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This review is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

WITHOUT INTRODUCTION CHARLES ALTIERI, The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: Modernism and After (Blackwell) £ 19.99

Charles Altieri's The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry is the latest addition to Blackwell's 'Introductions to Literature' series. Although Altieri's is an established voice, he is circumspect about the status of his introduction and its manner of approach (the word 'introduction' is wryly absent from the book's title). Altieri is circumspect for important reasons. He acknowledges two other significant Blackwell titles (Marjorie Perloff's 21st Century Modernism: The New Poetics and Christopher MacGowan's Twentieth-Century American Poetry), admiring Perloff's approach of tracing a specific line from Eliot's 'Prufrock' to the Language Poets and praising MacGowan's powers of condensation, his 'capsule accounts of forty-eight poetic careers' over some 'twenty-five volumes'.

But Altieri is not feigning critical modesty: he is refreshingly honest in declaring indebtedness to other scholars because his scrutiny of their work has enabled him to consider what an introduction should be. His introductory chapter is entitled 'Introduction: An Overview'; as though it were Altieri's ploy to give a dress-rehearsal for what one kind of introduction to twentieth-century American poetry might be. Like Stephen Dedalus he asks 'Where do you begin in this?' and is wary of how an 'introductory book' must necessarily be 'superseded by the reader's developing ability to tell more complex stories'.

Fortunately, Altieri needs no Leopold Bloom and does not suffer any postmodernist irony about beginnings. His enthusi asm alone counters self-doubt; a sense of exhilaration for poetry that characterises all his critical work, but which should prove infectious for this book's audience. ...


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