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FESTIVAL OF BOOKS | Puzzles That Remain Dreams

TWENTY QUESTIONS. By J.D. McClatchy . Columbia University Press: 224 pp., $22.50 : TEN COMMANDMENTS: Poems. By J.D. McClatchy . Alfred A. Knopf: 120 pp., $21

April 19, 1998|EDMUND WHITE | Edmund White is the author of numerous books, including the novel "The Farewell Symphony." He has just finished a short biography of Proust

If there is some truth to the idea that every book of poems is also a theory of poetry, then that idea is handsomely endorsed by J.D. McClatchy's simultaneous publication of a collection of literary essays and of his first collection of poems since the memorable "The Rest of the Way" (1990). "Twenty Questions" and "Ten Commandments" endorse each other: The poems present McClatchy's patent of nobility, his right to pass judgment on his contemporaries, just as the essays demonstrate how far-reaching are the tastes and recognitions that underlie his own verse.

I think probably no American poet-critic since Randall Jarrell has written such beautiful prose or wielded such manifold and supple terms of analysis. McClatchy analyzes poetry as only a poet could, with an insider's knowledge of the craft--and of the terrors of the blank page. His observations are part of the insider's quirky know-how. "Wilbur's poems do not especially gain by being read in bulk--as, say, [Robert] Lowell's do," McClatchy will typically remark in an admiring essay about Richard Wilbur, even though McClatchy's admiration is always tempered by wit and objectivity, even occasionally by mordant humor.

Often, McClatchy will proceed through pairs of contrasting adjectives; "the absurd and solemn, the painful and frivolous" (in describing Stephen Sondheim). In comparing Sondheim to light poets Samuel Hoffenstein and Dorothy Parker, McClatchy says that Sondheim shares "their instinct to invoke conventions--both poetic and social--and then subvert them." In the same essay, McClatchy (a master of the apt quotation) remarks, "Valery once said that poetry is not speech raised to the level of music, but music drawn down to the level of speech. That is what these songs do: music becomes speech, speech that flickers and gleams within the glass lamp of form."

In writing about the late James Wright, who marked a whole generation of poets, McClatchy combines a precise critical vocabulary with a gift for quotation. He writes that Wright's last collection, "This Journey," is "the most Horatian of his books--if by that term we mean what Auden meant: to look on the world with a happy eye, but from a sober perspective." The last essay in the book, in fact, is a bright, funny but impeccably correct translation of Horace's "Art of Poetry." McClatchy does not deign to insert trendy contemporary references into his translation; as he puts it, "Nothing dates faster than relevance."

In an essay about W.S. Merwin, McClatchy makes this useful distinction: "There are some poets--Shakespeare, Keats, Browning, Stevens--whom we admire for their transcendent art as it plays over all the embossed surfaces of human life. But there are others--Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson--who we feel were granted a vision, access to the other side of experience." In discussing "the sublime" as it is sounded in James Merrill's "Scripts for the Pageant," McClatchy says, "[I]t is not, like epic or romance, a genre. It is a tone, but a tone raised to such a pitch that it becomes subject matter." Perhaps Merrill elicits McClatchy's most perceptive remarks. They were friends and often shared news about their works in progress.

If, based on a close reading of McClatchy's essays, we were asked to guess at the members in his personal pantheon of English-language poets, we would surely start with Whitman and Dickinson and proceed through Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden and end with Elizabeth Bishop and Merrill. If we stick with just the Americans, such a list immediately proves the point McClatchy made in an earlier book that there is no such thing as a national style: Rather, what we have are congeries of regional styles, if the word "regional" is stretched to include black, feminist and gay poetry.

Whitman's poetry McClatchy calls "the efflorescence of High Romanticism in American poetry," "a love of the nation and its possibilities." McClatchy rejects the idea of Whitman as a yapping barbarian and comes up with the idea of an inspired miniaturist, whose catalogs portray a varied life as detailed and glowing as high medieval book illuminations. In a personal essay about reading, McClatchy tells us that he discovered Emily Dickinson in a class at Yale taught by Harold Bloom. "Like all great teachers, he merely brooded aloud. His questions of a poem--'What exactly, my dears, does Miss Dickinson mean by 'circumference'?--were nearly always unanswerable, but prompted endless discussion (abruptly cut off by another oracular question on a different matter). The effect of these lessons was only felt hours later, at home, in bed with the book. It was then that I read Dickinson, and listened--because I had been taught to challenge her--as she took the traditional language of belief, emptied it of any reassurance, then charged it anew with a startling force. In their own way, her methods mirrored my teacher's . . . and became my teacher."

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