Vol. 14 No. 6 · 26 March 1992

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Their Witness

Donald Davie (LRB, 27 February) is entitled to his view of the poets and critics who have exalted the ‘witness’ of East European writers at the expense of their individual art – at least he offers a little evidence for it – but he is simply intemperate, and apparently ignorant, in his lambasting of ‘poetry workshops, poetry-writing in the classroom’. To this ‘tight world of would-be poets’ he attributes the supposition that writing poems is ‘not a gift, nor a discipline to be strenuously acquired’. What does he think we do? I have lived in that world for 28 years as a member of a North Lancashire writers’ workshop, 23 as a creative-writing teacher at Lancaster University. We have always worked hard at our art. We reason our way to candid judgments of each other’s work. We discuss, in detail, rhythm, rhyme, precision, sub-text, metaphor, idiom, characterisation, consistency. Classic writers from many periods are often invoked.

All this has nothing to do with ‘democratic rights’ in the sense sneered at by Davie – a citizen’s automatic entitlement – and everything to do with democracy in the sense of unprivileged people working together on a footing of equality, not of talent but of opportunity: the opportunity to be taken seriously, fully attended to, patiently reasoned with.

Yes, this ‘world’ has expanded: more people are writing poetry, a thousand publications a year, some of it good, much of it pretty ordinary. What is ‘gross’ about this? On what grounds does Davie dislike our hard-won sense that we have made from words at least a few pieces with their own character and resonance? He sounds like Samuel Johnson dismayed at the prospect of blacksmiths and serving-maids writing novels. It is a political dislike, nothing to do with the quality and integrity of the work produced by hoi polloi. He wants to be one of a few; he feels threatened when the few begin to grow. His own ‘supposition’ seems to be ‘More means worse,’ one of the worst-founded of axioms since it implies that the best possible number must somehow have been exactly the one prevailing when you yourself secured your place.

Davie invents bogeys. Those he disagrees with he dubs ‘careerists’. He himself, we gather, has some kind of ethically-guaranteed motive for pursuing his career, writing his kind of poetry, promoting his tastes. It’s a shame that his career didn’t take him into a few of the rooms all over the country where the art both he and I care for has been worked at with so much commitment and careful effort during our lifetimes.

David Craig
Burton in Kendal, Cumbria

I am astonished that Donald Davie should write, and you should print, a defamation principally of Daniel Weissbort, but also of Ted Hughes and A. Alvarez, masquerading as a review of The Poetry of Survival. Davie mentions not one poem, he travesties the purpose and scope of the book, he lumps together the viewpoints (mainly imagined, and maliciously so in the case of blaming them for ‘their legacies’ of competitions, prizes, workshops) of Weissbort, Hughes and Alvarez, as if they thought with one mind and spoke with one tongue. He makes insulting allegations about Weissbort’s career and his motives for this anthology. He asserts that poets from former East European Soviet satellite countries would be horrified to know how they have been used. Where and who are the poets now protesting at their exploitation by these Western ‘careerists’? (Milosz’s firm, but hardly – to judge by Davie’s quotation – ‘indignant’ response to Alvarez’s 1988 review of his poems does not constitute rejection of this ‘con-job’. And did not Milosz edit a notable collection of post-war Polish poetry?)

On the contrary, Weissbort’s endeavours through his magazine and this anthology were firmly supported and encouraged by, for example, the late Vasko Popa. It should be obvious too from the interviews that he was not the only poet to understand the book’s aims and to support its general tenets. Like all anthologists, Weissbort has his own predilections with which one does not have to agree in every detail in order to find his book valuable.

Davie refuses to accept that Weissbort’s claims for these poets are based on what he knows of their poetry, and not on any theoretical position or dogma. (There are a lot of Polish poets for the simple reason that he found their poems compelling. An anthology balanced along nationalist lines was never intended.) Nothing Weissbort writes – bar one loose phrase about ‘the inertness of the English scene at the time’, circa 1963 – can possibly be construed as implying that he considers these European poets as ‘better’ than the best British poets, among whom I know he ranks Larkin. Davie might recall that Larkin published at infrequent intervals, with no collection between 1955 and 1964. The whole tradition of English poetry from Hardy is in fact an interest and love of Weissbort’s. I do not see why a love for that English tradition should preclude an interest in poetry written from very different traditions and under vastly different conditions.

