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Moving Words, Forms of English Poetry by Derek Attridge (OUP)

Moving Words, Forms of English Poetry by Derek Attridge (OUP)

‘What we mean by the power of poetry is itself far from clear. For a particular reader, caught in the contingencies of space and time, and guided by expectation, training, and ideology, only a few poems, perhaps, will seduce or explode with that full force of which poetry is capable; but those that do so pose a challenge to our accounts of language, of meaning, and of action that we are a long way from meeting.’

These words from the introduction to this highly readable account of how poems are capable of conveying powerful emotions through the exploitation of the resources of language set the scene. This book is about prosody and it is never dry; that is because Professor Attridge is concerned with sharing with us his fascination with the way in which we can be moved by what poetry we read. He starts with the anecdotal, a reminiscence from his own school days when he first came across the principles of Latin scansion and discovered that ‘what looked and sounded like a random arrangement of words into lines could, after mastering a few rules, be shown to be anything but random.’

When giving an account of how he came to choose the topic for his Ph.D thesis Professor Attridge points to his enjoyment of the short lyric in English, and his fascination with its flowering in the Elizabethan period. He also points us to an acknowledgement of the ‘remarkable Cambridge lectures of Jeremy Prynne’ before telling us that his proposal involved a comparison of Renaissance poetic theory with poetic practice, ‘starting with a detailed discussion of late sixteenth-century poetic treatises.’

Prynne reappears in this book and there is a fascinating account given of the poem, ‘Their catch-up is slow and careful’, from the 1993 collection Not-You. The author has chosen this short piece, composed of two four-line stanzas with rhyme, as a comparison with Don Paterson’s ‘Correctives’, from his collection Rain, another eight-line lyrical piece. The detailed comparison is fascinating and if I were still in the classroom I would present my sixth-formers with this juxtaposition of two such different poets. The comparison is bold and successful; it also presents to us that close examination of language which is a central aspect to the world of Practical Criticism. A useful comparison here might also be the notes Prynne made to his eight-line poem, ‘Listening To All’, in preparation for a seminar down at the University of Sussex early on this year.

Derek Attridge’s Moving Words is an important book and it should be read by all aspiring poets! Within the next few months Shearsman will be publishing Andrew Crozier’s PhD thesis, ‘Free Verse as Formal Restraint: an alternative to metrical conventions in twentieth century poetic structure’ and this will make an interesting companion piece to Moving Words. Crozier’s opening sentence in the introduction also sets a scene:

‘My intention in writing this thesis has been to cast some light on the prima facie case that free verse, in abandoning the exercise of metre, has abandoned that principle of restraint upon which the creation of artistic form depends.’

Ian Brinton 17th September 2014

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