Global Poetics: Reactive and Relational (on Jahan Ramazani’s Poetry in a Global Age; Walt Hunter’s Forms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization; and Édouard Glissant’s Treatise on the Whole-World, translated by Celia Britton)

The emergence of the term global poetics has had a belated beginning in the Anglophone world. Only recently have scholars, most of whom were trained at the University of Virginia, used this term to place poetry within a global frame. For much of the past two decades, debates surrounding what has been called “world literature” have dominated national conversations within the fields of Anglophone and comparative literatures, circulating around questions of agency, access, and complicity within and against world-spanning systems of exchange and oppression. Their horizon of both possibility and resistance has coalesced against what Aamir Mufti has called “one world thinking,” in which fantasies of a global whole become at once “continuous” and “traversable” to the detached position of scholarship. The point of contention in these conversations is the question of who has access to such sweeping abstractions and toward which ends they may lead. At once too general in scale and too narrowly posed within the confines of academia, the close connection between the terms “world” and “literature” has seemed to many to foreclose as many interpretive and political possibilities as it has left open.

These conversations are themselves nothing new. The relationship between poetry and world-making has been fleshed out by Anglophone poets and scholars from Philip Sidney onwards. As professional readers of poetry have consistently pointed out (Sidney among them), the English word poetics is derived from the Ancient Greek poiein, which simply refers to the act or process of making. The modalities of poetry that hinge on this fictive status, its relation to the given world, and its perceived power to change its environment have captivated and concerned Western critics since Plato. A similar foundational affinity also exists between poetry and world literature. It was as a student of the Persian poet Hafiz’s work that Goethe urged his younger contemporaries to seek after Weltliteratur as a “universal possession of mankind.” In a very different context, a century later, poets such as Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire worked to articulate a transnational, if not global, idea of Black poetics that would combat centuries of colonial dispossession. What, then, are the stakes of articulating a specifically global poetics at a time when the aesthetic and generic categories that have sustained each term strain under the weight of a present that so often appears to exceed literary representation? 

This line of questioning serves as the basis of recent contributions to the field of global poetics by Jahan Ramazani, one of its founders, whose new book is the third text in a loose trilogy on the subject, and Walt Hunter, a member of an emerging generation of scholars who seek to put Anglophone poetry in a global context. Although published first, Hunter’s Forms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization (2019) often feels like a response to Ramazani’s Poetry in a Global Age (2020). Having studied at the University of Virginia under Ramazani, Hunter accepts the terms of this field at the same time that he raises their political stakes and heightens their tensions. For both authors, the turn to the global elucidates how poetry is read both within and without institutions. Likewise, both use the “global” as a shorthand for how to introduce their readers to the globalized connections between poems and their literary traditions that may not be readily apparent to the untrained reader. This is how Ramazani has explained his recourse to this term in his edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (2003). Acknowledging the difficulties of producing a global literature, doing so becomes for Ramazani a way of tracking the movement of poems across time and space. In this way, the “global” refers to the rich cross-pollination that makes it difficult to fix the authors whose work constitutes the categories of modern and contemporary poetry within a set of national boundaries. Whereas the term “world” may hinge upon too neat a relationship between the poet, their tradition, and geographic place, the “global” embodies the fractured framing that anchors Ramazani’s definition of modernity. Offering a means by which to periodize the texts that he anthologizes, Ramazani makes the globalization of poetry constitute the ground of the last two centuries of poetic production. 

Offering a clear articulation of how he would go on to use the term global, Ramazani opens this anthology with readings of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins as “giants at the threshold” of the “modern.” In doing so, he sketches a dialectic of the global and those authors who are best suited to grasp its complex immensity. In limning the ways these key authors have reacted to the global, Ramazani has Whitman represent a universal perspective that “broke the bonds of conventional prosody” by claiming a transcendental “we” that transformed him and his poetry into a “human archetype.” Offering a roughly contemporaneous counterpoint to Whitman, Dickinson serves as a poet of the infinitely minute. From the position of what Ramazani calls “extreme compression,” Dickinson instantiates a radically personal perspective through which modernity’s global totality appears in microcosm. Hopkins mediates between these two vantage points with the innovation of sprung rhythm, which Ramazani tells us comes close to capturing “the unpredictable ebb and flow of experience” within modernity. With these small-scale readings, Ramazani displays a philosophic elegance typical of his work and sets the conditions for his ongoing writing on the global through which poetry holds the universal and particular in a delicate tension. 

In Poetry in a Global Age, Ramazani builds on this earlier work and argues that the particularity of the relationship between poem and environment cannot be understood without reference to the global totality of which it is a particular instant. Ramazani anchors this argument at the book’s beginning with a brief reading of the essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, focusing on how it reflects the planetary scales of production and consumption enfolded in an item as quotidian as a writing implement. Through the course of the book’s preamble, Ramazani brings the ontological thought of Bruno Latour to the fore in order to argue for the interpenetration of time and matter in the space opened up by a poem. This is Ramazani’s strategy for reading poetry throughout. In the course of his argument, we move from the wreckage of the First World War to the dialectic between local and global; poetry’s relationship to tourism; careful, chapter-length readings of canonical modernists; and reflections on language and translation that move finally to an epilogue on the lyric. As throughout his career, Ramazani’s concern is how poetry allows its readers to experience the conflicts and possibility of global community transformed through the course of the twentieth century. 

