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The Boston Phoenix Booster Shots

Today's poetry critics veer dangerously close to mere cheerleading.

By Adam Kirsch

APRIL 20, 1998: 

TWENTY QUESTIONS, by J.D. McClatchy. Columbia University Press, 200 pages, $22.50.


It is sometimes thought that criticism flourishes most at times when creative vigor is in deficit," wrote T.S. Eliot, the last great poet-critic in English. "Rather, you may say that the development of criticism is a symptom of the development, or change, of poetry." By this standard, poetry today is stagnating; there is no impassioned criticism being written by poets, there is no one to help us redefine the past as a way of seeing a new future for the art. In their own ways, J.D. McClatchy and Fred Chappell, poet-critics of very dissimilar temper and ability, both illustrate the predicament of criticism today; their two books, for all their differences, seem to be stuck in neutral, content to describe the state of poetry without burning to change it. And, without intending to, they bear out Eliot's dictum: only criticism that aims to change poetry is worthy of the name.

McClatchy and Chappell labor at opposite poles of the literary world. Chappell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, writes determinedly practical criticism; more reviewer than critic, and more explainer than reviewer, he is content to act as a tour guide through vast tracts of mediocrity and obscurity. Virtually every book he discusses in A Way of Happening is without the slightest literary value; yet he maintains his imperturbable good spirits, praising loudly and condemning, when he must, in a polite murmur. McClatchy, by contrast, is one of America's most prominent poets and a very intelligent critic who writes about (and often knows personally) the leading lights of the age. Yet even he seems content to celebrate his subjects -- who are, admittedly, more worthy than Chappell's -- and refuses to probe at the weak spots of Bishop or Merrill, Heaney or Wilbur.

Chappell's book is made up of a series of omnibus reviews, most of which first appeared in the Georgia Review. Each piece has some theme -- science and poetry, love poems, the long poem -- but these were clearly pegs on which Chappell could hang the five or six books he wanted to discuss, and he has no interest in getting at the essence of these subjects. Instead, he describes -- and describes books of such evident terribleness that one wonders how he could bear to read them. Here we are in the garbage dump of poetry, where we find lines like "With my feet futzing forward like whiz kids on dope" (which has "zip, tang, and rumble," Chappell says) and "tune around the verses/fast time and swing out/head set in a groove/felt some good sounds" (whose author, Chappell writes, is "a master technician").

Chappell is a good representative of the poetry boosterism common today, so happy that any poetry is being written and published that its quality is a matter of indifference. Indeed, criticizing its quality is seen as offering aid and comfort to the Philistine enemy. The very proliferation of poetry books and writers, at a time when readers seem to be vanishing, is a good thing, according to Chappell: "Literate citizens should be expressing their thoughts and feelings on paper; their emotional lives are so furiously busy that they really don't have time for the secondhand emotions of others." Notice the insidious use of the word citizens, as though writing awful poetry were somehow conducive to civic merit; notice, too, the automatic equation of poetry with "emotional lives," the reduction of art to therapy and gossip. When this is an accepted view of poetry, it is no use worrying about the Philistines: they are already within the gates.

J.D. McClatchy, of course, is no Philistine. The editor of the Yale Review and the author of a new book of poems, The Ten Commandments, McClatchy is an intelligent, sensitive, and serious critic, and Twenty Questions is an interesting book. It is most interesting, oddly enough, when it is least engaged in actual criticism, when it is discussing the state of poetry generally or describing the author's own evolution as a reader and writer. There are 20 pieces here, not all of them actually about poetry -- one is a (very good) memoir of coming out, another a discussion of Degas, a third a translation of Horace's Ars Poetica. But even when McClatchy's descriptions and analyses are insightful and valuable, they are still descriptive and analytical, not actually critical.

The best piece in the book is the title essay, which takes the form of a series of questions posed and answered by the author. He lays out the geography of poetry after modernism, and asserts that the greatest influence on today's poetry is Elizabeth Bishop. This is not an obvious judgment, and McClatchy defends it well: "Anyone would have guessed that Lowell, the most prodigiously gifted poet of his generation and the most ambitious, would still set the standard. . . . What is strange is how [Bishop's] influence . . . has been felt in the literary culture. . . . It may well be that what younger poets 'got' from Bishop . . . is not a style to imitate but a part of themselves her example discovered for them and in them." And McClatchy demonstrates a real sympathy with Bishop's sensibility, her reticent confessions and deceptively calm observations.

It is interesting, however, that even McClatchy calls Lowell the more gifted and ambitious poet; and while he explains Lowell's eclipse as the product of a turn toward a more private and apolitical poetry, he does not pass judgment on that turn. Bishop's influence on contemporary poetry is clear, but it is not clear that it has been salutary. She seems to have licensed the use of a kind of mournful, meandering descriptiveness used to express quiet self-pity, a mode that can be found in much of the poetry Chappell deals with. Perhaps we need the example of Lowell's musicality, force, and, yes, ambition to counteract that turn.

McClatchy is good on Bishop, and on Pope -- his reading of Pope's "Epistle to Miss Blount" explores that poet's complex and moving tone. But when he is writing about the living, he seems too inclined to pull his punches, to describe lavishly rather than inquire pointedly. There are two pieces here on Merrill, a reminiscence and a discussion of The Changing Light at Sandover. The charming reminiscence, first published in the New Yorker, shows us Merrill as a kind of gilded eccentric, slightly Audenesque but with much more money, and more earnestness as well. The critical piece, however -- "Encountering the Sublime" -- concedes too much to Merrill. His book-length poem, built around his

Ouija-board communications with the dead and with angels, is problematic almost exactly because its vision of the sublime is so flawed, so difficult to take seriously. Yet McClatchy praises its encounters with the sublime, with "extremes of otherness, with a transcendence beyond the reach of art and the limits of self-possession." He does not consider that perhaps, if the sublime can be reached only through a parlor game, it is a dead concept for our time. In this piece, and in pieces on Heaney, Wilbur, and other illustrious contemporaries, McClatchy does not challenge his subjects' first premises; and so his essays read more like celebrations than critiques.

Two books about poetry, then, neither of them really books of criticism. McClatchy's essays are well worth reading, Chappell's merely depressing; but neither one seems to want to use prose to encourage the "development, or change, of poetry." And at a time when poets do not take criticism seriously as part of their custodial duty toward poetry, such prose cannot be written. "English must be kept up," Keats wrote, and criticism is an important part of that keeping up. Poets today seem insensible of the responsibility.

Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant at the New Republic.

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