Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.

CORRESPONDENCE: Letter with Footnotes
Sir, May I reply to Alan Munton's essay in PN5? Some of his points must be called in question.

Was Arnold Bennett a 'kind of literary dictator' as Mr Munton, in tune with Wyndham-Lewis, a writer whom he is editing, calls him? Margaret Drabble's biography of Bennett suggests that he was more responsive to modern movements in art and literature than is commonly assumed.

For example, from 1908 in the New Age, he apparently praised Chekhov, the Russian Ballet, Rolland, Gide, Valéry and Claudel. He seems to have helped to influence Constance Garnett to translate Dostoevsky. He also seems to have defended the 'new' painters, such as Van Gogh. When visiting America, where Dreiser's Sister Carrie had sold a derisory number of copies, Bennett generously heaped high praise on this young unknown author. Later, it appears, he supported Eliot, Graves and Paul Nash. He gave money to D. H. Lawrence. Is this the same person as the Mr Nixon of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley?

The New Review. Mr Munton and I, and most people I have talked to, are agreed what a relative disappointment it is. He thinks it is awful, relative to its provinciality and its 'decaying humanist ideals'. (Has it any ideals?) I think it is an awful disappointment, relative to the princely subsidy it receives, and relative to its lack of Provinciality. Its characteristic spirit seems rather trendy and metropolitan.

'It prints plenty of poetry'. The last issue I saw printed none at all, though it printed three pages of Jonathan Raban's prose. Those issues that do stoop to printing verse, print verse on the whole not notable for strength of cadence, let alone rhyme, surrounded by acres of expensive-looking white paper. I suppose it gives a bold new lease of life to Mallarmé's old hope that it is in the space between the lines that the poem actually does its work; there's no lack of space.

Philip Larkin & Co. Mr Hamilton, who must now be approaching retirement age, has made it known that he dislikes the poetry of the 1950s excepting Mr Larkin's. His New Review's house-style is a different matter. To lump Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Angus Wilson together with, say, Jonathan Raban and the ideals of Mr Hamilton's friends, as Mr Munton does, is scatty. Is there a common ground of 'humanism' among them? Apart from there being various kinds of humanism, there is a difference in quality being ignored.

The question of quality is important, and needs to be discriminated. There is danger in Mr Munton's argument by simple oppositions, such as Anthony Thwaite's opposition of pop-poet sheep and 1950s goats to typify the alternatives facing the poet today. Charles Causley? Seamus Heaney? Robert Graves? Peter Scupham? Stanley Cook's Form Photograph? Neil Powell? Derek Mahon? R. S. Thomas? Although Mr Munton finds this opposition as silly as I do, he nevertheless bases his subsequent argument on it-a curious use of premisses.

Some years ago I took to task in the pages of Phoenix a very pretentious piece of 'analysis' by Jonathan Raban of 'The Whitsun Weddings' that had appeared in Mr Hamilton's the Review. From time to time-no, worse luck, all the time-since, I see other pieces by this ubiquitous commentator, and nothing I read by him in the Radio Times (whose writers seem to double-up for The New Review) or elsewhere has ever influenced me remotely to change my judgement about his general cast of mind or his power of expression. Who remembers him referring to radio drama in the pages of the TLS as a 'squishy' medium? One kind of astringent and critical humanism stands against this kind of expression.

Now, at the back of Mr Raban, Mr Hamilton, Mr Harsent et al., there may lie a species of 'liberal' and 'humanistic' commitment. It is a fairly common position, after all. Dimly through the verbiage he regards as stylishness, and even style, Mr Raban might well categorize himself as a humanist. But this is surely a different order of things from the humanism, the humanistic 'vision', not only felt along the pulse and in the conscience, but also feelingly originally and memorably articulated by Mr Larkin and Mr Amis in their poetry. It is a difference in quality of expression. They aren't 'squishy'.
Moreover, there are, pace Mr Munton, other humanisms. Often they may strike us as contradictory. Dr Leavis's critical and rather anti-technological humanism appears to run counter to the rational, scientific humanism 'of Sir Peter Medawar. There is the humanism of Bertrand, Russell. Of Arthur Koestler. Of George Orwell. Of Evelyn Waugh. And,so on.

