ED I TOR I AL
For its annual Review the Royal Society of Literature, marking the Queen’s Jubilee (God save her), invited a number of writers to describe what is being branded the ‘Second Elizabethan Age’. Professor John Carey issued the levelling proclamation we’d expect from the author of The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (1992): ‘For me the big literary achievement of the last sixty years has been the recapturing of poetry from the modernist avant garde. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century it went without saying in literary circles that poetry should be unintelligible.’ His Venn diagram of ‘literary circles’ is remarkably congruent, though ahistorical. He builds his usual rhetoric on this dubious nostrum:
Profundity and obscurity were thought to be necessary partners, and to write poetry that could be understood by ordinary readers was to relegate yourself to the status of versifier. The most notable poets of the first half of the century, Auden and Dylan Thomas, were both perfectly capable of making sense, and when they did so they both produced poems that have become part of our cultural life-blood. Professor Carey mentions ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ and ‘Lullaby’, a lifeblood rather limited in haemoglobin. Then he adds, ‘they often wrote gibberish out of obedience to the received norm’. Out of such darkness stream three redeeming lights.
The change has come about, mainly, through three poets. After making a false start with the Yeatsian The North Ship in 1945, Philip Larkin found his own voice in The Less Deceived, 1955. Two years later Ted Hughes published his first collection, Hawk in the Rain. Larkin and Hughes came from different poetic roots – Larkin from Hardy and Auden, Hughes from Wordsworth and D.H. Lawrence. But they had intelligibility in common. Their poems could be – and quickly were – read and understood by schoolchildren. They both earned the respect of the non-literary establishment. Hughes became Poet Laureate, Larkin could very probably have done so but refused to have his name put forward.
The third revolutionary poet, Seamus Heaney, can hardly be counted an ‘Elizabethan’ since he is firmly Irish. But like the other two, he has brought poetry back to the common reader, and it was reading Hughes, as he has acknowledged, that inspired him. Like the other two, also, he avoids erudite allusions and literary mannerisms and chooses to write about the commonplace and transform it by his writing.
Without these three poets the last 60 years would be immeasurably poorer. Would Hughes or Heaney, or Larkin for that matter, recognise themselves in this atmosphere entirely drained of the oxygen of Modernism? The triumph of the second Elizabethan age is a turning back, turning a collective back.
‘Why should not old men be mad?’ a cantankerous old Modernist declared. Restore to the people their God-given ignorance!
In the same journal, the newly retired editor of Poetry Review Fiona Sampson takes us on a breathless tour of the second Elizabethan age as viewed from a less doctrinaire Parnassus. The Movement, the Group and their aftermaths pass before us like the Scottish Kings in Macbeth. In conclusion, a sweeping, diplomatic paragraph provides a neutralised vision of contemporary British poetry. Her language is less categorical, more defensive than Professor Carey’s. ‘Still, arguably,’ she begins, standing outside what she has to say, ‘the quiet success story of this era has been the shift from retrospective imperialism to post-colonial shame.’ One gropes about in memory, in the anthologies, for poetic evidence to support her argument, to little avail. ‘The seventies saw a surge of free-verse inventiveness, some of it with a Caribbean accent, much of it by women.’ Boxes are ticked, an implausibly autonomous age, sexually and ethnically inclusive, continues releasing its distinctive poem.
We might have predicted from her record as an editor and competition judge her examplars. ‘Certainly from the deeply thoughtful Sean O’Brien to unlikely eco-heroine Ruth Padel, and from language activist Bernardine Evaristo to dreamers like John Burnside and David Harsent, we’re enjoying the “peace dividend” of six settled decades.’ Decades that, incidentally, begin with the Suez Crisis and include the problems in Ulster, the mainland bombings both by the IRA and by other groups, the Thatcher years, the miners’ strikes, the rise of the National Front, mass demonstrations, riots, the problems in Mesopotamia and further East… Poets who lived through and responded to those troubles, poets from the earlier decades of her Majesty’s reign, don’t get a name-check.
The idea of a second Elizabethan age is complicated by the fact that, this time round, the island has shared its language with the world and that world shares it back, transformed, enriched. Borders, where they still exist, are blurred: it’s possible (to tick some of Sampson’s boxes differently) for Derek Walcott to lay claim to Philip Larkin, for J.H. Prynne to acknowledge kinship with Ed Dorn. Eavan Boland, Adrienne Rich and Elaine Feinstein (also Fiona Sampson) are connected by language in ways that make empire and nation points of increasingly remote departure. The poetic triumphs of a second Elizabethan age reside in the formal and linguistic addition to writers’ and readers’ experience of the art. Must we speak of success stories and dividends, honouring Thatcherite aesthetics that degraded more than a decade of this ‘era’s’ culture?
A second Elizabethan era might be characterised by the greater space available to poetry in Britain due to Modernism and its various wakes. The dreamers, the deeply thoughtful, the eco-heroines and language activists themselves might wish to read and be read beyond conventional borders, physical and theoretical. They might, too, be keen to keep a wider company, and for editors and critics to dispense with reductive epithets.
