Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry

Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry

Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry

Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry

Synopsis

In Regions of Unlikeness Thomas Gardner explores the ways a number of quite different twentieth-century American poets, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, and Michael Palmer, frame their work as taking place within, and being brought to life by, an acknowledgment of the limits of language. Gardner approaches their poetry in light of philosopher Stanley Cavell's remarkably similar engagement with the issues of skepticism and linguistic finitude. The skeptic's refusal to settle for anything less than perfect knowledge of the world, Cavell maintains, amounts to a refusal to accept the fact of human finitude. Gardner argues that both Cavell and the poets he discusses reject skepticism's world-erasing conclusions but nonetheless honor the truth about the limits of knowledge that skepticism keeps alive. In calling attention to the limits of such acts as describing or remembering, the poets Gardner examines attempt to renew language by teasing a charged drama out of their inability to grasp with certainty. Juxtaposed with Gardner's readings of the work of the younger poets are his interviews with them. In many ways, these conversations are at the core of Gardner's book, demonstrating the wide-ranging implications of the struggles and mappings enacted in the poems. The interviews are themselves examples of the charged intimacy Gardner deals with in his readings.

Excerpt

What I investigate in this book is the way a number of our most important contemporary poets frame their work as taking place within, and being brought to life by, an acknowledgment of the limits of language. in the interview included here, for example, Jorie Graham remarks: “I find myself very drawn to situations in which the problems with reference are roiled up. I like to be kept on that hook. Because then when I go to write about anything—and after all, the poems are always ‘about’ something else—the issue of the medium they are enacted in is alive….Under those conditions I feel I might get somewhere. Somewhere tenable. Somewhere trustworthy.” Calling attention to themselves describing or remembering or speaking or writing, the poets I examine here also insist on bringing into play the limits of such acts. Sentences are sometimes not finished, descriptive patterns dissolve and reform, initial forays break off in a spray of ellipses, peculiar distortions are included—that such uses of language are the source of current poetry’s difficulty as well as its claims to have brought to fife something crucial about our human situation is the subject of this book.

Let me begin with an example. Robert Hass opens his 1989 collection Human Wishes with this acknowledgment of descriptive limits:

A man thinks lilacs against white houses, having seen them in the
farm country south of Tacoma in April, and can’t find his way to a
sentence, a brushstroke carrying the energy of brush and stroke

—as if he were stranded on the aureole of the memory of a woman’s
breast,

And she, after the drive from the airport and a chat with her mother
and a shower, which is ritual cleansing and a passage through water
to mark transition,

Had walked up the mountain on a summer evening.

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