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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Poetry Criticism

Dylan Thomas: An Original Language by Barbara Nathan Hardy (Georgia Southern University Jack N. & Addie D. Averitt Lecture, 6: University of Georgia Press) Dylan Thomas's expressive, highly imaginative re-creation 0f forms and language intimately portrays his inner self and his time. In this contemplative, focused            study 0f poems, stories, and other works by Thomas, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Under Milk Wood, Barbara Hardy emphasizes his creative achievements and high intelligence, analyzing his regional identity; response t0 other writers, especially James Joyce; modernist style; subject matter; use of language; and themes of art and the natural world. Thomas, a Welsh writer, never a nationalist, put into his writing a subtle response t0 regional landscape, particular people and places, and social context, including the 1930s depression, rural poverty, and war. His poetry and prose are passionate, sensuous, and artistically self-aware. The poetry is especially congenial in its imaginative celebration of greenness literal, metaphorical, and political. To adapt the words of Charles Lamb, the poet is "in love with this green earth."

Hardy describes Thomas as a resourceful "language-changer" who, like Shakespeare, Dickens, Hopkins, and Joyce, transforms the English language. Through writing so uniquely inventive that it alters the reader's perception of language, Thomas left us with works that are as fresh and relevant t0 today's world as they were at their debut. Barbara Hardy is professor emeritus 0f English literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, and is Honorary Professor 0f English at the University of Wales, Swansea. She has written extensively 0n the English novel and has published books on Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, James, and theory 0f narrative and lyric, in addition t0 a novel, London Lovers, and a memoir, Swansea Girl. Her most recent books are Shakespeare's Storytellers and Thomas Hardy: Imagining Imagination. A selection of her poems will be published next year by Shoestring Press.

How Milton Works by Stanley Eugene Fish (Harvard University Press). The outline of Fish's acerbic standing often eclipses his critical innovations (nearly 35 years ago now) in the invention of reader-response theory in his reputation setting initial study of Milton in Surprised by Sin. Now he returns to study of Milton in this magisterial How Milton Works. Fish is popularly known for inadvertently setting off the most embarrassing scandal in the science wars when Alan Sokal’s hoax contribution to Fish’s journal, Social Text was denounced by Sokal as a paradoy of postmodernist cant. Fish’s own pathetic comeback dampened the brief hegemony of postmodernist political trends. Fish is also a controversial legal theorist (The Trouble with Principle) and a glib combatant in the culture wars (There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too), but it is as a reader of John Milton that he first made his most enduring mark, with 1967's Surprised by Sin.

The Stanley Fish Reader by Stanley Eugene Fish, edited by H. Aram Vesser (Blackwell Readers: Blackwell) Vesser provides a good critical placing of this controversial critic by assembling for the first time the best work of this controversial figure in literary theory. This provocative reader provides essays spanning thirty years, covering topics like Milton, the English Renaissance, law and literature, speech-act theory, Shakespeare, new pragmatism, first-amendment disputes, and blind submission. This substantial survey reflects on Fish's personality as well as his work and what emerges is the transformation not of a personality but of a whole intellectual generation. Along with a fascinating introduction, the reader also provides headnotes written by specialists including Joan Bennett (Milton), Jonathan Goldberg (the New Historicism), Bruce Robbins (Professionalism), Stephen Moore (poststructuralism), Judith Roof (the law), Judith Butler (free speech), and many others.

In the spring of 1996, a heated but obscure academic debate entered the public arena. The immediate cause was Alan Sokal, a physi­cist from New York University. He wrote an article in a special issue, entitled "The Science Wars," of the cultural studies journal Social Text. Sokal's piece appeared to be an analysis of certain aspects of physics and mathematics, conducted from the viewpoint of what has come to be known as postmodernism. It seemed to argue that language, politics, and interests, rather than objective reality, determine the nature of scientific knowledge, and it was written in the characteristic style of postmodernist discussions of science-pedantic bibliographic referenc­ing, extravagant praise for an elite group of thinkers, and an elaborate language which some might call "jargon." After publication Sokal imme­diately issued a disclaimer in the journal Lingua Franca, revealing that the first article was a parody, intended as an experiment to deter­mine whether the cultural studies community, and the journal's editors in particular, could tell the difference between serious scholarship and deliberate nonsense.

