Archive | July, 2005

The Voice of the Poet Part 2: Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell’s poetry and criticism have lately experienced individual resurgences. Even his children’s books, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, have proven very popular. He is one of a small handful of deservedly enduring authors from the golden age of mid-century American letters, the “Age of Criticism,” one of the men who fought in the Second World War, attended university on the GI Bill, and decided to face European traditions on their own terms. He was a very American writer. He loved his sports cars, his cats, and Hollywood; he wrote some of the best war poems of the century, though he never fired a shot himself; his late career recollections of childhood resemble William Wordsworth’s in their nuance and William Blake’s in their immediate simplicity and subtle complexity.

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The Voice of the Poet: Part 1: W.H. Auden

W. H. Auden is ordinarily depicted as the leading, in fact the best-loved, member of his generation of English poets, the generation falling between the airy heights of T. S. Eliot and the grim reactionary postmodernism of Philip Larkin. Just as John Ashbery managed to decamp from the whimsical and often wallowing group known as the New York School, Auden gained notoriety and reverence that left him at a remove from his contemporaries. His intimate alliances with such photogenic figures as Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Christopher Isherwood, and Benjamin Britten lent dramatic proportions to his career and personal life, and his intellectual light reflected well on them (although such collaborations as arose were not without their faults: Auden composed the libretto to Britten’s dreadful opera Paul Bunyon, co-authored three middling plays and Journey to War with Isherwood, and published the sometimes limp Letters from Iceland with MacNeice; however, he redeemed himself among music lovers with the stunning libretto to Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress). Though hardly the most handsome of his generation at Oxford, he was nevertheless bathed in warm admiration and outright loyalty from a devoted circle of companions, as much for his intellectual powers as his audacious charm and humor. His wit is renowned, and a survey of any anthology of quotations will surface more than a few by Wystan, including such favorites as “thank God for books as an alternative to conversation” and “one cannot review a bad book without showing off.”

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The Voice of the Poet

Thoughtful readers of poetry are attuned to the musical subtleties of the human voice. These qualities shape the poetry, and most poetry-purely optical or purposely discordant linguistic experiments notwithstanding-should be heard, either as an acoustic mental image, when read silently, or spoken aloud. It cannot be adequately appreciated otherwise. Owing in part to new technology and a renaissance in available arts venues around the United States, the performance of poetry has grown to be a greater concern than it has been for hundreds of years, perhaps since the earliest bards strummed simple instruments and sang versified histories. Poets today have more tools at their disposal than ever before, from the microphone to CDs and digital audio downloads. After America embraced Dylan Thomas’s fiery recitations, which gained legendary status from John Malcolm Brinnin’s equally legendary accounts in Dylan Thomas in America, the notion of the poet as solo performer began to gain greater recognition. Poets in America came to resemble pocket-sized rock stars for a time in the 1960s, shaggy and romantic, visionary, shamanistic, observed as dangerous, even self-destructive-as self-involved and primeval as Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison on their swirling psychedelic proscenia.

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