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Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present

by Tom Jones
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2012
207 pp.  Paper, £19.99
ISBN: 9780748656165.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

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 since many years. At the same time, it is also one of the most modest of them: Tom Jones, who teaches at Saint-Andrews in the English Faculty, is not an author who claims, but suggests, and it is a permanent pleasure to follow him through his both synoptic and detailed journey through the history of English poetry as well as the more or less one 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, but also the general audience interested in poetry, 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: a general introduction that sketches a really helpful and illuminating overview of theories and methods; a final section with complementary biographical and bibliographical information, all very clearly presented and with a keen sense of what can be of interest for the reader and with 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 exemplify in the central chapters of the book. This idea(l) is one of uncertainty, not as a negative or default option, i.e. the impossibility to produce 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, but 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 us rather frequently in Poetic Language, but deconstruction is certainly not the final word of this book, 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, which leads us in twelve chapters from the late 16th till 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 is asking its reader. The second one 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 one labeling poetic language. Each of these six concepts is used twice, in order to allow a comparison between authors and styles that do not necessarily match, neither chronologically, nor stylistically. The notion of “figure” (image, metaphor) for instance is the main entrance that is used to explore the work by Walter Raleigh and Tom Raworth, and, of course, the reader is invited to expand the insights gained in these two chapters on the writings of all other poets discussed in the book. Third and last, there is also a more strictly theoretical line. Each chapter offers the opportunity to introduce and discuss key theoretical thinkers and methods on poeticized language. This theoretical broadening and deepening of each reading (for at the center of each chapter one always finds the reading of a concrete text). Here as well, Jones’s approach is a perfect mix of sharpness and caution: concepts and theories are shown to be more or less useful, but never in such a way that they bring the reading to a close (and more than often, the reading of the text is used as the starting point of a critical reading of a theoretical framework).

A particular complement should be given to the very convincing efforts of Jones to highlight the political potential of poetry. Not through its thematic preferences or its pragmatic effects (the poem as an historical event, producing real concrete changes in the world outside), but, more fundamentally, through an astute reflection on the systemic and dialogic nature of all poetry, which at the same time follows and disrupts linguistic and discursive rules while raising questions on mutual understanding and the possibility of intervening in what is perhaps the thing humans share most: language. Poetic Language avoids the naïve equivalence of formal rupture and social change, yet does draw our attention to the societal relevance of the relationships between the poet’s use of language and the constraints and liberties of language in a given community.

Last Updated 28th November 2014

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