Drawing a contrast with this work, Hunter’s Forms of a World builds his reading of largely contemporary poetry upon the synthesis of economistic Marxism and world-systems theory, associated with the intellectual output of publications like Commune and Post45. Adding a welcome attention to prosody and genre to this body of work, Hunter has authored a politically committed and much-needed defense of poetry in an era defined by neoliberal claims to the “global commons.” Drawn to the philosophic nuances of Marxist thought, Hunter is just as adept at tying changes in poetic form to shifts in the world economy since 1973 as he is in connecting the implications of these transformations to the aesthetics of a foundational Western thinker like Hegel. In expounding the relationship between the “I” and the “we” that poetry negotiates, Hunter leaps over, but also returns to, the roots of Western Marxism in the twentieth century. His challenging but necessary intervention throughout is to emphasize the forms of collectivity that may survive what he posits as the eschatological half-life of the Anthropocene’s absolute “finality.” 

Although these two images of the global may seem at odds with one another, they come together in a defense of the lyric that renders it as an exemplary site of reaction and resistance to the demands generated by such a frame. For both authors, poetry succeeds where it exposes, or otherwise manifests, the inner workings of a totality that precedes and enables its illuminating force. As Hunter writes in the first page of his new book, he “brings together a group of poets who not only make the violence of global processes visible thematically, but also renew performatively the missing conditions for intervening within these processes.” This tension between perception and politics pervades his analysis of poetry and its future. Unresolved by the end of Forms of a World, the impasse between these two poles forms the crux of its conclusion that the poems under consideration “claim a place between critical thought and action.” 

Despite the urgency of Hunter’s argument, this aspect of his work falls into an old impasse in the Anglo-American study of poetry—one common in the return to formalism, whose coordinates run through both books. Older still is the division between form and content that remains implicit in this dichotomy between poetic agency and passivity. This relation is articulated clearly in Caroline Levine’s influential manifesto, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2017). For her, form is nothing other than the process of “ordering, patterning, and shaping” otherwise inert masses of objects that serve as its raw material. Similarly, in her recent effort to bridge world-systemic Marxism and the new formalism she has helped to develop, Anahid Nersessian has drawn a “disconnect” between bare “experience” and the process of “expression” in poetry. These moments of rupture offer distinctive vantage points from which to see, or disavow, form as a minimal state of affairs that, nevertheless, contains multitudes within its articulation. What anchors each critical perspective is a relationship between reader and text in which the former finds a point of breakage within the latter that must be sutured into wholeness again. In its expository power, form becomes the origin and endpoint of literature as reflected in the critic’s eye. 


It is from the site of form that the act of seeing what a poem reveals orders both Hunter’s and Ramazani’s books. For Ramazani, the dominant metaphor of looking at a poem is the Google Map. In particular, Ramazani is interested in the Poetry Atlas, an interactive map upon which red pins indicate poetry about a particular location. Pointing out the limitations of such a project in its over-representation of Western poetry and attempts to impose a singularity of place upon poems that refuse such categorization, Ramazani demands a better form of mapping. This poetic cartography would hyperlink the warp and weave of place that forms the structure of a poem like Claude McKay’s “The Tropics in New York.” In doing so, it would demonstrate what he sees as the “translocality” of space within a poem. Showing that every poem is translocal, this map would also reveal how modern and contemporary poetics finds its essence in the global structures that permeate a poem and expand its scope beyond the confines of any one particular place. 

The limit-case that Ramazani uses to explore this imbrication is the “great house poem,” which he puts under the heading of what he calls the “loco-descriptive poem.” Transposed from the English manor to the global south, Ramazani sees this type of canonical poem as a microcosm of poetic hybridity. Building complex metaphors of vision, Ramazani argues that the great house poem “reveals the history layered in place, as also in the language and forms used to evoke it.” Here, the poem performs a kind of alchemy on its environment that allows the dark passages of its object to be made manifest for the reader. Using the example of A. K. Ramanujan’s “Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House,” Ramazani points to how the great house reveals where goods and cultural histories circulate both within and outside of India’s borders. 

