That Elusive Something

The Strength of Poetry

by James Fenton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 266 pp., $25.00

If nobody reads poetry anymore, as even people who ought to know better seem to believe, who then bothers to read books about poetry? The answer is, someone obviously must since they do get published and our publishers are not known for being sentimental fools. For those skeptical of any claims made on behalf of poetry, especially of the modern variety, the probable assumption is that these books are even more obscure, even more irrelevant than the poems themselves.
Like most widespread beliefs about poetry, this one is also wrong. Not only is much contemporary verse readable and worth anybody’s time, the same can be said of some writing about poetry. This collection of lectures James Fenton delivered at Oxford, most of which were first published in these pages, demonstrates that to be the case. Notwithstanding what one thinks about Fenton’s treatment of various poets under discussion, he has written a fine book, one that any general reader of literature would have absolutely no difficulty understanding and enjoying.
Fenton’s writing is conspicuously free of contemporary scholarly jargon that has made most academic writing on poetry an ordeal to read. There are no trendy terms such as “logocentricism,” “signification,” “slippage,” “code,” “textuality,” “patriarchy,” “hegemony,” or “post-individualism” in these lectures. Academic critics, working on the premise that the issues they are dealing with are of such complexity that ordinary words simply won’t do, use these concepts repeatedly to give the impression that they have reached an advanced, more radical stage of thinking about literature. At their worst, they remind me of the way literary critics in Communist Russia peppered their pieces with all-purpose catch phrases of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin even when they came to write about Homer and Shakespeare. Of course, they were obliged to do so, often at the point of a gun, and our critics are not. Nonetheless, like their Marxist counterparts, others have some legitimate questions about literary works. For instance, who is the real author of a poem? Is it the poet’s social class, gender, or race that writes the poem? Schools of literary criticism and the writings of poets themselves can be divided by how they answer that question. Here are just a few possible ways:

1. The poet and no one else writes the poem.
2. The unconscious of the poet writes the poem.
3. All of past poetry writes the poem.
4. Language itself writes the poem.
5. Some higher power, angelic or demonic, writes the poem.
6. The spirit of the times writes the poem.

Probably all of these have a role in any work, but dogmatic criticism likes to pretend that there is only one correct viewpoint, be it linguistic, semantic, rhetorical, formal, structural, archetypal, or ideological. Instead of engaging the work at hand from various standpoints, it concentrates on one of these aspects of the poem to the exclusion of all the others. A critic like Fenton, who works on the assumption that any single, overall …

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