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Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005) 340-345

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When All the Pieces Fail to Fit:

The Puzzle of the Postmodern Long Poem

University of Washington
Brian McHale, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2004. xiv + 312 pp. $59.95; $29.95 paper.

Brian McHale's The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems seeks to distinguish modernist and postmodern poetry without resorting to simplistic chronologies (before and after World War II, before and after 1968, before and after Andy Warhol's Brillo Box [1964]). McHale gains new purchase on this old subject by opting to discuss only "long poems." Length alone does not a genre make, of course, and he concedes that he has chosen a "slippery object" as his unit of analysis (3). This decision, though, usefully sidelines a much-mooted question, the fate of the lyric in the later twentieth century. However one defines the lyric, and whatever one thinks about voice and lyrical subjectivity, long poems, as they reach the size and scale of dramatic and epic poetries of ages past, push authors and critics alike to consider a range of other aspects of the art form, that is, such matters as characterization, scene-setting, point of view, structural coherence, and a work's relation to history. By limiting itself to long poems, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole is able to downplay the legacy of the Greater Romantic Lyric and ponder instead a series of provocative, alternative formal analogies drawn from contemporary fiction, postmodern architecture, and "'lost' and ephemeral genres such as Menippean satire, learnéd wit, and court masque" (xi). [End Page 340]

Three chapters concentrate on single works: James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), John Ashbery's "The Skaters" (1966), and Susan Howe's The Europe of Trusts (1990). In these sections of the book, McHale focuses his argument on formal problems particular to each author. He discusses the relation between actual and counterfactual worlds in Sandover; the impossibility of differentiating between sincere and parodic statements in "The Skaters"; and Susan Howe's eerie ability to make nearly every line of verse sound like a quotation or allusion. The three remaining chapters pursue unusual pairings: Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery (1965) and Ed Dorn's Gunslinger (1975); Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns (1971) and Armand Schwerner's The Tablets (1999); and Thomas McGrath's Letter to an Imaginary Friend (1985) and Bruce Andrews's "Confidence Trick" (1987). These parts of the book take up more general issues in contemporary poetics, namely, pastiche as a period style of the 1960s, the late-twentieth-century suspicion of "tropes of archaeological depth" (103), and the vexing problem of what kinds of verse, if any, possess political efficacy. Although in the course of these assorted analyses McHale never arrives at "a strong unifying theory" that "distinguishes postmodernist long poems from modernist ones," he directs attention to recurrent themes, strategies, and assumptions that mark his selection of long poems as participants in "a period poetics" (250). Among these characteristics: a fascination with erasure and unmaking; an incorporation of machines, mathematics, and randomization procedures into the process of composition; a resort to sampling and other means of introducing found or everyday material into verse; an attraction to "popular narrative genres" such as science fiction, the gothic novel, the Western, animated cartoons, and comic books (258); and a countervailing interest in "weak narrativity," that is, storytelling that proceeds so "distractedly," with so "much irrelevance and indeterminacy," that it "evoke[s] narrative coherence while at the same time withholding commitment to it and undermining confidence in it" (259).

When glancing at the table of contents, a reader might justifiably ask, Why did McHale opt for these writers and these texts? A large number of "usual suspects" are missing (xii). Where are the likes of A. R. Ammons's Sphere (1974), Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red [End Page 341] (1998), Lyn Hejinian's My Life (1987), Langston Hughes's Ask Your Mama (1961), Paul Muldoon...


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