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Brian McGrath. The Poetics of Unremembered Acts: Reading, Lyric, Pedagogy.

Brian McGrath. The Poetics of Unremembered Acts: Reading, Lyric, Pedagogy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2013. Pp. 167. $45.

Who remembers learning to read? No doubt most of us claim memories of a self that preceded literal literacy; but does anyone--can anyone--possess as a memory that fabulous instant (supposing it were to exist as an instant) when marks become letters? No pedagogical accomplishment, in the modern developed world, is more ordinary than learning to read; but a touch of necromancy still lies latent in this moment when it is imagined as a moment--a lightning-bolt of revelation that breaks the continuity of time and identity, as "the black marks become magical." I am quoting the title of a chapter in George Eliot's novel Romola (1863), in which Eliot set herself the task of imagining what it would be like for a scholar to remember how to read. Dispossessed of his literacy by a trauma he has suffered, the scholar, Baldassare, suffers another shock that restores it. He looks at a book; "he could see the large letters at the head of the page" (and here Eliot breaks her narrative to print, in capital letters, a chapter title from Pausanius in the original Greek, a language that only a select portion of her novel's readership, even in 1863, would have been able to read): "yet an hour ago he had been looking at that page, and it had suggested no more meaning to him than if the letters had been black weather-marks on a wall; but at this moment they were once again the magic signs that conjure up a world." The "glow of conscious power" he experiences in the wake of this epiphany is temporary (he soon loses his literacy again), unredemptive (he remains monomaniacal in his desire to kill his ungrateful adoptive son), and perhaps most remarkably, rooted in an unseizable event. The power to read surges up out of the fissure between "an hour ago" and "at this moment." It originates in a narrative interruption, an immemorial event more primary than the amnesia to which, in this particular storyline, it periodically falls prey.

Brian McGrath is not primarily interested in empirical psychology in The Poetics of Unremembered Acts, but he is interested in reading certain influential pedagogical narratives about how we (ought to) learn to read, in conjunction with the higher-order question of how we (ought to) teach students how to read poetry. The twist in both cases is that, in McGrath's study, the theme reading is granted the theoretical and disciplinary complexity that trained Romanticists (ought to) bring to bear on it. McGrath writes as an unreconstructed rhetorical deconstructionist. "As is likely clear by now," he writes with laconic irony near the end of this study, "The Poetics of Unremembered Acts aims to take its place within a legacy of rhetorical reading" (111). Generously cognizant of the work not just of Paul de Man but of Jonathan Culler, Barbara Johnson, and other deconstructive writers on figurative language and lyric, McGrath identifies lyric with apostrophe and prosopopoeia--the figure of address, the making and taking of voice and face--and discovers in the complexities of lyric figuration an allegory of reading. Thus, "the lyric poet animating an inanimate object turn[s] out to describe what one does--perhaps unavoidably--when one 'reads'" (99).

This is a slender book (112 pages of text, thirty-four smaller-font pages of endnotes, many of them richly discursive), and its contribution to scholarship consists mainly in acts of close reading, though its persistent focus on pedagogical figures and themes distinguishes McGrath's study within the "legacy of rhetorical reading" of Romantic lyric. The book is divided into two parts. The first examines select passages from Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseau's Emile. McGrath draws attention to an odd moment in Locke's treatise in which Locke recommends that children learn to read by rolling dice with letters instead of numbers on their faces, Locke's idea being that, since one learns to read without understanding what one is doing, one might as well make a game of it. The game, however, as McGrath points out, turns meaning-production into exactly the opposite of what Locke's philosophy of mind desires: a mechanical process through which meaning arises not as the intention of a speaker, but through the random combination of letters. In that sense, McGrath, suggests, Locke's dice game is oddly like lyric: "Despite the fact that after romanticism the lyric is frequently celebrated for its ability to carry and convey the poet's voice and full presence, the lyric also names a difference within language, the ability of language to do something other than communicate" (29). Rousseau, anxious to subordinate the learning of reading to a subject's intention, ridicules Locke's pedagogical dice game in Emile. In its place he offers a proposal that is possibly (from the point of view of empirical pedagogy, in any case) even weirder than Locke's: in order to obtain desired objects or participate in desired activities, Emile will have to decipher notes telling him where and when they are available. Rousseau emphatically subordinates the Lockean game to the figure of address. And the romantic lyric will teach its readers to read in the turns of the trope of address the traces of an illegible Lockean hypogram, a figure of the (non-)ground of lyric reading.

