Letters to the World: A Poet Turns His Words Into Song

The fact that much of contemporary American poetic practice is derived from British Romanticism should come as no surprise. We might think of, for example, William Wordsworth’s elevation of plainspoken diction — the “language really spoken by men,” as he put it in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads — or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dictum of “the best words in their best order.” We might also think of the longevity of what the Romanticist M.H. Abrams famously called the “greater Romantic lyric,” whose “determinate speaker in a particularized […] setting […] achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem.” Sound familiar? But what would American poetry look like if it had followed not the better-known poetics of British Romanticism but the theoretical foundations of early German Romanticism? Any answer to this question would have to reckon with Andrew Joron’s dazzling new collection The Absolute Letter (Flood Editions, 2017), which integrates the polymathic thinking of Novalis into a sophisticated poetic praxis. Joron’s book opens with a preface entitled “The Argument; Or, My Novalis,” which boldly propounds that “the world itself is composed of the letters of the Absolute: anything, […]

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