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This item is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

‘THIS TENTH EDITORIAL WILL BE OUR LAST’, The White Review – one of the indispensable literary magazines of recent years – proclaims. The capital letters express relief: no longer ‘THE TEDIUM OF HAVING TO COME UP WITH SOMETHING INTERESTING TO SAY WITH EACH NEW ISSUE’. Writing editorials has (so soon!) become, like the grasshopper in Ecclesiastes, a burden. The editors conclude with an African proverb: ‘“Everything has an end, apart from the banana, which has two.” The editorials have come to an end (until we decide otherwise); The White Review continues. From now on, if you want to hear from us, come to the events.’

After 217 editorials (this is 218), it is impossible for PN Review not to sympathise. Editors go to sleep and wake up with the same alarm sounding in their ears, a tinnitus varying only in volume and urgency. Every theme, death, anniversary, is weighed: is this for News and Notes or the Editorial Occasion?

Then the occasion arrives. In mid-May, a friend wrote, ‘At the back of Best British Poetry 2013 (Salt) there’s a section of biographical notes in which all the contributors talk about their poems. The anthology has prompted me to think about the closed-circuit world of creative writing courses/teaching creative writing – many of the poets in the book are young, studied CW and now teach CW. They have to keep getting books published for career reasons. But the best poem in the book, in my opinion, is by Christopher Middleton, who’s about sixty years older than many of the other people in it. It struck me how difficult it is for poets to come through and get published if they are not part of the CW world – and yet, how much better many of the “outsiders” might actually be, who are not writing for career purposes… “Facility” is the word, isn’t it – so many of these young CW-trained poets write “well” enough, and cleverly, but the fact that they have to keep on churning the stuff out (and many of them are so young and have nothing really to say) militates against most of it being really significant or of lasting value. Maybe. Possibly.’

PN Review began before the Creative Writing industry boomed. The editor himself spent twenty-odd years developing writing programmes: his hands are not clean in this respect. But he remembers a time before, when submissions sorted themselves into three piles, rejections (a big pile), acceptances (small) and possibles (tiny). In the time after, the third pile is highest, the plausibles as we call them: covering letters describe what writing school the poet attended, what qualification was obtained. Had Eliot the editor survived into the Creative Writing era, we might re-inflect, ‘Here is a place of disaffection / Time before and time after / In a dim light: neither daylight / Investing form with lucid stillness / Turning shadow into transient beauty / With slow rotation suggesting permanence / Nor darkness to purify the soul…’ More phrases home to the theme, ‘Neither plenitude nor vacancy’, ‘Filled with fancies and empty of meaning’, ‘Eructation of unhealthy souls’…

The constituency of poets was ruffled on 1 June when Jeremy Paxman, clearly not too fresh from chairing the judging panel for the Forward Prize, having read 170 collections and 254 single poems, said: ‘I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing. […] It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.’ Much of what he is reported as saying was provocation, for example that poets should be summoned before an inquisition of ‘ordinary readers’ (as though such patronised creatures could be called up for jury duty) to justify their practice. He was himself arraigned by senior prize-winning professor poets from the Creative Writing constituency. One declared, ‘There is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today,’ and reassured us that, ‘We are still a nation which feels it needs and reaches for poetry at key moments; what has been lost is the habit of buying and reading books of poetry’, that we turn to poetry, as to church, for consolation: funerals, weddings – and it survives on the radio. ‘We have just lost the habit of buying poetry books’ – a habit no significant British constituency ever had.

Jeremy Noel-Tod helpfully restored balance, quoting Frank O’Hara, ‘If they don’t need poetry, bully for them. I like the movies too.’ But there was a whiff of triumphalism in his follow-through: ‘Frank O’Hara was once patronised as a niche poet of the New York art scene. Fifty years later, he’s being recited by Don Draper on Mad Men and is one of the most influential voices around.’ Not only radio: poetry makes it on to TV, too. George Szirtes in the Guardian of 2 June overheated. Poetry is felt, not fathomed, he declared. Taking us on a primeval tour, he confuses music, spell, liturgy, catalogue and chronicle with poetry: ‘Poetry is as ancient as language itself, and the sense of the poetic precedes language. Animals could be charmed by music; mere drumming can heal the sick.’ (Language, which some believe is a crucial ingredient of poetry, hardly figures in his argument.) ‘The poetic even penetrates to football commentators who exclaim “Sheer poetry!” at a particularly wonderful moment. They tend not to exclaim “Sheer prose!” We feel poetry rather than understand it. We know it’s there because it gets under the skin of the conscious mind.’ (George Eliot warned that metaphor can be treacherous.) ‘Hence its use in many cultures as blessings, curses and spells.’

Maybe it is time for that inquisition.

C.H. Sisson, in his centenary year, can be allowed to repeat what he said in the Foreword to his first Collected Poems, In the Trojan Ditch (1974): ‘There is no question, as it comes to me, of filling note-books with what one knows already. Indeed as the inevitable facility comes, the conscious task becomes the rejection of whatever appears with the face of familiarity. The writing of poetry is, in a sense, the opposite of writing what one wants to write…’

This item is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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