True of the poems presented in this chapter, this emphasis on revelation nevertheless tends to miss how the “great house” has also worked to conceal relations of exploitation and power. Consider, for example, Ben Jonson’s well-known “To Penshurst,” in which the violence inherent in the process of enclosure is elided into scenes of rural peasants willingly bringing offerings to the Sidney family. The earthly paradise of the self-enclosed world of Penshurst offers an image of autocathonous wealth that hides the true source of the British ruling class’s property in the appropriation of land, the nascent slave trade, and their dominion over foreign possessions. With scant attention to spaces that do not appear on a map, such as the Black Atlantic, Ramazani misses how this process of poetic concealment comes to the fore in an omitted poem like Derek Walcott’s “Ruins of a Great House.” Focused on the “disjecta membra” (italics in the original) of “this Great House,” Walcott’s poem is difficult to locate, at least on a map. As Walcott pointed out in his Nobel Prize lecture, “in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts.” One of these ruined estates takes on a spectral presence that haunts the poem. To read this particular poem is not to locate where the wreckage of colonialism lies, but to work through the uncanny disjunction of past and present that follows its wake. The poem’s object of address is the unmappable damage caused by 

men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime. 

By this point in the poem, the specific place of the manor has been subsumed by a sense of violence that permeates the scene. As we are told of the fruits whose exorbitant growth no longer turns a profit, “the world’s green age then was rotting lime / Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.”

Offering a close-reading of this “text,” the poem dwells not in the dialectic between local and global, but in the Middle Passage that challenges any attempt at revelation and recuperation. In other words, the poem rejects, or at least complicates, the dichotomization of space into markers such as “here” and “there.” Whereas Ramazani’s own account of race and poetry in his introduction to a volume of New Literary History situates the poet between “identity” and “globalization,” Walcott is more interested here in how language and literature have worked to draw these lines. What murmurs beneath the surface of this poem and much of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Black poetics is a phenomenology that makes the effects of race not simply a social problem to be solved, but a living structure through which the world is both viewed and made subject to interpretation. 

To turn to a contemporary poem, left out of the scope of Ramazani’s book, Terrance Hayes structures “Antebellum House Party” with this attention to the feeling of being racialized. A poem about the act of seeing more than the place in which it occurs, this “great house poem” subverts the gaze of those who would revel in the all-too-present structural remnants of the American plantation economy. Throughout the poem, Hayes has us imagine enslaved Black bodies becoming the furniture whose construction wastes and effaces their materiality. Positioning the reader in the place of the tourist, or master, Hayes’s poem challenges its audience to see how location conceals the labor that built and sustains the plantation as attraction. As Hayes concludes the poem, “The best furniture / can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty[.] / If it remains unbroken, it lives long enough to become antique.” The poem stages a movement into history that calls into question the perspective from which the reader would contextualize its passage into the present.

To see a poem as Ramazani does is to hope for rescue and renewal. His motivation resonates as a generosity that seeks reconciliation and repair. This effort appears throughout Poetry in the Global Age in Ramazani’s attempt to salvage abstractions such as the global, Modernism, and ultimately, the lyric. These gestures are most effective when they complicate the given definitions of these terms. In the book’s most compelling chapter, “Poetry, (Un)Translatability, and World Literature,” Ramazani demonstrates how efforts to create a world literature in translation run up against the risk of domesticating and erasing the “particularities” of a poem. At his philological best, Ramazani shows that Rumi’s English-language translators have either “de-Islamicized” his devotional language or flattened the complex tonal terrain of his poetry. Throughout this chapter, Ramazani raises political and aesthetic challenges that are not easily subsumed by a global idea of lyric poetry as a universal genre. 

Here, Ramazani hews closer to earlier work such as Poetry and its Others (2013), in which the irrelation between poetic forms serves as the occasion for his analysis. However, with a novel emphasis on the lyric, the chapter ends with the hope that global poetics in translation may yet reveal “a model of world literature that will be adequate to lyric poetry.” After Ramazani has so eloquently drawn attention to the potentially irreconcilable differences in poetic language that adhere to the act of translation, it is unclear why a concept as generalizable as the lyric should anchor criteria of literary value, or serve as translation’s endpoint—much less a medium through which the conflicts and contradictions that Ramazani draws find their resolution. 

It has been the intervention of scholars such as Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, Meredith Martin, and Max Cavitch to delimit the lyric’s domain over other poetic forms. Sometimes mistaken for the search for a more adequate definition of the lyric, the methodology that these authors have articulated draws attention to kinds of community that such a large-scale term engenders and those whom it has and continues to exclude. As Jackson has recently argued, the agenda of Anglo-American Modernism’s “critical fiction of the lyric speaker” was to locate “the poem’s conversation in a fictive space in which you and I can share intimacies and priorities without having to share personal information.” This is to say that the lyric “I” always contains within it an explicit “we” formed in the act of literary address. More often than not, as these scholars have shown, lyric communities are defined by the gendered and racialized others who cannot share in the closeness of these literary connections. In emphasizing the distance between “I” and “we,” and overlooking their intimacy, Ramazani sometimes loses sight of the types of community implied by the poems he reads. 