Experiment. This is where Mr Munton's essay leads. There is nothing unhumanistic in experiment, of course, although the argument about quality still holds. If one considers a fine and long-lived magazine like Agenda, one sees that the flag of experiment still flies high. Is there, indeed, not a tendency in its pages towards an 'experimental orthodoxy', an orthodoxy of the 1960s? It has a strong predilection for poems in the Hamiltonian house-style, tempered (or made more,'woolly, depending on your point of view) by respect for the likes of Zukovsky and the Black Mountain folk or at least a number of eccentric American experimentalists. It has, more valuably, devoted much time to Ezra Pound, David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid, a trinity of worthier experimental writers.

This is fine, particularly so because Agenda's contributors write as if they thought and cared about poetry, even if one disagrees with their findings. It is good to see them publish Alan Massey's Leechcraft, and grant space to W. D. Snodgrass and Geoffrey Hill.

Yet hasn't experiment flourished here, and elsewhere, in recent years? The motley years of Fulcrum, Black Mountain, the Children of Albion, Pop Art, Concrete and Zoo-noises verse, Ambit, Mr Hamilton & co., Jean-Luc Godard, The Poetry Review, Bob Dylan ... The trouble is, that rhythmless or impressionistic or unenergetic or senseless or nerveless (or all) poems have appeared with dreary predictability in the TLS and Encounter and all over the shop including Agenda during this period. Can Mr Munton claim that experiment hasn't had a fair crack of the whip? Is it not refreshing to hear someone intelligently call the achievement of Samuel Beckett (in comparison with Sean O'Casey, for example) or Henry Moore or Harold Pinter in question? My heart contracts at the thought of yet more experimental verse, especially Imagist, and what will be perpetrated in its name, on top of our recent surfeit, but let that be. But let it be good, memorable and articulate.

I would argue that there exists a relation between the experimental orthodoxy and nerveless poems. Let me give you two examples.

Here is the title-poem of Michael Fried's Powers, brought out by Mr Hamilton's the Review (Mr Hamilton who dislikes the 1950s poets):

Our bodies are the closed eyes of a single animal,
Our states of mind so extreme they are the same.
Like the arts, we lend each other new powers./

And here is Mr Hamilton's comment on the collection:

When I first came across Fried's poems in the early sixties they were a revelation to me-intense, direct, colloquial, and yet marvellously elevated. They were poems, for once, whose expressionism didn't sabotage their dignity, whose tough immediacy was supported by a very delicate technique. And they were wholly original.

Other poets of his generation, it seems, were similarly impressed:

And Fried himself has continued to develop-surrendering some of the dramatic naturalism of his early work in service of a more mysterious, almost visionary, kind of insight. 'Insight', indeed, is maybe the best description of what these poems achieve; although always rhythmically supple and alert they make their most distinctive impact by means of visualisation of passionate experience./

I am not sure to which end of the scale of Mr Fried's development 'Powers', the title-poem, belongs-dramatic naturalism, or mysterious, almost visionary kind of insight. But I feel pretty sure that, however line three relates to line two in terms of old-fashioned sense: (not to speak of the sense of line two by itself), it is rhythmically lame, and anything but supple and alert. My word against Mr Hamilton's, but I'd say 'nerveless'. Doesn't Mr Fried here miss the rhythmic boat as well as the semantic tide? Read it for yourself.

A second example, culled from Agenda. The issue was actually devoted to 'rhythm', and here is Michael Hamburger, of all people, discussing George Oppen:

As an instance of the spareness, clarity and the increasing directness with which Oppen has rendered delicate perceptions (no longer necessarily visual) I want to quote one complete poem, 'A Barbarity', from his latest collection, Seascape: Needle's Eye:

We lead our real lives
in dreams
one said meaning
because he was awake
we are locked in ourselves
that was not what he dreamed
in any dream
he dreamed the weird morning
of the bird waking.

Well, Needle's Eye is well said, as far as my own chances of passing into Mr Oppen's poetical Kingdom go, and as far as my own regard for sense and cadence extends. In Auberon Waugh's words a propos of Encounter's poetry, Oppen's poem is drivel (1). Mr Hamburger (such a good 1950s poet) has gone overboard. Has the vogue for 'experiment' corrupted his judgement? Can't he listen to the poem? Can't Mr Hamilton listen to the Fried poem? (2)

Upon these two examples, I would base my general case about the damaging orthodoxy of experiment. Let us listen empirically to each individual poem, even poems by Mr Fried and Mr Oppen, and judge them on the basis of this listening.

