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This item is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.Editorial
THE NEW Poetry Nation takes the form of a review rather than an anthology. Its quarterly frequency and magazine format reflect a change of strategy, not of direction. We intend, in adding that ambitious word 'review' to our title and worrying our readers twice as often as before, to create a vehicle for extended discussion and debate. We have also marked out a wider territory and a more ambitious programme.
A review devoted primarily to one of the arts, which does not explore the wider context in which that art flourishes, which fails to define the influence on and of its subject, can do its subject a disservice. Similarly, an artist committed to any one of the arts cannot progress in ignorance of the frontiers of his freedom of action and expression, his skills, his audience, or the checks and inhibitions his immediate milieu or the wider society places on him. His own artistic responsibility derives from an awareness of those frontiers.
Among modern English writers we have sensed, and gone some way in our early issues towards defining, a failure of seriousness, a flippancy before formal and social choices, and an unwillingness to examine the human implications of certain ideas expressed as it were casually in particular works of imaginative writing, or in underlying attitudes. The poet who surprises 'a hunger in himself to be more serious' type-casts himself as a modern English writer when he goes no further than the surprise, accepts it, and retires. He would rather let his imagination's stomach rumble than risk feeding it on serious food. In rejecting 'romantic gesture' and the 'myth-kitty', for example, the Movement poets rejected 'vision' as well. In the early Movement poets' work one does not miss vaticism, but one misses there and in much of the best British poetry since the 1950s the presence of the ambitious integrating imagination, the imagination that can move beyond suburban and rural realities to historical and, if one can risk the word, moral realities. If distrust of commitment in political, social, spiritual and cultural matters characterizes those beleaguered writers central to the contemporary literary establishment, naive commitments on all these fronts characterize the hectoring opposition: whatever hunger they surprise in themselves is relieved by accepting an orthodox ideological panacea.
The literary catholicity we have advocated in our first six issues would become irresponsible if it did not suggest a critical vocabulary, discuss techniques, provide revaluations, assessments of new work, scrutinies, and polemics; if it did not explore the crucial analogies between its subject and the world in which that subject signifies.
It is curious that at a time of so much well-advertised-if little debated-social crisis, English poetry should have such a superfluity of competence and such a lack of genius. Or is it curious? Is it surprising that in the contemporary milieu so many poets write as if on their critical intelligence, pieces with gauged stylistic ironies and modishly selected content, for the weekly periodicals; pieces that risk nothing and are passionless? Many write in a present which seems to have no vital past or future, which is as Georgian as it is Movement, which trades in a received diction on received subject matter and received response. 'Trades' is an apposite expression when poetry unions are mooted, and minimum fees, and the poet's rights are jealously guarded; when vocation and profession change places. Is it surprising that much modern poetry, for all its careful packaging, is boring?
Taking the risks necessary to satisfy that 'hunger in himself' is no easy process for the poet-ideally not even a conscious process-and finding the best risks in a literary world where his main task is often presented to him as épater l'avant garde, is no easy matter either. It is not a risk to abandon form and take to the circumambient gas Hulme defined: that way lies the abdication of intelligence and artistic imagination. Imitation of those forms and modes which are the product of an experience the English writer cannot share-whether Continental or Latin American surrealism, American neo-primitivism, or East European expressionism-is another form of abdication, though lessons have been learned from the activity of translating. Positive risks are intellectual and imaginative, as often as not analogous to the risks of modernism on the one hand and, on the other, the risk of a whole-hearted commitment to traditionally formal writing.
When Henry James assured the world-or that infinitesimal fraction of it that, in 1891, was reading the New Review-that writers, the critics' meat, bread and butter, were the 'clamorous children of history' he was speaking of an earlier, or a foreign, race of writers. Those writers that have drawn public attention to themselves in recent years have been the 'clamorous' (that always) old maids of the daily and weekly journals (a race of editors that stretches from the later Squire to the later Hamilton), miniolls of political or literary faction (the ghosts of forty years ago recur), or agents for vested interests (Group and later groupings). The young recruit immediately affects middle age, bristling with borrowed ironies, drooping under an assumed melancholy or malcontentedness. The height of his ambition is to be compared with the beslippered Auden. These partisan tendencies have contributed to poets being taken as 'unreliable thinkers'. Whatever their politics, when they review the work of a friend they assume the stance of E. M. Forster's traitor, and the art, like the country, comes second. A happy tribe, faithful to itself! Or happy tribes, faithful each to itself, jealous of its neighbours!
