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This report is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

The Abstract Dancer
Interrupting the Abstract Dancer
Chris Edgoose
Interrupting the Abstract DancerMichael Hamburger’s 1968 essay ‘Absolute Poetry and Absolute Politics’ (in ‘The Truth of Poetry’, Anvil) offers a lens through which to look at contemporary poetry written in the Modernist, or more accurately in the Romantic-Symbolist, as Hamburger calls it (after Frank Kermode), tradition. Doing so is instructive in a popular critical climate which increasingly reaches instinctively for epithets like ‘fascist’ and ‘bad faith’ without doing those who write such poetry – against the grain of recent trends – the courtesy of considering the intellectual/imaginative aims of their poetry in the context of the tradition they are following. I’m thinking particularly about Toby Martinez de las Rivas, whose recent Forward Prize shortlisted collection Black Sun and poem ‘Titan /All Still’ elicited such an angry reaction from some. Hamburger’s approach to these nineteenth – and twentieth­-century writers is sympathetic, but his essay is also useful in that it highlights the dangers for poets like Martinez de las Rivas who choose to write to the Romantic-Symbolist aesthetic, especially in our present schismatic political climate.

Hamburger is not minded to downplay the (obvious) fact that we can and do find opinions in poets who share this aesthetic which chime with Fascist thinking. Indeed, he says, ‘(a)s long as Romantic-Symbolist attitudes have prevailed in poetry… there has been a tendency towards extreme political views, more often conservative or reactionary than progressive’. Yeats, Rilke, Stevens, Pound, Benn, Marinetti are singled-out for their sympathy with right-wing totalitarianism (Eliot and Hofmannsthal are more rightly called ‘conservative’ in ...

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