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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May 29, 2017, Issue

Reading Adam Kirsch’s absorbing “Pole Apart,” in this week’s issue, I recalled his “Czeslaw Milosz” (included in his 2008 essay collection The Modern Element), a bizarre piece, in which he criticizes Milosz’s poetry for its specificity. He writes,

Poetry is ill suited to grasping “particular existences.” Painting does it much better; even fiction does it somewhat better, because it can afford to be lavish of description, to dote on differentia. But no poem could remain interesting at the length necessary to describe something – be it a leek or a woman – with even moderate specificity. What remains is the bare act of indication, which paradoxically diminishes the particularity it claims to affirm, through endless repetition of the gesture.

To which the only possible response is Och! No such nonsense mars his new piece. Kirsch takes a different view, praising Milosz’s art for its “instinct to strip away the inessential, to zero in on the heart of the matter.” He says of Milosz,

He could see “the skull beneath the skin,” in the words of T. S. Eliot, whose work he knew well. But, where Eliot often used this kind of moral X-ray vision to express contempt and disgust for the world, Milosz had seen too much death to find skulls profound. Instead, he sought a poetry that was truthful and perceptive enough to be trustworthy even when annihilation seemed imminent.

That “Milosz had seen too much death to find skulls profound” is brilliant.

Postscript: Three other lines in this week’s issue that I enjoyed enormously:

Shroudlike disguises figure into her work from subsequent decades, too, counterbalanced by absurdly tailored pieces, including cinched whirlpools of deconstructed menswear and gingham frocks deformed by asymmetrical humps. [“Goings On About Town: Art: Metropolitan Museum”]

It causes the wasp-waisted barmaids in strappy green minidresses to grunt audibly as they muddle handfuls of cherries, and scoop ice as if shovelling a driveway. [Talia Lavin, “Bar Tab: Fishbowl”]

The Thai Tea (Belvedere vodka, Thai tea, orange bitters) is refreshing and strong, but the Rum Cannonball (Bacardi, pineapple, grenadine) has the toothachy sweetness of an alcohol-soaked Jolly Rancher. [Talia Lavin, “Bar Tab: Fishbowl”]

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