In conceiving of these tribes and factions, we may do damage to the few pariahs who stand outside the uncharmed circles, who see and express a world more serious, whole, and true than their contemporaries'~ They are the 'poets of commitment' that Anthony Cronin identified in an essay in X published some years ago, when Christopher Logue was hogging the popular stage with patented Committed Verse (a stage since, and somewhat sombrely, occupied by Jon Silkin and a less naive troop). Cronin wrote:
We have heard a great deal about Commitment recently as if it were a new thing, though the notion has appeared several times in other decades under other names. Oddly enough, we never hear of Mr Eliot as committed, or Ezra Pound or Yeats, though the verse of all three is passionately, profoundly and fundamentally committed to the truth of certain views about the moral basis of civilization and the importance of the kind of society we live in. These beliefs are not, however, made the occasion for boasting or hectoring, nor are they presented as if the mere holding of them were a feat deserving of great acclaim. They take their place in fact among the tensions, the human contradictions and the heart-searchings of the verse in a way that does not, so far as one can judge, meet the requirements of those who propagate the word commitment. It, in fact, is reserved by its adherents for a certain kind of propagandist, socialist, querulous and superior verse ...
Later in the essay he added:
Most poets, like most decent people, possess some vision of the just city. Yet a poet cannot propagate it without extreme danger of ceasing to be a poet and turning into a prophet or a charlatan. The three most influential poets of the century, Yeats, Pound and Eliot, are ... all deeply committed to beliefs of varying kinds. But their poetry is primarily a profound statement of the human condition. Their beliefs enter into it because their beliefs are part of them and of humanity. In most truly great poetry the non-existence of the just city is simply a fact like other facts about the poet and his circumstances.
If in the early sixties Cronin's statement went unheeded and initiated not even a whisper of debate, it helped to prove the efficacity of the English literary Final Solution: ignore it and it will perish. And certainly Cronin's cogent cultural view (politics being an aspect, among others, of that word 'culture') was not good journalistic copy either. He met with a silence he no doubt expected.
If we consider the Latin American writers-Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Miguel Angel Asturias among them-we will see how in other cultures writers can perform important social functions, debating, defining, and demanding definitions from the society, suggesting programmes, defending and extending freedoms, instructing. The imaginative writer is taken seriously by serious people; and the best writers earn the respect of their readers by thinking, and taking responsibility for their thought. They are social animals, interested in the real city and how, in time, it can be brought closer to the idea of the just city. Their task is not to desolate the real city but to criticize it. They are agents for progress in the cultural rather than the economic or merely political sense of the word. Octavio Paz's essays on Solzhenitsyn ('Dust after Mud' in this issue and its sequel in PNR 2, give some idea of the quality of the best of these writers' commitment, and also provide an indication of what audience they are addressing.
Critics are in part to blame for the state of affairs in England. A recent selection of Eliot's prose writings by Frank Kermode is a good example why. With customary delicacy Kermode alters his subject. Eliot as critic is for Kermode primarily Eliot as literary critic. The 'acceptable' Eliot. Thus he denies the integrity of the cultural critic: he truncates the man; and going further, he truncates specific essays, doctors them. There is a continuity between the monarchist, anglo-catholic Eliot and the critic of Donne, Milton, and Goethe. Kermode suppresses those things anathema to his representative sensibility; he succumbs to the habit of taming the lion not by debating with him in an intelligent cat-to-cat fashion, but by removing his claws and teeth surgically, and other offensive bits of the anatomy. Perhaps he deceives himself.
