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Thursday, 23 October 2008

Kendall Polemical

In 2006 my father died, and so I missed the publication at the time of the Oxford University Press title of that year, Modern English War Poetry, by Tim Kendall. The final chapter, 12, is "The Few To Profit: Poets Against War" - and, rather flatteringly, I suppose, I'm the Bond Villain (or Aunt Sally) of the piece. Kendall poses the figure of Hecht, the American poet, who writes of "Strephon", the poet who was"one of the few to profit from the war" and then, basically, suggests editors and poets such as myself (and I am prominently featured in the chapter) might have profited, in some way, from the attention we received at the time. Kendall argues that the "bulk of contemporary anti-war poetry seem[s] sentimental and morally dubious."

He claims that I use "inflationary language" in thanking the many contributors to the Nthposition 100 Poets against the war anthologies I edited with Val Stevenson (who is nowhere, alas, credited here) when I say that their free donation is "brave and good of them". Kendall says "Swift cheapens the bravery of those who have more at stake than their poetic reputations" - assuming that none of the poets who contributed risked anything by doing so. This is repugnant, and ignorant.

Kendall claims that a poet who contributes "fashionable views to a poetry anthology" is not risking anything. Kendall is a poor historian, for not noting that in fact, in February 2003, it was not altogether "fashionable" to oppose the war, especially for the American poets in the collection - indeed, most North Americans, and many British citizens, supported their governments (which were both re-elected, after all, post-war). Indeed, many of the contributors faced discrimination, and threats at home, and at work, and in the media, for their position - and some of the poets, such as those who were from the Middle East, risked perhaps more.

Kendall also seems to think that cheap fame was the main factor in driving submission to these anthologies - but it was in most cases, I think, genuine anti-war thought and feeling. Kendall goes on to do violence to the key Salt anthology I edited, when he fails to mention any of the professional poets who contributed (such as Mahmoud Darwish, Charles Bernstein, Marilyn Hacker, Sean O'Brien, John Hartley Williams, and Michael Donaghy) - instead, his entire essay only quotes the weaker, homely poems by amateurs that Val and I included, to represent the democratic sweep of the thousands of submissions sent to us at the time. Kendall nowhere credits the anthology with presenting alternative visions of anti-war poetry, in the more sophisticated, even avant-garde texts included, or those in translation from major international figures.

Kendall then rips out of context my reference to the Blitz, and the brave people of London, from the Introduction. He claims I mention their bravery to equate it with the decision to keep the title of the e-books - when if he actually reads my Introduction, he will see I am following on from my reference to Blitz poet-critic-anthologist Francis Scarfe's work, and question - where are the war poets? - and that I am saying this anthology is a response to Scarfe during the Blitz. This misreading is deeply unfriendly to my reputation - but also the truth.

Kendall's entire chapter casts a deep fug of suspicion over my motives in compiling this anthology, and contrasts the work I did, with Hecht's (to my mind dubious and coldly classical) aloofness. Surely, Kendall could have made more of the tradition in which I was working (Lowell's for instance). Kendall, discussing this timely anthology out of time, without full historical disclosure, fails to mention the year I took off from work to volunteer to edit that and other projects - or the countless hours Val and other anti-war poets around the world dedicated. Nor does he mention that Salt took no profit from the collection.

Instead, Kendall strongly implies, from the title of the chapter on down, that, instead of being conscientious objectors to an illegal war, we were quasi-profiteers, eagerly gumming some sort of poetic malevolent teat of war. I am genuinely puzzled as to his reading of the collection. I agree it has weak poetry in it.

But his chapter, following on the heels of David Wheatley's recent mocking article on the same book (that one edited by Kendall) suggests a rather hasty revisionism, aimed more at a weak target (Canadian abroad, with few powerful allies in the literary world over here) than motivated by savage indignation. Lazy, character-destroying work outs itself in the end. I wonder when critics or academics will begin to do a critical study of the anti-anti-war rhetoric of certain conservative Oxbridge-based poet-critics, such as Kendall - they might find something of note there.
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