Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

"Who Is Ozymandias? and other puzzles in poetry" by John Fuller (Chatto & Windus, 2011)

He begins by stating his position

  • "This book is intended to comfort readers who find poetry difficult by showing that everyone, including professional critics, can find it difficult", p.vii
  • "my basic position is this: if a poem has not in the first place earned its claims upon us in some way, by getting into our head and charming us, teasing us or impressing us, then we are hardly guilty of anything if we put it aside", p.viii
  • "The suspicion is generally and often rightly held that poetry is 'about' something other than its ostensible subject, and that there is a reason for its concealment ... This concealment might not be deliberate, of course", p.7
  • "it is, of course, possible for a critic to create his own puzzles and leave us no less in the dark. This is particularly true of critics who are also poets", p.35

He addresses these issues, though I'd prefer a more analytical treatment, with problems classified according to the nature of their difficulty (using the list on the "Conclusion" section as chapter headings), and a more rigorously psychological approach (what gives readers a sense of puzzlement and what will sate them?). Asides can last pages - I think the space taken up discussing "The Wasteland" vs "The Waste Land" could have been better used. His method varies according to the poem rather randomly, it seems to me. E.g.

  • For Larkin's "high windows" he points out that the final image is the answer to "I wonder if" then collects and assesses interpretations - "the windows of Larkin's top-floor flat" (Tom Paulin); "ideal freedom and happiness" (A.T. Tolley); "haunting sense of difficulty and pain" (Janice Rossen); "typical of Larkin's way of verbalising oblivion" (John Bayley); "ecstatic nullity" (Steve Clark); "translucent nihilism" (Stan Smith), "Dantesque vision of paradisal beauty" (Stan Smith); related to Mallarmé's Les Fenetres (Barbara Everett). He suggests De Quincey as an influence or at least a clue.
  • For "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream" he doesn't quote critics. He quotes half a page of Hamlet - "... Your worm is your only emperor for diet ...", pointing out that "Ice-cream is truly democratic, being the national food of a country which has eschewed emperors".

Ideas come and go, interesting in themselves

  • "Poetry surprises us with what we already know", p.3
  • "Spacing in poetry is nothing to do with space and everything to do with time", p.22
  • "In Imagist poetry (and in the Symbolist poetry which precedes it) the image is deliberately isolated from all applications and conclusions, not so much to create an insoluble puzzle as to allow the reader the unhindered pleasure of solving it, often fairly quickly, but sometimes not at all quickly, and on occasion never quite", p.13
  • "The Ouija board found its fulfilment precisely in the need of the bereaved, particularly after the First World War, to be consoled", p.91
  • "This example will have to stand for the many minor dull puzzles that arise when reading much modern poetry. Persistence of interpretation will often be rewarded, but that process doesn't mean that the poems are any good", p.102
  • "It is the unspecified 'you' of modern love poems that I am mostly concerned with here. At least, the addressee is commonly a lover, and the very fact that the name is withheld is offered as a guarantee of the closeness and significance of the relationship", p.228

He mentions Google several times, and YouTube, and flarf. I like his explanations of Carroll's Snark, Boojum and Bandersnatch.

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