PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Kei Millerthe Fat Black Woman
In Praise of the Fat Black Woman & Volume

(PN Review 241)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Next Issue Jen Schmitt on Ekphrasis Rachel Hadas on Text and Pandemic Kirsty Gunn Essaying two Jee Leong Koh Palinodes in the Voice of my Dead Father Maureen Mclane Correspondent Breeze
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
Monthly Carcanet Books
PN Review Blog

This report is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

Difficulties with Difficulty Neil Powell

‘We understand everything perfectly from the mid-sixteenth century up to 1922, then suddenly we have to scratch our heads and take exams.’ So writes Hugo Williams, ‘rehearsing the old nag’ as he self-deprecatingly puts it, in the TLS. And yes, it is an old nag, but the most puzzling thing about it is its refusal to lie down and die. That sentence of Williams’s could have been written – and almost certainly was, if not quite so elegantly – fifty years ago: so you’d have thought that, as literature sifts and settles, the cut-off point would have moved forward accordingly. But try substituting ‘1972’ for ‘1922’: the result is nonsense.

No, 1922 it remains, and The Waste Land is the work Williams tactfully leaves unmentioned, although that is also the year of Ulysses. Eliot, of course, provided a famous explanation of why modern poetry feels modern, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.’ It’s an explanation which is entirely consonant with his expectation that readers of The Waste Land will have a basic knowledge of the standard authors and one or two non-standard ones. For Eliot, literary history resembled a set of Russian dolls: we don’t know what if anything Homer had read, but we know that Virgil had read Homer, that Dante had read Homer and Virgil, that Shakespeare had read ...

Searching, please wait... animated waiting image