Editorial from PN Review 170
As PN Review marks its thirtieth birthday with this issue, we salute the anniversary of an even longer-lived journal, Saint Botolph’s Review. Its first issue appeared half a century ago and all its original contributors apart from Ted Hughes are still alive. At the 1956 launch party in Cambridge Ted Hughes first met Sylvia Plath. Saint Botolph’s Review describes itself as ‘an occasional journal’: the 2006 issue is number 2. The original contributors are represented, Hughes in ghostly form. May the whirligig of time bring round a third fascinating issue. (Available from Viper Press, 3 Powis Gardens, London NW11 8HH.)
It is strange to look back from the vantage of thirty years to where PN Review started, and wonder at the chanciness not only of its survival (it is a decade since the Manchester bomb destroyed our Corn Exchange offices and much of our history) but also of its sparring and feinting editorial stances, its alternations of stress and focus.
In the three years between the publication of Poetry Nation I (1973) and PN Review 1 (1976) something like an editorial, design and production revolution took place. Poetry Nation in its durable demi-octavo hardcover binding was set in hot metal by Mackay’s of Chatham, at the time a fine book printers. Issue I opened with an elegy by Charles Tomlinson, ‘The Way In’, later title poem of a fine collection, in which he laments the depredations of the developers as he drives into a Bristol made unfamiliar by ‘a future’ which ‘seethes/As if it had waited in the crevices’. The first 48 pages are given over to poems, with substantial work by, among others, Peter Huchel, Douglas Dunn, Fleur Adcock, and C.H. Sisson’s great poem, The Usk.
There follows a symposium in which the editor (the same editor who writes this) contends with the Partisan Review, with English and American experimental writing, and seems to propose something like a New Formalism as a radical, even a Marxising antidote to the excesses of experiment and the aftermaths of modernism which trouble him. He sees Poetry Nation as a journal of the left. His declaration is followed by suggestive demurring comments from Donald Davie; a densely argued clarification by Terry Eagleton (who was the editor’s tutor at university), ‘Marxism and Form’; an essay on the poetry of the Viet Nam conflict by Robert B. Shaw (an American poet still woefully undervalued), and a remarkable interview with that first great English Marxist editor Edgell Rickword, a neglected poet too. Adrian Stokes’s essay ‘Psycho-analysis and Our Culture’ first appeared in that issue (he had died the year before), James Atlas’s thoughts on translation, and Damian Grant’s seminal essay on John Montague, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. It was a rich profusion, and confusion of themes, inherences and generations. The Guardian called it a thrust from the cultural right, which seemed at the time like a deliberate misreading. Then it was pointed out that the title included the word Nation, a term whose toxicity in the European context at the time put it beyond polite use. The intention had been to evoke a republic rather than a tyranny of letters. ‘Poetry Nation’ was abbreviated to ‘PN’, in the spirit of TP’s Weekly, T.P. O’Connor’s tabloid (1923-1929), which reprinted material but also launched such authors as Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and Oliver Onions.
1976: PN Review availed itself of new technology. An IBM golf-ball composing machine required the general editor to typeset this and the next fifty issues himself, stripping in corrections with cow gum. Adopting its floppy A4 format, this was indeed a magazine which decisively displaced the anthology. It had an urgency about it, the aesthetic preoccupations of Poetry Nation giving way to no-nonsense thrift. PNR now boasted not two but four editors: C.B. Cox and I were joined by Donald Davie and C.H. Sisson, both regular contributors to the hardback journal.
That first issue began, as every issue since has done, with an editorial. Octavio Paz, a great editor, critic and poet, becomes a central figure, and his view that a crucial tasks of criticism is to clear creative space was embraced, along with a firm commitment to translation. The final paragraph of that first editorial in PN Review 1 was drafted by the four editors (the only time that all spoke with a single voice): ‘A belief in the centrality of the creative imagination and of the critical intelligence has impelled us to increase Poetry Nation, to turn it into something of a glass house, tempting to stone-throwers. We wish to give play […] to the sort of intelligence for which poetry is an intellectual value.’ That mad collocation of poetry alongside the words ‘intellectual’ and ‘value’! What language was this?
PN Review no longer segregated poetry and prose. It mixed them. Octavio Paz’s great essay on Solzhenitsyn took pride of place, then a substantial essay on Karl Kraus, whose writings Carcanet was just bringing into print in Britain. Calvin Bedient contributed an essay on Thomas Kinsella, Geoffrey Hill, W.S. Graham (a key poetry contributor to the magazine) and Ted Hughes, and a chapter of what would become Blake Morrison’s book on The Movement was included, along with an assessment of the politics of Wyndham Lewis and C.H. Sisson’s essay on Charles Maurras which lead to a virulent controversy with Stand magazine. A review of Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home resulted in the first threat of a libel action against the magazine.
Through all its twists and turns, responding to social, technological and cultural change, PN Review has stayed the course. How much longer can that course be? While writers of moment, poets and critics, essayists and memoirists, and of course readers, keep finding their way to the glass house, and people keep throwing stones, it will have a place. Another thirty issues, perhaps?