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This item is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.

Letters from Clive Watkins and Janet Montefiore


In her essay 'What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry' (PNR 115), Professor Marjorie Perloff undertakes a stimulating analysis of the current state of poetry reviewing, drawing for evidence on a number of well-known literary organs, including PNR. Her particular expectations of PNR, however, are clear from a reference in another essay, 'Whose New American Poetry?: Anthologizing in the Nineties', which, like 'What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry', is also published on her homepage at the Electronic Poetry Centre (, sponsored by the State University of New York at Buffalo, to which she refers in her essay in PNR 115.

'Whose New American Poetry?' is in effect a review of a number of major anthologies of American poetry published in 1993 or 1994. Not unexpectedly, Perloff finds much of value and some things to criticise. Towards the end of her essay, she turns her attention to Exact Change Yearbook, offering it as a benchmark for anthologists. Referring to Tom Raworth's 'Anglo-Irish Alternative', she remarks: 'So used are we to the "gentility" of the contemporary British verse we read in Grand Street or PN Review, that the opening of the first poem in Raworth's portfolio, Denise Riley's "Burnt", ... is startling in its refusal to pretty things up, to get the erotic scene that follows exactly "right"'. (Does she mean that 'telling it as it is' and allowing oneself to be imprecise are not, after all, inconsistent?) Perloff quotes from Raworth's headnote that what unites his selection is a 'common distaste for what is still passed off as British poetry ... the Hughes, Heaney, Harrison axis - the "New Generation" poets marked like sportswear ... the terrible drabness of Larkin (whom I imagine wrote "They tuck you up / your mum and dad" and then rode the wave of a typo).' Indeed, she appears to endorse Raworth's lumping these different writers together as if they formed a homogeneous group and to imply, furthermore, that poetry published in PNR over the years comes from the same stable. She adds: 'One has the sense that, after years of Drab Age verse, fun is once again part of the British poetry scene.'

There is here what seems to be an interesting reference to Alvarez's introduction to his 1962 anthology The New Poetry, with its alternative title 'Beyond the Gentility Principle'. Alvarez defined 'gentility' as a 'belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good'. His real target, however, was what he saw as the insularity of much of the poetry written in the UK since 1945, a poetry which had failed to respond to the forces of 'mass evil outside us' ('world wars', 'mass extermination', 'concentration camps') and the ways in which he felt those same forces were 'at work within us'.

His analysis (and his implied characterisation of the 'Movement' poets) is, of course, not beyond challenge, first, on the grounds that, even on its own terms, it does not adequately distinguish the writers to whom it purports to apply from those offered as counter-examples and, secondly, because the terms themselves are open to debate. It does, however, have the virtue of being derived from a stated view of its own wider (that is, non-literary as well as literary) historical context. Perloffs application of the expression 'gentility' to the poets to whom she and Raworth refer is at best a piece of literary 'shorthand' - or, perhaps, a term in need of local definition; at worst, it is an unacknowledged echo of one of the more important texts in the critical discourse about English poetry of the past fifty years. In any case, its appropriateness is open to question.

I wonder, too, about the particular resonances of 'Drab Age' and think of C.S. Lewis's distinction between 'Drab Age Verse' and 'Verse in the "Golden Period"' in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis characterises Drab Age Verse in this way: 'The language is very plain. There is little aureation, few metaphors, no stylised syntax, and none of the sensuous imagery loved by the Elizabethans.' Later in the same chapter he adds that 'Nothing is to be gained by treating Drab Age poetry as if it were Golden Age poetry in embryo; that, indeed, is the way to miss its real merits. At its best it has a severity, a neatness, a precision, which bring it much closer to the work of the Augustans than to Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare.' It is interesting to consider how accurately these terms can be said to describe the work of the poets she and Raworth appear to chastise.

In 'What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry' Perloff remarked that a 'sense of history and a sense of theory ... are the twin poles of criticism missing from most poetry discourse today and hence missing in the typical poetry review.' My own experience as a 'consumer of criticism' is that she may well be right, but one might have wished that in these brief observations about poetry in the UK she had followed her own advice rather more rigorously.

In fact, as a survey of its now more than one hundred issues suggests, PNR has been and remains more inclusive than she allows, having, for instance, published Denise Riley in recent years, as well as several other writers who are clearly not of the same breed as Larkin's retired race-horses. One might mention Ash, Ashbery, Champion and Haslam. If the Carcanet list can legitimately be brought into the argument, one might also mention Crozier and Longville's A Various Art (several of whose poets have also appeared in the pages of PNR) - as well, indeed, as Peter Gizzi's Exact Change Yearbook.


Grub Street


I read Tim Kendall on Gary Day and Brian Docherty's British Poetry from the 1950's to the 1990s with a mixture of assent and reservation. Having myself written an unkind review of its predecessor British Poetry 1900-1950 for PNR 113 ('Towards Grub Street'), I am no fan of either book; I certainly share Kendall's irritation with the way their editors have marginalised women by excluding all but the odd token woman poet from their contributors' accounts of 'mainstream' poetry, tacking on an essay or two on women's poetry as an unconvincing consolation prize. And counting Heaney as 'British' looks insensitive to say the least. All the same, I think there's just a touch of bien-pensant post-colonial and postfeminist enlightenment about Kendall's attack, for I can't see myself what is so selfevidently silly or banal about these statements, quoted ironically as examples of Day's 'epigrammatic wisdom': 'Literature is a mirror in which we see the other as well as ourselves,' 'Literature aims to build a community, not Babel'. These judgments could be better put, true - the writer is clearly no Samuel Johnson or Randall Jarrell - but they seem to me basically right and certainly much less misleading than the breezy dismissiveness of, say, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory.


This item is taken from PN Review 118, Volume 24 Number 2, November - December 1997.

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