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Poetry, Consciousness and Community

by Christopher (Kit) Kelen
Rodopi, Amsterdam, New York, NY 2009
Series: Consciousness Literature & The Arts (23)
199 pp. Paper, $56.00
ISBN: 978-90-420-2724-4.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


This book is a little like a Chinese banquet, delicious morsels just keep coming and coming.  The morsels are in the form of poems, fragments of poems, engaging quotes and well structured discussions. These all work towards exploring the nature of poetic thought itself, as opposed to, for example, scientific thought. Kelen asks the rhetorical question, “Is poetry subject to its own regime?”

Christopher Kelen is Associate Professor at the University of Macau in south China where he teaches Literature and Creative Writing. He has published nine volumes of poetry, together with numerous academic essays. He is also editor of the on-line journal Poetry Macao.

After a short introduction - Scope of the Work, the book has five chapters, which individually and together explore the relationship of poetry to consciousness and human (and non-human) community. These are followed by a comprehensive Bibliography. There is no Index!

Chapter – 1 Poetry and Consciousness: The Scope of Introduction

Chapter – 2 Over the Border: The Everyday Lapse

Chapter – 3 The Tropic and the Iterative of Haunting and of Laughter

Chapter – 4 Witness and Habitation: Waking Up to Ourselves

Chapter – 5  Community: The Word is the Window

In trying to understand the relationship of consciousness to poetry (Chapter 1), Kelen looks much further afield than the Western psychological or psychoanalytic approach, though does not discount their relevance. “Consciousness is – like poetry – a floating signifier, a term of wide reference, and with a range of implications in the various disciplinary contexts in which it finds currency” (p. 17). Nor is he especially concerned with what poetry is as such, but rather, “...what we make of it; how, that is, we make it mean, how we make meaning with it” (p. 50).

This book is not for the general reader. It is cross disciplinary in its approach, and as such, will appeal to intellectually orientated readers from a wide range of academic fields such as literature, philosophy, critical theory, psychoanalytical theory and perhaps education. The book is very well researched and argued but unfortunately the writing style does not flow smoothly. I found myself having to read many sentences twice, not because of their semantic complexity, but because of the rather awkward grammatical style. An arbitrary example might help illustrate the point, “What of poetry's role then – of the poets among the rhetors and the means of this particular bricolage among the tropic array of means?” (p. 112).

“Poetic meaning and truth are revealed between languages (likewise between genres, between texts, between subjects); it is in this inter-subjective and inter-cultural space that the limits of language (and so of conceivable worlds) are found” (Back Cover). Good poetry always tests the limits of language, and through our imaginations pushes the limits of understanding, logical reasoning and perhaps existence itself. “The process of poetry has importantly intuitive aspects and poetry embodies an ambivalence towards consciousness and towards those activities of thought in which it is constituted” (p. 7).

Poetry, Consciousness and Community is a wonderful investigation into the mysteries of poetry. If as Rorty suggests, “A sense of human history as the history of successive metaphors would let us see the poet, in the generic sense of the maker of new worlds, the shaper of new languages, as the vanguard of the species” (p. 186), then this book will help us understand this rather lofty claim. An invaluable addition to critical and literary theory which will inspire poets and intellectuals alike.

Last Updated 8 March, 2010

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