The Resistance to Poetry

The Resistance to Poetry

James Longenbach

Print publication date: 2013

ISBN: 9780226492490

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Poems inspire our trust, argues this work, because they don't necessarily ask to be trusted. Theirs is the language of self-questioning—metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another. Poems resist themselves more strenuously than they are resisted by the cultures receiving them. But the resistance to poetry is quite specifically the wonder of poetry. Considering a wide array of poets, from Virgil and Milton to Dickinson and Glück, the book suggests that poems convey knowledge only inasmuch as they refuse to be vehicles for the efficient transmission of knowledge. In fact, this self-resistance is the source of the reader's pleasure: we read poetry not to escape difficulty but to embrace it. The book makes the case through a sustained engagement with the language of poetry. Each chapter brings a fresh perspective to a crucial aspect of poetry (line, syntax, figurative language, voice, disjunction) and shows that the power of poetry depends less on meaning than on the way in which it means—on the temporal process we negotiate in the act of reading or writing a poem. Readers and writers who embrace that process, the book asserts, inevitably recoil from the exaggeration of the cultural power of poetry in full awareness that to inflate a poem's claim on our attention is to weaken it.