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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge Introduction to French Poetry
  • Stamos Metzidakis
Shaw, Mary Lewis. The Cambridge Introduction to French Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Pp. 226. ISBN0-5210-0485-3

This is a pedagogically wide-ranging and highly practical book. It provides readers with indispensable socio-historical, stylistic and rhetorical terms as well as assorted bits of useful information about a dazzling array of French poets, schools and movements from the Middle Ages to the present. The precise, compact glossary of terms alone will answer many a teacher's prayer for just such an aide-mémoire, since it includes definitions of many items beyond basic notions like rhyme schemes and meter; namely, tropes and figures, such as catachresis, syllepsis and synecdoche. The book is an ideal mixture of more or less traditional literary history – complete with publication dates, biographical details, etc. – and close textual analysis, and incor-porates some of the best scholarship on these subjects.

Throughout her survey, Professor Shaw is careful not to neglect the usual canonical subjects and suspects found in, say, the Lagarde et Michard series, from chansons de geste and major troubadours to various avant-gardes and Bonnefoy. Yet, at the same time, she seamlessly expands previous canons to include equally deserving women and Francophone poets, like Catherine Pozzi, Edouard Glissant, Gaston Miron, Joyce Mansour and Anne Hébert. She also discusses at length powerful poetic theories first articulated by Plato, Aristotle and Horace, later by Malherbe, Boileau, Hugo and Breton, that continue to influence French-speaking poets and critics. In the process, she demonstrates how the latter often revisit earlier models and systems.

Shaw's study thus constitutes a worthy successor to textbooks used in countless French literature survey courses which have introduced thousands of students to basic French literary genres over the last twenty five years or so. In particular, I think of a now-classic text used to teach the devices characteristic of poetry, prose and plays, co-authored by Peter Schofer, whom Shaw thanks for helping her design a book for a new generation of readers. Rather than treat all genres at once, however, Shaw has the wonderful idea here to devote her full energies to presenting the fundamentals of French poetry alone. In this respect, she joins a growing number of recent critics who have been working to rehabilitate the serious study of a genre that has always occupied a major place, perhaps even the major place, in the world's literature. This does not mean, of course, that close examination of French poetry ever really disappeared. In retrospect, it does appear, however, that after the neo-formalist and structuralist passion for versified forms in the 1960s – consider, for example, the widely discussed reading of Baudelaire's sonnet "Les Chats" done by Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson and the subsequent responses to it – came a generalized post-structuralist drift away from poetry to prose. Indeed, while focusing much of their attention on the ostensibly greater informational "density" of prose over poetry, some post-structuralist thinkers eschewed a type of writing which, in actuality, never waned. Poetry may well, in fact, have been undergoing a simultaneous renaissance of its own, as evidenced by the recent advent throughout the world of hip-hop, rap, raï, [End Page 407] poetry slams and cafes. Thus, as Shaw insists, nothing could be further from the truth than the all too frequently expressed opinion that (French) poetry is at an unacceptable remove from matters of great social, philosophical or political import. My use of parentheses in this last sentence is deliberate, for it underscores an implied plea found throughout the book for a greater appreciation of the universal roles and functions of poetry, rather than for some "universalist" insistence on the superiority of French language, civilization or poetry. As Shaw writes: "[D]espite our emphasis on "French" aspects we have hesitated to define [French poetry] otherwise than as a network of poems composed in the language known as French" (175). For these reasons, her book deserves a place in the library of everyone studying French in today's multicultural environment, as well as on every teacher's personal desk, from ap high school classrooms to...


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