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The Slowworm’s Mosaic

Peter Campion reviews

Collected Studies in the Use of English by Kenneth Cox

Agenda Editions, London, 2001. Paper, 269 pages, ISBN 090240069X

This piece is 1000 words or about three printed pages long.

Kenneth Cox states in his Preface that his collection of essays ‘has arisen out of attempts initiated in the final third of the century just ended to introduce new, difficult or neglected work.’ This is the first time Kenneth Cox’s essays have been collected. The book gives extended attention to Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lorine Niedecker, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky. There are also essays on Geoffrey Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Robert Creeley, Roy Fisher, George Gissing, R.C. Hutchinson, Alan Jenkins, James Joyce, Gael Turnbull, Allen Upward, Wyndham Lewis, and W.B. Yeats.

The book can be ordered by phone or fax in the UK (01435 872165), by Email at, or by mail (AGENDA, The Wheelwrights, Fletching St, Mayfield, East Sussex TN20 6TL). Price: $35 USA, $40 Australia, $45 Canada and New Zealand, 12 pounds UK. Visa and Mastercard are accepted (please provide card number and expiry date) as are cheques in foreign currencies.

Kenneth Cox has culled his studies of seventeen authors from nearly forty years of work. He has remained impervious to fashionable theory and cant. He has consistently dedicated himself to elucidating the works themselves. But his is a very ambitious modesty. It is the kind of sustained attention familiar from the writing of nineteenth century naturalists: when Cox examines a passage of verse or prose he has the intense curiosity of Alfred Russel Wallace peering into the greyish white iris of the umbrella bird or Charles Darwin watching pollen granules burst from the anther of the lobelia.
      Like those great naturalists, Cox moves with assured skill from observation of particulars to statement of general principles. And this is what makes his book so valuable: without ever losing his feel for the language itself, Cox identifies the larger claims that authors make on the imaginations of their readers. You can witness a fine example of this in the study of Basil Bunting’s poetry. The second section of the essay provides a meticulous explication of Bunting’s first sonata poem, ‘Villon.’ Then the third section goes on to examine the urges that lie behind Bunting’s condensation of meaning, as well as the implications that follow from such economic language. Cox writes, for example, that monopolising the mind such observations act as a preservative against propaganda of all persuasions and so make possible the commemoration of innocence, as in the first section of Briggflatts.

Though the critic never seems to project his own concerns onto the work at hand, these comments about Bunting make a fitting description of Collected Studies in the Use of English. As that title suggests, the book asks the reader to attend to fundamental features of the medium itself. The observations show philological exactitude. Like the slowworm who makes his memorable appearance in that same first section of Briggflatts, these studies have a frugality that reaches toward freedom. Their rigorous compactness brings the mind back to a state of innocence. Things taken for granted regain their original vivacity and strangeness.
      The return to simplicity reveals itself in the strength and subtlety of Cox’s prose style. Since each sentence has the concentrated power of good argument, the essays are free to take on their own shape, unhampered by traditional forms of exposition. Such native force inheres in the very punctuation: commas come more seldom than usual, while semi-colons seem never to appear.
      The return to simplicity also allows Cox to re-illumine very famous authors without ever becoming esoteric. These writers include Conrad, Joyce, Yeats, Pound and Chaucer (one of the two pre-Twentieth Century writers considered, along with George Gissing.) Here is the first paragraph of the essay on Yeats:

Rooted in his writing is something Yeats found difficult to manage without exercise of some ingenuity and occasional force. For its quality of irresponsible and irrepressible energy he had various names: Blake’s excess, Swift’s madness, the indomitable Irishry, the balloon of the mind. The image is of a mass of expanding matter pressing for release from a vessel set to confine and shape it. At the height of an action the vessel is filled near bursting. The origin is probably sexual, its manifestation is usually socio-political. My interest is in the poetry, that is to say in its utterance through the medium of a malleable language.

It would probably not occur to many contemporary academics to summarize Yeats’ urge to form. This would seem too ‘basic’ to them. But that image of  ‘expanding matter pressing for release from a vessel set to confine and shape it’ has the immediacy that so many works of literary criticism lack. At such moments, the unique imagination of a great artist bursts through the heavy velvet curtain of his acclaim.
      If these studies examine famous writers with a curative freshness, they also present less well known authors. The case of Lorine Niedecker stands out. Thanks to the new Collected Works edited by Jenny Penberthy (and dedicated to Kenneth Cox) Niedecker has recently gained more purchase. Her name now shows up on college syllabi as well as on the tongues of young poets. Cox was one of her first champions. His study of Niedecker, which comprises one essay concerning the shorter poems of the middle period and another addressing the longer poems, refers again and again to the correspondence he had with the American poet. No critic has gotten closer to these poems than Cox has.
      Take the case of ‘Wintergreen Ridge.’ Cox accurately claims that the poem is Niedecker’s best. But he bases his evaluation on observation of particulars. Here he explains the prosodic structure of the poem:

The lines occupy times of more or less equal length but  none of them is long, the equation is approximate, and  nothing requires the number of their syllables to be even  approximately equal. Differences can be compensated by inserting pauses and by lengthening or shortening sounds according to the demands of rhythm and  intonation. Shape of the line therefore varies with verbal texture, syntactic function, and the suprasegmental features that modify meaning. There is a good deal of give-and-take between the notional system of the verse and the actual characteristics of utterance.

Free verse has become such an accepted form that it often risks losing its original frisson. Thank goodness, then, for criticism like this. The exact way that Niedecker’s verse movement registers the imprint of creaturely life comes to light beneath Cox’s microscopic focus. Such acts of attention mark nearly every page of this book
      Collected Studies in the Use of English has neither a wide distribution nor an academic cachet. But for his capacious understanding, his taste, his curiosity and his first rate prose style Cox deserves his place alongside critics like Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport. If Cox’s readership is a small one, his book is built to last. And if this critic seems as inconspicuous as Bunting’s slowworm sliding his way through the ripe wheat, he is also, like that slowworm, an enduring ‘part of the marvel.’

Other responses to the book:

‘I have learned more from Kenneth Cox’s essays than from any other living critic of twentieth century poetry. He writes with masterly directness about the masters of indirection, and his summarizing power rivals that of Samuel Johnson.’ — Thom Gunn

‘I used to read Agenda only to catch Cox’s thoughtful, well-written essays, so it’s a pleasure to be able to have a compilation of them here.’ — Tony Frazer in Shearsman.

‘A 19th-century naturalist whose flora and fauna are 20th-century poets, Kenneth Cox is the model for how criticism would be written if there were anyone other than Cox who could write it.’ — Eliot Weinberger

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