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About this book

Richard Bradford's new introduction to poetry begins with and answers the slippery question, 'what is poetry?'. The book provides a compact history of English poetry from the 16th century to the present day and surveys the major critical and theoretical approaches to verse. It tackles the important issues of gender, race and nationality and concludes with a lengthy account of how to recognise good poetry.
This engaging and readable book is accessible to all readers, from those who simply enjoy poetry through university first years to graduate students. Poetry: The Ultimate Guide provides the technical and critical tools you need to approach and evaluate poetry, and to articulate your own views.

Table of Contents

What is Poetry?

Frontmatter

1. The Basics

Abstract
Poetry is unlimited in its range of subjects. The speaker of the poem can be old, young, male, female, mad, bad or mysteriously unidentifiable. The poem can be addressed to a fictive acquaintance, a friend, an enemy, a lover, a wife, a husband, God, or you, the reader. It can use all types of diction and idiom: local dialect, neo-Latinate syntax, formal or informal diction, grammatical, ungrammatical, hesitant or purposive modes of speech. Poetry can be, say or involve anything, but it will always be informed and influenced by another factor, the factor that identifies it as poetry.
Richard Bradford

2. A Definition of Poetry: The Double Pattern

Abstract
Poetry is the most versatile, ambidextrous and omnipotent of all types of speech or writing, yet, paradoxically, it is the only one which is unified by a single exclusive feature, that which enables us to identify it and which separates it from every other kind of linguistic expression. This element is the keystone of my definition of poetry and it is called ‘the double pattern’.
Richard Bradford

History: The Renaissance to Postmodernism

Frontmatter

3. The Renaissance

Abstract
I have chosen to begin this history in the 16th century for the simple reason that far more verse was written during the 100 years between the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I and the mid-17th century than in the previous four centuries. It is quite possible that, prior to the 16th century, the poetic output of those inclined to write verse was widespread and prolific but we will never know because very little was preserved. In purely chronological terms, we have roughly one significant text for every five years of the 14th and 15th centuries. Profusion is not, of course, a guarantee of significance or quality, but the self-evident diversity and individual intricacy of the verse produced from the mid-16th century onwards provides us for the first time with a comparative index to the genre, a sense of common objectives, of competitiveness and a consensus on cultural affinities shared by similarly disposed individuals. Also, the 16th century saw the first ever treatises on literary criticism, albeit few and fragmentary, which provide us with some indication of contemporaneous ideas regarding the nature and function of poetry. Finally and significantly, poetry in this period played a major part in the emergence of literature as something produced for and consumed by the general public. Virtually all Renaissance English drama, to a large extent, comprises verse.
Richard Bradford

4. The Restoration and the 18th Century

Abstract
From the 1660s to the 1750s, poetic writing was dominated by the generic and functional notion of the public poem. This could range from the direct engagement with contemporary political issues (the so-called ‘poem on affairs of state’) to the more discursive ‘georgic’ mode, in which matters such as architecture, dress sense, the sanitary conditions of the streets or the practice of sheep husbandry would function as the subject of all or part of the poetic discourse. Poems about real people and events were, of course, written before the Civil War, but in the post-Civil War period, poems themselves and writings about poetry began to focus more upon the stylistic and formal conditions that would establish poetry as the literary counterpart to the political or philosophic essay. The events and circumstances that prompted and sustained this change in emphasis were political, social and intellectual. The 1688 bloodless coup, also known as the Glorious Revolution, the Triennial Act 1694 and the Septennial Act 1716, ensuring parliamentary elections at three- and seven-year intervals respectively, the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, creating the opportunity for relative press freedom and the proliferation of pamphleteering — all these and many other factors, not least the increase in commercial printers and publishers, established the conditions for the emergence of the new social and cultural phenomenon of the professional writer — often disparagingly referred to as the ‘hack’.
Richard Bradford

5. Romanticism

Abstract
The Romantic poets present us with a series of problems that demand the cooperation of literary scholarship and linguistic analysis. W.H. Auden, writing as a somewhat sceptical heir to the legacies of Romanticism and Modernism, summarized our difficulties. In memory of Yeats, he wrote: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ What he meant is that, unlike most other forms of linguistic representation or interpersonal exchange, the poem is confined within the vacuum of its own self-determined formal conditions. It can issue orders, promote one particular moral or ethical position above others, or enable its perpetrator to complain about their own existential condition or that which they share with the rest of humanity, but it forbids itself from entering the same functional circuit of personal, social or political exchange as the letter, the philosophical thesis or the manifesto for the envisaged rights of man. The problem, from which no poet or reader is immune, is of how to balance the paraphrasable, functional message of the text with its specificity as literary discourse, its self-conscious deployment of linguistic properties and conventions which create patterns of signification that poems do not share with non-poetic discourses. Poetry is never immune from the uncertain relation between textual content and extratextual context, but in the period occupied by the Romantics, we encounter a particularly difficult interrelation between purpose, aesthetics and poetic form.
Richard Bradford

