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This review is taken from PN Review 94, Volume 20 Number 2, November - December 1993.

ABSTRACT REPRESSIONISM JEROME MCGANN, Black Riders: The Visible Language Of Modernism (Princeton University Press) £25.00; £9.95 pb

In an essay on concrete poetry, Rosmarie Wal-drop once pointed out that familiar shapes in familiar surroundings are invisible - that is, we do not usually see words, rather we read through them in order to find their significance. Today of course, a fairly literal presentation of the Word as Such has become one of the major preoccupations of much experimental poetry. In Black Riders, Jerome McGann attempts a partial redrawing of the map of modernism, providing a historical context and a bibliographical tradition within which he situates those contemporary writers who have taken the textual and textural properties of both Language and The Book as their primary concern.

The 'black riders' of the title are the 'inky words' which, in Bob Browns terms, 'gallop across the plains of pure white pages.' Robert Carlton ('Bob') Brown, a largely forgotten American writer, figures prominently in McGann's discussion of a tradition of modernist writing in which words are regarded as ends-in-themselves rather than means to an end: 'For the first time in the history of mental optics,' Brown writes in his treatise on poetry and printing, 'there will exist a visual Literary Language sharply separated from the Speaking Tongue. Literary Language is Optical, speaking language Vocal, and the gap between them" must spread till it becomes a gulf.' We are familiar with the work of Mallarmé and Apollinaire in this area, and with the typographical experiments of Pound. McGann's discussion of this particular project of modernism benefits from his ...


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