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This item is taken from PN Review 12, Volume 6 Number 4, March - April 1980.Letters
Though only a recent subscriber to what appears to me your most excellent review, I feel I must send you a few words of protest about the letter addressed to you by Evan Gwyn Williams in PNR9. I obtained the back number containing what struck me as a not merely interesting but most valuable discussion of several points highly relevant to any sort of statement regarding modern poetry and its (theoretically speaking) somewhat confused present condition. Having now, I hope, properly digested the Editorial in question, I feel better able to take issue with the above-mentioned gentleman
To begin with, let me hasten to preface my remarks by saying that the indignation aroused in me by Mr Williams's letter has nothing whatever to do with my reaction to finding myself dismissed in it, along with Kathleen Raine and Sacheverell Sitwell, as representing "abstract, vacuous, decadent romanticism"; everyone is entitled to his own opinion, etc.; but I cannot resist commenting that at the time of writing the indicted "Miserere" poems, I was a fairly well-read and committed Marxist, and spent a good deal of my early youth in participating in the "struggle against fascism" and in warning people against and denouncing Hitler.
If one cannot always be perfectly certain what are the exact view-points of the fellow editors of PNR, or whether they are all in agreement about everything or not, that doesn't seem to matter very much, as a certain "agnosticism" is, to me, preferable in such matters; but it is certainly difficult to discern what is the particular "line" of your irate correspondent. He certainly seems to be some sort of Dialectical Materialist-no harm in that; my own thinking is, I hope, still rooted in dialectics, even though I once thought I could carry the present position of Communist thought a step further by evolving what in my perhaps amateurish way I designated "Dialectical Super-Materialism", roughly corresponding to a modified version of surréalisme, re which see Professeur Alquié's Philosophie due surréalisme (Flammarion).
The notion of the masses being the "arbiter of taste" at once appears to me as old-hat Left Review type of (I was going to say, influenced perhaps by Mr Williams's choice vocabulary, "crap"; but that's not quite my style, though my feeling about the said notion is clear enough); while being open on the other hand to various other possible attacks, which I have not the space to develop but assure you am not incapable of doing, the first of which being that it is, on examination, self-contradictory.
As to Larkin, I have to admit that I am to a considerable extent in agreement with your correspondent, Philip Larkin happening not to be among my favourite poets, just as I know I am not among his, a state of affairs which certainly neither of us will much worry about, may I add, at the risk of sounding big-headed. Not only Philip Larkin is afraid of emotion and violence. This is an old, famous British weakness, no doubt responsible for who knows how much in the way of neuroses, "vice" and various kinds of kinkiness (as well as the foreigner's conception of British cold-bloodedness, incidentally). Though how many poets, I wonder, really love violence? I am not afraid of it personally; but I sometimes suspect that Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, for both of whom I have considerable admiration and sympathy, d'ailleurs, may be a little too prone to being seduced by its appeal.
What on earth does Mr Williams mean by classifying the kind of poetry you publish as that of "whiners"? Supposedly any sort of expression of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in a rapidly declining capitalist society is "whining", while the opinions of Mr Williams on the subject are "unwincing" denunciations? As to neurosis, let's not go into that, not because I myself, like many of my contemporaries, am frankly bedogged by it, but because it involves the argument about the involvement of some sort of neurosis in the mainsprings of all creative activity, of which I have no desire to get started on a discussion just now.
Curious that the author of this objectionable letter should have a penchant for the plural "Gods": just like Hölderlin, that typically neurotic German Idealist, so greatly approved of by Heidegger for his frequent allusions to "the gods", by the way,-Heidegger, that supposedly "Nazi" philosopher, untidy thinker, who helped bring Hitler to power, not only by a notorious address to his students, but by nurturing feelings about roots, blood, earth and homeland, etc. I happen to think that all this was due to a kind of naivete on the part of one who to me remains one of the great thinkers of this century; but I digress . . .
There is no need for me to defend Michael Schmidt's beautiful and moving poem "A Carol": it speaks eloquently for itself. What is revealing is Mr Williams's approval of Gore Vidal's view of Christianity as "a fuck-up". Though to some extent I myself, in spite perhaps of remaining fundamentally Christian, would agree with this, (at least as far as Christianity up till the arrival of Kierkegaard is concerned), though I wouldn't put it so elegantly, it suggests to me that Mr Williams may consider Vidal to be a superior writer to, for obvious example, Nabokov, that no doubt notoriously decadent and bourgeois novelist. As to the one Star being, not that of a second Bethlehem but (not "The Morning Star", surprisingly) truth (aletheia?), then once again I must point out that Mr Williams is very much in agreement with that, as I have said, supposedly Nazi philosopher Heidegger. Perhaps he has no objection to this. In any case, all poets should at all times struggle to reveal or bear witness to as much truth as they are capable of experiencing, as it seems to me almost a commonplace to observe.
