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Ethical Criticism and the Challenges Posed by Innovative Poetry

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Abstract

Professor Nie Zhenzhao has led the way in developing the field known as ethical criticism. Much of the writing in this newly emerging field has focused on modern works of fiction and on the ethical dimensions and decisions of fictional characters. A reading of innovative American poetry poses a range of interesting questions and challenges for the development of ethical criticism. In this essay, I offer a range of questions that might enlarge and critique the methods and scope of ethical criticism. As one example, I cite the challenges presented by the work (and life) of George Oppen. More fundamentally, I will problematize or re-locate the ethical dimension-from the second-hand reading of fictional works to a sense of the reader/critic engaged in first-hand ethical experience, choices, and action through a multi-dimensional engagement with innovative poetry. I also present an example of how such ethical criticism might work through the reading of a poem by Larry Eigner. In addition, I trace some parallels (of the particular ethical epistemology involved in reading and engaging innovative poetry) to the considerable ethical and epistemological differences in the contemporaneous writings of Confucius and Lao Tzu (thus briefly contrasting Confuciansim and Daoism and pointing toward the imprecise and enigmatic nature of knowing found in Daoism).

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Article
At present, the poetry of two major 20th-century American poets, George Oppen and Larry Eigner, is little known in China. In the case of Oppen, a Communist who left the United States for an extended period of time to live in Mexico and who stopped writing poetry for twenty-five years, his poetry after the twenty-five years' silence is a profound meditation on the conflicting impulses of a singular identity and an identification with community and a more collective sense of self. Eigner, author of over 30 books of poetry in spite of a serious birth defect, was a key figure in the development of Language Poetry and is now emerging as a key figure in the newly developing field of disability studies. His unique sense of the spatial opportunities of the page and his focus on acts of perception (in a manner reminiscent of classical Chinese poetry) provide exciting opportunities for further study. This paper presents a poetry that will provide an occasion for some very invigorating cross-cultural and cross-linguistic conversations between Larry Eigner's and George Oppen's poetry and classical (and contemporary) Chinese poetry. This essay is at once a study of the process of the making of cross-cultural literary history as well as an advocacy for the particular value to contemporary Chinese readers of the work of Oppen and Eigner.