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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Guest Review: Dekker On Williams


Nikki Dekker reviews
by Nerys Williams

Nerys Williams’ Contemporary Poetry is a difficult book to finish. To be fair, textbooks are hardly suited to be ploughed through cover-to-cover, but Contemporary Poetry is an especially demanding read. Every page contains at least two references to a poet (not simple theoretical footnotes, but enthusiastic endorsements of their work). With these frequent mentions and tangents, the reader is likely to leave for the library every other page, effectively being stuck with this book for months.

And what a way to be stuck. In six chapters, Williams sketches the scenery of contemporary poetry in great detail. At the end of the book, one will be fit to distinguish between the different directions and underlying poetics of contemporary work – which is, after all, the reason I personally wanted to read it. As a young poet writing in her second language, I am insufficiently schooled in the Anglophonic tradition as well as unaware of the current poetic climate. Contemporary Poetry takes care of both problems. Williams details the current situation from a theoretical background firmly rooted in the English and American canon.

The aim of the book, as detailed in its introduction, is to go beyond a simple collection of contemporary work - that’s what anthologies are for. Williams wishes to familiarize students with debates, ideas and movements surrounding contemporary poetry. The first half of the book deals mostly with its foundation: discussing the lyrical subject, politics and performance, it focuses mostly on 20th century movements. The second half of the book details our contemporary literary environment, for instance eco-criticism and multilingualism.

Williams has a keen interest in poetics, which she gathers from manifestoes and informal interviews, and relates to larger models of thought. It seems self-evident that lyrical subjectivism can’t be discussed without a mention of Barthes, but to include Lefebvre in the poetics of nature, or Lacan within the reflection on language, is surely to go beyond the bare minimum of theoretical support. The insightful research underlying Contemporary Poetry really makes the book worthwhile – especially since these philosophical backgrounds are both short and relatively easy to understand.

Contemporary Poetry is a textbook. While each chapter details a network of relating subjects and theories, it is concluded in a handful of scholastic ‘key points’ such as

“Poetic travelogues offer a further perspective on identity, community and environment”[1] and
“Poetry has a political role in excavating past histories and granting articulation to silenced voices.”[2]

These general summaries hardly relate to the detailed and nuanced arguments they are said to conclude. Instead, it would have been more helpful to reiterate the bigger picture: how do the different roles and perspectives relate to each other? The book often goes off on a tangent, and the student may need some guidance putting the pieces together.

On the other hand, the lack of generalizing statements and birds-eye conclusions is the great strength of this book. Williams always starts from the contemporary work itself and sticks to logical observations. This is not to say that the content of this book is predictable – to the contrary, it is very original, widening the perspective on poetry. When discussing the notion of performance, Williams quickly moves beyond slam poetry to discuss the visual performance on the page and the way a poem can ‘perform’ (see Judith Butler) with irony and mimicry. The focus in all these instances is not on the poet, as performance is commonly understood, but on lingual performance. 

While it could be read as a formalist, language-oriented study, Contemporary Poetry does not shy away from politics and their relation to literature. The book appreciates the poetic variety globalism has introduced in poetry, while never losing sight of its colonial history. Williams does not romanticize the historical events and details the embedded power inequities in international poetries. I personally found her chapter on Multilingual Poetries the most compelling. It considers “bilingualism as a sort of simultaneity in the writing”[3], linking it to the politics of everyday: “the co-existence of cultural models within the same society, and the internal multiplicity of personality”[4].

In comparison, Williams’ conclusion on ‘electronic writing’ seems a bit insufficient. While it defines electronic writing as digitally ‘born’, it fails to consider the younger demographic of poets who have actually ‘grown up’ online. It might have been interesting to consider the differences between paper writing (definite, concrete, static) and electronic writing (fragile, intangible, dynamic), or the online interaction between different languages. While the book is focused on Anglophone writing, it seems unreasonable to extend that focus to the online realm, which readily provides translation and “enables a mass audience and speedy dissemination.”[5]

Contemporary Poetry is rigidly focused on the poetic work – and it ought to be praised for that. It offers a perspective on contemporary poetry as a genre, practice and theory. This book transcends the standard anthology by examining poetics and relating these to philosophical concerns, thereby enhancing the student’s understanding of both craft and art. As Lyn Heijinian’s observed: “theory asks what practice does and in asking, it sees the connections that practice makes.”[6] This is precisely how Contemporary Poetry works: it offers ideas, effectively inspiring further reading and writing.


Nikki Dekker is an MA poet at Kingston University, who holds a BA in Literary Theory from the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). She blogs at http://nikkidekker.com.



[1] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 165
[2] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 92
[3] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 188.
[4] Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Bilingualism, Dialogism and Schizophrenia’ in Williams, page 188.
[5] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 208.
[6] Nerys Williams, ‘ContemporaryPoetry’, page 6.
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