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

This item is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

Letters from Jeffrey Wainwright, Alan Massey, Michelene Wandor, Michèle Roberts, Alastair Fowler, Craig Raine, Jem Poster
Sir: We might expect that a magazine like Poetry Nation Review in its reception of a poem as remarkable as Geoffrey Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, would live up to at least two terms of its title and review the poem. But first we have C. H. Sisson's notice (PNR 33) which bypasses the work itself in favour of his own consideration of Péguy and his period, and now (PNR 34) Donald Davie's attempt to slip the Queen's shilling into the poet's palm. Mr Sisson's response is disappointing, but it is Professor Davie's that does the poem, and poetry, the greater disservice.

Professor Davie's 'unprejudiced reading' 'suggests' (though his assertions are to be nothing like as tentative as this modest verb would have us believe) that Hill's 'purpose was . . . the celebration of two values: patriotism, and martial valour'. Whether such an account of the poem's 'purpose' is to be attributed to the demands of the opinionative genre 'Editorial', or to a reading far from unprejudiced I cannot tell. Either way, coming from so perceptive a critic it seems to me an astoundingly simplified and ideological reading of Hill's poem. My own attempt to comprehend Péguy will appear elsewhere, but in this space I should like to argue that whilst 'patriotism' and 'martial valour' are a part of the matter of the poem, their treatment is far too complex to be described as celebration. Indeed, how problematical, and how far from being transparent, these terms really are, is one of the poem's main recognitions. So far from being a celebration of patriotism, the poem presents a painstaking study of the web of emotive ties, delusions, nostalgias, and manipulations, as well as the proper loyalties and affections that go to make up a notion so contradictory as 'country' or 'nation'. 'Patriotism' is too abstract, and potent, a concept to be drummed and trumpeted without a context, and the full ambiguity and ambivalence of that context is what the poem provides. The other term of the poem's supposed purpose, 'martial valour', is similarly treated. Hill's Péguy, rising with his 'copybook lines of men' to be 'erased', does present an image of what Davie calls 'disciplined bravery in battle', but the poem also sees the bull-headed fanaticism of such bravery, the bathos, 'covered in glory and the blood of beetroots'. That line of men


falters, reforms, vanishes into the smoke
of its own unknowing; mother, dad,
gone in that shell-burst, with the other dead,
'pour la patrie', according to the book.


But my point here is not simply to invert Davie's argument and so to make the poem serve an 'anti-war', 'anti-patriotic' purpose, but to indicate the poem's evident sense of the intricate composition of these subjects. Péguy's France here, his 'claggy Beauce', is at once a land of profound rootedness of attachment, source and inspiration of 'la cité harmonieuse', but also one of attenuation and superstition, and in the image cherished by Dreyfus' judges, a corrupt chimera serving only place and self-importance. Men in war in this poem are heroic, quixotic, comradely, and desperate, in an arena of sacrifice and of waste.

