Letterbox

Article excerpt

John Wilkinson reacts to Peter Riley's letter in the last issue (cr 53:1), plus two responses to CR's special on British poetry.

Dear Chicago Review,

The last issue of Chicago Review prints Peter Riley's cry of protest against what he takes my review of Simon Jarvis's poem The Unconditional in Chicago Review 52:2/3/'4 to represent. It seems surprising that a short notice should occasion such a response, but evidently Riley saw it as symptomatic in taking certain ideas and preferences for granted, and he felt that enough is enough. There is passion in his writing beyond what my review could in itself incite. Best therefore to identify the characteristics of the thinking Riley decries. These appear to be: 1/ the assumption that poetry must reflect conditions of crisis; 2/ a restriction of what counts as serious poetry to the works of a very few poets whose work reflects conditions of crisis; and 3/ the tendency of the poetic response to crisis to segregate its products from ordinary human discourse, designating these the privileged site for conduct of "real" politics (as opposed to messy, vulgar political, and other human activity).

To an extent my article on Andrea Brady's poetry, in the same issue where Riley's contribution appears, does consider this thinking and some problems with it. (Neither of us saw the other's contribution when he wrote.) That article was explicit in rejecting the flattering notion that writing or reading poetry might constitute a first-order political activity, although it accepted that poetry might (unusually) influence an intellectual and ideological climate-much as high Theory occasionally does. In recent history, poetry has been most effective politically when involved in some convergence of other cultural forces, as in thirties Britain and sixties United States; and when such a convergence has spared it the compensatory overestimate of its potential that can attend impotence. My article suggested that an exalted and exclusive conception of lyric might be inimical to political effectiveness, and pointed to certain writers whose lyric writing is tied to other modes of writing in a wider political project as more likely to exert a political influence. I would add now that high lyric might be bound inevitably to a peculiar lyric anachronism, a feeling for survivals whether religious or pastoral, or perhaps for revenants, the unthought known coded in gusts of pre-emotional mood; the elegant poetry of William Fuller provides a place to think about such anachronistic potency in an urban world.

Peter Riley plainly thinks the whole discussion about politics is a red herring. Like many poets he believes the assertion of a relationship between lyric poetry and politics betrays stereotyped or spurious thinking. Indeed he assumes that failure to mention a particular poet he admires must be attributable to such thinking; because my brief notice did not contrive to mention Ezra Pound, he concludes that owing to the poet's fascism, Pound s poetry has been dismissed by the intellectual commissariat. That is not my impression, although a sealed order may lie among the neglectimenta on my desk. Both my review of The Unconditional and my discussion of Andrea Brady's poetry have scratched at the relationship between lyric and politics because it itches fearsomely, and for two reasons-one, the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady has got under my skin, and two, their poetry is being written at a point of historical convergence where it might exercise an incidental political potency. That second point might be expressed also by saying that this is a time where politics invades everything including lyric poetry; anyone who reads a little should know this applies to all manner of verse writing, not only where Riley detects the tone of de haut en has.

I reject the idea in Riley's letter that referring to a relatively small number of poets must imply an exclusivity in taste or could be used to impute an aesthetic or political program. …