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This review is taken from PN Review 212, Volume 39 Number 6, July - August 2013.

Hits and Misses david stuart reid, Ambiguities: Conflict and Union of Opposites in Robert Graves, Laura Riding, William Empson and Yvor Winters (Academica Press) $82.95

‘Is all good poetry supposed to be ambiguous?’ asked Empson in the preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity. His answer was yes, ‘I think that it is’. David Reid’s book Ambiguities certainly follows in Empson’s footsteps, seeing ambiguity as ‘a good way into what was happening in the early Twentieth Century’. Empson may have disagreed with Reid, however, writing in 1947 ‘I believe that rather little good poetry has been written in recent years’, adding ‘if I tried to rewrite the seventh chapter [of Seven Types] to take in contemporary poetry I should be writing another book’. Reid’s book could be that other book. He does not take the seven types as law and try four unsuspecting modern poet-critics. Instead Empson’s work on ambiguity is ‘boiled down to two main types, conflict and the union of opposites’. Reid’s aim – to put the topic of ambiguity back on the critical menu – is admirable and his discussion of it does particular service to Graves, Empson and Riding.
Yvor Winters is the sore thumb in this scholarly appraisal of ambiguity in twentieth-century poetry. Robert Graves and Laura Riding relied on it in their own poetry, and their analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 ploughed the terrain for Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. But Winters, as a critic, was unambiguous. He called his first book of collected criticism In Defense of Reason. David Reid’s means of assimilating him into his book is to separate Winters-the-critic ...

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