Category Archives: Reviews

Why W.S. Merwin endures, and other best poetry to read this month

By Elizabeth LundWhy W.S. Merwin enduresThe Essential W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon) beautifully demonstrates why Merwin has been one of America’s most decorated and important poets for more than 60 years. Edited by Michael Wiegers, this concise collection contains the best of the two-time Pulitzer winner’s work, including selections from Merwin’s first book, “A Mask for Janus” (1952) as well as “The Lice” (1967) , “The Carrier of Ladders”(1970) and “The Shadow of Sirius” (2008). The book, which will be published in September, also includes translations and prose pieces that help give readers a fuller understanding of Merwin’s range and changing aesthetics. His earlier poems reflect the formal style of the time and are influenced by classical myths, biblical stories and medieval poetry and ballads. Over time, Merwin’s writing became looser and more experimental, eventually dropping all punctuation. His focus, too, shifted from a keen sense of impending loss to an abiding connection with the natural and unseen realms. What remained constant was Merwin’s striking, evocative imagery, as in these lines from “The Unwritten”: “Inside this pencil/ crouch words that have never been written/ never been spoken/ never been taught/ they’re hiding/ they’re awake in there/ dark in the dark/ hearing us/ but they won’t come out/ not for love not for time not for fire.” Merwin’s skill is matched by his wisdom and his ability to connect a particular moment with something larger. A singing bird in “The Wren,” for instance, is “one of those voices without question/ and without answer like the beam of some/ star familiar.”

Read the complete article

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Neruda’s Voice

by David Mason

Neruda’s VoiceI live, I still live, and I think many of us live inside the world Neruda discovered.

—Ariel Dorfman
.
. . . the voice is perhaps the most lasting incarnation of any existence. . . . It is in voices . . . that the dead continue to live.

—Alastair Reid
.
There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.

—Pablo Neruda
.
Forty-five years after his death, Pablo Neruda’s poetry still has the power to astonish and appall, awaken and chill us and leave us shaking our heads in bafflement or respect. There is such breadth and profligate intelligence in the work, which ranges from opaque surrealism to bighearted populism to Pan-American epic to shocking propaganda, that one hardly knows where to place it in our era of thwarted emotions. Clearly it is not of our time. Given Neruda’s relations with women, it is certainly not of the time of #MeToo. The work will not always sit well beside a mature feminist consciousness, and of course it will not please ideologues who can’t tell one form of socialism from another. Neruda changed, and his circumstances changed. As a man he could be a monster of egotism and a courageous dissident, a purblind Stalinist and a Roosevelt democrat. His poetry incarnates these shifts and siftings and restless experiments. The past is a moving target. Poetry keeps it alive.
.
Neruda’s poetry is embodied, contradictory, expressing public and private iterations of the life of a man, but we live in a time strait-jacketed by either/or thinking: either you’re a womanizer or you’re a flawless saint; either you’re a Libertarian or you’re a Stalinist; either you’re with us or you’re against us. Neruda frustrates contemporary appetites for correctness and justice, and some readers will dismiss him precisely on such limited grounds, as if the past could be purified to meet our astringent demands. To say Neruda was flawed is laughable. Humanity is flawed. That’s what makes us human.
.
Read the complete article

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

James Tate’s Last, Last Poems

By Matthew Zapruder

James TateWhen James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019. One of those poems, “Elvis Has Left the House,” appears in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue.
.
Over the course of his career, Tate won every imaginable award available to American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He was revered by poets of virtually every aesthetic persuasion, from stern formalists to wild experimentalists. He had a legion of poor imitators, whom my friends and I called “lost pilots” after the legendary, eponymous poem of Tate’s first book, which won the most prestigious prize for young poets of its time, the 1967 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. When he wrote that book, he was only twenty-two, a kid from a deeply religious Pentecostal family in Kansas City, who somehow found his way to poetry and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The legend goes that he just showed up, showed them his poems, and was admitted on the spot by the director of the program, Donald Justice. If that story’s not true, I don’t want to know.
.
Read the complete article

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Reviews

‘The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin’ by Geoffrey Hill

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin

From The London Review Bookshop

Geoffrey Hill’s last work, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, is an astonishing late sequence, his final ‘sad and angry consolation’. Formally and thematically expansive, the poems explore the relations between art and politics, heresy, and spirituality. Hill’s generous rage is a tonic for our dark times. ‘In truth he is a Parnassian and a sassy man,’ he writes of Hopkins; the words apply, just as exactingly, to Hill.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Geoffrey Hill: Unparalleled Atonement

