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AmericanPoetics of Self andHistory Charles Altieri. Self and Sensibility in ContemporaryAmerican Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 237 pp. Stephen Fredman. Poet's Prose: The Crisis inAmerican Verse. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1983. 173 pp. Joseph G. Kronick. American Poetics of Historv:From Emerson to the Moderns. Baton.Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.302 pp. Julia M. Reibetanz These three books present very distinctive accounts of an enduring problem forAmerican writers: the necessity to relate the creative self to a culture as vastand contradictory asAmerica itself,to develop forms "at once sufficiently expansiveand fractured to contain their experience as Americans," 1 and to interpret the past and include a historical dimension in an art that livesin the presentmoment, remaining essentially unfinished. In his earlier study of the problem,Cary Nelson centers upon what he calls "open form poetry," studying the work of Roethke, Kinnell, Duncan, Rich and Merwin, and arguing a progressive deterioration in the ability of their open forms to survive the subvertingpressure of the nation's history,language and culture. Hisconclusion isapprehensive: contemporary poets are doomed with Merwin to be poets of "irresolution," announcing the "dissolution of language" in a form "that ruthlesslydeconstructs its own accomplishments." 2 While Fredman, Altieri and Kronick all participate in this argument to somedegree, they are characteristically less committed to a single outcome, more convinced of the ability of open form poetry and literature in general to discover new strategies for dealing with the contradictions of American historyand experience. Theirs is more an open form criticism, less implicitly prescriptive, more interested in alternatives. For this reason, all three books offer interesting though different perspectives from which to measure Americanpoetry. Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 1986,257-264 258 Julia M. Reibetanz Stephen Fredman approaches the crisis in American verse through the perspective of prose, arguing that "poet's prose," poetry written in sentences rather than in verse, has occupied a central place in American poetry from Emerson to the present. From Emerson, poet's prose develops a strongly philosophical strain: "the poetic faculty is turned back upon its own medium, language, resulting in an investigative, exploratory poetry rather than a poetry of striking images encapsulated in tightly crafted lines. Conventional poetry presents things; poet's prose often chooses to investigate how things arise from the matrix of language" (p. viii). To a large degree, Altieri and Kronick also argue the case of "poet's prose" though they do not use the term. (Altieri had seen Fredman's book, though fairly late in his own writing schedule.) Fredman centers his discussion upon Williams, Creeley and Ashbery; Altieri shares two of these authors, Creeley and Ashbery, and adds Adrienne Rich as his third principal voice. While Altieri includes, in addition, a wider array of secondary poets than does Fredman, he still finds a similar range of verse that is discursive, conjectural and self-reflexive. He argues in his final chapter that this poetry demands a change in critical directions, the formulation of "general criteria" that go beyond descriptive appreciation and seek "some general contrastive basis on which to establish the significant tasks poets must perform" (pp. 191-92). Kronick seems to argue one such task by centering upon the persistent attempts of American poets to write a poetics of history. Beginning, like Fredman, with Emerson, he moves through a more traditional line of Thoreau, Whitman, Henry Adams and Pound, to Williams, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Though he does not include the new poets, his conclusion is not unlike a basic assumption of Fredman and Altieri, that the past does not exist outside oflanguage, that history isitselfwovenofmetaphor. Kronick, therefore, finds it "characteristic of the American writer to treat history as a question of intertextuality, of reading and writing. A poetics of history shifts the ground of historical studies from epistemology to tropology, the rhetorical interplay that poses history as a problematic of reading wherein temporal relations are generated by a linguistic process of exchange" (p. 6). In Fredman's words, American poetics explore the absolutely constitutive role that language plays: One can find a rough analogy to the "last genre" of the prose poem in the "last philosophyof Nietzsche," a...


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