Kipling, Auden & Co.

I just don’t know how to begin to explain how much I loved this book. It’s wise, and sweet, and witty, and cruel. It’s fresh, and fascinating, and funny, and true. It shook up my opinions, and changed my mind about things I thought were long settled; it reaffirmed my ideas about things I’d loved for years. It brought out my true calling as a reader, and made me want to do nothing but read for weeks on end.

And it’s not a novel, this time, that stirred me this way. It’s a book, mostly, of literary criticism. Randall Jarrell was a poet (you’ve probably read his “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” or “The Woman at the Washington Zoo”) and an author of children’s books and novels. The thing that made him a lion, though, the place where he always got to the heart of things, the way he was always right, was in the matter of criticism. Jarrell was friends with many poets, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Penn Warren. He was incredibly widely-read, and he knew — he always knew — when he was reading real, original poetry, even if it was unformed and rough, and when he was reading something that would never be poetry. In a group of reviews he did for the Partisan Review, we see this one:

Mr. Evans’s title [Chorus of Bird Voices] is almost enough of a review for his book. While ailing in Syria, he wrote a song for every species of North American bird (I am no ornithologist, but there can’t be any more of the damn things); it has seldom been better done. This is poetry which instructs its writer and entertains its reader (the functions of poetry, I have read); a missionary could hardly be more harmlessly employed. Mr. Evans is an amiable, unpretentious, and tolerant person — he apparently dislikes nothing but cigarettes — and won my heart immediately: more than I can say for most of the poets I am reviewing. But then, Mr. Evans is no poet.

He can be terribly funny, like this, and also very seriously critical. Jarrell is as disheartened by a bad poem, or a mediocre one by a good poet, as you or I would be by… I don’t know. A family member committing a crime? His long pieces on e.e. cummings, carefully dissecting him shred by shred, completely changed my mind about that poet. But he also takes enormous joy when he finds the real thing: “Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Robert Graves’s Collected Poems are worth a long walk through sand, worth reading by the light of a bottle of lightning bugs, worth more than anybody is ever likely to pay for them –” He is a true reader, as he draws the distinction himself.

A critic, unless he is one in a thousand, reads to criticize; the reader reads to read… When one reads as a linguist, a scholar, a New or Old or High or Low critic, when one reads the poem as a means to an end, one is no longer a pure reader but an applied one. The true reader “listens like a three year child:/ The Mariner hath his will.” Later on he may write like a sixty-three-year-old sage, but he knows that in the beginning, unless ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of art.

He has so many wonderful things to say about poetry (and I repeat, he is nearly always right — those poets and novelists that he dismisses have been forgotten, and those he finds interesting are still among us) that it’s easy to forget what he says about critics and criticism. But it’s clean, pungent, and as valuable to book bloggers as it is to any other kind of critic.

Good criticism, which points out badness or mediocrity, and actually scares away buyers from most books, is something the publishers cannot tolerate. Good criticism, which is often involved or difficult, and which always tells the public not what it wants but what is good for it, is something the commercial public doesn’t care for either.

There are other things in this wonderful volume, too: no fewer than three essays on Kipling, in which he makes great strides toward convincing the modern world that Kipling is not that “clothing-store dummy-with-the-solar-topee that we have agreed to call Kipling,” but a great, slightly odd, master of real writing; two essays on racecars; reviews of audio recordings of Shakespeare; a beautiful and moving deconstruction of his own poem “The Woman at the Washington Zoo”. There seems to be nothing his great and generous heart wouldn’t embrace (except bad poetry, and even then he was sorry.)

You could spend six months reading this book, dipping in and out of it, or you could read it in a few enthralled days, the way I did. But do not miss this book, this author. I followed another of Michael Dirda’s recommendations in Bound to Please to get here, and I’ve seldom been happier; if I could put this book into your hands, you’d be glad of it, too.

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11 Responses to Kipling, Auden & Co.

  1. Anthony says:

    It sounds rather special so I am glad I have it on order, sadly on a slow ship by the looks of it. I too followed Dirda’s recommendation from Bound to Please.

  2. Study Window says:

    I love the idea of an applied reader. I want to think further about this, but I suspect that I am being an applied reader when I am aware of time passing and a true reader when I ‘wake up’ and discover that hours have gone past and I have simply not noticed.

    • Jenny says:

      This seems like part of the distinction — and I know there is a difference for me between reading “professionally” and reading for pleasure. Perhaps all my reading should initially be for pleasure and my critical faculties should engage afterward.

  3. Valerie says:

    This sounds awesome. You’ve convinced me to get this one ASAP. I don’t know too much about Randall Jarrell himself, but I see him quoted quite often whenever I read about poetry (anthologies, etc). So the name is very familiar.

    I’m also going to have to learn some more about Michael Dirda, also!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s truly great. If I can convince you to read it, I win a toaster!

      Michael Dirda is the book critic I love best. I’ve literally never gone wrong with a suggestion of his. He hits it out of the park for me every single time (unlike, say, Nancy Pearl, who bats only about .250.)

  4. Jenny says:

    I feel unlearned – I recognize the name Randall Jarrell, and the title “Woman at the Washington Zoo”, but only very vaguely, and I don’t think I’ve read anything by him. What does he think of Auden? I like some of Auden’s poetry, and some not so much, and he made me mad by talking trash about Robert Browning, so – yeah, lots of conflicting emotions there. :p

    • Jenny says:

      Look up “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” You’ve probably read it in an anthology somewhere. He thinks Auden is one of our truly great poets, but that not all of his poetry is equally great — that by the end he was phoning it in, but even his phoning it in was more professional and worth reading than lots of other poets. I can’t do better than recommend you read the essays. They are just amazing. And the one he does, carefully reading some of Housman — blew me away.

  5. JaneGS says:

    There you go again, telling me about a book that I must read, which means breaking my only-read-book-I-own vow!

    >You could spend six months reading this book, dipping in and out of it, or you could read it in a few enthralled days

    I imagine I will read it slowly…I can almost savor it now.

    Even though I’ve read a fair amount of classic poetry, I still feel intimidated by it. I imagine these book will help with that :)

    Wonderful review–it’s so nice when you find something that resonates so completely.

    • Jenny says:

      This book broke that vow for me, Jane! This was the first book I’d bought for nearly a year, and I’m so glad I own it. Jarrell will make poetry seem intimate — a household matter. I hope you love it.

  6. rebeccareid says:

    This sounds FABULOUS!!

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