A Vertical Art: On Poetry

Simon Armitage. Princeton Univ, $22.95 trade paper (376p) ISBN 978-0-69123-310-9

English poet laureate Armitage (Magnetic Field) gathers the lectures he delivered as Oxford Professor of Poetry from 2015 to 2019 in this solid compendium covering Walt Whitman, Claudia Rankine, Ted Hughes, and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, among others. While Armitage’s touchstones are often classical, he is skilled at weaving in references to contemporary cultural, as in “The Parable of the Solicitor and the Poet,” in which he explores poetry’s “standing in this world” via a parable about a poet dealing with insurance claims (and makes a detour into the drawbacks of reading on a Kindle device, specifically its inability to recreate a book’s “satisfying materiality”). Armitage is at his best in essays that range across the form to explore broader themes, as in “Access All Areas,” which examines poetry on death and the underworld via the work of Geoffrey Hill, Elizabeth Jennings, and Jon Stallworthy. Best of all is the coda; in 95 “theses,” Armitage reflects on modern poetry. Among the gems there are the descriptions of poetry as the “semiconductor of language, regulating both flow and restraint” and as the source of a“legal high.” Poetry students and fans will enjoy the ride. (May)
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