Neil Corcoran confronts the new recklessness
- Manila Envelope by James Fenton
28 Kayumanggi St, West Triangle Homes, Quezon City, Phillipines, 48 pp, £12.00, May 1989, ISBN 971 8647 01 5
- New Selected Poems by Richard Murphy
Faber, 190 pp, £10.99, May 1989, ISBN 0 571 15482 4
- The Mirror Wall by Richard Murphy
Bloodaxe, 61 pp, £10.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85224 092 X
- Selected Poems by Eavan Boland
Carcanet, 96 pp, £5.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 85635 741 3
- The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness by Selima Hill
Chatto, 47 pp, £5.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3455 0
For a writer who several years ago published a ‘Manifesto Against Manifestoes’, James Fenton has published his fair share of manifestoes, including a disguised one for a ‘Martian school’ to which he did not belong. The latest, ‘Manila Manifesto’, comes as part of a package with his new book Manila Envelope. To acquire the book, you must write to Manila, and it will be posted to you in a manila envelope stamped ‘Contents: Poetry’; the manifesto itself is printed on manila paper. This visual and verbal punning puts me in mind of Frank O’Connor’s account of a picture he saw in Joyce’s Paris flat: the city of Cork in a cork frame. An instance, no doubt, of Joyce’s compulsive punning, the picture can also be viewed as the manifestation of an ambiguous attitude. The visual pun depreciates the city of Joyce’s forebears, suggesting the voluntary exile’s self-justifying, cosmopolitan hauteur: but it also cherishes the place. James Fenton’s joky, vaguely self-indulgent punning on place, paper and title also indicates a more than merely joky intent. A manila envelope made in and posted from a Manila recently under the control of Marcos may contain an explosive device, particularly if the cover of the book it ostensibly contains has a savage Nicholas Garland illustration of a wild horseman wielding a bloody scimitar, surrounded by the decapitated victims of his havoc.
Vol. 11 No. 20 · 26 October 1989
In his review (LRB, 28 September) of my New Selected Poems (Faber) and The Mirror Wall (Bloodaxe), Neil Corcoran got carried away by ‘the new recklessness’ and ‘nonsense’ in British poetry. Eager to demolish ‘Murphy’s classicism’, he gave as examples of the ‘unaccountable’ diction which he said ‘deforms’ my poems two words which his review itself deformed. The verb ‘exuviate’, applied to crayfish or crabs casting off their shells, occurs in my poem ‘New Force’ as a metaphor for casting off the ‘hard pink shell’ of my house in a Connemara fishing village. Corcoran turned this into ‘exuriate’, which is meaningless. ‘Rupestral’, a botanical word for ‘growing on rocks’, occurs in the poem ‘Hexagon’ to convey the feeling of growth inside a hexagonal studio I built on a rock in Omey Island. This he deformed into ‘rupetral’. How reckless and nonsensical can a review be?
Killiney, Co. Dublin
These errors were made by the typesetter. It is a pity that Mr Murphy can’t, apparently, be persuaded that both of his words are virtually nonsensical so far as his readers are concerned.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 11 No. 22 · 23 November 1989
Your comment on Richard Murphy’s letter (Letters, 26 October) startled me a little. Mr Murphy explained and defended his use of the words ‘exuviate’ and ‘rupestral’ on the grounds that they convey exactly what he meant. You riposted that these words are ‘virtually nonsensical so far as his readers are concerned’. Long ago, when I was a schoolboy, I was very puzzled by ‘anfractuous’, ‘pistillate’, ‘staminate’, ‘sutler’, above all by ‘polyphiloprogenitive’. But before denouncing Eliot’s use of these words as virtually nonsensical – a verdict which, I suspect, would have been applauded by some of the more elderly English masters of my school – I looked them up in a dictionary.
We take the point made in Charles Monteith’s interesting letter. Our sense of the matter is that ‘polyphiloprogenitive’ is likely to have meant something to readers of Eliot’s verse who first came upon his use of the word at a time when they were unable to consult a dictionary, and that dictionaries have sometimes proved a doubtful aid to the reading of modern poetry.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 11 No. 23 · 7 December 1989
Charles Monteith’s letter (Letters, 23 November) mildly castigating your testy footnote to Richard Murphy’s protest (Letters, 26 October) came as a relief and made the essential point: writers should be at liberty to use whatever words they like and readers can make it their business to use the dictionary to find out their meanings. Your rather more craven comment on Monteith’s ‘interesting’ letter is still wrong, though: Murphy’s obscure words are much better attested in the OED than the Eliot usages which he – entirely convincingly – cites. But there is a more important point of principle that Monteith’s creditable mildness obscures, though I have no doubt that he accepts it. We all know that the LRB reserves to itself the right to have the last word. But surely what was needed was an apology to Murphy (and to Neil Corcoran, whose considered review was wrecked by your typographical errors). You simply proved yourselves a. to be bad losers, and b. to be dangerously close to the blimpish editorial policy of the Literary Review type: ‘if I can’t understand it as I snooze over my claret, then it isn’t poetry, dammit.’ The spread of this philistine creed has been widely attested in more respectable journals over the past year. Don’t fall into it. Just admit you were in the wrong.
Magdalen College, Oxford
It was Neil Corcoran’s objection to these words that brought up the matter of inkhorn terms or specialist terms in the first place. Having said that, we are content to leave the last word to the fierce O’Donoghue. No doubt he is familiar with the expression ‘over the top’.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 12 No. 1 · 11 January 1990
Having written about David Jones and Seamus Heaney, I of course think poets have the right to send readers to dictionaries (Letters, 26 October 1989, 23 November 1989, 7 December 1989). But readers must feel the journey is worthwhile, not merely as an element in self-improvement but as an aid to critical appreciation. Jones’s dictionary diction always, in my view, enforces a sense of his punctilio and scruple about specialised languages (of trades, crafts, arts etc), and that punctilio is itself one of his major themes; Heaney, in North, for instance, evinces a similar scruple about the vocabulary of archaeology, and his local dialect usages (many not in the OED, as it happens) are manifestly part of a broadly political strategy which a number of poems actually take as their theme. When I read Richard Murphy’s sonnets in ‘The Price of Stone’ I consulted the dictionary dutifully and now I know the meaning of the words he uses. But I can still see no point in his using them. Where Jones’s and Heaney’s forms make space for their vocabulary, and are in turn vivified by it, Murphy’s sonnets seem merely pretentious or, in the case of ‘Convenience’, bathetic as a result of his dictionary discoveries. His usages are, I think, as far from ‘polyphiloprogenitive’ and its long, wilful but somehow also supplicating demand as I can well imagine.