The failure to perceive the poem in more than one dimension is carried over in the sleight of hand by which Davie seeks to adduce it as apologia for the Falklands War-if not for the initial justification of that war, then for what it displayed and its effect on our national consciousness. In that war, he tells us, 'martial valour and endurance-in our own countrymen but also in our enemies (for instance, the Argentinian airmen)-once again, as the news came in from the South Atlantic, was recognised as a self-evident value'. His choice of epiphany here, and the image in which he indicates our (assumed) noble disinterest (for instance, the Argentinian airmen') are curious. Why that instance? Why not the conscripted youths jammed into the hulk of the Belgrano, or shivering in their wet holes around Port Stanley not knowing where they were? Could it be that not being 'somewhere among the clouds above', their endings have too little of a dying fall to chime with the note of admiration? Why too is it this conflict that has stirred the nation 'once again'? If we would admire patriotism and martial valour have we not been able to do so closer at hand these fourteen years in the Falls Road, Crossmaglen, and the Bogside, or indeed, since we are big enough to recognise these qualities 'also in our enemies', in the disciplined resolution of the H-Blocks? That such admiration has not been the British public's major, or even significant, response indicates an understanding that the Irish situation demonstrates to all but the bigots on both sides (some of whom incidentally must be counted the greatest patriots and most valorous) just how fraught, complex, war is behind those bannered abstractions. 'The small war made to order' in Buenos Aires and London that was the tragic scuffle in the South Atlantic, can appear by contrast a grand traditional war of battlefields, sea-fights, and officers surrendering swords (theirs). That stirs us before our television sets, and among the saloon-bar bunting and collecting-tins more surely than the sight, year in year out, of impoverished youths driven to claw at each other on the streets of Belfast. Many of them will be brave to a degree unimaginable to those of us fortunately far from such situations. But it is nonetheless bravery in a context: the context of the overall, insupportable misery of these or any other wars, and the context of the true values of a nation that can have its youths step from cut-rate school, to unemployment, to amazed entanglement and death in such conflicts. 'Patriotism', 'our attachment to our country', cannot be unalloyed, cannot be kept separate from the injustices and inequalities of the country at home, nor from the callous rhetoric of 'Argies' and 'Gotcha!' Similarly, it is more than the faux pas of what Davie calls Haig's 'deplorably uninventive battle plans' that have convinced so many people that the value of 'martial valour' cannot be mentioned aside from its laminate of suffering and waste. To my mind Randall Jarrell in his 'Eighth Air Force' puts the nature of this value more truly: caught in war 'Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can'.
Didsbury, Manchester JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT

Sir: It's notorious that one man's 'unprejudiced reading' of a poem can lead to radically different judgements from another's. Having read Geoffrey Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy many times, and with deepening admiration, during the months since it appeared, may I record my astonishment at Donald Davie's comments in the editorial of PNR 34?
I don't claim to understand this complex poem completely; all the same . . . Just as Geoffrey Hill's prose notes on Péguy, appended to the poem, maintain that 'fascism, in whatever form, is a travesty of Péguy's true faith and position', so it seems to me a travesty of Geoffrey Hill's position to allege that 'his purpose was . . . the celebration of two values: patriotism, and martial valour'. It remains a travesty even if you adjust the first value (as, commendably 'queasy and apprehensive', Davie goes on to do) to 'probing and disturbing' patriotism as contrasted with the 'fraudulent and cheap' kind, or style. For the prevailing emotional tone of Geoffrey Hill's poem is sadness: it is like a great memorial, exactly measured and lovingly sculpted. It celebrates, centrally, one man, for whom the poet clearly has the highest regard: 'Péguy, stubborn rancours and mishaps and all, is one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century.' If any abstractions are to be drawn from this celebration, they are surely not 'patriotism' and 'martial valour', but the 'charity', and the 'mystery of the charity', of Péguy.

So (posthumously) public a man could hardly be commemorated in isolation, yet the context of the poem is, rigorously, Péguy's context. The scene is France; the time is Péguy's time, 1873-1914, pierced at the centre by the Dreyfus affair of 1894; and the poem's language insists upon its time and place, with porte-cochère, guignol, tabatière, poilus, sous-officiers, embusqués, roi-mages, and so on. The poet's evocations of French landscape are as magically beautiful as those of English landscape in his Mercian Hymns, but the dimension-blurring conflations of that sequence-the 'cohorts of charabancs' that 'fanfared Offa's province and his concern', the 'Merovingian car-dealers'-are nowhere to be found in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. All is precisely located and made local; the poem's conflict is indeed localized. Appropriate imaginative connections-back are made with Bethlehem, and with Calvary, but Hill insists that we share his awareness that we were no more present in Christ's time than we were in Péguy's: we are all, now, mere 'watchmen at the Passion', and what we are experiencing here is a work of art. 'Here there should be a section without words/for military band alone . . .' And, to Péguy: 'The guilt/belongs to time; and you must leave on time.' All is measured to, and contained in, one hundred quatrains. The 400th line reads: 'in memory of those things these words were born.' Those things took place in France in the years leading up to 1914. These words are printed in England in 1983.

