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Letters

Vol. 9 No. 15 · 3 September 1987

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Seeing Modernism off

SIR: Jonathan Raban (LRB, 23 July), telling us that ‘in 1972 the “Poundian revolution" still looked as if it was carrying the world before it,’ alleges, as evidence of this, that ‘with his Essex Poems, even Donald Davie, the very type of the English conservative poet-critic, appeared to have capitulated to “American" Modernism.’ Though I don’t much like being ‘the very type’ of anything, still ‘English’ and ‘conservative’ and ‘poet-critic’ are so far as I’m concerned honorific descriptions. So I’m gratified. But my 1968 Essex Poems has by reasonably attentive readers been thought a great deal less ‘Modernist’ and less ‘Poundian’ than my Forests of Lithuania of 1959. Am I to infer that an English poet may legitimately be ‘Modernist’ when dealing with matters of Poland and Lithuania, but not when attending to the matter of Britain? And in any case is it ‘capitulation’ when an English and conservative poet shows himself aware of what his American contemporaries have been up to?

It is Raban’s precedent that forces me to put quotation-marks round ‘Modernist’. If I were to follow him further, I’d have to frame in a similar manner ‘revolution’ and ‘Poundian’ and ‘American’. Because of this caginess of his, it is hard to identify that filthy modern tide which by his account he and his fellow Canutes of the Review repelled so valiantly fifteen years ago. Carried inshore on that tide were, it seems, Williams’s Paterson, Bunting’s Briggflatts, Zukofsky’s A, Charles Olson’s Maximus, Ginsberg’s Howl; Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch, Charles Tomlinson; also, mirabile dictu, Adrian Henri and Roger McGough, not to speak of the hapless Miriam Waddington. I don’t know where that leaves me, who have consistently written in support of Dorn and Tomlinson but have declared that life is too short for A; who have championed Briggflatts and execrated Paterson; who am currently in receipt of hate-mail from the US for refusing, in the New Republic earlier this year, to accept William Carlos Williams at the rate that some Americans demand for him. ‘Modernism’ (or ‘American Modernism’ or ‘Anglo-American Modernism’) is not the package-deal that Raban, like many others, would persuade us can be either accepted or rejected outright. Raban and Ian Hamilton and perhaps Gavin Ewart think Modernism is something they have triumphantly ‘seen off’: they should be cautious – in the history of poetry fifteen years is no time at all.

Donald Davie
Silverton, near Exeter

Jonathan Raban writes: Professor Davie’s points are fairly made, and I am sorry that I gave him cause to detect a gloating note in my review of recent books of British verse. I did not mean to sound ‘triumphant’ at the ‘seeing-off’ of ‘Modernism’. Nor was I trying to play at being King Canute, though I was registering a bystander’s surprise at how far out the tide now seems to be in this country. As a keen observer of tides, I know very well how hard it is to mark the difference between the last of the ebb and the first of the flood.

Veni, vidi, scripsi

SIR: We may one day be old and wise like Ian Hamilton, that noble relic of the literary life who came to Canberra to drink beer with us, to learn the rules of our football, and tell us gently that he is above anything so meagre and so cliché’d, so earnest and recherché, as a Literary Magazine (Diary, 9 July). We listened politely as he suggested that the demise of his own magazines symbolised the End of the Form Itself and tried to read in that leathery face the course of our own imperilled destinies.

And why shouldn’t we have listened politely? Hamilton, after all, listened politely to us, even though he doesn’t seem to have liked much of what he heard. But we did do our best. We gave him food and drinks and books and several issues of Scripsi, including a copy of the current issue which has an essay by Hugh Kenner on post-war British poetry. Hamilton takes exception to Kenner’s essay, as well he might: he is an eminent member of that British poetry industry that Kenner finds wanting. Well, Hugh Kenner does not need our assistance in dealing with this kind of thing. But Hamilton is not simply gunning for Kenner when he says of his article that ‘its outsiderist whine is not unlike what I had in mind when I feared for the future of the little magazine.’ The trouble with talking about other people’s outsiderish whines is that it is so difficult not to do it in an insider’s drawl. Hamilton is alive to the paradox that Hugh Kenner is one of the most eminent critics of poetry in the English-speaking world but he seems blind to the irony that the slur of ‘outsider’ is very British, very complacent and very parochial. Kenner, it appears, doesn’t drink at the right pub. But what can you expect, Hamilton implies: after all, he was born in Canada.

