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This item is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.Letters
JOHN LUCAS writes: Silas Gunn (PNR 235, p. 3) accuses me of using ‘weasel auxiliaries’ when commenting on Auden’s claim that poetry makes nothing happen, despite the known deaths of poets in the 1930s who had offended authority. The OED defines a weasel word as ‘an equivocal or ambiguous word used intentionally to mislead’. Gunn cites as evidence of my attempt to mislead the phrases ‘must have known’ (of Gumilyov’s death), ‘can hardly not have known’ (about a contributory cause of Mayakovsky’s suicide), and ‘would have known’ (about the burning of Ritsos’s Epitaphios. Gunn claims that, ‘With regard to the death of Nikolai Gumilyov all that was known in the West in the 1930s was that he had been executed for participation in a counter-revolutionary conspiracy which, given Auden’s sympathies in the 1930s, might have been considered “a necessary murder”.’ But in that case poetry had made something happen. (Though by the time Auden wrote his elegy he had retreated some distance from his earlier Communist sympathies.) As for Mayakovsky, I don’t say that Auden ‘can hardly not have known’, but that he can hardly not ‘have suspected’. Nor do I say that he’d ‘have known’ about the public burning of Ritsos’s poem. I say he would ‘have heard’ about the event through Oxford friends, ‘if by no other means’. If anyone is attempting to mislead, it certainly isn’t me.
This item is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.