Faced with these specificities of time and place, Davie's editorial (very nearly 'bursting with "cran et gloire" and gouts of rouge') balloons off-what a flight of fancy it is-to the South Atlantic of 1982, and congratulates Geoffrey Hill on having 'had the nerve to challenge this consensus', on his 'good sense in distancing the theme by treating it in a French rather than a British context'! Isn't it a little over-richly far-fetched?

That 'consensus' he speaks of, whereby 'patriotism, and disciplined bravery in battle . . .have in the last sixty years been tacitly ruled out as acceptable themes for poetry', is part of a much larger consensus that has come to look upon 'patriotism' and 'martial valour' as highly undesirable qualities for any minority to encourage in any majority. (In the ninth section of the poem we find: 'Good governors and captains, by your leave,/you also were sore-wounded but those wars/are ended.') It is possible to see 1918 as the, admittedly murky, dawn of this new attitude. How did the 1914 war end? The political masters of the two sides agreed, finally, despite internal and on-going wranglings, to an armistice. It was some sort of consensus, and must have seemed a 'self-evident value' to a majority of those who were physically involved in the war. I should say that Geoffrey Hill, far from challenging the smaller consensus, has given both it and the larger consensus a memorably subtle and powerful expression.

Here he addresses the shade of Péguy, as it were with a sorrowful shaking of the head (as I believe):


This world is different, belongs to them-
the lords of limit and of contumely.
It matters little whether you go tamely
or with rage and defiance to your doom.

This is your enemies' country which they took
in the small hours an age before you woke,
went to the window, saw the mist-hewn
statues of the lean kine emerge at dawn.

Outflanked again, too bad! . . .


And again:


This is no old Beauce manoir that you keep
but the rue de la Sorbonne, the cramped shop,
its unsold Cahiers built like barricades, [. . .]


Is that 'patriotism'? Either style of it?


So you spoke to the blood. So, you have risen
above all that and fallen flat on your face

among the beetroots, [. . .]


'Martial valour'? It seems a rather back-handed salute to such a thing.

And when Hill shifts the focus from Péguy, and considers the lives and deaths of the many others caught up into that war, he gives us:


At Villeroy the copybook lines of men
rise up and are erased. [. . .]


And:


                             The line

falters, reforms, vanishes into the smoke
of its own unknowing; mother, dad,
gone in that shell-burst, with the other dead,
'pour la patrie', according to the book.


And:


Dear lords of life, stump-toothed, with ragged breath,
throng after throng cast out upon the earth,
flesh into dust, who slowly come to use
dreams of oblivion in lieu of paradise,

push on, push on!-through struggle, exhaustion,
indignities of all kinds, the impious Christian
oratory, 'vos morituri', through berserk fear,
laughing, howling, 'servitude et grandeur'

in other words, in nameless gobbets thrown
up by the blast, names issuing from mouths
of the dying, with their dying breaths.
But rest assured, bristly-brave gentlemen

of Normandie and Loire. Death does you proud,
every heroic commonplace, 'Amor',
'Fidelitas', polished like old armour,
stamped forever into the featureless mud.


These passages strike me, as does the poem as a whole, not only as a warning to the living but also as a grim lament over tragically, irretrievably lost lives-rather than as anything remotely like Davie's 'celebration of martial valour' as a 'self-evident value' that 'we have giggled about for too long' or either style of 'patriotism', even the 'probing and disturbing' style. The poem is written in tears, not in blood. Far from celebrating patriotism and martial valour, Geoffrey Hill's disgusted sadness at the scale of the waste of human life is total: one might call it vicarious shell-shock, though his work of art is calm, strong and perfectly disciplined. Every time I re-read this magnificent poem I seem to sense the shimmering of two unwritten epigraphs (apart from the printed Péguy epigraph) behind and through the text. One is Nurse Edith Cavell's spoken 'Patriotism is not enough.' The second is from that other written masterpiece of the 1914-18 war, David Jones's In Parenthesis: 'They're worthy of an intelligent song for all the stupidity of their contest.'
Windsor, Berks. ALAN MASSEY