The question which Ian Hamilton has to ask himself is what English poetry since the war amounts to. It is surely a truism of modern literary history that London has continued to be a centre for the publishing of poetry, even though significant poets (and particularly poets of metropolitan ambit) can seem to colonial ears, trained on the rhythms of Ezra Pound or Les Murray, few and far between. Kenner believes that Basil Bunting was one British poet who towered above the ruck. So do we. Ian Hamilton is bored by such talk. Wasn’t ‘a Poundian/Objectivist line … the stuff of several British and American little magazines some twenty years ago’, as if value could simply be equated with fashion.

And so to Scripsi. Hamilton misrepresents what Scripsi does, whether out of negligence or as the most efficient way of making his prejudices look respectable. According to Hamilton, we are ‘hopelessly out of date’ because we are ‘peddling’ something other people were highlighting twenty years ago. And we are naive enough to think we’re being ‘avant-garde’. Twenty years ago? Of course, Ian Hamilton was then editor of the Review. And the Review didn’t peddle that kind of poetry but it was a magazine which ‘had some sense of history, connecting itself back to an earlier epoch that was out of fashion’. Hamilton can’t have it both ways. Or rather, he did and we can: magazines have their traditions and their modernities. Part of Scripsi’s tradition (when we are not talking about Joyce or Flaubert) is the kind of thing Hamilton has never had much time for.

Hamilton can’t or won’t see what is staring him in the face. Yes, we have published essays on Oppen and Reznikoff and Zukofsky and Bunting because we think these writers matter. Our bet is that they will still matter in twenty years, though it would be nice to think that a discriminating literary world would have done something to assimilate them. But since when did fiction by Michel Tournier or Elizabeth Jolley, poetry by John Ashbery or Les Murray or Peter Porter, interviews with Christina Stead and Salman Rushdie, essays by Gerard Genette or J.P. Stern tally with the limiting label Hamilton wants to pin on Scripsi? It would be comforting to think this was just Hamilton’s whimsy but it’s not. What he’s up to, with all his talk of metropolitan centres and whining outsiders, seems much more symptomatic of the ills Kenner’s article diagnoses.

Ian Hamilton has read Scripsi through the dark glass of what he knows and perhaps once cared about. He might have noticed, for instance, that along with Hugh Kenner daring to say his piece on post-war British poetry there was Harold Bloom talking about Alexander Pope (‘hopelessly out of date’ perhaps). There was the outstanding new Australian novelist Kate Grenville writing fiction and there was a great swag of articles talking about the respective verse novels of Alan Wearne and Vikram Seth, neither of them remotely Poundian or Objectivist. But Hamilton doesn’t discuss any of this or any of the new poetry that we publish. Much of what Scripsi prints is international, much of it is Australian. But Hamilton is not really interested in specifics – not the ‘Poundian’ Californian August Kleinzahler who Thom Gunn thinks is one of the best poets around, not the Australian abstractionist John A. Scott whose St Clair was described as ‘a book Australian literature hardly deserves’. Ian Hamilton, and with him the London literary world, could do worse than investigate such poets.

In his reverie about the early days of his career Hamilton pauses to note that ‘whereas in Ezra Pound’s day the established culture-powers were self-protectively resistant to the new, nowadays they seem almost voraciously hospitable.’ Therefore I rejoice having to construct something upon which to rejoice. Scripsi doesn’t believe that the fashionable is always second-rate but we hope we’re above the kind of newness that’s validated only by its acceptability to ‘established culture-powers’. We can’t think of a better phrase to summarise Ian Hamilton’s reaction to Scripsi than ‘self-protectively resistant’. Here is the news: the Little Magazine died with the Review. Now good night and piss off.

