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 NEWS & NOTES
Compiled by Eleanor Crawforth
Poetry spat: Round Four. sir geoffrey hill (knighted for services to literature in the New Year’s Honours List) called attention to the Poet Laureate’s ease or facility with language. In his first lecture of the academic year, ‘Poetry, Policing and Public Order’, the Oxford Professor of Poetry noted Duffy’s eagerness to ‘democratise’ the art form. (The lecture was delivered at Keble College on 29 November 2011, though the Guardian and Telegraph waited until 31 January to report it; a quiet week for news.) Responding to Duffy’s suggestion that children and young people are ‘perfecting’ their poetry skills through the medium of text messaging, Hill compared Duffy’s conception of poetic language with that ‘employed by writers for Mills & Boon and by celebrity critics appearing on A Good Read or the Andrew Marr Show.’
On the London Review of Books blog on 9 January, Ian Patterson described Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about Stephen Lawrence, published in the Guardian on 6 January, as ‘embarrassingly bad’. Responses to the blog have been numerous, but none so telling as Keston Sutherland’s, which begins, ‘I’m put in mind of Gillian Rose’s essay on Schindler’s List. Rose defines in that essay a speculative identity she calls “the ultimate predator”. It is the person who is always at the top of the food chain, the person who exits intact from a spectacle of misery or injustice rigged up to cosset her, the person who exists in a prophylactic sentimental culture that filters out the really toxic realities before they get to her and who for that reason thinks that sympathy is easy and habitual and not arduous or destructive of the person she already is. The Duffy squib is a neat little example of that sort of filter.’ He then reads the poem and its creative dynamics in detail. Duffy won the Costa poetry prize in January for her latest collection, The Bees (Picador), her first since being appointed Poet Laureate in 2009.
The Lebanese-French poet vénus khoury-ghata has been awarded the Prix Goncourt de Poésie. This accolade from the Académie Goncourt recognises excellence across a poet’s body of work. Khoury-Ghata is the author of sixteen collections of poems and the recipient of many prizes, including the Prix Mallarmé
in 1987 for Monologue du mort and the Grand Prix de la Société des Gens de Lettres for Fables pour un peuple d’argile (1992). She was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government in 2000. Her selected poems, translated by Marilyn Hacker, appeared in 2009 as Alphabets of Sand (Carcanet).
Khoury-Ghata’s translator herself won the 2011 Argana International Poetry Award in January. marilyn hacker was given the prize by Morocco’s Bayt Achiir (House of Poetry). Established in 2002, each year the Argana recognises ‘poetic friendship’ between Moroccan poets and one of their international colleagues. Hacker, like Khoury-Ghata, has been much honoured. Her Essays on Departure: New and Selected Poems 1980–2005 is published by Carcanet.
On 20 March 2012, the international literature festival berlin (ilb) will host a reading for the imprisoned Chinese writer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize liu xiaobo. Poet, critic and political activist Liu has been in detention for more than three years, after he and other intellectuals wrote and published the civil rights manifesto Charta 08. The event, intended to highlight Liu’s plight to a broader public, will feature readings of the Charta 08 and poems by Liu. So far the petition against his arrest has been signed by writers from all continents, among them Amir Hassan Cheheltan (Iran), Noam Chomsky (USA), Bei Dao (China), Ariel Dorfman (Chile), Herta Müller (Romania/Germany), Amos Oz (Israel), Salman Rushdie (India/UK), Peter Schneider (Germany) and Janne Teller (Denmark). The organisers of the Berlin reading encourage groups and institutions across the globe to host similar events on 20 March. Visit www.literaturfestival.com or email worldwidereading@ literaturfestival.com to inform the ilb of other Liu events or pledge support.
The winning entries in the 2011 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize for the translation of Russian poetry into English are now available to read at www.stephenspender.org. Judged by poets Sasha Dugdale and Paul Muldoon, and Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian at Oxford University, the prize celebrates the long friendship between Brodsky and Spender and the rich tradition of Russian poetry. Joseph Brodsky (1940–96) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and, like Spender, served as Poet Laureate of the United States. Carcanet published
Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English in 2001; his essential prose writings were recently reissued as Less Than One: Selected Essays by Penguin Modern Classics. The Times Stephen Spender Prize, which invites translations of poems into English from any language, classical or modern, is open for entries until 1 June 2012. This year’s judges are Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Patrick McGuinness and George Szirtes. The 2012 Brodsky translation prize will accept entries between April and the end of August 2012.
john ashbery has received a lifetime achievement award from the US National Book Foundation. The 2011 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was awarded in recognition of his achievements as a poet. Previous recipients include Toni Morrison, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston and Gore Vidal. It joins Ashbery’s Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics’ Circle Award and dozens of other awards on his metaphorical mantelshelf.
christopher logue, dubbed the ‘Alexander Pope of our day’, has died aged 85. His colourful life included military service, two spells in prison and several suicide attempts, as well as periods spent working as a playwright, screenwriter and actor. From modest beginnings in Portsmouth, he grew up with a romantic view of military life, enlisting young and serving as a soldier in the Black Watch. During action in Palestine he was arrested and court-martialled for stealing; he spent sixteen months in an army prison. Bored by post-war London, in 1951 he left for Paris where he joined an expat literary community that included the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi. His literary activities included writing for the film director Ken Russell and for the Royal Court in London, and a highlight of his acting career was a performance as the spaghetti-eating fanatic in Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky (1977). Logue was a long-term contributor to Private Eye. As a political activist, he protested with Bertrand Russell against nuclear weapons. He collaborated on jazz projects and on loose adaptations of Pablo Neruda’s love poems. His poem ‘Be Not Too Hard’ was set to music by Donovan, heard in the film Poor Cow (1967) and made popular by Joan Baez on her eponymous 1967 album. Logue wrote for the Olympia Press under the pseudonym Count Palmiro Vicarion, notably a pornographic novel, Lust. He published an autobiography titled
News & Notes