In March 1965, Elizabeth Bishop wrote a letter from Brazil to her friend Randall Jarrell, the foremost poet-critic of their generation. She had been reading The Lost World, the last book of poems Jarrell would publish during his life (he died seven months later), and Bishop’s position was rather delicate. Jarrell, renowned for wit and critical ferocity (and generosity), was a long-time champion of her work. It’s clear from the letter and other sources that Bishop was more appreciative of Jarrell’s reviews than his poems – and rightly so. But even before making a few half-hearted efforts at praise, some of which she attributes to their mutual friend Robert Lowell, Bishop writes:
“I am NOT an articulate critic, as you know–I don’t really try to be, since I read for my own pleasure and comfort and curiosity only–so I just get intuitions here & there, and love this and am repelled by that, and let it go—”
Bishop, in fact, was a fine informal non-systematic critic. Poems, Prose, and Letters (Library of America, 2008) includes more than 100 pages of “Literary Statements and Reviews,” and her letters are filled with off-the-cuff literary observations, often acute, funny and worthy of our continued consideration. Her taste was almost impeccable. Poetry was her vocation and like any serious writer she acted as a de facto critic with every word she weighed, selected and rejected.
I am reading a book of poems for review and find myself in a familiar fix. The book is a worthwhile effort (already I’m sounding condescending). It is readable and serious and does not patronize its readers. These are rare virtues and not to be underestimated but the book is also rather dull and derivative. I want to tell readers to bypass it and look to the authors our poet has obviously mined for his language, tone and themes. My job would be easy if the book were memorably awful – or memorably good. I can’t fall back on theory because I have none, except knowing my affinities and aversions are strong but not absolute and unchanging. The urge to unify one’s whims, to make them consistent and pure – and probably totalitarian – is a conceit of youth. In a piece she wrote for inclusion in Mid-Century American Poets (1950), edited by John Ciardi, Bishop says the analysis of poetry is “growing more and more pretentious and deadly,” and continues:
“This does not mean that I am opposed to all close analysis and criticism. But I am opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it.”
So am I, and I’m enough of a professional to know my job is to parse the poet’s job. I’ll read him and reread him and try to remain true to his accomplishment and my own critical ethics. Like Bishop, I read for “my own pleasure and comfort and curiosity only,” and I only rarely find those qualities.