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This review is taken from PN Review 178, Volume 34 Number 2, November - December 2007.

PLAIN SONG GALWAY KINNELL, Strong is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin) $25

The 'plain style' in American art and writing has been a constant, occasionally dominant, thread in the country's culture since after the Revolution. Indeed, the roots of the 'plain style' can be said to descend from Tom Paine and a political ideology of 'common sense' and the dictum that 'the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered'. Part empirical, part demotic, in the mid-nineteenth century the 'plain style' received a nationalist infusion from voices such as Emerson's and the lexicographer Noah Webster's when they asked for and helped instigate a cultural equivalent of the declaration of independence. A rejection of the artificiality of European practice, plain speaking both signified and helped cause the radical individualism of the age of Andrew Jackson (1826- 40), an era filled with distrust of centralised institutions and animated by a fear of declension from the pure wellsprings of the Revolution. Poetically, the 'plain style' received its first and still fullest expression in Walt Whitman, the breaker of forms and the maker of the common man as the authentic voice of the American experience. Stylistically, Whitman tended towards excess - the poetic equivalent of the boastful frontiersman - but the plain style received a salutary chastening, Edmund Wilson and others have argued, from the Civil War and the necessity for lapidary self-control of both emotions and words; as Hemingway, who was indebted to both, pointed out, Huckleberry Finn and, improbably enough, Ulysses Grant's Memoirs ...


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