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  • Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
  • Virginia A. La Charité
Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, by John Taggart; 254 pp. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994, $29.95 paper.

John Taggart is a highly respected American poet whose passion for objectivism permeates his critical reading as well as his own creative works. The volume Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics represents the first time that his various critical articles have been collected into a single work. Of the eighteen essays, all but one were previously published in various journals between 1975 and 1989; the eighteenth is an essay or “A Preface” on one of his own collections of poetry, Peace on Earth. By addressing his own poetry, Taggart’s volume cleverly includes himself as poet in this study of what he considers valuable in a work of art. [End Page 398]

Finding a poem to be a simple composition of words (principle) and an image suggested by that composition (process), Taggart adopts the title Songs of Degrees from Louis Zukofsy’s seven short poems published in 1956 as Some Time. A song is then a poetic form, a continuing complete statement which actualizes the separate entities (words) of its expression. However, and most importantly, a song does not begin as a visual report; rather, a song moves towards being visualized. Consequently, everything depends on technique and everything turns on its structure, as the mind coordinates the information received by the eye. Degrees, then, emerge as variations of consonance and dissonance or word-sound functions. To write down is to compose; to compose is to create. Hence, a song of degrees is both an actual object and a metaphor for that object.

Under the poetic of objectivism, Taggart’s essays are primarily concerned with poets whose work is in accord with his own: George Oppen (three essays), Frank Sampori, William Bronk, Louis Zukofsy (three essays), Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe (two essays), Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Theodore Enslin. Taggart demonstrates here that he is a sensitive and intellectually alert reader. These essays on criticism are in actuality essays on Taggart’s concept of poetics. Implicit is Taggart’s bias as an objectivist poet who insists that poetry has a spiritual value in the visionary tradition of Robert Lowell and Robert Duncan and to an extent Wallace Stevens.

But perhaps of even greater interest than Taggart’s superb readings of his poetic colleagues—and it can be justifiably argued that perhaps only Taggart can read these poets with the sympathetic eye that they deserve—is the inclusion of three essays on other arts: dance (Trina Collins), stained glass (Mark Rothko), and jazz (John Coltrane). By including these essays with those of literary criticism, Taggart expands the terms poetics and poetry to any text or object which is a moving line and complete at the same time. Form comes from language; language is then based on experience, not belief, and the resulting image is what is revealed and reflected, what is seen. A work (poem, song, text) is valuable because its visionary imagination captures the collective conscience to regain spiritual ascesis. The process of objectification is the metaphor or song, which emerges in degrees of interaction. The song has substance, it is tangible, and it has an objective existence of its own. To be critical is to objectify the composition or structure at hand. Critical is another term for technical, and indeed it is the technical aspect of writing poetry which Taggart so deftly elucidates in his volume of essays.

For anyone interested in objectivist poetry, Taggart’s collection of essays is mandatory reading. His insights into this kind of cerebral poetry are invaluable, for he blends appreciation with analysis, information with inspiration, and logic with imagination. His own sensitivity to the struggle which is the poetic process brings a new consciousness to the poetics of poetry.

Virginia A. La Charité
University of Kentucky

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pp. 398-399
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