Raphael Rudnik Essay - Critical Essays

Rudnik, Raphael

Rudnik, Raphael 1933–

Rudnik is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

Raphael Rudnik's poems [in A Lesson from the Cyclops and Other Poems] are clamorous and disorienting—disturbing in an exciting, positive way even when their riotous elements don't entirely gel. Everyone will call the poems surrealistic, though it is hard to say exactly what that term means anymore. Nature clatters on through Rudnik's world like a particolored perpetual motion machine…. Rudnik's clanging, naive rhymes can strike the ear as being haphazardly beautiful, rather as if he were a child fooling around on the piano, creating unheard-of chords. The grotesquerie is often exhilarating;… Rudnik could write scenes for Fellini…. He can be both silly and tedious at times but on the whole this first volume is as promising as it is energetic. (pp. 114-15)

Robert B. Shaw, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1970.

When Robert Lowell says a poet's first book [A Lesson from the Cyclops and Other Poems] has an "easy command of meter, rhyme and intelligible plotting" and Richard Wilbur says that same book's author is "an intense, awkward, interesting poet," one sits down to take notice, for what easily commands in the one instance is anything but what intensity and awkwardness would promise in the other; and the further consideration by John Cheever that "Raphael Rudnik is one of the most brilliant poets of his generation"—RR is 40, the generation of Strand and Hine and Plath—tightens the garland into a tough knot indeed. What kind of poetry can draw forth such discrepant praise, on a first showing, from such impressive discriminators?…

Rudnik's second book [In the Heart or Our City] appeared, crowned with no further directions to the reader—no further than the fact that Lowell, Berryman, and M. L. Rosenthal had chosen the poet to receive the first Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award….

[There] are certain constants in this poet's behavior—he has, as we say, "an ear" rendered quite ragged by its ventures into the accommodation of what is sensed by what is said; thus in the first book he speaks of flowers that have "puffing hoods falling into flowsy blows," and the second of "the hollow, glottal yodeling knock of goat bells." And he has, too, "an eye"—exults, in fact, in his first book, in what he sees in his solitude, "my sight teaching care and love to my mind." The gift that delighted Richard Wilbur in 1969 ("one of the things I like about his work is the odd accuracy with which he sees a train moving 'like a conveyor belt of bricks'") delights in 1973: "cheeses colored coins of some giant kingdom, swollen bronze coins rusted seagreen." And Rudnik has a skew stepmother-wit throughout….

An eye, an ear, a mind: considerable means, then, with which to break into meaning, as Rudnik did, with a series of dramatic monologues (the loveliest, "Thought by Rembrandt's Wife and Model During the Painting of Flora," and the most telling, "Manuscript Found under a Mattress in a Hotel Room," affording, this latter, a remarkable instance of the way Rudnik gets meaning back into words … and a lot of harsh lyrics wedged in around the long pieces, steadying the fragments of a great confusion….

The borrowing, and even the stealing, have been mostly from Theodore Weiss, who is the paramount influence here, the restless master of monologue and mischief. Though I cannot follow Rudnik far into his thickets of lyric prose, the long conversation-piece which gives its title to his second book is certainly a triumphant extenuation of Weiss's mode in long poems since Gunsight. Here decorum and device are not so wildly surmised, and the experience is allowed to work its way out of the lines without that constraint, that will which leaves so many scars on Rudnik's first poems ("because," as he says, "the perfection of their unranked order was so abstract"). The ghost in the attic, the querulous confusions of man and wife, of exile and exasperation, afford Rudnik's talent the kind of involuntary touseling he needs to generate his characteristic splendor, avid, bruised, revenant indeed…. (p. 41)

Richard Howard, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Richard Howard), May/June, 1973.

A lot of Raphael Rudnik's second book [In the Heart or Our City] is prose—that is, typographically, there are many rectangular blocks of print, ranging from a short paragraph to a page or more. At least one of these, Elements of Immortality, is written in concealed couplet rhyme. Rhyming prose is the sort of assiduous perversity characteristic of In the Heart or Our City, with its tinkly discord of a title….

Rudnik's book is devilishly, ingeniously boring…. (p. 244)

Such writing was described by Yvor Winters: "Something one would never say / Moving in a certain way." The "certain way" suggests some peculiar, "experimental" set of principles, unknown to the reader, a secret and bizarrely rigorous scheme which leads the poet to say these things which no one but a contemporary poet would say. Even more able to mystify while not arousing curiosity are more traditional poems, arranged as verse and sometimes rhyming, in which the poet disguises himself (does he do it ironically? with great labor?) as the inmate of a somewhat "creative" secondary school…. (p. 245)

This can and does go on for pages, relieved only briefly by some mild porn—which seems to be the last refuge of Fine Writing ("—Grabs my dangling, atavistic fruit—/ Crams the pale piece in her mouth—").

A kind of wit favored by Rudnik is altering the best-known tag lines from various English poets including Yeats, Nashe (see the brightness falling above), and Leigh Hunt ("'Sir Linguist with your black book put that in'"). I suppose that Rudnik's use of this horrible device is more sophisticated than [William Matthews'—also reviewed here—] because Rudnik is elegantly pointless….

In both cases, the reader is asked to relax the standards of prose, and is offered little in return. If—say—Barthelme arranged his paragraphs vertically as though in lines of verse, how he would shine in this company! (p. 246)

Robert Pinsky, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1974.