Wednesday, January 11, 2017

`To Get Anything Done in This Hard World'

Letters to an Editor (Carcanet, 1989) collects some of the correspondence sent by writers to Michael Schmidt, general editor of PN Review and founder and managing director of Carcanet Press. Predictably, many letters are devoted to the nuts and bolts of writing, editing and publishing, and can be quickly skimmed by the common reader. But the editor, Mark Fisher, includes missives by some of our best writers, who frequently digress into gossip, autobiography and ad hoc criticism, and this helps the collection transcend inside-baseball tedium.

C.H. Sisson, for instance, in 1972, at age fifty-eight, had published four collections of poems, two novels and a volume devoted to the British civil service. He was not yet the Sisson we value. In October 1972, he writes to Schmidt: “I have been wondering whether the Carcanet Press would consider doing a volume of my poems.” The resulting volume of poems and translations, In the Trojan Ditch, was published by Carcanet in 1974 and announced the arrival of a newly formidable and prolific poet (at age sixty). Fisher includes sixty-three letters by Sisson, more than from any other correspondent. Take this bit of sanity Sisson writes to Schmidt in April 1973:

“As to poems, I want not to write any more for a bit. I mean they make me sick, as they come now, and it would be better to shut up. But this is a good resolution which I have failed to keep before. It is a question of finding a change of direction but that is not a thing I know how to look for. It is both technical and – God help us – experiential. Both are matters of chance. It may be that my benign withdrawal may induce silence. I really cannot tell. These things rest in the obscure hands of the muses. I have always found it best to attend to other work.”

If only more poets would follow Sisson’s lead, the world would be a happier, less cluttered place. One more from Sisson, writing to Schmidt in September 1974. The poet has suggested he edit and Schmidt publish a volume of writings by Charles Maurras. Sisson warns that “liberal-left censorship is intolerable,” and says:

“There are certain quarters which dogmatically abstain from any mention of my work because I am believed to be `reactionary’, which is taken to mean something which I certainly do not stand for, if for no other reason than that I have reason to be far more aware than most of these literary characters of the undogmatic empiricism which is necessary to get anything done in this hard world.”      

Sisson entered the Civil Service in 1936 and, after enlisting in the army and serving in India, resumed working in Whitehall in 1945. He rose to the rank of Under Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and retired in 1972. He had accumulated much experience “in this hard world.” An unexpected partial rebuttal, or at least an expression of misgiving, comes from the American poet Robert Hass, who met Sisson briefly in Cambridge in 1978. He writes, at first, to Schmidt: “I’ve read a lot of Sisson’s prose. I think he is a classic. The work came to me as a complete surprise; I wasn’t even aware of his existence before coming to England.” Hass, a rather dull poet from Berkeley, has doubts, but fairly maps out the political landscape:

“The radical says: look at the suffering of this man, these people. The conservative says: look at the human importance of these institutions and see that for their survival we must move slowly when we attempt to ameliorate the sufferings of your friend there. “

Schmidt lets Sisson read Hass’ letter, and the poet responds mild-mannerly: “One can only be grateful to such a reader. Still, I think he misconstrues me on a number of points.” Sisson insists he has no interest in “trying to convert everyone to a particular set of opinions,” which is certainly closer in spirit to conservatism than to the “liberal-left,” which is proselyting by nature. In a 1982 letter to Schmidt, after damning an unnamed bit of “Marxist-Jesuitical clap-trap” in an issue of PN Review, he writes:

“The pure Marxist analysis was the true truth, is now, and ever shall be: the `rational analysis of reality.’ `Marx rejects the appeal to a faith untested against reality.’ Surely what he rejects is a faith other than his own? Who ever heard of a Marxist who was not credulous? How can you look at what is in front of your nose if you are allowed to see nothing except against the background of a bit of inverted German-Romantic philosophy?”

Sisson’s vision, in prose and poetry, is forever stringent. He never just gets along. Here is a late poem, “The Best Thing to Say” (Collected Poems, Carcanet Press, 1998):

“The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.”

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