Thursday, April 07, 2016

`Not So Plain As to Be Understood'

I’ve been browsing in the early issues of PN Review, known at first as Poetry Nation, the journal founded in England by Michael Schmidt and others in 1973. In the “Editors’ Note” in the first issue, they speak of a “growing consensus” among such poets as Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, C.H. Sisson, Philip Larkin and others. An American reader forty-three years later must think: what a lineup. One would have worked hard to come up with a comparably gifted quartet among American poets at the time. By 1973, Tomlinson had published half a dozen volumes. Two years earlier, Hill had come out with Mercian Hymns, and now was writing the poems that would appear in Tenebrae (1978). Sisson had just retired from the Ministry of Labour and was about to publish In the Trojan Ditch, and Larkin’s High Windows would also come out in 1974.

In “The Politics of Form,” an essay in that first issue, Schmidt draws a schematic diagram of English-language poetry circa 1973. On one side, the “cultural radicalism” of Bly, Creeley, Dorn, Duncan, Merwin & Co. On the other, the English poets mentioned above, joined by R.S. Thomas, “shoring up a crumbling literary edifice.” In retrospect, there was no contest. The colonials won the popular war, of course, but sacrificed any claim to legitimacy. Today, the American victors remain unreadable and the defeated English (and Welsh) constitute virtually the last gasp of poetry in our language, in our time. Schmidt suggests that acceptance of so simple a political reading of writers and their motives is foolish, a soft-headed concession to the self-serving radicals. Schmidt sees in Sisson and the others “an assertion of the continuity of a challenged tradition, a persistent belief in the vitality and potential of that tradition.”

In that first issue are four poems by Tomlinson, two by Elizabeth Jennings and three by Sisson: “Somerton Moor,” “Sumptuary Laws” and one of his best, “The Usk,” which includes these lines:
“So speech is treasured, for the things it gives
Which I can not have, for I speak too plain
Yet not so plain as to be understood.”

PN Review still publishes, six times a year, and the current issue features a celebration of the late Christopher Middleton, including a remembrance by Marius Kociejowski.

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