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.