Cole Swensen Essay - Critical Essays


Cole Swensen’s books of poetry can be considered intellectual investigations of art, culture, history, and language. Swensen’s use of ekphrasis, or the poetic interpretation or exploration of the plastic arts, has dominated her work. Her own interest in ekphrasis is part of a larger push in contemporary poetry to engage other forms of art because, she says, “there’s been a reduction of actual intersection between the arts, or at least between poetry and the visual arts during the last half-century.” However, Swensen is not content merely to describe art; she wants, rather, to write with art, to write in collaboration with other arts. Swensen’s work is often characterized as postmodern, influenced by Language poetry in its regard for the material nature of language. However, Swensen’s poetry maintains a strong lyrical quality by emphasizing the musicality of the line and a visual artist’s eye for detail. Angela Ball, in her review of Swensen’s The Glass Age, describes Swensen’s work as “neo-modernist” because of its interest in “high culture.” Swensen’s poetry is decidedly intellectual, often employing associative linkages to build her poetic sequences, while managing, however, to stay accessible by virtue of her simultaneous commitment to physical realities and sensuality.

Swensen, as a teacher and writer, emphasizes “writing as thinking,” and in interviews, she stresses that her poetry writing often occupies for her the same space as her academic essay writing. In fact, she often synthesizes others’ texts with her own, using quotations and passages as one would in an academic essay. More often than not, her projects are concerned with historical and critical research, and the resulting books of poems serve not only as a works of art but also as works of intellectual inquiry. For example, Ours explores the life and times of André Le Nôtre, head gardener to Louis XIV and designer of the parks and gardens of Versailles. Such Rich Hour uses the calendar illuminations of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1410), commissioned by Jean, duc de Berry, to investigate Europe’s transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Book of a Hundred Hands is similarly organized. Here, the human hand serves as a concrete example of humanity’s unique expression.

In other words, Swensen tackles events, persons, and places of historical significance by zeroing in on the given period’s culture, in particular, its artistic life. By building layer upon layer of inquisitive meditation, she plays on and with certain words, phrases, and images of significance to the overall project, while simultaneously musing on the impact of these concepts in the present-day world. In this way, Swensen creates a kind of double vision. She is able to comment both on the past and on the present by working to maintain a point of view that is in flux. This voice or point of view is sometimes collective, sometimes singular, but always universal and accessible, able to span time and space. Swensen often incorporates lyric essays as introductions, afterwords, and bibliographies in order to better frame her projects. Swensen, despite the intellectual intensity of her work, is quick to give her readers the tools they need to help them fully experience and engage with the poetry.


Ours centers on seventeenth century French gardener and landscape designer André Le Nôtre. This collection...

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