Neil Corcoran's new book considers the kinds of responsibility which some exemplary modern lyric poetry takes on, or to which it makes itself subject – social, cultural, political, aesthetic and personal. It treats its theme in British, Irish and American poets and in some influential foreign-language poets available in influential English translations. The book discusses the poetry of the First World War and the Cold War in such poets as Owen, Rosenberg, Pasternak, Zbigniew Herbert and Robert Lowell; the poetry and politics of modern Ireland in Yeats, MacNeice, Heaney and others; and poetry's relations with prose, painting and song in poets including Frank O'Hara, Ted Hughes and Bob Dylan. It focuses particularly on forms of modern elegy. Poetry & Responsibility includes such topics as: the conflicting impulses in Owen between his obligations as a soldier and as a poet; Yeats's gradual creation of one of his greatest poems out of his responsibilities as an Irish schools inspector; Heaney's requirement that poetry make an 'apology' for itself; O'Hara's deployment of a camp sensibility in the interests of writing a politics of 1950s Black American culture; Herbert's rewriting of Hamlet as a reading of Warsaw Pact Poland; and the political and aesthetic significance of Dylan's restless self-revision. The book argues that exemplary modern lyric poetry can be shown to resist various forms of accommodation or appropriation. In its strategies of opposition, it becomes what Auden calls it in his elegy for Yeats: 'A way of happening, a mouth.'
A beautifully written, immensely knowledgeable and highly readable volume of reflections on 20th century poetry, with an emphasis on the Irish poets Neil Corcoran knows so well and of whom he is a leading expert. Every essay bristles with new apercus, is shapely and penetrating, and has rich and varied ways of engaging with the many poems and poets under consideration.
Whatever the audience for poetry criticism may be today, this is the kind of book it needs: wide-ranging, eloquent, and a model of intellectual responsibility.
There is an excellent essay on Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’, which gives an impressive rundown of the history of clashing readings that this most mysterious of poems has provoked.
Adam Hanna, Year's Work in English Studies
Year's Work in English Studies