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  • Strands of Utopia: Spaces of Poetic Work in Twentieth-Century France
  • Margaret Miner
Strands of Utopia: Spaces of Poetic Work in Twentieth-Century France. By Michael G. Kelly. Oxford: Legenda, 2008. x + 270 pp. Hb £48.00; $89.50.

As its title suggests, this book undertakes to scrutinize the weave of twentieth-century French poetry, with particular attention to the twisting and linking of the poetic with the utopian. Michael G. Kelly begins his argument by reconsidering the vexed quest to articulate contemporary poetry's difference from other discourses and thus to set the poetic apart from other forms of work. This rethinking leads Kelly first to underline the distinctively restless, process-oriented momentum of poetic practice, citing divergent accounts (by Bernard Noël, Denis Roche, Christian Prigent, Henri Michaux, and Gaston Bachelard) that nonetheless all point towards the future-directedness of the poet's work. Kelly then connects this work with several strains of recent utopian thinking (Ernst Bloch, Karl Mannheim, Paul Ricœur, Louis Marin) that draw partially away from traditional, spatial conceptions of utopia in order to figure it as a 'dynamic — a leavening of the present reality' (p. 16). Noting, however, the durable tension between metaphors of space and of movement within utopian discourses, as well as the related tension between material product (œuvre) and temporal process (travail) in poetic discourses, Kelly proposes to negotiate these tensions by turning towards La Production de l'espace (1974), in which Henri Lefebvre theorizes social practice as a space dynamically structured and unified by the three fields of the social, the physical, and the mental. For Kelly, this 'cogent and inclusive' model can be usefully reinterpreted as 'so many axes along which the effect of the utopian dynamic may be observed and analysed' with respect to 'the notion of poetic work' (pp. 21-22). He therefore adapts it to serve as the structuring principle for the three parts of his argument, devoted respectively to the 'Lieu commun', or social space in which the utopian energy of poetic work envisages the 'optimal construction of human community' (p. 32), the 'Haut lieu', or referential space of 'poetic experience [. . .] understood under the pressure of [End Page 513] a utopian dynamic' that aims both to figure and to exceed the material world (p. 110), and the 'Non-lieu', or textual space where the poetic and the utopian attempt a collaborative passage from 'phenomenological or lived space' to a 'notionally absolute, openly artificial space' of their own (p. 173). Within each part Kelly supports his argument with probing analyses of the work of three poets, chosen for their exemplary efforts to confront issues of poetic difference within the historical and cultural framework of their generation: Victor Segalen for the interval before the First World War, René Daumal for the interwar period, and Yves Bonnefoy for the years following the Second World War. Complex and often discussed at a high level of abstraction, these doubly tripartite Strands of Utopia are not for the hurried or the half-prepared: the challenges of Kelly's style do not always appear fully justified by the substance of his argument, thus creating occasional dissonance within a project manifestly predicated on their inseparability. But this is nevertheless a very careful, reflective, and thought-provoking study, and it more than amply rewards the exertions required of its readers.

Margaret Miner
University of Illinois at Chicago


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pp. 513-514
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