What prompts people to write poetry? What permits a poet to revise himself? Poet and critic Teicher (The Trembling Answers, 2017, etc.) offers new versions of previously published essays, each of which considers aspects of poets’ artistic development.
Refreshingly, the author discusses less well-established poets such as Monica McClure and francine j. harris, but he is at his most astute when assessing the oeuvres of poets whose careers are complete, or nearly so. He reads Sylvia Plath, for example, as a poet who experienced a dramatic breakthrough later in her career. Her early work demonstrated “a virtuosity of technique,” but it wasn’t until the last poems in The Colossus and the “extraordinary abandon” of Ariel that Plath found a subject worthy of her technical power (herself). Teicher’s assessment of W.S. Merwin, by turns laudatory and sharply critical, manages in 13 pages to map a complex, persuasive chronology: Merwin’s early affection for “Pre-Raphaelite ornamentation,” his nearly perfect middle-period poetry, his descent into a kind of solipsistic self-parody, and his late work, in which he “can step out of his own way and let the poem come through unobstructed.” Considering Louise Glück, Teicher makes the illuminating suggestion that her poetry is animated by a tension: Glück finds meaning in everything—in the merest leaf or sunbathing episode—but that habit of mind “grates against her belief that the world is mostly meaningless, mostly uncaring.” Teicher’s narrative is marred by occasional romantic self-seriousness—e.g., poets “are people who, for any number of reasons, cannot, or at one point could not, speak…the keepers of the unsayable”—and he is on shakier ground when, instead of discussing poems, he attempts to divine the motives of the poet, as when he suggests that Glück uses a “mask” in Faithful and Virtuous Night because she needed to “fool herself into [the] vulnerability” required to write about the approach of death.
Imperfect but the insights outweigh the pretension.