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This review is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

THE PROBITY OF LANGUAGE Asa Benveniste, Throw Out the Life Line, Lay Out the Corse: Poems 1965-1985 (Anvil Press Poetry) £4.50 pb.
Anthony Howell, Notions of a Mirror (Anvil Press Poetry) £3.50 pb.

These handsome Anvil books are retrospective collections, covering in each case about twenty years' work (although Benveniste is more ambitious in suggesting that his collection contains poems yet-to-be-written, with its neat time-span: '1965-1985') Neither poet's work has been widely available before, and both have tailored their œuvres in the interests of coherence: Benveniste's work on the Kabbalah and Howell's experimental texts have only a scanty showing.

Benveniste's coherence is had at a price. Whereas his introduction emphasises the collection's unity, its true distinguishing feature is its diversity. Indeed, the work reflects changes in the development of an American-influenced poetry in Britain, within which - as an American long-resident here - Benveniste is uniquely situated. The early poems seem dated: their modish but simple self-reference is often self-regarding. 'This is dream language,' we are told, and the influence of New York poetry of the period is evident. In the 'middle years' of Benveniste's engagement with the 'complex comedy of language' there is an increased distancing of the discourse, a path that leads from the domestic surrealism of O'Hara to the obscurities of Prynne. Benveniste is avoiding the 'definite article' (as he puts it) in more than a grammatical sense. He envisages a 'poet machining new concepts'; the poem is offered as a fictive (and increasingly hermetic) entity, resisting mimesis. As Benveniste quotes, 'the book belongs to the book', almost at times to the exclusion of the reader.

The poetic sequence - lyrics arranged around a central ...


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