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John Lennard. The Poetry Handbook; A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism

(2nd edition)
Caroline BERTONÈCHE
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John LENNARD. The Poetry Handbook; A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism. Oxford University Press, 2006, 418 pp., €17.53, ISBN 0199265380

Texte intégral

1When he prefaces the new edition of his Poetry Handbook, John Lennard deplores the fact that “reviewers ignore textbooks” (xiii). It is our purpose here to prove him wrong. Not only does any textbook deserve proper reviewing, but this one in particular, since it reflects on the hardships of all acts of criticism. The critical topic at stake is an age-old conundrum, that of teaching or learning how to read and understand poetry. As he embarks on this slippery endeavour, the author stays lucid and offers several bits of practical guidance while remaining quite aware, all along, of the task at hand: “Teaching the practical criticism of poetry at several universities, and talking to students about their previous teaching, has made me sharply aware of how little consensus there is about the subject” (xxi).

2For Lennard, indeed, speaks from experience: he is a literature professor, this is his second edition and he knows better than to let the ambitious critic take over. His creed is primarily one of humble efficiency. However, we should not mistake his lack of pretension for a lack of rigour. First, because Lennard succeeds in being as exhaustive as he can possibly be within the confined space of the textbook whose “value,” he says, “lay substantially in its brevity and brisk tones” (xiv); also because he never ceases to remind us – and we agree – the importance of the poems themselves, urging the reader to always keep the texts of reference nearby. His Poetry Handbook, the second element of a poetic diptych, therefore works only as a comforting guide, a helpful companion to a larger anthology of poems, in this case, the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry (2004). To paraphrase one of Austen's notoriously eponymous expressions, binary as always, good “sense” requires a preliminary initiation to poetic “sensibility”. Thus Lennard is well aware, as should his reader, that before uniting both ends, textual feeling should prevail, while critical reflexes are to be developed slightly after, and not the other way around.

3In addition, Lennard's bold project celebrates the fairly recent and rewarding partnership between internet and literature, thereby insisting on the correlative nexus between the visual and written aspects of poetry. The chapter  glossaries and its clusters of old and modern vocabulary words are here to corroborate this uncanny rapprochement: the traditional “pastiche” or familiar “ro(u)ndeau” meets the strangely innovative, technological devices of the “mise en écran” or “photoquotation”. And is it not fitting that an e-review such as ours would take the necessary interest in the printed part of what has been globally conceived as an e-book? With its inevitable web-link, www.oup.com/uk/literature/poetry, which provides an introduction to the textbook as well as a full reproduction of the poems subject to analysis and a wide variety of selected exam essays for practice, Lennard allows his readers and literature students to take one more step into the virtual world of poetry and its many neologisms or “coinages” (xxiv, terms of Lennard's own invention): “eddress”, “metal page”, amongst others. But to be sure not to upset anyone, he provides certain old-fashioned souls — mine included — in need of physical evidence, with a colourful book cover to finger, holding together its consistent number of pages to turn frantically and annotate, in other words, with the sensual materiality of the poetry (hand)book.

4The core structure within is well put together as it favours a simple methodological display — one notion, one title — meant to best clarify a complex undertaking: “Metre, Form... Biography, Gender” (xi). To illustrate this idea, we could borrow Lennard's own words on the formal quality of Keats's poetry and apply them to him: “Given the richness of diction and imagery one might expect greater complexity of syntax, but it is a part of Keats's skill to drive a clear line of sense through such richness” (279). Of course, we might view as unfortunate certain fits of over-simplification or uncalled-for, arbitrary choices: such as the controversial “Nearing Forty” by Derek Walcott which, against all odds, Lennard had chosen as the sole guideline to his first edition and, which although now enriched with a somewhat wider group of canonical poems by Donne, Keats, Dickinson, Owen, Bishop and Hill, still seems to stand tragically out. Furthermore, we could also question the choice of what Lennard calls his “exemplary poems” and mourn the regrettable absence of a poem by Shelley or Yeats. Yet we know the author had to pick his battles and, fortunately for us, no seminal poet, neither Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare or Milton, seems to be missing from one chapter to the next. As far as the sometimes simplified mode of explanation is concerned, some may regard it as worthy of the critical anecdote, the comic note or the insignificant detail, but it nonetheless attracted as much as disturbed our attention. In a globally solemn approach to poetry, the gender-oriented and trivial-sounding sports imagery is likely to disappoint the uncompromising lovers of the sacredness of poetry; maybe even undermine a little its intellectual nobility or aesthetic supremacy, to say it in Hegelian terms. The epigraph seems to set the tone by comparing the “technical foundation” of poetry to the art of cricket. And as this in itself would not be shocking enough, the additional comparison between Keats's “numberless possibilities” of forms and patterns to the “many formations” (48) of football is! Shall we dare say that Lennard indulges in a counter-productive idiosyncrasy — a male sport fetish — of what he himself defines, in his otherwise perfect final glossary, as acts of “masculinism” against “the patriarchal imposition of emotionally repressive gender stereotyping” (376).