When Davie mentions something from the book, he misreads it. ‘The good old days’ from the interview with Yehuda Amichai is obviously ironic, and the rest of the paragraph from which Davie lifts it makes clear that Weissbort’s interest, unlike Davie’s in this article, is in the particular qualities of actual poems by specific poets. Weissbort did not commission translations. He drew on what was available to him after more than 25 years’ experience of editing a magazine. It is true that over the years he enabled some translations: for example, introducing the late Anne Pennington to the poetry of Vasko Popa. Never has he suggested that the foreign poetry he has advocated in any way detracts from the value of modern British (or American) poetry. The suggestion that Weissbort et al might, having calculatedly exploited the Cold War, now not be glad it is over, is unspeakable.

Peter Jay
Anvil Press, London SE10

Ulster, Truth and Realism

I spent nine years in Ulster, working for HMG, and Tom Wilson says everything I’ve thought and felt about the political situation there (LRB, 27 February). Although I’m a paid-up subscriber to the LRB, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Tory. Knowing the LRB’s leftist leanings, I hadn’t expected to see the Unionist case in Northern Ireland so well and fairly put. But I oughtn’t to have been surprised because I like to think that when the chips are down the LRB puts truth and realism first.

P.R. Bonnett

Tom Wilson, in his review of All in a Life by Garret FitzGerald, suggests that Dr FitzGerald held, as a continuous policy, that ‘as a condition for unity by consent, the Republic should “provide the same civil liberties in the whole island of Ireland as at present exist in the North".’ He refers in particular to the sale of contraceptives and to divorce. It was Dr FitzGerald, however, who agreed to introduce the abortion amendment to placate a rigid Catholic section of the community – with near-disastrous consequences. Not merely has he had to admit that he was wrong in accepting the Fianna Fail wording too easily, but he would probably also concede that the whole Eight Amendment issue was a mistake. How can this fact be reconciled with the view of Dr FitzGerald as a liberalising politician?

The delicate balance of power in 1982 led to both sides trying to win over to its support the Catholic Church, with its view of Ireland as the last bastion of the Catholic view on abortion. For narrow political gains, the ill-conceived abortion amendment, with its huge implications for the rights of women and families, was supported by Dr FitzGerald against the recommendation of his Attorney-General, Peter Sutherland. Tom Wilson ignored these facts in his acceptance of the view that Dr FitzGerald was the liberal force in Irish politics. His liberalism did not extend to challenging the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church when his broader political aims depended on it. It was such weakness which prevented an admirable man from being a great statesman.

N.F. Lowe
South Dublin Psychology Service

Irish Writing

Padraig O Conchuir (Letters, 13 February) wilfully misrepresents not only my attitude, but that of the School of English at Queen’s University, to the Irish language. We offer an ‘MA in English (Irish Writing)’, rather than one in ‘Anglo-Irish Writing’, because the hyphenated term carries excess historical baggage. Students entering an English Department, as opposed to the University’s Celtic Languages Department, know what to expect. It is, in fact, a bonus, not an insult to the Irish language, that one of our MA courses concerns ‘bilingual’ authors who have written in both languages. And undergraduates and postgraduates can take literary courses in the two departments if they so desire.

Mr O Conchuir – or should I call him Padraig since he calls me Edna – notices my failure to comment on the Irish-language texts in the Field Day Anthology. Alas, I am disqualified from so doing either by innate lack of linguistic talent, or by the fact that the language was badly taught during my schooldays in Dublin. Finally, Padraig’s quibble illustrates the point of my ‘Belfast Diary’. Political ideologies have held up understanding of writing by Irish people in whatever language.

