Expansive Poetry & Music Online Mini-Review

The Poetry of Life and the Life of  Poetry
Story Line Press, 2000
Paperback, 203  pp., $15.95

Robert Darling

 David Mason's first collection of essays, The  Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, is aptly  titled.  The best of the pieces gathered here  demonstrate the inter relatedness of poetry and  life, how each breathes spirit into the other.   Mason has a talent for drawing directly on his  own experience in ways that illuminate the  critical contexts of his essays.

Refreshingly good sense abounds, often voiced in  simple truths that need saying: "As I read  contemporary poetry, I have found a great deal  of self indulgence.  Though I have nothing  against the personal in art, I do want it  transformed, made into something beyond an  advertisement for the self."  To anyone  unfamiliar with the poetry of the last fifty  years, such a statement would appear so  blatantly obvious it need not be made.  Yet to  all too many poets and publishers today, them's  fightin' words.

In the title essay, Mason demonstrates that he's  not afraid of using the personal to illustrate  the general, but he never falls into the  self indulgence of the merely personal.   Relating his father's experience of World War  II, Mason not only tells how his parents came to  meet but ponders the forms of memory and ways of  telling the past as well.  From here he is able  to move on to Wallace Stevens, to the wartime  experience that led Bernard Knox to become a  classical scholar, on to a passage from a memoir by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which leads to an  anecdote of Field Marshall A.P. Wavell's  anthology Other Men's Flowers.  He then goes on  discuss the impersonal in art, pointing out that  despite Eliot's denial of personality "his later  work  especially Four Quartets and The Family  Reunion  is decidedly confessional." (I would  add that early Eliot, especially "Prufrock" and  The Waste Land, are also confessional;   few took  Eliot seriously when he said The Waste Land was  a personal gripe.  They should have.) Mason  follows this with Auden's expectations of a poem  and ends with an anecdote from his mother's  life, as he had begun the essay with one from  his father's.  All this is held together, in a  way my summary cannot do justice, by the  recurring confluence of poetry and life  throughout the various recountings included in  the essay.  Its scope is the largest of any in  the book, and the essay is the most memorable.

The personal anecdote enlivens other essays in  the book as well. "Postscript: The Essential  Auden Flaw" is occasioned by Mason's purchase of  a second hand copy of Auden's prose; he  discovers that its previous owner (alas,  unnamed) was "a fairly prominent American poet  and the editor of a well known poetry journal."   This person's marginalia criticizing Auden leads  Mason to conclude that for people like the  book's previous owner, the "poet's righteousness  became the subject for poetry, not the suffering  world."  All too true.  This exemplifies the  tendency of many poets to disengage from the  world and write about themselves, even when  supposedly writing about others.  This is  perhaps the best of Mason's three essays on  Auden included in the book, even though it is  only two pages, in that Mason clearly identifies  the largeness of Auden's humanity, the scope of  which puts most other poets to shame.

"A Touchstone From Tennyson" recounts the  seeming coincidence of Tennyson's "Break, Break,  Break" appearing in an ancestor's obituary and  then being the center of an eulogy at his  brother's funeral in 1979.  These personal  contacts with the work of a master poet caused  Mason to overcome his Eliot induced aversion to  Tennyson.  He makes the point that many of the  New Formalists "have been too easily satisfied  with the thumping iamb" and "might do well to  study Tennyson's meter making moods."  This is  true, though perhaps overstated  many New  Formalists have not been terribly adventurous  metrically, yet the iamb should not be reduced  to mere thumping any more than it should be to  Pound's metronome.  An example of iambic  insensitivity might betray itself in Mason's  scansion of the poem's second line as containing  a spondee rather than a heavy iamb; the fact  that the less stressed syllable of an iamb may  carry noticeable speech stress does not  automatically make it a spondee.  The iamb is  far more flexible than that.  But this is  another good essay, and concise  this time only  four pages.

Mason bookends his review of John Hollander's  anthology American Poetry: The Nineteenth  Century with a personal anecdote.  Stopping at a  second hand shop in Nebraska, Mason buys a  series of pamphlets of poems for elementary  school children from about fifty years ago.   Seeing what children actually read at one time  throws into sad relief the poor reading habits  today of both students and supposed scholars.   (Delightfully, Mason points out that these Nebraska schoolkids would have a better  developed literary common sense than many  contemporary MLA presenters.)  This incident  leads naturally enough into the review of  Hollander's anthology, and, in conclusion,  returns to Mason and his wife driving on and  listening to Ted Kooser on public radio. Though  there is much less personal anecdote in this  essay than in those above, what there is does  supply a very fine frame.

The rest of the essay makes a good case for  looking again at American poetry of the  nineteenth century beyond Whitman and Dickinson.   Although I still think they're poor second  cousins to the Victorians, Bryant, Whittier,  Longfellow and some lesser poets of the time do  not deserve the critical oblivion the academy  seems so desirous to award them.  They did  commit the sin of being popular, which is a sure  guarantee of professional disdain.  Mason also  makes the interesting point that "Whitman  returns to meter in many of his most memorable  passages," although he admits the meter is  "rough."

