Judith Leet Essay - Critical Essays

Leet, Judith


Leet, Judith 1935–

Leet is an American poet. Her first book, Pleasure Seeker's Guide, evidences a poetic style that is sophisticated, detached, and often prosaic.

Lucille Iverson

In Pleasure Seeker's Guide, Judith Leet describes a personality which is absurdly caught between the rigors of a deadly and intellectualized self-discipline and unconscious raging passions. This conflict paralyzes the will to action. Leet places the characters in her poems in a ridiculous and destructive universe; but they are one with it—contain its conflicts, are drowning in it, dying in it. They are unable to acknowledge the feelings of others, or their own, and hysterically preserve their hypocrisy. But this reality, this universe (fortunately), is counterpoised with a fillip of a brilliant, sometimes macabre humor, like Charles Addams' cartoons which, mixing the horrible with the commonplace, make us laugh while telling us about ourselves trapped in self-illusion and folly. (pp. 28-9)

["Vision," from the poem "Death in Dreams (The Interpretation of Nightmares),"] clearly expresses her vision: the nightmare of existence, of human beings repressing their gut reactions, their passions, in order to survive in an insane world, and yet caught, paralyzed, as they slowly self-destruct. (p. 29)

[The] whole poem balances on the razor edge between the unconscious drives of feelings and the placid "reasonable" universe…. In the poem, also, is the fear of death, of the unknown, which is equated with feelings, also unknown and repressed, and only erupting in dreams. The dreamer fears that the waves may be a threat instead of a vision and that the water may drown him….

Leet's style of writing, the formal prose line, which arrests and possesses the reader while bursting with a contained energy, exactly mimics her perception of humankind caught between passion and order. We are presented with a cautious, over-intellectualized character wrapped in the formal disciplines and fraught with fears of oblivion and of his own feelings. And all our human foibles are displayed as a riotous joke—much like Evelyn Waugh, perhaps, and his macabre vision. (p. 30)

[Leet's poetry] not only reveals an astonishing power and perception, but also a skill and precision of thought seldom found in a first publication. For Leet … brings to her poetry an experience of living and the intelligence and wit of a mature personality. (p. 31)

Lucille Iverson, in Moons and Lion Tailes (copyright © 1976 by The Permanent Press), Vol. 2, No. 1, 1976.

Kathleen Wiegner

In her poem, "The Enthusiast," Judith Leet describes a man whose enthusiasm for a lady he has seen leads him to throw himself under the wheels of her car. She does not stop. In many respects the characters in Leet's book, Pleasure Seeker's Guide … have this same need for the extravagant, the need to break through the confines of expected behavior. And their rewards are equally disappointing….

"The Pleasure Seekers" are … people who know what they want and will not give in gracefully….

Leet presents her stories (and they really are stories in the tradition of Chaucer and Browning) in a marvelously detached, and often humorous manner. Even the characters who address us directly have a kind of detached resignation to their fate which is echoed by the woman who tells her sad story in "The White Tower" (fittingly subtitled, "A Novel in the Form of a Poem"): "In a sense, I am above disaster." The voices sound genuine, I suspect, because we have heard them before in the voices of our friends who have lived through a particularly awful experience and now can tell it as if it had happened to someone else. There is even a certain pleasure in their voices which comes from having lived through something extraordinary while the rest of us were mucking around in our ordinary lives. In this sense Leet's characters are admirable in their foolishness because they appear to find pleasure in it or perhaps because Leet's own perspective is one of bemusement. (p. 42)

Kathleen Wiegner, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1976 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Kathleen Wiegner), September-October, 1976.

John R. Reed

[Pleasure Seeker's Guide] is narrative and only narrative. I honestly do not feel that there is any good reason why these compositions need to be called poems at all. There usually isn't much for prosody to seize upon (rhythm, rhyme, assonance, consonance, figurative language, syntactic structure), and there are no memorable lines. However, Ms. Leet is an excellent story-teller, and she knows it. She even titles one piece "The White Tower (A Novel in the Form of a Poem)." But the form is a disguise, not a true identity. Behind the poetic form, it is still prose. Similarly, "Overlooking the Pile of Bodies at One's Feet" is a monologue that might have worked more effectively as a personal essay, a short story, or even a stand-up comic's routine…. So far as I am concerned, it is prose…. There is a good deal of wry humor in Ms. Leet's writing, but it is so dominated by simple story-telling—to the injury of any poetic development—that I can feel only that she would be far happier working in some other medium. Perhaps she is writing a novel. (p. 87)

John R. Reed, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1976 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1976–77.