The English Marxist critics, too, enact an analogous ritual. Raymond Williams becomes the victim of a critical vocabulary as shifting, indefinite, and wilful as journalese. He debates with himself (and even the devotee will confess that it becomes tedious) the continuity between form and content, between dancer and dance; and at the same time apologizes for the necessity to distinguish between them in order to enable critical discourse to proceed. The discourse, and the conclusions the critic draws, develop from the separation that critical analysis imposes. Thus in the critic's own terms the conclusions are valid only in a very restricted area. The critic feels, however, that having demonstrated his awareness of the predicament, he has managed to transcend it. The younger Marxist critics treat the literary work as a 'text', for purposes of historical and social elucidation. They have certain handbooks they consult and interpret, like exegetes or augurers. The name of Lukacs is always on their lips. The subjective processes of creation and response are things they cannot deal with and sometimes refuse to acknowledge.
Few writers and few critics address themselves to an historical Britain, fewer still accept responsibility within-or express much awareness of-a Britain of historical institutions. The 'radical' writers would burn down the edifice without going inside. And those inside restrict themselves to one or two rooms. It is not, they say, the writer's job to know about architecture, or plumbing, or heating; it is not the tenant's job to fight off the demolition men. The insider stares out, the outsider stares in. One shouts, the other covers his ears.
The limits of the programme of each are the limits of his understanding and sympathy. Adherence to ready-made dogmas or the easier scepticism of the 'failed humanists' are common stances. It is convenient to label and discard or label and accept. The decline in the literary arts in this country runs parallel with the diminishing scope of activity of the modern writer. The tendency to make villains and heroes-depending on prejudice rather than judgement-of Wyndham Lewis, Charles Maurras, Evgeny Evtushenko, or Jean-Paul Sartre, is typical of a lack of seriousness, a replacement of understanding with a reductive orthodoxy.
The Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz, writing for a symposium of contemporary art and letters held at the University of Austin, Texas, in 1975, stated his position as editor of Plural in these terms:
In recent years, drunk with those inferior forms of the religious instinct-the contemporary political orthodoxies-many Latin American writers have abdicated. They have not worshipped, as those of other ages have, the 'golden calf' but rather the bull of blunt violence and intolerant power ... Many writers, terrorized or seduced by the ideological gangs and the rhetoric of violence, have turned themselves into the acolytes and sacristans of the new celecrants and sacrificers. Some, not content with this abjuration, have ascended to the pulpits and demanded from there the punishment of their independent colleagues, and even, pursued by the demon of self-abhorrence, called for punishment on themselves. Plural was founded to confront this state of affairs. Criticism is, essentially, therapeutic. We wanted to reintroduce-against monologue and clamouring, those twin aberrations-the rational word, the critical word, which is always two sided because it implies a questioner. We know of course that criticism cannot, by itself, produce good literature. That is not, in any case, its mission. On the other hand, we know that it alone can create that space-physical, intellectual, moral-in which a literature can evolve.
What does Paz mean by criticism? A look at any issue of Plural will make this clear. It is a cultural journal: its editors and readers mean to imply in the word 'culture' not only the arts but politics, economics, education: the cultural language is a language of values: culture is neither a legacy nor a luxury but a vital and informing reality. The language of culture in a society where social structures are unresponsive, inflexible, and inimical to articulacy, is a language of risks.
In another land, another society, the cultural language calls itself a critical language. The word 'critical' at once circumscribes its area of activity and indeed the nature of its activity. In our society there are immediate obstacles to the cultural intelligence, especially when it dares to step beyond its 'area of specialization' and suggest that, by rights, it belongs not on the periphery but somewhere near the centre of activity, and that not only artistic activity. The obstacles it meets are in effect forms of non-institutional, yet efficacious censorship.
It is a harsh word, censorship. But it describes a curiously English cast of mind which we might define as reductive, confining the individual writer in the cell of his own discipline and, while respectfully allowing the poet to sound off about politics, or the novelist about religion, takes seriously only the view of the 'expert', whose knowledge of the contexts which his expertise affects is, or is assumed to be, limited. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, are dubious freedoms when no one is listening, however numerous the hearers. The failure of criticism and the curious isolation of our best writers are products of a wider social, political and moral failure, a complacency. The refusal to engage the serious writer, while defending his right to express himself: Wyndham Lewis called it the 'impalpable dark prison of neglect'.
