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 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.

Among the British literary magazines to which I subscribed at the time were Ian Hamilton's sporadic the review, Jon Silkin's 'committed' Stand, Alan Ross's London Magazine, Daniel Weissbort and Ted Hughes's Modern Poetry in Translation, C.B. Cox's and A.E. Dyson's Critical Quarterly and William Cookson's Agenda. The editors' names were inseparable from the titles, each magazine had a personality. It was in the independent magazines that my contemporaries and I looked for new poetry and criticism. Everyone seemed to miss Encounter.

The scandal of Encounter's CIA funding began during my second year at university in 1967 and rumbled on. I belonged briefly to a tiny group of editors convened by Eric Walter White (1905-85), the Arts Council's then Literature Director, to canvass the possibility of establishing a major Arts Council-funded journal to take up where Encounter left off. (Later the Arts Council floated the idea of a state-funded publishing house, but that idea sank as well.) The group gathered for dinner at Eric's high-ceilinged house in Islington, full of astonishing publications and pictures. There was Edgell Rickword (1898-1982), a poet from the First World War who lost an eye in the trenches. He was founder-editor of the Calendar of Modern Letters, of the original Scrutinies, a key player in the emergence of an English Marxist critical literature. Frank Kermode (1919-2010), still smarting from his editorial experience at Encounter, and Ian Hamilton (1938-2001) completed the party: four editorial generations.

Literary magazines were still regarded as central in identifying and appraising new writing and reappraising old. The Arts Council for three years in the 1970s provided free subscriptions for a dozen literary magazines to 600 public libraries: the word was as widely proclaimed as possible. Our library culture was at the heart of a vision of democratic artistic access. A culture of critical reception, as it had been for two centuries, was essential to creative and civic freedom. The map of modern poetry would look very different without the editorial work of a line of internationally alert writer-editors, among them Ford Madox Ford, T.S. Eliot and - Edgell Rickword.

'It would be fine to have a cultural revival based on Manchester instead of Oxbridge,' he said. He was the first editor to be celebrated in Poetry Nation; the second was Octavio Paz, whose magazines helped leaven an ideologically prescriptive culture of reception in Latin America.

From the beginning, then, PN Review followed a well-trodden path of critical and creative engagement. George Steiner understood the sense of mission when he described it as 'the most incisive voice of a vision of poetry and the arts as central to national life'. It insisted that English poetry is poetry in English, that writing and reading poetry benefit from understanding the art in changing environments. National- and other isms gave way to poésie sans frontières. This has remained constant even as cultures and our ways of reading them change. On an earlier anniversary the Times Literary Supplement spoke of PNR as having 'attempted to take poetry out of the backwaters of intellectual life and to find in it again the crucial index of cultural health', thus 'broadening the horizons of our view of twentieth-century poetry and [...] encouraging poets to be ambitious about their concerns'. I hope this is true.

The four decades between Poetry Nation I and PN Review 200 are marked by changes so profound that the gap seems century-wide. My Adler manual with its smooth clatter and melodious bell would not recognise the MacBook on which I prepare this file to e-mail it as an attachment to the printer. No carbon paper, no grainy erasers or the mess of Tippex. The ancient craft of printing, practised by Mackays of Chatham, then the finest printer in England, almost bankrupted us. An IBM golf-ball came to our rescue, the editor morphing into a typesetter. There followed the benefits of accelerating technologies. Readers can now choose between actual and virtual access.

PN Review - or Poetry Nation - was conceived in 1972 when Sir John Betjeman became poet laureate. That year Crow was published. Another Ted, Heath, was Prime Minister and industrial troubles pointed to the Three-Day Week. The following September, when the first issue of Poetry Nation appeared, Pablo Neruda and W.H. Auden died.

That other low dishonest decade, the 1970s, comes back into focus.PNR's birth takes its place among big events. On 1 January 1973 the United Kingdom (with Ireland and Denmark) joined the European Economic Community. The Vietnam War, which drove me to Britain, ended. The Sino-American thaw began, and Watergate. The World Trade Center opened officially, and the first cellular phone was answered in New York. President Allende of Chile was felled. The brief, decisive Yom Kippur War occurred in October. E.F. Schumacher's reassuring book Small is Beautiful was published, and more important for our purposes, Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck.

Some of these events were immediately reflected in the magazine; others took time. A long-lived magazine with editorial continuity might seem to be a history in itself, complete and incomplete as any timeline. Editorial continuity does not imply consistency; just as writers change, so do editors in response to events. Key among those events are the poems that occur alongside strikes, revolutions, natural catastrophes. The poems, advocacies and scrutinies a magazine commits define it. Readers let loose in the now vast archive become editors in turn, selecting what to bookmark, which contributors are their familiars. Capacious, capricious, uneven... I am not sure it could have been otherwise, nor would I wish it to be.

This item is taken from PN Review 200, Volume 37 Number 6, June - July 2011.

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