Archive for the ‘Canadian poetry’ Tag

Open Book sure likes David Bradford’s Dream of No One but Myself

Open Book shares a short interview with David Bradford about his “hotly anticipated debut poetry collection”, Dream of No One but Myself, “a work of stunning creativity and self awareness”.

Personally, I find such promotional copy a little embarrassing, as its hyperbole can’t help but unmask it as promotional copy, emptying it of any of the gravity that would anchor its persuasiveness.

That being said, Bradford’s book is provocative, both thematically (as a “lyric examination of his experience growing up in a racially [and linguistically!] diverse family”) and formally (with respect to the modes of composition deployed to develop and present that matter). Indeed, Bradford’s work would be afforded higher praise by a scrupulous reading of these dimensions, whose study would be a substantial appreciation (free from matters of mere preference—what I like or don’t) of Bradford’s unquestionably accomplished first book.

You can read the interview linked above, or another I conducted with him some time back, here. Of course, the best course of action is to click on the book’s cover, above, check out the sample of poems from the book, and buy a copy!

To praise, that’s the thing

A while back, I ventured a few words on James Dunnigan’s The Stained Glass Sequence. As chance would have it, another set of notes, appreciative of the chapbook’s virtues, has turned up, which can be read, here. The anonymous reviewer (who seems to hail from Ireland) shares my appreciation for the sequence’s reflexive dimension:

Stained glass itself is like a decoration hung on perception, one that refracts the light and shadow of the reality behind, transforming it into a more ornate version. Poet James Dunnigan leverages that quality as the foundational conceit for The Stained Glass Sequence, a chapbook plunged in reflection on another primordial creative force: language. But it’s not for the sake of an academic lesson so much as a means to show how poetry transfigures society into civilization.

High, and well-deserved, praise.

Readers whose interest has been piqued can follow up on The Stained Glass Sequence by getting a hold of Dunnigan’s markedly uncanny and no less accomplished follow-up, Wine and Fire (Cactus Press, 2020), whose launch can be viewed, here.

Now the only question is which acquisitions editor will be canny enough to grab the manuscript of Dunnigan’s first, full-length collection…

New Chapbook: As on a holiday…

I launch my latest chapbook, As on a holiday, with Montreal’s Cactus Press 24 March 2021 20h00 ET. The chapbook collates four short sequences composed during and about trips to Germany (2012), Slovakia (2014), Toronto (2017), and Saskatchewan (2018).

You can access the Zoom link at the Facebook Event page, here.

You can read an earlier version of one of the poems from the Toronto suite, here.

The indefatigable rob mcclennan has published a wi(l)de-ranging interview with the press’ three editors, here.

I’ve invested this year’s Public Lending Rights cheque in a new microphone, so the sound quality of the launch is sure to be top notch! Copies of the limited-edition chapbook are available in print and electronic formats through the publisher, linked above.

Save the date!

A Sideways Glance at Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity

Mark Dickinson’s Canadian Primal:  Poets, Places, and the Music of Meaning, a groundbreaking study of the lives and work of Dennis Lee, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, Jan Zwicky, and Tim Lilburn has been open in my hands since landing there only a few days ago. Having just finished the chapter on Don McKay, I’m reminded I wrote a short notice of McKay’s collected poems angularwhen it appeared in 2014 for a very good website, now defunct. Because it is a sharp, short review, I share it here, now, so it might remain on record. (The curious can read a more sweeping essay on the oeuvre of Robert Bringhurst, here).

 

“Hard to say this awkwardly / enough”:  a review of Don McKay’s Angular Unconformity Collected Poems 1970-2014

 

Angular Unconformity is hardly amenable to a short review, collecting as it does ten volumes of poetry, supplemented by a sheaf of new work, more than 500 pages, a lifetime of poetic production. Moreover, any reader acquainted with contemporary Canadian anglophone poetry can’t be unacquainted with Don McKay, a two-time winner of the Governor General’s award for Night Field (1991) and Another Gravity (2000) and the Griffin Poetry Prize for Strike/Slip (2006). He is accordingly admired and targeted for these accomplishments and for his influence as an editor and teacher.

Nevertheless, one can characterize the stylistic development of McKay’s poetry with relative ease. The poetics of the first two volumes collected here, Long Sault (1975) and Lependu (1978), are influenced not so much by Purdy or Ted Hughes (as one critic would mysteriously have it) but by the New American Poetry, specifically Olson’s Projective Verse and The Maximus Poems or William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, especially where Long Sault becomes personified in (at least) the book’s fourth section. Lependu torques up the conceit of place and person, in this case London, Ontario and Lependu, in a more focussed, dense, and documentary fashion, but one that is self-aware enough to play fast and loose with its sources for its own artistic ends.

