The Limits of Language

Into It


Lawrence Joseph

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20, 67 pp.

The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace, / Something for the modern stage, / not, at any rate, an attic grace.” These famed lines from Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1919) suggest the tragic consequences of World War I-that “senseless slaughter,” as Ernest Hemingway called it. Pound’s challenge hinted at consequences for poets in particular, charting the difficult road that writers of lyric poems would be forced to travel ever after. Five decades later, Denise Levertov wrote in “Life at War” (1968) that “the same war / continues;” and later still, in her brilliant essay, “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival,” she focused on the moral and political responsibilities of the contemporary poet. “In this dangerous time,” Levertov asserted, “we can’t, I feel, rely solely on the subtle and delicate possibilities of change implicit in the giving and receiving of all art; we also need direct images in our art that will awaken, warn, stir their hearers to action; images that will both appall and empower.”

For two decades, Lawrence Joseph has been taking up this challenge, writing poems direct and indelicate enough to render both the beauty and the horror of the present age and its particular dangers. A critic, essayist, and law professor as well as prizewinning poet, Joseph has had a fascinatingly varied career. The Catholic, Lebanese son of a Depression-era auto worker in Detroit, he once described himself...

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About the Author

Michael True, emeritus professor, Assumption College, is the author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (Syracuse University Press, 1995).