Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



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)



Lines of Resistance is a collection of fifteen essays selected from the proceedings of the International Poetry Conference held June 3-4, 2010, at Artois University, Arras, France, on the theme “British Poetry 1875-2010 and Resistance.” Its editors are Adrian Grafe, professor of Anglophone literatures at Artois University and a Fellow of the English Association (UK), and Jessica Stephens, assistant professor of English at Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle University. The book made from conference papers is a familiar genre; its strengths are in variety, introducing us to new topics, new writers, and old writers seen with a new twist. There are also predictable weaknesses, largely coming from an inevitable unevenness from essay to essay in tone, style, quality, and relevance. The present collection, happily, delivers on the strengths: it includes, for example, writers that may not be familiar to all, such as Hugo Williams and Linton Kwesi Johnson; it expands topics—for example, our sense of the poetry of the Second World War—by including the work of Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams; it gives us the less familiar (to English readers) French Eliot; it gives us canonical writers seen through a new lens—their relationship to “resistance.” Commendably, the editors have made an honest attempt to give unity to the collection, and where they cannot, to celebrate as a strength the multiple diversities which resist a unified frame—both “the diversity of the lines of resistance taken by the poets” and “the variety of views taken by the contributors” [12].

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 which Lawrence almost totally eschews, especially in his last two volumes. The section is also historical, following the tradition of most anthologies and literary histories in beginning 20th-century poetry with Hardy. “Part II: Against the Odds” is a rather loose category, consisting of three essays, on Robert Graves’s and Isaac Rosenberg’s war poetry, on two Second World War poems by Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams, and on two French translations of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The next two sections drop chronology and highlight instead geographical or cultural connections: “Part III: Northern Resistance,” with two essays, on Basil Bunting and Ted Hughes, and “Part IV: The Celtic Strain,” with two essays on Yeats and one on Edwin Morgan. “Part V: Irony, Play, and Pleasure,” with essays on Auden, Hugo Williams, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, is aptly named, for its essays show how linguistic inventiveness can be both the source and the tool of poetry. The categories uncomfortably jostle each other rather than become part of a larger argument, a weakness so endemic to conference proceedings that perhaps it is churlish to make a point of it.

The range of poets discussed is necessarily limited by the confines of the book; it is weighted toward major poets—Hardy, Yeats, Graves, Eliot, Auden, Hughes. It was a particular pleasure to see Lawrence treated seriously as a poet, and to find a place at the table given to Basil Bunting—one so accessible, one so difficult, both so needed. In their introduction, the editors, as is customary, summarize each essay, not an easy task to do briefly but one performed with care. I will not repeat their work, but I will mention some of the individual essays in the collection. The opening one, “The Self-Resisting: Hardy’s Ambivalent Evocation of Romantic Childhood” by Galia Benziman, is a happy choice for the lead essay, for while it revisits well-worn territory to Hardy scholars (including my own writing), it manages to say something surprisingly new—that Hardy’s self-consciously anti-Romantic positioning of himself is more extreme than heretofore argued. Benziman quotes all the usual suspects in studies of Hardy’s view of childhood and manages to twist a new perspective from them, arguing that they double-down on the impossibilities of a Romantic childhood, since, unlike in Wordsworth’s view, it is not lost but was quite clearly never experienced by the child. This is resisting a predecessor with a vengeance.

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” [41]), 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 Calder Valley and the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet, as a way of surviving Sylvia Plath and resisting the autobiographical interpretations of him that her work invited (although ultimately his own work proved deeply autobiographical as well). Boutheina Boughnim Laarif’s essay on Auden cites Derrida’s playful but rich comparison of a poem to a hedge-hog—at once “extremely fragile and dauntingly impenetrable” [194]—to underline how poetry fights reduction to prose, constantly eluding our grasp. In the final essay in the volume, ‘“Wi Naw Tek Noh More A Dem Oppreshan”: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Resistant Vison’, Emily Taylor Merriman notes that critics have usually seen his poetry as resistant in a political sense, focusing on his language, the historical context he writes in, and the hybrid genre form “dub poetry” he has developed (“simply defined as the composition or performance of verse to a reggae beat” [220]). After examining what LKJ resists, Merriman asks the equally important question of what he is open to; she answers that, in its pleasures of sound, beat, and playful wit, his poetry shows us a vision of joy, which is the true opposite of oppression.

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.


Cercles © 2013

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.