This well-crafted and nicely executed hoax embarrassed some trendy cultural critics and caught the fancy of the media. Sokal's piece attracted a host of new participants to the argument. Some of them felt empowered to comment on the stupidity, ve­nality, and general worthlessness of any nonscientist who proffered an opinion on science, or on the naïveté and arrogance of scientists
In the wake of the Sokal disaster, Fish has left the demoralized English department of Duke University for the University of Illinois, Chicago where he has returned his attentions to his once-revolutionary reader-response criticism in this surprisingly jargon free study, How Milton Works. This book concentrates on the whole range of Milton's oeuvre in prose and poetry. Fish asserts that the core of Milton's significance is richly theologically, in that "there is only one choice to be or not to be allied with divinity." In various chapters Fish reworks the rich mythic structure of Paradise Lost to show how the Fall that separated Satan from Heaven parallels Adam and Eve loss Eden. So the meaning of human existence is the attempt to find restoration in the Divine image. This is perhaps ironically the single foundation of meaningful action, politics, individuality, and poetry, including Milton's own. It is obvious that not all readers of Milton will so easily agree with Fish’s premises or conclusions but it is likely to quicken Milton study as his earlier study did. Also his painstaking close readings and carefully wrought arguments, enough so that perhaps many will be encouraged to return and read anew this most British of our poets. The rich architecture of Milton’s epics, it abstract phrasing and taut moral reach and ambivalence that is at once immobile in its traditionalism and radical in it modernism makes Fish’s readings and argument another milestone in Milton studies.  

Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, Third Edition by John Hollander (Yale) In this classic text, the distinguished poet and critic John Hollander surveys the schemes, patterns, and forms of English verse, illustrating each variation with an original and witty self‑descriptive example. This substantially expanded and revised edition includes a section of examples taken from centuries of poetry that exhibit the schemes and patterns he has de­scribed. For students wanting a lively introduction to verse forms this little book is well worth a look.
A preeminent American poet, John Hollander has written over sixteen volumes of poetry. He has also published several works of literary criticism and has edited numerous anthologies, his most recent collection of poem is Figurehead: And Other Poems (Knopf). His many honors include the Bollingen Prize, the Levinson Prize, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Rhyme's Reason won the Mina P. Shaughnessy Award from the Modern Language Association when it was first published. John Hollander is currently Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.

Poetry As Persuasion by Carl Dennis (The Life of Poetry: The University of Georgia Press) Focusing on the relation of the poet to the reader, Carl Dennis proposes that poems are acts of persuasion and that the strength of a poem's speaker is the key to winning the reader's sympathetic attention. Dennis identifies the qualities of passion, discrimination, and inclusiveness as essential in creating a compelling speaker. This emphasis on character leads to fresh discussions of point of view, irony, myth, and genre. Each subject is developed through careful readings of a wide variety of poets‑from Whitman and Dickinson to contemporaries. Lucidly written, Poetry as Persuasion offers both inspiration and important advice for practicing poets, and at the same time provides anyone with an interest in poetry a fresh understanding of its appeal.

The Poem As Sacrament: The Theological Aesthetic of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Philip A. Ballinger (Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs Volume 26: Eerdmans) explores the theological aesthetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ballinger unpacks the crucial terms INSCAPE and INSTRESS and shows how Hopkins was deeply influenced by John Ruskin, Ignatius of Loyola, and John Duns Scotus. In unfolding Hopkins's vision of the "poem as sacrament," Ballinger provides fresh insight into Hopkins's sense of mystery, his general theory of words, and his "Christic Rhyme Principle." Generally he writes with such care and clarity, researches so meticulously, analyzes with such fairness and objectivity, that every page is worth attention. It is a theological book about Gerard Manley Hopkins' aesthetic, that provides important insight into the theological and aesthetic dimension of the poems.

The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science edited by Kurt Brown  (University of Georgia Press) Though the interests of science and art frequently seem to inhabit opposite poles, The Measured Word is a brilliant anthology of essays that illumine the historic-and evolving‑relationships between the poetic and scientific imaginations. Assembling the writings of leading contemporary poets, essayists, and thinkers, this volume highlights ways in which poets use scientific discoveries and mathematical ideas to their artistic advantage-and offers insight on the integration of technology and other discoveries into postmodernist poetry.

Here are meditations on the similarities and differences between the poetic and scientific imagination; on the poetic use of fractals; on hypertext; on the changing shape of poetry in the scientific age

Commentary by Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub, Paul Lake, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, and Stephanie Strickland, among others, presents a diverse selection of opinions. These viewpoints are complemented by many careful, innovative readings of individual poems informed by the sciences.

The writings in this collection not only celebrate the advent of a new age of discovery but also identify the need for a revision of the Western thinking that separates the mind and the heart‑replacing division with the reciprocity of mutual communication.

Kurt Brown is a poet who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Return of the Prodigals and the editor of Verse & Universe; Night Out; Drive, They Said; and several other anthologies.


