The best criticism, I’m becoming convinced, is hardly criticism at all, at least not principally, but rather a mingling of sympathetic sensibilities. Think of Eliot on Samuel Johnson, or Jarrell on Kipling or Stead. What passes for criticism too often amounts to riding a fashionable or idiopathic hobbyhorse external to the work at hand, a spectacle reminiscent of the watchmaker whose favorite tool is a coal shovel. In their priggish zeal, such critics appear not to be having a very good time, nor bothering to share pleasure with readers. They are literary wet blankets, humorless apparatchiks of theory.
Kay Ryan is of a different tribe. I’ve bought magazines solely to read her latest poems, which are always precise, concise and often funny. How many contemporary poets make us laugh intentionally? Go here for a selection of her poetry and prose, and here for the sort of illuminating, pleasure-giving criticism I was trying to describe -- Ryan’s review of The Poems of Marianne Moore, first published in 2004 in the Yale Review. But to digress for a moment, consider the foreword Moore wrote for Predilections, her prose collection published in 1955. Here, in its entirety, it is:
“Silence is more eloquent than speech – a truism; but sometimes something that someone has written excites one’s admiration and one is tempted to write about it; if it is in a language other than one’s own, perhaps to translate it – or try to; one feels that what holds one’s attention might hold the attention of others. That is to say, there is a language of sensibility of which words can be the portrait – a magnetism, an ardor, a refusal to be false, to which the following pages attempt to testify.”
Moore speaks of “admiration,” “attention,” “sensibility,” “magnetism,” “ardor” – an exotically old-fashioned vocabulary by today’s standards, a hybrid of Whitman and Henry James. She also sounds like Ryan, who writes of Moore:
“She aims to liberate the mind. It is an elegant paradox that close application to the physical somehow does release the mind from the physical. There is probably never a time when poetry couldn't stand a good dose of Marianne Moore's profound respect for the mind and her tonic view of the poet's job. She will always represent a grease-cutting alternative to the poetry of self-occupation.”
Beautiful. Ryan loves Moore enough and has wrestled with her work long enough to occasionally find fault with the poems, with their difficulty, allusiveness and – well, strangeness. Only a lover can possess such confidence, knowing she will not be spurned. As Ryan puts it:
“When a poet delights us, it's amazing how much we'll put up with. I feel as indulgent and proud as a parent.”
We can never know what Moore’s poems know for they know too much, but she is ever reminding us to pay attention, to honor creation by observing it in detail and prizing its bottomless beauty. In “The Mind Is an Enchanted Thing” she writes:
feeling its way as though blind,
walks along with its eyes on the ground.”
My English Romanticism professor once asked us to imagine Shelley and Keats walking along a woodland path. The former makes grand gestures at the heavens, marveling at the vastness of the cosmos. Keats’ eyes are focused on the ground, noting mushrooms, the shape and color of flowers, the glistening web of an orb weaver. In this sense at least, Moore is ever a Keats, never a Shelley. Eric Ormsby describes her as “one of the most fastidiously sensuous writers in the English language; her perceptions garb themselves in a surface chinoiserie beneath which the intellectual and erotic meld in a seamless and articulate continuum of pleasure.”
Language lush with music and thought – like Moore’s, like Keats’, like Wallace Stevens’ – packs an erotic kick, regardless of the ostensible subject. In her review of Moore’s letter for the Boston Review, Ryan writes:
“Moore's letters reveal how literal her poems are, how of a piece with her life. Everywhere is evidence of her darting, delicate, exacting, pan-interested mind. Detail is poetry to her. Throughout her life she receives exotic bric-a-brac from traveling friends. Her exquisite appreciations stimulate further gifts, and the cycle continues, object to object, pleasure irresistibly inviting pleasure, leapfrogging like her poems.”
“Pleasure irresistibly inviting pleasure”: Ryan’s prose illuminating Moore’s poetry is almost more pleasure than a reader can bear.