PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Kei Millerthe Fat Black Woman
In Praise of the Fat Black Woman & Volume

(PN Review 241)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Next Issue Sasha Dugdale, Intimacy and other poems Eugene Ostashevsky, The Feeling Sonnets Nyla Matuk, The Resistance Alex Wylie, Democratic Rags Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Two poems from the archive
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
Monthly Carcanet Books
PN Review Blog
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 17, Volume 7 Number 3, January - February 1981.

Reports & Letters
Dear Sir: Thank you for printing my letter (PNR 15) on the current controversy over language and public worship. I would like to make two points in response to the comments of Mr Sisson.

Mr Sisson reminds us that good writing grows out of tradition and 'profound influences from the past'. This is true, but he is drawing his argument from the field of literary criticism and, like some other contributors, seems to overlook the limitations on applying illustrations from this area directly to liturgy. Liturgy is not just a branch of literature, and although there are literary criteria that can be brought to bear, they have to be weighed against other factors.

His argument fails to take account of the odd situation caused by the status of the Book of Common Prayer as a political and theological compromise-namely three centuries of dislocation in the tradition and its development. To make a true analogy with literary tradition one might need to imagine a situation where no new play had been permitted on the English stage since the death of Shakespeare. In such a case it is hardly likely that dramatists making a new start in the late twentieth century would produce immortal works at the first attempt. That would not, however, mean their effort was mistaken, or that the remedy was to go on sticking to Shakespeare alone. Furthermore, after such a long dominance, with no developing tradition in between, it might well be necessary for them to try and stop their ears to his powerful voice, for at least a short time, if they were ever to step beyond the shadow.

As to the comments about 'having something to say', this seems to me, like certain comments in PNR 13, too cheaply dismissive of real areas of growth and development in the life of the church today. (Perhaps some of these have by-passed the universities and cathedral towns where so many of your contributors and signatories seem to reside!)

It also begs all the questions about what we can say today- enormous issues of religious languages, which philosophers, poets and theologians are still grappling with. I readily admit that Series 3 doesn't take us anywhere much towards answering these, but nor will clinging to the skirts of the Book of Common Prayer. What we can best do is take the shortcomings of the new versions as an outline of where we are at today, learn from them, and then go forward from there.

THE REVD. TONY LUCAS
St Michael's Vicarage, London SW 9

C. H. Sisson writes:

It should be evident to Mr Lucas, as it has always been to the editors of PNR, that this magazine is not likely to become the place for a comprehensive discussion of the problems of the liturgy. What we have done is to give space to David Martin's remarkable initiative, which has at least had the effect of making a lot of people think again-or for the first time-about certain aspects of the subject. To have disturbed the quiet of a nefarious victory is something that was worth doing.

Mr Lucas has certainly not understood my point about 'influences from the past'. It does not surprise me for I know how often the violent distaste some of us feel for the material -both liturgical and biblical-now foisted on people in churches is met with some such statement as that it 'is not just a branch of literature'. As if literature were a frivolity which had nothing to do with truth, nothing at all to do with our ability to speak to one another in ways loaded with meaning! The texts we are talking about can be approached from a literary as from a theological point of view: but they are the same texts, and any criticism bearing on their meaning has to be met by those who seek to justify them-or to justify their abandonment-as part of ecclesiastical use. What the Church is saying in effect is: 'Never mind what we told you yesterday; listen to what we are telling you today!' The question, Is there a connection? is really the same as the question, Is there a church? What Mr Lucas is admitting, in his final paragraph, is that there isn't much meaning in Series 3 but he hopes the meaning will come back to us later. A senile church! But of course in the end old people don't get their memories back; they die.

The liturgy is an action, but it has words with it. It is a mystery, but it is accompanied by some understanding. The meaning of the whole must be presumed the same in all ages, and to that the language used is a mere pointer. But it is a pointer and the moment must come, in any series of changes, in which it no longer points. Then the whole business must become a mumbo-jumbo. Action without meaning, or with a meaning not satisfactorily rooted, can hardly be a Christian rite. Admittedly there must be argument as to where this point is reached; but that it can be reached is surely not to be denied. And that is an element in the situation which can never be lost sight of without danger to the seriousness of the whole argument. What we feel is that the meanings offered in the new ecclesiastical lucubrations do not hand on what we have received from the past, or do so only in so impoverished a manner that they leave empty spaces in our minds. These spaces are being filled by the usual rubbish of the age. It is a very worldly church we have now to do with, anxious to prove that it is as much on the ball as, say, the agencies of the United Nations.

