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This review is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Cover of Poems Without Irony
Peter ScuphamThe Ghost in the Machine Alex Wong
Poems Without Irony
Carcanet, 2016 (£9.99)

This extraordinary, exhilarating and teasingly idiosyncratic first collection comes with a pleasant series of concealed and overt injunctions. The cover, in Stygian black, offers us Pierrot, gazing impassively at us from beneath his slightly uncanonical dunce’s cap. Learning from the blurb that Alex Wong, critic and poet, ‘studied and now teaches English Literature’ at Cambridge for his sins, may we assume that the photograph was taken during one of those faculty fêtes champêtres or Harlequinades so delightfully presided over by Dr Leavis in my time? I am glad they continue. The title of the book, Poems Without Irony, acts as a kind of jump-lead or health warning. Dr Alex Wong, in an article centred on Donald Davie’s concept of strategic irony for  Fortnightly Review (March 2015), has made a complex and intriguing assault on that irony which involves complicity between writer and reader at the expense of the poem; an assault, too, on the undressed poem of apparently overt and naked feeling, the in-your-face bludgeoning with a death or a daffodil which sets out to elicit and share an emotional truth, more human and more important than those exigencies proper to its construction. To steer a poem to safety, avoiding both whirlpool and rock, his tentative conclusions are that ‘intelligence with regard to form’ is a sine qua non, and that ‘affectation and artfulness, which are usually taken for bad qualities, are in another sense fundamental elements of poetry’. Before we dance on the pins of explicit and implicit irony, ‘sez-you’ and cosmic laughter, we learn we can trust ...


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