PN Review 205 NEWS & NOTES
Compiled by Eleanor Crawforth
‘And it grew both day and night, / Till it bore an apple bright’: it’s as if William Blake had foreseen the flourishing of PN Review into virtual form. PN Review is now available as an ‘app’! It is the first poetry magazine to become available through Apple Newsstand. This development was thanks to Exact Editions, a digital publishing company which turns magazines into userfriendly digital editions for iPad, iPhone and Android mobile devices. On 26 March they issued this press release: ‘We are delighted to announce that the wonderful PN Review is now available to subscribe to digitally and in Apple Newsstand. Since its launch in 1973, it has seen its fair share of cultural and economical shifts and has emerged as the word on poetry.’ Daryl Rayner, Managing Director of Exact Editions, applauded the move as ‘a striking development for poetry publishing; and the new iPad is the best digital format yet invented for reading poetry. With such a stunning platform to showcase magazines, it is not surprising that PN Review has taken the digital plunge. With a simple tap you can now instantly view the poems, take and send screenshots of your favourite poems, and sync issues for offline reading. You can even sample it for free, making it easier than ever to read on the move.’ The PN Review app is available to download from iTunes.com, where you can purchase monthly and annual subscriptions for mobile devices.
In other, more alarming, news of digital developments, it has been reported (in the online journal Wired) that the social networking site Facebook is attempting to copyright the word ‘book’. Facebook could expand its trademark rights over the word ‘book’ by adding it to a revised version of its ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’, the agreement all users implicitly consent to in using Facebook. ‘Facebook has launched multiple lawsuits against websites incorporating the word “book” into their names,’ writes Jon Brodkin in Wired. ‘Facebook, as far as we can tell, doesn’t have a registered trademark on “book”. But trademark rights can be asserted based on use of a term, even if the trademark isn’t registered, and adding the claim to Facebook’s user agreement could boost the company’s standing in future lawsuits filed against sites that use the word.’
The American Academy of Arts has honoured three PNR writers for their contribution to literature, it was announced in March. michael palmer and christopher middleton were recognised for lifetime achievements, and michael hofmann was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation. The awards will be presented in New York in May at the Academy’s annual ceremony. The literature prizes, totalling $160,000, honour both established and emerging writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The Academy’s 250 members nominate candidates, and a rotating panel of writers selects winners. This year’s panel included among others Paul Auster, Louise Glück, Philip Levine and Alison Lurie.
The Communist Party of Chile has requested that the remains of the Chilean poet and diplomat pablo neruda be exhumed after allegations that he may have been poisoned by the authorities, reports the BBC’s Latin American service. The Nobel laureate died in Santiago in September 1973, twelve days after the military coup that brought General Pinochet to power. A Communist Party lawyer, Eduardo Contreras, says there are now doubts over Neruda’s death. While his death certificate records the cause of death at the age of 69 as prostate cancer, the poet’s former personal assistant and driver, Manuel Araya, alleges that he received a lethal injection of painkiller which caused a heart attack. The Pablo Neruda Foundation said in May that there was ‘no proof whatsoever that suggests Pablo Neruda died of causes other than cancer’. The request for exhumation is being considered by a judge. Although
Neruda is best known for his poetry, he was a lifelong member of Chile’s Communist Party, a lawmaker and a former ambassador to France.
The poet and essayist adrienne rich has died in California at the age of 82. Rich, who was celebrated as much for deeply personal reflections on her own life as for her sometimes ferocious social commentary, made a profound difference to American poetry. Her legacy as an essayist and a space-clearer for the imagination will be durable, and her contrariness remains challenging and instructive.
Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1929, the daughter of a Jewish pathologist father and a Gentile Southern mother. One of the poems in the new Selected Poems, ‘At the Jewish New Year’, states: ‘Whatever we strain to forget / Our memory must be long.’ Her background was never entirely sloughed. On the contrary, the tensions between male and female, between historic pride and vulnerable identity, have become charged centres of her work. In 1951 she graduated from Radcliffe College and within eight years she had received a Guggenheim Fellowship, had her first book selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award, published two volumes of poetry, married and given birth to three sons. Somewhere in the middle of all this we get a glimpse of her one rainy night in Massachusetts: a poignant eyewitness account. ‘Short black hair, great sparking black eyes and a tulip-red umbrella: honest, frank, forthright and even opinionated.’ Sylvia Plath’s first impression of Adrienne Rich, recorded in this sentence in her journals: the year was 1958 and Adrienne Rich was twenty-nine.
Eavan Boland’s brilliant tribute to Rich appeared in PN Review 114 (March–April 1997): ‘When I first read the poems of Adrienne Rich I was in my early thirties. I was married with small children. I was far away from some of the claimed ground here and not yet sure of my own. These are, after all, American poems, written from the heart of the American empire as the century darkens. They are fiercely questioning, deeply political, continuously subversive. They celebrate the lives of women and the sexual and comradely love between them. They contest the structure of the poetic tradition. They interrogate language itself. In all of this, they describe a struggle and record a moment which was not my struggle and would never be my moment. Nor my country, nor my companionship. Nor even my aesthetic. And yet these poems came to the
News & Notes