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Gerry Cambridge

IF ONE ASPECT OF POETRY is seeing things in different, often unexpected ways, readers will be fascinated by Karl Knightsʼ impassioned and educative essay on poetry and disability in this new issue. It is a mix of manifesto, auto-biography, the role of older poets as examples, and sheer documentary bravura by a young writer of whom, I imagine, we will hear a lot more in the future.

Was Anthony Hecht misogynist? The interrogative title of Maryann Corbett’s
interesting essay adopts an ambiguous tone. Is her question’s answer important in deciding whether to read Hecht, or do a whole class of reader not care two hoots whether he was a misogynist in a number of his poems or, for that matter, a homophobe, a hater of Catholics, or was always mocking bald men, or men who lived in caravans on the dole, or whatever other grim slur may be cast against him—except insofar as those flaws affected to its detriment his writing? (Before anyone misunderstands: I am not for a moment accusing Hecht of any of those 
prejudices.) Is it an important question in the case of Derek Walcott? A commenter on Facebook, one without any stake in the contemporary poetry scene beyond that of an interested reader, said recently that they found it far easier to read the great poems of reprehensible poets than the bland poems of blameless poets. Whatever one makes of that, it is not the attitude of many on social media, of course. There, breathtaking oversimplifications are taken as absolute truths; the worst of someone is thought immediately; nuance is suspect. Nuance bears the taint of complication, of things which are not simple. It is evidence of an individual cast of mind, associated with ‘free speech’, itself associated—for some sensibilities—with the extreme right; and we all know where that leads. Nuance and complication, this ideology goes, are merely a sleekit wriggling out of the dark truth of what you really think, and that is: guilty. And thus ye shalt be judged and punished.

The more extreme varieties of ʻwoke-nessʼ and their pile-ons are lampooned

mercilessly and with varying degrees of effectiveness by the likes of the—decidedly suspect—Titania McGrath on Twitter. This thunder of online excoriation of a, supposedly, unwoke enemy is quite removed from face-to-face encounter; its targets in the literary world tend to be those who have no power except as individual writers. In that world of trial-by-Twitter the self-appointed court demands, of those who are accused, self-abnegation, unqualified apology, and correction. The court’s mind is already made up. It doesn’t want explanation, which is merely another word for exculpation. It wants a sacrificial victim. The lack of a required penitence in the accused provokes rage. This can be seen in the ire generated by that pariah of the left, Jordan Peterson. Far from bowing the knee, he responds directly and unapologetically to critics. Whatever you think of his ideas, supposing you have got to grips with them—and my impression is that most of his ridiculers haven’t (and nor have I)—the grit, at least, is admirable. But Peterson was raised in a remote part of Alberta in western Canada, which would tend—if you survive it as an intellectual—to instigate grit. Meanwhile there are real extremists out there not amenable to disdain, to attempts at public shaming, to misrepresentation and reputational smears (those standard means of, in todayʼs parlance, ‘cancellation’, a term which already denotes the reduction of a person to an occasion). And they are gathering.


Rather than face them, the poetry world eats its own. The real targets being unavailable, or too intimidating to face directly, some turn their attention to a reachable subject. Lightning must earth somewhere. I call it the route of least resistance in emotional pathways. The relative civility of poets makes them safe targets, from behind remote keyboards and smartphones, for this singling out. Even a Ted Hughes, say, somewhat jealously caricatured as ‘the Incredible Hulk’ by Philip Larkin or as a pugilistic heavyweight has nothing on real extremists.

Kathryn Maris addresses many of these issues in her remarkable essay in this

number, fascinatingly connecting Walt Whitman to current travails and our literary ‘moment’. The recent stramashes of, for instance, Scottish poets have even reached the pages of London’s Times Literary Supplement. Colin Waters of the Scottish Poetry Library, though not on this occasion its spokesperson, was commissioned to address them. (‘Opposition Is No Friendship: The Culture Wars of the Scottish Poetry Community’, TLS, 25 June 2019.) Waters’ piece, with some success, attempted a journalistic ‘objectivity’. Naturally enough, The Dark Horse as an instigator and (unwitting) provocateur was featured. Our previous issue, number 40, was easily the most contentious—evidently—in the journal’s history. (Not that it is difficult to be contentious these days. A single-sentence tweet will do it; a mere mention of Jordan Peterson in some circles, other than in the most scathing terms, will do it.) Subsequent to issue 40’s distribution, a post I made on Facebook featured Rob A. Mackenzie’s implicit call in his essay in that issue for high-level, not amateur, criticism. The post garnered 278 comments and was active for a month. (Numerous readers and poets too psychologically vulnerable to comment publicly also contacted me privately, expressing support for the position taken by the magazine.) Anyone can see this public conversation—and it is remarkable—on my Facebook ‘wall’. I have been told that the Scottish Poetry Library, in trying to archive it, finally decided the best way was by printing it out: it filled around 25 A4 pages. I was surprised it was that few.

To readers not on social media such details must appear, with some justification, as remote as political power struggles in a small far country. And poetry is, before it is anything else, art, as Grevel Lindop’s piece in this issue implicitly reminds us in its focus on the technical aspects of its writing. That reminder is as refreshing as sea airs coming through an opened window into a hot and airless committee room stuffed with opinion. It is, I guess, another way of saying magnificent poetry is what it is—one can almost say ‘unfortunately’—despite what case one tries to make against it. As Maryann Corbett points out, Hecht, the author of ‘The Dover Bitch’, also wrote numerous exceptional pieces, many underpinned by the horrors of ideological violence, of which the poet knew, at first hand, rather a lot. (Hecht, it may be remembered, fought real fascists. In his old age you felt the weight of that simply by being in his presence.) Take, for example, sections of his long poem, magnificent in parts, ‘The Venetian Vespers’. Here is a small extract in which the narrator remembers—one suspects with more than a nod to the poet’s own experience—a fellow combatant in that war:

There was a Corporal I knew in Heavy Weapons,
Someone who carried with him into combat
A book of etiquette by Emily Post.
Most brought with them some token of the past,
Some emblem of attachment or affection
Or coddled childhood—bibles and baby booties,
Harmonicas, love letters, photographs—
But this was different. I discovered later
That he had been brought up in an orphanage,
So the book was his fiction of kindliness,
A novel in which personages of wealth
Firmly secure domestic tranquility.
Heʼd cite me instances. It seems a boy
Will not put “Mr.” on his calling cards
Till he leaves school, and may omit the “Mr.”
Even while at college. Bread and butter plates
Are never placed on a formal dinner table.
At a simple dinner party one may serve
Claret instead of champagne with the meat.
The satin facings on a butlerʼs lapels
Are narrower than a gentlemanʼs, and he wears
Black waistcoat with white tie, whereas the gentlemanʼs
White waistcoat goes with both black tie and white.
When a lady lunches alone at her own home
In a formally kept house the table is set
For four. As if three Elijahʼs were expected.
This was for him a sort of Corpus Juris,
An ancient piety and governance
Worthy of constant dream and meditation.
He haunts me here, that seeker after law
In a lawless world, in rainsoaked combat boots,
Oil-stained fatigues and heavy bandoleers.
He was killed by enemy machine-gun fire.

It may be that in the current scene we all need our ʻfiction of kindlinessʼ, whatever form that takes, in the absence of the real thing.

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