Poets of colour

When Sarah Howe won the TS Eliot prize in 2015, it was a turning point for poets of color in the UK. Forces of reaction were quick on the uptake, with many reviews summarizable as: “White Man Feels Woman Of Color Is Too Clever By Half”.

Overt biases may have decreased. Unconscious biases remain, often manifesting in reviews pressurized by deadlines, word limits and other exigencies, and leading to an impoverished reading culture.

Dominic Leonard’s review of Stephanie Sy-Quia’s Amnion (In Brief, April 8) reveals the failure of an editorial team to be alert to potential inexperience when matching reviews and texts. Leonard begins with contextless snippets of imagery: a man reviewing a woman, Leonard extracts for approval a phrase containing “nudity” and “thighs” (the passage refers to horses, but you wouldn’t know this from his review). Unfortunately, this comes dangerously close to suggesting that the poet, a woman of colour, is at her best when writing sensuously if not sensually, and at her worst when cerebral. We would have expected contextualization of Sy-Quia’s work, for the general literary reader.

Instead, we are left ignorant of the legacies of post-lyric writing. To leave so much implicit is as remiss – in the verse culture of 2022 – as to review a book of sonnets and never mention the word “sonnet”. Leonard’s objection to Sy-Quia “providing her own interpretations”, using lineation to direct us, ignores how seizing control of the interpretative act is a signature strategy of many minoritized poets. (Twice, Sy-Quia buttonholes her reader: “shall I entertain you with the fetishism of a foreign name?”) Reviewing is more than intelligent opinion-making. The work in question needs, first, to be correctly framed. A quick comparison of the review of Sy-Quia’s book to others has one wondering: why isn’t this writer being as carefully read as those poets?

Leonard’s misunderstanding of Sy-Quia’s book evidence why poets of color don’t necessarily (in his phrase) “entrust the mystery” of their work to the reader. That would require reviewers who, while not obligated to like the writing, are responsible for addressing the traditions from which it emerges, allowing readers an unprejudiced encounter and illuminative interpretation.

Vidyan Ravinthiran
Harvard University

Sandeep Parmar
University of Liverpool

Sarah Howe
King’s College London

Cheran Rudhramoorthy

John Stone

Carrie Etter

Sudeep Sen

Rachel Abramowitz

Rishi Dastidar

Vahni (Anthony) Capildeo

Elizabeth Rimmer

Yasmine Shamma

Pascale Petit

Dante Micheaux

JS Tennant

Sascha Aurora Akhtar

Jose Varghese

Alan Buckley

Jo Bell

Shehzar Doja

Emma Dai’an Wright

Aviva Dautch

Neel Mukherjee

Rachel Bower

Polly Atkin

Alycia Permohamed

Russian literature

Looking for an explanation for the atrocities perpetrated by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, the prominent Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko points a finger at Russian literature (“No guilty people in the world? Reading Russian literature after the Bucha massacre”, April 22). “The road for bombs and tanks has always been paved by books,” she writes, “and we are now first-hand witnesses to how the fate of millions can be decided by our reading choices.” And she seems to hold Western Slavists responsible for misleading the public and the experts about the humanist (“European”) character of Russian culture.

Zabuzhko addresses questions to “professional Russianists”. As one such professional, I cannot agree with her interpretations of the moral situation of Natasha Rostova when she betrays her fiancé or Turgenev’s mute serf Gerasim who kills his beloved puppy. And it barely needs pointing out that the “normalization of evil” is not “a model for all Russian literature” (as she put it). Neither does Tolstoy’s often misquoted phrase “there are no guilty people in the world” (the title of an unfinished story from 1908–10) invites readers to cut their neighbors’ throats. Tolstoy tried to pose a paradox. Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima (in The Karamazov Brothers) is quite explicit in his judgment: “Everyone is truly guilty of everything and for everybody”. The principle that everyone is responsible for all evil in the world underlies the whole novel, implicating each and every character. (In the twentieth century, Varlam Shalamov and Vasily Grossman echoed and challenged Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.)

After the Bucha Massacre, it is difficult to think of anything Russian with dispassionate objectivity, and this may explain why Zabuzhko’s readings misrepresent the moral thrust of Russian literature, known for its divergent traditions, often at odds with each other (and sometimes disconcerting for the reader).

But something else is more important. The road to Bucha has not been paved by volumes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (or Turgenev’s “Mumu”). The roots of Russia’s horrendous problems lie elsewhere.

