The Ten Commandments
Most often, it is unjust to rely on comparisons between old masters and contemporary poets to explain or evaluate new collections of verse by poets who have both established their own reputations and have proven to be influential on more than one generation of writers. Yet since the publication of his first book, Scenes from Another Life (1981), J. D. McClatchy has deliberately courted such comparisons. On several levels, evident in nearly all his poems, the reasons for repeated critical looks to the past and close examinations of McClatchy’s sources are apparent throughout his fourth book, The Ten Commandments. In this new volume, McClatchy evokes past writers in his poem titles, from Emily Dickinson and William Cullen Bryant to W. H. Auden. Also directly evoked are the styles, tones, and poetic purposes of McClatchy’s personal friends, teachers, and students, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Sexton, and James Merrill. His content and technique also echo past masters; “Auden’s OED” owes much to Walt Whitman’s descriptive catalogues, and “Descartes’ Dream” is a direct descendent of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
On another level, essayist, librettist, and The Yale Review editor Joseph Donald McClatchy’s verse is, in large part, a thematic throwback to pre-postmodern literature, eschewing innovation in favor of more traditional metrical cadences, simple imagery, and conventional rhyme schemes in straightforward narratives. This is not to say McClatchy is without vitality, virtuosity, versatility, or originality, but rather to note his verse is likeliest to please readers comfortable with the moralistic slow pace and somber tone of, say, Eliot, imbued with the ragged metaphysics of William Butler Yeats. While it does not break new ground, its demonstration of such mastery of important twentieth century traditions may ironically make The Ten Commandments one of the most important collections of new poetry to have appeared in some time.
To continue the comparison with Eliot, The Ten Commandments is a series of humanistic fragments perhaps best described by McClatchy’s line in “Betrayal,” in which magic and the nature of God are found in “little candles, little powers.” McClatchy is perhaps most inventive in his organization of poems written over a number of years, assembling them under the subheadings of each of the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments. Under this umbrella, McClatchy’s purposes and perspectives vary widely, so only personal taste and philosophical bent will determine a reader’s appreciation for the “little powers” of confessional poetry solidly connected to a previous literary generation. Subsequently, most readers will find themselves reflecting on parts rather than the whole, but many of these parts are well worth the reflection on their own merits. For others, the revelations will have deeper meanings when the connections within and outside the text are clarified by the contexts in which this poet works.
As McClatchy discusses in the companion volume, a collection of essays and reviews entitled Twenty Questions, the verses collected in The Ten Commandments are autobiographical poems written over a period of years demonstrating his lifelong breaking of the biblical rules. In Twenty Questions, McClatchy talks directly about his homosexuality, a theme oblique in his verse, and explicates poems such as “Three Dreams About Elizabeth Bishop” that discuss his philosophy connecting writing with sleep patterns. While it is usually a fruitless task for readers to determine how much autobiography has been translated into literature, McClatchy makes clear his poems are drawn from personal experience. One notable example is “Auden’s OED,” in which the poet describes the moment when he asked for and received an autograph from W. H. Auden. In Twenty Questions, the author points directly to his personal and artistic connections to the past when describing this moment when the elder poet reaches out to his younger colleague. McClatchy describes how Auden asked to use his back as a desk, and McClatchy then observes:
By then I’d figured out that he’d been writing
on me ever since that encounter,
or that I’d unconsciously made of myself
a desk so that he could continue—
the common imagination’s dog’s body
and ringmaster—still to speak up,
(The entire section is 1866 words.)