Burke, Kenneth 1897–
An American critic, poet, and translator, Burke was among the first of the New Critics. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
That Burke has a distinguished mind is not to be doubted; that verse is the best, or even an adequate vehicle for its expression is, to my mind, dubious, though I would not want to do without "The Conspirators," and would wish Burke to persevere, in the hope of producing other poems as cleanly, secretly good. In the main, nevertheless, a great, theorizing blight has fallen over Book of Moments. In his attempt to hold himself to the use of his "shifting personalities" notion of the poet's role, Burke has deprived his work of a central core of feeling, of a uniting and coordinating sensibility which might have given the poems a kind of collective power, a power of realizing to some extent the mind of the author,… rather than that of creating authentic works of art…. There is therefore an air of fragmentariness about Book of Moments; most of the best things in it, in fact, are fragments, like the proposed poem on Roosevelt (which I should like to see completed, by Burke or someone). Further, you get the feeling that dialectical cleverness is being given too much of the burden of expression: though Burke can link any number of things with at least a tentative cord of reason, he is much less successful in fusing perceptions in an urgency of feeling. There is little sense of necessity in his figures; instead, there is that of ingenuity, manipulation….
As a poet Burke is an amateur, at his infrequent best a good one, and it is a kind of irony Burke himself would appreciate that we look to him for the amateur's virtues: naïveté, deep-felt passion flashing out through clumsy, imitative passages, prosodic awkwardness, building-better-than-he-knows-in-a-way-that-may-turn-up-something. But because of his long acquaintance with poetry he must simulate at least some of these qualities, and is not really given a fair chance at the spontaneity and rawness of perception that the gifted sometime practitioner must rely on for his successes. He has not, save in a few rare instances, the poet's feel of words, but knows, instead, their accepted poetic usages.
James Dickey, "Kenneth Burke" (1956), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 28-31.
This reprint of Burke's 1931 novel [Towards a Better Life] illustrates the fact that an interesting mind cannot produce a thoroughly dull book, although it may come dangerously close. This almost novel, or anti-novel as Burke calls it in the Preface, recalls the kind of experiment in form that was exciting critics in the twenties and thirties, and the kind of ironic and detached playfulness that comes from using a narrator whose memory and veracity improves as he learns more about himself. Perhaps the central flaw in Towards a Better Life is the narrator-protagonist, a prig who does not quite understand the difference between an insight and a cliché and whose sickly egotism leads him to assume that the world eagerly awaits detailed reports of his emotional temperature. Yet despite the flaws, there is a kind of fascination in watching the splendidly bright Kenneth Burke shine through his pretentious and dense non-hero….
The result is a book that is as interesting structurally as almost anything written in the period and intellectually stimulating in the way that only epigrams can be, but a book whose virtues just are not mutually compatible.
Lee T. Lemon, "Incompatible Virtues," in Prairie Schooner (© 1967 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1967, pp. 350-51.
It is a pleasure to note the return of Kenneth Burke's novel, Towards a Better Life , which has long been a rare book in every sense, but is now available in an attractive new edition. The...
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