This tendency is stark in his book’s first chapter, “ ‘Cosmopolitan Sympathies’: Poetry of the First Global War.” Ramazani begins this chapter by offering a characteristically careful reading of Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches.” Here, he focuses on the “queer sardonic rat” who serves as the poem’s subject and locates what Rosenberg calls its “cosmopolitan sympathies” both in the promiscuity of its movement between enemy lines and the language with which it is described. In terms of the latter, Ramazani views the many and varied resonances of the word “rat” as denaturalizing the nationalism with which jingoistic poetry of the First World War imbued its landscape. Instead of focusing on what divides combatants, Rosenberg draws on the meaning of a word like Ratsnlokh, which translates to “rat hole” in Rosenberg’s native Yiddish, to find in the abased materiality of soldiers a metaphor for common life. 

Less convincing is Ramazani’s attempt to find solidarity between England and Germany in Thomas Hardy’s “The Pity of It.” At the home front, Hardy reflects on the shared roots of English and German to condemn the futility of conflict between those who share this common heritage (Anglo and Saxon). Utopian in Ramazani’s reading, this hope carried with it a devastating reality that would come to fruition in the interwar years. As political theorist Adom Getachew has recently argued, such appeals to an “Anglo-Saxon inheritance justified the demands for greater self-government on behalf of settlers, prompted immigration restrictions and segregationist practices, and provided a source of racial unity in transnational projects like Greater Britain and Anglo-American union.” From this observation, she goes on to trace how the League of Nations sought a continuation of colonial policies under the auspices of a lasting world peace. 

By overlooking this homology between Hardy’s view and those of figures like Woodrow Wilson and Jan Smuts, Ramazani leaves some of the more complicated relationships between poetry and world-making underexplored. For Smuts, who helped both to charter the League of Nations and to create South Africa’s apartheid system, the relationship between poetry and global politics was readily apparent. In a point of connection that Ryland Engels has identified, it was as a student of Walt Whitman’s poetics that Smuts began to articulate his metaphysical and evolutionary concept of “holism.” A formalism in its own right, Smuts’s philosophy of wholes maintained their separate, but ostensibly equal, existence. Smuts found expression for his philosophic system in the radically paratactic lists that define Leaves of Grass. 

In that these lists appear to level the distinctions between geographic and political particulars, they enable Whitman to take the position of both defenders of slavery and advocates of its abolition in the “Poem of Many in One” of 1856. The image of the global that Smuts takes from such moments makes Whitman conform to a progressive notion of history that subsumes political conflict into a deferred and harmonious future. Reading where Ramazani unwittingly falls into these traps exposes the danger of eliding the complexity of authoring a global frame through which to read poetry. When Ramazani moves too quickly between geopolitical scales, he abandons the complexity of his own best observations. By losing the context of the terms with which he works, Ramazani transposes a term like “transnational,” which has its origins in the writing of the disabled antiwar activist Randolph Bourne, to the domain of cultural conservatives such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. 

When it comes to treatment of the last of these authors in Poetry in a Global Age, this tendency becomes especially stark. Ramazani begins his treatment of Stevens’s poetry and what he views as the poet’s ecological awareness with a detailed reading of one of the poet’s journal entries. Here, Ramazani uses Stevens’s reflections on a train ride along the Hudson River to explore technology’s role in mediating a global totality. In this reading of Stevens’s early writing, the poet’s ruminations on the immensity of nature presage the “Blue Marble” image of Earth taken by Apollo 17. In this light, the most important of Stevens’s observations, for Ramazani, is that humanity has, with respect to nature, “managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.” From Stevens’s window, nature is as empty in its immensity as it is terrifying in its “solitudes & barrens & wilds.” In the vastness of this expanse, Ramazani finds a connection to the Hudson River School of landscape painting. However, rather than pausing to unpack the complicity of this movement in perpetuating the colonizing myth of the Americas as a terra nullius, an empty space open to colonization, and its possible influence on Stevens’s poetry, Ramazani simply moves on to the next thing—a comparison of this journal passage to Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.” 

To stay with the resonances of this observation would be to follow them to the difficult privations that haunt the relationship between Stevens’s poetry and its world-making ambitions. One such moment of lack appears in a poem that Ramazani does not discuss, whose titular use of a racial epithet I will not reprint. Ending what has been called Stevens’s “second silence,” “Like Decorations in a [] Cemetery” authorizes the white poet’s speech at the expense of the Black Americans whom he evokes to denigrate in their absence. Occupying a space that Helen Vendler has described as “Jovian,” the figure of Whitman presides over the opening of the poem and personifies its overarching claim to a poetic universality. In its totalizing sweep, Whitman’s gaze forms an implicit counterpoint to the particularity of Black life and death that Stevens works to efface from the poem. A prolonged exercise in abstraction, the poem’s fifty epigrammatic stanzas move from the specter of lynching, raised by the title, to a generalized meditation on death and the passage of time. Evocative of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” “Like Decorations” imagines the poet secure in rotations of the world charted by his poetic agency. 

