Katha Pollitt Pollitt, Katha (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katha Pollitt 1949–

American poet and critic.

Pollitt's first collection of poetry, Antarctic Traveller (1982), received the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a "visual" poet, one whose lyric and free verse poems are composed of vivid and compelling images. She is also, in the words of one critic, a poet "of essences." Pollitt's verse explores the relationship of life to art and portrays moments of transformation in the lives of her characters. Pollitt has an ability to effectively convey diverse settings: some of her poems recreate stark urban landscapes, others celebrate places and things of great pastoral beauty.

Critics acclaim Pollitt's clearmindedness and economy of style. She is said to communicate thoughts and feelings with a poise, grace, and directness not commonly found in the work of poets of her age. Her development as a poet, critics feel, will be both of interest and importance.

Roberta Berke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Katha Pollitt's work there is a continual counterpoint between romance and disillusionment, between transcendence and skepticism. In the fourth of "Five Poems on Japanese Paintings," "Moon and Flowering Plum," she reveals this dilemma…. (p. 171)

This is not Katha Pollitt's quandary alone but the mood of many poets as the eighties begin: they're not as optimistic as in the romantic sixties ("ya can do anything if your head is right"), but neither are they as cynical and detached as were the academic poets of the fifties. Katha Pollitt's reversals are not always from the sublime to the ridiculous: sometimes, as in "Nettles," she shows that the unattractive nettle can still nourish butterfly caterpillars. She carries this contrast between idealized and everyday reality further in another poem about a Japanese painting. "A Screen Depicting the Fifty-Four Episodes of the Tale of Genji on a Background of Gold Leaf." As he appears on the screen, Genji is a prince, a legendary lover, who progresses triumphantly from woman to woman in his glittering court. Real life, however, is different:

A tea merchant of Kyoto commissioned this screen for his wife.
At night as they lay on their uncomfortable mats
she stared at it and sighed.
He, however, concluded
that the difference between his own life and Prince Genji's
was that he lacked an...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Bruce Bennett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like Wallace Stevens, whom she sometimes echoes, Katha Pollitt contrasts life and art. Process, especially aging and decay, haunts her; "longing" is practically the first word in "Antarctic Traveller." Yet art, for all its transcendence, is not a solution; it may even be illusion….

Moreover, life, for all its mundaneness, provides opportunity for celebration. Thus, "Five Poems From Japanese Paintings" are followed by five "Vegetable Poems."…

Whatever the reservations about art in them, these poems are beautiful objects. Stately, dignified, slightly aloof, they exult in polished diction and elegant surface. They delineate nuance….

Most important, they are a culmination; they are that country the poet-archeologist, evoked in "Archaeology," has devoted a lifetime to constructing…. (p. 17)

Bruce Bennett, "The Work of Four Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1982, pp. 12, 16-17.∗

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not since Robert Hass's first book have I encountered a debut so seductive as Katha Pollitt's [Antarctic Traveller], poems so determined to be beguiled by the world that we cannot peer between them to the sour scrawling self that writes, an inky revenge. What Pollitt wants, what she creates, is the alternative life, unconditioned, eagerly espousing all that is unknown…. But she is shrewd, too, and passionately disabused by moments, intervals of chagrin "when suddenly 'choices' / ceased to mean 'infinite possibilities' / and became instead 'deciding what to do without' …" So there is a wariness about these ecstasies, so readily bestowed, so rashly withdrawn. It can be anything—any delight of physical recognition is enough to set Pollitt off, to light her up like an electric field, wherein any correspondence takes her into other minds, other worlds, back country, desertion of the usual….

Stevens is here …, and Elizabeth Bishop, at "Seal Rock" …, and even Strand and Simic serve her turn. (p. 343)

What gives the distinction, the special twist of idiom we call style, is the perception of delight in the world entertained on its own terms, as in "Five Poems from Japanese Paintings." Readers who came upon these in The New Yorker were the first to know what is dramatized for us all here, that the decorative is the decisive moment, indulged only to be twitched away from us with a teasing laugh, tragic—as Oscar Wilde says pleasure is tragic, has more tragic possibilities than happiness…. As ["Moon and Flowering Plum" reveals], there is just enough decorum in the decor to keep the poems together. The frogs are real and the gardens too; what is imaginary is the will, "the ego glinting at the heart of things," as she calls it in the title poem. Startling, in this rapturous first book, to find the poet willing to entrust herself so readily and so richly to the appearances, the worldly arrangements "not understanding what it was she'd seen / but trusting it, a mystery that would keep." Miranda's account, unmonitored by Prospero or Ferdinand. (pp. 343-44)

Richard Howard, "Poetry Unyoked," in The Nation (copyright 1982 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 234, No. 11, March 20, 1982, pp. 342-45.∗

Jay Parini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At her best, Katha Pollitt writes vividly in her own idiom of cultivated poise and reflection…. I admire [the simplicity of "Blue Window," the opening poem of Antarctic Traveller], which comes from steadiness of mind, and the deft use of the impersonal "you" to distance the author from her "self"—the illusion of which is, after all, the subject of the poem.

