year after my arrival at Oxford. I had read a poem by Peter Dale, in the student magazine Oxford Opinion, called 'Nearly Got the Moon In', which has not been collected. I was struck immediately that here was 'the true voice of feeling'-the sensation, which I remember vividly in connection with this poem (not one of Dale's best) is impatient of definition, but associated with a kind of electric energy; throughout my years of editing, this feeling has occurred rarely, but it is the only touchstone on which I can rely. At this period, I often saw an Irish poet called Michael O'Higgins; when I told him how much I thought of Dale's poem, he introduced us. Soon afterwards, Dale started to advise me, and persuaded me to publish a regular reviews section. He did not officially become associate editor until 1971, but even before this, many of the most useful things we have done were instigated by him. We have also had disagreements, which have, I believe, resulted in a creative tension that may have made Agenda more living than if either of us had been editing it alone.

Our first special issue was published in 1963 and devoted to William Carlos Williams; at this time he had scarcely been published in England. Since then, we have continued to alternate issues devoted to particular authors and themes, with general ones, publishing new poems and reviews.

In 1967 I decided to produce a triple issue on David Jones which included reproductions of his paintings and drawings as well as new poems by him. This was the first really large number we produced and I like to think it was in part responsible for his writing the longest of his later poems, 'The Sleeping Lord'. I remember he read me about three pages of a poem he had unearthed from the late 1930s and asked me whether I thought anything could be made of it. I was moved by it, and urged him to continue, and so 'The Sleeping Lord' took shape; working often into the early hours, he just managed to complete it in time for our press date.

I shall close these notes with a brief credo:

A great poem must remain a mystery.

All great poems possess a quality which Coleridge defined as 'more than usual emotion, more than usual order'.

English poetry is constantly enriched by the art of translation. Agenda attempts to encourage this in all its variety.

There is no point in reading a poem if it does not enlarge our experience, 'if it . . . reveals to us something of which we are unconscious, it feeds us with its energy' (Ezra Pound). Such poetry is rare, but it is the reason the art is worth practising. It deepens the consciousness and enables the potentialities of the mind to be more fully realised.

Much twentieth-century English poetry bores because it expresses the predictable (witness the attempts of Larkin and others to re-instate the Georgians). Agenda is interested in poems that seek 'to carve out a shape in the unknown' to use a phrase which Peter Dale recently applied to the work of Geoffrey Hill.

To take three random examples: it is impossible to say why 'As you came from the holy land of Walsingham', Landor's 'Dirce' or Pound's 'Canto 115' shake the reader to the roots on each re-reading, but it is poetry of this voltage that Agenda believes in.

In our search for new poems we are usually disappointed. Looking through old numbers, there is much that I would not now print, but I believe we have maintained a certain eccentric consistency and catholicity. My ultimate criterion is simple: I don't think I've ever printed a poem that has not to some degree moved me.

OSSIAN IN BULGARIA

Fiona Maddocks writes:

In Bulgaria, an important literary event is about to take place. It is the appearance of a new Bulgarian translation of the complete works of Jane Austen. With only 100,000 copies in the edition, the translator says that long queues outside Sofia bookshops are guaranteed, and double that number would sell easily if there were paper available to print them.

The translator is Jenny Haitov, one of the chief editors in Bulgaria's main publishing house, the state owned Narodna Cultura. She selects and translates fiction, poetry and drama for the English section and says, with some satisfaction, that she and nineteen other editors translate and publish up to one hundred and forty foreign titles each year.

English 'classics', particularly Dickens and other nineteenth-century novelists, are frequently given new translations, with the certainty of being snapped up by the voracious Bulgarian public. Although Dickens, Shaw and other 'social realists' have long been in official favour, Bulgarians seem to have a great taste for the Romantics-particularly Scott and Byron. Ivanhoe and The Siege of Corinth give special pleasure. As in the Soviet Union, Shakespeare is read assiduously. Last year, an excellent verse translation of the Sonnets was published, remarkable not only for the beauty of its translations and illustrations, but for the quality of the book's production.

Mrs Haitov says that Bulgarians have had little chance to develop a literary tradition except in the last hundred years since their national independence from the Ottoman Empire. She emphasises their openness to foreign traditions, their curiosity to know about the behaviour and lives of their people. This curiosity draws them to writers with an eye and ear for social nuance-hence, she believes, the popularity of Jane Austen.

Contemporary British and American authors are equally well represented. Recent best-sellers include Margaret Drabble's The Millstone, Murial Spark's Public Image and The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. Mrs Haitov herself has translated several of Virginia Woolf's novels. Last year she translated William Golding's Lord of the Flies ('Bulgarians like books with a message') and, most recently, The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury. Curiously enough, this last title, dependent as it seems to be on English foibles and humour, has gained special popularity and sold out within hours of appearing.

Mrs Haitov and her colleagues make their choice initially from reading Western literary reviews. However, their judgement is not always right. Couples by John Updike shocked Bulgarians by its use of four-letter words and its graphic descriptions of intercourse. Mrs Haitov explained that the work was too explicit and anatomical for Bulgarians. They are not accustomed to seeing obscene words in print. She herself felt this was a pity, because the book's 'message' outweighed any limitations of style. She indicated that the gap between the spoken language and written style is still wide in Bulgaria. Writers and readers alike find difficulty in accepting colloquialisms in fictional writing and still strive for a conscious literary style. The gap, however, is narrowing. Mrs Haitov's husband, Nikolai Haitov, has written several volumes of short stories in the dialect of his native Rhodope, a mountain region in the south of the country. A volume of these has recently been translated into English by Michael Holroyd (Wild Tales by Nikolai Haitov, Peter Owen Ltd., £6.25). Holroyd uses northern dialect to render them as close to the originals as possible.

Translations such as these are rare. Few works of Bulgarian literature are translated into English, although recently the West has paid some attention to Bulgarian cinema. Mrs Haitov blames not the paucity of suitable material, but the narrow-mindedness of English publishers.

Apart from English writers, Mrs Haitov stresses that all major European and American writers are translated and read eagerly. This, she stresses, is not a propaganda statement but a fact. Writers such as Tolstoy and Turgenev too remain popular, in part because of the proximity of Russia and Bulgaria in language and culture. However, Solzhenitsyn is not popular. Mrs Haitov admitted that much interest had been shown in his work-several short stories and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had been published. But attention had been diverted somewhat since his work had become, in her view, 'too nervous and excited' and since he had started to write things that 'we do not think are very correct'. She would not elaborate, except to add that she would have preferred it had he stuck to literature and avoided politics. . . .

One man in Bulgaria who has a firm predilection is the Professor of Economics in the Academy of Social Sciences in Sofia. He never travels without his pocket edition of the poems of Ossian-a taste which he shares, apparently, with many of his fellow countrymen.

From Das Kleine Rotbuch (Rotbuch/Kursbuch Verlag, Berlin) 1980

From the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Book Fair number

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 editor@pnreview.co.uk
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image