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This item is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.


I am very grateful to James McGonigal for his remarks about Shoestring Press’s G. S. Fraser: Selected Poems (PNR 230). I ought however to note that the selection was made by George Fraser, GSF’s son, and that the poet Andrew Waterman wrote the Introduction. (And for the sake of accuracy it should also be noted that the postgraduate student who under GSF’s supervision was writing a thesis on Laura Riding was Mark – not Max – Jacobs.)

On a different matter, I was delighted to read David Slavitt’s piece on Bink Noll. I never believed the rumours that Em Malley was dead beyond recall.


Robyn Marsack is right in her review of John Greening’s new edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (PNR 230) to stress how his World War I experiences remained a constant theme in his writing. Coincidentally, I happened to be reading Blunden’s 1932 collection of essays The Face of England when this issue arrived. Like many survivors – one thinks of David Jones – Blunden carried the war with him: in this collection of fairly bucolic rural essays, the war keeps intervening. For example, writing of owls and the nocturnal sounds, he suddenly says this: ‘Perhaps these muffled shocks of 1930 are the din of our attack on 3rd September 1916’. Again, in a later essay on ‘Floodland’, Blunden asks a carter for directions and receives detailed instructions; his response is ‘It was as though he had been telling me the way to the old front line.’

The rewriting and compulsive recrossing of the ground Marsack writes of is echoed in these sudden shifts, however peaceful and tranquil the initial subject-matter. In a further comment, embedded in an essay on ‘Mists and Fogs’, Blunden comments that ‘landscape in England, like war in Flanders, is a summer sport’ – the simile reveals how the two remained connected for him.


Professor Peter McDonald’s PN Review lecture (Issue 229) urges us to recollect the quarrel poetry must have with itself, and the fact that criticism must criticise. Yeats’s ‘ancient salt’ is needed to cure the prevailing rot, a drift towards pandering consensus. There isn’t enough recognition, Professor McDonald says, of ‘a real and well-nigh insuperable distinction’ between poetry and criticism, a fault he attributes to professional academia; this has resulted in the twin betrayals of praise and avoidance as the main tactical considerations in criticism’s engagement with poetry. There are touches here of Geoffrey Hill’s poem ‘Annunciations’: ‘The searchers with the curers sit at meat / And are satisfied.’ For all the cosiness of this campfire huddle, however, he notes that ‘institutionalized knowledge’ is always prepared to clip poetry’s wings.

Professor McDonald has written memorable and just criticism on the poetry of Yeats and Hill. He has done so as Christopher Tower Student of Poetry. One would have expected his lecture to quarrel more thoroughly with itself. The positive aspects of academic criticism are dispatched in isolated sentences: ‘the wholly honourable presentation of genuinely new information’, ‘the breeding ground of some permanently valuable scholarly and critical contributions to the way we know and think about poetry’. The overall picture, however, is one of connivance and self-interest, with scholars ‘like Yeats’s “rhetoricians” who are motivated by “the crowd they have won or may win”’. Young academics are singled out as being especially unlikely to ‘question current market valuations’ within their profession, although in fairness Professor McDonald notes that they are ‘not to be blamed for their needful caution.’ Even opposition to the sway of university managers and the priorities of funding bodies is seen as ‘the squealing of various interests as they vest themselves a little deeper in the shallow politics of their time.’ Professor McDonald believes that this plight of the humanities ‘at least leaves the field clear for criticism to do its job’, a “disinterested” pursuit that turns out to be a reiteration of Matthew Arnold’s ‘sweetness and light’.

At the risk of ‘squealing’, this needs quarrelling with. Professor McDonald writes that ‘great poetry was written long before there were professors’ and their reliance on twenty-first century academic ‘powers of patronage’. Yet the idea of ‘real making’ and ‘real correction’ which Professor McDonald envisages for poetry and criticism – existing outside constraint and circumstance – is a chimera. Historically, the coterie networks of writing preceding the rise of the modern poet-critic were even more accentuated. Obliged by his monarch to enter holy orders for a living, John Donne later found himself in 1627 suspected of siding with the Archbishop of Canterbury against the king and the then-Bishop of Bath and Wells, William Laud. He writes of the offending article, ‘I have cribated, and re-cribated, and post-cribated the sermon’. Geoffrey Hill has said of this commentary that it ‘reads as a distressed parody of the perplexed circumstance, a travesty of his own anxious scholarship – its powerless exercise of powerful diligence and scruple, confronted by the “prejudice” and “displeasure” of the men of power’. Would it not be charitable to assume that such a ‘perplexed circumstance’, and the same ‘powerless exercise of powerful diligence and scruple’, might pertain to the situation of literary critics in the twenty-first-century academy, rather than ‘the squealing of various interests’?

William Empson writes that ‘the flattery shown by a dog is a type of how you can be foolish and mercenary yet sincere’. Ever since there have been campuses, there have been campus novels to send up the flattering, foolish, and mercenary academic, while little is said about sincerity, or indeed doggedness. Professor McDonald writes of Elizabeth Bishop and her distaste for academia. Her contemporary John Berryman laboured in a mid-twentieth-century university environment not worlds apart from what pertains today. He was overworked, his job situation often precarious; a difficult colleague, whose nervous disposition and alcoholism impacted upon his ability to perform his duties and was to some degree exacerbated by the demands of his vocation (for that word still has some force for those drawn to teaching). He was by all accounts an enthralled and enthralling tutor; something of this charisma can be gleaned from his excellent short story ‘Wash Far Away’, where a university professor’s class on Lycidas proves a self-education, with that wonderful description of the thrill one encounters in a good seminar: ‘His difficult morning sense of the poem as a breathing, weird, great, incalculable animal was strong on him again.’