EXTRAVAGANCES

Dear Editor: Dick Davis's review in PNR 33 of Touch Papers, the book of poetry by myself, Michele Roberts and Judith Kazantzis, utterly disproves any theory that hysteria is solely the province of women. I don't think I have ever read such a careless, vitriolic poetry review. The tone of his remarks reveals such pre-conceived prejudice against the very idea that women poets might have something new to say, that I wonder why he bothered. I have always had an interested respect for PNR. I never expected to read anything quite so crass in its pages.
London NW 3 MICHELENE WANDOR

Dear Editor: Feminists are often pictured in the popular imagination as being less than human, as unfeminine, as monsters or as cold ideologues. Their feelings, by implication, can't be hurt, since they haven't any. I'm a human being and a feminist and a woman who earns a successful living as a poet and novelist, and I feel hurt by some of the comments in PNR 33 (which I have only just seen). I am also unwilling to accept meekly (as doubtless a real woman, rather than a shrill, whining, strident feminist, should) the strictures of your reviewer Dick Davis on my work and that of other women poets.

Perhaps, though, I should be grateful that you found the space at all to review Touch Papers and Bread and Roses, given that so very few of your contributors (poets and reviewers) are female and that so very few of the books reviewed are by women. You may consider that this unbalanced situation merely reflects the current distribution of intellectual and poetic prowess between the sexes; to me it suggests an unconscious gendered assumption on your part about whom you deem capable of writing good reviews and poetry. I realize of course that I may be labelled shrill, whining, strident, etc. for saying so.

Dick Davis, indeed, considers that I write 'the kind of "women's poetry" that makes one think there might be something in the etymology of the word hysteria after all'. I have heard male artists boast that they write or paint with the phallus; does having a womb disqualify a woman from poetry? Passionate or angry women are often written off as hysterical as a way of deflecting or nullifying the force of what we have to say (real hysterics, of course, don't speak or write poems but express repressed unconscious conflicts through bodily symptoms): it's one of the oldest insults in the book. Were I to characterise Mr Davis in similar terms I would remark that his language smacks of spleen or dyspepsia or womb-envy.

In the case of my poem 'Magnificat' (based on the New Testament account of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth when both are pregnant) Mr Davis seems to be offended that I connect strong emotion with physical sensation and that I compare the flow of language between two women to that of wine or oil over the body. Why is it 'absurdly extravagant' to record in this way my pleasure at being lovingly listened to by another woman? As Mr Davis's own words, as well as the dearth of women writers in your magazine, illustrate, it's still rare in our culture for a woman speaking as a woman (i.e., body, spirit, mind) to be seriously listened to.

I have read this poem by request on several radio and television programmes, and also read it at the Bread and Roses event at the Cambridge Poetry Festival this year, an event which (in the same issue of PNR) another of your reviewers admitted drew one of the largest crowds seen at the festival. My performance there is described as 'powerful'; was it just lack of space that meant no mention of my paucity of 'poetic intelligence or tact', so deplored by Mr Davis, was made? BBC Radio's Poetry Now programme saw fit to include it in their broadcast recording, anyhow.

In the same issue of PNR you fill nearly five pages with a poem by Valery (full of pretty strong language) which, its translator suggests, concenrs on one level the adolescence or late puberty of a goddess, and is written in the first person female. Live, flesh and blood women poets speaking in the first person on similar themes don't seem to find the same favour.

On page 4 you give details of the censorship and punishment dealt out to dissident poets by authoritarian regimes. In the West, women writers struggling to write truthfully and powerfully of the wide range of our experience are dealt with by being often mocked or ignored. Despite these attempts at censorship and repression by peevish, ignorant and frightened critics, we continue to write and publish and to attract a large and growing audience of men and women for our performances and a wide readership for our books. This is a literary and social phenomenon that a serious journal like yours should surely be concerned to investigate rather than to dismiss. By printing such scornful reviews of the poets inspired in different ways by the women's movement, you are avoiding the opportunity to further an important debate about literary subject matter, value and judgement.
London W 11 MICHELE ROBERTS

