Saturday, March 29, 2014
Diversion: Poets Discussed with Insight and Barbed Tongue
At any rate, if there were suddenly a murder case in the poetry world to solve, it could well involve Peter Stitt, whose collection of critical essays in THE PERFECT LIFE emerged last fall in a solid little book (166 pages) from Tupelo Press. I think I've read the first essay three times now -- called "In Love Begins Responsibility," it starts with poet James Wright and Professor Stitt (who is the founding and ongoing editor of The Gettyburg Review), moves on to John Berryman, and provides the ground for Stitt to talk about what it means for him to be a survivor of his own (long-ago) suicidal longing. The images and ideas are so strong that -- truly -- I used them a few days ago in a set of high school presentations. Know how highly the praise is, when a work of literary criticism engages a 16-year-old, or several peers of said teen? Yes, the essay is that good.
But there's more to come in this startling packet of tight and intriguing critiques. Whether it's disclosing the (probably immoral) editorial "making pretty" done to Emily Dickinson's poems, the similar messing around with Robert Frost's lines, or the justification -- or not! -- for fictionalizing fact and playing with dialogue instead of reporting it, Stitt keeps piling up edgy insights, remarks, and questions. I would love to have been a student in his classrooms -- and would also hate it, because you can't tell, at least from his printed pages, which parts are his opinions, which are meant as barbed dinner-table conversation, and which are "truths" that could be kept and nurtured.
As I read and re-read, I felt as though I was part of the table gathering on one of those edgy late-night shows, scrambling for something possibly witty to add to the discussion ... and although that's not necessarily comfy, it's exhilarating, exciting, and memorable. If you've wondered how to convince someone that poetry and poets are far from boring, giving them a copy of THE PERFECT LIFE would be a great start.
And it sets up a wry, delightful way to enter National Poetry Month: skeptical, eager, and hungry for more. And oh yes, suspicious that some literary bloodletting might follow!