Imagine Your Audience
|August 29, 2012|
Le corps de ma brune puisque je l’aime comme ma chatte habillée en vert salade comme de la grêle c’est pareil, Joan Miró, 1925
I may not know what reviews are for, but I know who they are for: their readers. And it behooves reviewers to keep those readers in mind. One reason I’ve enjoyed reviewing for Poetry is that I picture its audience to be pretty much my ideal one, knowledgeable enough that I can assume familiarity with poetic concepts and history, but broad enough to keep me on guard against the excessively technical or clannish. But not every reviewer for Poetry has imagined its audience in the same way, and it’s fascinating to hear how many different pitches echo through the archives.
The sense of audience depends a great deal on the age in which the review is written, of course. In the magazine’s early days, when its contributors and readers perhaps considered it less a public forum than a semiprivate club, reviews often sounded like overheard conversations between like-minded initiates. I love this opening of Ezra Pound’s May 1914 notice of Yeats’s Responsibilities, where Pound congratulates both himself and his readers for their intelligence, and makes it sound as though his views on Yeats are matters of utmost public urgency.
I live, so far as possible, among that more intelligently active segment of the race which is concerned with today and tomorrow; and, in consequence of this, whenever I mention Mr. Yeats I am apt to be assailed with questions: “Will Mr. Yeats do anything more?”, “Is Yeats in the movement?”, “How can the chap go on writing this sort of thing?” And to these inquiries I can only say that Mr. Yeats’s vitality is quite unimpaired.…
It’s marvelous to picture Pound behind a podium at a noisy press conference, flashbulbs popping in his face, as reporters besiege him with these queries—but of course at the time such burning questions were in fact of interest to a relatively small, not to say modest audience.
Also in the early days, though, many reviews seem designed to enlarge that audience through gentle education. In March 1923, Harriet Monroe herself wrote a review titled “A Contrast,” setting side by side The Waste Land by one T. S. Eliot and The Box of God by Lew Sarett, known to his age as “America’s Foremost Woodsman-Poet” but to ours not at all. (The poor fellow doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.) This is a wonderful performance by Monroe. She first offers a patient, insightful, and clear account of Eliot’s poem, which “shows us confusion and dismay and disintegration, the world crumbling to pieces before our eyes and patching itself with desperate gayety into new and strangely irregular forms.” But she does not, as you might expect, use Eliot’s modern achievement to belittle the old-fashioned woodsman-poet. On the contrary, it’s Eliot who’s taken to the woodshed:
Yet all the time there are large areas of mankind to whom [Eliot’s] thinking does not apply; large groups of another kind of intellectuals whose faith is as vital and constructive as ever was the faith of their crusading forefathers. To the men of science, the inventors, the engineers, who are performing today’s miracles, the miasma which afflicts Mr. Eliot is as remote a speculative conceit, as futile a fritter of mental confectionery, as Lyly’s euphemism must have been to Elizabethan sailors. And these men are thinkers too, dreamers of larger dreams than any group of city-closeted artists may evoke out of the circling pipesmoke of their scented talk.
As you’ll have surmised, it turns out that the sturdy Sarett is just as appropriate a poet for the inventors and engineers as Eliot is for the city slickers. Such equanimity! At a moment like this, one realizes why Poetry had to be born in Chicago, a great city but not one to suffer futile fritters gladly. Did Monroe realize Eliot’s superiority to Sarett? I will venture that she did. But by using the more accessible Sarett as a foil, without denigrating him, she’s able to make Eliot’s “masterpiece of decadent art” seem surprisingly approachable.
Pale Youths in Love
I remember when I was a pre-teen and they moved into a loft across the street from me in Tribeca, where I lived. And an older neighbor friend told me they were living in her building, on the top floor. I saw him at my corner deli, and on the street smoking, but never her. At night, I sometimes looked up at their windows and saw their lights on. He was not very impressive in person. Cute, but no big deal.
What is Work?
Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving the needs of a community rather than just those of an individual and his or her immediate family.
Genesis: A Supreme Fiction
It occurred to me that Genesis is such a supreme fiction, or perhaps it is the supreme fiction in western culture, which begat many others. For thousands of years this book has been the mirror or lamp that reveals what reality consists of – regarding the nature of human existence, the cosmos and God. Or, to put it differently: the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
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When we read literature from the 19th century, we usually try to be vigilant in order not to project our contemporary ideas and obsessions onto the past for fear they might obscure the radical difference of another era. What happens when we look at our own century from a necessarily imaginary 19th-century viewpoint? How do we recognize fragments of discourse that persist in contemporary texts, ripped from their original contexts, but not quite consciously assimilated as a cultural reference?
An editor, a person of authority and supposed discretion, requested a friend of mine, the other day, to write an essay with this weird title: “How to Read a Book of Poems so as to Get the Most Good out of It.” My friend, “more than usual calm,” politely excused himself, suffering the while from suppressed oratory.