Kelly Cherry, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Alice Fulton, Forrest Gander, Emily Grosholz, Jonathan Holden, Miroslav Holub, Paul Lake, Pattiann Rogers, Stephanie Strickland, Daniel Tobin, M. L.Williams.


A Visual Biography

by Polly Longsworth

W.W. Norton and Co.

$17.95, paper, 136 pages, over 275 photos, references, credits




Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Art

Edited by Susan Danly, with additional contributions by Martha A Sandweiss, Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Polly Longsworth, Christopher Benfey, and David Porter

Mead Art Museum, Amherst College in association with the University of Massachusetts Press Amherst, Massachusetts

$19.95, paper, 194 pages, selected bibliography, color plates



These highly illustrated tributes to the poetic genius of Emily Dickinson, who left an enduring literary legacy—nearly 2,000 poems offer a close view of her social milieu and her life which become apparent was not as reclusive as the popular imagination has been misled to believe and a catalogue of her influence on contemporary artists and poets.

With over 275 portraits, engravings, maps, unit other illustrations in The World of Emily Dickinson attest to much broader life than is commonly thought. Polly Longsworth’s fluent introductory essay portrays a young woman with unusual intelligence and willing to meeting the world on her own terms, engaging with people, ideas, natural phenomena, and her nineteenth-century culture, while choosing to keep her distance from the public eye. The pictures and captions build on that essay, exploring Dickinson’s immediate surroundings, the Dickinson family’s active and influential public life, as well as close friends and relatives, the growing town of Amherst, and the intellectual elite of the time. Longsworth also traces Dickinson’s writing career, from a youthful valentine to the bundling of her poems into fascicles, and from the few hesitant publications luring her life to the acclaim of her posthumous books. As an introduction to the poet’s life there is no better visual commentary.

Longsworth's major biographical study of the poet is a rich source of documentary information that explodes many myths that have become common place about the poet. Unfortunately it is out of print, Emily Dickinson : Her Letter to the World.

In LANGUAGE AS OBJECT we are treated to an exhibit of Dickinson representation by contemporary poets and artists. Essays by Karen Sanchez-Eppler, "Exhibiting Sheets of Place" Seeing Emily Dickinson through Contemporary Art; Polly Longsworth, "Whose But Her Shy—Immortal Face" The Poet’s Visage in the Popular Imagination; and Christopher Benfey, Alcohol and Pearl: Dickinson’s imprint on American Poetry. Contemporary poets represented are: Hart Crane, "To Emily Dickinson;" Richard Wilbur, "Altitudes;" John Berryman, "Your Birthday in Wisconsin You Are 140;" Adrienne Rich, "I Am in Danger—Sir—;" Amy Clampitt, "Amherst;" Sandra M. Gilbert, "Emilys Bread;" Thomas Lux, "Emily’s Mom;" Mary Jo Salter, "Reading Room;" Lucie Brock-Broido, "Into Those Great Countries of the Blue Sky of Which We Don’t Know Anything;" and Agha Shahid Ali, "A Nostalgist’s Map of America." The visual artists included are: Will Barnet, Judy Chicago, Joseph Cornell, Robert Cumming, Lesley Dill, Mary Frank, Roni Horn, Carla Rae Johnson, Paul Katz, Barbara Morgan, Abe Murray, Barbara Penn, and Linda Schwalen. Entries by Susan Danly with David Porter on the artists’ works focus upon Emily Dickinson’s Impact on Contemporary Art. This is an important exhibit because it brings together some meaningful artistic commentary on the poet’s enduring persuasive voice.

SOUL SAYS: On Recent Poetry by Helen Vendler
Harvard University Press
$14.00, paper; 266 pages

Helen Vendler ability to bring a reader into the nuance and meaning of the poets art is remarkable. I have often suggested one begin by reading her critical accounts, especially if one is a non-poet, who is put off by poetry. In these fluent essays on recent American, British, and Irish poetry, she shows how some of our most celebrated poets capture in lyric the vagaries of contemporary life and culture. Vendler accounts for the power of poetry in that it is mostly the voice of the soul and not socially constructed self, speaking directly to us through the stylization of verse. "Soul Says," is the title of a poem by Jorie Graham lends its name to this collection. A matchless interpreter of poetry, Vendler’s critical insight is most fitting when she discusses individual poems or passages. In essays on Seamus Heaney, Donald Davie, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Rita Dove, Jorie Graham, and others, Vendler makes obscure poetry welcoming and delves into the structure of its force and beauty. The contemporary sonnets by Seamus Heaney are especially opened up by her close readings.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor, Harvard University. Her other Harvard books include The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham; The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition; The Odes of John Keats; and The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics. These links are to the hardcover edition, each also has a paper edition.


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