Reflecting on what is occluded in the uniformity of this motion, the poet Rickey Laurentiis has written their own version of the poem, “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” where images of lynching make caustic the dry irony of Stevens’s detached reflections. One of this poem’s refrains, the reflection of “History and the sudden knowledge of a history,” reminds its audience that historical distance can collapse in an instant, like the shudder snaps that break its stanzas and enact the passage of time in the poem. Laurentiis’s writing challenges the stability of Stevens’s sight and the attendant certitude that there was ever a single world for the poet to affirm, even in its passing. Rather, Laurentiis’s poem puts its emphasis on the foreclosed plenitude of the worlds ended by racialized violence. In the dialectic of sight and disavowal that they raise, Laurentiis echoes Fred Moten’s provocation: “What if looking is an accident you pass through in order to get to reading in order to arrive at looking, which is on the other side of reading?” From the perspective of his train window, then, Stevens reads as he peers, peers as he reads, a world incommensurate with his gaze.

To return to “Like Decorations,” Stevens makes his debt to the Hudson River School apparent in the poetic community he affirms. In the poem’s thirty-seventh stanza, Stevens ruminates on a uniquely American aesthetics: “John Constable they could never quite transplant / And our streams rejected the dim academy.” Rejecting the mannerism of English landscape, Stevens elevates untrammeled American streams. Nevertheless, in the next line he muses, “[g]ranted the Picts impressed us otherwise / in the taste for iron dogs and iron deer.” Here, Stevens has consummated the erasure of Indigenous life from the North American landscape and replaced it with imagery of the Picts with their iron-age representations of nature. His marked use of “us” seals the relationship between himself and his reader as one predicated on an Anglo-Saxon sense of identity and its predilections. The primitivism as kitsch that Stevens offers inscribes the poem’s visual field with a particular way of seeing where past and future mingle in the inevitability of the domination of the natural world and its discontents. 

In Ramazani’s view, such moments of recurrence should pull us deeper into Stevens’s ecological awareness. Borrowing from Timothy Morton, he tells us that Stevens’s poetry brings to life the “fearful realization of the loops within loops in which we find ourselves.” Like Whitman, a figure to whom both Ramazani’s and Hunter’s work makes decisive returns, Stevens acts as an exemplary lyric subject in his ability to see the world as unified in its diversity of forms. Yet, as we have seen, this image is sustained only by those whom it excludes—and in the case of Stevens, the poet goes so far as to tread on their remains. This is a fundamentally reactive poetics, in so far as it suggests poetry is only responsible to the world that meets the poet’s gaze and affirms its agency. To return to the teaching of poetry, it remains vital to analyze the forms of oppression that adhere to the abstractions that these ways of looking sustain. If the lyric offers students and teachers of poetry a lens through which to frame the global, and Ramazani’s work at its best helps us here, it is one whose radical partiality illuminates what is lost in the worlds eclipsed by the totalizing perspective of a poet like Stevens. 


In contrast, Hunter’s Forms of a World begins by acknowledging the difficulties of authoring something as expansive as a global poetics. Throughout the book’s introduction, Hunter establishes the guiding principle that “the concepts that we need to understand contemporary poetry simply cannot be found in traditions of thinking that reproduce discursively what poets are fighting with all their breath.” Hunter has in mind here Anthony Reed’s critique of “transhistorical” concepts like the human as imbricated in histories of racial oppression. While the “concepts” beyond those identified by Reed remain vague, Hunter urges a “geopolitical” frame through which to combat their influence on the institutionalization of poetry. Through the course of what follows, Hunter makes clear that this geopolitics forms the crux of a resistance to the racialized and gendered impact of neoliberal monetary policy, deindustrialization, falling wages, and the mass immiseration of populations that capitalism has rendered disposable. 

If the ambivalent frame of Ramazani’s book was the Google Map, then Hunter’s becomes, by the end of his work, the Hellfire Missile. In one of the book’s best passages, Hunter reads Solmaz Sharif’s Look (2016) for the various resonances of its title in both the military and civilian contexts that have shaped the contemporary Middle East. As Sharif points out at the beginning of her work, the United States Department of Defense defines “look” as the receptivity of a landmine to “influence” upon its circuitry. This tension between perception and influence gives Hunter the occasion to reflect that “ ‘look’ implies an audience or companion, exhorted to see without being told how they should see.” In Sharif’s poetry, the verb “to look’’ instantiates a dialectic between the intimacy of a lover’s glance and the impersonality of a drone’s sight. For Hunter, the epitaphic resonances that this play of love and death evokes makes Sharif’s poetry an act of testimony not only of state violence, but of the complicity of the English language in its furtherance. Coming at the end of the book, this coda makes poetry something more complex than a reaction to a category like the geopolitical. Rather, it views poetic language as a relation to power that remains plastic in its political commitments. Here, the possibility is extended that poetry does not always reflect a resistance to the given world, but may also be complicit in its justification. In his account of this book, Hunter captures the brilliance of Sharif’s visceral reportage in which whatever meaning violence can leave adheres to each and every word. 

