PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
News and Notes
PNR266 Now Available
The latest issue of PN Review is now available to read online. read more
Most Read... 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)
M. Wynn ThomasThe Other Side of the Hedge
(PN Review 239)
Jamie OsbornIn conversation with Sasha Dugdale
(PN Review 240)
Drew MilneTom Raworth’s Writing ‘present past improved’: Tom Raworth’s Writing
(PN Review 236)
Next Issue Stav Poleg Running Between Languages Jeffrey Meyers on Mr W.H. (Auden) Miles Burrows The Critic as Cleaning Lady Timothy Ades translates Brecht, Karen Leeder translates Ulrike Almut Sandig
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to

This item is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

Letters from David Kuhrt, Ian Brinton, Elaine Feinstein, Samuel Klonimos, Michael Cullup, Evan Jones
Imagining Possible Futures


According to my reading of Roger Caldwell's letter (PNR 204), the imagination on the one hand and, on the other, intellectual enquiry of the sort he calls 'empirical' produce incommensurate pictures of our normative reality. This means that concepts of truth and error must depend not on 'God' (whatever that is) or revelation but on the results of empirical and experimental enquiry; an issue for which epistemology is fundamental, for the concerns of epistemology are: how do we 'know' and what is an act of cognition? Since this matter, as I hope to explain, is crucial to our understanding of what poetry is and does, it is hardly surprising that Shelley was an atheist. Mr Caldwell may be surprised to see that though I am not an atheist, having published a few papers on epistemological issues in philosophy journals, I do not doubt that Shelley's atheism is compatible with current thinking about how the imagination relates to the empirical reality.

In particular (and apart from the writings of physicists such as Niels Bohr, Schrödinger and Stephen Hawking on indeterminacy) Ian McGilchrist's remarkable work The Master and His Emissary makes the importance of the epistemological issue clear: on page 151, referring to Heidegger and the concept in ancient Greek philosophy of aletheia, he says that knowing is 'literally "unconcealing"', meaning that 'it suggests something that pre-exists our attempts to "dis-cover" it'. McGilchrist is not only an important philosopher: he is also a well-known neurologist who thinks that '[m]etaphoric thinking' (and therefore poetry) 'is fundamental to our understanding of the world'.

As far as knowing with the imagination is concerned, we intuit the world before we re-cognise it because our existence is literally embodied within it. According to Mr Caldwell, however, 'we cannot imagine what exists before our eyes, for we already know that it exists. I can imagine that there is a wad of banknotes in my bureau drawer, but unless they are actually there, I cannot go out and spend them - except in my imagination'. Whereas the empirical reality is proven fact, the imagination, he thinks, simply grasps a world that might be. However (and also as McGilchrist sees it), in fact (sic!) the existence of all those objects of knowledge we call empirically proven must first be grasped (i.e.represented) in the imagination before they can become the subject of experimental proofs. In the empirical reality indeed, in the course of time, what you and I imagine may well precipitate important historical change. I would like to close this letter with an example from personal experience; an experience however which many others throughout history have shared; for my point is that whereas scientific, experimental proofs depend on abstracting information from its presence in real time, what we imagine the future will be like must incrementally impinge on the reality in the longer term; which is why nation states and market forces are so anxious to commandeer our imaginations.

In an East London working-class environment my family regularly attended the local Strict Baptist church. The knowledge I acquired of the Old Testament (particularly of the captivity, the flight from Egypt and the sojourn in the desert in expectation of the Promised Land) affected me so deeply that until adolescence I had no idea that I was not myself a Jew. The metaphysical dimension of that 'promised land' has been a powerful force in my life ever since, so that I salute the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta who consider the identification of Zion with the state of Israel as a blasphemy. The lesson is that our deepest expectations of life will not see fulfilment until the common body of humanity agrees on what future is in its common interest as a species; the imagination knows perfectly well that the banknotes are not yet in the drawer but that, nevertheless, it refers to a potential reality - a reality without which there could be no poetry. As Shelley puts it in his Defence of Poetry: 'The social sympathies ... from which ... society results, begin to develop from the moment that two human beings co-exist'. This does not depend on God: in consequence of the evolutionary process He has ensured that we are responsible for, and free to choose, a destiny of our own making.

By email

More on Prospect


I am delighted that Elaine Feinstein enjoyed my article on Andrew Crozier in PNR 203 and she is absolutely correct to register the importance of 1959 as the year in which she started the magazine Prospect: an important enterprise. For the sake of historical accuracy, I would very much like to have a couple of points clarified. In the first issue of Cambridge Literary Review (Michaelmas 2009) Feinstein makes the point that she handed over the magazine to Jeremy Prynne after the first five issues, suggesting that she was its editor as well as its owner. However, my copy of Prospect 4 (Winter 1960) states clearly on the last page that the Editor is Tony Ward and that contributions should be sent to him at St John's College.Prospect 5 appeared one year later and it too has the name of Tony Ward as Editor before going on to announce that future issues will be edited by J.H. Prynne to whom contributions should in future be sent. Although the magazine remained in the hands of Elaine Feinstein throughout this time it would appear that the editorship did not.

By email

Elaine Feinstein replies: I was indeed the founder and editor of Prospect, as well as the owner of the overdraft. I elicited the material that went into it, chose among unsolicited contributions, and wrote the editorials for it, at least until issue 4. Now that I look at the unsigned editorial for that issue, with its extended rock-climbing metaphor, I am sure it was written by Tony Ward. There is no editorial for issue 5. Ian Brinton is right to point out that Tony is named as editor for issues 4 and 5.

