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This article is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

Self, Society and Art Nicolas Tredell

Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge) £18.50
Alan Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Harvard) £14.85
Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago) £12.75
Christopher Brookeman, American Culture and Society since the 1930s (Macmillan) £15.00, £5.95 pb.
Peter Conrad, The Art of the City: Views and Versions of New York (Oxford) £15.00
Henry M. Sayre, The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams (University of Illinois) $12.95

'This book has been written under one primary pressure: the fact that speculative criticism and literary theory now engage the interests and wield the authority that poetry did within modernism'. Charles Altieri nonetheless holds that poetry remains 'our most concise and demanding form of linguistic expression', and his Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry employs theory and observation to analyse some of the failings and possibilities of current American poetry. He suggests that the dominant mode in such poetry in recent years has been the 'scenic style'; he cites David Young as representative. A poem in this style presents, with careful craft, a reticent, plain-speaking, self-reflective speaker in a naturalistic scene; it evokes a sense of loss that it tries to resolve by closing on a moment of emotional poignancy or wry acceptance, which makes the whole lyric into a metaphor of the mystery of the human condition. This style is encouraged, Altieri believes, by the emphasis on craft and emotional restraint in creative writing workshops. But it leads to problems. There is a contradiction between its supposed sincerity and the artifice ...


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