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Reviews157 After the Death ofPoetry: Poet andAudience in Contemporary America, by Vernon Shedey; xiv & 224 pp. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, $39.95 cloth, $13.95 paper. The issue of poetry's relation to American culture has been the subject of intense debate among poets and scholars of all ideological stripes. Though there is a consensus that poetry is marginalized in today's society, different solutions are offered: a return to traditional form and narrative; less dependence on the university as an institution; new subject matter. Shetley's After the Death ofPoetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America enters this debate from the standpoint of poetry's subject matter, attempting to isolate elements of contemporary poetry that might appeal to the nonacademic, intellectual readership that is poetry's enduring, but evaporating, audience. In Shetley's view, American culture today is dominated by philosophical skepticism—skepticism about language, about authority, about tradition, about notions of truth. For poetry to appeal adequately to the intellectual readership so conscious of the erosion of absolutes, Shetley argues, poets must attempt to embody that skepticism in their work. "Speculative criticism," he maintains, "can articulate the doubt, butonly poetry can tell us how living with and in that doubt affects the nature of our feelings; poetry can represent for us the ways in which the quality of our experience has been transformed by the developments that speculative criticism presents discursively. But poetry can do so only if poets are willing to brave the element of skeptical consciousness, only if they submit their own poetic assumptions to a rigorous and fundamental inquiry" (p. 29). Shetley uses chapters on John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, andJames Merrill to demonstrate how these poets successfully embody skepticism in their work. Shetley suggests that Ashbery, for instance, straddles two seemingly opposed traditions in his work: Romanticism and the modernist avant-garde. While Ashbery recognizes that Romanticism has been devalued by the avant-garde, Shetley argues, he also regards the avant-garde as a nearly exhausted tradition itself. Shetley believes that the irony with which he treats both modes leads to genuine innovation: holding on to human emotion even while recognizing the same world the avant-garde depicted. In Shedey's view, none of the three major modes of contemporary poetry— the creative writing mainstream, Expansive poetry, and Language poetry— subjects its premises to a rigorous enough examination to embody the deep skepticism of our age. He nonetheless offers discussions of several individual poets (David Ferry, Robert Hass, and Thylias Moss, among others) who succeed on his terms. Shetley's book is somewhat flawed when it turns attention away from die three major poets to the contemporary schools. He uses one poem each from Expansive and Language poetry to dismiss those movements, which is in sharp 158Philosophy and Literature contrast to his careful, detailed readings of Ashbery, Bishop, and Merrill. Of course, it is difficult to consider entire groups of poets in detail in a single chapter, but no group can be adequately reduced to a single, short poem—and not even its best one at that. His readings of individual contemporary poems outside the boundaries of poetic schools are far more insightful. Ultimately, Shedey's overall diesis is a provocative one, and difficult to fault in general. Poets can embody, or attempt to challenge, the historical consciousness of their age in their work; but they cannot escape it if they are to produce genuine art. A major part of the consciousness of our age is indeed skepticism, and the major poets of our time will be those who manage to confront it direcdy. Shetley's optimism that poetry can appeal to intellectual readers is gratifying, and his book is a useful contribution to the debate about poetry's relation to a general intellectual readership. University of CincinnatiKevin Walzer Dialagues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin, by Walter L. Reed; xii & 223 pp. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1993, $39.95. In one regard, a book of this sort seems to have been almost inevitable, as its subject represents a convergence of two prominent vogues ofrecent decades in Anglo-American literary criticism and theory: interpretation of the Bible "as literature," over the past...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 157-158
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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