John Bayley refers (LRB, 26 May) to the American ‘occupation’ of Britain in the last war and goes on to deplore the fact that ‘miles and miles of the best East Anglian farmland were devastated to provide a concrete home for the B17s and 24s which, unlike the RAF Lancasters (which none the less carried more bombs), could not be allowed to rest their massive wheels on grass.’ What an awful picture. Poor little England, occupied by Americans presumably as the Channel Islands were by Germans, and buried in American concrete for the benefit of their monstrous bombers, in comparison with the good little green British Lancasters, which nestled in the grass like plover.
Well, I was a Lancaster navigator during the war and I can assure Bayley that these aircraft and the green grass were not the best of friends. On one of the very few occasions on which my Lancaster did touch the grass, the result was nearly fatal. We were coming in to land at Syerston in Nottinghamshire (concrete runways and dispersals). We made an error of judgment and omitted one step in the cockpit drill, with the result that we overran the extent of the concrete, went off the end of the runway and charged towards a steep drop into the Trent. The landing wheels, however, dug into the mud up to the axles and brought the Lancaster to an abrupt stop with not very much weight on the tail wheel.
There were a lot of American runways in East Anglia but there were a lot of British ones too, and the British bomber runways were to be found all the way from Cambridge to Darlington as well.
There have been a number of accounts of the problems faced by Allied meteorologists in forecasting the weather during the build-up to the invasion of France, and for the actual D-Day landings themselves. It is unfortunate that we do not have the same level of knowledge about events on the other side of the Channel. Lawrence Hogben (LRB, 26 May) reiterates the account given by H.C. Butcher in My Three Years with Eisenhower that the forecasts made by the German meteorologists indicated that the weather would be quite unsuitable for a seaborne assault during early June, and that on 4 June Rommel was advised by Major Lettau, his chief meteorologist, that there could be no invasion during the next fortnight. It is alleged that as a result of this advice he decided to return home for a spell of leave. However, the accounts given by Lettau himself, and by the head of the Zentrale Wetterdienst Gruppe, Werner Schwerdtfeger, suggest that whatever failings there may have been on the German side, they were not meteorological. Indeed, Schwerdtfeger’s own account claims that the Channel coast forecasts for 6 June that were issued by ZWG were, in fact, correct. Unfortunately no relevant official ZWG documents survived the war so it is impossible to settle this point, but an appropriate level of doubt concerning Butcher’s account should be noted.
After the war Schwerdtfeger and Lettau both moved to Madison in the United States, where they became professors at the University of Wisconsin. Professor Schwerdtfeger died in January 1985. My last contact with Professor Lettau was in December of that year, at which time he was still living in Madison.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Margaret Anne Doody (LRB, 9 June) jeers that much water has flowed under the bridges of lit crit since I last took a look at it. But she herself is still upstream of a bridge I built in 1952, when I answered the question she poses: Is ‘resonant conciseness’ (in poetry) exactly the same as ‘strength’? I will repeat the answer that I gave then, documenting it then as I can’t, and shouldn’t need to, now: ‘strength’ in relation to poetry means more exactly ‘resonant conciseness’ than it means anything else. In other words, the semi-technical sense that the 17th and 18th centuries gave to ‘strength’ is the only one that we can self-respectingly call on, if as critics we’re still to use the term at all. Doody, on the other hand, equates ‘strong’ with ‘manly’, and takes ‘manly’ to exclude ‘tender’, thus coming up with the would-be conclusive put-down: ‘One could be resonant and concise about tender feelings, but this would be suspect in the Davie system.’ I have no system; and if I had I wouldn’t be so daft as to rule out tenderness from the poetry that I admire and have tried to emulate. Doody takes a semi-technical term, and makes it wholly untechnical. She does the same elsewhere with ‘cant’, which she takes as having to do with doctrine whereas this too is a semi-technical term: ‘language whose meaning has evaporated from continued repetition’ (Chambers). In both cases, as throughout her piece, she refuses to recognise poetry for what it is – a construct in language.
Who has ever denied that Cowper’s Olney hymns are poignantly tender? Answer: those who hear them as mawkish. In my account of Cowper, though no one would guess it from Doody’s review, I was largely concerned to argue that tender is what these poems are, and mawkish they are not. They are also (as I think I show) strong, resonantly concise – the one feature, far from excluding the other, reinforces it. It is only in Doody’s system – not in her experience, which she nowhere appeals to – that the two are incompatible.
Things to say
Helen Vendler comments on the publishing world’s lack of things to say about poetry, and herself says a great deal which is of considerable value (LRB, 26 May). But her paragraph on the subject of line-breaks contains so many bizarre ideas that it is quite out of character with the rest of her article.
We would find it very odd, she says, in reading prose, to have to stop several times per sentence. We would indeed; and we would find it just as odd to have to stop at the end of each line when reading poetry. You don’t stop at the end of each line, any more than, when reading or reciting prose, you stop at each comma. We might pause if a line break corresponds with an express or implied punctuation mark, but this is not unique to poetry.
Having asserted that there is no one reason for lineation, she then goes on to propose ‘change of direction’ as the sole reason. (I could see no change of direction in the first half-dozen lines of ‘Snipers’, which you publish in the same issue.) Professor Vendler then modifies her yardstick for deciding what is real poetry, to include such lesser devices as ‘a new addition to a list’; but any sentence which contains more than a simple main clause will answer to these criteria. She also contrasts the inefficiency of real poetry with the efficiency of prose. She does not offer a definition of efficiency, though this may be inferred from her reference to the concision and hermeticism of ‘real’ poetry stemming ‘precisely’ from inefficiency in conveying information. What does she mean? Factual information? Information about the poet’s emotion? The poet’s EEG? Could the information in the opening lines of ‘Snipers’ be conveyed any more efficiently?
