The Resistance to Poetry
James Longenbach
University of Chicago Press, $25 (cloth)

According to the provocative thesis of James Longenbach’s most recent study, “for centuries, poems have resisted themselves more strenuously than they have been resisted by the culture receiving them.” But perhaps the most striking thing about The Resistance to Poetry is Longenbach’s own resistance to the clichés of poststructuralist literary theory as it has unfolded over the last 30 years. Longenbach acknowledges yet refuses to adhere to poststructuralist orthodoxy, paving the way for a new theoretical approach that integrates various aspects of deconstruction, dialogic criticism, New Historicism, and reader-response theory while reviving a traditional, New Critical attentiveness to the nuances of poetic language. At times Longenbach approaches a deconstructionist point without taking the conclusion to its extreme, as in his chapter on how the language of poetry offers us “a freedom to forget ourselves.” Here he claims that “to utter one word is inevitably to be distracted by its relationship to other words—to enter the space of untidy activity,” but he implicitly rejects the well-worn notion of the text as an open play of linguistic difference with no determinate meaning. Elsewhere Longenbach assails the very foundations of familiar poststructuralist assertions, as when he quotes two contemporary New Historicist readings of Wordsworth’s“Tintern Abbey” only to subvert them in the next paragraph by arguing that both interpretations are the result of “using evidence to fabricate a missing world of historical context and authorial motivation.” Longenbach reveals his affinities with reader-response critics when, in his concluding chapter, he claims that “the wonder of language depends less on meaning than on the ways in which itmeans, the shape of the temporal process we negotiate in the act ofreading or writing a poem.” The author’s subtle precision as a close reader bolsters his argument as he ranges from Callimachus toJorie Graham to substantiate his claims. By alternately embracing and eschewing critical trends, Longenbach has created a work that may be greeted with surprise in some literary circles, but which will enhance our understanding of poetry more than any book in recent years.