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Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry
Ian Davidson

New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
49,68€. 224 pp. ISBN: 1403997713.


Reviewed by Claire Hélie

Ian Davidson is a poet, a critic, and a theorist, and it comes as no surprise that these three facets of his should be found in his new book, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, published by Palgrave in 2007. No doubt too modest to quote from his own poetry—he has released some ten pamphlets and collections over the last twenty years—he has written a theoretical study dealing with twentieth and early twenty-first century poetry in Great Britain and in the United States that nonetheless engages with his very practice of writing verse. His is indeed a poetry of space, the smooth surface of which should not hide the deep-reaching questions it triggers about politics, society, or the body, to name but a few. See for instance these lines taken from his online poem “No Way Back”:

The sea drags shingle
over and over the stone in
heaps of stone more smooth
granite pebbles more marble
and what can politics tell me
of the soft landscape
of the body or the hard wiring
of sex or what can landscape

tell me of the soft politics
of the body of the first
fix the performed
operation as the
memory of a warm body etched
in the soft tissue as it drips
word by word

[Archive of the Now. 23 March 2007. Brunel Centre for for Contemporary Writing at Brunel University. 24 Aug. 2007

Much in the same way as his poem ranges from the actual place of a Welsh seashore to the spaces of the body politics and of the politics of the body to the physicality of language and ends on the virtual space of a webpage, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry evaluates the impact of space and space theories on poetry and poetics.

What is called the “spatial turn” is at the heart of Davidson’s poetic practice, and at the heart of his book too. The phrase “spatial turn” was first coined and analysed in cultural studies and social sciences, and suggests a “movement from a modernist historical awareness to a post-modern spatial consciousness” [3]. More recently it penetrated the field of humanities in which the critic situates himself. One of the consequences of such definition is that Davidson seems to be keen on using the concept of spatial turn to try and draw distinctions between structuralism and post-structuralism on the one hand, modernism and post-modernism—or neo-modernism as Peter Barry puts it in a very enlightening foreword on the state of contemporary British poetry—on the other hand. Yet, even though he uses those debatable labels several times he never defines them in his own terms but is content with pitting what he deems the systematic and universalizing tendencies of structuralism and modernism against the more subtle, nuanced, differentiating qualities of the post-isms. For instance, he considers that the broad context of the spatial turn is globalization which he characterizes as no new phenomenon but one that has accelerated during the last century, and, to prove his point, he relies on critics such as David Harvey and his The Condition of Postmodernity (1990): “If there is a significant difference between modernity and postmodernity, it can partially be located in the pace of development, and in the process of space-time compression” [27]. Or else, following Albert Gelpi’s definition of modernism in “The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American poetry” (1990)—“the shattering of formal conventions as an expression of the disintegration of traditional values” [82]—he places post-modernism at the end of such process. In those two cases, he leaves it at that. He is far more convincing because more specific when he quotes extensively from Frederic Jameson, and in particular from his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), in his first chapter on the aesthetics of space, to take the reader from the changing status of time and space in culture to “the fragmentation and decontextualisation of historical narratives” [14] to the consequences of the Saussurian emphasis on synchronic over diachronic language uses as “the way in which a spatial awareness has superseded a historical consciousness” [15]. The strength of his study lies however in the fact that, -isms and post-isms aside, the spatial turn, which is not reduced to a catalogue of spatial metaphors, is never analysed per se, but only in so far as it has implications for poetry. For instance the breaking down of the notion of perspective is illustrated by the fragmentation of the poetic line or by the technique of collage at the beginning of the twentieth century, and their poetic shoots pursued through several notions such as that of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome to name but one.

If the multiple effects of the spatial turn and of spatial theory on poetry are tracked down, the relationship between the poetry and the theory of space is seen as a two-way street all along, which is why Davidson also shows how poets themselves create their own space and their own theory of space inside the format of a book and outside of it, whether in the performance of the poem or on the Internet. Analysing the actual performances of a poem in front of a public is a tremendous task that would demand a lot of material that is rather difficult to find since recordings of public readings are not always available for consultation, even if Andrew Motion’s Poetry Archive on the Internet (Poetry Archive. 2007. Poetry Archive. 24 Aug. 2007. <>) for instance makes an impressive job in that field. The other problem is that the material at hand is not always satisfactory since it mostly consists in audio-recordings in which the body of the poet, the way he/she engages the audience to join into the understanding of the poem, the décor even, is lost to the listener. When one thinks about the way Basil Bunting for one staged his readings of Briggflatts (1966) at the Modern Tower, reciting the verse to a sonata by Italian composer Scarlatti, with a young girl pouring him wine in the purest Persian tradition, one may see new poetic spaces opening up.
Associations such as Doublechange (Doublechange. May 2007. Doublechange. 24 Aug. 2007. <>) in France make a large contribution to the improvement of poetry archives by videotaping the readings they organize monthly. The study of such material remains to be done and hopefully the ongoing progress of technology will eventually guarantee the availability and the quality of the resources.

