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One of the underlying arguments of this book is that poetry’s value is bound up in its “negative capability,” in its presentation of complexity. It isn’t that the ambiguity or uncertainty embedded in a poem is part of some devious machination on the part of the poet, but that poetry is founded in a fissure, as the previous chapter show in a variety of ways. This argument comes under heavy pressure in a time of global political and ecological crisis. Never has it been more stupifyingly clear that “poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden wrote. And never have the deep foundations of poetry seemed so precarious. The importance of nature for poetry is so deep as to be nearly unnoticeable, not only poetry’s reliance on the ideologies of the pastoral, but also poetry’s leveraging its own significance by way of the sublimity of the natural world. What happens when nature is under planetary threat? What is the status of a nature poem well after the death of nature? How might we understand poetry within the context of ongoing ecological devastation? This chapter considers these questions through reading of poems by Stephanie Strickland and Nick Montfort, Ed Roberson, and Juliana Spahr.
Is there a way to understand a poem as an intertwining of thought and feeling? If every art, according to Pater in The Renaissance, has “its own peculiar and untranslatable sensuous charm,” “its own special mode of reaching the imagination,” and “its own special responsibilities to its material,” then can we also understand poems to offer unique instantiations of thought, which are inextricable from their imaginative, sensuous, and affective dimensions? Previous chapters have considered the value of poetry as a type of linguistic attentiveness and play, as a practice of vocalization and inscription, and as a way to map the complexities of subjectivity. This chapter follows up on those considerations in order to think about how poems might think, and about how both writers and readers might approach a poem as a crystallized yet open process of thinking and feeling. Not only the presentation of a speech act, nor the account of a subjectivity in formation, nor the formalized play of language, a poem can also depict and spur a process of thought that is, as it were, felt. Via readings of poems by Tracy K. Smith, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and Lisa Robertson, this chapter aims to show how poets map and process thought, and how readers think their way through poems.
This chapter begins from the premise that poetry affords specific modes of attention and linguistic play, and that both are central to poetry’s value. It is a truism that poems tend to require a slower, more deliberate pace of reading in order for their intricacies and meanings to become fully apparent. Our contemporary culture is deeply inattentive, with distraction, multitasking, and disengagement all symptoms of social and cultural life. Many contemporary poems push against these conditions, whether implicitly or explicitly, by offering a space for noncoercive attention. The compaction or density of poetry isn’t simply a sign of its difficulty or unapproachability, it is more centrally an index of readerly possibilities. Poems condense, arrange, and splay language. On top of language’s system of syntax and grammar, poetry places a rhythmic and sonic grid – whether based on a conventional metrical scheme or not. In part, this chapter exfoliates Roman Jakobson’s “poetic function” in order to suggest the various ways that contemporary poetry mobilizes an assortment of grids, patterns, and schemes as part of its compositional unfolding. It includes readings of poems by Paul Muldoon, Maggie O’Sullivan, Seamus Heaney, Jen Hadfield, and Harryette Mullen.
This chapter considers the ways that poems construct forms of subjectivity. While the unproblematized, monologic lyric subject is a problematic figure, poems still have the capacity to construct and stage more viable modes of subjectivity and self-making. And such a reconfigured subject can become much more attentive to its embedding in various networks of social, economic, and ecological relations. In this way, the value of contemporary poetry inheres precisely in its continuing and critical interest in the status of subjectivity and of individual life within world systems that are unthinkable at the level of the human. Without reaching back once again to an outmoded model of the Romantic subject, much contemporary poetry seeks ways to represent the precariousness and vicissitudes of individual experience and to frame those experiences as more than simply “individual,” but rather as modes of responsiveness to social and environmental conditions. The chapter takes up poems by John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Roy Fisher, Jorie Graham, Claudia Rankine, and Layli Long Soldier.
