Jiri Flajsar, Epiphany in American Poetry. (University of Olomouc, 2003). 133 pp. (paperback).
This 124-page monograph is highly recommended for students and scholars interested in epiphany, in American poetry after the 1950s, or in American studies topics, especially concerning the landscape conceived broadly to include social conditions and cityscapes and feelings toward the place lived in. The title is manageable to refer to but too broad to be helpful; I recommend the addition of a subtitle to specify the general area: "Epiphany in American Poetry: Lyric Verse after 1950 by Hugo, Levine, and Others."
The organization is simple, clear, and logical. Following the two-page Introduction stating the author's aim, the context of studies on epiphany, and the organization of the monograph, there are four unnumbered chapters and an eight-page conclusion. In the first main chapter, "Epiphany in Literature: A Historical Overview," Flajsar discusses definitions and theories and uses of epiphany according to many writers and scholars. The variety of references for such a specialized, important topic as epiphany shows the thorough research of Flajsar. What I found most helpful was the idea that epiphany is the central literary effect, having the role of organizing the narrative or overall structure.
This literature survey leads to Flajsar's original theory of epiphany in the next chapter, "The Epiphanic Mode in Contemporary American Poetry." Again, the title could be more accurately and specifically written-better as "The Epiphanic Mode in selected American Lyric poems after 1950." The chapter begins with a section entitled "I. A Working Epiphanic Terminology" followed by "II. Poets of the Epiphanic Moment," in which there are discussions of epiphanic poems by Blake, Whitman, Wright, Stern, Simic, Jackson. The two-part structure clearly shows Flajsar's intention of presenting an outline of a theory of epiphany and giving examples to show how and where it applies. Into his own theory Flajsar incorporates the views of Walter Pater, Ashton Nichols, Jonathan Holden and Stanley Plumly, among others. His presentation is convincing because his ideas are clearly defined and he gives examples to further clarify and justify them.
In the next chapter there is an extended interpretation of epiphany in at least 16 poems by Richard Hugo. The chapter is valuable because Flajsar draws some evaluative conclusions and selects the content according to what can be compared in the subsequent chapter with Levine's poetry: "In the best of Hugo, the ghosts of self, an inaccessible other, and landscape come alive in a strange, yet beautiful marriage of time, place, form, and emotion, reconciled within an epiphanic gesture of rhetorical embrace that melts a painful past and present with a hopeful future in a frozen instant of symbolic homecoming" (87).
On the basis of the same ideas about epiphany, primarily that it is the main structuring device of a poem, Flajsar interprets the role of this literary figure in 14 poems by Levine. Since the chapter is twenty six pages long, the interpretations do not aim at full discussions of each poem; instead, there is an emphasis on epiphany. This chapter is clearly continuous with the previous one because there are comparisons with Hugo's poems. The biographical summary and evaluation of Levine's strengths and weaknesses help make the chapter a brief holistic vision of Levine's poetics and as such would help a variety of readers with different needs and backgrounds.
The seven-page conclusion, "Towards Epiphany Criticism? The Future Trends," is primarily a defense of criticism based on epiphany. Flajsar presents some postmodern criticisms of general narratives and doubts about the value of epiphany at the center of such literary narratives. In contrast Flajsar answers the criticisms and presents the views of some critics who feel epiphany is a valuable idea for future criticism.
In conclusion, this monograph is recommended since it clearly yet thoughtfully presents ideas about the importance of epiphany, especially in American poems such as those by Hugo and Levine, whose poems, according to Flajsar, are redemptive-they allow readers to overcome dissatisfactions with American life.
University of Athens, Greece