The Acid Tongue
Peter McDonald is ill with Saturday Night Fever
Selected By Cyril Wong
This, from the final issue of noted British journal Thumbscrew, is something dated, but it is one of the types of reviews I love to read and re-read as it digs right into the roots of what is probably still wrong with the literary scene in the UK: its downright snootiness and intellectual complacency.
The volume under attack is Neil Astley's Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, and the attacker is Peter McDonald. The ironic thing about this book is that its editor – also a poet – claims the right to introduce the idea of 'real poetry'. This is a book, McDonald points out, for 'real people' who presumably would not mind being treated to the 'therapeutic wonders of real poetry.' In fact,
Actually, this is basically the crux of McDonald's criticism, but it is his logical putdown of Astley's assumptions that makes the review. For example, when Astley refers to the poems he has selected for his anthology as 'life-affirming' in his introduction, McDonald asks:
McDonald talks a lot about Astley's prose as there is so much of it like weeds in the crude garden of poems the latter has constructed, growing out in between poems by way of superficial commentaries. McDonald reveals:
More clichés abound, as McDonald sarcastically points out, when Astley talks about poetry making us feel "more human" ('Whatever we might think about a phrase like "more human", that "almost" is tellingly out of focus: it doesn't actually know what it means, but wants to sound good. This is bad prose; those 30 years of editing experience don't really seem to have helped.'), or when Astley does a lame imitation of Brodsky ("A poem lives in its language, which is body to its soul", happily mimicking similar guff from Brodsky ["poetry is essentially the soul's search for its release in language"]).
This anthology, according to McDonald, 'speaks the language of power, that unreflective, ultimately cynical dialect of condescension and manipulation, and offers poetry as a fully-operative element in the culture of self-esteem and intellectual complacency which currently calls the shots in Britain.' The ending of this review is a real killer:
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004
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