Tony was a close friend who lived as part of my family for many years, moving house whenever we did, and no-one values his talent more than I do. He was an immensely gifted novelist, and I would be delighted if someone brought his work back to public notice. With his three highly praised novels, and the amazingly original stories in Jenny's First Class Train Journey, an opera libretto about Toussaint L'Ouverture written with Dominic Muldowney for ENO and three other very fine but unpublished manuscripts, Tony's reputation hardly rests on his editorship of Prospect.

As far as I can remember, he did not go back to live in St John's, by the way. That was just a postal address. I imagine we were trying to throw the printers off our trail.

Back in the USSR


Donald Rayfield, generous with his information and his value judgements in 'Inventing Russia' (PNR 201), deserves a gratuity. Among novelists with credentials for placing characters in or about Russia or the USSR, he can mention next time the uncommon, uncommercial, un-English and deeply thoughtful Danilo Kis. The USSR washes through and eventually over Kis's Un Tombeau pour Boris Davidovich, a work that I believe enjoys an English translation, and with claims to interest every 'engagé' reader, also plenty who don't give a hoot about the moral(s) of history. Kis didn't stop there, but I will.


Explication or Evaluation?


People who indulge in the kind of activity Professor Perloff describes in the first section of her article ('Towards a Conceptual Lyric', PNR 203) are indubitably writing poems; the problem, really, is one of quality, and it is the literary critic's responsibility to evaluate the quality of particular poems. This she has done, admirably, in the first section of her article, 'Public Perceptions'. Her critical methodology there is recognisably conventional.

The 'conceptual lyrics' she goes on to advocate are also poems, but the methodology she applies to them is one of elucidation and explication rather than evaluation. It is as if the detailed explication of a particular kind of experimental poetry has exhausted the critic's responsibility. I don't think it has.

In his Principles of Literary Criticism I.A. Richards describes poetry as 'the extreme form of emotive language' (his italics). And if we were to exclude from our poetic inheritance all the poems which have emotional content, then there would be very little left. The fact is, surely, that the evaluation of the emotional content of poems is very much part of an assessment of their worth.

The explication of the technical means by which poets achieve their aims, and the linguistic resources which are available to them, is only part of what we require in the evaluation of actual poems. It seems to me that, in her avoidance of discussing the emotional worth of the poems she so carefully analyses, Professor Perloff has failed in her critical assessment of them.

The question one has to ask oneself is: Are these 'conceptual lyrics' really worth the time, space, and effort spent in explaining them? My own response, having read through Professor Perloff's article with great care, would be in the negative.

One has only to recall the work of the great twentieth-century literary critics (people like Pound, Eliot, Empson, Richards, and F.R. Leavis) to mourn the dearth, in a decade or more of prolific literary activity, of distinguished literary criticism. The exposition of relatively minor experimental work is no substitute for the kind of literary criticism we are in desperate need of. As Eliot warned us as long ago as 1956, in 'The Frontiers of Criticism', 'Today, it seems to me that we need to be more on our guard against the purely explanatory.'

And, in the words of Ezra Pound (in his ABC of Reading): 'You don't furnish a house entirely with yardsticks and weighing machines.'


Stationary Objects


With regard to Marjorie Perloff's article, 'Towards a Conceptual Lyric' (PNR 203), I, like many, am both fascinated and bored silly by Kenneth Goldsmith. As ever with the avant-garde, what is valued is the energy of improvisation, risk and serendipity in a method that purports to offer easy accessibility to the multitudes - disputing the 'difficulty' of poetry even as something 'difficult' is offered in return. This is automatic writing, cut-up, flarf, etc. And, well, why not: alternative methods can create something as interesting as the latest Paul Muldoon or otherwise - even as the result can be as off-putting. Goldsmith is conscious of this, of course, and what's most significant is his push to connect poetry to Conceptual art. However, the notion that poetry somehow fell behind the fine arts in the 1960s is wrong-headed.

Conceptual art is not so easily bound in a definition: it is an umbrella term that takes in not only the site-specific works of a Smithson, but also developments in late 1960s Italy, where artists of the Arte Povera group, namedafter the title of an exhibition held in October 1967 in Genoa, were at work to offer a Marxist critique of the art world in the 60s - against the commercialism of 'Op, Pop and primary structures', against minimalism, and against American cultural imperialism. Artists such as Jannis Kounellis critiqued both the institution and the work of art, offering instead to fill a gallery with horses, as with Untitled (Twelve Horses) 1969. If there is to be a definition, it is that, as Anne Rorimer has argued, Conceptual art 'critiques the stationary, self-sufficient, material object' - even as it does not reject the object itself: Kounellis's work is preserved in a photograph now in a collection, and it has been restaged in other galleries.

The question as regards the conceptual and poetry is whether the poem itself or the book that collects the poem is being critiqued. Which institution, exactly, is under attack? Goldsmith is particular: he's 'assembling, re-arranging and displaying information': creation is under fire, not dissemination - despite the availability of an 'increasingly digitalized culture'. Few poets have critiqued the book itself: I think of Dino Campana, ripping pages out of his Canti Orfici, having already decided that Marinetti wouldn't understand them. As conceptual artists work to undermine the gallery they are presenting their works in, so poets undermine only the poems - without critiquing the institution of the book and the manner in which it is sold and offered to the public. The object remains stationary, the poem itself the critique. But the poem is published and finishes: there is no afterlife unless it is the afterlife of the poem, it seems. There is nothing new in this, poetry-wise, from Mallarmé down to the present, internet and all.

Goldsmith is well aware of the tradition he is working in. In fact, it's obvious how reliant he is on it. But he still hasn't satisfactorily explained how it is that poetry lags behind the fine arts. Because, if it really does, then surely Goldsmith is belatedly bringing in a concept some forty years old and itself out of date?


This item is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

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