Paul Anderson, review of Letters to an Editor by Mark Fisher (ed) (Carcanet, £14.95), Tribune, 12 January 1990
Carcanet, the Manchester publishing house, has marked its 20th anniversary in a characteristically unusual way, by publishing a selection of letters to Michael Schmidt, its founder and editor. Schmidt’s responses to his correspondents — poets, critics, translators and novelists — are entirely absent. Nevertheless, the collection provides a compelling insight into the workings of an extraordinary publishing venture.
Carcanet began as an Oxford undergraduate magazine, moved into publishing pamphlets of poetry, and has grown to become one of Britain’s most respected serious literary publishers.
Today it has a list that includes contemporary English poets, translations of European writers, neglected modernist texts and a bi-monthly magazine, PN Rewiew. C B Cox rubs shoulders with Stuart Hood; Hans Magnus Enzensburger meets, inter alia, Roger Scruton, William Carlos Williams, Czeslaw Milosz and Gabriele D’Annunzio.
It is difficult to make sense of such eclectic seriousness — the temptation is simply to celebrate — but there is method in it. The correspondents that dominate this volume are two poets, C H Sisson and Donald Davie, both, in their own ways, late twentieth-century claimants to the mantle of Ezra Pound. It is their uncompromising elitist high modernism that has been the spark for Carcanet’s book-publishing programme and magazine (the “PN” started out ‘ as “Poetry Nation”).
Carcanet came into being at the end of the sixties, a low dishonest decade of know-nothing populism and declining standards in the eyes of Schmidt and most of his correspondents. “I can’t see that it was that conspicuously awful,” is about the best it gets here.
The task, or so it seemed, was to counter the intellectual hegemony of the Marxist Left, reassert the conservative modernist aesthetic of Pound, T S Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, and fight the appalling cultural collapse that lay behind such diverse phenomena as the New English Bible and rock and roll.
This is the voice of a literary intelligentsia disgusted by social democracy and the fake scientism of literary academia, which, unlike its similarly disgusted continental West European conterparts in the same period, turned right.
If Carcanet and PNR had remained true to these origins, there would be little more to say than that reaction often finds sophisticated literary practitioners. But the tensions in the high modernist project (helped by Schmidt’s sentimental attachment to the idea that the serious publisher has a duty to make available the works of the unjustly ignored) have proved fertile. The Eliotesque laments in PNR on the crisis of Anglicanism (always more literary-aesthetic than theological) are now less frequent than unambiguously humanist polemics against the depravations of Thatcherism.
Why? Most obviously, seriousness about English modernism necessarily means engagement with other modernisms and the abandonment of the narrow concerns of British conservative culture. Faced with Berlin Dada, it is impossible to claim that taking modernism seriously is essentially a matter of complaining about the destruction of the C of E’s poetic heritage under the pernicious influence of leftist vicars.
More important, the departure from conservative Leavisite norms took place in the context of a sea-change in literary culture in Britain. If in 1969 the enemy was the populist barbarians listening to the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, by the late seventies there was a new threat, at the heart of the academy: structuralist criticism and its progeny, denying the very possibility of the author and, thereby, all the critical values of humanist modernism.
Against this new enemy, Schmidt found, almost accidentally, some unusual allies — secular humanist leftists at odds with the old Carcanet project but far more antipathetic to the new and orthodoxy, despite their one-time endorsement of such horrors as communism and sixties populism. The list grew more diverse and PNR more interesting. By the mid-eighties, Schmidt’s reconciliation with his one-time political enemies seemed complete. Recent issues of PNR have been the closest thing we have in Britain to a secular European literary review.
The question that faces Schmidt now is an old one: “What next?” It would be a pity, to say the least, if he decided, out of fear of losing control or because of worries about integration into an academic “establishment”, to draw back from the broad cultural agenda that Carcanet and PNR now address, and to concentrate on “poetry and its milieu” again. But that, I’m told, is what he plans to do. Perhaps somebody should drop him a line.