Yet now, as in the past, word-artist and sooth-sayer have a part to play; indeed, if they did not, there would be little chance of their art developing. The poet, for example, produces forms, discovers thought processes and perceptions which, if they have no consequence for him or for his audience, cannot mature, can lead nowhere. This is an argument neither for referential 'relevance' nor for a propagandist political poetry. The sad effect of this form of exercise can be seen in the 'anti-war' poems of Robert Bly and Denise Levertov, among many other accomplished writers whose righteous anger falsified their once compelling and clear vision. It is an argument, rather, for the application of the integrating intelligence of the creative writer to matters of social, historical, and spiritual moment. It is an argument for serious cultural thought, not popular rhetoric. What matters to the reader is not the declared Party affiliations of the poet, what card he carries, but the quality of his vision, its completeness. His art is interpretation by formation or reformation, the sort of interpretation that clarifies men's choices of action or processes of perception and thought, the sort of interpretation that produces effects in the reader. It is not exhortatory but more immediate, more experiential. Furthermore, the writer's task is to keep the language to its meanings, at once serving and extending language in its range of formal expression.
And it is the job of serious criticism to engage the writer, examine the terms on which he addresses us, his success within those terms, and the wider validity of them. The experience of Wyndham Lewis and Gottfried Benn, of Rene Behaine and Octavia Paz, among many others, each of whom has at some time been labelled by the literary commissars and more or less effectively exiled from his audience, is humiliating not to the writer-his work may survive-but to the literary culture which, falling easily into the snares of journalistic shorthand, reduces the offending individual to a common model or caricature and discards him. Such habits are the result of a self-deceiving literary orthodoxy and can do damage to talents of less than the first magnitude, much as excessive adulation can.
Criticism could at this time and in this culture be risky business. And so it should. It involves reconsidering seriously certain ideas, certain talents, that might be ideologically anathema to some readers. It implies severity with the flippant or casual writer, the propagandist, and the rhetorician. It involves a probing of the causes of the essential frivolity of much contemporary writing, the unwillingness to take risks, the new 'minimalist' tradition. It involves an awareness of developments abroad that might illuminate our own situation. It involves a serious consideration of central English institutions. A bringing to consciousness of what we take for granted is its first step, a peeling back of preconceptions, prejudices, habits of response. The critic's task is to help direct contemporary literature and the modern reader back into the main-stream, reclaiming for both a little of their lost authority. This it may be able to do if there are creative writers worth serious attention, who have refused, with the contraction of the responsive audience and the retreat of the critics, to chasten the scope of their art.
Santayana noted that, 'To criticize art on moral grounds is to pay it the highest compliment by assuming that it aims to be adequate, and addresses itself to a comprehensive mind.' It is a compliment which, in the past, has often been paid it. It is a compliment which Soviet Communism, in the cruellest forms, still pays it. Santayana continues, 'The only way in which art could disallow such criticism would be to protest its irresponsible infancy, and admit that it was a more or less amiable blatancy of individuals, and not art at all.'
'Moral' criticism was best defined by Michael Roberts in the introduction to his famous Faber anthology. For him, as for any reader of poetry, the words, organized in sound, sense, and implication, have practical effects, moral effects, forcing us through certain processes of association and thought. Because poetry is, at its most affective, experiential rather than analytical, the effect can be profound, for good or ill. It is with these effects that criticism finally deals.
Criticism is an activity analogous, not to the creative act, but to translation. It is always partial, but it can, in participation with the work of art, clarify a certain context, a certain process, crucial to the literate man and to the development of the creative mind. These in turn are crucial to the development of a culture.
A belief in the centrality of the creative imagination and of the critical intelligence has impelled us to increase Poetry Nation, to turn it into something of a glass house, tempting perhaps to stone-throwers. We wish to give play, however, not to exhausted opinionation, but to the sort of intelligence for which poetry is an intellectual value. That is our risk, and our invitation to poets, critics, reviewers and correspondents.
This item is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.