Essays on British Poetry from Thomas Hardy to Linton Kwesi Johnson
Edited by Adrian Grafe & Jessica Stephens
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2012
Paperback. vii+242 p. ISBN 978-0786462834. $55.00
Reviewed by James Persoon
Grand Valley State University (Allendale, Michigan)
is a collection of fifteen essays selected from the proceedings of the
International Poetry Conference held
The editors open with an introductory essay that interrogates “resistance” as an idea, a stance, and a strategy, from its classical meaning of “to take a stand” through its Judeo-Christian images to our psychological understandings of its possibilities. Their discussion reveals how slippery the term is: one may wrestle with God, as Jacob did, or wrestle with sin. One may resist oppression by using bombs as the French Resistance did, or by refusing to resist, as shown by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One may be commonly thought of to resist an illness, or conversely to resist treatment, in effect accepting illness as a part of life and resisting resistance. Language may resist poetry and poetry may fight the ready-made forms of language. Poems resist readers, as Eliot believed, like a cat lying on a rug, a mystery of self-containment that contemplates what no one can guess. And, as our students often remind us, readers resist poems. Poetry resists both meaninglessness and meaning. Thus the conference theme allows for quite different understandings of the term, and papers which resist fitting into the five sub-headings that the editors have assigned them to.
The first such heading is “Part I: From
Constraint to Release,” containing four essays, two on Thomas Hardy and two on
D.H. Lawrence. Its title seems to refer to two poles of poetic practice
represented by Hardy and Lawrence, Hardy insisting on rhymed metrical form
(only a single poem out of almost a thousand lyrics is unrhymed!), a practice
The range of poets discussed is
necessarily limited by the confines of the book; it is weighted toward major
Élise Brault-Dreux in the opening of
her essay on D.H. Lawrence succinctly lays out the ways Lawrence is an ideal
subject for the conference theme, in his resistance to English and Western
culture (which he saw as valuing “money, hypocrisy, greed, machines” ),
written in poetry that resists the tradition of formal poetry as well as the
practice of his Modernist contemporaries, which in turn invites so much
resistance from readers, who often refuse to call Lawrence’s poems poetry.
Suzanne Bray’s essay on Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams resurrects, with
much interesting historical and biographical detail, two poems from the Second
World War that resist the popular vilification of the enemy, arguing for a sharing
of guilt and a sharing of universal Christian brotherhood, as the way forward
from war. Catherine Phillips’s simply titled “W.B. Yeats and Resistance” ranges
through all the phases of Yeats’s career to consider how resistance functions
in developing a voice, in finding the form one wants, and finally in resisting
a repetition of the early self. Claire Helie writes on Ted Hughes’s return to
and mythologizing of the
Joy is a fine note to end on. I must confess that as I began this review, the task of apprehending and communicating fifteen different visions gave rise to no little resistance in me, tempting me to find some clever language to indicate my ambivalence; but all that seemed momentary and unworthy when set against the effort of the writers and editors. I kept thinking of the American poet William Stafford, a meticulous craftsman whose careful work gave such an appearance of casualness—he used to say “I have many small, easy poems”—about poems that were anything but easy. Like many writers, he waxed a bit mystical when talking about where poems come from—the language surrounding him, which he “didn’t invent,” which simply was, words swooping around him and giving poems, which “just come.” Then I thought of the audiences for this book, from the mature academics to the students just learning our field, to all those who read it through or, more likely, dip into it for a single essay to cite on their own essay. If one believes in the serendipitous in research as much as in poetry, as I do, then the diversity of poets and points of view in a collection such as this is truly a strength, and not simply cant, as coming to such collections one almost always encounters, serendipitously, what one was not looking for, which can lead to the most exciting insights and new pursuits. In this light, in the most generous view, even a single sentence can make my day. In the end, I have one small, impossible wish—for what is left out: the personal connections, the sudden insight, the useful question, the spontaneous humor of a conference. And I am grateful that the effort has been made and carried through to preserve, as much as possible, the best of this conference, and to shape it into a coherent book.
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