M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal Theodore Weiss

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Theodore Weiss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 and eventually restore our three poets.

After a time readers and writers, young ones particularly, needing to react to their present's fix, may seek out Yeats and Eliot again. To prosper, literature requires hindrances, oppositions.

It is all this that makes M. L. Rosenthal's Sailing into the Unknown: Yeats, Pound and Eliot sharply pertinent. During the years that he has had the work in mind, books about these poets have appeared in swarms. Consequently, one might think his volume belated. However, the time and its havocs have ripened Rosenthal's powers and afforded him an important perspective…. Moreover, it is precisely at this moment, when we are in danger of discarding these three poets, that we need a reassertion of their relevance. Rosenthal's book reminds us of what we are always inclined to forget: how much a poem can come to. He urges us not to settle for too little, not to be too easily satisfied. Out of his respect for poetry's basic significance to our lives and his refusal to allow critical theorizing to eclipse poems themselves, he is ideally prepared to demonstrate the pertinacy of Yeats, Pound and Eliot in the only way that matters—through their work. We must esteem the intensity of his involvement and, his direct but highly discriminating love of that work.

His book offers an accurately bifocal view: Yeats, Pound and Eliot in their poems and in their appositeness to us. He emphasizes their innovativeness, their great Odyssean daring, their ability to exploit and make prominent "the implicitly presentative and improvisatory character of poetry", or structure and process, the structure frequently made of and by the process.

However, he does not blink his poets' weaknesses, their programmatic impulses that sometimes weighed upon their imaginative powers. He prizes them for their part in establishing a new genre, perhaps the most significant in modern times, the poetic sequence, which enables the poet to exercise his whole being. Rosenthal's experience in writing sequences himself, most recently his moving She, enables him to respond to them with special rapport. It is something like Elizabethan completeness he is after, a recovery of the total human condition.

Undertaking his journey through the work of his three poets, he proposes that we try to read them "with mind entire", in the way they read their lives and the work of their great predecessors, in the way they wrote their poems. By this proposal Rosenthal means the reverse of a removal from society or life itself. Plunging into Canto 47 as it "directly acts out that communion of past and present which, felt at the pitch of experience is nothing less than our human meaning in process", he enlightens us on the brilliant experimental use Pound made of traditional or archaic materials, on the mystery and the energy he released in bringing Odysseus up to date….

Rosenthal considers The Cantos "a sequence of sequences". Because of the half century in which the work accumulated and because of its improvisatory nature he thinks it absurd—and I agree—to expect the poem to have a single integrity….

The Cantos constitute a texture, the weaving and reweaving, like Penelope's endless industry, of a most extraordinary poetic mind. Or rather, like Odysseus himself, one twisting in and out and back and...

(The entire section is 1,562 words.)