Coming at the work’s end, this reading rewrites and reworks the main currents of the preceding chapters. In these chapters, Hunter shows his mastery of the contours of Western poetics, as he reads poetry’s future through its past. With a density of knowledge that could be unpacked into a book of its own, each chapter treats not only a particular aspect of lyric history, but its inheritance within the Anglo-American university and contemporary poetics. Its ambitious trajectory begins with the early modern emergence of the English ode, continues on to the lyric, moves on to an examination of apostrophe, and concludes with an analysis of the prospect poem. 

In each chapter, Hunter relates a particular trope or form to a range of political possibilities in a globalized present. Mooring this account of poetic form is the work of M. H. Abrams and Ralph Cohen, to which Hunter adds an overtly political dimension. The former’s essay “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric” stands as the heart of Hunter’s account of the ode. In Hunter’s reading of this text, the ode performs an act of “re-domiciliation” that sutures the estranged poet from the world in which they were once rooted. While such a claim could be made of particular odes, a sense of the ode’s specificity as a genre remains elusive in this account. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that Abrams’s essay is precisely about the difficulty of locating the ode’s lineage. For Abrams, the ode follows, but is not commensurate with, the genre of the loco-descriptive, or prospect, poem and its outward-facing relation to nature. Calling their confluence the “greater Romantic Lyric,” Abrams profers this genre as a way of reconciling what critics have called the ode’s inward-facing “solitude” with its persistent association with landscape and the poet’s environment. 

Conversely, Hunter separates the ode, which he treats in chapter one, from the prospect poem that is the subject of chapter four. Part of Hunter’s goal in this separation is to divest the ode, whose ability to imagine a collective future he admires, from the prospect poem, whose founding investments reside with the enclosure of common land and the poet’s “mastery over the environment.” Part of the difficulty that follows such a divide is the imbrication of a genre like the ode in the same ideology of mastery that Hunter critiques. Misreading another of Abrams’s works, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), Hunter wrongly claims that “[u]nlike some poetic forms, the modern English ode has a widely agreed upon starting date.” Citing the 1656 publication date of Abraham Cowley’s Pindarique Odes, Hunter misses that Abrams’s focus here is not the beginning of the English ode as such, but the start of what he calls “the soaring fortunes of the lyric.” This conflation of the ode and the lyric raises the question of whether each of Hunter’s chapters actually treats a distinct genre, or moments in the lyricization of the ode and its specifically Western history. 

This tension comes to the fore in Hunter’s chapter on “exhortation,” a form of apostrophe, which is the trope of literary address to an object, person, or imagined audience. From Jonathan Culler’s well-known essay on this trope onwards, its development in Western poetics has been closely tied to that of the ode. Writing in the same context as Culler, Paul de Man speculated in Lyric Poetry: After New Criticism (1985) that “it is certainly beyond question that the figure of address is recurrent in lyric poetry, to the point of constituting the generic definition of, at the very least, the ode.” By separating out these various aspects of the ode, Hunter runs the risk of having them appear as poetic universals, rather than as contingent aspects of Western modernity. As Ralph Cohen, whose work Hunter uses to build his account of the prospect poem, has argued, the English ode took its impetus from a European desire to offer “a world of the origin of poetry, of the universality of poetic language and feeling.” Although made in passing, this observation opens the possibility that the ode does not simply mark the poet’s resistance to and reconciliation with the world, but that it has played an active role in shaping both its historical development and the interpretation of that development. 

One of the English ode’s political horizons is readily apparent in the volume that actually popularized the ode, Michael Drayton’s 1606 Poems, Lyric and Pastoral. One of the central pieces of this work, “To the Virginian Voyage,” clearly ties the ode’s origins to the praise of overseas colonies and the emergence of racialized capitalism. Here, Drayton speaks to, and as part of, a “we” that consists of white, propertied colonists whose genocide of Indigenous North Americans he commemorates in verse. For Hunter, lyric poetry begins as the product of a single “I” that approaches a “we” at its most radical. However, in the case of the ode, a genre whose allegiances to empire have been traced by Suvir Kaul, it may be useful to keep track of the complex forms of mediation that sustain any claim to a transcendent subjecthood and agency. By framing one genre as inherently closer to the possibility of common life than another, Hunter comes close to rewriting the literary history that he mobilizes toward the important political ends of his work. 

In terms of Hunter’s stated goal of tying literature’s history closer to that of capitalism, he sometimes elides important inflection points in the development of both. Like Ramazani, Hunter places Walt Whitman as the tutelary deity at the threshold of modern and contemporary periods of poetic production. For Hunter, a work like “Small the Theme of My Chant” performs the highest work of poetry by “contain[ing] a world of difference” in the minimal space of Whitman’s authorial perspective. Hunter’s intellectual recourse here is to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Focusing on the latter’s essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” Hunter is interested in how the lyric “I” may become a politically viable “we” under the duress of the estrangement wrought by capitalism. With reference to Judith Butler’s conceptualization of precarity, Hunter argues that lyric poetry grounds “us” in the realization that political life has its roots in an “unchosen cohabitation” with political others whose alterity can only be addressed poetically.