And sure enough, Mr Lucas claims to represent the great world against those who live in 'universities and cathedral towns'. We must accept, with whatever difficulty, the implied attribution to SW 9 of a special status in the geography of truth. But as to cathedral towns, they seem to be full of people-such as bishops-who are as hell-bent on destruction as Mr Lucas himself. That there is 'growth and development' in the church today one must believe, but there is also much windy talk which approximates more and more to that of politics and the media, and nothing, any longer, against which such rubbish can be tested. No wonder there is such enthusiasm for getting rid of the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version; they are a standing reproach to such talk.

If something new on whatever subject comes into our heads is what is wanted in the church, then Mr Lucas's analogy with Shakespeare and the drama stands. But if a liturgy has to present an eternal meaning in a form which, however adapted, recognizably says the same thing through one age after another, then his analogy will not do. It is not for me to pit my knowledge of the development of the liturgy against Mr Lucas's. But he will probably agree that the Communion service had long been polished by use to a form that was without superfluities and susceptible of modest additions. If what were in question were merely developments from that, we should have no quarrel; if there had been a wide-rooted theological crisis which the new writings in some manner resolved, we should at least have an intelligible one.

Perhaps I may add that I have never been employed in a university nor lived in one of those dreaded cathedral towns. The evils of antiquarianism in the language of the church have concerned me for a long time and I suggest that Mr Lucas some time looks up Theology, volume LIX, number 434 (August 1956), where, under the title 'A Literary Note', he will find an article by me on the translation of collects.

Dear Sir: All these new translations, these 'relevant' and 'experimental' liturgies, this 'post-critical' theological palaver, is so much eye-wash-or, more charitably, merely cosmetic. You don't make Jesus more neighbourly by spiriting him away from a feast and sitting him down at a 'dinner-party', as happens in one new version of the Bible. Or, you do make him a little less obnoxious to the suburban hostess, but I wonder whether the 'youth of the inner city' and all those others whom the Church is wooing, while at the same time estranging itself from its established congregations, understand 'dinner-party' better than 'feast'? It may even be that they see in the new versions yet more evidence of a self-righteous middle class taking possession of an institution and distorting it with their social and cultural guilts and prejudices.

The new versions are not genuine translation. To 'make intelligible' in the sense which some of your correspondents have (in criticising your special issue) suggested would require not a contemporizing of the language. That in fact makes it all a good deal more obscure. Were the richly subsidized reformers rescuing the truths of faith from the old texts (before taking, or not taking, port) they would have assaulted the traditional texts quite differently. They would have changed the words, of course; but they would have changed the images too. For it is not the language but the images which are difficult, irrelevant, remote. How is the inner-city child who has probably never seen a farm to understand a 'shepherd'? And, indeed, with factory farming, jeeps on mountainsides and collie dogs, how are the rural folk to understand this obsolete figure from Palestine? What about the hierarchical set-up, all those kings, and God the Father, in an age of republican and democratic sentiment, an age in which the role of 'father' is no longer a clear one? Can't they find modern equivalents for those funny foreign names? And surely, now in 1980, a few mod-cons could be introduced to make Jerusalem a little more like Milton Keynes.

And there should be different versions for different nations, different stations in life: The Lord is my Shepherd for the stickin the mud; The Lord is my Social Worker for some; The Lord is my FOC for others; or The Lord is my Commissar. And if Lord carries the wrong burden of suggestion, then some other word, not with nuances of established authority but redolent of choice (chacun a son dieu) can be chosen.

The whole affair fills me with Anglican despair. I lament that the Queen herself will be, even obliquely, lending her presence to the 'launching' of the 'new book'.

(MRS) LAURA BINYON
Lancaster

THE QUESTION OF 'MEANING' (PNR 15, p.62)

Sir: I am in the uncomfortable situation of feeling obliged to make some complaint of Dr Mark Jacobs's quite enthusiastic review article on my Selected Poems: In Five Sets (Faber & Faber). For he has tried to make the article do the double service of reviewing the poems and providing a general intellectual history of my life's work, with the consequence that my poems are interlarded, in the account of them, with thematic interpretations borrowing idea-content of a simplified order from my thought's working course, to the erroneous complication of their sense (where he pauses for depth of analysis, with certain particular ones); and the companion consequence that this delving into my thinking career for gloss-material for poem-interpretation reduces me as a thinker to a mind preoccupied with a round of a number of elementary topics, to which-as the poems, in his view, are to be seen to demonstrate-I return again and again, in an ever-maintained circuit. The best I can do, for your readers who may care about being clearer as to my poems, and my thought generally, than Dr Jacobs has helped them to be, is to indicate that there has been this doubling in the function conceived as appropriate to the review. Perhaps my indication will prompt some disentangling of the question of the 'meaning' of the poems from the question of the course of my thinking career, the intellectual path of my life's work in the whole: for interested readers-and, it might be, for Dr Jacobs himself. I am, respectfully,

