- New Guide to Poetry and Poetics by James Aitchison
by James Aitchison. Rodopi, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2013. 309 pp. Paper.
I must admit when I first saw the title of this book, I was a little skeptical as to whether anything much “new” could be said about poetry and poetics, especially in respect to an analysis of how the latest neuroscience findings can be applied to the creative poetic impulse. However, the book covers a huge amount of ground and does discuss some new and important aspects of the nature of poetry creation.
New Guide to Poetry and Poetics has 19 chapters and an excellent index and extensive bibliography. It is, in one sense, a truncated history of modern poetry that brings to the reader’s attention some quite obscure writings and quotations from famous poets. Chapters are arranged so they discuss all aspects of poetry making and appreciation, starting with creative impulses and how poems begin, and assessing the relevance of the conscious and unconscious mind. It then moves on to imagination, poetic vision, madness, emotion and thought in poetry. These are followed by Chapter Nine, “Meaning in Poetry” (p. 147), which, in my view, is the most important chapter in the book. I discuss this chapter later on in this review. Then the book covers discussions on imagery, rhyme, rhythm, technique, and poetry and reality, and finishes with a chapter on how reading poetry engages and then connects the reader and the poet.
Aitchison set for himself a mammoth, ambitious task in writing this book. Given the scope and complexity of the issues involved, he has managed to achieve his goal fairly successfully, and the resultant book is an important addition to the literature. I have two criticisms of the book: The first, perhaps a subjective one, is that he concentrates too much on the traditional, famous “greats” of poetry—Wordsworth, Keats, Yates, Coleridge, Eliot and so on. The very little attention Aitchison pays to contemporary avant-garde, post-post-modernist poets gives the book a kind of “been there, done that” feel. Poets such as Charles Simic and Les Murray and poetry of non-English origin—Japanese haiku, for example—do not get a mention.
The second criticism is more important: The book purports to show how the latest findings in neuroscience, involving as they do both brain and mind, inform the process of poetics and how and why the poet produces a poem. This area is discussed fairly narrowly and superficially. Again a few of the popular gurus in this discipline—Damasio, Sacks and Dennett—are discussed, and I suspect other readers will gain no real in-depth insights into how the brain actually works in the process of artistic creation. For example, Aitchison does not mention the cholinergic-aminergic neurotransmitter system of the brain discovered by Hobson. I have done fairly extensive research in this area myself, and I believe Aitchison’s understanding of how the brain functions in creative mode would have benefited from a reading of my published papers in this regard . My unpublished thesis “The Myth of the Freudian Unconscious and its Relationship with Surrealist Poetry”  would also have been quite an eye opener for Aitchison, especially as he discusses Freud in some detail and, to his credit, shows the absurdity of certain aspects of Freud’s doctrine regarding literature and creative writers.
In Chapter Nine, “Meaning in Poetry,” Aitchison engages his finest analytical powers in indicating just how absurd much of modern literary theory and theorists are. Aitchison writes: “Literary theorists’ fear of meaning and the language in which they express that fear, show that much of modern literary theory [End Page 87] is irrelevant to literature” (p. 147) [reviewer’s emphasis]. I would love to quote this whole chapter, but it is impossible to do here of course. Suffice it to say this chapter throws a cat amongst the pigeons and in a sense challenges literary theorists to “put up or shut up”—perhaps to get a new job and stop earning money under false pretenses. Aitchison’s criticism of the...