Recently, a number of critics (from Richard Bradford in Poetry: The Ultimate Guideto Jonathan Culler in his work-in-progress, Theory of the Lyric) have taken on the task of developing a systematic poetics. Thus it is not surprising to read the first sentence of Jahan Ramazani’s book, Poetry and Its Others: “What is poetry?” (1). The last sentence of the book more surprisingly notes that poetry “will never be conclusively defined” (238). Indeed, Ramazani’s definition of what is distinctive about poetry is more fluid—one is tempted to say more Stevensian—than that of the other critics just mentioned. In “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Stevens says of poetry that to “fix it is to put an end to it,” and adds, “Let me show it to you unfixed” ( CPP664). Like Stevens (although this is not a book that focuses specifically on his work), in the course of not reaching a conclusion Ramazani casts much light on the question of what poetry is—or perhaps what it does. He also offers longer five-to-nine-page close readings of a number of poems by, even the poetic development of, writers ranging from Christopher Okigbo and M. NourbeSe Philip to T. S. Eliot and George Oppen. He writes knowledgeably about dozens of other poets and movements in poetry as well—including “dub” poetry and sound poetry. If, as Ramazani notes, the terms we use, including the overarching term “poetry,” have about them a certain “untidiness” (4), being “conceptually ragged and historically unstable” (5), the sheer range of work Ramazani considers makes visible what he convincingly casts as “inter [End Page 112]linked family resemblances” that are “not static or universal but situational, contextual, shifting depending on the other engaged” (60). The close readings throughout demonstrate how poetry “is formed by both its ‘domestic’ and its ‘foreign’ relations” (8).
More precisely, Ramazani focuses on what he calls “dialogic poetics” (7–8), combining “dialogic” in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense of the term with “poetics” in Roman Jakobson’s. The book concentrates on Anglophone poetry, primarily from the last century and a half, paying particular attention to twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry as “especially fertile ground for a dialogic approach” (9). Taking poems that are in conversation with nonpoetry (novels, the law, theory, journalism, prayer, and song, that is, with discourses that in some way are closely allied or in contention with poetry), Ramazani traces how poetry distinguishes itself from these “others.”
While canvassing “poetry’s various self-understandings” (16), Poetry and Its Othersuncovers intrinsic but shifting features of poetic language, rather than offering a fixed taxonomy. In dialogue with the law, for instance, poems might foreground “polyphony, incantatory recursiveness, self-reflexivity, and graphic arrangements on the page” (60), while in those cases where it engages the news—meaning both reporting and new information (89)—poetry seems distinctively “compressed and memorable, phonetically patterned and figuratively rich, if also slow and often counterfactual” with “wider temporal horizons” (66, 86). The “prayerful poem” (135), differently positioned, often deploys “devices of distanciation and framing” (132)—the aesthetic dimension threatening to overshadow the devotional—with poems self-consciously marking the “strains and striations” traversing the hyphen in “prayer-poem” (138). A separate section is devoted to the complications found in postcolonial prayer-poems that deal with both indigenous and imposed religious traditions. The final chapter opens with an illuminating discussion of the differences between the musicality of songs and that of (or in) poems, as well as a consideration of various ways poems have aligned themselves with, or differentiated themselves from, songs. Again, Ramazani details how, variously, such poems maintain their distinctiveness as poems, including in this context their resistance to subordinating the semantic to the harmonic (223).
There are suggestions in Poetry and Its Othersthat could be taken further. For instance, we are told that Seamus Heaney’s poems (as opposed to journalism) show us poetry’s “transhistorical durability and transnational adaptability” (69). Later in the same...