Saturday, 17 September 2011

200 PN Reviews!

On 8 September 2011, there was a celebration of PN review's 200th edition at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. For those of you thinking 'so what?', let me put you in the picture.

PN review is arguably the most authoritative and most interesting poetry magazine published in England and Wales. The PN stands for Poetry Nation which gives you an idea of the importance it places on poetry. For the editors and contributiors, poetry is not a niche interest, it is a subject that should concern all intelligent people.

Its lineage can be traced back to Leavisite critics like CB Cox, but it has a taste for the new and avant garde, and an openness to ideas which has ensured its survival, whilst preserving an old-fashioned cutural zealotry which helps sustain serious poetry and debate about poetry in the UK. Nowadays, it is the fiefdom of Michael Schmidt, a man of powerful intellect, who relishes both vivid generalisations and detailed analysis, and wry wit for whom the word 'consummate' and 'champion' seem to have been fashioned.

The event was divided into three parts: a lecture by the intensely clever and sensitive Patrick McGuiness (see below for my review of his latest collection) about Donald Davie, one of the poets and critics who founded PN review in the seventies.; a roundtable of poetry magazine editors and then a reading from the 200th edition, including Jeffrey Wainwright reading his new poem Beyond Enigma.

Before all of that, I am sad to say that it opened with a short message from Arts Council North West. Holding a little red book of criteria in her hand, a reedy voiced bureaucrat (with a background in publishing apparently) explained how PN review and Carcanet had ticked all the boxes and that's why it still had funding. What she didn't seem to realise is that the audience included the editors of Arc which has been cut, perhaps fatally, notwithstanding the unique service it provides. Nothing could have demonstrated the Arts Council's lack of understanding of the bigger picture more clearly.

I have to say I was fascinated by McGuiness's lecture, which required both alertness and mental agility from the audience. As a portrait of the intellectual concerns of a deeply eccentric man (i.e. Donald Davie) I thought it was excellent, particularly as it gave a strong impression of the development of Davie's ideas and did not dwell on his eccentricities overly. I thought it was less persuasive when attempting to define the value of PN review itself . McGuiness - whom, I have to say, is fairly traditional in his use of tropes and his understanding of poetic measure - became rather entangled in post-modernist concepts about the instability of meaning. This, he seemed to confuse with debate, and suggested that totemic PN Nation terms such as 'form' and 'tradition' had no fixed meaning because people disagreed on what these terms meant and how to apply them. He went on to say that it was the passion of the debate rather than its content which was really attractive, but I thought that was faint praise. If you don't agree with the debate and don't relate to its content then its passion is surely more likely to seem misplaced? The point is - even if you fundamentally disagree - that it engages you with its substance rather than just its approach.

The roundtable discussion included the editor of Wolf, the excellent Carol Rumens and some well-meaning and agreeable guy from Leicester University who seems to have founded a magazine (good luck to it, I say). After the editor described himself as an 'elitist', I subscribed to Wolf next day.

Wainwright's poem - which was essentially a philosophical reflection on narrative, history and morality - was excellent, concerning versions of the 'truth', narrative etc. surrounding an act of martyrdom in a concentration camp and suggested that meaning/ history could be unstable without being meaningless. The poem contains moments of struggle with meaning but also empathy, which is eventually achieved before sliding back in the last lines into a confession of humble failure, which is its own form of tribute to an act of self-sacrifice:

" a good man cannot be harmed",
there is only a human voice
to say it', as though
I could listen hard enough
to catch it

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