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This review is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

Cover of How Poems Think
Edmund PrestwichDon’t Read Poetry
Reginald Gibbon, How Poems Think (Chicago), $25.00;
Stephanie Burt, Don’t Read Poetry (Basic), $17.99
How Poems Think is hard work to read and surely was for Gibbons to write but it’s gripping and rewarding in proportion to its difficulty.

Despite the catchy title, this isn’t a simplified instruction manual. Gibbons draws on wide reading in the poetry of several languages and on the work of boundary-pushing critical theorists. Although his book is a hybrid of different kinds (‘part memoir, part report, part essay’, says Robert von Hallberg on the cover) and focuses on different topics at different times, its threads are densely interwoven, and Gibbons expects the reader to keep hold of them while he works through ideas that he admits he sometimes finds difficult to define.

A main thread is the idea that ‘the interesting thing for any poet ... is to open up one’s own language to resources of poetic thinking from elsewhere’. In saying this Gibbons doesn’t mean ideas from elsewhere but ways of thinking which come more naturally in other languages than they do in English. To follow his argument we must not only be experienced readers of poetry in English but try to internalise radically different ways in which poems evolve in other languages. This is easy enough when we’re dealing with the familiar contrast between the concreteness of English and the abstraction of French, though I found that quotations from Yves Bonnefoy’s criticism sharpened my sense of the value of the French way. It becomes more difficult when Gibbons considers differences between poetic thought in English and Russian. ...

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