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This item is taken from PN Review 202, Volume 38 Number 2, November - December 2011.


By 'exhaustion' I don't mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral, or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities - by no means necessarily a cause for despair.
                                                                                                    John Barth

In his 1967 Atlantic essay 'The Literature of Exhaustion', a personal ars poetica and a celebration of the brittle, essayistic fiction of Borges, the American novelist John Barth declared that the realist tradition was used up. The 'proper novel' has, historically, attempted 'to imitate actions more or less directly, and its conventional devices - cause and effect, linear anecdote, characterization, authorial selection, arrangement, and interpretation - can be and have long since been objected to as obsolete notions, or metaphors for obsolete notions'.

The case for the 'proper novel' is still made, not least by novelists who unapologetically continue working in what they believe to be an unbroken tradition that stretches from Defoe and Fielding to - well, to Howard Jacobson, Hilary Mantel, Nicole Krauss. Barth takes as his first epigraph (post-modern writers can't resist the sound-bites of epigraphs) Borges's, 'The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.' This is a simplified paraphrase of Eliot's high-Modernist argument in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', which allows to the writer's will considerable latitude, but also imposes on it an expectation: that he or she will be curious and adventurous, and that certain elements within the tradition are non-negotiable, no matter how various the readers' takes on them turn out to be.

In 1967 Cecil Day Lewis, by then a safe pair of hands, was appointed Poet Laureate in succession to John Masefield. Charles Causley was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal. Cholmondeley Awards went to (among others) young Seamus Heaney and 'rising dead' Norman Nicholson, and among the Gregory Award winners were David Harsent and Brian Patten. Highlights of the year included (plus ça change) books by Kingsley Amis, Alan Brownjohn, Anthony Thwaite, Brian Patten, Roger McGough... It was Edward Lucie-Smith's finest hour with The Mersey Sound making sales history. In such a context the American-inflected work of Thom Gunn in Touch and Ted Hughes in Wodwo seems to come from quite a different culture, another dimension. Stephen Bann's international Concrete Poetry anthology made a very small splash (frog/pond/plop). The avant-garde was compelled to seek energies abroad, even though in London, with Fulcrum Press and other small operations, challenging work was published at the margins of a self-satisfied, exhausted centre.

I was an undergraduate in the United States in 1967 and remember, along with the heady subversions of the Students for a Democratic Society, some exciting publishing events, including Robert Lowell's Near the Ocean and Berryman's Sonnets. Beyond my interests at the time were collaborative works by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard, Robert Creeley's Words, Ed Dorn's The North Atlantic Turbine, W.S. Merwin's The Lice... Further afield, the man we then knew as Edward Brathwaite published Rights of Passage, Judith Wright her transitional volume The Other Half. Writers who, like David Gascoyne, were attentive to France would have been reading new books by Follain, Jabès, Jaccottet, Ponge, Queneau. In Germany Paul Celan (who had three years left to live) published Atemwende and Günter Grass his poems and drawings in Ausgefragt.

1967 was followed by the upheavals of 1968. From the anti-Vietnam War activities of an American undergraduate, I transferred to the now forgotten anti-student-file and anti-matriculation demos of a British undergraduate; after the kinds of adolescent anxieties that Philip Roth, remembering Korea, explores in Indignation (2008), this was the world of Lucky Jim (1954).

How long can a culture survive in a state of exhaustion? Looking at the 2011 prize shortlists, Harsent, Brownjohn and others still contend, immortals, joined by newer immortals. One is reminded of the New Yorker advertisement urging readers to 'buy tomorrow's antiques today'. And a kind of perpetual scandal is evident, too: Geoffrey Hill, whose main British honour is elective (the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, in the wake of Ruth Padel's momentary incumbency) is shortlisted and again passed over. Not that it matters to him, but it might matter to poetry readers. A few years ago the judges of a major prize refused to shortlist one of his books because he had dedicated a poem to the late Princess Diana. Certain decorums a contemporary British poet must not transgress, and this was one. Hill called his first Oxford lecture, 'How ill white hairs become a fool and jester'.

There is occasional, accidental justice, however. Posthumously, R.F. Langley was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for 'To a Nightingale', which appeared in the London Review of Books. Its precision and pace will be familiar to grateful PN Review readers. It begins:

Nothing along the road.
But petals, maybe. Pink behind
and white inside. Nothing but
the coping of a bridge. Mutes
on the bricks, hard as putty,
then, in the sun, as metal.
Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
hoary, with their seed-capsules
uncurling. Red mites bowling
about on the baked lichen
and what look like casual
landings, striped flies, Helina,
Phaonia, could they be?
This month the lemon, I'll say
primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
along the hedge then turn in
to hide, are Yellow Shells
not Shaded Broad-bars. [...]

This item is taken from PN Review 202, Volume 38 Number 2, November - December 2011.

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