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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Shrugging At Description

Charles Wright, 1991; photograph by Nancy Crampton

Dan Chiasson, in his brilliant review of Charles Wright’s Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems (“ ‘So Fluid, So Limpid, So Musical’, ” The New York Review of Books, August 14, 2014), commenting on the “slackened description” he finds in some of Wright’s late poems, says:

The absurdity of trying to come up with fresh language every time the sun sets or the weather changes: one way to represent this problem is to eschew masterly phrasing entirely, and, finding language that feels decidedly minor, to shrug in the direction of description.

While I admire Chiasson’s attempt to defend the “blanched vocabulary” of Wright’s late style, I question the wisdom of “shrugging in the direction of description.” It’s the descriptive aspects of poetry that hold my attention.

Wright is a superb describer. Here, for example, is his wonderful meditation on the metamorphosis of a mayfly:

Emergence: leaf drift and detritus; skin split,
The image forced from the self.
And rests, wings drying, eyes compressed,
Legs compressed, constricted
Between the dun and the watershine –
Incipient spinner, set for the take-off …
And does, in clean tear: imago rising out of herself
For the last time, slate-winged and many-eyed.
And joins, and drops to her destiny,
Flesh to the surface, wings flush on the slate film.
                                   [from Part 6 of “Skins” (1974)]

Helen Vendler, in her “The Transcendant ‘I’ ” (The New Yorker, October 29, 1979; included in her great 1980 collection Part of Nature, Part of Us) quoted the above lines and said,

This is almost too ravishing in sound and sight, in its mimetic instability between the grotesque and the exquisite, to be thought about. The mind of the reader is delayed by the felicities of the slate wings on the slate water-film, by the dun detritus of chrysalis played off against the watershine, by flesh flush on the surface, by the conjugation of drift and force, compression and incipience, and by the brief cycle of wings drying, rising, dropping.

In his piece, Chiasson mentions Wright’s “luscious descriptions,” but he doesn’t provide any samples. Instead, he dwells on Wright’s metaphysics. He says,

Wright has made a potentially pat and overfamiliar metaphysics, one that downgrades the tangible particulars of “reality” in favor of the spirit’s hunches and hints, into something really thrilling: the practical aesthetic problem of how such a metaphysics might be represented in language.

What Chiasson finds “really thrilling,” I find lamentable. Compared to those slate wings on slate water-film, talk of metaphysics strikes me as impoverished. But there’s at least one poem in Bye-and-Bye that doesn’t shrug at description. Chiasson doesn’t mention it. I’m referring to Wright’s exquisite “Citronella”:

Moonlight blank newsprint across the lawn,
Three-quarters moon, give or take,
                 empty notebook, no wind.
When it’s over it’s over,
Cloud crossing moon, half-clear sky, then
          candle-sputter, shadow-crawl.
Well, that’s a couple of miles down the road,
                      he said to himself,
Watching the moonlight lacquer and mat.
Surely a mile and then some,
Watching the clouds come and the clouds go.
Citronella against the tiny ones, the biters,
Sky pewter-colored and suddenly indistinct now –
Sweet smell of citronella,
                     beautiful, endless youth.
The book of moonlight has two pages and this one’s the
     first one.
Forsake me not utterly,
Beato immaculate,
                    and make me marvellous
                        in your eyes.

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