However, with Birding, or desire (1983) McKay finds his groove. In the book’s opening poem “Field Marks” (93) one finds what might be a description of much of McKay’s work from this point on: “…a bird book full of / lavish illustrations with a text of metaphor” (7-8). While in “Adagio for a Fallen Sparrow” (125) in the same volume the poet points to his “shelf / with Keats and Shelley and The Birds of Canada” (21-22). In these lines McKay presciently parodies the reputation this and following volumes will earn him, that of the Nature (i.e. Romantic) poet whose main thematic vehicle is Canada’s birds. Like any parody, however, this one possesses a perverse truth, for a primary objective of McKay’s poetry is one shared with Novalis and Wordsworth, to render the familiar strange, to percieve the things of the world as if for the first time. As McKay writes in the essay “Baler Twine” from Vis à Vis (2001):  “in such defamiliarization…we encounter the momentary circumvention of the mind’s categories to glimpse some thing’s autonomy—its rawness, its duende, its alien being” (21). This “circumvention of the mind’s categories” is simultaneously an eschewal of the mind’s drive to dominate via knowing, a refusal of what McKay terms, following Levinas, “the primordial grasp” in favour of a “poetic attention” wherein the poem reaches for “things sensuously through the caress” (23).

The poems caress their objects with two hands:  on the one, a fluctuation of lexicon and tone, while, on the other, a protean metaphorization. The poems mix so-called High and Low culture, “lascivious as Beardsley, sweet as Shirley Temple”, the vernacular and the discourses of geology, philosophy, and (of course) ornithology, English and French, gravity and humour. McKay’s artistic drive to refresh perception by means of poetic redescription shares something with the “rosy-fingered dawn.” But his style differs from epic simile or Metaphysical conceit or even that more recent predilection for what John Crowe Ransom termed “texture” (theme developed by a consistent pattern of trope and scheme). McKay’s metaphors are more impulsive and local, often working strictly within the context of the line more than the stanza or entire poem. A map in The Muskwa Assemblage (2008) is “skewed to the diagonal….as though some formerly symmetrical design had been invaded by irresistable divinity, some Dionysus headed northwest”; the reader of the map “might have been a crime scene investigator”, the geograpy variegated “[a]s though deep form, like a medicine dream, were forcing its way up from the mantle” (480).

Readers, then, must negotiate a constantly changing linguistic landscape bent on “the circumvention of the mind’s categories”. These demands aren’t the product of a high-handed virtuousity but the humility that underwrites McKay’s species of “poetic attention” whose restless articulations stammer to admit it’s all too “[h]ard to say this awkwardly / enough” (“February Willows” 3-4, in Sanding Down this Rocking Chair on a Windy Night (1987), p. 191). McKay’s art works against a certain eloquence, against consistency, knowledge, mastery. The first two books possess more a vector of compositional means than the focussed, polished exploitation of a given set of techniques. The constant shifts in vocabulary, tone, and trope, the bad jokes, all serve to puncture the authority of the poet who must work both with and against his poetic fate, inheritor of the Romantic prophetic or vatic mode that humbles itself to take up a poetry of attention anxious to exploit every linguistic resource not for the sake of Art but perception.

James Dunnigan’s Wine and Fire now available as an e-book

James Dunnigan is one of the most exciting young new poets I know writing today, a claim I make rarely.

Now, his chapbook Wine and Fire is available as an e-book for $5.00 Canadian, less than the cost of a pumpkin spice latte and a hell of lot sweeter and more nutritious!

You can see and hear Dunnigan read, below, and get your e-copy of Wine and Fire, here.

A nod to Louis Dudek

Louis DudekOne striking difference between, say, France or Germany and Canada is how the respective countries honour their cultural traditions. I remember seeing in Tübingen a plaque on a bookstore commemorating the one night Goethe slept upstairs, and, on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, the house where André Bréton resided during World War Two is indicated by a memorial from the French government, while the struggle to preserve poet Al Purdy’s A-frame is still fresh in my memory. Happily, we do have a counterexample to such willed amnesia, the Writers’ Chapel in Saint Jax Cathedral in Montreal, that features plaques for such canonical figures as F. R. Scott and Mavis Gallant and where, this evening, poet, critic, and scholar Louis Dudek will be honoured with a plaque of his own.

