M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal Robie Macauley

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Robie Macauley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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." Some of this poetry is in the tone of cool, self-analyzing devastation and some of it is agonized but, as Mr. Rosenthal points out, the voice is very definitely that of a victim….

Mr. Rosenthal takes Robert Lowell's "Life Studies" as possibly the leading and most influential book of confessional poetry—though he makes clear that this is no more than one strand in the work of a varied and extremely resourceful poet….

Mr. Rosenthal, however, sees confessional poetry as a style already on the wane: "As a startlingly new factor in our art [it] may be just about played out, or … may be absorbed and taken for granted as a part of the … new poetic scene." He very neatly isolates the most tiresome thing about confessional poetry when he remarks on "the danger that its practitioners may be over-indulging themselves if they think that every nuance of suffering brought out on the couch or in reverie is a mighty flood of poetic insight or the key to a new aesthetic." Those golden words of warning deserve a wide publicity.

As for poetic theory, Mr. Rosenthal finds little that is distinctly new or productive in this period—he finds it "raggedly improvisational" for the most part. He does discuss the theory of "Projective...

(The entire section is 814 words.)