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Thursday, June 07, 2012

from the Kenyon Review newsletter ...

David Baker, Kenyon Review Poetry Editor
I am currently reading two superb, and very different, books about poetry and poetics by two elder giants. M. H. Abrams turns 100 this year, and his The Fourth Dimension of a Poem (Norton) gathers his best essays on poetry from the past thirty years. The prose is lucid and graceful, articulating the stance of a great Romantic humanist. It’s a genuine seminar to follow his extended readings of favorite poets, like Keats and Wordsworth, and his model critics like Kant and especially Hazlitt. He can analyze Foucault alongside Horace, Derrida alongside Goethe, in a book that is generous of mind in ways that current literature departments would be wise to restore. The book’s title comes from Abrams’s reminder of the “dimensions” of a poem: the visible aspect; the sounds of the words “as they are imagined by the reader”; the meaning of the words; and—this is especially important and “almost totally neglected”—the activity of “enunciating the great variety of speech-sounds that constitute the words of a poem.” That is, the important physical, embodied presence of a poem in the act of utterance. This critic loves poetry.

The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to CelanGeorge Steiner, in The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan (New Directions), is another of the great graying critics of our time. His new book wants to remind us of that on every page. Where Abrams’s book is wise, this one is learned, and where Abrams’s prose is clarified, Steiner’s is dense with reference and allusion, an intellectual’s overt architecture of a lifetime of engagement. He out-Blooms the great Harold Bloom: his style here contains aphoristic kickers (like Emerson’s), phrases and citations from many languages, asides within asides, references about references about references, and opinions on seemingly every Western literary, artistic, philosophical, and (often) mathematical writer. The deep thesis is an attempt to locate the necessary poetry, or music, at the heart of the best philosophical writing. That is, great thoughts are great in part because of style, their powerful “poetics of reason.” This critic loves thinking about poetry.

For poetry itself, if you are hungry for intimations of greatness, Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems (Knopf) is a monument. For all his limitations (for instance, the depictions of women at times), these poems seem chiseled from granite, made of confidence and a grand apathy toward the contortions of contemporary poetry and the po-biz from which Gilbert escaped fifty years ago. He’s much like his figure of Icarus in “Failing and Flying”: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

If you are eager to follow emerging poets, I might point you to recent books by Dan Beachy-Quick (Circle’s Apprentice), Paula Bohince (The Children), Nikky Finney (Head Off and Split), Matt Hart (Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless), Katherine Ossip (The Cold War), or Tracy K. Smith (Life on Mars). It’s a busy time.

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