Peter Craven
Scripsi, Melbourne

Ian Hamilton writes: Let me rush to say that I had no wish to offend the editors of Scripsi. They are good fellows and terrific hosts, and I shall be fond of them until the bitter end. Also, I had no wish to put anyone off reading their magazine. It is, as they say, full of things other than Poundian/Objectivist special pleading; if I had been reviewing it, which I wasn’t, I would probably have found myself calling it the liveliest of current Australian little magazines. But I would still have had to register a protest against Hugh Kenner’s dotty article, and not just because by implication it suggests that I need not have lived. You see, I’m still inclined to think that Scripsi’s notion of ‘what English poetry amounts to’ since the war is about as well-informed as, say, my own notion of what’s been happening in Oz. The Scripsi boys indeed gave me some books to read when I was there, and they seemed to understand that an outsider like myself could not be expected to know the rich detail of their ‘scene’. And I was humble, questing, happy to be guided through the ‘ruck’. The Kenner reading list for recent English poetry is blank, apart from Anglo-American favourites like Basil Bunting and Charles Tomlinson. If the Scripsi lads ever come to London, and I hope they do, maybe I’ll give them some books. These won’t ‘amount to’ any more than whatever Scripsi chooses to make of them. But at least I’ll be satisfied that they have done as much work on my lot as (rightly) they would have me do on theirs. And even if they were then to persist in describing Basil Bunting as a lonely ‘tower’, I can promise that no one will require them to ‘piss off’. On the contrary, I will pour them some warm bitter and shepherd them to White Hart Lane – or even to St James’s Park, Newcastle, from whose terraces you can, I understand, catch a tantalising glimpse of Briggflatts or the Morden Tower or Bunting’s gravel pit. Or something. Anyway, I’ll do my best – as they, in Australia, assuredly did theirs.

Golden Age of Criticism

SIR: In ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ (LRB, 25 June) W.J.T. Mitchell misrepresents my views on current academic literary criticism, expressed in Criticism in the University, edited by Reginald Gibbons and myself (1985). Mitchell takes a position which is actually sympathetic to his own defence of current theory and criticism and makes it sound as if it is antagonistic.

Mitchell confuses me with the more conservative contributors to Criticism in the University (i.e. Donald Davie and Wendell Berry), a diverse collection of essays from opposing ideological standpoints which Mitchell misrepresents as ‘nothing if not single-minded’. In order to make this conflation, Mitchell twists my statements out of recognition: ‘Gerald Graff complains that “recent literary theory has become a private enclave" on one page, then laments the assimilation of my theory as “traditional" practice in the literary curriculum two pages later.’ What I actually said was that since all the academic literary fields are more or less ‘private enclaves’ from a lay point of view, it is unfair to single out theorists for blame in this respect. What I lamented was not the assimilation of literary theory into the curriculum, but the assimilation of theory as one more field to be ‘covered’, so that ‘the rest of the faculty is free to ignore the issues theorists raise.’

In other words, my point was that it is not the much-abused self-enclosure of academic theory and criticism which has created problems for literary education, but the failure of the university to foreground relations between courses, specialisations and critical positions so that students and laymen would be able to make sense of them. I was objecting not to the academic institutionalisation of literary theory, as Mitchell supposes, but to a particular mode of institutionalisation which masks ideological conflicts and deprives theory of much of its educational potential. As I put it, ‘the university is like a family in which the parents hide their conflicts from the children.’ I presented theory as a means of bringing these repressed conflicts out in the open, and concluded by praising the model of cultural studies, as conceived by Raymond Williams and others, as a promising trend.

In other words, my essay made the very point Mitchell makes, that we should value contemporary theory for its generalising power. Yet Mitchell presents it as if it were an outright dismissal of such theory: to me, he says, the idea is ‘quite unthinkable’ that ‘the success of theoretical criticism, feminism or Marxism in the academy could have anything to do with the intellectual excitement they generate, the cognitive results they produce, or the cultural needs they fulfil’. To propound this amazing falsification, Mitchell had to ignore, not only my general commendations of theoretical criticism and my endorsement of Williams’s cultural studies model, but also my praise of structuralism, ‘semiotics, popular cultural studies, the new social history inspired by Continental thought’, and of ‘speech-act theory, pragmatics, and various forms of current reader-response criticism’. He had, too, to ignore my inclusion in the book, as co-editor, of essays from Marxist, feminist and Post-Structuralist viewpoints. It’s true that I did express strong disagreements with particular versions of current theory, but to dissent from certain theories is hardly to oppose the theory-movement as such.

Gerald Graff
Northwestern University, Illinois

SIR: Until I realised that Edward Said and Stanley Fish write literary criticism, I was convinced that W.J.T.Mitchell was a teenage music fan writing about his rock idols. Edward Said, as ‘academic superstar’, ‘exemplifies the fulfilment of … fantasy’. Stanley Fish, writing about Pride and Prejudice, ‘is, as we say, “too much" ’. (I can see him now, at the climax of a seminar, biting through the neck of his guitar.) These heart-throbs are at the centre of a ‘new sort of … culture’,which the old regard as ‘an inexplicable temptation for the young’.

