M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal Robert B. Shaw - Essay

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 ice-cream) …

The great poems of the past are thus brought into embarrassing collocation with Rosenthal's own, which come disastrously short of the models they invoke. When the book is not about poets it is often about politics, and there (especially in some prose passages in the sequence His Present Discontents) the thought is incredibly clichéd:

I am for Revolution, though I believe that, at the same time, I am impossibly apart. It is impossibly apart to hate rudeness, violence, grossness, overstatement. And these seem inseparable from Revolution …

Yeats was too bound by the sense of some meaningful order, however incommensurate with man's needs, to see the true arbitrariness of our choices. The pity of our loss, yes—those dearly bought "many ingenious lovely things" that are gone forever. But the full horror of statistical man was hidden from him, statistical man with his "random" behavior….

Many of us are similarly confused, but few of us would feel obliged to document our confusion in a book of verse. It is as if confusion were being presented as a virtue; but fuzziness in itself is no more praiseworthy than fanaticism, and it can be just as dangerous. This prose, and a lot of these poems, sound as if they were written by Statistical Man. Everything in them is second-hand. (p. 347)

Robert B. Shaw, "No Strokes of Lightning" (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the author), in Poetry, Vol. CXXII, No. 6, September, 1973, pp. 344-50.∗