Dick Davis writes: I am sorry (I mean it!) that Michele Roberts was hurt by my review of Touch Papers, but anyone who publishes must expect to be hurt occasionally, or even quite often, as I know from my own experience of unsympathetic reviewers. My objection to Michèle Roberts's poems is not an objection to their subject matter, or to the fact that they are written by a woman. It is an objection to the quality of poetic talent displayed in them, a quality that seems to me to be intimately bound up with a particular tone which for better or worse (though I accept that my flippancy is resented) can be called hysterical. Michèle Roberts's reference to Valéry says it all: Valéry's poem is beautifully ordered, the intellect is always in control, the language is deployed with unfailing skill and tact. But Michèle Roberts's poems are not like this. They are written in the tone of a person who though her poems are published by a reputable publisher (who is not in prison), whose poems are widely available in fine bookshops, who on her own admission has read them at festivals and on the BBC, can speak of 'censorship and repression' directed against her and her fellows, and who can by implication find her situation analogous to that of poets sentenced to life-imprisonment in a Libyan jail or to fifteen years' imprisonment in a Turkish jail. It is the tone of someone to whom rhetoric is more comforting and more important than truth.

Michelene Wandor says that my review is 'careless [and] vitriolic'. Careless it was not, but Ms Wandor will have to take my word for that: if by 'vitriolic' she means angry I admit to this charge-I think a reviewer has a right to anger when asked to take seriously what seems to him to be bad writing. As to my 'prejudice against the very idea that women . . .' etc., my list in the same review of excellent women poets ridiculously excluded from Bread and Roses is an adequate answer to this silly canard, as is the last sentence of my review. My quarrel is not with women, or with the themes of feminist poetry, or (God forbid) with the notion of women poets; it is with rant posing as poetry.

PRIZES

Sir: In the editorial in PNR 31, Donald Davie says that 'those of our writers who win prizes . . . are, virtually without exception, not to be taken seriously'. I hope you except writers who have won the James Tait Black award. Such novelists as D. H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, Arnold Bennet, E. M. Forster, Robert Graves, Neil Gunn, Aldous Huxley, Joyce Cary, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Muriel Spark, Nadine Gordimer and William Golding are, surely, to be taken seriously.
Edinburgh ALASTAIR FOWLER

Donald Davie replies: No, I did not have in mind prizes of such long standing as the James Tait Black award.

A COLLAGE

Sir: I wonder if you can resolve a problem for me, arising out of Michael Schmidt's account (PNR 33) of his dealings with the Sunday Times after the publication of Leslie Geddes-Brown's 'Poetry and the Profit Motive'? Let me put it to you in the form of a collage.

1. A quotation from Schmidt's unpublished letter to the Sunday Times, presumably dated shortly after 13 February 1983: 'While the work of James Fenton and Andrew Motion I do find, often, exhilarating, my taste does not extend to the other two mentioned.' The 'other two' are myself and Christopher Reid.

2. A quotation from Schmidt's account 'Making News' in PNR 33: 'After the initial discomfort of finding oneself quoted as supporting a fashion for which one has a strong dislike, and upon which one has written quite clearly, I would have been happy to let the matter drop (sending personal explanations to those of my friends who were startled and amused by my 'change of party').' Your readers may need the reminder that the Sunday Times had quoted Schmidt as follows: 'It's as exhilarating as the Hughes, Larkin, Thom Gunn crop. James Fenton, Craig Raine, Andrew Motion and Chris Reid have a coherence in the same sense.' I deduce, then, that Raine and Reid are the fashion for which Schmidt has a strong dislike.

3. Actually, I was less 'startled and amused' by the Sunday Times quotation attributed because I had myself received a letter from Schmidt (21 December 1982) which said, re the Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry: 'It was, however, clear from that context that among the so-called Martians, your work manifestly has an authenticity which the others manifestly lack. In fact, ever since I read the Tom Fenton pamphlet, I sensed that my reading of your work would improve. "In the Kalahari Desert" is a very accomplished and moving poem and my favourite of yours.'

