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This article is taken from PN Review 90, Volume 19 Number 4, March - April 1993.

The Ark of What Has Been: Elegiac Thoughts on Poetry Rachel Hadas

This essay is an abridgement of a longer piece which appeared in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle in May 1991. Although the terms of the argument and the works discussed are American, the issues involved, from pressures to expand the 'canon' in the universities to attacks on '(neo) formalist' poetry and its political implications, are hardly unknown across the Atlantic. And perhaps James Merrill's political poems - too little known in the US - may find new readers in the pages of P·N·R.

* * *

RECENTLY FACED with the task of renaming a course whose unappetizing moniker was 'Techniques of English Poetry', I was annoyed to find myself stumped: every new name that came to mind seemed politically incorrect. 'Readings in the Lyric?' Too wispy. 'Great Poems of the Western Tradition?' Too Eurocentric, elitist, exclusivist - I could already hear the cries. Until a happy coincidence led to my reading an article in Harvard Magazine about Helen Vendler's big poetry course, called something like 'Poems and Poets', I didn't much like any of the new names I was able to come up with.

I like the prevailing sense of constraint still less. The strictures that box me in by condemning in advance not just the title of a course but all the assumptions behind that course's contents - what are they, exactly? The mandate isn't precisely for what used to be called relevance. If there's a key word now, it might be ...

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