If it is true that ‘in the United States one hears much less about African, Caribbean and Indian poetry than one does in England,’ as Helen Vendler remarks, that may be more the fault of university English departments and American cultural politics than of England’s favoured position as the former centre of the Empire. In Hena Maes-Jelinek’s collection A Shaping of Connections (1989), both the Canadian Robert Robertson and the New Zealander A.L. McLeod trace the long unsuccessful history of individuals and organisations that attempted to introduce Commonwealth literature to American universities. Robertson’s conclusion is still true: ‘They were swamped first by black studies, then women’s studies, then gay literature, neo-Marxist critiques and other fashions in the American academic whirligig.’
Vendler need not depend on anthologists to learn about good English-language post-colonial poets, however. There are American professional organisations devoted to the study of Australian, African and other literatures and there is a good journal of Australian creative writing, Antipodes, edited in Texas. Major Indian poets who live or have lived in America include A.K. Ramanujan, Vikram Seth and Agha Shahid Ali. Because of ‘fashions in the American academic whirligig’ they have been ignored in the hunt for ‘multicultural voices’ which parrot what American academics assume the post-colonial should say.
Could copies of Helen Vendler’s sensible and instructive article be sent to all future reviewers of poetry, please?
Might I, as the only one of Robert Graves’s biographers or prospective biographers who knew him intimately, be permitted to add a few corrections and comments to what has been written?
First, Harry Kemp (Letters, 26 May), who accuses Laura Riding of wickedness and apostasy, was only ever a minor and peripheral figure in the Graves entourage. As far as I know, he never went to Mallorca, before or after 1936. He was originally to have appeared with Alan Hodge, Norman Cameron and Graves in the wartime collection Work in Hand, but this did not happen. Graves, however, was upset only at the exclusion of James Reeves. It may be relevant that Harry Kemp has just had to apologise, under legal pressure, for libelling another writer over matters connected with Riding. James Reeves, with whom he claims close friendship, wrote thus: ‘Let the world know how much my friendship meant / To the quack writer whom I hated most.’
Mark Jacobs (Letters, 12 May) is like the incompetent cabalist who knew the secret truth about everything but could not tell anyone else. His writings upon Riding’s poetry are incomprehensible – and less successful than his famous visit to her in Wabasso. He would do well to look at the philosophy of Leibniz when commenting on Laura Riding’s poem ‘The Quids’: she studied it, even if he has not. He is also quite wrong to imply that Graves never talked about the circumstances surrounding Laura Riding’s attempted suicide: he did, in great detail, on several occasions, both to me and to others. He also wrote a very long letter about it. However, Jacobs’s own correspondence with Graves was another failure.
Of course Miranda Seymour (Letters, 12 May) is right when she says that there was no party going on, in the early morning of 23 April 1929, at St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, when Laura Riding jumped. But the young guest who gave her mother an account of what she believed was a wild party at Norman Cameron’s flat in December 1928 was out of her depth: Norman Cameron used to say how funny Graves and Riding were at acting out various fashionable Twenties antics, and I remember his ‘screaming on the floor’ (but silently, as he was playing at charades). I do hope people will now concentrate upon what is important about the association between Graves and Riding, and not upon this tedious kind of tabloid tattle.
Graves and Riding used affectionately to refer to Naomi Mitchison (Letters, 7 April) as a ‘goose’.
Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex
Robert Creamer complains that Sadik Al-Azm is ‘stretching things more than a little, even metaphorically, when he says James Joyce was writing about Ireland in a language other than his own’ (Letters, 28 April). We can only quote Joyce himself, from A Portrait of the Artist:
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.
Thus Stephen Dedalus, while in conversation with the English dean at his university in Dublin. It is in the spirit of this much quoted passage that I read Christopher Hitchens’s report of Sadik Al-Azm’s original article and its attention ‘to the language’ (LRB, 24 February).
The question of (the) language is crucial to the writing of Salman Rushdie, Edward Said and Amin Maalouf, as it is to writers (Arab, African, Indian, Irish or whatever) whose people have had to deal with an ‘imperial’ tongue imposed on them from outside. Squarely and without whingeing, James Joyce faced the issue; and made his choice. Though other choices were, and are, possible, his stand can be regarded as paradigmatic. No less so because his home language was English.
Sadik Al-Azm has Joycean authority for his metaphorical stretchings. Robert Creamer has none. To call Irish the language of Ireland’s ‘traditionalists’ is as disparaging as it is meaningless – all speakers of all languages are perforce traditionalists. To say that Breton is a Gaelic language is simply wrong. Like Welsh, Breton belongs to the Brythonic group of Celtic languages. In linguistics, as in literary criticism, we must watch our ps and qs.
Liam Mac Cóil
Baile Atha Buí, Co. na Mí
I have today conducted a brief analysis of the contents of your Letters page over the past three and a half years. I have discovered that in 1991 you published only one letter from Keith Flett. The following year you published two letters from him and in 1993 four letters. So far this year you have published five. I would be grateful if you could inform your readership as to whether you intend to maintain this exponential trend. If the LRB will carry 16 of Keith Flett’s letters during 1995 it would be worth knowing in advance, so that I can save myself £63.
What’s this £63? A year’s subscription, in the UK, costs £51.60.
Editor, ‘London Review’