Bruce Whiteman provides a gracious portrait of Dudek on the occasion of Dudek’s death in 2001. I, too, had a chance to hear him read one snowy, weekend afternoon, and he was gracious enough to seek me out for a meeting when I published a polemical article on the reigning poetic aesthetics in Canadian anglophone poetry the year of his death. As it’s unlikely I’ll be able to attend the ceremony in his honour as I hoped and planned, at least I can post this notice here, now, and direct interested readers to a poem of mine that engages Dudek’s late poetry, “Reading Dudek’s The Caged Tiger.

“…voices / …heard / …as revelations”

Interested parties can read a talk I gave at the Spirituality in Contemporary Canadian IMG_0693and Québécois Literature Panel at the annual meeting of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures, Regina, Saskatchewan, 27 May 2018.

“…voices / …heard / …as revelations”:  Peter Dale Scott’s Contribution to the Discourse of the Postsecular in his Seculum Trilogy and Mosaic Orpheus

 

The Day Sid Marty Didn’t Kill Andrew Suknaski

This Labour Day seems a critical mass of synchronicities:  yesterday, John Ashbery’s death was announced; the final two episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks:  The Return were broadcast; and this morning a memorial to Canada’s (Saskatchewan’s?) Andrew Suknaski appeared. Even more, the anecdote it concerns took place at exactly the same time I was writing my first poems under the tutelage of John Newlove, “then writer-in-residence” at the Regina Public Library, who was kind enough to introduce me to Andy.

All this seems to urge a wider dissemination of Sid Marty’s article, which you can read by clicking on the portrait of Andy, below.

Suknaski big

A Class of One’s Own: an all-too-brief appreciation of the poetry of John Newlove

[Just over five years back, I heard tell that a collection of criticism on the work of John Newlove was in the works. I contacted the editor to offer what I could, as I had first started writing poetry under Newlove’s influence and tutelage. What follows was the result. It seems now that that collection is not forthcoming, so I share these cursory reflections here, now.]

The status of John Newlove’s poetry in Canada is curious. The consistent admiration and acclaim it received over nearly four decades, from even before the publication of his Governor General’s Award winning Lies (1972) up to and including the appearance of his latest volume of selected poems A Long Continual Argument (2007), would seem to suggest that his work would be more widely and closely studied, both by scholars and poets. His publishing only one trade edition after Lies, The Night the Dog Smiled (1986), and that the only one before his death in 2003, is surely in part to blame. Moreover, changes in taste and tendencies in academic criticism during this time, anathema to the singular pathos of his polished and laconic lyrics, surely served to only further marginalize the work of a man already famously a loner. It is perhaps reason for optimism in this regard that Jeff Derksen, a poet associated with Canada’s avant-garde, essays a postmodern sociological reading of Newlove’s poetry in his afterword to A Long Continual Argument (237ff.). As bracing as it would be to make a case for a more sustained and scrupulous critical attention to Newlove’s work, I will here follow Newlove’s own example, the one he provides at the end of Derksen’s afterword, where he invites Derksen in to show him “the careful syllabics of an Irish writer…, literally counting the syllables per line…” (245).

As is probably well-known, Newlove’s poetry first appears on the West Coast during that flowering of Canadian poetry that occurred during the Sixties and Seventies, a milieu famously (or infamously, depending on your critical predilections) in contact with what came to be called the New American Poetry, a relation most dramatically exemplified by the University of British Columbia Poetry Conference (1963) attended by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen. The New American Poetry and its poetics were profoundly influenced by Ezra Pound, whose criticism provides useful, basic concepts for an appreciation of Newlove’s art, as well. Pound distinguishes three “kinds of poetry”: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia (25), or, as Louis Zukofsky was to reword it, the uses poetry makes of sight, sound, and intellection (Test vii). Newlove’s writing excels at all of these. On the back cover of The Fatman (1977), Frank Davey’s blurb stands out bold:  Newlove’s is “[o]ne of the most direct and visually precise styles in twentieth-century poetry.” Among Newlove’s own saws is to “Read with your ears, not just your eyes.” And his enjambments and the sly suggestiveness of his (under)statements take up and hand down powers inherent in English poetry from its beginnings.

