William Robert Anthony Andrews
This New Age of Description: Description, Poetry and the Contemporary Practice of Language
Much of contemporary poetry is filled with or structured by descriptions of the natural world, this urge to describe representative of what critic Joanna Stalnaker has tentatively called a new ‘age of description’ in contemporary writing. It is to these new descriptive tendencies, within the context of contemporary poetry, that my PhD project turns. Description as a textual phenomenon is being re-evaluated in literary studies: there are calls for a ‘descriptive turn,’ and critic Heather Love – while recognising description’s ‘poor reputation’ in the discipline – has even proposed it as literary-critical method. Description has, however, been proposed as a critical model before engagement with a theory of description as practice of language has taken place. This has led to some serious issues in the conceptual application of description to research models.
But whether practicing ‘descriptive reading’ or not, critics are indeed now looking to description: Dora Zhang’s 2020 Strange Likeness, for example, ‘read[s] for description’ so as to disrupt understandings of style and form in the modernist novel. But critic Tim Dean has accused those newly interested in description of ‘genre blindness,’ of exclusive focus on prose and neglect of poetry and poetics. That neglect marks scholarship: if description is approached theoretically or as central object of study, it has tended to be within prose-based contexts. Dean points to just one work of academic criticism that explicitly examines description in recent poetry, Willard Spiegelman’s 2005 How Poets See the World. Poetry’s descriptiveness deserves greater critical attention, as do questions about description’s importance to contemporary writing.
My project will suggest that it is so because description underwrites an understanding of language specific to this century, something overlooked in recent criticism. The need to describe the world now guiding so many poets suggests that the 20th-century theories that deny language’s capacity to refer to a material world beyond it no longer necessarily hold. Poet Harriet Tarlo has claimed that some of the environmentally or ecological poetries of this century ‘aim to create a true[…] reflection of reality itself’; that poems might offer a ‘reflection of reality’ demonstrates that contemporary poets are working with a model of language different to many critics. The past five years has seen numerous accounts of contemporary poetry and its textual engagement with the material world. None of these works ‘read for description,’ so the practical philosophies of language in contemporary poetry’s descriptions go unremarked.
The poetry this project will analyse has been published over the past decade. It has been written in English, by a range of poets of differing national and community backgrounds. It will examine individual poets like Vahni Capildeo, Mark Doty, Juliana Spahr and Jason Allen-Paisant, who have published collections dominated by description. Literary journals and magazines like Blackbox Manifold will also play a role, as will anthologies like The Ground Aslant or prizes like The Laurel. The poetry of this new age of description is varied, broad, proliferating; the project will be organised around theme, and will focus on natural phenomena described – the sea or trees, say – as well as on particular locales.