With regard to Mr. Williams's admiration for Tennyson, which I most unremarkably happen to share with him, here again I am frankly puzzled. I'd like to hear his apologia for Tennyson's undeniable later "imperialism" and general submission to becoming a leading figure in the nineteenth century Establishment.
Let me conclude by risking the observation that if Mr Williams is, as the letters B.A. (which by an oversight I omitted adding to his name at the outset) would rather seem to suggest, a teacher of poetry, or at any rate literature, then I consider him to represent a positive menace. But if I am mistaken in this rash supposition, I will not apologise, but simply say tant mieux.
Cowes, Isle of Wight
I begin to suspect that PNR's editorial trinity is really a Roman triumvirate; unless of course, and not necessarily as an alternative, it is the source of a running gag. Initial suspicion was aroused by C. H. Sisson when he revealed fundamental disagreement between the editors, telling us that 'one of my worries about this magazine is that it is not doing enough for the suppression of poetry' (PNR 9). First I thought (simple fellow that I am), 'well, is he an editor or isn't he, or did he run out of rejection slips?' Then I saw what had been going on. Sisson had been the loser in a ruthless editorial struggle, fought by politically-motivated men. Believing PNR's poetic offerings to be rubbish, he threatened the scandal of resignation unless he was given editorial space to say so. His colleagues decided to risk it, calculating that readers would either pay no attention, or strike back by applying to Sisson the Parable of the Beams and Motes. Letters from protesting poets would be liquidated without fuss. The gamble paid off; nobody noticed; Sisson had shot his bolt.
Now from the Nashville home of 'Country and Western' we' have Donald Davie exclaiming with impressively authentic astonishment over the virtues of the PNR Supplement on the Marxist critic Edgell Rickword, which, he tells us, he first read in proof. He begins, 'It ill becomes us to congratulate ourselves, but one consequence of having an editorial troika is that one of the editors may not be much more aware than any of our subscribers is, what he will find when he opens PNR' (PNR 11). A superficial reader might be tempted to agree with the initial sentiment, but clearly what we have here is a public joke (the implications are certainly funny) encoding a private threat to Davie's fellow-editors that he won't be tricked like that again. The clue lies in troika (Davie speaks Russian), which for those of your readers who don't know the language means 'a vehicle drawn by three horses abreast' (my italics).
I now can't wait for PNR 12. Does the delay in publication mean that The Mancunian Editor planned a knock-out blow which Davie, alerted by his defeat over the Rickword Affair, successfully parried at galley-proof stage? Yet perhaps there is a deeper mystery, a Fourth Editor lurking in the shadows, a critical 'mole' who manipulated simple and sincere ideologues like Sisson and Davie, but finally checked by Schmidt's Machiavellian, or rather 'Caesar-Augustan' tactics has withdrawn to the Lake District to await an Imperial Pardon?
I look forward to your next exciting instalment.
The Open University
THE POETRY OF CHESS
I am preparing and editing an anthology entitled The Poetry of Chess, to be published by the Anvil Press.
What I am principally collecting is good poetry in English of any period (rather than any sort of stuff merely about chess) using chess and chess-concepts figuratively to define and express human themes. I am not including translations, unless they effectively have standing as English-language poetry (e.g. Goldsmith's version of Vida, or Fitzgerald's quatrain in the Rubaiyat).
While I have been able to research pretty thoroughly the established English tradition from Chaucer on, my coverage of the not inconsiderable number of 'chessy' poems written since about 1945, and of American and Commonwealth material, has necessarily been more piecemeal. Any help anyone can give with information in these areas will be gratefully received and acknowledged. I am looking for whole poems or substantial excerpts, rather than brief chess-allusions.
Also, I should be happy to consider for inclusion any totally new poem any poet cares to submit before February 1980.
School of Humanities
New University of Ulster
Coleriane, Northern Ireland
This item is taken from PN Review 12, Volume 6 Number 4, March - April 1980.