ED I TOR I AL
Outrage in the poetry world is always disproportionate. The slow-motion boxing match (the image is Lemn Sissay’s) between Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, Ian Patterson, Keston Sutherland et al. in the Blue Corner and Professor Carol Ann Duffy, Lemn Sissay MBE himself and friends in the Red, reported more fully in News & Notes, is one in which PN Review is reluctant to take sides. Mr Sissay’s suggestion in the Guardian that since Professor Duffy is a woman, indeed the very first woman to be appointed poet laureate, it is ungallant of Professor Hill to comment on her publicly stated opinions had an excessively courtly air. Her idea that mobile phone texting is playing into our poetic culture, which Professor Hill challenged, is undeniably true. Professor Duffy’s own Stephen Lawrence sonnet, published in the Guardian, and dubbed ‘embarrassingly bad’ by Mr Patterson in the London Review of Books blog on 9 January, itself proves her point. Note the staccato lineation, a series of painfully rhymed broken headlines:
Cold pavement indeed the night you died, murdered; but the airborne drop of blood from your wound was a seed your mother sowed into hard ground – your life’s length doubled, unlived, stilled, till one flower, thorned, bloomed in her hand, love’s just blade.
(‘This poem,’ a footnote says, ‘was amended on 10 January 2012 because the original incorrectly spelled sowed as sewed. This has been corrected.’ The typo, if it was that, had suggested a strain of imagery the poet had not in fact intended. Now the poem is a collaboration between the laureate and a hostile blogger.) In due course the condensed phrasing of Professor Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971) may have a retro-impact upon the art of texting, and even upon that of Professor Duffy.
If texting affects poetic composition, that is because writing poetry is widely taught in schools and at universities, and teachers tend to work with the tools their pupils already have. The tools that served to teach students to read poems (that is, poems) are different from those that are deemed appropriate in teaching them to write them. What language skills do they already possess, the teacher asks, and seeing all those well-muscled thumbs poised for composition above their tiny keyboards, the answer is not far to seek.
George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), ‘as a study in the pathology of the literary life … is unequalled, and still surprisingly relevant’, David Lodge says (The Art of Fiction, p. 195). It is also chillingly prophetic. The actual business of writing and writers becomes a subject in itself. Most of the characters in New Grub Street are connected with writing. Gissing focuses on two individuals, Edwin Reardon, who has some talent but is unworldly, and Jasper Milvain, reticent and intellectual, who understands the ways of the world. ‘I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes,’ he says. ‘We are not geniuses, and if we sit down in a spirit of long-eared gravity we shall produce only commonplace stuff.’ Poor Reardon is of the long-eared tribe.
Milvain urges, ‘Let us use our wits to earn money, and make the best we can of our lives. If only I had the skill, I would produce novels out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies. But it needs skill, mind you: and to deny it is a gross error of the literary pedants.’ Milvain hatches a great idea whose time has now well and truly come. He has been writing ‘an author’s Guide’. It will sell, even if his fiction will not. Beyond that he is inventing a Creative Writing course where he will teach technique, subjectmatter and tone. He talks about fiction, but poetry is only a step away. ‘I’m going to advertise: “Novel-writing taught in ten lessons!” What do you think of that? No swindle; not a bit of it. I am quite capable of giving the ordinary man or woman ten very useful lessons.’ Gissing may be in jest but Milvain is not. ‘I gravely advise people, if they possibly can, to write of the wealthy middle class; that’s the popular subject, you know. Lords and ladies are all very well, but the real thing to take is a story about people who have no titles, but live in good Philistine style.’ And so he plays to the (paying) gallery of the day. He will train up his wife, ‘and then let her advertise lessons to girls; they’ll prefer coming to a woman, you know’. His canniness is wholly modern.
Milvain’s scheming triumphs; Reardon hopes until he can hope no longer, fails and recognises his failure, and does what he has to do, having drawn himself and those he loves into poverty: he dies. His estranged widow, who has become an heiress, ends up marrying Milvain, a love-sceptic who enjoys what we have been conditioned to consider unmerited prosperity. That’s how the world wags: moral and aesthetic values, moral and material rewards are either seriously out of synch in the real world, or a sea change has indeed occurred and the old-fashioned terms that Professor Hill insists on using have been emptied out by carelessness. It takes skill of a kind, as Milvain knew, to write for Mills & Boon, and rewards are to be had on earth and can be spent here. The kinds of integrity Geoffrey Hill asks for, and practises, are of a higher order and are non-negotiable.
PN Review 204