Crisis And Contemporary Poetry

Crisis and Contemporary Poetry
Edited by Anne Karhio, Sean Crosson and Charles I. Armstrong
Palgrave Macmillan – £50.00

Only an ignorant and suave simpleton would contemplate the idea that literature, let alone poetry, is as alive and as kicking as it ought to be.

Without wanting to garner the risk of sounding a total pessimist, isn’t the latter something of a dying idiom? Which, were this not tragic enough, is as an acute an indictment of the morally bankrupt society in which we unfortunately find ourselves, as it is a direct result of that which poetry has always fought so hard to promote: reality.

In times of yore, translucent poetry and reality were, if nothing else, a discriminating polar like reflection of the other. Whether it was love (as seen through the eyes of the Romantics), or war (as seen through the eyes of the War Poets), poetry has forever endeavoured to ply society with some sort of kernel of truth.

After all, (real) poetry doesn’t lie.
It merely substantiates reality.

Regardless of outcome.
Regardless of backlash.
Regardless of reward.

As a collection of words, it has to be said that poetry has never been about the beautiful, or just, reward. It has surely, always been about the inner-sanctum of ones’ own truth, wanting desperately to reach out to the inner-sanctum of another’s truth. Despite perhaps being aligned with all of life’s ultimate pristine beauty (by way of the Romantics) or gore like filth, rage and hypocrisy (the War Poets). Hence, so much of today’s reality – by way of the media’s current obsession with that of supposed reality – having not only let itself down, but that of most poetry (and literature) too.

Riddled and fraught with an array of fascinating deliberation, Crisis and Contemporary Poetry pinpoints not only the above (‘’Certainly, if poetry is to be an alternative to, rather than a simple abettor of, the news media’s sensationalism, then it must scrupulously question its own medium and ethos’’), but also casts as wide and courageous an academic net as is possible within the aforementioned context of a vacant society.

The above is therefore, profoundly brought to bear on a number of occasions throughout this (unsurprisingly) excellent collection of essays, as the editors Anne Karhio, Sean Crosson and Charles I. Armstrong hint at in the Introduction: ‘’Crisis of politics, place, person and poetry […] seeks to articulate fresh vantage points on how poetry of the present responds to situations of turmoil and tension. How far back, beyond the precedent of someone like Auden, can we trace the issues that poetry is tackling today? From what underlying disaster or intrinsic fault does poetry’s need to reach the deaf and speak for the dumb stem? There may not be easy answers to such questions; it is often in the nature of a crisis that a large part of its challenge will lie in the calibration and fine-tuning of questions, rather than in the arrival at pat formulations or solutions. Poetry’s efficacy may be that it helps us approach or frame a problem, rather than providing the sort of technological or political solutions one seeks for elsewhere.’’

Divided into four sections (‘The Limits of Expression: Representation and Identity,’ ‘A Special Case: Crisis and Poetry in Northern Ireland,’ ‘Situated Words: Ecology and Landscape,’ ‘Suspended Judgements: Rethinking Poetic Reception’) all fourteen essays are as equally stimulating as they are challenging. As such, it’s rather difficult to home in on any one, without pertaining to a suggestion that the others aren’t quite as strong, because this really isn’t the case.

That said, Scott Brewster’s essay ‘Hern: The Catastrophe of Lyric in John Burnside’ really does endeavour to tell it as it might be told, right from the outset of its opening gambit: ‘’The lyric poem emerges in crisis; the lyric poem emerges as crisis.’’

By shedding a quintessentially thought provoking light on Jacques Derrida, Burnside pinpoints the degree to which pure interiority and independent spontaneity appeals to the laws of mnemotechnics: ‘’The poematic marks both a retreat into ‘pure’ self-containment, and a countervailing exposure to distress and contamination; in its encounter with the other, the poem opens itself up to danger, but also to an event, something that happens here and now, at a moment of crisis: ‘Just this contamination, and this crossroads, this accident here. This turn, the turning round of this catastrophe.’’’

Focusing on poetry from Britain, Ireland and the USA, Crisis and Contemporary Poetry dissects and discusses a number of controversial issues within poetry; ranging from the Troubles in Northern Ireland to their (immediate) aftermath within the context of the war on terror, from the Holocaust to questions of current cultural and national identity. It does so in a totally refreshing and inviting manner, which, by the book’s end, enables one to feel both enriched and enlightened.

David Marx


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