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)
Kei Millerthe Fat Black Woman
In Praise of the Fat Black Woman & Volume

(PN Review 241)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
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 16, Volume 7 Number 2, November - December 1980.

Editorial
THE announcement that the grant to the Arts Council of Great Britain is to be increased by a mere £12 million in 1980-81 has been variously received. We all know that, in an inflationary system, increases are not what they seem, and that with inflation running as it now is, an awful lot extra is needed before an increase ceases to be a reduction. It is not the purpose here to argue about particular percentages. The question is simply, Is there any justification for spending public money on the arts at all?

'The arts'? Kingsley Amis, writing in the Telegraph, calls that 'a horrible bureaucratic expression', and one is inclined to agree with him. It is at any rate one of those political hold-alls, like 'the social services', which stand between the voter-tax-payer and the subjects he is supposed to form an opinion on. The subjects themselves-as is the way with practical affairs-are of a tedious complexity and even a partial understanding of them is to be achieved only after more hard work than most of us are prepared to do, or would be prepared to do even if we had all the elements of the problem before us, which we rarely or never have.

The most the outsider can do is to speculate on some of the issues which seem to lie embedded in this mass of business. Speculation involves a certain scepticism about our own views, as well as other people's. Kingsley Amis rushes in with several generalities of the kind that warm the hearts of readers of the Telegraph; one wonders only whether he is not rushing too fast and too far.

'I for one,' he says, 'would like to do less for the arts, or rather to do something desireable on their behalf by cutting off their supply of taxpayers' money.' It is almost as implausible that to cut off the supply of money would be beneficial, as that one can 'do more for the arts' by spending more money on them. Behind Kinglsey Amis's notion of doing good there lurk all the tender feelings, so much in vogue at the moment, for the simplicities of a market which does not exist. No one ever bought anything in a conceptual market-which is not to say that there is not a place for economic concepts. I am not sure whether Kingsley Amis is being disingenuous about the market for art, or merely exceedingly ingenuous. Anyhow, he says he is 'not advising artists to pander to the public instead of being original. The most original genius of music was also one of its most successful figures: Beethoven.' But then again: 'Most people aren't truly accessible to art and never will be and we shouldn't try to make them.' And he adduces Paradise Lost, which presented different marketing problems from the symphonies of Beethoven. So he unmakes his own case.

It is arguable that 'doing something for the arts' is not what the expenditure of public money on them is about. Certainly it is absurd to suppose that by any devices known to the Arts Council the quality of work done is going to improve. The wilder notion that serious artists will spring from the ground because a government or agency wills them to do so is, one hopes, believed by nobody. Kingsley Amis's view that 'poetry is in mortal danger, and all because of money' is more appealing. At least it dissociates the writing of poetry from the cruder manifestations of the profit motive or the productivity bonus; but it ignores what is surely the fact that poems are written in utter disregard of the Arts Council and its policies by people who will write whether the Arts Council or any other patron is there or not-just as painters have gone on working wherever their canvases might accumulate. People make these things because they are made the way they are. If 'poetry is in mortal danger' it must be for reasons other than what is decided at 105 Piccadilly, or whether that grand address is given over to one institution or another.

* * * *

In his introduction to his new Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980, D. J. Enright says:


I have included American poets . . . because it would have been painfully impoverishing and therefore absurd to exclude them. And I have included Commonwealth poets . . . because to debar them from an anthology of contemporary verse in English would be perverse.


In other words, Enright has thought of his field as being, not the verse of a particular territory or political unit, but verse in the English language wherever that now widely diffused medium is in use. No doubt this has complicated his problems as an anthologist, and there will be plenty of room for argument as to particular exclusions and inclusions. When is there not? But the principle of covering the whole field of the language, in an anthology with any claim to centrality, is important and is surely right.

