[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 the right questions about these poets. "Chaos" obviously tells us a great deal about them and their world. But "exquisite"? For Thomas, whose euphuistic love of language has behind it such physical vitality? Or for Robert Lowell who, as Mr. Rosenthal points out, emerged in last year's "Life Studies" as our best confessional poet? The title suits perfectly one of the two groups into which Mr. Rosenthal divides contemporary American poets. It suits the poets who are inside "the new academy" (the others are outside), of whom he writes: "If only we could settle for 'appreciation' alone, the great poets of any time would be the [Elizabeth] Bishops and the [Richard] Wilburs…. After the stormy inventors of new rhythmic idioms and new imaginative horizons had done their work, the gifted exquisites would take over—remolding, improving, getting the nuances not of a new artistic problem but of an established tradition."
We have, in other words, to judge by the quality of the revelation. This does not mean that Mr. Rosenthal wants moral lessons in poetry. On the contrary, he criticizes Frost for taking refuge in easy moral reflections that are not adequate to his hard observation of natural phenomena. "Sententiousness and a relative absence of...
(The entire section is 789 words.)