It is a simple fact of our reading experience that poems take place, in the words of Albert Thibaudet, "as a function of the Book." That is to say that the book--with all of its informing contexts--is the meeting ground for poet and reader, the "situation" in which its constituent texts occur. As such, the book is constantly conditioning the reader's responses, activating various sets of what semioticians call "interpretive codes." And yet, as Thibaudet shrewdly goes on to observe, "there are few things to which a man of books gives less thought than the Book." 1 The essays of this collection are designed specifically to foster such thought--and to make clear that its implications extend from the fields of textual scholarship and literary history to those of hermeneutics and literary theory.
To read poems in their place, then, is to make the poetry book itself--as both idea and material fact--an object of interpretation. A fundamental assumption of such an approach is that the decisions poets make about the presentation of their works play a meaningful role in the poetic process and, hence, ought to figure in the reading process. Studied within the context of their original volumes, poems reveal a fuller textuality, which is to say, an intertextuality.
Perhaps no single word adequately conveys the special qualities of the poetic collection as an organized book: the contextuality provided for each poem by the larger frame within which it is placed, the intertextuality among poems so placed, and the resultant texture of resonance and meanings. I have recently proposed, however, that the word "contexture" be used for such a purpose because of its utility in suggesting all three of these qualities without being restricted to any one. 2 A contexture might thus be seen as the "poem" that is the book itself. By raising such questions as the significance of selection and arrangement within particular books, we are led not only to consider the integrity of these larger "poems" but also to pose new questions about poets' notions of order within their canons and the types of connections they make among their individual poems.