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This item is taken from PN Review 11, Volume 6 Number 3, January - February 1980.

Donald Davie/Editorial DONALD DAVIE
 
IT ILL becomes us to congratulate ourselves. But one consequence of having an editorial troika, is that one of the editors may be not much more aware than any of our subscribers is, of what he will find when he opens PNR. And so it was with me, in the case of our celebration for Edgell Rickword in PNR 9. I knew of course that Alan Munton was putting this together for us, but not until I read galley-proofs had I any idea of the extraordinary variety and humanity of the materials that he had found and solicited and assembled. And so it seems not at all out of the way to say how grateful we are to him. I thought that what he gave us, even apart from the undeniably timely salute to Rickword himself, was an exceptionally valuable composite picture of how poetry and criticism and politics worked together, or failed to work together, over one certainly crucial chapter of recent intellectual history in this country. PNR does not present itself as, in the lingo of the academic trade, "a scholarly journal"; and yet these pages put together by Alan Munton could be properly described as "indispensable", as "documentation", even "an archive". Like it or not, before many years are out there will be researchers beavering away at them in that spirit.

I have never met Edgell Rickword; but his presence as it emerges from these testimonies is so vivid, as well as so engaging, that I dare to wonder, in all my ignorance of him, if sometimes he wasn't a jump ahead of the interlocutors who affectionately report on him. For instance when Fraser Steel asked him why he had given up lyric poetry, Mr. Rickword replied: "One had given up dreaming, I suppose: I think dreaming is a very important factor in getting the imagery of poetry, and the atmosphere. One tends to be so logical over twenty-five or twenty-six-one has to be logical to get along." Reading this, I visualize Mr. Rickword's eye meditatively averted towards the bottom of his beer-mug, in a way that (so we gather) is very characteristic of him. I don't suggest of course that he said what he didn't mean. For "dreaming" is an elastic term; and in some of its senses-for instance unfocussed pondering, day-dreaming, wool-gathering-it plainly is, as Mr. Rickword says, essential to the composing of not just lyric poetry, but all poetry. Moreover it's no doubt true that in many lives, as the individual moves from youth into middle-aged responsibilities, the times and opportunities for such wool-gathering become scarcer. But there's another sense to "dreaming"-one that links it with amiable lunacies as opposed to sunlit surfaces. And I can't believe that between poetry and "dreaming" in that sense, Mr. Rickword meant to assert or imply any connection at all. For as many of the other testimonies insist, and as his own astringent criticism is there to prove, Mr. Rickword's great and admirable achievement was to insist that poetry's illumination is not moonshine, but daylight; that the poet traffics not in seductive illusions, but in realities-among them, the realities of politics. To think otherwise is to fall into the error of romantic individualism; and that is an aberration which nourishes fascism and utopianism in politics, just as surely as it reduces poetry to an optional and self-indulgent murmuration at the extreme margin of our corporate life. Just that conviction has been-so I read the testimonies-Edgell Rickword's unwavering principle. If Left and Right have any meaning in English politics (and Michael Schmidt has pertinently doubted if they have, at any level above name-calling), thinkers on the Right should feel some shame that it was a thinker on the Left, Rickword, who announced and maintained this principle, which should be as cherished by them as it is by him.

One has seen it so often before: the professed and often enough sincere wish to purify poetry-to purify it of politics, of logic, of intentionality behind the poetic utterance, and consequently of any responsibility on the poet for what he utters. Always the overt intention is to exalt poetry; and always the effect is to emasculate it. A poetry that demands these freedoms will in our society be granted them. Thus purified, thus purged, poetry does neither harm nor good; it can safely be ignored, compassionately tolerated, contemptuously complimented. Poetry's enemies, and poetry's false friends, ask nothing better. Poetry conceived of in this way will count for nothing in our corporate life; and it deserves to count for nothing.

To those of us who can remember, it comes naturally, as we read the pages devoted to Rickword, to speculate whether there have been any notable changes in the way intellectual debate has been conducted in this country, over the past half-century. One would have to be very rash, and very sanguine, to maintain that we comport ourselves more magnanimously, or more honestly, than we did thirty or forty years ago. But we do perhaps conduct our arguments with a little more sophistication. I seem to recall that thirty or even twenty years ago one encountered more statements of the order of: "Homer was a fascistic, reactionary writer, out of touch with the Greek masses." Of course assertions like this are still made, but not in reputable circles. If there has been this change, it represents a real gain-not of course in virtue, but at least (and this is no small matter) in our sense of the ridiculous. And so, when Harry Williams writes to us from Perranporth, "I do not mean to quibble with PNR's political interests; there is plenty of precedent for politics and literature, going back to perhaps its purest form in Homer"-we need have no misgivings about what he means by "Homer". And that being so, how can we be anything but grateful? All too many of the responses we get are, in striking contrast to his clear-headedness, alarmed and apprehensive at our sullying the Muse's fingers in the actualities of the here and now.

Harry Williams doesn't believe that many of us, though past the age of twenty-six, are "logical". And I can't believe that Edgell Rickword thinks so, either. Mr. Williams's example of prevailing illogic is one that many of us are familiar with: "the fashionably ethical terms of a faculty confabulation." He imagines that confabulation being concerned with whether Jack Clemo's poems should be recommended to students; and he suspects that my article on Clemo's political development might sway opinion, quite illogically, against Clemo's poetry. I fear that he is right; and I regret it for the sake of Jack Clemo, whom I admire. But what is one to do? Because some people cannot make elementary distinctions in logic, are we not to make such distinctions ourselves? Must we refrain from discussing a matter of great import, merely because, however many precautions we take, muddleheads are sure to get it wrong? It depends, surely, on what periodical we are writing for, what audience we think we are addressing. I suppose that PNR readers are clear-headed enough not to misread what I write. I can suppose this because in my experience, so far from being abstracted loonies, poets and readers of poetry are likely to be more clear-headed and logical than most.

This item is taken from PN Review 11, Volume 6 Number 3, January - February 1980.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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