BOOK REVIEW / The regime that could not lose a pound: 'Agenda - An Anthology' Ed. William Cookson: Carcanet, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE publication of this anthology of poetry and prose from 30-something years of Agenda magazine coincides with the ending of its generous funding by the Arts Council. As a schoolboy at Westminster in the Fifties, its editor, William Cookson, fell headlong into an intellectual love affair with Ezra Pound, a relationship that remains just as impassioned to this day.

Pound was still in the bug house (St Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington) when the young Cookson, a shy, awkward, bookish teenager, first got in touch with him. He had just written a review of the Rock-Drill Cantos for the school magazine, and he wanted to express his admiration for Pound by showing it to him.

Pound responded warmly, in his usual slangy, cranky, epistolary style: 'Forget if I thanked you for best rev/ of Rock-Dr since Stock's' The correspondence flourished. Pound took it upon himself to educate his disciple in the ways of the world: 'The enemy is IGGURUNCE, not jews or masons . . . best defence is POSITIVE.'

After Pound's release in May 1958, Cookson and his mother were invited to spend some time with him at his daughter's castle in the Austrian Tyrol. How did Cookson find the old man? Exhausted almost beyond exhaustion, at times; but also intermittently possessed of an electric energy, an almost Chaucerian robustness. Pound gave Cookson the unnerving task of combing through old notebooks of material that had been thrown out of the Cantos. Certain of these awful rejected lines have stuck in Cookson's memory to this day: 'Even Adolf was human/ playing Wagner on the piano to calm his nerves.'

This visit was the inspiration for Agenda, and the first issue, with an editorial ghost-written by Pound, was published in January 1959. Needless to say, Pound liked it: 'It don't look too Poundista. At least not too unadulteratedly.' Pound's awareness of the degree to which the magazine might or might not be - or become - his creature is the crux of its strengths and weaknesses.

Agenda has always been an awkward, unfashionable beast of a publication, unpolitical, untheoretical, rock- drill certain in its enthusiasm for Pound and the other Olympians whom it has sponsored, and who are given pride of place in this anthology - Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting, David Jones. Agenda has never faced forward into the future. It has been more concerned to revalue the neglected talents of the past. It has never dressed up for the literary marketplace. It hasn't even tried to make itself look appealing to its band of devoted admirers - the proofreading has often been slovenly; the jacket designs are appalling; almost every issue seems to sport its coy erratum slip.

And yet, and yet . . . it has also done many marvellous things, as we can see from this volume: the publication of Alan Neame's translation of Cocteau's 'Leoun', a skittish and fanciful piece of writing which appeared in an issue of 1960; the grave bass notes of the poetry of Geoffrey Hill; and the excellent, too-little-known poems of Penelope Farmer.

Like all little magazines, Agenda has been a kind of benign dictatorship. You will certainly not find any indication of how England has changed as a societyover the past three and a half decades. But what Agenda has done is to hold fast to some unfashionable notion of poetry - 'that most subtle and living form of language', in Cookson's own words - as an art which is central to civilisation. It has been that fanatical, that obsessive.