Several times on each page Arthur Krystal writes something you want to remember, something you know will come in handy and qualify as what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” This slows down reading, of course, which is always a good thing, and leaves some pages almost opaque with underlinings and notes, but Krystal regularly writes things you may have thought in passing, or wish you had, but failed to articulate in words. Here, at random, is a nugget from Page 70 of his fourth collection of essays, This Thing We Call Literature (Oxford University Press, 2016): “It’s presumptuous of me to say it, but I don’t think our poets live for poetry as much as for the act of sharing their thoughts and feelings in the guise of poems.” Precisely. Most poets no longer write poetry. We know that. They make gestures that vaguely resemble poems. The problem is they continue to appropriate the name “poetry,” which only confuses the civilians. If we don’t call it “poetry,” what do we call it? Prose? Krystal identifies the problem with contemporary lineated language as “site-specific, tonal rather than dispositive.” He “miss[es] the sound it used to make.” Who cares what a poet thinks or feels? Just play the music.
Krystal is no crank. Detractors will dismiss him as “elitist” or “reactionary” but he is neither. He really loves literature. That used to be a not uncommon condition, like being able to sing in key or do the backstroke. Now it’s come to feel like having a notably trivial hobby, and this has happened in a remarkably short time. My parents were not readers and never went to college. We had few books in the house, and my taste for literature was deemed a little exotic (although, bafflingly, my mother once read Richard Yates’ excellent novel The Easter Parade). But if challenged they would have expressed respect and something like awe for book learning and the canon. Their reaction might have been reflexive and unthinking but it was genuine, an acknowledgement that our cultural inheritance, regardless of one’s familiarity with it, was worthy of preservation. Krystal writes about a lot of things in This Thing We Call Literature and he gives this reader much to think about, but for now I’ll quote this from “Listen to the Sound it Makes,” the essay cited above:
“Perhaps I’m a dinosaur who can’t make the shift from Palgrave to Pinsky—but I take no pride in it. I’m perfectly happy to be shown for a fool. But just as people can tell a good musician from a bad one, or a competent athlete from an extraordinary one, I believe I can distinguish among poets. I have a prejudice, however. While I think there are shadings or levels of skill among accomplished musicians and athletes, I feel that a poem without music is almost oxymoronic. Either you can write metrical verse or you can’t, no matter how well you express yourself. The problem is that too many people who cannot write in musical form champion others who are likewise unskilled.”
A well-read person is more likely to be good company than an illiterate. A love of books implies, but doesn’t guarantee, a sensibility of substance. The world is littered with bookish boors and monsters. Perhaps literature is merely the thing that fills the literature-shaped hole inside some of us. Or not.