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Reviews Poetry and Pragmatism, by Richard Poirier; 228 pp. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1992, $22.95. Emerson is the germinal figure in this study of"the tribe ofWaldo," featuring such members as Whitman, WilliamJames, Frost, Stein, and Stevens. "Emerson remains the greatest of his extended tribe . . . the one who in his writing creates ever ponderable, ever enlivening, ceaselessly vibrant energies oflanguage within which he moves as victim and victor" (p. 31). Pragmatism as expressed by William James is the tribe's guiding ideal. For them, writing is a mode of work, like farming or carpentry. Hemingway and Mailer talk about "workers or explorers or athletes or warriors when they have in mind their own activity of thinking/writing" (p. 65).James saw pragmatism as a ceaseless activity that shuns closure; the pragmatist "turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, frombad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins" (p. 65). Pragmatism shuns all pretense of finality in truth. It is an everlasting forward effort, a constant abandonment of an already defined self, a constant work to trope the language anew. It is like America, the eternally unfinished project, the poem in progress. Emerson warned against assertiveness in speech which "can make you a committed or imprisoned person" (p. 7). Professor Poirier argues that he constantly found ways to say and unsay, a "pragmatic" labor that renders him endlessly difficult to read. I was intrigued by the latent paradox of Emerson being immensely popular in his own time while being so perversely enigmatic. This puzzle and Poirier's discussion so energized me that I hurried out to buy a portable Emerson and read again all the major essays. Consequendy, I began to suspect that Professor Poirier's notion of Emersonian pragmatism had paradoxically become a bit starchy. Some of the essays are indeed gnarled reading, e.g., "The Transcendentalist," while others, such as "Self Reliance," have a clear enough thrust and offer clutchable propositions in abundance. I would suppose that Emerson was popular because so much in his essays and talks readily entered the traffic of diurnal living. In an Emersonian moment, Robert Frost described style as "the mind skating Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 129-184 130Philosophy and Literature circles around itself." The metaphor suggests much of the exhilaration that Emerson and his tribe and this book can induce. Poirier's interpretation of Stevens's "The Rock" is a bright skating of circles that succeeded in dislodging and pushing into motion my own smug, fixed reading of the poem. His pragmatic work that thrusts against what is sticky and stodgy is the central merit of this book. Poirier's critical interpretations act out before our eyes the pragmatic ideal. Nevertheless, one can begin to feel uneasy with all this relentless subversion of boundaries and structure. The pragmatic vision begins to seem exhausting and disorienting. Poirier describes reading as a "struggle between what you want to make of a text and what it wants to make of itself and of you" (p. 167). However, to place most of the emphasis on the reader's imposition of meaning tends to reduce reading to something like a Rorschach game or Hamlet interpreting clouds. Some of us unreconstructed troglodytes still prefer doing the work of discovering what the poem wants to say. As Professor Poirier's hero Wallace Stevens wrote, "to impose is not / to discover . . . ," or one can read in his other hero, Emerson, in "Spiritual Laws," ". . . if the pages instruct you not, they will die like flies in the hour." Manifestly the struggle between self and text is always there, but there is something to be said for hoping that the text wins. The tendentious emphasis on Emersonian indeterminacy becomes starkest in the last chapter, where the Amherst gospel according to Humanities 6 is pressed upon wearied readers. Here the pragmatist tribe vanquishes utterly the wrong-headed herd of New Critics and other benighted souls who place emphasis on the authority of the text. This gives a pallid what-we-did-at-oldSiwash sort of denouement to a book that is provocative and often scintillating. Whitman CollegeWalter E. Broman SamuelJohnson on Shakespeare: The Discipline ofCriticism...


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