“He is casual, unguarded, unsystematic. He plays with words…”
This is the late John Gross in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), describing G.K. Chesterton as critic, and Gross intends it as generous praise, as I would. His eight pages on Chesterton the writer, without reference to Chesterton the corpulent caricature, are a bracing restorative for so misunderstood a figure. They apply with comparable justice to Eric Ormsby, whose Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (Porcupine’s Quill, 2010) I was reading the same day. To Gross’ list of qualities I would add learned but not cripplingly academic, fluent in many languages including Arabic, funny, politically unobtrusive, and possessing a poet’s understanding of making poems.
I’m not by training or temperament a critic. I lack the requisite analytical powers and proselytizing streak. I know what I like but not always why. My reading proceeds intuitively. I read for pleasure – and instruction. I’m not inclined to finish a dull book unless someone is paying me to do so. When I consider the writers I admire, I see little in common among them except literary excellence. A good critic encourages us to share his enthusiasms. Charles Olson’s poetry is unreadable, as Ormsby says, and Geoffrey Hill’s is “full of rich and solemn music,” as Ormsby also says, and I’m content to let it go at that. If you disagree, the loss is yours. I won’t sacrifice pleasure in order to join anyone’s club – one of the reasons Ormsby is among the handful of critics who have taught me how to write about books.
“He plays with words”: Ormsby is a poet in love with language, which ought to be a prerequisite for anyone presuming to write. He quotes two lines from “Lycidas” (“…their lean and flashy songs / grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.”) and declares them “undiluted pleasure for the ear.” Ormsby always comes back to sound. Reading him has charged me with enthusiasm for my next reviewing assignment, a book of poems translated from the Polish, though I’m also grateful for the caution he issues at the end of his title essay:
“Our judgments may – and probably will – prove as perishable as the books they judge. This requires a special kind of humility: despite our best efforts, if the work is truly good, something will always elude our analysis. There’s a mystery here I don’t pretend to understand. Perhaps Emily Dickinson expressed it best:
“Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit – Life!”