Not all her poems are so good. She makes heavy use of the "you," which has become an irritating mannerism passed around the various M.F.A. programs like the German measles. She has also picked up the most common, and boring, mannerism of all: beginning poems with a vaguely mysterious indefinite nominative pronoun…. Nevertheless, poets should be judged by their successes, and Pollitt accumulates enough of these in Antarctic Traveller to make its publication an occasion. In "Composition in Black and White," for instance, she speaks engagingly in the lyric "I."… Pollitt depends rather too much on familiar metaphors…. Yet she can be quite original….

By turns wistful, sorrowing, or tough, Pollitt recreates the affections of her masters—Lowell and Bishop, especially—in poems of domesticity ("Vegetable Poems"), confession ("Turning Thirty"), and close natural description ("Sea Graces"). I prefer her descriptive vein, in which she seizes and holds her often urban landscapes in order to repossess them imaginatively, as in "Night Blooming Flowers."… Her best poems are what D. H. Lawrence called "acts of attention," meticulous and bright, and there is every reason to look forward to her next book. (p. 38)

Jay Parini, "A New Generation of Poets," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 15, April 14, 1982, pp. 37-9.∗

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[That the] objective mode of lyric poetry has not died is demonstrated convincingly by [Antarctic Traveller]…. (p. 439)

[Pollitt's] primary technique is the image (not the metaphor, not the symbol) gently used to suggest meaning. Her best poems have a spare delicacy reflective of a rigorous sense of decorum—everything that wouldn't contribute directly to the primary point of the poem, one feels, has been excised from it. A good example is "Failure," which describes a person settling into a new room in the poorer part of town….

Pollitt is primarily a visual poet; the entire second part of this book is accurately subtitled "Five Poems from Japanese Paintings." And part III begins with another set of five sketches collectively called "Vegetable Poems."… It may be that poems [like "Tomato"] demand greater complexity of form, given the absence of complex meaning; there are times when just a sequence of simple images is not enough. In "Thinking of the World as Idea," Pollitt again tries to use a visual element to carry meaning…. The idea or theme here is simply too much for the method; the image of the ferry boat (anachronistic and confused) is unequal to its intellectual cargo. Pollitt's best poems show verbal skill and a good eye for imagery, but they challenge neither the mind nor the emotions. (p. 440)

Peter Stitt, "The Objective Mode in Contemporary Lyric Poetry," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1982, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 438-48.∗

Dana Gioia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katha Pollitt has an extraordinarily good ear. Her lines are almost always exactly right, and there is a sense of finish and finality to her work one rarely sees nowadays in poets young or old—the diction clean and precise, the rhythms clear and effective. One can hear all of these virtues in "Blue Window," the opening poem of her Antarctic Traveller. (p. 644)

Pollitt is also refreshing in that she is not afraid to write beautifully. She has a fine sensibility and does not try to hide it under a hard or aggressive mask. She is original enough to shun the predictable clichés of "beautiful" description and carefully avoids sentimentality when presenting emotions. As a result she can create...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Richard Tillinghast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Antarctic Traveller by Katha Pollitt possesses a winning quality that Robert Fitzgerald has aptly characterized as "serious charm."… Pollitt's posture [in the first stanza of the opening poem, "Blue Window"] and elsewhere in this fine collection is romantic, full of emotion and delicate sensibility, yet convincing.

By convincing I partially mean that here I am able to accept the presumption behind the poet's use of what Jonathan Holden (in The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric) calls the "blurred you": a use of the second-person pronoun midway in meaning between the ordinary second-person form of address, the French pronoun on, and a suggestion that the speaker is talking about herself or himself. The blurred you is essentially a device of rhetorical persuasion, because the writer is asking the reader to blend his experience with a description of hers…. [In "Blue Window"] I gladly assent to being included in the poem. In other poems by Pollitt and by other poets, I bridle. When I read "You wanted to see / your life as a rope of diamonds: permanent, flashing," I simply respond No, I never wanted to see my life as a rope of diamonds. Hence the limitations of this rhetorical device. Its current vogue surely has something to do with the abuse of the pronoun I by confessional poets such as Anne Sexton.

The overuse of this device is a minor flaw in this rope of diamonds. Pollitt manages equally well in free and in formal verse. She also writes charmingly of New York City, with a sense of excitement about being a young person on the rise in life, in a way that used to be a lot more common; but that excitement has faded as we have become disillusioned with the city, and as it has become uglier and more dangerous. (pp. 476-77)

Richard Tillinghast, "Ten New Poets," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1983 by The University of the South), Vol. XCI, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 473-82.∗