‘All is not dead’ originates from a lesser-known sonnet printed in Larkin’s Collected Poems, entitled ‘A slight relax of air where cold was’. The reason behind the poet’s refusal to print it in an individual collection is indicated by his comment in the margin of the manuscript version: ‘Look at Keats silly old fool’ (MS 6, 7.i.62). Despite Larkin’s harsh evaluation of its literary value when contrasted with a ‘master’ sonneteer, it deserves citing in full, since it illustrates both the critical debates that now surround his work, and my argument that he struggles with humanism in a post-war context
Philip Larkin, Humanism and Class
An ontological need persisted in the writing of Ted Hughes, and continues in critical responses to it. This has manifested itself in various forms: Leonard Scijay detects a ‘mystical consciousness of the oneness of Creation’; in his recent book The Laughter of Foxes: A Study of Ted Hughes, Keith Sagar eulogises the ‘inner being’ of the poet. Although different, these descriptions share a vague appreciation of Hughesian ‘Being’ (or ‘Existenz’): Scijay has located it more specifically in Eastern metaphysics, Zen, and the Japanese concept of satori (the ‘totalistic unity with the infinite’). Critics have mostly agreed that Hughes does not adhere to an existentialist rewriting of Existenz, but they have not always responded generously to the various depictions of Being: Eric Homberger detects the Nazi conception of Rausch in the poet’s ‘fascistic exaltation of violence for its own sake’. More recently, critics more sympathetic to Hughes have attempted to locate Existenz elsewhere. Dwight Eddins recognises der Wille in the ‘universal force-field’ confronted in the poetry; Joanny Moulin uncovers the moments in which the narrators experience the imprint of the Lacanian ‘real’ in empirical reality. All these different critical perspectives have provided valuable insights into Hughes’s writing: it cannot be denied that the vigour of his work arises partly from its engagement with metaphysics of presence. Perhaps what could be added to this body of criticism is a critique of ontology itself. The possibility remains that a requirement persists in Hughes’s poetry to locate a form of Being that has been invented in order to find it. In Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno describes such an ontological need as a manifestation of ‘peephole metaphysics’.
Adorno and Post-Holocaust Poetics
‘Poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.’ This (supposed) statement by Theodor Adorno has become one of the most famous in twentiethcentury philosophy. It has been popularised in verbal academic discourse, which has lead to its inclusion in, for example, numerous module outlines on post-war literature. However, such appropriations have ignored the fact that the phrase is a misquotation of the standard translation by the Webers in Prisms. Moreover, within the passage from which the misquotation originates, there are linguistic ambiguities embedded in the original German which make the essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ difficult to interpret. In turn, this initiates a struggle to formulate a coherent English translation. These problems are elided by critics who, even if they quote the Webers’ translation accurately, do not consider the ramifications of the original German prose. In this essay, I engage with these elisions, and contend that Adorno’s text does not argue that ‘poetry is impossible after Auschwitz.’ In fact, the passage predicates its existence, a contention which has serious repercussions for discussions of post-war writing conducted in the context of the philosopher’s work.
Antony Rowland and Tadeusz Pióro
Tadeusz Borowski’s poetry is virtually unknown in Britain and America, despite the fact that the Polish writer was a poet long before he wrote his controversial stories about his experiences in Auschwitz–Birkenau and Dachau. These stories, a selection of which appear in Penguin’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, ensured his canonical status in twentieth-century European literature. Yet only three Borowski poems are readily available in English translations: ‘Night over Birkenau’, ‘The Sun of Auschwitz’ and ‘Farewell to Maria’ are printed in Hilda Schiff’s anthology Holocaust Poetry. A few more appear in the English translation of Adam Zych’s anthology The Auschwitz Poems,3 but this edition is currently out of print.
Linguistic Turns – Performing Postmodern Poetries
Stan Smith and Antony Rowland
The linguistic turn is as old as poetry itself. What Seamus Heaney calls the ‘suggestive etymology of the word “verse”’ (Preoccupations, 1980), has been frequently remarked. Derived from the Latin ‘versus’, a turning, it refers, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to the turning at the end of each poetic line. The unintentional ambiguities of this last phrase indicate that poetry also represents a different kind of turning, which carries to extremes a process implicit in the slippery duplicity of all language. Pun, paronomasia, metaphor and metonymy, double entendre, the linguistic turning of one thing into another, effect in poetry, as in everyday discourse, a perpetual translation of experience. Etymologically, indeed, the Greek ‘metaphor’ is virtually a synonym of the Latin-derived ‘translation’, a carrying over or across of meanings from one place to another. Such a transfigurative or redemptive function, the conversion of events into the abstract medium of language, creating a new and possibly renewed version of things, has been ascribed to poetry ever since the Renaissance Neoplatonists sought to rescue it from the odium Plato bestowed on it, expelling it from his Republic as a lying discourse, a dangerous corrupter of the truth. Renaissance literary criticism is full of play on the trope of a language that, in Sir Philip Sidney’s famous words, converting and contraverting Plato, substitutes ‘a golden world’ for ‘nature’s world of brass’.
Antony Rowland and Robert Eaglestone
‘Why no appraisals of [Holocaust] verse – particularly verse composed in the English language?’, asks Susan Gubar in Poetry after Auschwitz. The question appears particularly pertinent, if paradoxical, in the context of her list of canonical authors in the field of Holocaust literature, most of whom are either primarily poets (Dan Pagis, Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs) or prose writers as well as poets (Charlotte Delbo, Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski). One answer is that critics have rightly attended to the more sophisticated prose in the work of Delbo, Levi and Borowski. However, this has lead to the overshadowing of, for example, the significance of Levi’s ‘Shemà’ as metatestimony in relation to If This is a Man, Borowski’s ‘October Sky’ as a complex, dialectical anti-lyric, and Delbo’s shift into poetic form in Auschwitz and After when she senses that her prose is simply not up to the task of recounting certain traumatic experiences.
Celestino Deleyto, Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Richard L. Godden, Antony Rowland, and Leena Kore Schröder
Notes on contributors
Helen Blakeman, Rainer Emig, Kai Merten, Alan Munton, Joanne Rendell, Antony Rowland, Robert Sheppard, and Stan Smith
Matthew Boswell, Robert Eaglestone, Sara Guyer, Peter Lawson, Gary D. Mole, Antony Rowland, Sue Vice, and Melanie Waters
Notes on contributors
Peter Brooker, Peter Easingwood, Phil Kirby, John Lavagnino, Kevin McCarron, Michael Murphy, Erin Striff, Andrew Michael Roberts, Antony Rowland, Maurice Rutherford, Matt Simpson, and Peter Widdowson
Notes on contributors