Yet Berryman was not above wielding clippers. His criticism, written under various professional constraints, is simultaneously shrewd, scrupulous, and expressive. It is gathered under the title The Freedom of the Poet, not so much an irony as a testimony to his profound belief in the ability of poetry and criticism to emerge out of and transcend individual circumstances, however seemingly ineluctable they are. Such a reciprocity of the imagination regarding one’s own compromised status lies behind Berryman’s anecdote about a letter he once received: ‘“Dear Mr. Berryman, Frankly I hope to be promoted from assistant professor to associate professor by writing a book about you. Are you willing to join me in this unworthy endeavour?” So I joined him. I answered all his questions. I practically flew out to pour his drinks while he typed.’ Berryman’s diligence as a poet and scholar transfigures any implication of his being similarly involved in ‘unworthy endeavour’; his good humour is winning and honest rather than exculpatory.

In an essay on Ring Lardner, Berryman writes, ‘All the artists who have ever survived were intellectuals – sometimes intellectuals also, but intellectuals. The popular boys cannot understand this.’ The university has, for better or worse, made immeasurable contributions to the intellectual understanding of poetry. Professor McDonald’s implication that a young academic is not interested in ‘real poetry’ or ‘real criticism’ if she wants a ‘livelihood-granting’ position – what used to be called ‘a living’ – is an unwitting love letter to the ‘popular boys’, such as the present Vice-Chancellor of my alma mater, the Queen’s University of Belfast, who would like nothing more than a Big Society version of literary criticism. The only consensus that seems to matter among higher education functionaries is one that sees poetry as idle, unprofitable, and indifferent a ‘pursuit’ as rope-dancing or a taste for Frontignac. Professor McDonald and I would seem united in disagreeing with such a view, but he believes that the university’s role in challenging it is dispensable. It is not merely self-interested and certainly not shallow to wish to quarrel with this.


I have no wish to re-run an argument made already, so I should say that I think that all of Mr O’Hanlon’s principal points above are already addressed in the lecture itself – not to his liking, I am sure, but there is little I can do about that. At any rate, I will not be drawn in to arguing the merits of Elizabeth Bishop versus John Berryman – neither of them, I’d say, negligible as witnesses in the whole question of institutional as against artistic models of knowledge. I have never denied Berryman’s importance, or underrated his poetic achievement, and the anecdote about him here is a good one; but these things do not detract from, or cancel out, the importance of what I quote Bishop as saying. It may be that Mr O’Hanlon just wants too much from contemporary academia: at least, he appears to have an almost obtrusive respect for academic titles (I am accorded my full academic title no fewer than ten times in his short piece – an intensity of applied courtesy to which I am wholly unused, and which I am inclined to associate with the jeeringly arch rather than the anxiously polite). Yet what O’Hanlon wants is certainly worth wanting, if that means an academic critical culture in which the likes of John Donne, Geoffrey Hill, William Empson and, yes, John Berryman are put squarely at the centre of intellectual attention. Would that this were generally so. There is much, though, that crowds them out; and my lecture was attempting both to deplore that, and to understand the reasons why it might be the case. Much of the responsibility, it seems to me, lies at the door of academe itself: of my generation, that is, and the generation that immediately preceded mine. As my lecture makes clear, I do not at all blame Mr O’Hanlon’s generation for the predicament it finds itself in; and the ‘squealing’ I hear is not that of my juniors. Some younger literary academics are outstandingly gifted, with important and valuable things to say about significant things. But their gifts are held too widely in disdain from within their own disciplines, as not fitting with the agendas of Universities and departments who have an eye to the main chance, and an anxious regard for the priorities of funding bodies and government. To be demand-led (whether the demand is from an actual or notional body of students, or from the announced dogmas of current political culture) is to betray the deepest values of humane scholarship and pedagogy. These are values in which I believe, and which I regard as absolutely non-negotiable. Increasingly, this sounds like heresy; and there has always been short-term career mileage in denouncing heretics. But it should not be a heresy to say that criticism, like poetry, can thrive beyond the institutions of University departments. I myself have come to conclude that both criticism and poetry have more chance now of thriving outside, rather than inside, those institutions.

Mr O’Hanlon is scrupulously kind in commending my own past critical efforts, which were indeed made from within the University system; but I am not so arrogant as to think that I have managed, at best, anything other than a few momentary stays against a mediocrity that is far more powerful than anything a single scholar or critic can meaningfully face down. Nor, however, do I counsel despair, which is a lazy and a corrupted response to adversity, even if things seem too late to mend; if I have failed, I hope that many more will fail after me. I make no apology, though, for finding many of the defences of the humanities so commonly attempted at present to be merely rhetorical exercises in self-interest, whose complacent politics of intellectual privilege play into the hands of those institutional philistines they pretend to oppose. The philistines (a term we owe to Arnold, about whom O’Hanlon is breezily dismissive) are really there; they are powerful; and an academic culture committed to its own wholesale enlightenment, rightness, and untouchability will be no bulwark against their assaults. Since I do not underrate the power of philistinism, I must correct the implication in the (offensive, though rhetorical) ‘unwitting love letter’ remark of O’Hanlon’s final paragraph, that I am to be aligned with the views as recently expressed of the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast, on a lack of ‘employability’ value in humanities subjects. On the contrary: I oppose Professor Johnson’s remarks as being gravely unworthy of the head of a Russell Group University, and have before now condemned them in public; if O’Hanlon thinks he knows better about me and my words, then indeed he knows a lot more than I do. Somebody, somewhere, is evidently someone’s, or something’s, ‘unwitting’ stooge.

This item is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

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