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.