M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal Samuel Hux - Essay

Samuel Hux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 well. But to build the case for our need of poetry on how much like us it is instead of asking us to move outside ourselves toward something else is a kind of pandering to passivity. Not that Rosenthal ignores that a poem is a thing made and worthy of active wonder—some of his readings are beautifully appreciative of rhythm and image—but his emphasis is steadily on the test of familiarity, often of the most naturalistic sort….

Most of the poems he discusses resist his method. Sure they are of the stuff of life, but they ask the reader to extend himself instead of simply complimenting him on being the stuff. The view of poetry this book assumes doesn't really need an apologist. Our most popular "serious poetry" of the moment, Erica Jong's for instance, depends for its success on providing us with self- (ours and hers) aggrandizing images of the ordinary. And it's a far cry from that poetry most directly related to the common life; folk ballad, with its frank artifice.

Samuel Hux, in a review of "Poetry and the Common Life," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CII, No. 5, May 23, 1975, p. 150.