Rebound: The American Poetry Book. Eds. Michael Hinds and Stephen Matterson. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2004. Pp 208. ISBN: 90-420-1712-0.
The thirteen essays in Rebound respond to a clear remit, part of which is to question the “near-axiomatic belief that critical and pedagogical mediations of American poetry, as well as its material transmission, have been and are dominated (perhaps increasingly so) by an emphasis on the individual poem” (1). The essays look to break out of this hold by emphasising, via a chronological survey of authors from Whitman and Dickinson to Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe, the importance of specific cultural and historical American contexts, as well as the relevance of authorial intentions (or at the very least perceived authorial ambitions) that have defined the relationship between an individual poem and its arrangement within a particular collection or edition. It is in offsetting the loss of such context through the transmission of poems via inadequately informed anthologies or poor classroom practices that gives the collection its own unity and thrust.
Following the clear and concise introduction by Michael Hinds and Stephen Matterson, the essays begin with Domhnall Mitchell’s “Binding Emily Dickinson” which takes on the complex issues at the heart of publishing poems for which no conventional principles of organisation are wholly appropriate or definitive authorial instructions in existence. By focusing on one poem in particular, “A narrow fellow in the grass,” the author shows in detail how different generations of editors from the 1890s to the 1990s have tackled the “exemplary indeterminacy” (13) characteristic of Dickinson’s poems, be it questions of her use of punctuation, spelling, meter or the thematic and chronological ordering of her poems. The author concludes that “[n]o authoritative edition exists, so Dickinson will not be bound,” adding that the continual process of engaging with the problems presented by the demand for her work and the need to present it “manifests continually new interpretative possibilities at the same as it exposes limitations” (28).
In “Fit Compositions: Whitman’s Revisions to Drum-Taps” Eldrid Herrington describes Whitman’s changes to individual poems and their order of appearance in the three editions of Drum-Taps. By discussing the evolving relationship between these poems about the experience of war, as they appeared in 1865, 1871 and 1881, they reveal “an increasing drive towards order,” and the author contends that “over the three revisions to the ordering of Drum-Taps poems, marshallings and regroupings show Whitman not only reading himself but also furthering potential connections between extant pieces and ideas” (31).
Robert Frost is the topic of Stephen Matterson’s essay “‘To Make it Mean Me’: Narrative Design in North of Boston,” in which the author convincingly argues against seeing Frost’s poems as purely self-contained units by focusing on the “overall design” (46) implicit in a collection containing many of his most persistently anthologised pieces. Matterson presents the intriguing possibility of reading the collection in terms of paired poems in dialogue with each other, and traces a thematic movement towards and away from a pivotal poem: “‘A Servant to Servants’ provides a thematic centre of appalling human loss and disengagement and the first half of North of Boston moves towards this point” (49). The subsequent thematic movement towards “community and life-affirming possibility” (49) allows for a pairing of contrasting poems that successfully breaks them out of critical isolation from each other.
Stephen Wilson’s essay “Lustra: Work and Text” provides a fascinating insight into Ezra Pound’s development into a modern poet through an account of the textual history of his 1916 collection Lustra. At issue here is the erasure after 1926 of Lustra’s original tripartite structure, one part of which included poems reprinted from Pound’s earlier collection Cathay. Its subsequent rearrangements fail to reflect accurately that the “struggle for a modern poetic idiom” that Lustra confirms was not “as seamless or as unproblematic as is often portrayed” (64).
A short essay on Wallace Stevens by Charles Altieri follows, entitled “Intentionality as Sensuality in Harmonium.” Notions of intention are raised abstractly before a framework for approaching Stevens’s collection is argued for by noting how “Stevens’s resistance to idealisation required his poetry to focus more intently than poetry was accustomed on the very processes of taking in the sensuous information usually ignored by our conceptual habits” (84). Hart Crane is the topic of Maria Irene Ramalho de Sousa Santos’s essay “The Accidental Bridge: Hart Crane’s Theory of the Lyric,” and argues that “Crane’s theory of poetry is grounded on the Romantic idea of the fragment which longs for wholeness that is never achieved” (91). The possibility of adding to subsequent editions tempered Crane’s anxiety over the association of publication with completeness.
Ron Callan’s essay “William Carlos Williams’s An Early Martyr: The Descent Beckons” presents a fascinating look at the implications of Williams’s plagiarism of himself through his inclusion of poems from Spring and All (1923) as part of An Early Martyr (1935). Callan sees their presence as indicators of Williams’s willingness to question old certainties through the new contexts in which the poems appear, and concludes that Williams’s “fascination with American democracy and the relationship between the individual and the masses run parallel to the ways in which individual poems or groups of poems should be measured” (109).
In “The 1955 Selected Poems: Randall Jarrell’s Book of the Dead,” Michael Hinds gives an extensive and illuminating analysis of modes of abjection informing Jarrell’s careful construction of his Selected Poems and its embodiment of his despair at the absence of value in the very poetic expression he engaged in. Hinds concludes that “this real sense of despair is a wholly absorbing and convincing phenomenon in Jarrell’s writing, and Selected Poems is a complicated and various book that is not simply an expression of cynicism but rather a massive and ambitious exploration of the causes and consequences of cynicism” (125). Death also informs the process of revision at the heart of Robert Lowell’s poetry, and is the subject of Gareth Reeves’s essay entitled “‘It’s Life in Death to be Bound, Delivered, Published”: Robert Lowell’s Revisions of Notebook 1967–68.”
Lucy Collins’s essay “‘Our Lives Inseparable’: The Contingent World of Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems,” underlines the implications of the reappearance in different collections of a body of poems that confirms the increasingly political nature of Rich’s work as a whole. The repeated recontexualisation of Twenty-One Love Poems “offers nuanced and flexible explorations of sexual and artistic identity that not only affirm this work’s significance but illuminate much of Rich’s later poetry” (154). Justin Quinn’s essay “Empire, Sublimity, and the Look of Things in Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher” is aided by close readings of examples of the poet’s work that help illuminate the author’s central argument, namely that Clampitt’s debut 1983 publication informs her subsequent work by establishing from the outset a “connection between Romantic excess and ideological awareness” (156).
Nerys Williams’s essay “‘What I Wanted Was Nothing to do With Monuments’: Erring and Lyn Hejinian’s The Guard” sees a “poetics of erring” (179) informing the poet’s evasions of convention and authority, though an unfortunate printing error interrupts the essay as page 173 is missing. The book’s final essay by Nick Selby, entitled “Prometheans Unbound: Touching Books in Jorie Graham’s Swarm and Susan Howe’s “Scattering as Behaviour Toward Risk,” brings us back to Whitman and Dickinson via the “slanted engagement” (183) these two contemporary poets are seen to have with these respective heritages. In particular “Graham’s sequence re-writes, and thus writes against, Whitman’s masculinist romance of the poet, of America, and of the book,” while Howe’s “dramatically typographical re-writing of American literary history” offers an “experimental ‘reading through’ of (in particular) Dickinson” (185).
The collection offers valuable insights into the complexities arising from our neglect of the modes of poetry’s transmission, and will illicit interest in book theory as well as strengthening our understanding of the ways poetry can be read. The book thus resonates successfully with the idea expressed in Charles Bernstein’s short 1992 essay “The Book as Architecture,” reprinted here to close the volume, that “[b]uilding impossible spaces in which to roam, unhinged from the contingent necessities of durability, poems and the books they make eclipse stasis in their insatiable desire to dwell inside the pleats and folds of language” (198).
Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität