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  • A Defense of Poetry: Reflections on the Occasion of Writing
  • Jack Kolb
A Defense of Poetry: Reflections on the Occasion of Writing, by Paul H. Fry; 256 pp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, $45.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.

And the worm turns. It might elicit dubious laughter from those Yale critics who taught Paul Fry, now William Lampson Professor at their institution, by his admission a Berkeley student in the 1960s (and still, clearly, trying to come to terms with the absolutism of his era), to have him (a)rise to the occasion of verse. After all, the question he asks at the outset of his study—“how are we to account for all the poetry, not to mention fiction, not to mention all the criticism . . . that still gets written?”—seems anathema except to us academic conservatives, those who resent the encroachment of sterile philosophic approaches into literature. And irrelevant to those writers who don’t give a damn about academic criticism. Fry’s reality, and not just his literary reality, here confronts the weight of academia.

What is most troublesome to me about this worthy book is the vast prolegomena that seems, alas, de rigueur these days, the critical dross that Fry must apparently spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to placate, dodge, and negotiate. If academic criticism must perform such elaborate obeisance to questionable philosophies of literature, then academic criticism is truly dead. No reason to grieve: it will be replaced by those who seek to understand and relish literature, still informed by the worthy questions of imitation and audience and authorial psychology, and even internal construction that have enticed readers for centuries.

Fry is anything but a happy deconstructionist. One senses immediately that he is distinctly discontented with theoretical discourse, that what he really wants to discuss is poetry, and the poetic impulse. And when he does, he does it brilliantly. Indeed, it is only his argument that inhibits him. To oversimplify (an inevitable process in this book), Fry wants to rescue some poetry from the self-destructiveness, as he sees it, of sterile critical approaches—mostly from the neo-historicists, but also from all others who would deny the essential job of poetry to replicate reality. Both human and historical values have got in the way [End Page 522] of this “pure” conveyance. Somehow poetry (unique of the arts) can escape this:

It is the function of indication, of saying that something just is (to which until now I have confined my notion of ostension), to estrange utterance from its historical situation by refusing to say that that something is predicated upon, determined by, something else, whether in narrative, description, or explanation. . . .

This is the moment, completing the structure of ostension, which reduces the estranged, necessarily “situated” utterance to sound and trace, and thus returns it to the unsignifying sphere of actuality, of things in themselves, from which history for its part is by nature forever estranged. Literature, then, is that mode of utterance which lays bare the irreducible distance between history and actuality from the parti pris of the latter. By suspending our purposeful engagement with the world, it reattaches itself to the world.

(pp. 54–55)

No single passage can do Fry justice, for his approach is accretive, and fearsomely intelligent (this is one of the few books of contemporary criticism I’ve read in which I felt that the awful vocabulary was merited). Yet, ultimately, Fry’s ontology sounds very much like old-fashioned mimesis; it is the universality of experience, he asserts, that escapes the historicist or the dogmatist or the deconstructionist. At some level poetry is what it is. In fact what Fry seemingly wants is in his terms an obliteration of the mediation of mimesis: his true poetry wants to be reality, or at least as close as we come to it in art.

Of course the problem with this definition of poetry is that it is, despite Fry’s twistings and turnings, a definition of poetry. Poetry, as even Plato tells us, is an imitation. So how do we try to get closest to reality? With poetry, Fry suggests; poetry that acknowledges the universal reality...

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