Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Stephanie Burt reviews Forms of a World

Walt HunterForms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization. New York: Fordham University Press. 192 pp.

Review by Stephanie Burt

16 September 2020

Published just before the COVID crisis shut down—or (we’ll know soon) failed to shut down—the humming self-confidence of just-in-time manufacturing, international capital consolidation, and neoliberal world order, Hunter’s volume shows how English-language poets find language to challenge that murderous order and the historical forces behind it. Hunter’s poets write in, or for, or about the US, the UK, Ireland, Ghana, Korea, Kashmir: they take on global climate change, English-language dominance, US-backed militarization, “the erasure of black bodies” and the Irish real estate bubble (p. 58). They pursue, perhaps unsurprisingly, “the possibility that poetry might reshape the social relations produced under capital, or at least offer a vision for doing so,” addressing large-scale political and environmental problems specific to our day (p. 30).

They do so by writing across international borders. Forms of a World establishes Hunter alongside Jahan Ramazani, Omaar Hena, Robert Stilling, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma, and Justin Quinn (all but Quinn were Ramazani’s students) as experts on specifically international Anglophone poetic goings-on, who try to contribute to the study of globalization, within and outside literary fields. Hunter’s examples, some avant-garde, some far from it, include Sarah Clancy, Paula Meehan, J. H. Prynne, Kofi Awonoor, Sean Bonney, Claudia Rankine, Agha Shahid Ali, Myung Mi Kim, and Natasha Trethewey: US examples will be familiar to US-based critics, the others less so, and it is in the others—in his advocacy for those others—that Hunter’s work gains some of its power.

Only some: the best thing in Hunter’s work, by far, comes from its attention to poetic subgenre. Clancy and Meehan (so Hunter shows) write not just protest poems but anti-enclosure poems, poems against the expropriation of landscape, in the tradition of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village.” Claudia Rankine, addressing (and naming) that enormous genre called lyric, makes of it not so much a Rilkean soul in space, nor a declaration of personhood ex nihilo, as a way to “claim the right . . . of rebuttal, a head butt, a meditative space,” wrestled back from the legal and social conventions that deny Black speakers full personhood (p. 64).

Bonney and others reinvent the ode, Walt Whitman’s “call in the midst of the crowd,” through “hortatory modes of summoning, calling together, and inciting,” as to a demonstration in Minneapolis, or Tahrir Square (p. 66). Ode and lyric, and other kinds of poetic making, bring the notion of “surplus in poetry,” “supplement or excess” beyond simple denotative function, into aggressive conjunction with “surplus in global capital,” using the first to argue against the maladministration of the second (p. 12). Various lyric subgenres do so in various ways: Shahid Ali’s ghazals, partly by being ghazals, partly by stitching together cultures, imagine a “non- or anti-sovereignty,” fit for a precarious “cross-cultural commons” (pp. 88–89).

Hunter’s last chapter goes into the most detail: it shows how “poets have . . . revised the form of the prospect poem” (p. 92) in order to take in the almost unimaginable destructions that comprise the Anthropocene. The prospect poem—in which a poet views a landscape, normally from a hill—began in the seventeeth century as a Royalist vision of order, but in the hands of Prynne, Trethewey, and Awonoor, the prospect poem instead reveals “collective experiences of exploitation and immiseration” (p. 101). These poets place themselves not above but amid, never quite outside, the field, the public square, the masses, the crowd. Other prospect poems simply witness the devastation human beings have brought to landscape and to language, past and passing and to come.

Hunter shines whenever (as with Meehan or Awonoor) he links a poet’s particular style to a particular evil of globalization, a particular sin of capital or nation. He loses steam when he claims that various poets subvert various established orders (linguistic, monetary, legal), in general ways, to support a “global revolutionary consciousness” in general (p. 17). Too many earlier critics, writing on too many earlier poets, have said the same. Kim’s visual poetry, for example, “defamiliarizes and disrupts a reader’s acquired ability to discover meaning in a poem” (p. 79). Parataxis in Trethewey’s memoir might be “shattering the possibilities of narrativity and representation,” while Prynne “disrupts normative patterns” and “deemphasizes the masterly skill of the individual poet’s genius” (pp. 112, 104–05).

The study at times scants older precedents. For personal lyric that ties itself in knots to protest mass murder, that undoes its own formal limits in order to show that some nonpersons should be full persons, and to protest against national boundaries, we read Rankine, but should we also read Milton’s “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints,” or William Carlos Williams’s poem on Sacco and Vanzetti, or eighteenth century poems against slavery? Goldsmith, alas, isn’t mentioned by name (unless I missed it). Many of Hunter’s themes—precarity, suffering seen up close that feels distant, expropriated land and livelihood, the false promise of equal opportunity, the impossibility of holding the whole populous globe in one mind—show up together somewhere in Elizabeth Bishop: consider Bishop’s “Squatter’s Children,” “Under the Window: Ouro Preto,” “Over 10,000 Illustrations,” or “Pink Dog.”

And yet there is something new about some of these poets—the harshest, strangest ones in particular (Bonney, say, and Kim, and Keston Sutherland), but really all of them, even the quietest, taken together. They really do try for a new kind of linguistic mess to fit the new kind of mess we’re all in, a toxic mess that emerged from global capitalism and crosses national borders: it’s a mess that seems “unrepresentable, unsayable, illegible, and practically unthinkable,”even as we hurtle, eyes on our tablets and iPhones, towards the potlach of capital, the inferno of Greater Los Angeles, the inundation of Bangladesh, the next post-COVID plague (p. 17). (Is there a global poetics of epidemiology? Can Hunter describe it?) Prose fails us in such conditions; arguments and data fail us. Maybe poems—in all their multiplicity of international subgenres—are just what we need.