Poetry and the Common Life ranges wide to explode all sorts of traditional classroom assumptions about what poetry is supposed to be and do for us. The entire book is a collection of variations on how a poem does mean, on what to many may be the radical idea that poetry "brings out the actual quality of what our senses perceive and what our hearts feel about the perception." Even while the impulses of his discussion lead him to detailed examination of poems or passages from Whitman or Williams or Paul Blackburn, Rosenthal never loses sight of the fact that paraphrase and summary and statement are pale versions of the many communications that go on between reader and poem. Rosenthal engages us by pointing out what he describes as "the shape and suggestion of the language as it flows and erupts and shifts direction in the poem." There are no statics in this book, the critic himself realizing at the end that his conclusions are only beginnings, that the subject's proliferations, as those of any poem, are endless.
If this book never loses sight of the poem's text, it is at the same time often personal, telling us where the readings of poems come from….
[In reading Poetry and the Common Life we] sense a thoughtful man behind the words, someone whose experiences have been transmuted into the understanding and sympathy necessary for an ample reading of any worthwhile poem. His feelings about poems are rooted in his own life, one he would hold to be, in the most important senses, representative, for, as he says in many different ways, "The thought I am insisting on here is that an essential ingredient of poetic vision and genius is present in all minds…. Poetry draws deeply on experiences we have all had." The book's personalism grows naturally from this belief. Poetry and the Common Life has grown from a sensibility that sees and absorbs and considers, and M. L. Rosenthal has written it, not a critical persona.
Rosenthal is such a convincing advocate of the excellences of certain poems that I sometimes have the feeling—though this is probably my own failure of taste as a reader—that he is making them into more than they are, that they are not as good as his readings of them and his delight suggest. It seems to me that Paul Blackburn's "The Once-Over," Williams' "Love Song," George Barker's "To My Mother," and Paul Goodman's "Long Lines," for example, are finally unimportant, even uninteresting pieces, their language too easy to forget. Rosenthal cares a great deal for some poems that bore me. Why, I often wondered unfairly, didn't he turn to work by David Ignatow and William Stafford, to name two poets of subtle power who have always explored the poetry of the quotidian? At the same time, Rosenthal's discussions of Stevens' "Sunday Morning," of the incident of the stolen boat in Wordsworth's "The Prelude," of sections of Whitman's "Song of Myself," of Blake's "London," of Wyatt's "They Flee from Me," of Plath's "Ariel" have made me know and feel anew the undeniable power of poems I have dwelled on and...
(The entire section is 810 words.)