The Reading Room: A Professor's Poetry Project
By Florian Gargaillo (LA), Staff Writer
The most famous line on literary criticism belongs to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.” What Emerson indirectly suggests here is that we seek literary criticism not just to know which book is worth reading or which is not, but also for the style of the critic himself. That style varies widely from one critic to another, so we go to different critics for different reasons. We go to Helen Vendler if we are looking for a dense, technical approach to poetry. We go to Harold Bloom for faith in the greatness and the spiritual possibilities of literature. We go to Camille Paglia for radical, subversive readings. Professor William Pritchard, though he reviews several works of literary criticism in his book “On Poets and Poetry,” and shows visible admiration for some of them (chiefly Vendler), is clearly distinct from them.

“On Poets and Poetry” is a collection of reviews and short essays on a whole range of poets, from the 17th century’s Dryden and Milton to our own Richard Wilbur and Donald Hall. It also includes essays on poets’ letters and on three poets who were also literary critics — T.S. Eliot, Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie.

One of the most refreshing things about this book — and this may seem like a paradox — is that it shows a return to the study of aesthetics in poetry. As hard as it may be to believe, this is starting to be all too rare. Pick up most any book of literary criticism today, and chances are it will look at the historical context of the book, or try to make politics out of a poem, or outline some new theoretical approach with obscure terminology that confuses more than it helps. There seem to be very few literary critics left who study a poem simply because they love to read or just try to get into a poem to see how it works and why it succeeds or fails.

Pritchard has a critical and perceptive eye for style and rhythm but in a different way than Vendler. Vendler tends to break a poem down to its essentials, whereas Pritchard focuses on a few select aspects or lines of the poem that interest him. His style is concise, always personable and sometimes piquant, with touches of irony here and there that bring Christopher Ricks to mind. It is a quieter and more unassuming style than most other critics, which makes it easier to sympathize with Pritchard’s voice than, say, Paglia’s (whose thunderous tone terrifies as much as it fascinates).

Pritchard is very clear regarding whom he likes and whom he doesn’t, which means that some poets get brushed off a little too neatly. He shows great appreciation for Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot but is far more mixed when speaking of W.H. Auden or Elizabeth Bishop. As a Wallace Stevens fan, I thought his judgment of the poet as full of “bric-à-brac” too harsh and reductive. His essays on Thomas Hardy and Donald Hall, however, seemed excellent — clear, insightful and memorable. The most enjoyable passages are often those in which Pritchard lets his enthusiasm, or his cynicism, for a particular poem or a poet shine through.

One warning: you will get far more out of these essays if you read the poets themselves first; but even if you don’t, the good thing about On Poets and Poetry is that it will make you want to go back and read poets you have not read in a long time, if at all. In that respect, it seems interesting that the first essay in the collection is on Dryden, a poet rarely encountered outside the classroom. I had never read Dryden before myself, but he is now on my shortlist for this summer.

You also have to love the titles of some of the essays. “Anyone For Tennyson?” Good one.

Issue 21, Submitted 2010-04-07 00:13:18