A rich smattering of essays on American poets from one of this country’s most important critics.
Topics in this latest collection by Bromwich (Disowned by Memory, 1998, etc.) range from studied close readings of great and lesser-known works by Stevens, Moore, Ashbery, and other well-known figures to provocative discussions of the aesthetics of modern poetry and the morality of taste. The essays themselves date from the mid-1970s to the present, and it’s interesting to chart the author’s critical tack across that period—especially as he self-consciously checks his maleness at the door when interpreting the work of Bishop and Moore in 1990. Bromwich is a master of drawing lines between artists (seen here most clearly in his essay on Crane and Eliot) and amplifying poetic resonances: of seminal interest to Stevens scholars is his exploration of the shift in Stevens’s pragmatism from Nietzsche to William James. For students of modernism, the author’s smart claim that the most compelling aspect of modernist aesthetics arises from what he terms a “rhetoric of understatement” should open countless doors for further poetic inquiry. But of most general appeal in this eclectic mix of refined literary thought are the author’s notions of the function of the critic. In various spots, he argues that a good critic “need never do more than point,” and point Bromwich does, with remarkable precision and lucidity. His sentences are lithe and supple, although one wishes he’d occasionally remove his gloves and let the passion driving his scholarship through; even the recounting of an incident involving his son (an experience that in part fuels the charged question of how moral is taste) is handled with uncanny reserve. It seems that Bromwich’s prose at times succumbs to the lure of understatement he so rightly identifies in his subjects.
Overall, a vital contribution to modern poetics.