However acute a critic Davey is, it is difficult to find many examples of “visually precise” passages, if what he refers to is what Longinus termed phantasia (Russell and Winterbottom 159), that “casting of images upon the visual imagination” (Pound 25). Nevertheless, the first two stanzas of the title poem from Black Night Window (1968) present, arguably, an image, “an intellectual and emotional complex” (Pound 4):

Black night window—

rain running down

the fogged glass,

 

a blanched leaf

hanging outside

on a dead twig (11)

Rigorously and economically phanopoetic, every line but the fifth (“hanging outside”) frames a concrete noun, and all but the last adjective (“dead”) are immediately sensuous. None of the poem’s four tercets comments or states: lacking a verb, each is a phrase whose sense hangs on what each depicts. Taking the poem’s images together, Pound would say the poem is an ideogram, communicating by means of “images juxtaposed” (Ginsberg, Howl 74).

One especially intellectually complex image is found in “The Green Plain”, a long poem first published as a chapbook and later included in The Night the Dog Smiled. At the centre of the poem is the question at the heart of philosophy “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that Newlove reworks, wondering whether there is “reason / in the galaxies—Or is this all glass, / a block bubbled in a fire…?” (21). To expand on the aptness of this metaphor would demand an excursus all its own, involving, among other things, the juxtaposition of the stars and bubbles, the contrast between the solidity of glass and the emptiness of space, the condensation of mythopoetic and cosmological speculation that fuses Fire with the Big Bang, and so forth.

Newlove’s prosodic gift and mastery are discernable throughout his oeuvre. “Public Library” (in Black Night Window) is, for example, an exemplary, inimitable performance. Sitting “half in a dreamed trance  half listening / to the people around” (4-5), the poet hears the library’s forced silence amplify sounds normally unnoticed, shuffling feet, shaken newspapers, and

books crackling as their backs [are] broken

the flick/flick of fingertips

and fingernails on the corners of pages

snap of shutting decisively

or accidentally   plump lackadaisically

muted thump of being tossed on low tables (13-18)

The technique here—onomatopoeia—is familiar enough, but the poem goes on, by means of a deft phonemic mix, to recreate the reading room’s soundscape over an enviably easy sixty-four lines!

More subtle and sophisticated pleasures are to be gleaned between that “Lower limit speech” and “Upper limit music” (Zukofsky, “A”-12 138), where the language as spoken is moved by emotion to a rhythm and dance of the syllables that approaches song. A tender instance is “For Judith, Now About 10 Years Old” from Moving in Alone (1965). The poem edges forward hesitantly, often only three to five syllables at a time, the lines turning from completing the thoughts they would compose, that would remember a niece’s traumatic scalding and wonder about the future of her scarred body,

welt ridges also

on the not even yet

about to be

 

womanly posterior

from where

the failing grafts

were taken… (8-14)

Only in the penultimate stanza can the speaker bring himself to ask “What will [she] do / when [her] breasts come?” (30-31). The poem ends with the uncle remembering “the feel of [her] tough / rubber-laced skin / as [he] spread salve on it” (32-35). The poem’s final two lines are striking in their simple economy of presentation, mimetic to a degree that eludes full, precise explanation: the enjambment that separates the adjective “tough” from “rubber-laced”, the isolation of “rubber-laced skin” on a single line that seems to render its referent palpable to the imagination’s fingertips, the play of sibilants over the last two lines softened by that one labiodental /v/ mimics the sound of the hands salving the girl’s “red / welted scars” (1-2).

The drawing out of sense, plying syntax over a number of verses, framing a clause or phrase on a line to focus attention on associations over and above those the completed thought of the sentence demands, is a characteristic power of English blank verse, from Chaucer, through Marlowe, Milton, and Wordsworth, to Wallace Stevens and Newlove. His prosody in this regard, how he harmonizes metre and expression to build up larger musical and syntactic structures, is a study. “Doukhobor” from The Cave (1970) is exemplary, a single, 188-word question articulated over twenty-six lines, asking a farmer, a member of an immigrant Saskatchewan prairie utopian religious community, “who will ever be able to say for” him what he had thought and seen in his life, when he “lies on the chipped kitchen table / … / dumb as an ox, unable to love, / while [his] women sob and offer the visitors tea” (2, 25-26). Despite this hyper-periodic style, the questioner’s wonderings are easy to follow. The poem’s being a question, moreover, secures it from any simple-minded accusation of appropriation. In its imagination, prosodic and syntactical construction, and rhetoric the poem is a tour de force.