I was struck by the fact that Mr Mitchell’s idols, unlike the idols of rock music, are exclusively male. Have the literary theorists no Madonna to worship?

Elisabeth Underwood
New York

Writeabout

SIR: Reading John Bayley’s review of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines (LRB, 9 July), I was amazed to see the following two sentences: ‘As birds and animals have no objection to squalid surroundings, the modern Aboriginal lives in a mess of plastic bags, rusty cars, candy-bar wrappings, which presumably become part of his Songlines. His wish to keep or to revive the old ways seems to be mainly a way of getting at the Government, inhibiting land development and upping the welfare cheque.’ The charitable response was that Professor Bayley had momentarily gone, as they say in Sydney, ‘off the air’. But in an article which pretends to take some notice of European attitudes to ‘primitive’ peoples, there is no excuse for a comment which is (need it be spelt out?) casually racist, condescending, and seemingly more indicative of a reading of The Tempest than any experience of Aboriginals. In fact, the reviewer maintains this breezily prejudiced tone throughout. He opens by likening the Aboriginals to tinkers and gypsies, dismisses those showing an interest in native ideas about land as misty-eyed ‘nuts’, and then suggests that returning some lands to Aboriginal use is equivalent to Apartheid (plainly, it isn’t). Chatwin’s account of Australia is praised for the delicacy with which it exposes the distance between Nomadic realities and Western stereotypes. Professor Bayley might do well to show some of the same delicacy, and an understanding of the reality of exploitation and resistance, rather than characterising the Aboriginals as animals, dole-bludgers, discards and impediments to ‘development’. As it is, he displays nothing so much as what he himself calls ‘the disillusion of the sedentary’. Rightabout that.

Tim Armstrong
London E3

John Bayley writes: I am sorry I seemed to Tim Armstrong to be condescending about Aboriginals, about whom I only know what I read in Bruce Chatwin’s remarkable book. I gave what seemed to me his own views on the matter, which are certainly neither sentimental nor condescending. The point about Apartheid was made by an Australian teacher in an Aboriginal community, in conversation with Bruce Chatwin.

Anti-Anti-Racism

SIR: In her review of my book Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value (LRB, 9 July) Ann Dummett devotes most of her space to anti-racist rhetoric. This is not surprising in view of the fact that she has been active in promoting the kind of anti-racism the book criticises. (One may as well have a critique of religious fanaticism reviewed by the father of Edmund Gosse!) The little she does say about the text is superficial and misleading. To complain that the essays of John Marks and Antony Flew are ‘entirely theoretical’ misses the whole point. If we are urged to ‘combat racism’, it is surely sensible to examine what a number of local authority policy documents take ‘racism’ to be. And the point is made with ample quotation that in ILEA and other radical ‘anti-racist’ statements, racism is by definition something which can only be committed by white society. Further, if it is demanded of British teachers that they no longer teach children to adapt to the majority culture, it is hardly ‘sidestepping’ the issue (as Roger Scruton is accused of doing) to examine the thesis of cultural relativism (not ‘pluralism’, by the way) which is taken by the multiculturalists to justify their proposals.

It is strange to see Ms Dummett praising the Swann report for its moderation, considering she is one of the extremists who resigned from the committee. I stand by the claim that if its proposals on teacher education are implemented, all teachers and trainee teachers will have to accept the premises of anti-racist education. I did not say – as my reviewer claims – that all teachers will have to undergo racism-awareness training. Ray Honeyford, however, does suggest this (pace Dummett, the report claims that ‘the objective of RAT is very much in keeping with our own views,’ and the only criticism it makes is that RAT should be extended). As for the report examining ‘possible reasons’ other than racism for disparities between children of different ethnic backgrounds, Ms Dummett conveniently fails to acknowledge that the Committee actually suppressed its own research into the possible reasons for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils.

David Dale does not attack ‘the concept of institutional racism’, for there is no such clear concept. He examines the concept as revealed in the writings of people such as Sivanandan. And here, as in other sources, ‘institutional racism’ does rely upon Marxist assumptions and leaves little room for the notion of individual responsibility. Indeed the excesses of certain ‘antiracists’ are not, as Ms Dummett claims, isolated aberrations, but rather the logical consequence of following Marxist/anti-racist programmes.

