In his newly translated book, The Hatred of Literature, critic William Marx argues that celebrated minds like Heraclitus and Rousseau became utter lightweights when reading literature. Their insults, like all insults against the art form, were largely unoriginal and wouldn’t change much. “Real innovation is rare in anti-literature,” Marx writes. Presumably, this is why Marx was able to structure his investigation by four categories that sweep across Western history. These are the great “trials” of literature: authority; truth; morality; society. Hatred reads like an overblown victimology of literature in that its assailants have never presented a lethal threat. Belied, banned, or burned, stories and poems find a way of transcending their plight. For Marx, the true annihilator of literature is simply “indifference.” Against the coming wave of mass indifference, we can do nothing but join him in a helpless prayer: “May the gods prevent that day from ever arriving.”
First, a distinction. When I employ the term academic in what follows, I will not mean the first definition, the technical one: individuals who teach college students. I will mean the second definition, the sullied one: individuals for whom the academy is not a place to work but a way to think, those priests and priestesses of palaver for whom literature is never quite okay as it is, and to whom literature begs to be gussied up in silkier robes.
In 1956 Updike was just twenty-three years old, but he had already embarked on one of the longest dominant careers in American letters. The young Pennsylvanian, with his “towers of ambition” that “rose, crystalline, within me,” would rocket to success faster than even he had ever imagined.
By bringing together some seventy of his recent poems, Mark Van Doren, while continuing old themes, makes it clear that he has interested himself in a new theme for poetry. Psychologists might call this new preoccupation empathy, an intense and subtle identification of the poet with the structure, pattern, direction, mass, and plane of material things in all their variations and combinations.
The Man Charles Dickens. By Edward Wagenknccht. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. $4.00. Alexander Pope. By Edith Sitwell. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation. $5.00. The Life and Strange Adventures of Daniel De Poe. By Paul Dottin. New York: The [...]
The Virginia Plutarch. By Philip Alexander Bruce, LL.D. 2 volumes. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $9.00.
The importance of "The Virginia Plutarch" lies in its scope, in its essential sympathy and understanding of the backgr [...]
The Testament of Beauty. A Poem in Pour Books. By Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate. New York: Oxford University Press. $3.50. The Compleal Workes of Cini IVitloughby Bering. New York: Payson and Clarke (Brewer and Warren). $5.00.
It is of course an [...]
Goethe: Man and Poet. By Henry W. Ncvinson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75. Challenge to Defeat: Modem Man in Goethe's World and Spenglcr's Century, By William Harlan Hale. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. The Life and Wo [...]
In 1827, Thomas de Quincey suggested that murder was becoming a new medium for the artist: “People begin to see,” he wrote, “that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable in attempts of this nature.” In spite of its irony, de Quincey’s essay, “Murder Considered as a Fine Art,” offers a certain truth about the age of Victoria: crime—both as an art in itself and as the subject of the art of fiction—was achieving a new complexity.
Although my sympathies may lie with the horse and not with God’s implacable heat, implicit in this conversion story are questions about identity, how it gets established, and what forces are sufficient to sponsor it. In the realm of poetry cocktail parties, you get to hear your share of conversion stories: cocktail parties being what they are, no one is under oath. And so I once witnessed a poet undergo multiple conversions in a single evening: depending on the confessor’s faith, this Paul/Saul claimed to be an autobiographical poet one moment, a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet the next, a narrative poet after that. Totally apart from whether or not these professions were sincere, is the question as to why a poet shouldn’t be able to inhabit all these positions at the same time. And it’s an interesting question as to why this kind of fluidity causes such unease in the poetry world, as well as in the realm of cultural debate. If you claim to be in league with the aesthetics of poet X, then you can’t possibly like the work of poet Y.