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This review is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.

DISORDER AND PLAY Theo Hermans, The Structure of Modernist Poetry (Croom Helm) £14.95
Sydney Lévy, The Play of the Text: Max Jacob's Le Cornet I à dés, with translations by Judith Morganroth Schneider (University of Wisconsin Press) £11.70

In literary criticism, this is the age of indeterminacy. Structuralism, the search for universal patterns beneath the diversity of literary appearances, have given way to approaches that stress the pluralism of texts, their subversion of closed, fixed structures. But Theo Hermans, as the title of his book suggests, still wants Structuralist stabilities: he seeks the general aesthetic principles underlying the variety of Modernist poetry. With paradoxical results, however: insofar as he finds an order, it is characterized precisely by its acceptance and enactment of indeterminacy and instability: by its disorder.

Hermans sees in the Modernist poetic a rejection of the synthetic, transcendental assumptions of Symbolism; by contrast, Modernism stresses fragmentation, discontinuity, the poem as a self-contained artefact which refers neither to the empirical world nor to some ideal, absent reality. Hermans seeks to extrapolate this poetic from the theoretical pronouncements of a number of poets he regards as representative, and backs up his case with analyses of selected poems, conducted mainly in lexical, syntactic, and grammatical terms. He begins with Mallarmé, as the hierophant of Symbolism, and then considers, as representative Modernists, Apollinaire, Pound, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and Trakl.

The Structure of Modernist Poetry is lucid both in its theoretical arguments and its specific analyses. It fully acknowledges the differences between its chosen poets, even while affirming their fundamental similarity, and it provides copious and often well-selected quotations. Many points for discussion emerge. For example, Herman's argument that whereas, for the Symbolists, music had ...


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