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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to

This item is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.

Reports & Letters
Dear Sir: Pop music has been failed by the critics, and the kind of attitude expressed in Neil Powell's essay in PNR 15 ('Goodbye Blackberry Way') is sad and damaging: damaging because a whole generation of young people who wish to align themselves with the serious and profound are being guided away from this vibrant and potent art form.

Neil Powell himself shows an awareness of how to approach art in a rewarding way when he writes of the importance of 'questions such as "Is this true?" or "Is this good?" or "Does this matter?" ' And yet, these are exactly the questions which he fails to ask in his essay: he asks instead, 'Is this literate, or pure, or traditional?' These, surely, are questions of secondary importance. For myself, I am not interested in whether Dave Brubeck does or does not perform 'authentic jazz'. I do not consider it important that a song about saying goodbye 'can always be played again': a song, like a poem, can capture a timeless moment; the value of it is that you can recapture the experience. Nor do I believe that a living art form can be destroyed by 'commercial hit-makers', any more than poetry is destroyed by the writing of jingles for greetings cards. What matters to me is that certain pieces of pop music are filled with a sense of profound beauty; and then, perhaps, I am moved to ask why.

The most cursory listening will establish that pop music is not, as Neil Powell suggests, composed of 'easy options'. Sometimes, indeed, it seems dangerously cynical and depressing. Consider, for example, these lines by Peter Gabriel:

Don't tell me what I will do, 'cos I won't
Don't tell me to believe in you, 'cos I don't
Be on your guard, better hostile and hard
       -don't risk affection

There is some excuse, however, for misjudging pop music. The criticism of pop music presents a number of special difficulties. There is a vast quantity of very poor pop about, because it is produced and promoted almost indiscriminately by record companies. Further, since every pop song is a performance of words and music simultaneously, it is very hard to pin it down for critical analysis. Another difficulty is the entanglement of music and politics. If issues which are considered political mean a lot to an artist, he naturally tries to express what he feels about them. But this natural act leads people to combine criticism with sociology, and to associate music with revolutions which never come. Artists, however, seldom seek to change the world. Bob Dylan puts it like this: 'I don't think anybody's gonna be actually changed from something to something else. I don't think that's possible at all . . . my songs are just me talking to myself. Maybe that's an egotistical thing to say, but that's what it is.'

The result of these barriers confronting the pop music critic is the unsatisfactory situation we have today. Scarcely anything of value is said or written about pop music, and since those who care about it, who find in it truth, and goodness, and importance, cannot explain why, those who consider it worthless see no reason why they should change their minds. In consequence, people in general have a hopelessly distorted picture of the poetic use of language in the present day. And that is frustrating for the artist, depressing for the enthusiast, and a disaster for criticism.
Wantage, Oxford

Neil Powell writes:

Tim Anderson is worried about 'a whole generation . . . guided away from this vibrant and potent art form' (pop music); I was worried about 'a whole age-group effectively divorced from their cultural past-victims of a disguised, superficially invisible ignorance within their mask of literacy and numeracy'. If one has to choose, it's clear that the second is the more disturbing, because the more depriving, of the two possibilities. But one shouldn't have to choose: pop music and the cultural past can co-exist happily enough unless one usurps the other's place in syllabus, classroom, criticism-which is what I argued had tended to happen since the early sixties. Consequently, the teacher and writer's main job must be to keep the channels of communication with the past open: we are, after all, likelier to find the 'profound beauty', which Tim Anderson seeks, in Monteverdi or Mozart or Mahler than in the Top Twenty. Two other brief points: Tim Anderson's remark about the problem of analysing pop songs critically applies to all vocal music, but critics do manage to write about opera and lieder; and his two quotations are so dismally mindless that they do a serious disservice to the pop he's trying to defend.


Michael Schmidt writes:

My report in PNR 16 on the Scottish Arts Council's conduct towards their clients and treatment of complaints can now be amplified a little. In the 'News and Notes' pages of this issue, readers will see an appeal from 'The Friends of Stonypath Garden'. Strathclyde Region have decided to change the rating on Ian Hamilton Finlay's famous sculpture garden, casting the entire project into jeopardy. Mr Finlay and the Friends have attempted to discover on what grounds this punitive change has been made. Strathclyde Region aver that they are not obliged to disclose sources of information or advice; there is no way of questioning their judgement. The citizen, in short, is powerless. Attempts to discover whether the Scottish Arts Council, whose Regional Advisory Committee has in the past advised on projects in which Finlay's work was to be included, is behind the Strathclyde move, have proved neither conclusively positive nor negative. The artist cannot find out what the Arts Council has said of him, what advice has been given, on what grounds it has been given. The Scottish Arts Council is empowered-indeed instructed by charter-to advise government at every level. What recourse has the artist? Whom do the bureaucratic advisers consult? Cannot advice to the rating authorities be used as a simple, oblique punitive measure against artists of proven independence? We raise these questions in the sincere hope that the Scottish Arts Council and the Strathclyde Region will publicly clarify them. If they choose not to do so, then Scottish artists have grounds for fear from their silent paymaster.