Since Schmidt appears so keen to publish correspondence, perhaps he would like to publish this notable example? True, item 3 isn't what I'd call high praise (and it was followed by some reservations), but it's hardly an expression of 'strong dislike'. Maybe he would like to gloss it for his readers? It could reasonably be explained away as a piece of publishing pragmatism: after all, he was asking permission to reprint some of my poems in an anthology designed to counter-balance the Penguin anthology. Harmless flattery, though, consorts ill with the high-principled tone he took with the Sunday Times.

Or perhaps he merely changed his mind between 21 December 1982 and February 1983? If so, I'll change mine and withdraw my permission for him to reprint my poems.
Faber & Faber, WC 1 CRAIG RAINE

Michael Schmidt writes: The poems by Craig Raine I wanted to include in my anthology Some Contemporary Poets were: 'The Window Cleaner', 'An Enquiry into Two Inches of Ivory', 'Memory', 'A Martian Sends a Postcard Home', 'In the Kalahari Desert', 'Mother Dressmaking', 'Flying to Belfast' and 'The Man who Invented Pain'. A publisher who says his reading of the work of a writer he hasn't liked is 'improving' might be signalling-too tactfully-that he thinks the writing is improving. My collage in reply to Raine's would add these sentences from my letter: 'My primary objection to your work is prosodic and, to your early work, technical-I feel there is a monotony in the conception, an automatic function in the translation of the perceived world into metaphor.' Also: 'Not that I would compare you with Larkin!' I asked Raine if he didn't feel uneasy to have the Martian fashion fathered on him. He didn't reply to this. I assumed he was content to play a role described recently in the Sunday Times (3 July) as 'the founder of the Martian school and [. . .] the central figure in a powerful clique'. I still like 'In the Kalahari Desert', and I'm sorry it and the other poems are not to be in my anthology.

LAXITY

Sir: P. J. Kavanagh takes me to task ('Letters', PNR 34) for certain reservations expressed in my review of Geoffrey Grigson's Blessings, Kicks and Curses: 'laxity' was a word carefully chosen, and should have been read in conjunction with my earlier statements that Grigson's technique 'is to a certain extent illuminative' and that his strength as a critic 'resides largely in his ability to focus our attention on what he himself considers valuable in literature'. I was not suggesting that Grigson sidesteps every one of the critic's obligations, but simply that I miss in his examination of the question of Ivor Gurney's 'Georgianism', and elsewhere in the volume under review, the tautness and sharpness which characterise the best of his poetry and which I hold to be attainable in criticism too. By excerpting a passage whose structural inertness underlines a more general laxity, I was seeking, as economically as possible, to draw attention to an area of weakness repeatedly discernible in his critical writings.

There is a certain ambiguity about Mr Kavanagh's suggestion that what I find unsatisfactory is the critic's 'allowing the poet to make his point for him': the general context of his remark would seem to preclude an interpretation which renders the critic's role entirely superfluous, but a lack of clarity on precisely this issue significantly shadows the letter as a whole. Certainly the critic must to a considerable extent 'trust the intelligence of the reader', but he must also serve that intelligence, in ways the anthologist does not; and though Mr Kavanagh's reference to his 'making clear his own judgement' seems to acknowledge this fact, the implication of the earlier part of the sentence in which that phrase occurs is that the critic's words inevitably constitute a 'smokescreen', interposing disruptively between poet and reader.

It is the task of the critic to quicken and enlarge the reader's understanding of the text. I do not believe that he can do so adequately without giving prominence to the text; but he also has his own contribution to make, and it is quite reasonable in certain cases to object that that contribution is too limited. If I express disappointment that Grigson did not see fit to analyse the particular strengths of the three passages he sets before us, this is not because I am an unintelligent reader who cannot see for himself that Gurney's lines are neither 'thin' nor 'timid', but because I believe that the observations of a writer whose literary taste I admire, and whose knowledge of Gurney's work I suspect to be considerable, are likely to enhance my own perceptions. This is how criticism validates itself. 'Elucidation' was another word carefully chosen: by definition it cannot 'mist' its subject, nor function as a 'smokescreen'.
Cambridge JEM POSTER

This item is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.



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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