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This item is taken from PN Review 115, Volume 23 Number 5, May - June 1997.

Letters from T.J.G. Harris, David Kennedy, Darrell Hinchcliffe
Pound's Agenda

I wonder if Bernard Bergonzi might let us know whether Burbank, Bleistein, the jew in 'Gerontion', Sir Ferdinand Klein, Rachel née Rabinovitch and Sir Alfred Mond were 'religious Jews' or 'freethinking Jews'? And does Professor Bergonzi know whether Eliot entertained the same lack of admiration for freethinking Christians as he did for freethinking Jews? But a Christian who ceases to be Christian ceases to be a Christian, whereas a Jew…

'England damned,' wrote Eliot's friend Ezra Pound in a little-known piece called 'Musicians: God Help 'Em', 'since Cromwell brought in his usurers, to an avoidance of technique and of verbal clarity; to be obfuscation of all values and all honesty, lost the art of, and care for, singing WORDS.' Pound wrote elsewhere of Milton's 'beastly Hebraism', and I have often wondered whether there is any connection between those words about England's damnation being due to Cromwell's readmission of the Jews and Eliot's peculiar probings, at once pedantic and vague, into the origin of that cultural disaster, 'dissociation of sensibility', in his essay entitled 'Milton II': 'All we can say is, that something like this' (i.e. 'dissociation of sensibility') 'did happen; that it had something to do with the Civil War; that it would even be unwise to say it was caused by the Civil War; but that it is a consequence of the same causes which brought about the Civil War; that we must seek the causes in Europe, not in England alone; and for what these causes were, we may dig and dig until we get to a depth at which words and concepts fail us.'

There is probably no connection; I hope there is not. Still, some of Bergonzi's immensely fair-minded statements (he almost falls over backwards) seem to me to be not much less obfuscating in their way than Eliot's: 'In a pragmatic way I have no difficulty in believing that offensive or painful statements or images remain offensive or painful - and can be objected to -regardless of their literary or generic context. What is less immediately apparent is how far they should be taken as representing the author's own opinions and convictions' (PNR 112). It seems to me that the 'well-established critical tradition' for which Bergonzi retains a lingering respect, and which became so well established in part out of a naïve acceptance of positivist claims that only scientific language could state something about the world, is quite unable to approach, even, Mandelstam's epigram on Stalin (where every word surely represents the author's own opinions and convictions); or MacDiarmid's hymns to Lenin, or many of Jonson's epigrams, or certain savageries of Pope's, or these lines of Pound's: 'Flaccus' translator wore the crown/The jew and the buggar dragged it down…'

And how can such criticism distinguish between The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice in respect of anti-Semitism? Or begin to approach religious poetry? (This is not to suggest that the only alternative is a simple-minded literalism: one naturally judges, in different cases, doubtless not always correctly, whether a poem or a certain expression in a poem is to be taken as claiming to give, directly or indirectly, a truth about the world or not.)

Pace William Cookson: Donald Davie and Charles Olson, who championed Pound's poetry as enthusiastically as Cookson himself has, made no bones about their disgust with Pound's anti-Semitism, as it is expressed both in his poetry and in his other writings. In this, they took Pound seriously and, I think, showed him and his writing a proper respect. Would it be better if Eliot's 'anti-Semitic poetry' (Bergonzi's words) did not represent his own opinions and convictions? Surely not, for then we should be dealing with the case of a man who frivolously and cynically exploited the language of anti-Semitism merely to achieve certain desired aesthetic effects or to win plaudits from a certain kind of audience.

Julius and Raphael are absolutely right to make a fuss. Pace Cookson again, what is unhealthy is the disingenuousness into which so many defenders of Eliot and Pound are drawn. Perhaps Cookson could describe to us the racial characteristics of the Jews and tell us which ones are better and which ones are worse.


Don't Worry

It is shameful of you to allow Darrell Hinchliffe to use your pages to parade his revolting and outdated class and regional biases in the guise of a critical account of Geoff Hattersley's collection Don't Worry (PNR 112).

First, he insists on portraying Hattersley's work as a species of low peasant comedy as if this is all that writers from the North of England are capable of producing. Don't Worry employs a wide variety of modes and moods. Hattersley's most notable achievement is to have produced a body of poetry that explores the place of the individual in culture and history and which examines the pressure of large events on the private life. In this context, Hattersley's plain style and surrealism become positive resources in the face of accelerated change.

Second, Hinchliffe acknowledges Hattersley's indebtedness to American writers and then criticises him for not producing poetry that is diametrically opposed to such influences! A poet who has fully absorbed the example of Frank O'Hara - and of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson - is unlikely to want to produce what Hinchliffe calls 'formally adept verse'. He will, however, write in a way that explores the line as a performative speech unit and investigates the possibilities afforded by consonantal and syllabic patterning. As Charles Tomlinson has observed, the reason for seeking inspiration and poetic models beyond the British Isles is to find 'other ways of doing it'.

The most revealing aspect of Hinchliffe's review is his reference to Hattersley's use of 'the languages of his stubbornly proletarian native South Yorkshire'. Significantly, he doesn't contrast this with Maxwell's use of 'the languages of his stubbornly bourgeois native South East England' although such a description would have been just as accurate. Sean O'Brien remarked a few years ago that, post-Harrison, poets had no battle to win about where they come from. PN Review and Carcanet Press have always taught by example that poets and poetry can come from anywhere. Darrell Hinchliffe writes as if we're still living in the early 1950s. It would be disappointing if his review were to signal that PN Review was starting to confuse reactionary rubbish with its usual exemplary independence of spirit.


David Kennedy attempts to daub me with the blue rinse of High Tory prejudice in matters poetical and political. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to respond.

Firstly, my review acknowledges certain strengths in Don't Worry to which others could perhaps be added. However, brevity dictated that I concentrated on two issues: the recurring concern with cultural juxtapositions in a northern English context and the formal properties of the verse.

On the first matter David Kennedy misconstrues my argument and discovers prejudice where there is none. While he brings entirely negative connotations to the phrase 'stubbornly proletarian native South Yorkshire', I intended it positively. Like many Sheffielders I proudly claim a working class origin that stubbornly resists the kind of political duplicities that have led to the Don Valley, which I overlooked from my school room window, being transformed into the postmodern cathedral of the Meadowhall Shopping Centre. Tony Harrison's work, which admirably dramatises the conflict between a rooted, communal modernity and consumerist postmodernism, is truly challenging, memorable and capable of arousing both pathos and, vitally, a political resolution in its readers. By contrast, I feel that the 'curious self-consciousness about literary tradition' in Don't Worry provides veils of irony which obscure such issues.

Secondly, while chastising me for advocating 'formally adept verse' David Kennedy assumes that this phrase refers to a purely conservative definition of verse structure: obviously it does not. Indeed, I agree with him that 'patterning' is central to any formal definition of verse structure (although to his purely phonic definition I would add grammatical and graphic pattern). The sinuous energy and lucidity of Tomlinson and Williams or the inclusivity of Murray seem to me to equal and often surpass the work of O'Hara in their openness to formal experimentation. Nevertheless, I still feel that Geoff Hattersley is not consistently as inventive, either rhythmically, 'syntactically or musically, as these writers.

I remain open to persuasion that my judgement about the book is flawed, but by preferring rhetorical inflation to rational demonstration David Kennedy does not attempt to do this.


This item is taken from PN Review 115, Volume 23 Number 5, May - June 1997.

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