Editorial from PN Review 166
On 13 October two stars crossed. Lady Thatcher celebrated her eightieth birthday with a party at which the Queen, Mr Blair and Joan Collins co-starred; and Sir Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Creon and Antigone celebrated by the establishment, as it were, on the same day: and of course Creon took the limelight, but at least Antigone is there, and durable as iron.
Pinter has since the 1940s been what Derek Walcott evoked in Volcano as poetry’s ‘greatest reader in the world’ (‘One could abandon writing/for the slow--burning signals/of the great, to be, instead/their ideal reader...’). He remarked in an interview, ‘I’m not a scholar. I’m just a chap who likes poetry.’ No academic analyst, he believes (apologetically) in verbal ‘magic’; he reads for the sudden line that ‘hits you amidships’ and sends you ‘all aflutter’, and he finds such lines in Shakespeare, and among the modern poets especially in W.S. Graham.
He first took Graham to heart in 1949 and he has championed him ever since, reading the poems in public from the inside out, as it were. Graham is ‘dealing with such delicate potentials - silence, and the other side of language. He’s very courageous in trying to define something which is otherwise indefinable.’ The thrift, the obliquity, of Graham’s poetry touched his own very different dramatic language with its wings, as, one imagines, Eliot’s A Game of Chess did. Graham is a poet always in dialogue with an unhearing interlocutor, sometimes identified as himself in the past or future, one of his dead friends, his sleeping wife, and often the irritating reader on the other side of the page and in another time.
Ford Madox Ford recalls how he and Conrad discovered that dialogue in a novel must be an integrated episode. Graham’s poems are episodes, and dialogue in Pinter is episode itself, it is never about: it is always where the drama is, where incident abides, not described or alluded to but contained. Pinter’s screenplay for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and his amazing condensation of Proust honour the medium of film with the most perfect pacing the most precise economy imaginable. They are of a piece with his plays, proceeding with an economy that even Pound at his most caustic would have applauded.
Pinter, like other chaps who like poetry, on occasion breaks into verse. He is strictly an occasional poet. Anger, political and civic, stirs up the fire and he can write with the force of a satirist and the rage of a prophet. He certainly was not on Lady Thatcher’s guest-list. He can also be a remarkable lyric poet. Despite his love for Graham and others of that generation and his wide reading in poetry, his lyric poems are very much his own. Lady Antonia Fraser has commented: ‘Harold is fortunate, I believe, to be able to mark the turning-points in his life through poetry’, and in her selection of his verse (in The Tenth Muse, edited by Anthony Astbury, just published) she includes brief elegies, a poem about the author’s cancer, and love poems of which she is herself the occasion or Muse. One in particular, constructed like so much of Pinter out of bare little monosyllables, astonishes me with its intimacy and its candour: ‘It Is Here’:
What sound was that?
I turn away, into the shaking room.
What was that sound that came in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
To turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?
It was the breath we took when we first met.
Listen. It is here.
* * * * *
With this issue, PN Review ends its seven years’ association with Manchester Metropolitan University where the general editor was founder and Director of the Writing School. There was a kind of anomaly in a creative magazine, deliberately sceptical of many aspects of modern cultural studies, parking itself in a department celebrated for its engagement with literary theory. For a literary magazine, perhaps the best hospitality a modern academic institution can provide is this tolerant disregard. It may not be exactly collegiate, but then academic collegiality and contemporary editorial engagement do not necessarily go hand in hand.
PN Review was born in an academic department, as Poetry Nation at the University of Manchester in 1972, and assumed its current name in 1976. During 2006 the journal will mark its thirtieth birthday. Yet even at Manchester University it stood apart. Professor C.B. Cox, who started the magazine with me, had long experience of running Critical Quarterly, a magazine crucial in discovering and defining the 1950s and 1960s generations. Critical Quarterly had addressed a recognisable readership which included school teachers and young lecturers excited by the new, who regarded it as part of their vocation to know what was going on in the creative present as well as the past. Our belief at the time was that such a readership still existed. As the magazine enters its fourth decade, we are more realistic – and still hopeful.