Bluff Your Way in Literature 2

A second helping.

In many ways, Martin Seymour-Smith’s Bluff Your Way in Literature (1966) can be seen as an opportunity for the author to satirise or criticise the work of writers he felt were overrated or even worthless. His opinions are inevitably heavy with irony.

We have remarked in an earlier  Jot that Seymour-Smith was critical of John Fowles, Muriel Spark, C.P.Snow, Malcolm Bradbury and Ted Hughes and that he regarded such generally admired figures as Auden, Pinter , Margaret Attwood and Tom Stoppard as overrated. On the other hand he wasn’t afraid of promoting an unfashionable and controversial individual like Wyndham Lewis, whose reputation had been in the doldrums for decades, or giving a lift to Thomas Hardy, Laura Riding or Rayner Heppenstall.

In an age of political correctness the opinions of such a maverick should be cherished rather than condemned and so in this second and final on Seymour-Smith Jot we ‘ll look at some of his other verdicts on writers or movements in literature, some of which might seem rather quaint or outdated today. 

Vomit, menstruation &c.

‘ In poems and novels, these are not only in but are obligatory. However, do not show bad taste and talk about them yourself. Preserve the kind of decency that is expected at parties and gatherings, while praising the fearless and ‘tough’ ( a key word) indecency of modern literature, which is a ‘ major breakthrough’.

All—not merely some—poems and novels, if they are to be major, must be about sickness and mental breakdown. This first became evident from the kind iof poems the poetry critic and poetry editor A. Alvarez began printing in The Observer some years ago: a good example was one which dealt with the theme of miscarriage in the bathroom. Badly written, filthy, insulting and hysterical, with no justification provided for its unpleasantness, it was just the kind of verse that is nowadays needed for magazines.

The best thing is to write some yourself, and send it round. You will become known as fearless. But keep it impersonal ( if writing about your wife, however, particularly about some intimate detail concerning her, say so) , and say that it is really meant to be comic ( or put an s in and say ‘ cosmic’ if you wish: this is a useful word). A good recent example of an effective first line from a poem in a little magazine is: ‘ When I turn on the taps blood hurtles out’. Another goes: ‘I drink pint after pint of brackish blood’. These are good in that they are shocking. If possible mix blood with vomit and possibly masturbation.  

Details such as defecation, menstruation—and all other routine physical details, including if possible nose-picking and deliberate cruelty to people or insects—should be admired in others and in their writings, indulged in if you write yourself, and approved; but offend decorum with it is company, or you will be called morbid. This is called ‘The Literature of Cruelty’ (like the Theatre of Cruelty ), and it must not be merely considered, but actively celebrated.

Perhaps here Seymour-Smith is thinking of Peter Redgrove or Ted Hughes , both of whom could be explicit in their ‘tough’ imagery.


This should be read in conjunction with the section on avant garde (p.11). A happening, although it has no connection with Literature, is often referred to with respect ( or with amusement, but never with really contemptuous amusement )in literary circles. It may be defined  thus: ‘ When at any social gathering there is a spontaneous release of energy, resulting in some kind of unconventional behaviour, a happening may be said to have occurred’. This is vague, but then so are what are called happenings. Example: a man takes down his trousers at a party. If he is avant garde (and not just a drunk) then you must approve of this and call it a happening. Or someone burns a few copies of his friend’s book, and lets off fireworks. Or a naked woman walks across a stage (as happened at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963). All these are happenings—provided they get talked about ( if they don’t they are nothing) and they are literary and must be discussed as art-forms, even with a tolerant grin.

Robert Lowell

…Lowell is the current God of modern English poetry and must not on any account be denigrated. You must own at least some of his work, such as Skunk Hour and The Mills of the Kavanaughs…On no account must you dissent from the current view that the election of Edmund Blunden to the Professorship of Poetry in January 1966 was a scandal. No evidence has been advanced as to what kind of lecturer or teacher Lowell is; but this has not been felt necessary—which is some measure of the esteem in which he is held.

Lowell is great because ( you must say) he is the poet of mental crack-up…when praising Skunk Hour…do not be precise or question whether the language of the poem is really adequate or satisfactory; simply sigh and admit that that this is the highest desideratum in modern poetry, whispering ‘ major , ‘major !’.Do not try to understand his most widely admired poems, or you mat find yourself is serious difficulties. Be vague and quote, if you can, isolated lines. Praise the allusions to mental illness, hospitals and tranquillizers as ‘new’, ‘contemporary’ and again, ‘ major ‘. 

Truth, Facts etc.

Try to ignore this kind of thing, as it is seldom useful and get you written off as a sentimentalist, or worse, a psychotic. For people who are continually nagging away, in a fairly humble manner, at the truth, the terms ‘ psychotic’, ‘ manic depressive ‘, ‘ schizophrenic’, ‘ drunkard’ or ‘poor’ are all helpful and use of them can make you popular as well as respected . Try to quote chapter and verse, even if untrue.

Types of Criticism

…Should you take up a position? That is up to you. Some critics, as I have indicated, have some strange ideas… The really important thing to know is what they have just said and whether it is being talked about. Does John Wain talk about them in The Observer? Have they been mentioned by Kenneth Tynan? Did Edward Lucie-Smith 

talk about them at that poetry-reading he gave last week, when he got time off from his advertising copywriting job? Are they often the subject of talks on the Third Programme? These are the sorts of questions you must answer. The in-critic changes from week to week, and it is up to you to know who he is…

Needless to say, Lucie-Smith was never an advertising copywriter. Sometimes Seymour-Smiths irony can be a bit tedious, but hey, poets and critics have always been back-biting since the days of Pope.

R. M. Healey

2 thoughts on “Bluff Your Way in Literature 2

  1. Angus

    In an enjoyable piece in today’s Times, James Marriott mentions Martin Amis’s review of Seymour-Smith’s ‘Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature’: ‘Amis teases [S-S] for his ”truly galactic learning”… [he] complains that “opinions so exotic that you can’t imagine anyone human holding them are frequently made to sound banal and second-hand by the world-weary Seymour-Smith…” ‘ To quote Amis again, writing of one of his own characters, “When he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed.”

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Many thanks Angus. Clash of the titans! Quite good natured for Martin Amis. Big loss. My favourite line ‘…he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette.’


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *