How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry

Overview

Although readers of prose fiction sometimes find descriptive passages superfluous or boring, description itself is often the most important aspect of a poem. This book examines how a variety of contemporary poets use description in their work.
Description has been the great burden of poetry. How do poets see the world? How do they look at it? What do they look for? Is description an end in itself, or a means of expressing desire? Ezra Pound demanded that a poem should represent ...

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Overview

Although readers of prose fiction sometimes find descriptive passages superfluous or boring, description itself is often the most important aspect of a poem. This book examines how a variety of contemporary poets use description in their work.
Description has been the great burden of poetry. How do poets see the world? How do they look at it? What do they look for? Is description an end in itself, or a means of expressing desire? Ezra Pound demanded that a poem should represent the external world as objectively and directly as possible, and William Butler Yeats, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), said that he and his generation were rebelling against, inter alia, "irrelevant descriptions of nature" in the work of their predecessors. The poets in this book, however, who are distinct in many ways from one another, all observe the external world of nature or the reflected world of art, and make relevant poems out of their observations.
This study deals with the crisp, elegant work of Charles Tomlinson, the swirling baroque poetry of Amy Clampitt, the metaphysical meditations of Charles Wright from a position in his backyard, the weather reports and landscapes of John Ashbery, and the "new way of looking" that Jorie Graham proposes to explore in her increasingly fragmented poems. All of these poets, plus others (Gary Snyder, Theodore Weiss, Irving Feldman, Richard Howard) who are dealt with more briefly, attend to what Wallace Stevens, in a memorable phrase, calls "the way things look each day." The ordinariness of daily reality is the beginning of the poets' own idiosyncratic, indeed unique, visions and styles.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Spiegelman's masterly study of the persistence of the descriptive impulse in contemporary poetrydemonstrates how resourcefully poets of various stripes engage themselves and the reader in inventive acts of looking at the visible world. Spiegelman has served his poets, and the art of poetry, well."-Frank J. Kearful, Partial Answers

"Spiegelman's masterly study of the persistence of the descriptive impulse in contemporary poetry, ranging from Tomlinson's "just looking" (the play on words is Tomlinson's) to Graham's ongoing search for "a new way of looking," demonstrated how resourceful poets of various stripes engage themselves and the reader in inventive acts of looking at the visible world. Spiegelman has served his poets, and the art of poetry, well."—Partial Answers

"How Poets See the World yields fresh insights on every page, touching upon the history of taste, or the sources of styles. As a guide to the work of poets whose difficulty Spiegelman never glosses over, it is indispensable."—Rachel Hadas, Rutgers University

"Masterly.... Spiegelman demonstrates again and again how a superlatively educated, cultivated, sympathetic, earnest, even passionate reader...goes about the joyful business of reading every scripture in the spirit in which it was written.... That How Poets See the World can balance these two imperative, to see by means of and to see the true nature of, is its large and substantial achievement."—Twentieth-Century Literature

"Many critics have explored the relationship between landscape and language, but Spiegelman goes farthest in analyzing the disposition of parts of speech and syntactic arrangements, the sentences that create the effect of description. This attention to language leads Spiegelman to some superb close reading. He understands that poetry is first and foremost an art form, with language as its medium, figuration its inevitable activity.... Reading him, we are observers of an honest, intense encounter with some major contemporary writers. Every poet must wish for such attentiveness, such willingness to learn from the poems themselves how they want to be read."—Bonnie Costello, Literary Imagination

"An important contribution to the literature on what W. J. T Mitchell calls 'picture theory,' that is, the nexus of word and image. Via shrewd analysis on an eclectic range of poetsSpiegelman sometimes seduces but more often startles his reader into an awareness of the vital role description plays in contemporary American poetry.... Spiegelman, whose prose is as eloquent as it is insightful, demonstrates with ample grace that description does indeed make a profound difference when it comes to interpreting a poem.... Essential."—Choice

"This most distinguished and illuminating book on the importance of poetic description is as timely as it is exemplary for what criticism should be. The author brings to bear his profound knowledge of the depths of descriptiveness, as first explored by English romantic poetry, on an acutely chosen group of contemporary poets. A compelling interchapter considers the importance of ekphrasis in the poetry of our time. This beautifully written study is as free of academic jargon as it is knowledgeable of theoretical issues, and fully sensitive to cultural as well as personal formations of poetic perspectives. But its ultimate concern is with the intellectual power and, particularly, the moral mandates of the fundamental aesthetic domain in which poetry is what it is."—John Hollander

"Willard Spiegelman is one of the few literary critics who understands not only how poets see but also how they think, feel, breathe—how they inhabit the world by inhabiting language. He writes with the elegance of the poets he admires most, and How Poets See the World is his best book yet."—James Longenbach, University of Rochester

"Willard Spiegelman's new book is a marvel of speculative energy. Poetry's descriptive task—finding the words that address both the world's textures and the poet's own sensibility, or what this critic calls the 'inconstant constancy' of things—is examined with a provocative eye for the subtle and profound differences among individual poets. For one, syntax is a style; for another, landscape replaces sexuality. Spiegelman provides fresh and compelling readings for a wide range of contemporary poets, and brings to this book a rare moral acumen, genuine sympathies, and a steady grasp of the emotional underpinnings and overtones of a poet's ambitions or of a poem's structure and effect. How Poets See the World is an eye-opening adventure, and sure to become a classic text."—J. D. McClatchy

"Contemporary criticism is abuzz with 'thing theory,' but only Willard Spiegelman has shown us how contemporary poets develop a language of things, at once particular and metaphoric, always faithful to sensation as a source of imagination's renewal. In this brilliant study Spiegelman explains one of the dominant rhetorical modes of our skeptical time and shows how daily attention to the visible world becomes a source of poetic power."—Bonnie Costello, Boston University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195174915
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/23/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents


1. "The Way Things Look Each Day": Poetry, Description, Nature

2. "Just Looking": Charles Tomlinson and the "Labour of Observation"

3. What to Make of an Augmented Thing: Amy Clampitt's Syntactic Dramas

4. Charles Wright and the "Metaphysics of the Quotidian"

5. "A Space for Boundless Revery": Varieties of Ekphrastic Experience

6. John Ashbery's Haunted Landscapes

7. Jorie Graham's "New Way of Looking"

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