Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 159-160
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Essays on Modern Poetry
Daniel T. O'Hara
Over the last twenty-five years David Bromwich has authored several important books, including Hazlitt: The Mind of the Critic, A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost, Politics By Other Means (about the culture wars) and Disowned by Memory: Wordsworth's Poetry of the 1790s. He and I were briefly colleagues in the English Department at Princeton University in the 1970s and, since that time, I have followed his career with interest and, on the whole, admiration. It has seemed to me that his books have usually struck the right note in the developing history of the profession of literary studies in the United States. His work, elegantly written and measured even in its most pointed judgments, has been a tonic and sometimes an antidote to the prevailing fashion in elite critical circles.
His new book is made up of occasional essays on modern poetry originally published during the last twenty years in major journals or reviews (Raritan, Grand Street, TLS, and so on). Although he has made no pretense of comprehensive revision to effect a unity of argument for the essays, the book as a whole does make a strong, unified impression with its general view of modern poetry. Modern poetry, as these fine essays on Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashberry, Geoffrey Hill, and others demonstrate, is best seen as a resistance to cliché, to the received idea of things, and to the habit and instant consensus so typical of modern society.
This resistance to cliché is, of course, most evident in modern poetry's experiments with the received language of poetry. And the modern poet, most typically, resists all other conceptions of his or her office than that of a self defined by its attempts to speak, however uncertainly, about its uncertain feelings, without cliché or the empty formulas of received wisdom. "What a modern poem somehow says is always Watch! Listen! Suppose!—and this in response to a scene or situation that does not have a story to fit into, and that may never have one. Poetry, on this understanding of its [End Page 159] function, is always involved in a resistance to cliché. ... The words of a poem are not to be supposed less intricate than experience itself. And concerning our own experience, we know that it cannot be reduced to a final [prevailing] understanding, whether as evidence, message, behavior, or example" (4). The "skeptical music" of the book's title, a phrase from Wallace Stevens' "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz," refers to this imaginative poise of uncertainty resistant to the ready-made formulation of one sort of reduction or other.
For critically informed, sensitive, and tastefully expressed readings of modern poetry and poets—Hemingway is an honorary poet in Bromwich's (I think rightful) view—a reader could do no better than this book.