Addressing subjects as wide-ranging as angelology, the court masque, pop art, caricature, the cult of the ruin, hip-hop, Spenser's Irish policy, and the aesthetics of silence, Brian McHale pulls varied threads together to identify a repertoire of postmodernist elements characteristic of the long poems he examines.
As critic Jed Rasula explains, "McHale is wonderfully resourceful in changing the subject from chapter to chapter to fit the poems discussed, and while his approach adheres to the conventions of textual exegesis, the chapters really shine as orchestrations of issues. For instance, James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover
works unexpectedly well in raising the subject of found poetry and procedural composition; Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery
and Edward Dorn's Gunslinger
are effectively paired to demonstrate the period flavor of pastiche; Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns
and Armand Schwerner's The Tablets
explode the modernist fixation with depth; John Ashbery's work is given a nuanced reading as proto-theory; Letter to an Imaginary Friend
by Thomas McGrath provides a lucid backdrop to raise the question of political efficacy in approaching language poet Bruce Andrews; and Susan Howe's The Europe of Trusts
is explored for its intertextual tapestry."
McHale shows how elements from these long poems overlap, interfere, pull in different directions, jar against, and even contradict each other; and he demonstrates how they also echo, amplify, and reinforce each other. They do not slot smoothly together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but they do form (what else?) a difficult whole.
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