Edna Longley
Queen’s University, Belfast

Changing places

Though Vernon Bogdanor (Letters, 13 February) is right to criticise Avi Shlaim’s article on the Madrid Peace Conference and to point out the untrustworthiness of the PLO, his sympathetic words about the Stern Gang and especially about Shamir should not go unchallenged. Does one have to remind Mr Bogdanor that Mr Shamir cynically gave the order for the assassination of the Swedish Count Bernadotte, the then UN mediator in 1948, because the latter was not partial enough to the Jewish cause? Mr Bogdanor may call the Count a selected target, but one fails to see any attenuating circumstances, let alone excuse, for the cold-blooded murder of a civilian and great humanitarian who had done more than any other living person for the Jews by helping thousands of them to escape certain death in the Nazi camps. During the war years Count Bernadotte became a hero to us Scandinavians and helped us live through a difficult period. When he was murdered by Mr Shamir, most of us lost our sympathy for the Jews and particularly for Mr Shamir, who may have done more than anyone to destroy worldwide sympathy for his countrymen.

Gunner Pedersen
Reillanne, France

Avi Shlaim admits – proclaims even – that, in his article on the Madrid Peace Conference (LRB, 9 January), he gave ‘the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt while judging Israel harshly’ on the grounds that the Israelis are, in his view, ‘the oppressors’ and the Palestinians ‘the oppressed’. It is a pity that he did not accompany his article with a warning that it was intended to be a propaganda exercise in the interests of the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately, his letter (Letters, 27 February) introduces a new confusion. He says that at Algiers in November 1988, the Palestine National Council abandoned the provision in the PLO Charter calling for Israel’s destruction. In fact, Article 33 of the Charter makes it clear that it can only be amended by a special session of the Palestine National Council and a two-thirds vote. No such special session has been called. Arafat’s assertion that declarations of the Algiers conference were sufficient to amend the Charter is quite false. The Charter remains with its assertion in Article 22 that the methods of ‘the Zionist movement’ are ‘those of the Fascists and the Nazis’.

Shlaim has sought to portray Arafat as a moderate. He is again unfortunate in his timing, since his letter appeared just after Arafat was quoted in a conversation with Ibrahim Souss, PLO representative in France, in which he called Jews ‘dogs’, ‘filth and dirt’, ‘filthy garbage’, with whom he would ‘settle accounts’. Such language has not been used by any political leader since Dr Goebbels.

Vernon Bogdanor
Brasenose College, Oxford

What do lionesses want?

In her generous review of my Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (LRB, 27 February), Caroline Humphrey commends me for the ‘daring’ of my argument that women created culture. Her worries focus less on my data than my logic. In a lion pride, she objects, the numerous females synchronise their oestrus periods yet – in apparent contradiction of my theory – get themselves impregnated by a single dominant male. I restrict my response to two points. Unlike evolving human females, lionesses require sperm from males but little else, being physiologically well-equipped to do their own hunting for themselves. Correspondingly, in permitting impregnation a lioness insists on little sexual time from her consort, releasing him to move from one female to the next in quick succession. Reflecting this, lionesses lack the continuous sexual receptivity, oestrus-concealment and other time-consuming features so intriguingly characteristic of human female reproductive physiology and sexuality. My book argues that human female ovulatory synchrony just wouldn’t have worked without these additional features, which emerged all together as a package.

An incoming lion in the situation Humphrey describes stimulates the synchronised receptivity of his newly-monopolised females by killing their existing cubs (carriers of the genes of his defeated rival). Once these ‘unwanted’ cubs are dead, the mothers stop lactating and in consequence come jointly back into heat. Had your reviewer mentioned this detail, I doubt whether her logic would have seemed more compelling than mine. Lion sexual politics are fascinating, but no school of palaeoanthropology, to my knowledge, holds that evolving human females could have tolerated such a wastage of pregnancies and maternal energies in the interests of ‘paternal certainty’.

Chris Knight
London SE13

Nothing doing

I asked my parish priest, a good, kind man, to read A.N. Wilson’s rantings (LRB, 30 January). He said: ‘It is frustration, of course, He does not believe in God, but he knows God believes in him and can do nothing about it.’

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Kobe, Japan

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