Who reads Newlove with an appreciative pleasure will likely agree with Margaret Atwood, too-often quoted out of context (as I quote her, here, too!), who says Newlove “is indeed a master builder”; capable of writing in “something like a grand manner, his work is often a demonstration model of how it should be done” (Second Words, p.?). Newlove’s grand manner not only exhibits stylistic excellence but suits that excellence to the presentation of certain grand themes, what Dante calls those “‘splendidly great things’ which should be written about using the best available means,…which are prowess in arms, the flames of love, and the direction of the will” (Dante 35). In his 1989 Caroline Heath Lecture, Newlove defines his thematic concerns along similar lines. He says, “I write about desire, which often means to think about right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. I praise endurance” (2). Though Newlove’s order differs from Dante’s, desire (what Dante elsewhere paraphrases as “the enjoyment of love”), right and wrong (“virtue”), and endurance (“self-preservation”) are his transformation of age-old topoi into present, vital concerns. In a word, Newlove is a classic.

These all-too cursory remarks only begin an attempt at an appreciation that would venture more complex matters, beginning with “the classic”. The literary critical use of this term goes back at least to the third century C.E. and is bound up with the notions of class, “model”, and correctness and clarity. Reflections on clarity play into theoretical concerns at least a century old, ostraneniye (Shklovsky, cf. Lemon and Reis) and the distinctions between the lisible and the scriptible (Barthes) and between the “absorptive” and “anti-absorptive” (Bernstein). To develop these considerations uncovers Newlove’s linguistic rigor: his “baring the device” (Shklovsky) in his “anti-lyrics” (Barbour), his deft and unbalancing deployment of allusion and citation, and his scrutiny of semantic complexity in his fugal poems that play out the possibilities of a set of words or a phrase, as in “The Double-headed Snake” or “The Cave”. The study of Newlove’s oeuvre in this direction would not canonize him among Canada’s post-Tish post-modern poets, as Bowering would in the introduction to his 1984 anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry:  undermining and overturning such an attempted classification, Newlove’s poems elude and encompass such judgements that are at once both too general and too narrow for his world, wherein “one thing is not like another” (“Heath” 6), where “[n]ot to lose the feel of the mountains / while still retaining the prairies / is a difficult thing” (“The Double-headed Snake” 1-3).

Newlove names that “difficult thing” at the heart of his poetic labour. In his Caroline Heath lecture, he goes on to explain, “What I’m trying to be is human, without knowing what the word means” (7). Here is an endlessly open-ended theme, whose horizon swallows polemics against “Humanism”. Here, Newlove takes up a question not a doctrine, and though he may seem, at times, to “say things for the sheer pleasure of the phrase, forgetting that [he is] speaking to humans, with humans, forgetting to be human” (9), who hears or overhears him, by virtue of the dialogue understanding demands, becomes his interlocutor, which is, as it were, the last word:

All writing is saying, even in the choice of word and structure, this is what you need to know, this is what I need to know, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world should be, this is me, urgent and alive. I want to talk to you. (10)

 

 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, trans. Robert S. Haller, Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 1973.

Atwood, Margaret. Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Barbour, Douglas. “Lyric / Anti-lyric:  Some Notes About a Concept” in Line, Vol. I, No. 3, Spring 1984, Burnaby:  Simon Fraser University, 45-63.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York:  Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption, Philadelphia, Singing Horse, 1987.

Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology, Toronto: Couch House Press, 1984.

Dyck, Ed, ed. Essays on Saskatchewan Writing, Regina:  SWG, 1986.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl:  original draft facsimile, transcript & variant versions, fully annotated by the author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts & bibliography, ed. Barry Miles, New York:  Harper Perennial, 1986.

Lemon, Lee T. and Ries, Marion J. Russian Formalist Essays, Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 1965.

Newlove, John. Black Night Window, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

—, ed. Canadian Poetry:  The Modern Era, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Cave, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart,1970.

The Fatman: Selected Poems 1962 – 1972, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

The Green Plain, Lantzville:  Oolichan, 1981.

Lies, Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Moving in Alone. Lantzville:  Oolichan, 1965.

—“Moving in Alone”, Caroline Heath Lecture, 18 November 1989.

The Night the Dog Smiled, Toronto:  ECW, 1986.

A Long Continual Argument:  The Selected Poems of John Newlove, ed. Robert McTavish, Ottawa:  Chaudiere, 2007.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays, New York:  New Directions, 1968.

Russell, D. A. and Winterbottom, Dr. M., Classical Literary Criticism, Oxford:  OUP, 1989.

Zukofsky, Louis. “A”, Berkeley: UCP, 1978.

—A Test of Poetry, New York:  Jargon / Corinth, 1964.

Prophecy in Reverse: a notice of The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy

The Relevance of Romanticism

Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.

Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.

In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.

It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose

consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)

The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language:  from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.

The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology:  Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.

The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes

We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)

Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.

Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.