Yet, in this move from Whitman’s nineteenth century to the present of Myung Mi Kim and Sean Bonney, something of the historical specificity that separates each poet’s material existence and struggles is lost. Likewise, the term precarity itself can at times blur the difference in political agency that separates the poets whose work he addresses. While Hunter registers the difficulty of working through these historical differences, his eagerness to author a Whitmanian “we” that would, if pushed to its logical conclusion, unite oppressor and oppressed sometimes unfolds too quickly. Here, Adorno’s later essay “Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry” may be clarifying. In this essay, Adorno takes aim at the “romanticism” that what has been estranged through capitalism can be made whole again through poetic fiat. Reflecting on Hölderlin’s late refusal to offer redemption in his poetry, Adorno draws our attention to the poet’s abrupt aside: Das geht aber / Nicht” (“But this / Doesn’t work”) as a way of staying with the difficulties that poetry can draw out in relation to the utopian horizon of political commitment. In this instance, poetry does not so much react to a concept like the global as much as it refuses its role in perpetuating its motion toward a catastrophic future. 


These are issues that stand at the heart of Édouard Glissant’s intervention into the field of poetry and poetics in his recently translated work, Traité du Tout-Monde (“Treatise on the Whole-World”). Rendered into English by Celia Britton for the Liverpool University Press’s ongoing project to translate the work of this important Martinican author, Treatise on the Whole-World poses a crucial intervention in the ways that scholars canonize and teach poetry in the present. From the very title of the work, drawn from the phrase tout le monde (“everybody”), our attention is drawn to the everydayness of the mental processes that sustain an overarching concept like the global. As Glissant writes, “[t]he world in its finished totality cannot be considered a sufficient reason, a generality giving birth to its own generalization.” This is Glissant’s way of refusing the notion that poetry reflects the given world in its totality. Rather, poetry is always and already involved in the processes that sustain the fantasies that the world is a discrete object to which the poet could respond. In this way, Glissant is less interested in metaphors of vision and insight than in those of occlusion and eclipse. To read a text as Glissant does is to embrace what he elsewhere called “the right to opacity” of Black poetics in order to reject the demand for transparency, which encodes that of stratifying a work’s meaning and instrumentalizing its urgency into easily transmittable equivalencies. 

Glissant’s reluctance to offer too-easy solutions to his readers informs the structure of this work. Eschewing a single perspective, he abandons, at times, his putative authorial ownership over the text for that of a fictional character from one of his previous novels, Mathieu Béluse, with whom he quarrels. This fragmentation pervades the book, which unfolds primarily in aphoristic moments of insight, complication, and negation. Where the text breaks from this pattern, it unfolds in broad strokes. In the chapter titled “The Time of the Other,” Glissant offers a history of identity and difference in medieval Europe. Here, Glissant argues that Europe, before its homogenization, was comprised of “multiple centers” that did not culminate in a unified source of influence. This refraction is not only spatial for Glissant, but temporal as well. In this (perhaps idealized) account of these formations, Umayyad influence mixes with that of the Kabbalah and heretical Christianity. What he sees as the devotional ardor of this period in which there were “no atheists, only heretics” orients his style in which ideas are constantly posited, recanted, and reposed. Whereas Glissant excoriates the totalizing systems of thought that became the legacy of the West, he elevates work that is heterodox and unfinished. This serves as the crux of his rejection of the idea of the global, which he sees as a homogenizing description that brings into existence its own uniformed present. In its place, Glissant offers the study of relation, the space between two terms, that refuses Western metaphysics’ tendency toward dichotomy and the forced resolution of antitheses under the auspice of the absolute. 

The resistance of this drive becomes thematic in Glissant’s chapter “Waves and Backwashes.” With its hyper-locality, this chapter treats the weather patterns that have shaped and continue to orient life in the Caribbean. These descriptions turn toward the political future, not by projecting a political “we,” but by reorienting solidarity toward a “submarine” place that lies just under the crash of our current catastrophes. In eschewing the immediate search for global collectives, Glissant begins with the difficulties of forging ties between the people around him. Turning to Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Glissant tells us that submarine politics gains its power from the immeasurable loss of “Africans thrown into the sea, weighed down with cannonballs, from the bridges of slave ships.” To base the intersection of poetry and poetics on what cannot be seen, or recuperated, is to discover that “the components of Caribbean reality are not only rational and logical but above all subliminal, hidden, in constant transformations.” For Glissant, poetry does not move from the “I” to the “we” so much as it refracts the perspective from which each would be legible to the other.

