M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal Essay - Critical Essays

Rosenthal, M(acha) L(ouis)


M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal 1917–

American poet, critic, and editor.

Rosenthal is a well-respected critic and scholar of British and American poetry. His independence from any particular "school" of criticism and his passion and respect for "the poem itself" are significant elements of his critical method. Rosenthal treats each of the poems he examines as a unique and important expression, and he is noted for his ability to point up the subtle complexity and depth of a work. Among his most influential studies are The Modern Poets (1960) and The New Poets (1967), which analyze the verse of some of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Like all of Rosenthal's critical works, these books are shaped by his desire to make poetry accessible to the average reader. They provide perceptive readings of individual poems and also place them within the general context of modern literature.

In addition to his critical studies, Rosenthal has published five volumes of his own verse. Although some critics find these poems overly academic and lacking in emotional impact, others admire Rosenthal's ability to use a wide range of forms and styles to explore traditional themes. His collection She (1977) is evidence of his great interest in the poetic sequence. Within his sequences as well as his individual poems, Rosenthal's style ranges from traditionally metered lyrics to free verse and prose poems. Poems 1964–1980 (1981) displays these different styles and reveals various tones. This collection contains poems that are light and sardonic as well as ones that are deeply emotional and philosophical.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

John Holmes

The first assertion M. L. Rosenthal makes [in "The Modern Poets"] is that "the most marked stylistic break between past and present is not, as is commonly assumed, a break from forthrightness to riddle-making. It is from relative formality to simplicity and directness; an unpretentious intimacy, and awareness of everyday life, has been brought into poetry more emphatically than before." He points out that Yeats. Pound, and Eliot, from whom the most powerful impulses in our poetry today derive, are grounded in tradition, and concerned with continuity. At the same time, our poetry since the twenties has made every effort to use whatever in the past is "myth-making, wonder-contemplating, and strength-giving, and to discover widened, fresher meanings."

This effort, he makes us see, in long and lucid outlines of modern poems, is energetic in invention and experiment, but always sensitive to the voices of the past. Mr. Rosenthal is not defensive, however. He states more clearly and reasonably than any other literary historian of the time, what exactly goes on in the poetry of our time. His view is in sharp focus at a decade's length, and in a single poem's length.

"The Modern Poets" is divided into seven chapters. In the first, Mr. Rosenthal describes the widening of sensibility, and the continuity of tradition, then makes a bridge of Hopkins and Hardy, to reach the modern period. That Yeats is the first great poet of the...

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Robert Langbaum

[The Modern Poets] is for those who know modern poetry as well as for serious beginners. I say serious because M. L. Rosenthal … conducts his discussion on the highest level. His book is an introduction in the sense that he writes with admirable lucidity, does not assume a specialized knowledge on the part of the reader, and treats each poet briefly, indicating the direction of his work. It is the best introduction to modern poetry since Lloyd Frankenberg's "Pleasure Dome" in 1949.

Mr. Rosenthal tries to give a comprehensive view of British and American poetry all the way from Hopkins and Yeats to such young contemporaries as W. S. Merwin and Denise Levertov, and to explain what is distinctively modern in the revelations of modern poetry. To rationalize the poetic landscape, he tries to make a chronological arrangement coincide with an arrangement of the poets according to style and subject matter. He combines Marianne Moore, e. e. cummings, Carl Sandburg and Robinson Jeffers in order to suggest that Americans run to both extremes of a maximum and a minimum commitment to style. Especially illuminating is the pairing of William Carlos Williams with Wallace Stevens by way of Williams' four-line "El Hombre" and Stevens' "Nuances of a Theme by Williams" which is based on it. The comparison shows where the two poets are alike and different; for they both write about the otherness or transcendent impersonality of nature, but Stevens in his wittily embroidered treatment makes explicit an analogy between the self-containment of nature and art. This is first-rate criticism, and it shows how through close readings of a few selected poems Mr. Rosenthal can chart a path through the whole of a poet's work….

The title, "Exquisite Chaos," under which Mr. Rosenthal treats Dylan Thomas and the other poets of the Forties and Fifties, will make everyone nervous. But it does force us to ask...

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Robie Macauley

The fact may be as deplorable as Randall Jarrell once insisted, but nevertheless it is true: the direct reader of poetry scarcely exists in this country any longer. Nearly everyone who reads the new poets arrives at them by way of a critical initiation of some kind and our understanding of poetry written today is inseparable from poetry-pedagogy. Thus, the taste and acumen shown by the introducer-critic is probably more essential to the persistence of the art than it has been in any other time. Both readers and writers, then, should be grateful for the mediatory excellence of M. L. Rosenthal, professor of English at New York University and a critic of real talent.