In a recent number of Parnassus (Spring/Summer 1979) Donald Hall has written at some length on the thesis that 'the poetries of England and America have become discontinuous'. I must take some responsibility in this matter, for I had written earlier, in the same magazine, the 'Reflections on American Poetry' which have been reprinted in The Avoidance of Literature. My concern was not really to place the few American writers I was rash enough to mention-and I hoped I had made clear the personal nature of my approach. I was asserting the continuing interdependence of English and American literature-and indeed the wider interdependence of what is written wherever an intelligible variant of our language is spoken. Writers in Wales, in Ulster or in Eire, or in Scotland, understandably like to appear as representing 'literatures' of their own, as in a sense they do, but none of them would be the better for wishing to remain outside the widest field of comparison the language provides. The situation is not different with English and American writers, and it was part of my thesis that for some of us who live in England-were even born here-the dominating figures have been Eliot, Pound and Yeats, none of them from the old heptarchy. One would have a very odd picture of English poetry in the twentieth century, if one ignored those three. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and it is just as odd for an American to think of his poetry in a tight 'American' compartment as for an Englishman to be so insular as to refuse to look beyond Hull.

That is not to say that the countries we were born in and bred in-to say nothing of the towns, families, classes and what have you-do not have an influence on the kinds of poetry we severally write. They do have an influence, and indeed it is these differences of background which produce the differences of tone which count for so much. A new voice making itself heard is a new poet, and the variety makes the richness of literature. What Donald Hall is maintaining, however-so far as I understand him-is 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. But that is where it does come from, willy-nilly, because that is where the language comes from. It is as preposterous for an American to cut himself off from his linguistic past as for an Englishman, or anyone else writing in the language, to do so. There are certainly people writing verse in England to whom nothing written here before 1900, 1945 or 1960, counts for anything, but their work is not the better for it. A certain shallowness in time is the mark of a writer who has not begun to learn his trade. To deny the kinship of our work with that of English-speakers in other places is a form of denial of our common past. This is not a question of political loyalties; it is a question of our freedom in the republic of letters.

'Is there no national character?' asks Donald Hall. I have been on record long enough as saying that one should not have more of it than one can help, which seems to me a matter of ordinary good manners as well as of political common sense. In literature, surely, it is not only a matter of common sense but is the very essence of our intercourse. In my youth Germans were given to discussing gravely what German writers were truly German, but I did not know that anyone now admired that point of view-and I am sure that the humane and intelligent Donald Hall does not. Yet he will not let me express a distaste for Walt Whitman without attributing this flaw in my catholicity to 'reasons of nationhood'! Good heavens! Perhaps if I express a dislike for Thomas Carlyle it must be because he was born in Ecclefechan. So fanatically does Donald Hall pursue his point that when in the course of my eirenic exposition I say that the works of Emily Dickinson should be read beside those of Christina Rossetti, he has to assert that 'the originality, energy, range and intelligence of the American lady are 'vaster by far'-which may or may not be the case but is entirely beside the point. When, speaking of Frost, I say that 'for a proper evaluation his work needs to be set beside that of Edward Thomas', Hall thinks he must take me down a (national) peg or two by referring to Thomas as 'the small, pleasing poet whom Frost created'. There is something a little too fervid about all this, surely?

And indeed I have found it impossible to form a clear notion of 'the national character' as seen by Hall. For he seems to treat Scots and Welsh as 'English poets', for his purposes, and indeed his article is entitled 'Reading the English: The Continental Drift of the Poetries'-which seems inconsistent. And, if it is continents he is talking about, how does it happen that, as he says, many ' "English" poets come from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa'? I hope he will be able to explain all this without resort to his own even more mysterious theory of genes: 'After all, Americans carry in their genes the DNA of people who believed that by emigrating they could change and improve their lives. . . . The two poetries are discontinuous because they emerge from different gene pools.'

How well one understands that D. J. Enright would have preferred to have evaded 'all mention of principles on which his choice of poems is based'!

This item is taken from PN Review 16, Volume 7 Number 2, November - December 1980.



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