I fear that Mr Munton's strategy of oppositions is not helpful or stimulating. Response is a more complicated, individual matter. Let me give an example of this.

I deplore Mr Hamilton's role on the 'poetry scene', for so his magazine once dubbed and demeaned an ancient craft. I deplore it, because he has a lot of money for his pains and his magazine (if little respect); I distrust his ear and thus his judgement. Yet I admire a few of his own poems; Peter Dale in Agenda reviewed them judiciously when they first appeared. I wish he would stick to writing poetry and not being an artistic impresario, because he is more gifted in the former role. And such a response cuts across 'oppositions'.

If we can lead Mr Munton back to his stamping ground of the years 1910-20, can we not show him that a similar complexity exists there? He must appreciate that it was a time (goodness, like all times) when many styles were deployed by poets, from Kipling through Hardy, Thomas and Owen via the Georgians on to middle Yeats, Eliot, Pound and the boys, not to speak of Lawrence, Charlotte Mew, Bridges or Frost. Among all these manifold individual 'styles' many happened to succeed at this time, with rare consistency. This is why it is such a rich period. The rate of quality was exceptionally high.

This is true of the 1890s, too, as Kelsey Thornton's fine Penguin anthology shows beyond doubt: Davidson to Dowson, Johnson to Kipling, Symons to Henley-the diversity of tone is immensely wide. True, also, of the 1950s and the 1960s, evidently. Among the H's, as it were, we find Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney; Molly Holden and Ted Hughes. Many visions and humanisms there, surely? It might be something to do with an 'Open Society', and if this were so, it would put a different complexion on Mr Munton's disapproval of 'decayed humanism'.

I wish he would conceive of life and art more 'as a kind of listening', to use the marvellous phrase that Walter Pater coined in his essay on 'The School of Giorgione'. One can listen to individual accents, from both sides of supposedly opposite (but in fact manifold) camps.

In any case, Mr Munton thinks too much in terms of 'philosophy'. This is why I have tried to work in the thin end of the idea of 'vision', as more appropriate to poets. They aren't, in the main, philosophers, as Dr Johnson sensed in his judgement of the Essay on Man. Philosophical ideas may stimulate them; Seamus Heaney recently allowed that a poet may 'mystify', if he so likes. We may instance how Schopenhauer stimulated Hardy's vision, or Madame Blavatsky that of Yeats.

To put it another way; ought not the poet these days be more mindful of his relation to Calliope, to her visits as she grants him the power to give form to his vision, as Robert Graves insists in The Crowning Privilege? Is this relation not the supreme humanism?

I do not feel over-anxious about Mr Munton's collaborator on Wyndham-Lewis, C. H. Sisson, citing Charles Maurras as a philosophical influence. The vision that Maurras had of a France going to the dogs carries more weight of our sympathy (if not much) than the philosophy he built upon the 'vision', and the extreme right-wing anti-semitic political movement built upon the philosophy. How one wishes he had stuck to the poetry he came up to Paris to write in the 1890s! The philosopher and political journalist sadly finished off the poet in him. One might add that Maurras hated Verlaine's poetry, as an index of French degeneracy and falling short of tradition, as well as other 'experimental' manifestations of the time. I wonder how he would regard his English disciple's latest experimental writing? Doubtless, there is a complex answer to that one!-Dr Simon Curtis, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Manchester.


  1. Mr Waugh can tell a literary hawk from a handsaw. On the subject of Encounter's level of poetry, I might add that I have never understood how its editorial platform, in favour of critical thinking, has for many years been completely torn up when it comes to the poetry it prints (with some exceptions, of course-John Mole and Peter Scupham come to mind); the 'nerveless' poem has had great encouragement in its pages.

  2. There is an excellent discussion of rhythm, stress and scansion by Roy Fuller in a new poetry magazine, Thames Poetry (90p., 160 High Rd., Wealdstone, Harrow, Middlesex). A recent collection, In the Distance (Anvil Press), by Dick Davis, shows Fried a clean pair of heels when it comes to the short lyric and a command of cadence.

This item is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image