David Slavitt Slavitt, David (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Slavitt, David 1935–

Slavitt is an American poet, novelist, editor, translator, and critic. His poetry is rich in classical and historical allusion, and differs radically in character from his novels. These novels, written under the pseudonym of Henry Sutton, are admittedly produced by Slavitt for the income they guarantee and are calculated to exploit current taste in popular fiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vol. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Jerome Carpenter, male lead among the itinerant literati whose campus readings form a basis for the plot of Anagrams, is a poet: David Slavitt, try as he might, is not. From the moment we first encounter Carpenter a-quiver with 'plane phobia and poetic gestation en route to his first reading, it is clear that we are to get an episodic and all too fanciful view of the poetic process in full burgeon: or, at least, Mr. Slavitt's version of it. Worse, we are going to get the poem—in various stages of completion until, on the last page, we are presented with the finished article, a paradigm of the poet's emotional journey through the events in the novel, and approved by Carpenter, but in fact a tenth rate piece of work (and why not, it having been whipped up for no other reason than to lend credence to Carpenter's creativity?). This being so, it's well nigh impossible to think of Mr. Slavitt's bunch of writers as anything but Mr. Slavitt's version of a bunch of writers; the sexual hangups, the streams of consciousness, the timidities and the roaring boyishness—to say nothing of their impish word-games—seem like parts of a tailored script written for habitually type-cast actors. Carpenter's only human moment comes when the just-widowed wife of one of the group mistakes his poem for her husband's last work: he keeps quiet and surrenders the poem. The only flaw, here, is that it is presented as a selfless rather than selfish act.

"Lionized," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3584, November 6, 1970, p. 1291.

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] dreadful flatness and didacticism dooms all of Slavitt, whose tedious pentameters [in "Vital Signs"] offer no surprises, whose learning remains poetically inert, and whose new poems are, if anything, less interesting than his earlier ones. (p. 14)

Helen Vendler, "False Poets and Real Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1975, pp. 6-14.∗

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[While many] poets have had to pluck up or come to terms with their grass roots before freely inhabiting a further subject, David Slavitt suffers from no such disability; child of the Eastern seaboard, and much more, he has no wilderness to exorcize. His ironic humanism is the beneficiary of three sources: his Hebraic ancestry, his education in the classical tongues and his New England residence. These divide fairly equally his interests as a poet; nearly all the contingent subjects in [Vital Signs, his] copious collection (186 poems, of which 83 are designated New Poems) are broadly accounted for by his triple inheritance. From it he has derived a sense of tragic futility in human pretensions, acquired poise, learned patience—and adopted cynicism enough to acknowledge, with Dr. Johnson, that "Nonsense we can live with is better than truth." (He never writes nonsense.) I don't know exactly what Joyce Carol Oates meant when she said, in praise, that "the near-ubiquitous voice of the era seems generally absent in Slavitt" (I'm not even sure how many poets speak with that voice!). Ubiquity is Slavitt's occupational hazard, more often his glory. He handles forensic issues as deftly as the private grief and there's scarcely a contemporary shibboleth (tourism, high-jackers, Western movies, Plymouth Rock, the welfare state, militant women) at which he doesn't cast an eye: not a cold one; the labor he delights in physics cold. The contemporary...

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Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What if—the donor in a heart transplant operation is the hospital's chief cardiologist? That's only one of the ironic What If's in ["King of Hearts,"] a novel that anatomizes the medical, legal and mythic consequences of a cardiac allograft….

David Slavitt organizes … crises and conflicts into a reflective novel calculated to move the heart.

Martin Levin, "Fiction and Poetry: 'King of Hearts'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 2, 1977, p. 18.

Robert Holland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vital Signs is a selection of Slavitt's work from the last fifteen years, generous in size, in variety, and, most important, in spirit, the kind of book one should not just read, but live with.

Though he is no Yeats or Stevens, Slavitt speaks with his own quiet authority, from a relaxed, almost homely stance. And though he is not, to be sure, blazing new trails in American poetry, his poems have a classical quality which makes innovation seem merely irrelevant. Like [Marilyn] Hacker, he is fond of forms, but unlike her he does not use them as cages to restrain difficult and headstrong emotions; instead (what is more difficult) he simply lets them form themselves into the bodies of the thoughts and feelings they express…. [One] does not expect, from such modest instruments, the depth and range that the poet attains—from sarcastic satire (Financial Statement) to violent anecdote (St. Ebba of Coldingham) to anguished and chastened elegy…. (p. 294)

Learned as well as wise, Slavitt's omnivorous art devours not only his daily experience but the experience of ancient history and fable as well. I say experience, for the poet never uses the classics as pretentious window-dressing, but instead gives more than he takes, restoring to the artifacts the life that time, reverence, and library dust have stolen from them. This concern with retaining life—humor, spontaneity, warmth—in art, is a central theme throughout Slavitt's poetry, and a necessary principle of his aesthetic, for he sees very clearly what has happened to some of his forbears:

    Or they sing, hey-diddle, the cat and the fiddle—but
      even its nine lives prove to be finite,
    And after performing on lengths of its own gut,
      it dies and the music dies. There's a moral in it.

The moral in it, for Slavitt, is that one must turn to one's wit, and wits, one must take up "fooling around" to keep alive, taking chances with tone, form, and rhythm in order constantly to startle artifact into living art. (pp. 294-95)

Robert Holland, "Six or Seven Fools," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXIX, No. 5, February, 1977, pp. 285-95.

Dorothy Sinclair

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite David Slavitt's craftiness and insight, the life story of Jo Stern [in the novel Jo Stern] is so close to that of the late Jacqueline Susann as to cause this reader great discomfort….

Slavitt, writing in first person, uses an intricate structure of flashbacks within flashbacks to narrate this pop novel which shouldn't have too much trouble taking off in a big way.

Dorothy Sinclair, "Books in Review: 'Jo Stern'," in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1978 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 4, July, 1978, p. 36.

Jocelyn Payne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A good horror story should make the reader's heart palpitate, make the shadows of the room seem threatening or at least make the breath quicken and the eyes, reluctantly fascinated, race over the page; The Sacrifice does none of these things….

Though competently written in journeyman fashion the book lacks heart, a victim itself of eviscerating sacrifice. Author Henry Sutton is described as being a poet and classicist under his real name of David Slavitt. He should keep at it.

Jocelyn Payne, "Books in Review: The Sacrifice," in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1978 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 6, November, 1978, p. 41.