At the Brink of Infinity

At the Brink of Infinity

Poetic Humility in Boundless American Space

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262 pages, 6 x 9 inches
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"Jim von der Heydt's exciting study At the Brink of Infinity is as astute as it is timely. In smart and often pleasingly unconventional chapters on Emerson, Dickinson, Frost, Merrill and Bishop, von der Heydt shows that in an encounter with the boundlessness of American space, a lyric poet's "elemental belief is: she has things to learn." Moving gracefully from general philosophical themes to close readings of some of our best poems, At the Brink of Infinity should please any reader of American poetry."—David Orr

"At the Brink of Infinity is a critical performance of uncanny, spirited, Emersonian brilliance. With this book, James von der Heydt joins the small circle of critics whose work is commensurate with Emerson's own genius."—Robert D. Richardson, author, Emerson: The Mind on Fire

"Obsession with the infinite is an American trait, endowed as we are with two vast oceans and a dazzling literary tradition. James von der Heydt explores the brinksmanship of an Emersonian line where the American shoreline-sublime awakens feelings of expansiveness and diminution at once. This philosophically rich, critically nuanced study wrests American poetry from Hegelian narrative and shows us instances—from Emerson to Merrill—of imagination and nature made new in each intimate encounter."—Bonnie Costello, author, Shifting Ground: Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry

"James von der Heydt has written a dense, challenging, and philosophically ambitious book—venturesome enough to stand on the same shelf with the works of Feidelson, Cavell, and Buell. As he explores the Emersonian lineage in lyrical poetry, von der Heydt also manages to integrate an impressive command of Kant, Kierkegaard, and James into his lovely sequence of close readings. For me, the particular highlights of this capacious book are the new ways in which it opens out and illuminates the domestic architectures of Dickinson and Merrill."—John Elder, author, Reading the Mountains of Home

"At the Brink of Infinity opens fresh new horizons on four major American poets by asking what we mean when we use terms like 'major' and 'horizon' in thinking about poetry and the world. Artfully refracting questions of scale, scope, and ambition through the philosophical lens of Emerson's writings, James von der Heydt shows us how the topography of our world inscribes enduring figures for both eternity and finitude within the imagination. At the Brink of Infinity evokes sparkling constellations of meaning from the most diminutive of literary forms."—Srikanth Reddy, author, Facts for Visitors

From popular culture to politics to classic novels, quintessentially American texts take their inspiration from the idea of infinity. In the extraordinary literary century inaugurated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the lyric too seemed to encounter possibilities as limitless as the U.S. imagination. This raises the question: What happens when boundlessness is more than just a figure of speech? Exploring new horizons is one thing, but actually looking at the horizon itself is something altogether different. In this carefully crafted analysis, James von der Heydt shines a new light on the lyric craft of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill and considers how their seascape-vision redefines poetry's purpose.

Emerson famously freed U.S. literature from its past and opened it up to vastness; in the following century, a succession of brilliant, rigorous poets took the philosophical challenges of such freedom all too seriously. Facing the unmarked horizon, Emersonian poets capture—and are captured by—a stark, astringent version of human beauty. Their uncompromising visions of limitlessness reclaim infinity's proper legacy—and give American poetry its edge. Von der Heydt's book recovers the mystery of their world.

Table of contents: 


1. The Beachcomber's Horizon
2. An Everywhere of Silver
3. Privacies of Storm
4. Dickinson Outdoors
5. Frost and the Unmoving World
6. Bishop's Weighted Eye
7. Merrill's Expansiveness

Works Consulted