[lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

  • From: "Mike Geary" <atlas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 18:59:48 -0500

My point, Lawrence, is that there's no correct way to approach literature or 
any art.  I tend toward reader-response criticism more than any other, 
certainly more so than formalism or New Criticism though I think they all have 
valid points to make.  Deconstruction can be fun, but I've never read a 
deconstructive critique that brought me more understanding and appreciation for 
the work itself, only amusement at life's inherent incoherence.  Knowing 
Berryman wrote a poem may tell us something about Berryman, but it says nothing 
about the work itself.  Only you as a reader can give meaning to it or -- as 
Stanley Fish would say -- only you as a member of a reading community.

For any not familiar with Reader-Response (or Reader-Oriented) criticism, I 
include Roethke's poem's My Papa's Waltz and a URL to a Reader-Response essay 
around the poem.

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

The essay is here:

Mike Geary

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Lawrence Helm 
  To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx 
  Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 12:13 AM
  Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

  Interesting idea Mike, but Dream Songs, Berryman's magnum opus, was 
autobiographical.  Henry was a nickname one of his wives, Anne I think, had for 
him.  She called him Henry and he called her Mabel.  So if you read the Dream 
Songs, whatever your poetical philosophy, you'll know how it ends.

  Ages ago poets wrote poems that could be separated from their lives -- at 
least that is an idea it would be hard to disprove, Iliad, Odyssey, and 
Beowulf, for example, but consider The Divine Comedy.  If we didn't know so 
much about Dante we might not have realized that some of those in Hell are 
there because Dante was interested in getting even with them.  He was a very 
vengeful fellow.  And of course there was a theory in the early 20th century to 
the effect that a poet's life had nothing to do with his poetry, but that idea, 
I believe, has long since been abandoned.  Now, I believe, most critics think 
you need to understand a poet's bio to understand his poetry.  For example, 
Hugh Kenner wrote The Pound Era and his insights reawakened an interest in 
Pound (very difficult to understand without biographical insights).  And then 
there is Stephen Burt's Randall Jarrell and his Age.  Jarrell was considered a 
critic primarily except for a few anthologized poems, but Burt opened up his 
poetry to general appreciation. 

  However, I didn't mean to imply that my opinion of Berryman's poetry was 
affected by my poor opinion of him, if that's what you were thinking.  What I 
meant to convey was that Berryman gave up his life, in a manner of speaking, 
for his poetry and when I first read it I thought it was marvelous -- in other 
words I tended to think it was (arguably) worthwhile to give up a life for such 
a body of great poetry.  When I reread it years later it didn't have the same 
effect on me.  When I first read it I thought Berryman would go down as a major 
poet.  Now I think perhaps not; which, if I am right in my current opinion of 
him, means he gave up his life for something of minor value, so to speak.  So 
that's one thing I thought.

  Another is that they (Berryman and his competitors) may not have been in it 
for the absolute value of their poetry but for the fame.  They knew each other. 
 Toward the end it was important to Berryman to be considered king of the 
poetic hill.  Was he king or was it Lowell?  Lowell seemed to give up toward 
the end.  Lots of poets seemed to fall by the wayside, and they held grudges, 
Allen Tate for example.  They wanted the poetic prize but couldn't compete, and 
they were bitter.  In other words they weren't measuring themselves against any 
absolute idea of poetic value but against the relative idea of who was to be 
recognized as the top-dog poet.


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