6. Victorian Poetry

Abstract
The Victorian poets, by whom I mean those whose reputations were made and sustained between the 1830s and 1890s, are often celebrated as the most skilled and meticulous stylists of post-Renaissance English verse. They were eclectic, while preferring versatile orthodoxy to experiment. The techniques and formal paradigms that the Victorians inherited from three centuries of writing would be perfected, extended, even challenged, but they would not in any significant way be altered. In this regard, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning (born 1809 and 1812 respectively) and Matthew Arnold (1822), Algernon Swinburne (1837), Thomas Hardy (1840) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844) are effectively the second and third generations of Romanticism. The Romantic dichotomy between a belief in verse as the supremely subjective medium for expression and a begrudging recognition of it as an abstract system of rules and devices became, after the 1830s, the accepted precondition for writing. Correspondingly, there was a discernable institutionalization of what had once been a radical mood. The Romantics treated the poem as a medium for enquiry, a site for exploration, capable of extending the orthodox limits of knowledge and experience, while their successors rehearsed such gestures while accepting implicit constraints, limitations and boundaries.
Richard Bradford

7. Modernism and After

Abstract
What is free verse? This question has taxed the interpretive resources of critics and poets since the 1900s and has resulted in a rich variety of solutions. None of these can claim to be a comprehensive, abstract definition of what free verse is or of how it works and many remain as angry attempts to dismiss the validity of their competitors. Free verse is the most significant contribution by poetry to the formal aesthetics of Modernism, and in this chapter I shall attempt to provide a thorough account of how it began, why it persists and its influence upon orthodox poetic writing. In the process, we will be forced to reconsider the standard, conventional perceptions of how language works and, more significantly, of how poetic language can claim to be different from its non-poetic counterparts.
Richard Bradford

Criticism and Contexts

Frontmatter

8. New Criticism

Abstract
The literature of classical Greece and Rome, predominantly poetry and dramatic poetry, has been studied in the older European and US universities since their formation. The study of modern, post-medieval literary writing — again almost exclusively poetry — gained a foothold in higher education in the late 19th century and, as a consequence, literary criticism obtained some credence as a respectable intellectual discipline. Poetry had previously been written about, principally, by those who were themselves poets, but the tentative acceptance of English as a subject worthy of academic study signalled the arrival of the professional critic. The US and British academics, who from the 1920s onwards involved themselves in attempts to establish literature as a respectable university subject, earned themselves the collective title of the ‘New Critics’. However, Matthew Arnold, 19th-century poet and education theorist, is acknowledged as the originator of a number of precepts and maxims that sustained English studies in its late Victorian infancy and which survive in today’s debates on the national curriculum and English in universities. Arnold argued that the study and appreciation of literature — and by literature he referred exclusively to verse; the novel being, in his view, a vulgar surrender of aesthetics to populist entertainment — would inform and, mysteriously, harmonize the fragmented ideology and social disunity of modern British society.
Richard Bradford

9. Formalism and Structuralism

Abstract
Formalism originated in Russia with the founding of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915 and its St Petersburg counterpart Opayaz in 1916. Its most influential founding members were Viktor Shklovsky, Vladimir Propp and Roman Jakobson.
Richard Bradford

10. The Role of the Reader and Poststructuralism

Abstract
Two years after Riffaterre’s article appeared, Roland Barthes published a piece that is now treated as a landmark in the progress of cultural and literary theory, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968). The demise of the text’s creator was not, he argued, literal since this was to be experienced as much by living writers as their long-deceased predecessors. What would be extinguished, so Barthes contended, was the image of the author as the active and conscious creator of everything that the reader discerns within and extracts from the literary text. In Barthe’s view, the Superreader — although he does not use the term — imposes upon the text a vast repertoire of expectations gleaned from their study of aesthetics, interpretive theory and other literary works.
Richard Bradford

11. History, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

Abstract
The Saussurian seed would also germinate into a branch of theory known as New Historicism. Its best-known advocate is Stephen Greenblatt, whose collection Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (1988) is frequently cited as the exemplar of New Historicism in practice. Consider the most perturbing implications of Saussure’s model: that language and whatever is extraneous to language are locked into an interdependent relationship, that we do not simply make use of language to express and represent ideas and facts but that without language, ideas and facts will be inexpressible and incognizable.
Richard Bradford

