The Electric Life

The pieces here are grouped under four headings: “Approaches” (the most generally accessible section, even though ninety-nine out of the hundred questions Birkerts asks remain unanswered and --"What is the linguistic structure of the unconscious?"--unanswerable); “Readings” (excellent close readings of a stanza by John Keats and a poem each by Philip Larkin, Craig Raine, Marianne Moore, and James Wright); “The Critic’s Work” (brief book reviews of slight interest, especially the vitriolic one wherein Birkerts tells why he cannot read John Ashbery); and “Poets in Translation” (a smorgasbord of translations of such poets as Rainer Maria Rilke, Boris Pasternak, Czeslaw Milosz, and Octavio Paz, as Birkerts stresses the inaccuracies of but need for translations).

Judging by the first eighty pages, one would assume that this is a work of cultural criticism, a study of the seemingly futile struggles of modern--especially American--poets to achieve some relevancy in a “leeched-out time.” And judging by the first four essays, one also would assume this is a work written for the general reader; after all, it is the general public Birkerts blames for a forty-year decline in the relevancy and quality of poetry, and it is the general public he needs to convert away from television and back to concentratedly meaningful, significant language. For an attentive audience he has already many of “those scattered precincts where poetry is read and loved.”

This book is not, however, for the audience that needs to be reached, not for the culture that destroys poets with its “proudly brutal apathy.” It is for specialists; and these will be frustrated not by Birkerts’ lucid, concise writing, nor by his intelligent insights and abundant passion for literature, but by the essays’ brevity and the collection’s overall lack of unity and coherence.