First off, I think this is a good book to argue, feel and think against. There are some highly perceptive close readings here of the likes of O’Hara, Graham and Guest. What’s missing is any overt theory or credo, so for instance nary a mention of Language poetry or the Movement. Wilkinson does not try hard to justify his candidates for reading, intimating for instance that he was quite taken by Shelley’s poetry, of which disapproved, while at high school (p2) Wilkinson maintains that he perceives a need to think and respond ‘ahistorically’, although some enterprising student might be able to put together a chronology. There is little here earlier than Shelley and the choices are highly individualist. A near contemporary WS Graham is one bellwether.
There is nonetheless a kind of tacit theory here. Wilkinson is aware, for instance of Drew Milne’s radical ecopoetry, what’s been dubbed a ‘lichen Marxism’. Wilkinson takes on this notion of ecopoetic grounding, and feels we need to attach poetry to the breath, where Olson comes up, and the stony, wherein we have Adrian Stokes. An empathy say for old stones might seem elusive and inconsequential, but Wilkinson I’d say just about makes a case for it. Stone is the most intransigent and ingrained aspect of landscape.
As signposters each chapter, of ten, comes with a prefatory summary. Chapters 1 and 10 probably provide the better all round guidance. This at times can veer to the haphazard as, eg, what does Barbara Guest have to do with Frank O’Hara or Adrian Stokes, other than that they have caught John Wilkinson’s astute, if sometimes fervid imagination?
It is in Chapter 10 I think that one finds Wilkinson getting closer to staking out his perspective and inclinations, as –
‘The silence of the text prepares for the poem’s voice. As for my voice it will be engulfed in the event, in the ‘abstract act’, as act is engulfed in abstraction and as abstraction gives rise to act. Such coming-together…’ (p234)
Needless to say, Wilkinson is foremostly a poet, and quite an accomplished, challenging one before turning his hand to criticism or essay. The book in a sense joins other efforts by noted poet critics to establish their prerogative or world view, from Eliot’s Selected Essays to Auden’s Secondary Worlds to Davie’s Under Briggflatts to Geoffrey Hill’s Critical Writings. I might suggest that Wilkinson is less the traditionalist, more the progressive, with his Cambridge school leanings, and that on a certain level he has occupied and demarcated ground that is beyond these estimable precursors, albeit that he is unwilling to venture any chronological analysis or synthesis, but that then may be highly symptomatic of these global times we live in.
Strangely I sometimes feel as if I’ve been there, and certainly Marjorie Perloff set about a thorough critique of O’Hara that no doubt exceeds this in its depth and range of comprehension. But on the other hand one would not catch Perloff discussing Shelley nor probably WS Graham in quite this way.
Wilkinson, I tend to feel, is mapping out a space, a hopefully reliable space, from which we can view and apprise ourselves of developments in ecopoetry and lyric poetry. The sheer depth of range is foolish to dismiss. If Wilkinson is right such notions as dwelling or territory are apt to become more relevant even than they have been. Not just stony ground, but for the ‘breath’, wherein we have the instigation of Olson’s Projective Verse allied to place through myth. I’d say then that this is vital poetic criticism, quite at the cutting edge as much as anything comparable that might complement or counter it. Careful reading I’d say definitely leads to a sometimes searching reconsideration of what it is that we want or expect our poetry to do.
Clark Allison May 21st 2021