Ms Dummett endeavours to discredit the book not by a judicious appraisal of its contents but by a slur on the motives of the contributors. I approached this project not as a politician but as a teacher who condemns the impoverishment of regarding subject teaching as a mere tool for the promotion of ‘causes’. Even if (genuine) racialism were more widespread than the authors accept, it would not follow that education should be treated as an antiracist instrument. To imply, as she does, that to value education as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with ‘the three R’s’ is plain silly. She fails to address herself to my argument that racism is a moral failing and that while a genuine academic education cannot ‘eradicate’ racism (any more than it can ‘eradicate’ any other moral failing), it can and does contribute to the general moral development of pupils. Indeed I would suggest that a truly educated person is not only prepared to examine his own attitudes but is less likely to share the dogmatic self-righteousness of anti-racism. For there is surely a difference between being morally opposed to (genuine) racism and enlisting in a fanatical campaign to seek it out even in places where it does not exist. Ms Dummett gets as close as she dare to accusing us of racism. This provides yet more evidence of the totalitarian mentality that says: ‘I am on the side of the angels, and if you disagree with my opinions you are a bigot.’

Frank Palmer
Twickenham

SIR: As one of the two socialists who contributed to Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value, I should like to comment on Ann Dummett’s review. It is a pity she did not quote from the final paragraph of my essay, in which I said: ‘I am well aware that a number of my fellow contributors do not share my political views and loyalties; but I also know that in spite of these differences we share a coincidence of views on matters of intellectual honesty, on the importance of a sound and balanced education for all our children … There are some things which cut across party political boundaries. As far as I am concerned, opposition to the callous provocation of racial strife is one of them.’ My link with the other contributors was the professional one of a concern for the manner in which history is being perverted, for the blatant use of propaganda techniques in our classrooms, and the intellectual dishonesty of far too many people in the race industry. The methods and attitudes of these people are proving to be counter-productive and are actually polarising the races in this country, creating a false image of a society with a metaphorical barbed-wire fence between us. As a political animal, I am deeply worried about the consequences of that policy for the working people of this country, whatever their colour happens to be. Mrs Thatcher doesn’t have to divide the workers of this country to continue to rule them. The race industry does it for her.

Since writing my essay last year, I have resigned from the Labour Party because it is not left enough for me. To me, the basic division of British society is one of class and not of race, and as long as the race issue continues to sap the energies of the Left, Mrs Thatcher will continue to wage and win the class war with impunity. I believe that we are more likely to solve the evils of racial prejudice within a socialist society rather than within a capitalist society. Should not then the main thrust of the Left be to bring about that socialist society and to put it firmly at the top of our political agenda? It is significant that Rosa Luxemburg took no part in the suffragette movement in Germany, for she rightly saw it as a diversion from the main task of the Left in that country. We should be adopting a similar policy here, but there are too many vociferous vested interests involved who will not tolerate such a policy because to them RACE has nothing to do with ethnic attributes but stands for the Racket for the Advancement of Career Enthusiasts.

I condemn utterly the mindless racist attacks on the homes and persons of blacks and Asians in this country and so do all my fellow contributors to the book in question. What I do object to, however, is how the criminal behaviour of a particular few is regarded as being typical of white Britons in general – and that is itself an inflammatory racist attitude, is it not? Ann Dummett says that the racially unprejudiced society of wartime Britain may have been a fact forty years ago but is not so now. I suggest that if there has been a retrogressive change in Britons’ racial attitudes, it has been concurrent with the growing power and influence of the race industry itself and its clumsy tactics in promoting its case. Ann Dummett concedes that ‘anti-racism’ has committed ‘follies’. Why doesn’t she join me in publicising them and resisting their disruptive influence on our spirited adolescents, both black and white? If we do not resist these ‘follies’, then we shall find that a parallel to Gresham’s Law will become operative and ‘follies’ will drive out truth, value and objectivity from our society. Such a development will surely destroy the education of all our children and plunge our common society into turmoil. Is Ann Dummett prepared to stand by silently and watch that happen? I for one am not.

Tom Hastie
London SW11

Philip Larkin

SIR: I have been asked by Faber to write a biography of Philip Larkin, and have the authorisation of his executors. May I appeal for anyone who has memories of or information about Philip Larkin to contact me at the address below?

Andrew Motion
10 Montague Road, London, E8 2HW

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