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This review is taken from PN Review 152, Volume 29 Number 6, July - August 2003.

NOT ENOUGH PETER MCDONALD, Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press) £40

Today, the great image of authority is highly suspect: Lear's cry that a dog's obeyed in office can seem widely applicable, whether to Prime Ministers, Presidents, or Professors of English. But an aversion to authority hardly guarantees its absence; by and large, the dog still gets obeyed. Much of the thrust of post-structuralism and post-modernism has been against authority, especially the authority of the author, but it has tended to replace this with the authority of the theorist and critic. And in the British literary landscape, according to Peter McDonald, `the actual structures and operations of critical and academic authority are as strong as ever', and the author, even or especially when dead, is more alive than ever in the form of a `personality': `where would the promotion of contemporary poetry' - or, we might add, the poetry of the past - `be without personalities to push?' Postmodern authority, however, dare not speak its name and presents itself as the voice of democratic or populist opinion (McDonald's example is the literary journalism of John Carey); and such opinion, coupled with biographical gossip, carries weight in determining public perceptions of literary worth. In contrast to the disguised and dubious authority of opinion, McDonald sketches an approach that recognises authority, not in the author of poetry but in its form. To take poetry seriously means `taking poetry seriously as an authority: the unique property of a real poem is its capacity to work against the grain of opinion, or in complex ...


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