Unsurprisingly, Davidson does not really tackle that still most elusive matter but dwells on other performances, in particular that of the reader in front of the written text. Indeed the book is especially fascinating in that it develops new ways of reading poetry, meaning both reading poetry with the fresh eye of recent theoretical approaches to space, which is the critic’s task, and reading a contemporary experimental poetry—be it visual or concrete or in situ or virtual—that has become possible only thanks to fairly recent modes of production and distribution such as digital technology, which comes down to the reader of poetry. Chapter six, “Now you See It” is rife with reproductions of poems using the space of the page in new ways—there are twelve of them in thirty-eight pages—starting with Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard” and the deconstruction of the poetic line, but surprisingly bypassing Apollinaire’s picture poems. If the line is still a unit of time that creates rhythm and gives a pace to the reading of the poem, it also influences spatial organization since visual poetry consists in foregrounding the visual aspects inherent to any poem, such as can be found in the blanks or the margins, and consequently enhances the physicality, the materiality, the referentiality of language, that is to say, puts forward the spatialisation of poetry.

Davidson gives his reflexion a slight historical twinge, starting his analysis with the cubist fragmentation and distortion of space at the beginning of the century and ending with the advent of the Internet nowadays, focussing in between on what he calls “The Space Age,” that is the period spanning the 1950s through to the 1970s. Even inside the most theoretical chapters, a time-line approach is favoured. For instance, in his last but one chapter entitled “Now You See It: Virtual Poetry and the Space of the Page”, he first draws “Histories of Visual and Concrete Poetry,” then moves on to the 1950s and the 1960s and the graffiti artists, and ends with 1990s poetic experiment in space. Yet he does not push the comparisons and links between each period he studies too far, meaning that he does not indulge in a putative narrative of the advent of the spatial turn in poetry but dwells instead on some telling examples of changes in spatial poetry, relating them to changes in culture as “New Historicism” would have it. That is the reason why he constantly moves from one era to another, going back in time, going forward, rejecting the linearity of the history of poetry to open up different time-capsules and to see their relevance once observed with new theoretical tools.

The theories that underlie his study are principally those of two geographers, Henri Lefebvre (The Production of Space, 1975/1991), for whom space is produced by the dominant class to reproduce its hegemony, and Doreen Massey (For Space, 2005), for whom places are processes with multiple identities. Consequently, his approach is also ethical and takes into account “everyday lives” [1], hence the fact that he uses more often than not the plural “histories” instead of the singular “history.” The poets he chose, in spite of their complexity and their reputation for being elitist and academic, all consider poetry as a social act, a social practice. Other theoreticians he quotes are Deleuze and Guattari, Frederic Jameson, Michel de Certeau and David Harvey. He draws four main ideas from their works: “The relationship between space and place, the relationship between representations of space and lived experience, ideas of the nomadic and the rhizomatic and the relationship between space and the body” [3]. These four ideas overlap in his study and even give the book its method since the analyses seem to be organized in a rhizome as he half-admittedly puts it: “The structure of the book is spatial rather than historical” [4].
Davidson also uses a comparative approach, quite clearly separating his analyses of British and American poetries in different chapters-unwillingly perhaps, since he states in his introduction that his work cuts through frontier to envisage space instead of place.  For instance, chapter 3, “The Space Age: The 1950s to the 1970s,” focuses on two American poets, Charles Olson and Edward Dorn, whereas chapter 5, “Space, Place and Identity,” puts under scrutiny a number of British poets such as Catherine Walsh, Evan Boland or Ralph Hawkins. Chapter 3 opens with a few keys as to the differences between British and American “poetries of places” [59]. The differences between the two lie less in the conceptualization of space than in the conceptualization of time.

The national and regional poetries of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England often refer to the idea of ‘place’ as a way of authenticating a local identity discovered via historical processes”, while American poets “use a range of information within their poetry that just as often presents the incoherent nature of places and their intersections, and describes ways in which time and space interact in the processes of production of places. [60]

 After rejecting the first plausible explanation that comes to mind for such an opposition—namely centuries of historical evidence to uncover the lineage of British identity against a nation in construction whose identity is built out of diversity—he shows that there is no such thing as a place outside the poem but that the poem creates a place of its own that transcends the geographical place of the poem’s origins. And yet Davidson must have wanted this opposition between countries and poetries to be less clear-cut since he also studies Fanny Howe alongside British poets, or even the influence of Ezra Pound, Williams Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein on Eric Mottram’s idea of “composition by field” in his 1975 essay. He also refers to continental poets and theoreticians, giving his study the internationalist turn he said he would find in the poets he quotes.

Davidson’s poetic sources could hardly be more varied and challenging: “I took poetry from wherever I could find it; books, magazines, pamphlets and the Internet” [1]. The amount of material he has selected is indeed impressive by its sheer number: some forty poems are given a close reading, twice as many are hinted at. Some of them had not been published in a book before but appeared in pamphlets or on the Internet; a few of them could not be reproduced in the book because their very existence depends on digital technology. Peter Barry’s foreword reads as a testimony to the difficulty of finding material and contains a list of a few recent anthologies, magazines, and critical studies in which “innovative contemporary poetry” [X] is foregrounded. Yet Davidson’s consistent quotations and his many reproductions of visual poems make for the difficulty of finding some of the poems under study. The critic even gives the URL of some web poems, which helps understand the conclusions he draws from his analysis, even if the analysis is always preceded by a precise description of the poem. Consequently not only has he written a most interesting book on the relationship between the poetry and the theory of space in twentieth and early twenty-first century but he has also anthologized a good many poems that are hard to find, thus participating in giving experimental poetry a centre place in contemporary literary criticism.





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