The Introduction traces the traditions, institutions, prerogatives, and entailments of poetry as they shape and impinge upon the work of the present. It also tracks the ways that contemporary social, political, and technological developments have radically altered the place of poetry in culture. It situates the book’s argument within the lines of thinking about poetry that are woven into Western thought since Plato. It does this quite selectively, and rather than provide a synthetic account of Western poetics, the goal is to articulate how several key ideas about poetry have been taken up by different writers across cultures and historical moments. The Introduction also outlines the historical scope of this book, which, while deeply invested in a longer history of poetry, will focus primarily on textual examples from the past forty (or so) years.
This chapter reroutes Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” so as to consider a poem’s recollective potential from another angle. How might poems recollect both the past and their own historical moments? One of the most crucial activities that poets undertake is that of remembrance and memorialization, and part of this chapter focuses on forms of contemporary elegy. For a great many poets across the aesthetic spectrum, “recollection” isn’t primarily concerned with personal emotion or feeling, but rather with an attempt to account for past and present, often intertwining acts of personal memory and public history. Such poems aren’t simply “about” historical topics or reflections on the past. They also provide an alternate way of sifting, gathering, constellating, and presenting the materials of the past, not as stylized historiography but as a mode of counterhistorical writing. This chapter examines poetry’s abilities to recollect, as both a compositional spur and as a set of readerly affordances. It suggests the ways in which the notion of recollection might be expanded well beyond its Wordsworthian remit. Practices of recollection are vital both to the composition and reception of poetry, and in several ways this chapter cinches the concerns of the previous three. It focuses on texts by Denise Riley, Mary Jo Bang, Geoffrey Hill, Rita Dove, Caroline Bergvall, Natalie Harkin, and M. NourbeSe Philip.
Eric Falci's The Value of Poetry offers an evaluation and critique of the literary, cultural, and political value of poetry in the twenty-first century. Falci claims that some of the most vital, significant, and enduring human notions have been voiced and held in poems. Poems marble civilizations: they catch courses of thought, tracks of feeling, and acts of speech and embed these shapes in language that is, in some fashion, poised toward the future. Falci argues that poetry is a vital medium in addressing and understanding some of the most pressing issues of our time. Ranging widely across canonical and contemporary poetry, The Value of Poetry shows how poems matter, and what poetry offers to readers in the contemporary world.
This chapter focuses on Northern Irish poetry in the twenty-first century and looks in particular at the work of Alan Gillis, Leontia Flynn, and Sinéad Morrissey in order to understand the relationship between the formal dynamics that have underpinned Northern Irish poetry – a general and continuing commitment to lyric conventions and to “the well-made poem” – and the shifting social and cultural conditions of Northern Ireland in the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement. Examining the ways that Gillis, Flynn, and Morrissey absorb and refract the compositional styles and formal tendencies of several precursor poets, this chapter suggests that all three aim to find what remains viable within the gallery of shapes, tones, and modes that have characterized Northern Irish poetry since the 1960s in order to catch and represent contemporary conditions in the North.
In the final decades of the twentieth century and into the first years of the twenty-first, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland experienced dizzying societal changes. At the beginning of the period at hand, in the early 1980s, conditions across the island seemed drearily familiar: the Irish economy was mired in recession, outward emigration was on the increase, social and political policy in the South continued to align with Catholic doctrine, sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland persisted, and the hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the North remained a fraught space of armed and ideological struggle. Yet halfway through these decades, on the cusp of a new millennium, the Irish economy was so strong that it had been anthropomorphised as the Celtic Tiger, inward immigration outpaced emigration, the longstanding moral authority of the Catholic Church had been destabilised, and the Good Friday Agreement indicated that the violence of the Troubles would diminish or even cease entirely.
This coda juxtaposes two of the most important Irish poets of the past fifty years, focusing in particular on the ways in which Boland and Heaney base their poetics on turns to the past, whether personal memory or cultural history. It also locates ways in which Boland and Heaney aim to transform their backward-looking glances in order to account for the complexities and uncertainties of historical change, as well as to model alternate ways to think about temporality and transition.