Dear Sir: I read with incredulity the report by Dr Michael Weaver in PNR 16. What surprised me was not so much the way the Arts Council had dealt with him, but that photography should be in receipt of 'a tenth of the Art budget-£300,000'. Three Hundred Thousand Pounds! Three Hundred Thousand Pounds? Three Hundred Thousand Pounds. You should prepare your readers more gently for shocks like that.
Poole, Dorset


The PNR compositor writes:

Ever since I was driven by necessity to become a typesetter-or, more precisely, a compositor-I have come to appreciate the neglected art of misprints. I do not mean the vulgar form of the art as practised in some newspapers- 'pop'-misprints. There the classic is lost in a tide of uninspired, casual specimens. One adjusts the eye to overlook the errors. The art is more occasional. Like all good art, it surprises, reveals new dimensions in an beyond language. It witnesses to the chaos to left and right of the road that the sentence drives through silence.

The Michelangelo in my Misprint Gallery was achieved by the brilliant suppression of one letter. At the Palace Theatre in Manchester a visiting opera company performed Strauss's A Night in Venice. The programme informed me that the action took place in a Venetian pizza.

As a compositor, I know what weeks, even months, can pass without a single inspired misprint. One ought not to underestimate the long gestation that goes into an outstanding misprint, nor the hostile gauntlet through which it must pass: the editor, the author and the proofreader are all ranged against it. In poetry the pressure against the form is especially nasty. All the same, one distinguished poet did read, with more surprise than pleasure, his line 'footfalls by the fire' printed as 'footballs by the fire'. It was indeed a triumph for the anonymous comp.

I believe misprints are the way compositors participate in literature, leaving their anonymous mark. It's not like an orchestral player hitting the wrong note; rather, it's the introduction of aleatoric principles, just for an instant, into literature. It can be tedious to follow somebody else's text day after day. If the mind strays to sport, then involuntarily you enrich the text with an allusion (its very inappositeness is proof of its imaginative integrity). It's the way the mind relates to the typing fingers. Compositors, like other people, have imaginations, impulses which issue in points of surreal genius in otherwise straightforward texts. One colleague of mine, setting a masthead for a magazine, invented, in place of Professor John D. Jump, a Dickensian character, Professor John D. Gump-and this misprint stood the test of three issues of a learned journal before it was spotted and-censored. Most modern books and journals have this tenuous, fascinating 'compositor's thread'. It's worth watching for.

Auden used to enjoy misprints. Sometimes he'd retain a good one in preference to his original text. Other poets, sceptical of the compositor's natural genius, fabricate their own misprints. Edwin Morgan has a sequence of poems called 'Interferences' in which each section disolves in a misprint. Other poets and experimental novelists have come to appreciate this textual dimension; this technique of interdicting the code of language, breaking off or breaking open a sentence so that the sense it has gathered into it spills down into nonsense. I should warn the reader against deliberate misprints. They are almost always academic, imitations of the real thing. As a paid up member of the National Graphical Association, I cannot help saying that I resent the infringement on my own area by writers who have neither the long training nor the natural skill of the proper compositor. There may be grounds here for a demarcation dispute. It is my job to provide the compositor's thread. The writer's job is to produce clean copy and to spot in the proofs my little inadvertencies-if he can.

Anyone who reads books and magazines-even this one- will agree that typesetting in the last five or ten years has become more inspired, provocative, exciting. It is gradually gaining a certain autonomy, a sort of liberty from the author's text. In my young days, I must confess, misprints annoyed me. But now I understand what principles underlie the art, and what a difficult art it is to learn and to practice. Editors and proofreaders do all they can to inhibit it. It is the most censored, the least understood, literary activity of modern times.

There is not even a sub-sub-Committee of the Arts Council to look after its welfare.

Readers must learn to appreciate it: the more intelligent and receptive the reader, the better the quality of misprints he will get. As Joe Wade, Secretary of the NGA, might have said, 'Readers get the misprints they deserve.' The more deserving the reader, the better the ultimate quality of the misprints. It is rather like getting the ear attuned to Berio or the eye positively unfocused on Paolozzi: once there is adjustment, there is transaction, a whole new dimension of artistic pleasure. The best compositors are like early saboteurs, chucking their typographical sabots into the machine of the text to add to the sonorous excitement. The more we understand the misprint, applying to it serious critical standards, Derridean, hermeneutical, post-modern, Lacanian and so on, the sooner it will take its mature place among the other modern art forms.

This item is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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