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Sunday, 17 February 2008

Deep Woods

James Woods is one of the most highly-esteemed popular literary critics, and reviewers, of the current age. Unlike, however, figures such as Ford Madox Ford (who encouraged Lowell), or, for that matter, Cyril Connolly, he is apparently indifferent to poetry's charms. Woods is a Novel Man. Apparently, his bluntly-titled How Fiction Works (taking the idea of a manual to its instrumental level, one supposes) sides with prose, over poetry. Well, apparently poets write mainly about themselves (and what selves!?) - and are more concerned with style than substance. Their "careless [lyrical] rapture" and interest in "strenuous display of style" are somewhat beyond Wood's pale. Well, okay. But literary criticism hasn't been this stern since Plato, and, surely, elements of style learned from poetry (and its musical aspects) have powerfully enriched the rhythm's of prose, as well as its-less-austere moments. One doesn't have to be Pater to recognise, or love, the poetry in Fitzgerald, Chandler, Greene, Bronte, and many, many others.

More to the point, this prejudice against surface display of style and its flamboyant, ornate pleasures, has been a guiding critical worm burrowing through the books of writers these last few often Puritanical centuries - through Wordsworth on to early Davie, through Winters, and beyond. Adam Kirsch, for example, in reading James Schuyler, seems intent on developing an apologia for how to read The New York School, despite, not because of, their many surface, often-stylistic, delights. However, Woods is mainly wrong on this point for another reason - in poetry, form and content are not easily pried apart (they form a stubborn oyster uneasy to open) - and what often seems a poet's excessive style (in Auden, say, or in Stevens) may be a part of the text's deeper engagement with world and word. Sometimes, style is not just a cigar, but something more, something saying much, about not just poetry, or the poet, but how generously language can spread its ultra-enriched fan.
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