Russell Edson Essay - Critical Essays

Edson, Russell


Edson, Russell 1935–

Edson is an American poet and playwright. He writes, typically, imaginative, often surrealistic prose poems in which word play and inventive metaphor reflect humor as well as pathos. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Denise Levertov

Russell Edson is one of those originals who appear out of the lonesomeness of a vast, thronged country to create a peculiar and defined world. Seen as through the wrong end of a spyglass, miniscule but singularly clear, this world within a world of his is one in which 'things'—chairs, cups, stones or houses—may be immobile but are not inanimate, and therefore experience solitude and suffering; where animals are unlikely to be dumb; and where man is often essentially immobilized by the failure to communicate. There is interaction but no interrelation. The inanimate before the animate, a child before his parents, man before woman, the eye before the world of appearance, each is alone….

[While The Very Thing That Happens] can be opened anywhere it can also be read as a sequence that begins with marriage as a story of mutual destruction and leads through the deformation of offspring to the wanhope possible escape of the survivors. (p. v)

The themes sound grim, and they are; yet many of the stories are at the same time wildly funny. It's as if King Lear had been written and illustrated by Edward Lear. The violence in Lear's limericks, his persistent use of words like bash and smash to describe what happens to protagonists, surely expresses a desperation of similar quality to that pervasive desperation of Edson's world, in which the persons are rarely said to speak, but, quite casually, scream their conversation (their expressive non sequiturs seeming strangely kin to the virtuoso candor of the conversationalists created by Miss Compton-Burnett). Edson's mode is detached, oblique, austere. He is able to pass without loss of grace from the hilarious to a kind of dark gothic beauty, and sometimes to a tenderness that reveals him as no cruel puppetmaster but the anguished beholder of inexplicable cruelties. His art—its syntax, its elegant dryness, its bizarre condensed events—is the unique outgrowth of an eccentric imagination, the convoluted shell of the mind's hypersensitive, clairvoyant snail. (p. vi)

Denise Levertov, in her introduction to The Very Thing That Happens by Russell Edson (copyright © 1964 by Russell Edson; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1964, pp. v-vi.

Dorothy Nyren

"What is right in the depths hardly obtains in the sunshine," Edson muses in [The Childhood of an Equestrian,] his volume of poems that hover between the depths and sunshine, shifting from strangeness to horror and back again, with only an occasional slip into silliness…. A poetry of images and sudden aperçus, good for a shudder or a smile…. (p. 3992)

Dorothy Nyren, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, December 15, 1972; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), December 15, 1972.

Gerrit Henry

Russell Edson's The Clam Theater is a volume of short prose poems, each of which very definitely has the quality of a "happy clam opening its shell" to reveal its delightfully hermetic inner workings. Edson's poems abound with puns, literary "sight gags", metaphors taken to their wildly illogical conclusions, and poem-within-a-poem architectures…. Every now and then, Edson's free-wheeling wit gets a little labored: "a funny thing happened to me on the way to the present." But at their best these prose poems are a happy marriage of French Surrealist techniques with a Marx Brothers-like insouciance and haplessness…. (pp. 295-96)

Gerrit Henry, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1974.

Russell Edson has been shaking a bottle of cola some years now. With [The Intuitive Journey and Other Works] he lets the spray shoot out and cover the surrounding landscape, the consequences of his syntax active from the same source as Magritte's brush. The essential mystery of Edson's work is here so palpable, so tasty, there's no longer any hiding: his concerns, while idiosyncratic as ever, have increasingly become everyone's. Read this collection with delight and worry. (p. 58)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring, 1977).

Peter Schjeldahl

Edson is a long-time practitioner of the "prose poem," that strange modern form or non-form favored by many writers for its ability to give matter-of-fact access to imaginary realms. Edson's are broad, small surrealistic fables and tales that deal in anthropomorphic animals and objects, metamorphoses, obscure acts of violence, cosmic anxieties enacted on miniature sets. Many have the sustained wackiness of old Warner Brothers cartoons. Their appeal is direct and obvious; they are precious in the good or in the bad sense, depending on one's taste or mood. (I've always liked coming across them in magazines; they please me less in bulk.) Edson comports himself a bit winsomely, perhaps, in his through-the-looking-glass world, but what happens there often has a ring of subjective truth. I can imagine his work reaching a wide audience not ordinarily interested in poetry. (p. 69)

Peter Schjeldahl, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 1, 1977.

Although the fifty-five short prose-fables of Russell Edson's The Reason Why the Closet-Man is Never Sad are presented in alphabetical order it is just possible that the work has an intended fictional unity, involving a number of dramatis personae who are made to undergo dreary and inconsequential non-experiences….

Most of the pieces begin in a bright, buttonholing way, promising sometimes lyrical, sometimes fantastic or nightmare developments…. But the actual narrative developments are almost invariably flaccid bits of whimsy in which there is little of the sustained energy of art….

Mr Edson's personae, their situations, and the nerveless language in which they are manipulated are so devoid of living characteristics that it is difficult for a reader to summon up sympathy enough to care. (p. 848)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London), 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 15, 1977.

Donald Hall

Edson writes tiny short stories, which critics call prose poems mostly to let you know that they are crazy. (p. 100)

The typical Edson poem runs a page or a page and a half. It's fanciful, it's even funny—but this humor carries discomfort with it, like all serious humor. We may not wish to understand the fragility of our psychic borders, or that we partake of things outside ourselves, or that we may lose ourselves if we are not careful. Maybe we control nothing; if we control nothing with our egos, if we let go, perhaps we can recover an ancient self otherwise lost, or perceive a world never seen before.

Russell Edson's imagination is revolutionary. He explores a small territory, but it is unmapped land. He does adventurous spirit-work for all of us, recovering portions of the lost infant world for anyone who will follow him. (p. 102)

Donald Hall, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1977.