SOMETHING SAID by Gilbert Sorrentino


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I have never had any desire to be creative in my criticism, and it does not yearn, so to speak, for the status of literature. It has been written, unlike my fiction and poetry, with an audience in mind, an audience, moreover, that I wished to influence by any number of rhetorical and argumentative means."" So writes Sorrentino (Mulligan Stew, Blue Pastoral) in a preface to this eclectic collection--1959-1984--of book-reviews; and, indeed, the style here, in contrast to Sorrentino's fiction, is utterly (for the most part) straightforward--as he forcefully argues for art that is truly American, art that usually appears ""in staggered and lonely configurations that seem insane or deformed."" William Carlos Williams, therefore, is the greatest--and most eloquently, persuasively championed--of Sorrentino's enthusiasms: in eight separate pieces over 20 years, he reflects on Spring and All (""the beginning of American poetry, per se""), on the Stecher trilogy, on ""the great opening up of language, the huge leaps of thought""; he attributes his lack of recognition--in contrast to a much-loathed Robert Frost--to Williams' naked, flat-real, unromanticized vision. (""American life is not tragic, it is dull; its losses are almost silent, inexpressible, obscure. Williams tells us this and tells us with such persistence that we cannot stand him."") Other, less monumental poets also receive close, intensely partisan readings: Jack Spicer (a less-than-convincing paean), William Bronk, Paul Blackburn, and--most intriguing of all--Louis Zukofsky, whose daunting ""willed prosody"" is illuminated with erudite vigor. And, along with casual swipes at Frost, there's a rather nasty survey of Marianne Moore--from ""an elegant, restrained, restricted verse of enormous glitter and craft to the greeting-card doggerel of a dear old lady""--which also features Sorrentino's remarkable ability to appreciate form without losing his streetwise edge. On fiction, however, Sorrentino is somewhat less impressive: his superlatives in praise of Hubert Selby (he has made ""major literature"" out of vulgarity) seem strained; a brief puff for John Hawkes' The Blood Oranges has dated badly; his offhand put-downs of Updike (""phony,"" ""saying nothing,"" ""a virtuoso of the banal"") aren't adequately supported; his more substantial attack on John Gardner also has a glib snideness about it; overall, his best work here comes when dealing with flawed, talented, offbeat or tricky work--Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Manuel Puig's Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages. And the preoccupation with form takes an interesting turn in Sorrentino's appredation of Ross Macdonald's achievement--within the mystery genre, not transcending it. Independent, appealingly headstrong, sophisticated yet anti-academic criticism--at its best when tackling Williams and other thornily American poets.

Pub Date: Nov. 30th, 1984
Publisher: North Point