by Daniel Evans Pritchard

Geoffrey Hill Unparalleled AtonementThe recently published edition of Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems appears to be an attempt by Yale University Press to atone for Hill’s unpardonable lapse from print on these shores, and I must begin by applauding them for doing so. It is also — as I think all selected editions are, to some extent — an attempt to introduce, or re-introduce, the writing of this unparalleled poet to the reading public. Perhaps no re-introduction is more warranted, necessary, or welcome. Every reader of poetry ought to be acquainted with Hill’s verse, and a slimmer, less overwhelming selected edition is certainly more appealing to many readers than the task of sifting through his individual collections, many unavailable in the United States. Unfortunately, those who are unfamiliar with Hill will find no guide to his work in this volume. Yale’s edition contains no foreword or introduction, nor a note from any editor, nor even a few words by the author — only a table of contents listing the poet’s collections, in chronological order, into which the reader blindly dives.
.
Although they include poems from (nearly) every collection, the editors of this volume clearly prefer Hill’s early career. Two of his first four collections — Mercian Hymns and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy — are the only ones which appear uncut; a mere twenty-two poems from Hill’s final two book-length collections are included; and his most recent collection, A Treatise of Civil Power, is ignored altogether. (The last slight is perhaps pardonable, as this volume was lifted, down to its page layout, from a Penguin UK edition that appeared before Treatise. Still, the omission shows a sad lack of care on Yale’s part.) Some of the selections that the editors made strike one as immediately comprehensible — in trimming Speech! Speech! and including the Mercian Hymns whole, particularly — but many of the individual choices were otherwise perplexing. Several times I felt that editors had cut key pieces, such as in Tenbrae and The Triumph of Love, without a sense that there was any underlying rationale. Although it remains a valuable edition, and one that allows a point of entry into a large, daunting body of work, a poet of Hill’s caliber certainly deserves better.

Read the complete review

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Poetic Artifice: A Theory of 20th-Century Poetry by Veronica Forrest-Thomson

This classic study, reprinted after more than 30 years, prefers bad new things to good old ones

David Wheatley

Poetic ArtificeThe death of Veronica Forrest-Thomson in 1975, aged just 27, is among the most galling and tragic losses to modern British poetry. Born in Malaya and raised in Glasgow, she published a first poetry collection at 20 and gravitated to Cambridge, where she was taught by JH Prynne. Heavily influenced by the close reading tradition of IA Richards and William Empson, her criticism also drew on French structuralist and poststructuralist theory, then much in the air.
.
Published posthumously in 1978 and now reprinted for the first time, her classic study Poetic Artifice marked a provocative intervention. There is a widespread and mistaken assumption, Forrest-Thomson argues, that poetry is important for what it tells us about the external world. Not so: poetry is important for its vindication of “all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal and logical devices” that make it what it is, and the production of “alternative imaginary orders”. Anything else is flim-flam. It is not the job of poetry to deliver states of “inarticulate rapture”, but to be the articulation of that rapture.
.
Read the complete review

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

SENTIMENT WITHOUT SENTIMENTALITY

by John Wilson

A Carnival Of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

SENTIMENT WITHOUT SENTIMENTALITYEven in antiquity, some writers lived to a ripe old age. (Sophocles was ninety or ninety-one when he died.) Until recently, though, they were the exception rather than the rule. Today, many have continued writing into their eighties (Ursula K. Le Guin and P. D. James, for example) and even their nineties (Czesław Miłosz comes to mind). Readers are living longer too, of course. Maybe we’ll soon have a new literary category, Old Adult, to match Young Adult. A major publisher and a commercial enterprise with a vested interest in the elderly could work together to get this category off the ground, establishing a hefty annual prize for the best OA novel.
.
A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, Donald Hall’s splendid miscellany, was published in July, just a couple of weeks after his death at age eighty-nine. Although he was best known as a poet, I’ve always preferred his prose. There is no continuous narrative in A Carnival of Losses, and only a perfunctory gesture at organizing the contents: What we get is precisely what the subtitle promises, and I rejoice in it. Speaking from the vantage of a seventy-year-old, I am already familiar with the associative leaps and seeming arbitrariness of the aging mind: a nuisance in some respects but a boon in others. In a loose series remembering a wild assortment of poets, all Hall has to say about Allen Tate is, “My recollections of some poets are brief. Allen Tate always looked grumpy.”

Read the complete review

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Reviews

OTHER WORLDS

New poems by Tracy K. Smith and Dana Levin.

