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The politics of review essays; or, Recent work on Victorian Women Poets
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I’ve just completed my annual Year’s Work review essay in Victorian Poetry on women poets (excluding Christina Rossetti and Barrett Browning, who are each dealt with by other reviewers), to be published in the Fall of 2012, and considering criticism published in 2011. Writing academic review essays is a curious hybrid business, a mixture of providing a service to other scholars and students in the form of drawing up bibliography of recent work, summarizing and detailing the arguments and methodologies, and providing (hopefully) some kind of summative statement on the trends, changes and developments in the field.

While one year’s worth of criticism Victorian women poets (especially excluding the big-hitters Rossetti and Barrett Browning) may seem like a narrow groove to be working within, I’ve been struck since I started to write the annual review essay on the diverse and dynamic work that’s produced on women poets, and how the concerns of the critics usually chime with established or emerging issues in Victorian studies overall. In addition, some criticism in fact on women poets sets the agenda for the field, especially in relation to work on literary form and the canon. Of course, for a long time now the issues of gender and genre, and women writers and the canon have been two prominent and linked concerns in nineteenth-century studies. But until fairly recently criticism on Victorian women poets tended to be focused on a single author, on recuperation and often also celebration, and on a rather defensive attempt to prove the importance of women poets. It’s certainly more typical now for criticism of Victorian women poets to be implicitly or explicitly part of a deeper, wider study on Victorian literature and culture, although the work of recovery and recuperation is still clearly ongoing and needed (especially in terms of scholarly editions of women’s poetry and literary biographies).

The change in recent criticism is particularly heartening because, for a long time, Victorian poetry itself has been represented as an especially distinct sub-genre of literary studies, either segregated as a difficult and even elite pursuit (one colleague with a long career told me he’s often felt like a dinosaur, something of which he seemed proud), or ignored entirely in studies on the period where “literature” often implicitly denotes prose (in titles of monographs, for example). Of course, the recent turn to prosody within the “cultural neoformalist” school both arguably consolidates Victorian poetry as difficult and distinctly different (all those classical meters), yet also marrying the poetry and poetics to cultural discourses — in fact, seeing both prosody and culture as deeply intermeshed. It remains to be seen if this particular critical trend will help rehabilitate Victorian poetry as integral to Victorian studies as a whole, but certainly I’ve noticed colleagues on the conference circuit (including myself) move away from talking about “Victorian poetry” as a field of study, and towards a more capacious concept of “Victorian poetry studies” and “Victorian poetry culture”. The increased interest in print culture, and particularly in poetry’s place within popular print, is one of the most engaging and interesting developments in recent years.

At the same time, most of the criticism on Victorian poetry is still published in a limited range of journals. And most of the scholarly books and collections of essays on Victorian literary topics still do not tend to include poetry. I know this because of my annual trawl through criticism on the period, trying to find work on women poets (and keeping an eye open for anything interesting on Victorian poetry in general). In addition, for this reviewer anyway, it is particularly difficult to get presses to send copies of recently published books, even in PDF format and, certainly, any academic author needs to be proactive in ensuring that their publisher is sending out review copies (I have a couple of gaps in my review essay, for example, because certain presses did not reply to my requests to send out recent material).

There are some things that journal review essays cannot say, and that blogs can say with more freedom. This is one of the lessons of writing journal review essays. Victorian poetry, and Victorian studies, is in an interesting, perhaps even transitional moment, and this moment is exciting if precarious for the our roles as reviewers, scholars and academic authors.

My review essay considers the following:

Mary Ellis Gibson’s Indian Angles: English Verse in Colonial India from Jones to Tagore (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011) and her edition of Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780-1913: A Critical Anthology (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011)

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra’s Poetry, Pictures, and Popular Publishing: The Illustrated Gift Book and Victorian Visual Culture (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011)

Melissa Valiska Gregory, “Augusta Webster Writing Motherhood in the Dramatic Monologue and the Sonnet Sequence”, Victorian Poetry 49: 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 27-51

Nicole Fuhr, “‘Telling what’s o’er:  Remaking the Sonnet Cycle in Augusta Webster’s Mother and Daughter“, Victorian Poetry 49: 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 53-81

Mary A. Waters, “Letitia Landon’s Literary Criticism and Her Romantic Project: L. E. L.’s Poetics of Feeling and the Periodical Reviews”, Women’s Writing (2011) 18: 3, pp. 305-30

Meagan Timney, “Mary Hutton and the Development of a Working-Class Women’s Political Poetics”, Victorian Poetry 49: 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 127-46

Jennifer Esmail, “‘Perchance my hand may touch the lyre’: Orality and Textuality in Nineteenth-Century Deaf Poetry”, Victorian Poetry 49: 4 (Winter 2011), pp. 509-34

Ben Glaser, “Polymetrical Dissonance: Tennyson, A. Mary F. Robinson, and Classical Meter”, Victorian Poetry (Spring 2011) 49: 2  pp. 199-216

Adela Pinch, Rhyme’s End”, Victorian Studies 53: 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 485-94

The special issue of George-Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies ([September 2011] issue 60/61), on the poetry of George Eliot

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