(McLean, IL: Dalkey Archive Press 2020)
Toward. The word looks odd by itself, untethered from what’s behind, not yet having arrived at that which lies ahead. This untethered state is often mistakenly attributed to poetry and poets — it’s accompanied by the common image of a navel-gazer gazing, the poet seen as a person who makes a big deal out of lint. There’s another mistake, though, one that, it would seem, is much more damaging (and damning). It’s one this reader has made, and, likely, one that the person reading this review has made as well — the mistake of deferring to statements about poetry made in radically different historical, political, and social circumstances, simply because such statements sound right, not to mention the authority they’ve accrued through persistent citation in both formal and informal settings. That mistake, made as it is by smart and well-meaning poets and scholars, is recognized by H.L. Hix in Counterclaims, a book that is part dialogue, part essay, and part what one might call restoration. If that’s too strong a notion, it could be said that Counterclaims attempts to resituate the contemporary conversation on poetry and poetics. Hix does this by examining 20th-century roots, and by inviting others to do so with him, as he asks a prescient question: “What must or might be said now about poetry?”
The gambit is this — Hix asks each of the contributors to respond to an earlier stance of theirs on poetry or poetics (from an essay, interview, etc.). He also asks them to respond to a few famous adages about poetry, one from Auden, one from Adorno. The result is a book of well over 100 of the most influential poets and scholars thinking about several questions: What is 21st-century poetics? What social processes should 21st-century poetics enact? Among what’s come down to us from the past, what must be revised? There are, of course, dissenting opinions. Hix acknowledges this, and maintains that bringing dissenting voices together is necessary, writing that “the case made by this book is that a plurivocal poetics more than a univocal one fulfills the bare promise of bare poetry.” In a hilarious and honest response, Eleanor Wilner writes that
One-liners, like Auden’s and Adorno’s, being contentious, categorical and quotable, hang around seemingly forever, generate endless all-or-nothing arguments, and fail to encourage thought.
I don’t see poetry as a single entity, so can’t answer your question as it’s framed. What I can say is that I have found great pleasure and meaning in the practice of poetry over a lifetime, and rejoice in the extraordinary friends this practice has brought me whom I would never otherwise have known.
There’s much to love about this response — the candor, the emphasis on practice, and of course, the prioritization of a simple thing that somehow (and too often) gets lost in the poetry shuffle — the joy of other people. It should be said, however, that Hix does acknowledge the trouble with anything “quotable” about poetry, writing on a page titled “Particularity” that
We keep trying to say something general about poetry. I keep trying to. But maybe there is nothing of the sort to be said. Maybe poetry hosts only particularity, is itself only in particular. Always ready to be spoken, never available to be spoken of.
Hix’s notion of availability is essential. I mean to say that the many responses serve as new (and now) commonplaces, as means for not only invention, but also interpretation — in responding to Hix, Adorno, Auden, each other, and themselves, the many contributors provide sites from which to begin, their words a place to look. In other words, Counterclaims provides tools for anyone hoping to work toward the particularity Hix calls for.
Here’s another response, this one from Subarno Chattarji:
…the best poets of our troubled times speak deftly, ironically, quietly creating domains of refusal that are not shrill and articulating belonging that is neither sentimental nor obsessive. Poetry’s vitality lies in its expansion of civic spaces, the embodiment of climates of conscience amidst the accidental and the terrible.
This response is (as most are) learned and serious — it articulates an ideal, seemingly more strived for than achieved. This is fine, perhaps even desirable.
It remains to be said that Counterclaims is an expansive book of criticism, one that doesn’t seek to dominate a reader (or otherwise prove something), and rather invites her to listen. Hix takes a risk here, as does anyone who reads this book. The risk is this: that you might change your mind. To read this book is to encounter thoughts that excite and encourage, but also those with the potential to leave one slightly disenchanted. To paraphrase a poem (sin, I know) by one of Counterclaims contributors, Robert Hass: this is a good thing, sometimes.
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Hayden Bergman is a poet, translator, and Books Editor at TLR. His writing has appeared in Gravel, the museum of americana, Green Mountains Review, and [PANK]. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.