How Milton made the Fall a decidedly non-English event

Literary Imagination
May 26, 2000

Once upon a time the words "literary" and "imagination" were uncontroversial, but the culture wars have not left them unscathed. The title of this new American journal breathes a certain air of defiance; it announces the return of the oppressed.

Readers will meet some other good old words, such as "celebrate", "beauty" and "humility". They will also find a rich scattering of poems published for the first time; writers and critics talking to each other, sometimes quite literally; close readings and translations of writing never less than good and sometimes great, in classical Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, German, French, Polish, Swedish and Chinese. Parochial this is not.

The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics was founded in 1994 and in high impatience. Its president is Mary R. Lefkowitz and its vice-president John Hollander. The journal's editor is Sarah Spence of the department of classics at the University of Georgia, United States. Among the eminent contributors to these volumes are Robert Alter, the late William Arrowsmith, Margaret Atwood, Geoffrey Hill, Marjorie Perloff, Ruth ap-Roberts and Roger Shattuck.

One may read new poems by Rachel Hadas, Deborah Larsen W. S. Merwin, Charles Tomlinson, Charles Wright and others. Eleanor Cook bandies thoughts about translation with Margaret Atwood, and Willard Spiegelman presses Charles Wright on his relations to Pound and Stevens. There are appreciative accounts of Tomlinson, John Bricuth and Geoffrey Hill and Nobel prizewinner WislBawa Szymborska - an instructive piece by Clare Cavanagh.

Poetry takes pride of place. Novelists are not much noticed so far, apart from a fine essay by Bruce Redford on the "savage Johnson", visible beneath Boswell's partial polishing, and an incisive short piece by Shattuck on Proust and "Sheer length". It is only the two most overt polemics that draw their authors consistently to ground on which their antagonists like to stamp. Marjorie Perloff subjects to a withering glare Homi Bhabha's nice idea of "interrogatory, interstitial space". In theory, Goethe's Italienische Reise might be thought to treat everyday life in Italy as a "progressive metaphor of modern social cohesion". But not if you read it carefully, recalling that "Italian" could not mean for Goethe what it does now. In similar vein Paul A. Cantor assails the presumption of critics who theorise and theologise the practice of writers, off whom they ungratefully feed. He cites with relish Jacques Derrida's concession, to a leading question from Derek Attridge, that Beckett's writing is so "deconstructive" or "self-deconstructive" that there might not be much left to do.

All the contributors take the keenest of interest in poetic language. Kenneth Haynes for example, in Milton's questionably non-English constructions, such as the famous moment at which Eve plucks the fruit to find knowledge and eating outlandishly conjoined: "Greedily she ingorg'd without restraint, / And knew not eating Death." Translation features strongly. Alter gives us a version of the David story from Samuel 1 and 2, Reginald Gibbons extracts from the Bakkhai , David Ferry Virgil's Fifth Eclogue , Robert M. Durling Purgatorio , Canto 5, and Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov, for the first time in English, seven poems by Paul Celan. There are substantial pieces of critical exegesis: in the first issue, complementary accounts by Jenny Strauss Clay of Iliad 12, and Michael C. J.Putnam of Aeneid 12; in the second, Cavanagh on Szymborska, Arrowsmith on Euripides, and Hill on "Language, suffering and silence"; in the third, a wide-ranging piece on literary lists by Robert Belknap and a remarkable account of Psalm 119 by Ruth Roberts.

Between them, Hill and Roberts most eloquently demonstrate some of the journal's key interests in the relations between theology and language, and their bearing on translation.

Hill's concern is with the values of taciturnity for the victims of torture, from Elizabethan Catholic martyrs to the Jews of the Shoah, and for those who might presume to speak for them or of them. He addresses with characteristically agile gravity the witness borne by poets such as Wordsworth, Wilfred Owen, and Csezlaw Milosz, in the face of the challenge,as Hill puts it, that "Suffering is real, but 'suffering' is a sing-song, that is to say, cant." Psalm 119 is an alphabetic acrostic that enacts its own subject, the law of God and the speaker's relation to it.

This leads Roberts to a disquisition not just on the relations between literacy and orality, but on the differences between alphabetic and other systems of writing. How much we owe the Phoenicians - for the possibilities of generalisation, of democracy and of self-criticism. How invigorating to read an essay about writing that eschews even the mention of Derrida in favour of Jack Goody. How chastening to be taken back to the roots of the literary.

Would Homer or Virgil or Dante understand us? An unutterable question among most academic gatherings in the current climate, the Modern Language Association for example. We critics and theorists interrogate texts without expecting them to listen or even answer back. It is a full-time business listening to each other for the latest gossip.

The question does not sound so foolish after reading this journal. The alterities that concern its contributors are not a matter of metaphysical excitement but of difficult dialogue through the beautiful treacherous densities of language.

Adrian Poole is reader in English and comparative literature, University of Cambridge.

30 literature and poetryThe Times HigherJmay 26J2000 Kathleen Raine: perennially philosophical poet

Literary Imagination: Three times a year (alitsc@aol.com)

Editor - Sarah Spence
ISBN - ISSN 1523 9012
Publisher - Association of Literary Scholars and Critics
Price - $49.00 (instituts) $25.00 (indivis)
Pages - -

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