What is the relationship between poetry and power? Should poetry be considered a mode of authority or an impotent medium? And why is it that the modern poets most commonly regarded as authoritative are precisely those whose works wrestle with a sense of artistic inadequacy? Such questions lie at the heart of this study, prompting fresh insights into three of the most important poets of recent decades: Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. Through attentive close reading and the tracing of dominant motifs in each writer's works, James shows how their responsiveness to matters of political and cultural import lends weight to the idea of poetry as authoritative utterance, as a medium for speaking of and to the world in a persuasive, memorable manner. And yet, as James demonstrates, each poet is exercised by an awareness of his own cultural marginality, even by a sense of the limitations and liabilities of language itself.
Stephen James is lecturer in English literature at the University of Bristol.