Largely eschewing technological metaphors, Glissant likens his poetics to life in the wake of a “cyclone.” The serial catastrophes to which the Caribbean is subjected preserve its people from “the certainties that would limit us.” Far from romanticizing these dangers, Glissant reminds his audience of what the experience of precarity is like and that it is not equally shared across national boundaries. This differs markedly from depictions of hurricanes in both Ramazani’s and Hunter’s work. For Ramazani, the usage of Western forms by a poet like Derek Walcott disproves Brathwaite’s claim that “[t]he hurricane does not roar in pentameter.” His aim here is to dispel the view of “foreign form” as an imposition on “local content” by pointing to the ways in which Walcott could adapt terza rima just as easily as Pound could the haiku. Missing in this account is the disciplinary force that imprinted these forms, sometimes literally, upon schoolchildren both in the colonies and metropole. In this way, Ramazani’s reading conflates literary inheritances that are based on affinity with those rooted in coercion. 

Conversely, Glissant’s hurricane moves past the distinction between global and local toward what he calls the “common place,” which inscribes these distinctions within the colonial context. According to Glissant, common places, like “backwashes,” swirl in a pattern of “repetition, which endlessly tears itself apart.” Unlike the “local,” or “global,” the “common place” points to the relations between aesthetic works that do not culminate in a higher synthesis or perspective. At times, poetry resists the desire for clarity and subsists with the notion that “someone caught up in a maelstrom can neither see nor think about the maelstrom.” In this sense, a relational poetics puts a term like the global in abeyance as it draws attention to the concrete experience of being subjected to the destructive effects of globalization. 

While Hunter lingers in this place as well, he is often more interested in how the maelstrom turns inevitably, again, to the presence of an external gaze. Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, he examines how Rankine uses poetic form to subvert the distance that cable news enabled between the suffering wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the mass consumption of that pain by a majority-white audience. Rather than staying with this distance, Hunter reads the lyric and citizenship as inseparable—a proximity that revitalizes each through the limits of the other. Rankine’s apostrophic “call out to them,” the lost, serves as an occasion for recuperating a sense of humanity from “that which has historically been excluded from the liberal category of the human.” Whereas Rankine focuses, also, on moments of absolute refusal, Hunter proceeds to moments of affirmation and reconciliation. As Rankine writes of Serena Williams’s tennis court resistance to the racist calls of her umpire, “[she] began wagging her finger and saying ‘no, no, no,’ as if by negating the moment she could propel us back into a legible world.” The operative words here are “as if,” as if the resolution of the poem would resolve the struggle against the world in which Williams finds herself. To read Glissant is to inhabit this moment of “as if,” and to not consent to the course of history as if it has been given in advance. 

Working through the density of the space like the one to which Rankine brings us takes time. If Glissant can be mobilized in the teaching of poetry, it may be to remind scholars in this field that the objects of their study often ask them to slow down en route to the governing concepts of poetics. Glissant shows his readers how this is possible in his own treatment of the ode. In speaking to the relevance of this Western genre to the Caribbean poet, Glissant writes: 

Africa! Africa! Country of colonialist tumult and devastation, but also country of the elegy, the sabar and the mbalakh, and of the woy, a song or poem, which the humanist Senghor realizes is “the exact translation of the Greek ode.” It may be that we do not willingly subscribe to this image of the GrecoLatin Negro, but do we not, ultimately, like the fact that Senghor, the son of prestigious and very ancient cultures, tries in this way to share with Western man what the latter has uttered most profoundly? Shall we deny the woy its kinship with the ode, and vice versa?

In this instance, the Western lyric, typified by the ode, does not assume a global dimension or relevance. Rather, it enters into a form of relation with the woy in a way that changes the reception of each genre. Instead of moving from the “I” to the “we,” the ode to the qasida, or the local to the universal, Glissant begins with the imbrication of each term in the history of the other. 

Leaving more questions open than he answers, Glissant unmoors the foundations of Western poetics to imagine a world without the weight of a literary canon. When those who are interested in the possibility of a global poetics seek to communicate something that appears as fragile as a poem in the face of catastrophes that loom innumerable, it is vital to imagine a poem as partaking in the same complexities and networks of concern as their political present. This is not to equivocate on the politics of teaching poetry, but to find places where the objects of intellectual speculation pose challenges to the way scholars have been accustomed to read. At its most vital, poetry may remind those who teach it that their classrooms, departments, and universities are already a site of oppression, political struggle, and possibility. It is in this sense that Glissant enjoins his readers to “to consult the unpredictability and the non-given of the world, through the fragile but persistent substance of our present, our surroundings”—and those poems that refuse to be located, or made legible, within any particular frame.  


*An essay-review of

Poetry in a Global Age. By Jahan Ramazani. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 304 pp. $30.00, paper.

Forms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization. By Walt Hunter. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019. 192 pp. $30.00, paper. 

Treatise on the Whole-World. By Édouard Glissant. Translated by Celia Britton. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2020. 168 pp. £19.99, paper. 


Michael Berlin is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine, where he is writing his dissertation on the ode with the support of the Mellon Foundation and the Council for European Studies at Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review and in Cultural Critique, and he is a proud member of the Community Reading Group at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, where he edits their periodical, Counter.