M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal William E. Stafford

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William E. Stafford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

M. L. Rosenthal, in attempting to share an understanding of what is valuable in poetry, faces the barrier of having to assume some of that understanding in order to identify that value. A remark attributed to Louis Armstrong comes to mind: "If you gotta ask you'll never know," or in Wordsworth's translation, speaking of the poet: "… you must love him, ere to you / He will seem worthy of your love."

In this instance, a result of this complexity is a book [Poetry and the Common Life] that is probably too good to achieve its aim.

The poetry of common life is hardly ever identified by common people in actual poems; yet it is in poems that poets and their like ordinarily seek it. Mr. Rosenthal does so, and his book comes alive in discussions of favorite poems. At one point he catches himself: "But my purpose in quoting … was not really to criticize … in detail." It is a charming and a revealing passage—Mr. Rosenthal is so enthusiastic that he cannot restrain himself to language that might reach the unliterary. He shows a zest like that he identifies in a quote about Mayakovsky, "'… a man for whom truth held an almost animal attraction.'" (p. 426)

In the spirit of liking this book and the impulse behind it, I want to identify two hovering issues. One is just a reverting to the issue of the relation between the poetry found in common life and that found in poems, in which adepts find an embodiment of that poetry. I would welcome more caution in linking poetry to poems.

Second, I wonder if more caution is needed in assuming that a poet uses language in order to define an experience: it may be that the language itself is the experience. Mr. Rosenthal carefully handles this issue, but I believe most of his book implicitly assumes a using of language to express something already achieved.

Finally, though, Mr. Rosenthal has gallantly attempted to overcome what he sees as an "unconscious conspiracy" "to keep the people from their poetry." In making his book he manifests a generous impulse he finds in the best of poets: "The impulse of which I have been speaking, the need to follow through on a quite private insight until it completes itself in a poem that is both a world unto itself and a window into everyone's secret mind, is doubtless the chief link between poetry and the common life. I half believe that it underlies all communication and all rhetoric, and that it is far more important than any overt system of principles and beliefs." (pp. 426-27)

William E. Stafford, in a review of "Poetry and the Common Life," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright © 1976 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 48, No. 3, November, 1976, pp. 426-27.