Mason also begins "Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney  and the Wellsprings of Poetry" by recounting his  personal discovery of Heaney's work in a popular  magazine (strangely enough, the same issue in  which I first encountered Heaney).  Although  others, including Heaney himself, have pointed  out the influences of Frost on Heaney, Mason's  essay is required reading  it is graceful,  thorough and illuminating.  "Irish Poetry at the  Crossroads" does not have the depth of the  Frost/Heaney essay, but it is not intended to:  the essay is an overview, a good introduction to  the contemporary Irish poetry scene.  Mason is  good on John Montague's strengths and  limitations and is insightful on Derek Mahon,  who, next to Heaney, is probably the best of the  group.  Mason's treatment of Medbh McGuckian  seems justifiably harsh  he quotes a poem of  hers and finds it a quintessential "example of  sheer pretentiousness in contemporary poetry."   He defines his own taste here:  "I look for  accuracy in poetry, memorable speech, something  so well or so beautifully said that it lifts me  to another state of consciousness, but I have  difficulty with poems that present unnecessary  barriers to my comprehension."  This is plain,  uncommonly good common sense. (McGuckian would  probably comment that it demonstrates the  limitations of male hierarchical paradigms.)   Mason neglects discussing Paul Muldoon at any  length, which is unfortunate, as I'm still  waiting for someone to convince me he's worth  the effort  and I've read Finnegans Wake.  Mason  ends the essay with Heaney; my only quibble here  is how Mason finds "Two Lorries" to be a  "charming sestina," considering the fact that a  terrorist bombing is central to the poem.

In "Other Lives: On Shorter Narrative Poems"  Mason offers a good overview of recent short  narratives; the major shortcoming here is one of  modesty as he does not discuss his own.  The new  narrative impulse is a healthy one for poetry,  though I have yet to read a contemporary novel  in verse I find wholly satisfying; of course, I  don't find much contemporary fiction of interest  either  it is filled with people I can't bring  myself to care about.  (I also confess I am sick  to death of reading about tenements, trailer  parks and suburbs.)  Perhaps the book length  poem should still steer back to the epic rather  than the novel.  But there have been many good  shorter narrative poems written in recent years,  Dana Gioia's "Counting the Children" foremost  among them.

Speaking of Gioia, "Dana's Gioia's Case for  Poetry" is a good overview of Gioia's criticism,  but one might better read the primary source.   "The New Formalism and the Audience for Poetry"  is also a fine summary of the movement,  even handed and fair, but in a Story Line  edition these two essays may seem like preaching  to the converted.  (On second thought, some of  their recent publications call this into question.  I hope someone gives Ginger Andrews a  copy of this book.)

Some of the essays are reviews that don't really  carry much weight past the occasion of their  initial appearance without revision and  expansion; in particular, "Short Subjects"  should either be expanded or dropped.  I hope  "Anne Sexton and Her Times" is rewritten as an  essay proper because there are some wonderful  insights scattered throughout about the  limitations of confessionalism.  Despite his  general praise for Louis Simpson in "Louis  Simpson's Singular Charm," Mason does express  some ambivalence about Simpson's shift away from  poetics (not only metrics but imagery as well)  and into suburbia.  I would not be so kind; I  think Simpson's aesthetic decisions have wasted  an important poetic talent.

"Auden Onstage" offers a good introduction to  the master's plays and libretti; while not being  the equal of his poems, they do deserve more  attention.  "Miles From Babylon: Poems of the  Unfurnished Journey" is an interesting  comparison of three pilgrimage poems of Yeats,  Auden and Cavafy.  I do not possess Mason's  Greek, but when he writes "Cavafy's poem  ["Ithaca"] is closer to Pascal: we chose to  leave our Ithaca..." I wonder.  In the  translation Mason supplies, Cavafy treats Ithaca  as Yeats does Byzantium and Auden Atlantis, not  as somewhere we are returning to but as  somewhere we have never been.

Then there is the final essay, "The Tenacity of  John Haines."  Mason offers a good, balanced,  but not a finally convincing (to me)  appreciation of Haines' work.  But at one point  Mason can't seem to decide what he wants to say.   He states, "Literary criticism has not yet come  to terms with the poetry of America's western  coast."  Maybe true.  He goes on to make the  point that Haines in particular is isolated  "from the smug centers of literary power."   However, a page later Mason parenthetically  offers, "certain New York periodicals like the  Hudson Review have supported Haines' work;  perhaps his appeal has always been broader than  I suggest."  One becomes slightly dizzy here.   Then he offers an endnote: "In a letter to me  Haines has recently written that he feels his  work has often been well received in the  east.... It may be that, as a westerner myself,  I have overstated the prejudices of eastern  critics.  Indeed, it sometimes seems that the  west hardly notices its poets."  Worse and  worser.  The clear, decisive voice that the  reader has come to trust by this point suddenly  turns to Jello.  It's not the best way to end  the book.

Which is a shame, because this is a good book by  a good poet.  He is one of the best poets and  critics of his generation, and, on the whole,  The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry is  worth the time of anyone who cares about poetry.

                                                       Robert Darling

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