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This item is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

Sir: In Germany the papers get it right ninety-nine times out of a hundred, but the hundredth occasion Britain's SDP becomes and SPD, and one winces at the blunder. In PNR 30 an unusually consistent printer's devil has played the reverse trick on me, and the references to West Germany's SPD in my Letter on Ernst Jünger have become references to the SDP throughout. Needless to say this was a printing error: I did not intend anyone to think that Britain's Social Democrats are involved in Frankfurt politics.
Yours, etc.


Sir: Though marginally sympathetic with the broadside offered by Michael Schmidt against Motion and Morrison's recent Penguin anthology of 'Contemporary British Poetry' (PNR 30), I reckon his critical vocabulary could have stretched further to embrace the problems of their enterprise- 'good', 'bad' and 'fashion' being the indices of his position. The polemic concerning poetry and the marketplace has gone on for some time in PNR and needs no reiteration here. But what I would like to know more about is the implied relation between popularity (or even populism) and fashion-in Schmidt's terms. Carcanet, as well as PNR, has its own kinds of attire, its own manner of dressing itself up, its own successful displays-and the Editorial strikes me as one that needs a new change of clothes.

The relation I've inferred between 'fashion' and transitoriness in Schmidt's piece could, of course, be a misreading but I'll nevertheless try to follow it through.

Aptly combining Raine, Reid and Sweetman in a 'ludic' school which marks the editors' 'advocacy of the fashionable', Schmidt only hints at the deficiencies of such work, failing to place his obviously high (and probably elitist) cultural standards in a manifesto that would at least act as some kind of measure of his values. Yet to say that the admission of Penelope Shuttle's work 'is incomprehensible except in terms of fashion' really opens up the nebulosity of his criticisms. As one example, how is Shuttle 'fashionable'? As a woman poet? As a woman who has taken to exploring 'fashionable' (and no doubt 'fashionable feminist') subjects such as menstruation and childbirth? Or is it because-as an extension of this-of her recent publication by OUP? Or is it the nature of Martian fashion that has included her in Penguin's new stable? Noticeably, her use of metaphor is certainly more developed than that used to describe MacCaig's poem and is markedly different from Raine's conceits.

As for the MacCaig poem-which is indeed provocatively proto-Martian-is this gem not 'fashionable' (in Schmidt's mind) because it hasn't won one of the national prizes of the late 1970s? Or is it that it's proved its worth over the last twenty or so years with a sense of timelessness, of valuable permanence (whatever that may be)? Culturally, MacCaig's poem says much about 1962 and Alvarez's anthology, just as Raine has said much for the late 1970s. Are we to believe that because MacCaig is less of a household name than supra-prizewinner Raine he is actually a better poet? Deductively, I'm driven to believe that anything less than 'popularity' is a virtue.

Fashion-taken presumably as the rapid changing of styles-is always with us. PNR has striven as much as anyone to create fashion, being one of the few (and thereby powerful) centres from which poetic authority issues in Britain. Poetry of the Seventies (1980-an ill-timed volume if ever there was one) received a necessary lambasting from Edna Longley (one of our finest and most accurate poetry critics) in Quarto; she stated exactly what was deficient with the PNR/Carcanet poets who were (according to the editors, Schmidt and Peter Jones) going to make their mark in the 1980s-prophecy no doubt being one of the editors' fashions. I remember distinctly how she pointed out how no one less than Andrew Motion used 'demonstratives' to 'clutch at significance'.

My interest, however, is not in vilifying Carcanet or PNR on the grounds of 'values' (for one thing, they seem too elliptically stated)-too many useful things have come from both publisher and journal to complain negatively. What needs to be stated is what these values are-the 'good' and 'bad' which account for the subjectivity Schmidt requires from every responsible anthologist. Trying to differentiate 'good' and 'bad' in Schmidt's rather jumpy Editorial, I have come to suppose that poets are being challenged into writing 'serious' (?), aurally attuned, expressive, personal (this 'I' is my 'I'), well-formed (prosodically achieved) verse. With such prescriptions, some fashions will be proscribed and PNR will try once again to dominate the market with its range. We'll have codification rather than the 'inventiveness' Schmidt scatters throughout his piece. An Editorial is expected to offer a 'view'. What I want to know is whether Schmidt's values are derived from the work he reads or whether they are pre-constituted-and uncritical- in such a way that allows for the vagueness of 'fashion'.

Pound said make it new and he went ahead with his don'ts. He wasn't covert about his politics. Nothing now is going to emerge from the Hardyesque imitators which behove far too much of PNR, nor is it going to come out of Martian pyrotechnics (whose games are now predictable)-both fashions have been worn out. Penguin's new anthology attests (as does Poetry in the Seventies) that in the last ten years there's not been such a thing as British poetry. Excellence has, as Schmidt says, been marginalized by Motion and Morrison in favour of trying to produce an epoch-making anthology. Their criteria are simply very promiscuous. Their ageist concerns have ensured that achievements of our senior poets (many of whom have produced their best since Alvarez and Kenneth Allott's long-standing volumes) are overlooked by the public. For Penguin, it's not poetry of the 1970s, but, largely, the inchoation of the under-45s.
Yours, etc.

Michael Schmidt writes: The answer to the question Mr Bristow sets me in his penultimate paragraph is 'neither'. As editor and a publisher who has issued work by writers as diverse-in technique and imaginative orientation-as (among others) Middleton, Sisson, Ash, Wells, Barker, Rickword, Morgan, Mew, Winters, HD, Schwartz, McMillan, Brackenbury, Motion, . . . it is impossible for me to set down a manifesto of any kind. I would not describe any of them as 'Hardyesque imitators'. The polemic implied in PNR and Carcanet is 'pluralist', a word I began to distrust when it became fashionable. When a word or a style becomes fashionable, it tends to shed the precise meaning it might have had and to become a form of rhetoric. I took the word in the editorial of PNR 1 from Octavio Paz, whose magazine Plural I admired.

In reviewing the Morrison/Motion anthology, I was troubled by their attempt to give it objective status by reference to a factitious 'democratic' authority. I was not prescribing that anthologies should be subjective but saying that, in my experience, they are, and had better say so.

It was not I but Morrison/Motion who used the word 'ludic'. I merely borrowed their description. Launching a school is often an attempt to launch a fashion, to establish a 'generation' that shares values, ambitions, friends. As an editor I have specific enthusiasms, but they do not extend to marketing an orthodoxy. I found odd in the anthology the editors' apparent ignorance of the work of poets who, earlier this century, had passed through the metaphor jungle in much the same way and direction as the Martians. Here, it seemed to me, was a very old novelty. An act of forgetting had to come before the act of discovery.

The critical anthology Mr Bristow alludes to is British Poetry since 1970, not Poetry of the Seventies. Not a very fetching title, either way, but the actual title describes an attempt to look at some of the poetry of the decade, in a spirit of contention rather than assertion, as the disputes among the essays showed. An important point raised in the book is that of neglect and rediscovery. Fashion marginalises excellence: why is it that only very late in the day is the work of some quite large-scale figures heard in Britain? The sequence of fashion tyrannies is at least partly to blame.

Adumbrated in Mr Bristow's last paragraph is a programme the lines of which I cannot quite get clear. But unlike me, he is able to be categorical: 'Nothing new is going to emerge from the Hardyesque imitators which behove far too much of PNR'. Nothing? Behove?

This item is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

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