5However such minor slips are, without a doubt, easily forgiven as we attempt to grasp the bulk of Lennard's massive analytical work. To give just a few noteworthy examples taken from his rich portrayal of a poem's multiple features, we could mention here his plea for the “fluid” movement of poetic forms: “readers are pointedly reminded that any particular form is a tiny, temporarily frozen portion of an endlessly fluid medium, only seeming a solid object through its repeated use by different poets. It may seem easier to think of forms as fixed objects, but to do so will handicap and diminish your reading” (36); or the ultimate, albeit short and basic, homage Lennard pays to the intricate systems of historical influence or biographical implications in poetry, making sure not to isolate the texts from their contexts (290-349). Equally substantial is his sharp knowledge of literary history coupled with an awareness of the inter-structural, and not just textual, echoes between poets and poems which he never discards too quickly — i.e. the popular Spenserian stanza in Keats, Shelley and Tennyson (47), the Classical-(post)-Romantic breach (55), etc. The meta-poetic dimension as well is not without its share of questions, as when Lennard takes a closer look at the “unusual rhyme-scheme” or self-reflective experimentation of the Keatsian sonnet, “On the Sonnet” (35-36). Last but not least, our personal favourite: Lennard's rehabilitation of the important criteria of layout and punctuation. Helen Vendler, renowned advocate of formal significance when it comes to manuscript choices of poetic presentation in her celebrated Odes of John Keats (1998), would unquestionably approve, as we do, of the symbolic value Lennard sees in an “eisthetic” description of Keats's “Ode on Melancholy” (183). Or, we might add, the effect stanza indentation has on the ode's rhyme scheme, like in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” (83), and its numerous imperatives in terms of poetic enjambment. Finally, his treatment of punctuation is as exemplary as it is surprisingly exhilarating, bringing more “syntactical turns” to light and making us yield to the hitherto uncommon temptation of “try[ing] Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale” attending to semi-/colons” (116). “You'll be surprised,” notes Lennard, quite rightly!

6Overall, Lennard achieves his goal when minutely dissecting poetry for better comprehension of the hidden anatomy of poems. Yet, the author is always conscious of the risks he takes in trying to reconcile so formally the stylistics of reading with, in Barthes's words, the “pleasure of the text”. For the mystery remains as to whether there is a guide to pleasure, poetic or other, and some kind of logic to artistic appreciation. Lennard himself quotes Mark Twain on this when he writes, at the end of his “Introduction”, that humour, like poetry, resembles a frog: “you can dissect it but it tends to die in the process” (xxv). Should we, as he does, disagree and preach for the sublime virtues of a heightened pleasure extracted from the pains of analytical scrutiny? Most certainly, but with a few additional concerns. When teaching poetry, needless to say that to find the metaphor or metonymy, the bathos or chiasmus, is of no further use if one does not know what to do with it. Lennard gives his student readership some hints, but not always. The question of the dynamics of interpretation is as central here, it seems, as that of poetic education, namely learning how to read between the lines or beyond the structure, to welcome poems in both their topographical and typographical acceptations. The poetry neophyte should also bear in mind that some of the valuable secrets of great verse lie less in the transparency of a pre-defined reading than in the perversity of more obscure misreadings. There is genius in the realm of poetic “misprision”, says the influential critic Harold Bloom when quoting Shakespeare in his Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1997), or plenty to learn in the nooks and crannies of a poet's mind and its unexplained anxieties. However, in the young reader's early poetic discovery, such a firsthand book as Lennard's certainly comes in handy to get another  “living hand” — one last Keatsian image — in this both corporeal and theoretical art we like to call poetry.

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Caroline BERTONÈCHE, « John Lennard. The Poetry Handbook; A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 7, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 24 avril 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/331

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