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This review is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

OPEN AND SHUT ROBERT SHEPPHARD, The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and Its Discontents, 1950-2000 (Liverpool University Press) £50

Readers of Robert Sheppard's previous critical book Far Language will know how well he can communicate a reader's excitement about challenging poetries. His new book will also bring those poetries new readers and is structured around a confident juxtaposition of 'Movement orthodoxy' and a linguistically innovative poetry of saying. The poetry of saying, derived largely from Emmanuel Levinas, is more useful than the usual 'builders' yards are more fun to live in than finished houses' critical approach to experimental poetry. Levinas's 'Language as saying' assumes 'an ethical openness to the other'. So the poetry that Sheppard arranges into a parallel history is open because its authors regard poems that, in Larkin's words, 'preserve [the poet's experience] by setting it off in other people' as ethically irresponsible. Sheppard gives a convincing outline of this parallel history in two chapters: 'The British Poetry Revival 1960-1978' and 'Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-2000'. There are also good accounts of J.H. Prynne, Allen Fisher, Roy Fisher, Tom Raworth, Maggie O'Sullivan and Bob Cobbing.

The problem is that while the book promises an overview, Sheppard rarely strays from his specific interests and therefore takes limited, often prejudiced, views. For example, London publishers have set the bar for orthodox poetry lower and lower each year recently but this doesn't mean that all poems that nod towards regular metre, fixed forms and closure necessarily have less to say than those that don't. The Movement has had much ...


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