Feature Articles


(Poetry Ireland News, January/ February 2007)

They called him The Tomahawk Man. His reviews upon and remarks about his fellow writers caused much unease. We shall return to him.

Certain things we should expect of our poetry reviewers; incisiveness, clarity, straight-talking. A reviewer is not, afterall, merely a PR man for a publisher. The reviewer mustFred Johnston inform his or her readers about the poems and their context politically and socially; that is, he must tell us about their origin, which is their author, from whom the work does not stand apart. The reviewer sees the work under review in the round, a composite of author and material, times and events, political allegiances, if any exist. Not to do so is to give us the suit but not the wearer. This much is self-evident.

Nonetheless, there exists considerable opposition to this approach. The argument rests heavily on a fantasy that art has nothing to do with life: that artists are
above life.

From his poverty - ridden Paris attic, the doomed Joseph Roth railed at
those writers who would separate themselves from the world: ‘Only a blind man
could fail to see,’ wrote Roth in 1927 (as Hitler rose to power in Roth’s Germany) that even the “ purely literary” effect of a writer’s work is inextricably bound up
with his role as a public figure and a citizen…’ In today’s Ireland , Roth might find
himself ostracised from our small literary world for such a remark.

The problem with the opposition argument is not that it’s not worth listening to, but that it’s so simple to refute. All poets want to believe they impact upon the world. While some Irish poets have eulogised Soviet writers such as Anna Akhmatova, as if such suffering as Akhmatova endured might be absorbed by osmosis or magic (the mere formula ‘In memory of Anna Akhmatova’ or something similar is a sacred spell that endows the poet with new seriousness), few poets alas can find it in their hearts to protest in a letter to The Irish Times about the CIA’s illegal use of Shannon Airport for ‘rendition flights, for instance. Political involvement, even at such a low-key level, is not for them; they indulge in poetry-as-fantasy, a dream of heroism in another time and place, enacted by someone else.

It is the reviewer’s job to point out this distancing; writers, after all, crave public attention and in giving it to them we also give them responsibility. We give them the uniform and expect them to wear it. We are entitled to note when they refuse to do so.‘Arts and culture do not exist in some rarefied bubble, distinct from the real world – they are an innate part of who we are and what we do.’ Not the distant Roth this time, but Mr Chris Ball, Community Arts Forum, Northern Ireland, writing in a recent issue of Fortnight magazine. The bubble-wrap mentality, which causes some Irish writers to screech at reviewers who say or demand too much, is a plea to be allowed to continue dreaming, a terror of waking up.

The poet is his art. How otherwise to read Byron if not with some knowledge of his political leanings, or the work of Pound, or Yeats, or Pearse, or Dostoievski, or Pasternak (or Akhmatova), or Mary Shelley? How can one listen to Beethoven’s ‘The Emperor’ and not remember his political rage? Or view Goya’s anger and political madness in his dark etchings without knowing what he believed and witnessed? Let’s not even bother to drag in poor Zola, whose J’accuse might, in the end, have had him murdered.

The reviewer must give us whole helpings, not canapés;if a poet produces a collection of Left-tasting tidbits and yet feasts on the Right, the reviewer must let us know this, the better that we may judge the poems in terms of the world they attempt to sell to us. (It would do well for Irish proponents of the absurd ‘art-not-theartist’ school of reviewing to recall that when the proposed election to the position of saoi of Aosdána for the late Francis Stuart arose, it was not his work but his past life and beliefs that were the focus of contention. Being a writer was no defence.)

The reviewer of poetry has other tasks, too, any one of which might make him unpopular. If a poet who is also a publisher publishes himself, the reviewer must point that out; if he publishes a close friend, our reviewer must let the public in on that also – admirable poet Richard Murphy was very honest in his autobiography, The Kick, about how having a friend at court had helped him publish with Faber.Why then should lesser poets become irritated when a similar advantage is suggested as applying to them?

If a poet proclaims himself to be a translator but doesn’t speak the given foreign tongue, the reviewer should inform us of the, eh, misunderstanding. The reviewer must treat his readers as if they possess sufficient intelligence to make up their own minds, given the information, as to whether they wish to read the book.

Some editors of books’ pages slip curiously towards this sort of contempt byappearing to dispense with reviewers who have ‘robust’ views and opting for those whose views are milder in tone. A poet who cannot take criticism shouldn’t publish; we have no obligation whatsoever to adore his or her work merely because it exists. Robust reviewers keep poetry honest.

Reviewing poetry in the hothouse of the tiny Irish literary scene takes courage.
What we need are firm, courageous editors, who will inspire courage in their reviewers. If we like poetry we should relish the contentious review, the one that makes us think, the disagreeable opinion that makes us read poetry more deeply.
Poetry is not static; engaging with the world, it moves with the world. If it does
not, it talks only to itself and therefore never disagrees with its version of itself. The reviewer says this is good and this is bad, this is true and this is false, that the
poet believes this and yet writes that – in short, the reviewer elucidates the humanness of poetry where some poets would dehumanise it and turn it into wallpaper or a doll’s house or give it as much social relevance as a decorative bedside lampshade.

One of the grittier reviewers was The Tomahawk Man. His reviews are clear,
open, blade-keen.Who is he? Edgar Allen Poe who, ironically, was found dead in the street in the middle of an election campaign. Wearing someone else’s clothes.

Fred Johnston is Director of The Western Writers’ Centre. Founder of Galway’s Cúirt Literary Festival, his latest collection is The Oracle Room (Cinnamon Press, 2007).

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