LAURA (RIDING) JACKSON
Wabasso, Florida

GOTTFRIED BENN

Dear Sir: Could you invite the always inventive and mercurial Peter Levy to expatiate on at least one wrong-headedness (as it seemed to me) in his review of Michael Hamburger's anthology German Poetry 1910-1975 (PNR 16, p. 51)? 'Preferring Celan to Benn,' he writes, 'is like preferring Geoffrey Hill to Rupert Brooke.' I puzzled over this sentence with some indignation. In what way, precisely, does Mr Levy mean? As far as I can tell, there is no parallel whatsoever. This facile aside does damage to Brooke and to Benn and, despite Hill's clear knowledge of Celan's work, to Hill and Celan. It is worse then unhelpful: it is a piece of literary-critical rhetoric with, I suspect, some political content. I am surprised that the editors of a magazine which has done so much in recent issues to encourage a reassessment of the work of Benn and Celan (thanks to Walter Michel and Michael Hamburger) should let that casual statement pass unquestioned and unqualified.

WILLIAM MAYNE
Cardiff

HENRY MILLER

Nicholas Moore writes:

The American dissident writer, Henry Miller, died on 7 July. He was the son of a tailor, and brought up in the Brooklyn streets. The only kind of privations he suffered then were the somewhat self-imposed privations of a rebellious, dissatisfied youth, but once he determined, rather late in his life, to be a writer, he suffered real poverty and was even reduced to begging in the streets. However, luck took him to Paris in 1930, and there he found congenial friends, mainly among other writers and artists, who supported him and encouraged his talents. In Peter Neagoe's anthology of Americans Abroad (1932), Miller gives his bibliography: 'Written three books, none of which accepted thus far. Also about a hundred short stories, some of which appeared in various American magazines.'

Tropic of Cancer brought him a certain undercover fame, because it remained banned and unpublishable either here or in America for years, but it was the forerunner of a series of brilliant 'novels', unique in their time, influential on the literature and on the mores of the times. Many current ideas of social dissidence, including some officially accepted ones, had their roots in the thirties and forties, when Miller was in his unpermitted and impoverished hey-day, and it is difficult to explain to people today when even pornography is comparatively available that at that time we couldn't publish Tropic of Cancer or Black Spring or even Nabokov's lesser Lolita. And none of these was pornographic.

Miller's writing was direct and realistic. He liked to get straight to the point. Black Spring begins: 'I am a patriot-of the 14th Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised.' It continues: 'I was born in the street and raised in the street.' And, 'To be born in the street is to wander all your life, to be free.' He also says, 'What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.' Nevertheless, he was a very literary man, though a frank and open one, and his best works, whether novels such as Black Spring or short stories such as 'The Alcoholic Veteran with the Washboard Cranium' are superbly constructed, with a kind of guileless guile. His books are difficult to classify. Besides writing direct, vividly descriptive prose, he is equally a master of near-Swiftean satire, and of side-splitting comedy-always with a strong current of seriousness. He believed in the idea of the whole man, alive and functioning in all his senses, and he opposed scathingly and scornfully governments, individuals or establishments of 'civilization' that cabined, confined or destroyed this individual freedom, and gave the poor, the poets, the artists, so bad a chance of achieving wholeness.

Writers who shared his beliefs were Claude Houghton, the English novelist, and William Saroyan, who also shared some aspects of his literary approach ('Peace It's Wonderful!'). Among his friends he numbered Alfred Perles, Anais Nin, Abe Rattner and Lawrence Durrell. He and Durrell, in their Paris days, for a time ran a magazine called The Booster for which he wrote humorously. Later he went to Greece with Durrell and met Seferiades (Seferis). This journey resulted in one of his best books, and one that he was able to publish. It set him on the road to fame. In conversation with Marc Alyn, Durrell recollected: 'Miller, Seferis, me, we none of us ever dreamed that we would become famous. As far as we were concerned everything that happened, happened within a narrow fàmiliar framework, rather like a Greek village. As for fame, we never dared think about it; the most we could hope for was that one day our books might make a few pennies. If some astrologer . . . had predicted then that Seferis's poems, Miller's Colossus of Maroussi, or my own stories would have had such repercussions in the future, we'd have laughed in his face.'

He liked to share his pleasures with everyone. His writing was joyous, often with poetic élan, in that it used metaphor, simile and heightened language to an extent that should continue to please those critics who see a woeful lack of such poetic counters in much modern verse. And he kept at it to the end. He was eighty-eight when he died.

This item is taken from PN Review 17, Volume 7 Number 3, January - February 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