- Re-Visioning History in Cole Swensen’s Such Rich Hour
Cole Swensen has made a substantial mark on contemporary American poetry. She has published over a dozen books of poetry; translated eight books of French poetry into English; co-edited American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (2009); and won wide recognition in the form of awards and a growing body of critical work on her writing. Swensen’s rich and varied poetic output testifies to two important trends in contemporary poetry: a serious engagement with research as a major source of poetic material; and a complex engagement with the visual arts. These two traits are tethered to larger movements of culture in which contemporary poetry is inextricably intertwined, including the widespread location of poets in academic institutions and the widespread attention to what W. J. T. Mitchell has called “the pictorial turn” in culture, a deep rethinking of the fundamental relations between words and images (11–16). Swensen, who has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, is far from unique in having pursued serious academic research in parallel with an ambitious career in poetry; one thinks of Anne Carson and Joanna Klink [End Page 143] among many other contemporary American poets. Swensen’s poetry masterfully synthesizes large swaths of the knowledge that she absorbs through her research while remaining sharply concentrated on the act of artistic perception that constitutes a unifying theme in her work.
With respect to the content of the research that underpins her poetry, many of Swensen’s book-length poems are rooted in an exploration of distinct historical periods. This feature links her poetry with other contemporary North American poets who ground their work in historical themes and ideas, particularly Susan Howe, whose poetry has become the site of an energetic critical discourse on the intervention of contemporary poetry in historical discourse from Howe’s feminist perspective.1 Swensen has written critical essays on Howe’s work (for example, “Against the Limits of Language”), which clearly influenced Swensen’s sense of the space of the page, as Lynn Keller has shown (“Singing Spaces”). But the historical discourse with which Swensen engages is European, and predominately French, and her route into that history is typically through a period’s art or its major artists. In Try (1999), she engages with late medieval and early Renaissance Italian painting; in The Glass Age (2007), Pierre Bonnard; and in Ours (2008), André Le Nôtre, the seventeenth-century landscape architect for Louis XIV. When aligned with other probing explorations of the relationship of art, perception, and historical location in Goest (2004) and The Book of a Hundred Hands (2005), Swensen’s output testifies to a deep fascination with the revelatory possibilities of engagement with the art of the past, as well as to a drive to link that fascination with forms of historical inquiry.
Though perhaps less well known than Swensen’s other books, Such Rich Hour (2001) provides an exemplary instance of the dynamic blend of aesthetic and historical fascination. Such Rich Hour forms an important pairing with Swensen’s Try, as both books respond to a crucial and widely misunderstood period in European culture, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In this [End Page 144] period of catastrophe and creative ferment, monumental social, political, and demographic turmoil produced widespread changes in politics, the economy, and religion, as the Church was riven by the Great Schism and fractured into increasingly atomized national institutions. These changes were driven by a complexly interdependent set of causes (among them climatic change, famine, the Black Plague, and the evolution of Mediterranean trade). During this same period, major innovations in technology, the visual arts, and literature spread throughout Europe, which was increasingly linked by a mercantile traffic that contributed to the dissemination of new ideas and the crosssemination of cultural practices. Like Try, Such Rich Hour reflects deeply on the place of art in this historical context, developing ekphrastic poems that respond to images from a famous medieval manuscript, Jean, Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures. The broader cultural history in which this work is enmeshed appears in Such Rich Hour in a number of ways, including Swensen...