Irina Paperno
Berkeley CA

Burgoyne and Cornwallis

Norman S. Poser is wrong to ascribe class reasons to the very different ways that Generals Sir John Burgoyne and Lord Cornwallis were treated on returning to Britain after their capitulations at Saratoga and Yorktown respectively (Letters, April 1). The difference is instead explained by the fact that Burgoyne came home while leaving his men in captivity and intending to embarrass Lord North’s ministry as much as possible, while Cornwallis did neither. As the Wykehamist grandson of a third baronet, who was born in a stately home, a longstanding Whig MP, a member of Brooks’s, married to the Earl of Derby’s daughter, who had bought his commission in the Horse Guards and became lieutenant-colonel of the Coldstreams, Burgoyne was virtually indistinguishable from Cornwallis in class terms. (He was also widely believed to be the illegitimate son of Lord Bingley.) As I point out in my biography of George III, Cornwallis had been a trusted aid de camp to the King and was a loyal Establishment figure, whereas Burgoyne was disliked and feared as a lifelong and inveterate troublemaker.

Poser is similarly wrong to claim that Lord George Germain “benefited from his birth” as the son of the Duke of Dorset in order to get his peerage from George III. Such high birth did not prevent the Dukes of Devonshire, Rutland and Portland, and the Earl of Derby opposing his peerage, the Marquess of Carmarthen whipping twenty-seven peers against it, and the Earl of Abingdon describing Germain as “the greatest criminal this country has ever known”. So much for class solidarity. The reason Germain received the viscountcy of Sackville was again political; he had faithfully carried out the King’s American policy through thick and thin.

Andrew Roberts
London SW1

Kingsley Amis at 100

An unpublished letter, contemporaneous with Kingsley Amis’s arrival as tutor at Peterhouse, perhaps confirms the assertion in Zachary Leader’s interesting piece (April 15) that Amis had a determination not to be taken in by “programmes or extremes”. It is less congruent with the statement that “he was hostile to distinguishes between high culture and low”. The occasion is a College Dinner. The Robbins Committee on Higher Education was then sitting.

For the Blythe feast at Clare I had as my guests James Bartley [colleague of Amis in Swansea] and Kingsley Amis (who, you may not know, has come to Cambridge as a fellow of Peterhouse)! This was a pretty powerful group alcoholically speaking but everything went fine until Bill Wedderburn [Clare Fellow and later Labour Peer] after dinner over drinks in the Combination Room tackled Kingsley over the latter’s views which Bill regards as reactionary upon University expansion. Kingsley, and a number of other teachers in “provincial” universities [had] expressed the opinion that many of the students in these Universities are not worth teaching to university level, that they don’t know what it is all about, never open books afterwards, etc. Hence these teachers who include a number of socialists, among them Kingsley, want a go slow policy on University expansion on the Arts side and something like the Liberal Arts College to meet popular demand. The problem, of course, is a real one. But its discussion in a Combination Room after well lubricated feast by such protagonists was a WOW. I have not yet lost the reflected glory of producing someone who had the courage to tell Bill to his face that he was more than an egregious ass – he was a bloody fool. And, dear John, as I regard Bill as the source of the reform that has made life difficult [in challenging easy admission of Fellows’ sons]the situation was not without pleasure for your father.

The letter is to his son John from (James) Dixon Boyd, Cambridge anatomist and lifelong friend of Bartley. We find it a curious coincidence that Boyd, our father, shares names with James Dixon, the hero of Lucky Jim. Could Amis have picked up a name at random from Bartley? They were then close.

Robert, Stephen and Richard Boyd
Manchester, Osaka and Oxford

Academic book prices

None of your correspondents on this subject has mentioned that OUP applies exorbitant prices not only to newer scholarship in short print runs, but to much of its back list as well. Wasn’t the justification for unattractive “Print on Demand” publications supposed to be that great scholarly editions could continue to be made available affordably? E.L. Griggs’s great edition of Coleridge’s letters was published in six volumes between 1956 and 1971. The Print on Demand version is now offered for a total of £1,295. Is that supposed to be affordable? The eight-volume Wordsworth Correspondence, edited by Ernest de Selincourt and others, can be printed on demand for £2,140. The real cost of producing these books can surely be little more than pennies: they certainly look cheap! How many copies have been sold at these prices?

F. Spooner
Corfe Castle, Dorset

Mary and the Magnificat

In her survey of the cult of the Virgin Mary, Miri Rubin (April 15) succumbs to the tradition of adulation earlier than may immediately be apparent when she claims that Mary and her cousin Elizabeth “together … intoone the Magnificat”. Anyone who has studied this hymn will know that the textus acceptus almost unanimously says that the Magnificat was sung by Mary, even though its similarities of content and circumstance with the hymn of Hannah, the mother of Samuel (I Samuel 2:1–10), would suggest that it was originally attributed to Elizabeth. By having Mary and Elizabeth “intone” the hymn together, Professor Rubin needlessly slips into the legendary gloss that the church imposed on its early message.

Timothy Stunt
Naples FL

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