Introduction

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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Pleasure of Description (Contra Kirsch)


Elizabeth Bishop, 1956 (Bettmann/Corbis)
Adam Kirsch, in his absorbing "Full Fathom Five" (The New Yorker, February 3, 2014), a review of The Poetry of Derek Walcott, says,

The visual and the literary make uneasy partners, since they operate according to different temporal regimes: everything at once versus one thing after another. As a result, when a poet takes to describing what he sees, the result can be boring and static. Visual descriptions are usually the most skippable parts of any poem.

I strongly disagree. I devour visual descriptions. Far from being the most “skippable parts of any poem,” they are, for me, an immense source of reading pleasure. Take for example the exquisite description of the beach in James Merrill’s “Palm Beach with Portuguese Man-Of-War”:

A mile-long vertebrate picked clean
To the palms’ tall seableached incurving ribs.

And Elizabeth Bishop’s depiction of fog in her great “The Moose”:

shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.
Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles.

And Seamus Heaney’s unforgettable description of the Grauballe Man:

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
Of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inward to a dark
elderberry place.

I could multiply examples endlessly. The point is that there’s a blind spot in Kirsch’s criticism. A sense of the pleasure principle is lacking.

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