12. Psychoanalysis

Abstract
Any proper appreciation of the relevance, or otherwise, of psychoanalysis to the study of poetry must involve some knowledge of the parallels between the ideas of Freud and the linguistic theories of Jakobson. The following is from Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900, pp. 277–8):
Suppose I have a picture-puzzle, a rebus [Freud describes the dream as a rebus], in front of me. It depicts a house with a boat on its roof, a single letter of the alphabet, the figure of a running man whose head has been conjured away, and so on. Now I might be misled into raising objections and declaring that the picture as a whole and its component parts are nonsensical. A boat has no business to be on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run [etc.] … But obviously we can only form a proper judgement of the rebus if we put aside such criticism as these of the whole composition and its part and if, instead, we try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way or other. The words which are put together in this way are no longer nonsensical but may form a poetical phrase of the greatest beauty and significance. A dream is a picture-puzzle of this sort.
Richard Bradford

13. Deconstruction

Abstract
Deconstruction has grown out of the interwoven fabric of European linguistics, philosophy and semiotics. It draws on Saussure’s model of the differential nature of language, the sense of meaning as an indeterminate condition that depends upon the relation between linguistic signs rather than a direct and unitary correspondence between individual signs and their apparent foundation in immutable units of reality. Deconstruction takes Saussure’s thesis a stage further. First, it holds that language and reality are largely indistinguishable; that the flow and counterflow of signification between linguistic units is what constitutes reality. Second, and most significantly, it contends that language functions as our means of persuading or deceiving ourselves that what we are talking or writing about exists as an independent, prelinguistic entity or system. The activity of deconstruction is concerned principally with exposing this double process of fabrication: it operates from the premise that what lies outside language is unknowable (or in some instances non-existent) without language; it discloses the means by which a particular text, utterance or discourse uses the resources of signification to persuade itself and its recipient that it is involved in addressing some stratum of prelinguistic truth rather than involved in constructing it.
Richard Bradford

14. Gender

Abstract
The following is Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’, a poem published in 1681, but thought to have been written in the 1650s:
Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, Lady, were no crime. We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long love’s day. Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide Of Humber would complain, I would Love you ten years before the Flood: And you should, if you please, refuse Till the conversion of the Jews. My vegetable love should grow Vaster than empires, and more slow. An hundred years should go to praise Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze. Two hundred to adore each breast: But thirty thousand to the rest; An age at least to every part, And the last age should show your heart; For, Lady, you deserve this state, Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found, Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song: then worms shall try That long preserved virginity, And your quaint honour turn to dust, And into ashes all my lust: The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue Sits on thy skin like morning dew, And while thy willing soul transpires At every pore with instant fires, Now let us sport us while we may, And now, like amorous birds of prey, Rather at once our time devour Than languish in this slow-chapt power. Let us roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball, And tear our pleasures with rough strife Thorough the iron gates of life: Thus, though we cannot make our sun Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Richard Bradford

15. Nation, Race and Place

Abstract
Poets employ three principal techniques to address the issues of race and nationality:
1
The poem, irrespective of its manner and form, will engage with a memory, an incident or a state of mind. There are, for example, a number of poems by African Caribbean writers that give elegiac accounts of their arrival and first experiences in Britain; Archie Markham’s ‘Inheritance’ and Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘Home’ are notable examples.
 
2
The poet will make use of a lexicon of conventional devices, largely Anglocentric in origin, to unsettle the reader’s expectations, particularly with regard to stereotypical perceptions of race, nationality or class.
 
3
Poets will treat conventional poetry, including the orthodoxies of poetic writing and standard English, as a racial and cultural shibboleth, a discourse that appropriates and subjugates its non-English practitioners. As a consequence, they will cause the non-literary vernacular and idiomatic features of their linguistic lineage to dominate the texture of the verse.
 
This chapter will focus predominantly on the second and third points and we will begin with the tendentious question of what Englishness actually involves.
Richard Bradford

16. Evaluation

Abstract
Each of the critical issues and debates discussed so far carries with it a subtext that is rarely, if ever, acknowledged, let alone canvassed: evaluation. Aside from such involuntary functions as breathing, everything that we encounter causes us to judge it. Look at a building, a landscape, a chair or indeed another human being and somewhere among the spectrum of registers and distractions that attends the experience will feature an elementary, sometimes embarrassing, reflex; whether or not we like it. This could involve all manner of judgements and instincts, from the aesthetic to the visceral, and the same heedless impulsive sensation accompanies our first reading of a poem. For some of us, dissatisfaction, boredom, or perplexity might constitute our conclusive experience of the work, but most will press ahead, read it again and question their initial response. This next, measured stage of scrutiny — perhaps involving a comparison of the poem with others we know — is the doorway between subjective impression and the complex procedure of putting our thoughts into words, talking to others about the poem and the more formal activity of recording our observations on the page. The latter constitutes the activity of literary criticism. In what follows, I want to examine the question of how much of our initial evaluative judgements we leave behind when we pass through that doorway and whether literary criticism, with its various rules and conventions, permits us to make assessments regarding the quality of poetic writing.
Richard Bradford
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