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  • Twenty-First-Century Poetry and Philosophy in Dialogue
  • Anne Day Dewey (bio)
Gerald L. Bruns. What Are Poets For? An Anthropology of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. 222pp. $39.95 paper.

“What poets are for” requires new definitions as poetic activity takes forms hardly recognizable as poetry and poets and audiences inhabit multiple, translocal, and transnational communities. Although conceptions of the poet as visionary and of lyric as private meditation may never have been more than enabling fictions, contemporary poetic forms seem to stem from poets’ renunciation of or inability to forge private language. Marjorie Perloff characterizes poetic creativity of the “new century” as “unoriginal genius,” in which “what Hart Crane called the poet’s ‘cognate word’ begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words.”1 Michael Davidson observes the prevalence across various traditions of “a revision of Keats’s negative capability around social crisis instead of personal uncertainty.”2 Such changes may reflect shifting boundaries of public and private, far and near, due to the volume, mobility, and immediacy of information from the World Wide Web. Not only have digital media freed word from page, but [End Page 615] global politics, travel, and communication are reconfiguring the physical and discursive conditions that structure subjectivity. At the same time, the presence of consolidated traditions of women’s, ethnic, and gay writing in the U.S. diversify and alter the power dynamic of the contexts in which poets write, challenging the twentieth-century dichotomy between revolutionary majority avant-gardes and minority writers in search of representation in traditional forms. To understand poetry’s purpose as well as the forces shaping poetic imagination, we must develop new conceptions of poetic agency and of the politics of form.

Criticism shares the challenge of reconceiving poetry’s purpose. While the debate sparked by Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” focused on the fragmentation of poetic culture into a variety of subcultures and the value of traditional versus experimental forms, the advent of cultural studies often marginalized questions of poetic form, privileging narrative and examining literature in general as record of experience and identity rather than formal construct.3 Yet as Timothy Yu’s Race and the Avant-Garde argues for the case of Asian American writing, such imbalance in critical attention to content and form, while significant in establishing the literature of minority cultures, leads us to ask different questions of different texts, approaching them with limited methodologies inadequate to the fluidity of poetic practice.4 Recent calls for a return to close reading and attention to form place poetry at the center of critical efforts to bridge the gap between existing methodologies.

Gerald L. Bruns’s What Are Poets For? An Anthropology of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics shifts Gioia’s question from the substance of poetry to the role of the poet. Quoting from Theodor W. Adorno’s argument about modern poetry, Bruns argues that poets’ purpose is to make “things of which we do not know what [End Page 616] they are” (qtd. in Bruns 20).5 For Adorno, modern poetry has emancipated itself from serving other institutions (for example, religion, politics) and develops in symbiosis with its self-authorizing poetics. Bruns examines the poetic “anomalies” revolutionizing the contemporary landscape to provide “an anthropologist’s progress through an alien culture, at ground level, from one local practice or artifact to another” (x). The interrelation between poetry and poetics informs his preference for experimental and especially conceptual poetry, pushed at times to its disconcerting limit of equating poem with idea, in which “[a]ny actual writing-down could be left to one’s scribes or apprentices” (12) and descriptions of possible poems serve as “poems at secondhand” (149), “a reading of [which] would be superfluous, a failure of possibility” (150). Contemporary poetic anomalies gain significance through critical dialogue with philosophy, as the challenge of interpreting experimental practice expands the philosopher’s conceptualization of reality. While poets’ creation of the unknown “constitutes a limit of philosophical aesthetics” (164), philosophy’s “aesthetics . . . will provide the capacity for reflection, which art on its own is hardly able to achieve” (Adorno...


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