Poetry's Touch: On Lyric Address

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Cornell University Press, 2003 - Literary Criticism - 180 pages

To whom does a poem speak? Do poems really communicate with those they address? Is reading poems like overhearing? Like intimate conversation? Like performing a script? William Waters pursues these questions by closely reading a selection of poems that say "you" to a human being: to the reader, to the beloved, or to the dead. In any account of reading lyric poetry, Waters argues, there will be places where the participant roles of speaker, intended hearer, and bystander melt together or away; these are moments of wonder.Looking both at poetry's "you" and at how readers encounter it, Waters asserts that poetic address shows literature pressing for a close relation with those into whose hands it may fall. What is at stake for us as readers and critics is our ability to acknowledge the claims made on us by the works of art with which we engage. In second-person poems, in a poem's touch, we may come to see why poetry matters to us, and how we, in turn, come to feel answerable to it. Poetry's Touch takes as a central thread the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, a writer whose work is unusually self-conscious about poetic address. The book also draws examples from a gamut of European and American poems, ranging from archaic Greek inscriptions to Keats, Dickinson, and Ashbery.


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This slim volume, totalling only 180 pages, is the single finest reflection on poetry that I have read, in a lifetime of interest in literary matters. I am astonished to discover that I am the first to reviw it here. I bought the book in January 2004. on its initial (2003) publication, just as I was preparing my own first book of poems for publication. I have now read it several times, deeply engaged by its close and sensitive reading of poets whose won work I have long found strong and shaping of my own approach to prosody, such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Emily Dickinson. 'To whom does a poem speak?' Waters asks and proceeds to examine this question with exquisitve delicacy and insight - addressing all those of us who both read anbd write poetry. From his discussion of the matter, I found the observations by Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam that are the keynotes in ym introduction to my own latest book of poems; in which the Preface begins with the brief sentence - as lapidary as Waters' opening question - 'This book is addressed to you.' Read his book. You'll never think of poetry quite the same way again. 


Poems Addressing Contemporaries
Address as Greeting Address as Spell
The Continuance of Poems Monument and Mouth
HandWriting and Readerly Intimacy

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About the author (2003)

William Waters is Associate Professor of German at Boston University.

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