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Distortion, Abstraction, and Originality in Contemporary American Poetry


Mark Irwin

Monster: Distortion, Abstraction, and Originality in Contemporary American Poetry argues that memorable and resonant poetry often distorts form, image, concept, and notions of truth and metaphor. Discussing how changes in electronic communication and artificial notions of landscape have impacted form and content in poetry, Monster redefines the idea of what is memorable and original through a broad range of poets including John Ashbery, Anne Carson, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Forrest Gander, Peter Gizzi, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Laura Kasischke, W. S. Merwin, Srikanth Reddy, Donald Revell, Mary Ruefle, Arthur Sze, and James Tate.

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The Poem as Concept


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About halfway through John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” the poet quotes Sydney Freedberg, who comments on the painting from his book Parmigianino. Ashbery’s versification of the quote provides a profound comment on the conceptual power of art: “The surprise, the tension are in the concept / Rather than its realization.”

The common belief that form and content are of equal importance is not meant to be disparaged here, an idea perhaps most memorably rendered by Robert Frost in “The Figure a Poem Makes” when he says, “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” The implication, one of surprise, also suggests that form and content must use each other up. Art that presents a striking concept, however, creates immediacy around the whole, one different from an art whose immediacy might more slowly accrue through form, or via the senses, always strongly associated with poetry. Here it accrues around the percept, the object or idea perceived. Is the path to the intellect faster than that to the senses?—Sometimes, and perhaps more architecturally conclusive. Consider a masterful poem of both intellect and the senses, Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” where the architectural notion is completed in the first line: “That is no country ← 57 | 58 → for old men. The young”. The notion of spirit, which can provide a kind of youth in old age, creating both visible and invisible structures of eternity,...

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