M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal The Times Literary Supplement

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dutiful, accommodating, mild, eager to fit in even when not eager to be generous, Mr. Rosenthal is … rather like a slightly dim war correspondent, sending his copious despatches out of the fury and the mire; and at the end of it all the battle is not much clearer. To make sense of Mr. Rosenthal's book [The New Poets], one has to accept early on (page 7) a sentence which—if one can negotiate the shrill metaphor he has chosen—seems to encapsulate what all his favourite new poets are up to: "If there is, in fact, one distinctively modern quality in literature, it lies in the centrifugal spin toward suicide of the speaking voice." It is evident that this is not the "high-pitched scream" with which Stephen Spender characterized the reaction of the 1930s poets to the events they saw looming up on their horizon, but a histrionic way of isolating and making vivid the phenomenon known as "confessional" poetry. By and large, in fact, Mr. Rosenthal's book is concerned with this kind of poetry.

This means, of course, that Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath bulk large in Mr. Rosenthal's pages,… while Theodore Roethke, oddly enough, is recruited but then dismissed, apparently because he "absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends": in a way this may be true, but it is hardly a perceptive or just judgment on Roethke's poems. Mr. Rosenthal is a bit of a literalist, and the tone of his strictures against Roethke, who seems in so many ways to be the sort of poet he values, is apparently a reaction against some possibly ill-considered but typically honest and forthright remarks Roethke made here and there in prose. If you are going to have confessional poets, you must put up with their confessions, even when they do not suit your pattern of the confessional.

Mr. Rosenthal's general method is one of extended explication, usually quite decently done, though...

(The entire section is 470 words.)