A WAY OF HAPPENING: Observations of Contemporary Poetry by Fred Chappell

A WAY OF HAPPENING: Observations of Contemporary Poetry

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A rare, reasonable critic strikes. If ""reasonable"" means alert and without apparent self-interest, as well as exuberantly free of academese, then Chappell fits the bill nicely. The novelist and poet (a winner of the Bollingen Prize) writes as though unconstrained by the imperatives of narrow professionalism that now tend to dominate so much critical writing about literature. His approach is humble yet insistent (""a critic needs a strong motive, for the troubles are many and the pleasures are few""). With brio and even, sometimes, with humor, Chappell explores first books by poets; the ""political bias"" displayed in many anthologies of poetry; the work of current women poets in the South; and the uses (and misuses) of maxims in poems. Although he writes for knowledgeable readers, he won't frighten off the provisionally interested newcomer. That's because Chappell has managed to bring a sense of discovery even to familiar subjects. In his opening essay, ""Thanks but No Thanks,"" for instance, he both questions and justifies the critic's mission, criticizing some perils and errors of reviewers: ""If a poet too habitually in the company of other poets may run the danger of making her work derivative, then may not a critic too often surrounded by other critics risk being faddish?"" However, the perennially thorny subject of teaching writing doesn't show Chappell at his best. In ""First Night Come Round Again,"" a laborious piece of extended polemic, he pompously considers the situation of ""Mr. Creative Writing Teacher,"" who seems to be respected by no one for trying to do the apparently impossible: instructing students in writing poems, etc. Chappell also misses an obvious opportunity to expand the means and range of voice possible for criticism now; as a traditionalist, he is not especially eager to write against the grain, unfortunately. But his traditionalism is fair, clear, vigorous, and sane.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Picador/St. Martin's