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The Resistance to Poetry

Poems inspire our trust, argues James Longenbach in this bracing work, because they don’t necessarily ask to be trusted. Theirs is the language of self-questioning—metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another. Poems resist themselves more strenuously than they are resisted by the cultures receiving them.

But the resistance to poetry is quite specifically the wonder of poetry. Considering a wide array of poets, from Virgil and Milton to Dickinson and Glück, Longenbach suggests that poems convey knowledge only inasmuch as they refuse to be vehicles for the efficient transmission of knowledge. In fact, this self-resistance is the source of the reader’s pleasure: we read poetry not to escape difficulty but to embrace it.

An astute writer and critic of poems, Longenbach makes his case through a sustained engagement with the language of poetry. Each chapter brings a fresh perspective to a crucial aspect of poetry (line, syntax, figurative language, voice, disjunction) and shows that the power of poetry depends less on meaning than on the way in which it means—on the temporal process we negotiate in the act of reading or writing a poem. Readers and writers who embrace that process, Longenbach asserts, inevitably recoil from the exaggeration of the cultural power of poetry in full awareness that to inflate a poem’s claim on our attention is to weaken it.

A graceful and skilled study, The Resistance to Poetry honors poetry by allowing it to be what it is. This book arrives at a critical moment—at a time when many people are trying to mold and market poetry into something it is not.

144 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2004

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, British and Irish Literature


"[An] intelligent, elegant and valuable defense of poetry."

John Palattella | The Nation

"Longenbach’s spare method is that of a poet, his careful exposition like that of a poem. . . . [A] beautiful little book."

Vince Brewton | Library Journal

"Throughout nine small and expertly constellated essays, Longenbach demonstrates that poems are a form of thinking: a resistance to the clear-cut, uncomplicated thought that tries to pin them down as statements....A compact and exponentially provocative book."

Brian Phillips | Poetry

"This is a book of poetics, & a brilliant book of poetics it is. . . . There is not a dull, unintelligent, unimaginative point in this book. You will learn from Longenbach. This book will make you love poetry more."


"Longenbach’s ear for the artistic workings of many, many poems is instructive. He is especially good at displaying Stephens and Bishop. His ability to teach us about the choices writers make--and why they make them--is also instructive. Page by page, Resistance toPoetry teaches us to be better readers."

David Garrison | South Atlantic Review

Table of Contents

I. The Resistance to Poetry
II. The End of the Line
III. Forms of Disjunction
IV. Song and Story
V. Untidy Activity
VI. The Spokenness of Poetry
VII. The Other Hand
VIII. Leaving Things Out
IX. Composed Wonder

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