Some Necessary Angels

For thirty years, Jay Parini notes, he has spent at least half of each day at his writing table. Some of the fruits of this writer’s salutary habit—“a fair account” of his thinking and “the best” of his essays since arriving as a student at St. Andrew’s, Scotland in 1968—are on display in this, his first collection. Parini, who thankfully never gives in to false modestly, calls the essays on poets Theodore Roethke, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Charles Wright and his mentors Alastair Reid and Robert Penn Warren representative of his “best work” as a critic.

Many of the essays in SOME NECESSARY ANGELS: ESSAYS ON WRITING AND POLITICS read like the polished work of an especially gifted graduate student at the height of his preparation. However, for the literate, often unspecialized reader, the essays in his first (“Personal”) and third (“World and the Word”) sections may prove the most memorable. Parini’s stories of living in small cities and towns, writing amid a varied cacophony of restaurants, and jousting with his wife and himself about whether he is a prolific writer, while largely anecdotal, balance the critical.

The five essays in the third and final section provide the book’s touchstone. “The relative ignorance of most poets and novelists with regard to literary theory strikes me as profoundly unhealthy,” poet-novelist-critic Parini laments in a lucid ten-page essay that should be required reading for tradition-bound English professors and their theory-deluged colleagues alike. The more the artist “reinvents” the political world of “unimagined facts” and “reality,” the better the artist.