The second half of McGrath's book consists of short chapters focused largely on individual poems: Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"; Wordsworth's "Simon Lee"; and Keats's "Isabella or the Pot of Basil." Given his pedagogical theme, it makes sense for McGrath to begin with the hypercanonical "Elegy"--the very model of a modern major lyric in the British tradition; the one poem by Gray, according to Samuel Johnson, that "find[s] a mirror in every mind." Generations of Anglophone and colonial schoolchildren had their minds polished into mirrors at the grinding wheel of this poem. In the twentieth century, however, professional academicians discovered how difficult it is to capture this text's reflective processes. McGrath recalls the mid twentieth-century "Stonecutter Controversy," which turns around the problem of reading the "Elegy'"s sudden shift to second-person address in its ninety-third line ("For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead / Dost in these lines their artless tale relate"). Who is the "thee"? The poet-narrator, addressing himself as other? (Cleanth Brooks). The stonecutter who carved the names on the tombstones upon which the poet-narrator is brooding? (Frank Ellis). The reader, interpellated into the poem as another double of this meditative narrator? (William K. Wimsatt). The bifurcating possibilities of address legible in the "thee" open lyric address to the non-lyric blankness of the stonecutter's minimal epitaphs, such that "one finds oneself addressed only to the extent that to which one grants life to the inscription" (59). McGrath's close reading stresses our capture within an apostrophe that at once grants life and takes it away. "In reading Gray's 'Elegy' one animates a poem that takes seriously the power of animating tropes" (71).

After the Gray chapter, McGrath's choice of texts becomes somewhat less obvious. One might well have expected a suite of chapters on the highly canonical "greater Romantic lyrics" and odes of Wordsworth and Keats that, arguably even today, dominate syllabi in Anglophone classrooms. Yet a discussion of "Simon Lee" makes sense in this context, since this poem exemplifies Wordsworth's pedagogical ambitions in Lyrical Ballads. It evacuates (or better, comically pulverizes) ballad-plot (reducing the heroic test--the sword-stroke of a Gawain--to the whack of a gardening implement), and it thematizes the educative process that this annihilation of plot makes available to the gentle--and gentled--reader ("it is no tale, but should you think / Perhaps a tale you'll make it"). McGrath focuses on the ethical ambiguity of the narrator's severing the root for Simon Lee, and through a (very) close reading of the text's final lines, teases out the possibility of interpreting the narrator not as sympathetically or even guiltily imaginative but as coldly unresponsive to Simon's strangely excessive gratitude. McGrath is thus able to read a split within the poem that mirrors the tension between immediacy and delay in Wordsworth's account of poetic creation (a "spontaneous overflow" that is also "emotion recollected in tranquility"), and that suggests "the force of a transmission not available to consciousness" (88).

The chapter on Keats's "Isabella" hones in on the "yawning tomb" featured in the poem's address to the reader in the forty-ninth stanza: "Why linger at the yawning tomb so long? / O for the gentleness of old Romance / The simple plaining of a minstrel's song! / Fair reader, at the old tale take a glance." McGrath reads the yawn as a speech act through which the tomb is granted a face yet "robbed of its voice, for it is difficult to speak mid-yawn" (103). The lyric yawn swallows up voice, interrupts cognition, and offers a disruptive figure of lyric pedagogy: "The figure of the poem as a yawn (a contagious yawn) passed from mouth to mouth is offered by Keats as one way to describe how the romantic poem passes on an encounter unavailable to cognition" (93). Through these scrupulous close readings, McGrath helps us relearn the deconstructive lesson that "learning to read comes to have the force of an event" precisely because "learning to read has not yet happened (to 'me')" (in).

Marc Redfield

Brown University
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Author:Redfield, Marc
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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