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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Helen Vendler's "The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar": Ten Favorite Passages

Helen Vendler's new essay collection, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar, brims with brilliant observations on poets and poetry. Here are ten of my favorites:

On Charles Wright: “His images, changing with the season, set the musical tone for each poem, and they are conceived in a manner that never ceases to astonish. One can never guess what word will come next on the page in a poem by Wright” (“The Nothing That Is”).

On Allen Ginsberg: “Ginsberg’s poetry gains much of its power from a cinematically detailed immersion in present-tense immediacy. You are there (as in any Ginsberg poem) when, in ‘Manhattan May Day Midnight,’ Ginsberg goes out at night to buy the newspapers and sees workmen tracking down a gas leak. He notices the bullet-shaped skull of the man in the manhole, he remarks the conjunction of asphalt and granite, he registers the presence of an idling truck” (“American X-Rays”).

On A. R. Ammons: “The attempt to protect what is beloved, knowing the certainty of its destruction, is beneath all of Ammons’s poetry” (“The Snow Poems and Garbage”).

On Amy Clampitt: “Immersion in landscape seemed to return Clampitt to that presubjective moment of joy before self and object became two things. Consequently, nothing made her happier as a writer than the challenge to make the physical world appear to others as it seemed to her” (“All Her Nomads”).

On James Merrill: Merrill enjoys the wit of finding ‘bath to’ as a rhyme for ‘Matthew,’ or ‘décor’ as a rhyme for ‘war,’ but his real genius, in terms of form, is to write rhyming narrative stanzas that ripple effortlessly down the page” (“Ardor and Artifice”).

On Wallace Stevens: “It seems, as we read Stevens, that each aspect of the autumn ode called out to him to be reinterpreted, reused, recreated into a poem” (“Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ ”).

On John Ashbery: “Nothing in ordinary life is alien to his democratic and comprehensive and indulgent eye” (“The Democratic Eye”).

On Jorie Graham: “In the poem ‘Pollock and Canvas,’ Graham, searching for a nontranscendent vertical which will be comparable to her earthly ‘desiring’ horizontal, finds a metaphor for her line in the fluid drip of Pollock’s paint between the body of the artist and his canvas spread on the ground” (“Jorie Graham”).

On Mark Ford: “Ford’s unobtrusive but careful tending to his sound chains – audible everywhere in these poems – makes his lines cohere, attract each other magnetically, no matter their content” (“Mark Ford”).

On Lucie Brock-Broido: “She memorializes moments at once unforgettable and inconspicuous. Of all the vignettes of her childhood tucked into the poems, my favorite remains the one recounting the absurd safety procedures in the ‘bomb shelters’ of elementary schools” (“Notes from the Trepidarium”).

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