- Joyce's Poetry
Reading this book is like being at a B-list cocktail party. People keep surreptitiously looking over the shoulder of the person they're addressing—you, for example—for someone more interesting to talk to or something more interesting to talk about.
If you're going to take Vienna, said Napoleon, take Vienna. I wish the contributors to this volume had "reconsidered the poetry of James Joyce." Sometimes they do, sort of, but in almost every case the result turns out to be what the late Bernard Benstock derogated as a "Joyce and blank" production, with "blank" carrying the day.
To itemize. After an overlong but otherwise blameless summary by Marc C. Conner, the editor, Michael Patrick Gillespie's "Reading Joyce's Poetry against the Rest of the Canon" advances the argument that "rather than standing as embarrassing accoutrements to the real achievements of the fiction, the poetry complements the prose." "Complements" turns out to be too elastic a word. Just where does this complementing occur? Joyce's poetry is largely sentimental and his early prose, if anything, antisentimental to a fault, but on what hermeneutical field of combat or accommodation do the two meet? Gillespie thinks that Lenehan in "Two Gallants" and Mrs. Mooney in "The Boarding House" may have romantic soft spots similar to those on show in Chamber Music. I go along with him on the former, not the latter, but in neither case need Chamber Music enter the picture. Both readings would have been just as available had it never existed.
The next item, Matthew Campbell's "The Unconsortable Joyce," is an informed if overly discursive consideration of Joyce in relation to other poets, especially Yeats. By themselves, the sentences are often good, packed with information, but—back to that cocktail party—they [End Page 546] seldom seem to be talking to one another, nor to be much interested, for long, in the ostensible subject. A Yeats man, perhaps as a favor, doing a Joyce turn, is the conclusion your reviewer came away with. (Campbell's contributor's note seems to corroborate this.)
Next, Marie-Dominique Garnier's "Verse after Verlaine, Rime after Rimbaud" is an unholy scramble of pith and pish. She is evidently one of those death-of-the-author sorts who believe that the way to finish off the poor old scribbler once and for all is to make a show of beating him at his own game. So there are verbal hijinks after the manner, supposedly, of Finnegans Wake—which might be fine if it were possible to imagine anything written that way which could possibly constitute a useful act of literary commentary. In any event, Garnier doesn't pretend to be attempting any such thing. She spends half a page speculating about the musical key of Chamber Music—whether C or G—only to conclude that the whole question is "pointless." (Right. So ... why...?) Speaking of G, I swear to God that there is a place, page 98, where she is riffing away on the different possible permutations of that estimable letter—alphabetic, alliterative, musical—and your reviewer has penned in the sardonic comment, "What, no g-string?" Well, she was way ahead of me on that, boy. Later down the page, unhyphenated compounds like "lookingglass" are, she says, "words that could be described for short as built on strings of G, articulating a locus of guttural jouissance, a poetic 'g-spot,' as it were." How did I not see that g-spot coming?
All in all, a pity: there are intervals of lucidity where the author's erudition shows to advantage. But the final effect is of reading someone who thinks of literary criticism as an act of vengeance.
Cóilín Owens is a Dubliners man—perhaps the Dubliners man. His title, "'That high unconsortable one': Chamber Music and 'A Painful Case,'" proclaims his argument that "A Painful Case" "is a selective redaction of one of the major themes of Chamber Music, the conflict between the self, the world, and religion." This is actually...