- Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present by Tom Jones
by Tom Jones. Edinburgh Univ. Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2012. 207pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-7486-5616-5.
This book may not be, as the publisher’s blurb states, “the first study of poetic language from a historical and philosophical perspective,” but it surely is one of the most stimulating and useful works in this much-debated field that I have come across for many years. At the same time, it is also one of the most modest of them: Tom Jones, who teaches in the English faculty at Saint-Andrews, is not an author who claims, but suggests, and it is a permanent pleasure to follow him through his both syn-optic and detailed journey through the history of English poetry, as well as the century (at least) of critical thinking on poetry, Anglo-Saxon as well as continental (Julia Kristeva and Henri Messchonic, for instance, are amply discussed).
The global architecture of this book is quite original and suits perfectly the needs of several groups of readers (teachers, students, the general poetry audience and, last but not least, poets themselves, who may find here numerous new ideas and challenging analyses). The book opens and ends with general information: It begins with a general introduction that sketches a helpful and illuminating overview of theories and methods; the final section consists of complementary biographical and bibliographical information, all presented very clearly and with a keen sense of what can be of interest for the reader and a sharp awareness of what is really relevant for advanced reading. In these chapters, Jones immediately foregrounds the idea or, more precisely, the ideal, of poetry that he will elaborate in the central chapters of the book. This idea (p. l) is one of uncertainty, not as a negative or default option, i.e. of the impossibility of producing clear ideas, but as a positive value, if not a real program, i.e. the willingness to show that poetry can never be reduced to a specific form, use, theory or practice—that all forms, uses, theories and practices of poetry are always double, ambivalent, and therefore charged with the intensity and power of difference. The doubt that good poetry induces is, in other words, not crippling but productive and transformative, opening doors to better ways of analyzing. No reader will be surprised to notice that the name of Jacques Derrida pops up rather frequently in Poetic Language, but deconstruction is certainly not the final word of this book. It is rather one of the manifestations of a master’s voice or some strategically used master mind. The repeated mention of difference is instead a warning system against overenthusiastic embraces of just one theory, method, or concept. This thoughtfulness is not a luxury, for poetry is often the victim of one-sided, theoretically inspired analyses that tend to instrumentalize the poetic text, reducing it to a mere illustration of speculative hypotheses.
The core of the book is organized along three main lines, which are cleverly intertwined in such a way that several different, no pun intended, reading paths are possible. The first line may seem very elementary, but it is much less practiced than it should be in other books on the same topic: a chronological line, [End Page 311] which leads us in 12 chapters from the late 16th to the late 20th century, bringing together figures of the British and American poetical canon. By doing so, Jones proves that he does not select his examples so that they can fit a given theory or toolbox but indicates that, on the contrary, he accepts the need to address the whole of the poetic production, trying to find ways of making sense of the questions poetry asks its reader. The second line is conceptual, but deeply rooted in the history of rhetoric: Jones has chosen a certain number of key concepts (namely: figure, selection, measure, equivalence, spirit and deviance), which may summarize the most fundamental stances one can adopt when labeling poetic language. Each of these six concepts is...