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 225, Volume 42 Number 1, September - October 2015.

In an Isis interview that marked the end of his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Sir Geoffrey Hill was asked what he wanted from contemporary poetry. He began – and ended -- with a negative. ‘I don’t want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively.’

Whatever we make of his terms ‘battle’ and ‘anarchy’, it is true that when Hill was cutting his teeth, Stand, The Review, Poetry and Audience, Critical Quarterly, Agenda and other journals had differentiated approaches to poetry. Readers knew what a magazine’s formal orientations and intentions were. A critical and creative tension existed between magazines, not the competition for readership that makes some contemporary journals ingratiating. In 2014 in PNR, the late Lee Harwood remembered other aspects of ‘the little mag scene’. It started for him in the early 1960s: ‘people would send mags back and forth between the US, Canada, France, Britain and South America. There was this whole circling thing, which was generous and lovely.’

Into this double tradition of independent magazines Poetry Nation was born in 1973, allied to its Mexican cousins Plural and Vuelta, committed to Anglophone poetry from around the world and to translations. A twice-yearly hardcover anthology of poetry and criticism, it accelerated to four and then six times a year. In 2022 when it reaches the age of fifty, a fuller retrospect will be in order.

Meanwhile, with issue 225 the magazine undergoes one of its sporadic makeovers. Deputy editor Luke Allan has redesigned it and introduced a new series, ‘Conversations with Poetry Micro-Publishers’. Page 11 illustrates the cover history of PN Review, from Poetry Nation Four (with a bespoke image by W. S. Graham), through decades of in-house setting and the magazine’s several responses to austerity. Austerity has never ended but printing costs came down over time and PNR began to risk four colours. The design we leave behind with this issue, a not entirely satisfactory outcome of committee discussions, was in place for a decade. With issue 225 we bring the setting of the magazine back in house. The editorial office again resembles a manufactory, though new technology is considerably quieter than the old.

This issue also marks PNR’s departure from three happy years of being edited from St John’s College, Cambridge, an editorially transformative period. Adam Crothers provides his last ‘Vestiges’ from St John’s College library. PN Review commits its inside back cover for a year to the Anthony Burgess Archives with their wealth of unexpected material, starting with the Musical Matchboxes. Manchester is home once more.

Is there less at stake in Anglophone poetry magazines now than in Hill’s and Harwood’s formative years? There can be a puzzling interchangeability of poets and poems between them: decorums are in place, but decorums that may have less to do with formal expression, with ‘order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem’, and more to do with content, inflection, with plausible subjects correctly addressed.

Are mainstream and subsidized journals less interested in experiment, slower to challenge writers and readers? Subsidy imposes obligations. A poetry performance culture has burgeoned and publishing serves it. The word ‘audience’ displaces the word ‘reader’: success measured by awards and applause. Christopher Middleton calls the dominant poetic mode ‘poetry as reportage’.

There are other sorts of poet, other poetries being written, some conventional in aspect but radical in fact, some clearly experimental, fruitfully disobedient, beyond the ‘simpering drizzle’. Poets work in collaboration, with one another, with the poetry of the past, with practitioners in other languages and disciplines – the sciences, mathematics, music and philosophy, for example. In effect, collaboration is a pooling of ownership, a creative stance that – in Hill’s terms – works for order from within the anarchy.

Geoffrey Hill’s lectures as Professor of Poetry at Oxford always had an air of serious occasion. He has now been succeeded by something completely different: Simon Armitage, elected by the MAs of Oxford over the Nigerian Wole Soyinka and the American A. E. Stalling. Expressing himself ‘suitably daunted’, Armitage told the Guardian that the election had been a long process: ‘In the time it’s taken we’ve had a general election, Sepp Blatter has come and gone and come again, and we’ve nearly got a new leader of the Labour party.’ The current poet laureate declared, ‘Oxford is lucky to have gained his time and commitment to this post and should prepare itself to be shook, rattled and rolled.’ She seemed to suggest that Armitage’s candidacy had been a gamble (‘shake, rattle and roll’ dates back to 1919, to an Al Bernard song about throwing dice as a metaphor for sexual desire) or perhaps, looking for some contemporary slang, she reached for Bill Haley and his Comets’ cover version, recorded in 1954, and missed her own mark.  

Melvyn Bragg originally supported the campaign to elect Wole Soyinka. Later he told the Sunday Times that he thought Soyinka might not ‘bother to come to Oxford’ if elected. He was so old (Geoffrey Hill’s age) and grand. ‘How curious that anyone would even speculate,’ Soyinka commented, ‘that I would allow busy and committed people – friends, colleagues and total strangers – to waste their time nominating and campaigning on my behalf for such a prestigious position if I were not serious about contesting.’

Armitage promises ‘to say something a little bit more contemporary […] I feel as if I’d like to bring things up to date. To look at poetry today, in dialogue with the poetry of the past.’ He intends ‘to discuss the situation of poetry and poets in the twenty-first century, to address the obstacles and opportunities brought about by changes in education, changes in reading habits, the internet, poetry’s decreasing “market share”, poetry’s relationship with the civilian world and the (alleged) long, lingering death of the book’. Unlike his predecessors, he is ‘a self-schooled poet who views poetry from a hill above a Yorkshire village’. His first lecture will be well attended. We hope he will talk about poetry, not just its ‘situation’.

(Portions of this editorial are adapted from the 2015 Judith E. Wilson Lecture, Cambridge)

This item is taken from PN Review 225, Volume 42 Number 1, September - October 2015.

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