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This item is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

One morning in March a BBC radio announcer declared that the remains of Don Quixote had been discovered. The actual story was hardly less incredible: the bones, or a bone, of Miguel de Cervantes have, or has, (perhaps) been exhumed from the crypt of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid, in time to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the author’s death next year. The youngest nun still resident at the Convent when exploration began in 2014 was 82. She and her sisters will decide how to honour the bones, a potential pilgrim bonanza to the Convent.

A couple of weeks earlier, the BBC reported that ISIS was busy bulldozing the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in the north of Iraq. The discovery of the royal tombs at Nimrud was one of the archaeological sensations of the 1980s. ISIS, unimpressed, campaigns against all temptations to apostasy that assail a certain kind of religious believer, the kind that in March 2001, under Taliban colours, blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. These images refused to go gently: it took weeks to expunge them. Places of other faiths, of earlier or differently inflected Muslim faith, must be purged. The black market is used to disperse artefacts in order to fund military campaigns and enrich individual traffickers. Crimes against our collective memory are more widespread than the headlines indicate. UNESCO is urging the International Criminal Court to address ‘this cultural chaos’, though it can of course act only in the wake of destruction.

That wake grows wider by the day. In Iraq and Syria ISIS is busy. Kalhu, Nineveh, Dur Sharrukin and Ashur, at different times Assyrian imperial capitals, have all fallen under its control and are being spoiled. Film of the systematic destruction of exhibitions in Mosul Museum started appearing late in February. ISIS sledgehammered statuary it described as ‘idols’. Also destroyed was the Nirgal Gate, one of several gates to Nineveh. In January Mosul Central Library was ransacked. Only select Islamic texts survived. Later the University library was attacked and a huge bonfire of books on science and culture was prepared. Students watched helpless as the resources for their education burned. In 2014 the ancient Mosque of the Prophet Younis, traditional burial place of Jonah, and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis, were destroyed in Mosul. Mosul’s 850-year-old Crooked Minaret was threatened, but residents surrounded the structure and apparently it still stands. At Hatra, the 2,300-year-old city, a well-preserved temple complex to the south of Mosul, large statues have been destroyed or defaced.

The situation in ISIS-controlled Syria is also serious. ISIS forces have pillaged sites and are especially brutal to Assyrian statues as they purge history of paganism. The remains of Queen Zenobia’s Palmyra are among the sites targeted. Offending mosques and churches across ISIS areas have been targeted. Dura Europos on the Euphrates was vandalised and is being mined for exportable artefacts. Mari, built on the site of Tell Hariri, inhabited since the fifth millennium BC, has been looted. The pre-historic settlements of Tel Ajaji and Tell Brak have also suffered.

Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, declared, ‘We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.’ Her call will have little effect in present circumstances. At risk, blogged Christopher Jones, a student of ancient history at Columbia, is ‘everything that doesn’t conform to the most strict Wahhabi standards of acceptability, anything that is beloved by people that ISIS doesn’t like, anything that represents non-ISIS interpretations of Islam such as Shiism or Sufism, and anything from before the time of Muhammad.’

The headline of a controversial article in the Guardian on 16 March proclaimed, ‘Poems of the Decade anthology swaps Keats for modern masters’. The word ‘masters’ is used loosely at best to describe the one hundred poets whose post-2000 poems have been commended for the Forward Prize. Keats lent himself to the press release and headline writer because the anthology has been adopted as an Edexcel A-level text in 400 schools and Tim Turnbull’s ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ would seem to have displaced Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. ‘Hello! What’s all this here? A kitchy vase’, Turnbull begins. The third of his Ode’s four ten-line stanzas ends, ‘Each girl is buff, each geezer toned and strong, / charged with pulsing juice which, even yet, / fills every pair of Calvins and each thong, / never to be deflated, given head / in crude games of chlamydia roulette.’

Turnbull’s poem may be about the distance between Keats’s reflections and the contemporary world. Fair enough, though it devalues neither Keats nor his Ode, even in an age of compulsory ‘relevance’ in school texts. Daljit Nagra’s ‘Look We Have Coming to Dover’ displaces its superannuated parent poem, Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. The Guardian quotes approvingly the Forward statement that the poetry in this anthology ‘will force a change in the way pupils view poetry’. The subject-matter of poetry has been extended to include ‘full-fat milk, Post-it notes, joy-riding, using guns’. This will be ‘shocking […] after dwelling on nightingales and Grecian urns’.

2014 marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War and 2015 the fiftieth anniversary of the death of T.S. Eliot. The language of the Guardian article is caught in a narrow nineteenth-century time-warp, unaware of Whitman’s Drum Taps, Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, The Anathemata, ‘The Waste Land’, the work of Auden, of Larkin and Plath, Ginsberg, Harrison, Tonks and so much else. A triumphalist ignorance sets out to ‘challenge easy assumptions about what is and is not “literary”’, portrays Keats as irrelevant, classical, conservative, disposable, and with him all the elitist, irrelevant clutter of past poetry and what it suggests in terms of form, ear, living semiotics. Take a sledgehammer to the old icons and (without looking too closely) anything that resembles them. At last kids will have ‘poems for pleasure, not just for homework’, because the last thing a reader gets from Keats is pleasure. Out with old idolatries. Time for some radical cultural cleansing.

This item is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

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