What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Top Ten New Yorker Book Reviews, 1976 - 2011, #5: Dan Chiasson's "Fast Company"

My #5 pick is Dan Chiasson’s “Fast Company” (The New Yorker, April 7, 2008), a review of Frank O’Hara: Selected Poems. Two other Chiasson pieces were in the running: “Works On Paper,” a review of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (The New Yorker, November 3, 2008)), and “Man With A Past” (The New Yorker, March 23, 2009), a review of two volumes of C. P. Cavafy’s poetry – C. P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems and C. P. Cavafy: Unfinished Poems. But “Fast Company” contains so many inspired lines that, in the end, it prevailed. What do I mean by “inspired”? It’s hard to pin it down. Markers might be a shimmering detail, an impeccable rhythm or a palpable texture. The only way I can explain it is by adducing examples. Here are five passages from “Fast Company” that I consider inspired:

His poems lacked the formal appliqué of rhyme and meter, and, where most poets deposited words with an eyedropper, O’Hara sprayed them through a fire hose.

The poems keep changing gears, revving and slowing, caught between two values they prize equally, hurry and delay.

You can see O’Hara’s entire oeuvre as an attempt, therefore, to remake identity on terms more durable than the ones to which he had been consigned. It is a giant counter-biography, full of alternative facts: films and paintings and music he loved, friends, lovers, idols.

His poems, so full of names and places and events, are exquisite ledgers for the tallying of reality. They attempt to move the vital but fleeting items in Column A – sandwiches and torsos, lunch hours and late nights – into Column B, where works of art stand, “strong as rocks,” against the ravages of mortality. The attempt to move people from Column A to Column B is called “elegy,” and while every poet tries it, few have done so with the illusion of real-time improvisation that makes O’Hara’s poems so risky and so satisfying.

The key to understanding O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems is in sensing the elegiac undertow that checks their forward progress. They’re not hoppers jammed with bright, popping details; they are, like Shakespeare’s sonnets, little contraptions designed to stop, and yet unable to stop, the passing of time.

The whole piece is eminently quotable. Looking it up in my old New Yorker, I see that I underlined almost two-thirds of it.

I remember my first encounter with Chiasson’s critical writing. I was reading the August 14, 2005, New York Times Sunday Book Review, when I came across a review by him titled “The Solemn Art.” It’s a short piece - a review of W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New and Selected Poems – but, man, does it have power! I remember thinking, as I read it, Hey, this is cool, this is good, this is different. I clipped it out and saved it. I’m looking at it now as I write this.

“Fast Company” is my “Top Ten” pick, but either of the other two pieces I mentioned – “Works On Paper” and “Man With A Past” – would’ve served my purpose just as well, which is to celebrate the beauty, intelligence, and originality of Dan Chiasson’s book reviewing. I confess that my choice of “Fast Company” may have been influenced by my admiration for O’Hara’s poetry. I enjoy reading analyses of his work. “Fast Company” is one of the best I’ve read. Chiasson’s “The Tenses of Frank O’Hara,” in his wonderful One Kind of Everything (2007), is also excellent.

Credit: The above artwork is by Fido Nesti; it appears in The New Yorker, January 7, 2008, as an “On The Horizon” illustration for the event “Eat, Drink & Be Literary,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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