Just back fro delivering lecture 2, the more contentious one, but here I am still alive and indeed well fed. I took the sunny afternoon to look round the Baltic opposite, on the Gateshead side of the river, then The Sage, a Foster & Partners building that looks like a huge silver handbag. Also translating. Supper out afterwards with Sean O'B and Bill H. Fair amount of whiskey plus a steak. All well.
The Millennium Bridge has just turned from green-blue to blue-purple. One more lecture tomorrow then a reading. If the sun lasts a longer walk around the Toon.
This is a part of the second talk:
Tom Paulin, in his introduction to the 1986 Faber Book of Political Verse, refers to what he calls, Elizabeth Bishop’s “sophisticated quietism”, and, in talking about “the witty, anecdotal formality of Elizabeth Bishop’s evocation of Trollope’s visit to Washington during the Civil War” adds “if we also know that Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal ancestors were New York State Tories at the time of the American Revolution then we can see that this perfect poem is the work of an ironic conservative patrician”.
‘If we also know…’ seemed to me a strange position to adopt. It seemed rather close to the questions asked of potential cadres and enemies in Eastern Europe in the early Fifties, questions that were asked of my own mother and father. A perfect mirror image, in fact. To be frank, I still have no idea what my maternal ancestors were back in the 19th century since their names vanished a long time ago into the cold dark deep sea, but Paulin made me think I had better check.
“The conservative,” Paulin observes in the same Introduction, “obscures political realities by professing an envy of the ignorant and by shuffling responsibility for historical suffering onto those who aim to increase knowledge by challenging received ideas.” That being the casee, we must conclude, the nature of Bishop as a poet is to obscure political realities, and to shuffle responsibility for historical suffering on to someone other than herself. Furthermore we must assume that she was foredoomed to fail in these important regards, at least partly, on account of her maternal ancestor.
However, Paulin makes an interesting distinction elsewhere in the Introduction, when talking about Dryden’s 'Absalom and Achitophel'. “Politically,” he says, “it is a dirty trick, an inspired piece of black propaganda; aesthetically it is a great masterpiece.”
Here we come to the obvious, indeed ancient, difficulty: the weighting of aesthetic value against moral value, the weighting of first rate poetry against vices such as, say, pretence of envy, the shuffling off of responsibility for historical suffering and the obscuring of political realities. Bearing the weight of such charges in mind as regards Bishop, I strongly suspected the aesthetic, according to the Introduction, must come off worse. The poem would be interrogated first, but eventually the interrogator would win out....
Essentially it is an argument against adopting Eastern European cold war models. Thence to the third.