His two new books, taken together, make up a very sensible kind of strategy. "The New Poets" is … "an attempt to characterize … in depth the range … of British and American poetry" since 1946. Mr. Rosenthal limits his study (with one special exception) to the writers who began in that period, and he examines the work of such people as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan among the Americans; Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn among the British; and Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh and Thomas Kinsella among the Irish. "The New Modern Poetry" is an anthology containing poems by nearly all those discussed in the critical volume, plus many other poets of the postwar generation…. The books supplement each other nicely. The result is the first broad view of the new poetry and at the same time the first study that distinguishes and examines the major trends in a satisfactory way.

One of the most prominent modes of the era is of course "confessional" poetry. Mr. Rosenthal sees this as a Romantic inheritance, yet one that has become highly intensified in our time, to a "literally self-exposing vulnerability." Its marks are "sexual candor, frankness about family life, and confession of private humiliations of varying psychological kinds."...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Dutiful, accommodating, mild, eager to fit in even when not eager to be generous, Mr. Rosenthal is … rather like a slightly dim war correspondent, sending his copious despatches out of the fury and the mire; and at the end of it all the battle is not much clearer. To make sense of Mr. Rosenthal's book [The New Poets], one has to accept early on (page 7) a sentence which—if one can negotiate the shrill metaphor he has chosen—seems to encapsulate what all his favourite new poets are up to: "If there is, in fact, one distinctively modern quality in literature, it lies in the centrifugal spin toward suicide of the speaking voice." It is evident that this is not the "high-pitched scream" with which Stephen Spender characterized the reaction of the 1930s poets to the events they saw looming up on their horizon, but a histrionic way of isolating and making vivid the phenomenon known as "confessional" poetry. By and large, in fact, Mr. Rosenthal's book is concerned with this kind of poetry.

This means, of course, that Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath bulk large in Mr. Rosenthal's pages,… while Theodore Roethke, oddly enough, is recruited but then dismissed, apparently because he "absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends": in a way this may be true, but it is hardly a perceptive or just judgment on Roethke's poems. Mr. Rosenthal is a bit of a literalist, and the tone of his strictures against Roethke, who...

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Thomas Lask

[Although M. L. Rosenthal's second book of poems, "Beyond Power,"] is in its way an extension of the first, it is marked by a deeper and more enriched tone. His wry attitude, his sense of limits in man's relations to nature and to history are still present. His unwillingness to strike rhetorical poses gives his work that playfulness and surface lightness that characterized the earlier, "Blue Boy on Skates." Some of the new poems are infectiously funny. "Homage to Matthew Arnold" may ruin "Dover Beach" for you forever. "Love in the Luncheonette" redeems a dreary piece of Americana by its wit and humorous empathy…. But for the most part, these poems are the expression of a thoughtful and deeply moved man before the...

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The Times Literary Supplement

M. L. Rosenthal's services to modern poetry are important and well known. But his new book, Beyond Power, does not match in distinction his work as a scholar or anthologist. The poems are adventurous and in good taste; they convey the impression of a charming, tolerant man, blessed with humour and wisdom. But they do not possess the strength of language, the coherence of vision, or the marks of individual character that one demands from writers who stir up more than a murmur of polite appreciation.

"Falling Water and Fading Flames," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by...

(The entire section is 111 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

Mr Rosenthal has a good many thoughts, metaphysical or otherwise, as the prose-poems which intersperse [The View from the Peacock's Tail] show in particular; but he has a problem in shaping them into coherent verse and blending them with the lyrical romanticism which represents the other side of his sensibility. His imagery is full-bloodedly aggressive …, his tone invariably high-pitched; and although the book shows a vein of ironic comedy, it tends not to run through those poems which need its prudent deflating effect most.

"Nature As She Is," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary...

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Robert B. Shaw

In The View from the Peacock's Tail M. L. Rosenthal writes what most readers would call a critic's poetry. In consideration of Rosenthal's eminence as a critic this may seem to follow naturally, but upon examination it seems peculiar. Shouldn't a critic, of all people, be wary of leaning too heavily on the poets he has studied? Rosenthal isn't. He gives us a poem (free verse) about Williams, another (rhymed) about Yeats, another directed to a revolutionary that begins:

Rhetorician of your own agony, scooping
the pain of the world into the cornucopia of
your particular pleasure
(emperor of that particular sort of...

