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Cultural Barbarians?

In response to:

Poetry of the Unspeakable from the February 8, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

We have seen Jan Barry’s letter concerning Stephen Spender’s review of Winning Hearts and Minds [NYR, February 8]. Mr. Barry is no longer associated with 1st Casualty Press and his views are solely his own. They do not represent the opinions of the other editors of the anthology or 1st Casualty Press. We find Barry’s remarks unfortunate in their misrepresentation of Mr. Spender’s perceptive review.

Basil T. Paquet

Larry Rottmann

Editors,

1st Casualty Press

Stephen Spender replies:

It is difficult to answer a letter in which the writer has read a review in a sense almost completely the opposite of that which the reviewer intended. However, perhaps I should point out that it was not the “crux” of my article to say that the poems in Winning Hearts and Minds were not the work of Wilfred Owen. I was in part concerned with discussing issues raised by Stanley Kunitz in his very interesting introduction to the poems of Michael Casey in which Mr. Kunitz calls Casey’s work “antipoetry” (a phrase I questioned) and compares it with the work of Owen, Jarrell, and other earlier war poets; and in part with attempting to relate the actual achievement of the poets in their poems with the statement of the editors (one of whom is Mr. Barry) in their “Note to the Reader” as to the very practical and utilitarian ways in which these poems should be used as propaganda against the war in Vietnam.

Perhaps I was too much concerned with the question of whether this meant that the writers wished their poems to have no poetic interest extending beyond the war itself, but my concern was real and I think that—as with all “war poetry,” or anti-poetry—it is a thing to be concerned about. Also, I wondered how they themselves felt about their poems and whether they wished to write poems that would be read in fifty years time. I wrote, “I do not even know whether it is praise of Michael Casey’s poems to say that they will, some of them, find their place in anthologies. Our combination of public crimes and private despair has got us to the stage where the aims of the literary may seem marginal to the crimes of life.” It is quite clear surely from this that I admire the poems in question—as I do those of Mr. Barry himself in Winning Hearts and Minds—but am inhibited by not knowing how the writer would receive what he might regard as “literary” admiration.

In comparing the English concept of innocence with the American, I should have thought that I made very clear my belief in those qualities of the American democracy “which can itself be thought of as innocence, or at any rate as having an innocent side which is to be defended against corruption.” I discussed loss of innocence because the editors wrote in their preface, “these veterans have shattered the American myth of regenerative innocence.”

Mr. Barry produces some garbled quotations from my review. If any reader is interested in this controversy, perhaps he will do me the kindness of rereading the review itself. In large part I was trying to say in my review what Mr. Barry says in his letter. For instance, I completely agree with his last paragraph.

I am sorry he wrote this letter not only because it is abusive to me personally—when I do not think I have deserved abuse—but because it is sad to find one has produced something which can be read so differently from the way in which it was intended. However, his letter is good in that it does answer some of the questions raised by the introduction and postscript to Winning Hearts and Minds signed editorially by Mr. Barry, and in that this correspondence will I hope draw further attention to this deeply moving and intensely interesting book. Perhaps I should add that I said nothing whatever in my review to suggest that I thought of Americans as cultural barbarians. I do not and never have held the ridiculous views Mr. Barry attributes to me.

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