By Dan Chiasson

OTHER WORLDSThe title of Tracy K. Smith’s new book of poetry, “Life on Mars” (Graywolf; $15), recalls the mid-century craze for all things Martian. Kids who grew up in the nineteen-forties and fifties, in the grip of Mars mania, had their own kids in the seventies; Smith, born in 1972 and a professor of creative writing at Princeton, was one of those kids, as was I. By then, Mars was a joke. The Viking images of the planet’s surface made it look as inhabitable as cat litter. David Bowie had a great, disillusioned single called “Life on Mars?” in 1973 (it inspired Smith’s title), about a girl forced to sit through the unendurable Hollywood fare of her parents’ childhoods—cavemen, cowboys, Martians, and the like. Wherever we were headed, in the vast, fathomless future, it wasn’t going to be outer space: the prospect of “life on Mars” was just another relic of our dreary life on earth.
.
Life on earth was particularly bad if you grew up black in the forties in Sunflower, Alabama, north of Mobile, as Smith’s father did. Not that he stuck around: he joined the Air Force, and eventually worked as an optical engineer on the Hubble space telescope. He died in 2008, and “Life on Mars” is Smith’s wild, far-ranging elegy for him. Its alternating cosmic breadth and intimate focus derives from the shared situation of poets and astronomers, squinting to glimpse immensity: “bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.” Smith’s own poetic focus, though polished, like the lenses of the Hubble, “to an impossible strength,” is often directed to the here and now: the book is by turns intimate, even confessional, regarding private life in light of its potential extermination, and resoundingly political, warning of a future that “isn’t what it used to be,” the refuse of a party piled with “postcards / And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim.”

Read the complete review

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

MAKE SONG OF THEM

Reviewing, and setting the record straight on Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art

BY ALFRED CORN

MAKE SONG OF THEMCharles E. Merrill, founder (with his friend Edmund C. Lynch) of the famous brokerage firm, probably never read this comment by President John Adams: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Engaged in “Commerce,” Charles Merrill might have expected his son to follow suit, but, when young Jamie said he wanted to be a poet, his father, according to sound investment practice, sent a sheaf of poems to literary experts for an opinion. Assured that this aspirant had talent, the senior Merrill, in good John Adams fashion, abandoned any opposition and supported his son’s artistic ambitions. With that talent and a very large fortune in hand, James Merrill went on to become one of the most famous poets of his time. He briefly held a desk job in the Army, and several times accepted to teach college poetry-writing courses, but otherwise never took any salaried work. His bank account gave him unlimited access to things that can feed literary composition: education, travel, theatre, books, music, art, porcelain, and the company of other established artists. Someone could write a Ph.D. thesis on the role that inherited wealth has played in the history of American poetry. James Russell Lowell, Amy Lowell, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Laughlin, Isabella Gardner, Frederick Seidel, and Harry Matthews all, with varying artistic results, benefited from it. As did James Merrill. Not only does money talk, it also sometimes writes poetry.
.
Merrill was gay and could be fairly certain that there would always be young men interested in him — but in varying degrees and with differing motives. A high percentage of his work is love poetry, the aching uncertainties and reversals of love providing requisite dramatic interest, since most other problems could be solved by signing a check. But like all rich people Merrill suffered from a nagging anxiety: “Are they interested in me or what I can do for them?” That anxiety could also be expanded into the question of whether poets and critics who professed interest in his work did so because of its intrinsic value or because they hoped to gain some sort of advantage. On the other hand, leftwing critics could be expected to attack him simply on the basis of his inherited privilege, whether or not his books happened to be good. Hammer’s exhaustive biography makes it clear that Merrill’s fortune, though it gave him the means to succeed, was also the source of several kinds of doubt and frustration.
.
Read the complete review

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

The Anxiety of Influence

By JOHN HOLLANDER

The Anxiety of InfluencePoets and prophets, like magicians, learn their craft from predecessors. And just as magicians will invoke the real or supposed source of an illusion as part of the patter, or distraction from what his hands are doing, the most ambitious poets also take some stance about sources in the past, perhaps for an analogous purpose.
.
It is not by chance that an official statement for Modern Literature on the question of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” as its author called it, should have been made a half-century ago by a critic who was also a poet. T.S. Eliot’s conjuror’s patter about the literary tradition that lay behind his–and all of truly modern–poetry invoked the Middle Ages, Dante, 17th-century English literature exclusive of Milton and French symbolism. It diverted his readers’ eyes from the confederate power of Tennyson’s ghost, unacknowledged, assisting him behind a screen. (Eliot’s contemporary, Ezra Pound, was more open about his own stage assistant, Browning’s spirit, as was Yeats about Shelley’s and Blake’s.) In his essay of 1919, Eliot declared that a poet must “develop or procure” a consciousness of the past, maintaining that if we moderns do indeed know more than dead writers, it is precisely they–the dead writers–who constitute what we know.
.
Harold Bloom of Yale, an interpretive scholar of English and American romanticism, has for years been propounding a view of literary history and its relation to creative originality quite antithetical to the allied formulations of Eliot and Pound. Along with his own teachers, Northrop Frye and Meyer H. Abrams, but in very different ways, Bloom has helped to make the study of Romantic poetry as intellectually and spiritually challenging a branch of literary studies as one may find. The recent study of the romantic tradition has corrected the modernist dogmas about romanticism–the very word evoked the imprecise, the vague, the rhetorical–and argued for the centrality of the major English poetic line which modernism rejected. Eliot hankered after the Christian orthodoxy, classicism and royalty; the tradition he turned away from, the line running from Spenser, to Milton through the romantic poets to Browning, Tennyson and Yeats, was protestant, visionary and, save at its terminus, revolutionary.

Read the complete review

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews