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Reviewed by:
  • Touch: On Lyric Address
  • Kathleen L. Komar
Poetry's Touch: On Lyric Address. By William Waters. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003, xi+180 pp. $37.50.

This is one of those wonderful volumes that reminds us all why we got involved with literature in the first place. It takes poetry seriously—not only by providing enlightening and insightful close readings, but also by unabashedly revealing just how moving and engaging poetry can be, and how much responsibility we bear in the work of receiving poetry. William Waters is clearly one of those addressees of poetry who carries out his responsibility earnestly. His study is lucidly written with linguistic and philosophic density, and feelingly presented despite its formal precision.

Waters takes the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke ("a writer whose work is unusually reflective about poetic 'addressivity'" [16]) as a central focus, but his subject matter ranges from ancient Greek epitaphs to John Ashbery, and from Latin to German. His command of a wide range of poets is impressive. He writes with equal facility about Emily Dickinson and Else Lasker-Schüler, Catullus and Paul Celan. He casts a wide net indeed while delving deeply into the language and rhetoric of each individual poem. His comments are underpinned by a range of essays by philosophers (Martin Buber and Hans-Georg Gadamer, among others), literary critics, and poets themselves. All of this makes for a very rich context in which Waters explores the idea of lyric address.

Waters examines a number of poems that use "you" in order to explore who that "you" is. The reader in an abstract sense? The self of the poet addressed as though it was an other? An actual historical figure or beloved? This focus allows Waters to explore poetry as a point of contact between human beings who share the experience of a particular text. His examination of metaphors of touch, of beings moving hand in hand, leads him into the ways in which poetry allows strangers to interact on both an intellectual and emotional level.

Waters attempts to turn the attention of critics and readers of poetry from the romantic concentration on the "lyric I" to a genuine questioning of the "you" so often addressed in a poem. He suggests that rather than following John Stuart Mill's (among many others') vision of poetry as the voice of the I "overheard," we would do well to examine the not so rhetorical "you" at the other end of the linguistic diagram. He turns from the ancient discussion of poetry as a monologic genre (meaning spoken by one [End Page 238] voice) to the modern misconstrual of that notion to mean that "a poem has no hearer beyond the poet himself, no true you" (3). Waters points out that not all poetic addressees are fictive (the many "to the Reader" addresses attest to this). He sets out to look at some of the specific ways in which the "you" of a poem can function. In so doing, he takes us through a wonderful series of close readings of poems linked by the ways in which they address that "you."

After deftly introducing his topic, Waters teases it out in his individual chapters. Chapter One, "Poems Addressing Contemporaries," scrutinizes how that form leads from speaking to present friends and beloveds to addressing intimates who are no longer there (a topic Waters will take up in more detail in his third and fourth chapters). Chapter Two, "Address as Greeting, Address as Spell," examines the ways in which poetry manages to conjure up some addressees and hold others immobile, pinned in a poetic trap of language. Chapter Three, "The Continuance of Poems: Monument and Mouth," begins with epitaphs and monuments with their oddly simultaneous ideas of continuance (in the language) and cessation (of the life) and moves to more general poems addressed to someone always absent. In this chapter, Waters moves convincingly and engagingly from Horace and ancient Greek epitaphs to Rilke and W.S. Merwin—a range typical of his whole endeavor. And finally, Chapter Four, "Hand-Writing and Readerly Intimacy," presents Waters's perhaps most moving discussion as he considers the "thought of life...


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