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Samuel Hux

One must admire the intention behind M. L. Rosenthal's Poetry and the Common Life …: the attempt to sway to love of poetry the "common reader," who, no matter how elusive, is precisely the person scholars and university presses should seek. But I find I admire the intention somewhat more than the book itself. I think it misleading to say that "the greatest poetry is closest to the common life" without emphasizing a great deal more than Rosenthal does uncommon genius and the fierce artifice that transmutes the common.

Rosenthal loves a line because it shows "how much poetry is present in the voices of people to whom it would hardly occur that this could be so"—which makes sense to me as...

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William Heyen

Poetry and the Common Life ranges wide to explode all sorts of traditional classroom assumptions about what poetry is supposed to be and do for us. The entire book is a collection of variations on how a poem does mean, on what to many may be the radical idea that poetry "brings out the actual quality of what our senses perceive and what our hearts feel about the perception." Even while the impulses of his discussion lead him to detailed examination of poems or passages from Whitman or Williams or Paul Blackburn, Rosenthal never loses sight of the fact that paraphrase and summary and statement are pale versions of the many communications that go on between reader and poem. Rosenthal engages us by pointing out...

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William E. Stafford

M. L. Rosenthal, in attempting to share an understanding of what is valuable in poetry, faces the barrier of having to assume some of that understanding in order to identify that value. A remark attributed to Louis Armstrong comes to mind: "If you gotta ask you'll never know," or in Wordsworth's translation, speaking of the poet: "… you must love him, ere to you / He will seem worthy of your love."

In this instance, a result of this complexity is a book [Poetry and the Common Life] that is probably too good to achieve its aim.

The poetry of common life is hardly ever identified by common people in actual poems; yet it is in poems that poets and their like ordinarily seek...

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Sally M. Gall

Did you ever imagine, as a child,
these silences falling away
from where death watched us for a moment
and then the mockingbird's manic medley
wild with the morning, wild for heaven to notice.

So ends the epilogue to M. L. Rosenthal's masterly new sequence, She, his finest achievement and in my estimation a leading candidate for the best love poem in English since William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." These closing lines, with their imagery of ardent song flung forth on the brink of the abyss, are suggestive of Rosenthal's practice as a whole: this situation is a recurring...

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Gregory A. Schirmer

The description of a literary critic that M. L. Rosenthal offers in the foreword to his new book [Sailing Into the Unknown: Yeats, Pound, and Eliot] strikes a refreshingly poetic note in this day of increasing enchantment with elaborately theoretical and often decidedly unpoetic approaches to literature. For Rosenthal, who is a poet as well as a critic, the interpreter of a literary work should be thought of as an adventurer, someone who, like the poet himself, journeys into "the unknown realm where fantasy and keenest observation and volatile emotions unite to create a reality of a thousand dimensions."

If this description also strikes a somewhat romantic note, the criticism that springs from...

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Theodore Weiss

A number of English poets and critics, some of the best among them, have understandably long resented Pound, Eliot, and Yeats as well….

A similar reaction has occurred in the United States. A number of poets and critics have deprecated Yeats and Eliot (if not so much Pound). (p. 124)

But the detractors of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, especially the more vehement among them, may be doing these poets a service. They are voicing the inevitable human reaction to success: our tiring of the triumphant, in itself and in our applause of it. This would-be dethronement—the reasonable desire of new poets to throw off the past and to find their own voices notwithstanding—may help to preserve...

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Joseph A. Lipari

Rosenthal displays impressive range and intelligence in [Poems 1964–1980], which includes poems from four previous books and new pieces. Rosenthal is not afraid to tackle major themes (nature and the imagination, memory and desire, the violence of our time, the redemption which is love), and he does so with suppleness and wit. Still, his limitations as a poet are apparent here. At his best, Rosenthal fuses the personal and universal in a lucid yet suggestive rhetoric. At times, though, stridency and ironic undercutting, mythological and literary allusions, and archaic diction ("you're borne / whithersoever the torrent lists") are poor substitutes for vivid emotion.


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John Parisi

The variety of subjects and tones, the technical skills, the fine perceptions, but also the faults of the poet are well represented in [Poems, 1964–1980], especially in his rightly acclaimed love lyrics. Rosenthal has a special gift for locating the peculiar nexus where human duality results in dilemma. He is probably at his best in witty verses that contract complexities into pithy paradoxes. Too often, however, his heart gets the better of his head—an understandable occupational hazard for one so immersed in amatory matters—and the poet veers toward merely facile remarks, sentimental tags, or pseudoprofound aphorisms, especially in disappointing closing lines that betray the strengths and originality of...

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