What happens when the marketing managers of academic publishing meet up with the partisans of radical multiculturalism? One result is the new Princeton Handbook of Multicultural Poetries, surely among the most cynically spurious volumes to have rolled off a university press in recent years. Edited by T. V. F. Brogan, a co-editor of the latest edition of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the Handbook is a compilation of articles from that venerable reference work, repackaged to appeal to the multi-culti, politically correct market. What seems to have happened is this: noticing that the Encyclopedia was selling rather well, someone had the inspired idea of peddling the same thing twice—simply dress it up in native garb, plaster the word “multicultural” on the cover, and presto! another $45 per volume ($17.95 in paper). Mr. Brogan says the editors of the Encyclopedia discerned a “need” for “smaller and more focused child-volumes on specific subject areas.” What need? The Princeton Handbook is simply a reprinting—“without redaction,” as Mr. Brogan slyly puts it—of the articles on national poetries from the Princeton Encyclopedia.

Except, that is, for Mr. Brogan’s own contribution to the Handbook. Our edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia was published before Mr. Brogan became involved. It begins with a straightforward preface, cast in staid, scholarly tones, which outlines the scope of the book. Drawing on the title of a novel by C. S. Lewis, Mr. Brogan introduces his Handbook not with a preface but a “Pre (Till We Have Faces) Face: Culture, Poetry, the Other, ‘Sexy Ideas,’ ‘Clerical Work,’ and Genuine Savagery.” One can just imagine poor C. S. Lewis, that most fastidious of writers, turning in his grave. Mr. Brogan castigates “the narrow and conformist ways that the academy construes thought.” But his preface—if we may call it that—is a veritable repository of contemporary academic poetry-speak, full of the cutesy, pseudo-breathless rhetoric of a pedagogue desperate to appeal to the adolescents whose sensibility he never outgrew.

Accordingly, Mr. Brogan comes through with the requisite quota of political grandstanding. He even manages the mandatory knock against Ronald Reagan (in a reference book about poetry!) and fulminates against American businesses for “proving Marx right after all about capitalism (though wrong about communism).” Replete with an illustration of a broken chain on its cover (signifying liberation, you see), the Handbook pretends to be an exciting new aid to existential awakening: “This is, most immediately, a book about poetry and culture(s). On a deeper level it is about life, about the meaningful rendering of life into few and memorable words that drench and abide, and—not least—about the experience of the Other.” In fact, though, this book is simply a series of encyclopedia articles. Here, to take an example at random, is the beginning of the entry on Byelorussian poetry, which “expresses the spiritual richness and resilience of a small East Slav country set between Poland and Russia, formerly the westernmost republic of the U.S.S.R. The earliest examples of verse in B. belong to Franïcisk Skaryna, . . . the Bible translator, publisher, and engraver, but he had no successors as a poet,” etc. All true, no doubt, and eminently informative. But it is pretty far from Mr. Brogan’s state of emergency. Some books come with epigraphs; in a more appropriate gesture, Mr. Brogan has furnished the Princeton Handbook with an “epitaph,” which our dictionary defines as “an inscription on a tombstone in memory of the one buried there.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 7, on page 2
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