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Voices in the Cave of Being


In a book-review years ago, the distinguished Americanist Edward Wagenknecht called John Fraser’s panoramic America and the Patterns of Chivalry (1983) “a brilliant and utterly absorbing work,” and said, “None, I think, can read his book without profit, and certainly nobody will be bored.” Voices from the Cave of Being, Fraser’s fourth new book on this site, is also not boring.

Wide-ranging, candid, slyly funny at times, Voices is a jargon-free voyage of discovery (partly self-discovery) through that mysterious region called “reading.” Being a reader of poetry, as presented here, is much more than sitting at a table examining texts. It includes the childhood thrills of poetic language, youthful poetry-writing, the personal associations of individual poems, grateful acknowledgments of indebtedness to other critics, a readiness to get involved with matters of principle.

Partisan, yes, personal certainly, and willing to show how much a respectable academic (Fraser wrote the original Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics article on twentieth-century American and British poetics) doesn’t know, and how he goes about trying to find out more, and why he refuses to be intimidated by the academic pop-rock group “Theory and The Experts.”

With the recognition that while at times you may want to go deep, you must also be prepared to go wide (diffidently, impatiently, even, shudders, arrogantly), and then try and refine on your hunches. Which made for genuine, free-form, heuristic dialogue in the poetry seminar on “Traditionalism and Experimentation in Poetry, 1880-1920” that Fraser offered during two decades.

He explores the thrill of form, is sceptical about “organic unity” (while loving poems with energized start-to-finish development), re-complicates the idea of a “text,” and has things to say about classicism, romanticism, “concreteness,” metaphors and idioms, style shifts in poetic modernism, anthology-making, drugs and “inspiration,” recording poetry, types of Symbolist obscurity, the pronunciation of Chaucer, and much more.

The section A New Book of Verse is a major achievement. It consists of the table of contents of a conceptual Web book— a rich new canon of formal poems, largely British and American, but including remarkable French and German ones for purposes of comparison, with links to a lot of on-line texts—together with an Introduction and Notes.

Among the piquant juxtapositions in Voices are free-verse and the frisbee, Kafka and aeroplanes, Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 as a country-and-western, F.R. Leavis as an English André Breton, Rimbaud and seventeenth-century French wallpaper, snooker and the concept of genius.

At the centre of the book are loving, detailed, jargon-free commentaries on almost forty poems that have particularly affected him over the years, in which he is trying to figure out, as much for himself as for others, what it is in their stanza-by-stanza progression and subtle metrical emphases that has made them speak to him so intimately.

The articles “Powers of Style” and “Language and Being” come close to being an informal manifesto on behalf of humanistic reading, whether inside or outside the academy. As does, indeed, Voices as a whole.

Also included are twenty digitally remastered recordings of poems, selected from the many made by members of his seminar over the years.

Reviewing Violence in the Arts (1974) in the Spectator, Charles Marowitz called Fraser’s “an extremely agile and incessantly active mind which illuminates almost every subject it touches.” For cooler information, see About the author and About this site.

“This lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

Geoffrey Chaucer.


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