Here’s a mysterious poem by Catherine Pierce about pregnancy and superstition. We were taken with the way it evokes the magical thinking that comes with vulnerability—and the places where scientific advice about prenatal health subtly shades into paranoia and misplaced faith. Pierce lets us into the speaker’s predicament but only so far, leaving the reader with a sense of heightened confusion and attentiveness to the instability of the world around us. Even the moon can seem twisted in this mindset.—Meghan O’Rourke
Philip Larkin was the first poet I understood. He wasn’t the first poet I could write a reasonably coherent college essay about (that was probably George Herbert), nor was he the first poet whose poems I memorized (Vachel Lindsay, although in fairness, I was twelve). But Larkin was the first poet whose sensibility I felt I grasped in most of its dimensions: he appeared not as a blueprint, but as an actual structure. And a very peculiar structure at that. When I think of Larkin, I imagine a cathedral filled with cheap gray metal desks, or possibly a strip mall with a belfry. Indeed, Larkin combines so many opposed elements of lyric tradition and modern consciousness that he comes close to being the writerly equivalent of a folly—and he has a folly’s ability to seem simultaneously monumental and embarrassingly personal.
Yet people still often describe this complicated figure in one of two fairly straightforward ways. The first is to claim that Larkin is a wry poet of good-natured grumbling and resolute sanity, a portrait that has the virtue of being so inaccurate as to form a likeness in negative. The second way, which became more prevalent after Andrew Motion’s dirt-dishing biography was published, is to claim that Larkin was a nasty man whose poems are filled with secret nastiness that reveals the fundamental nastiness of … well, something really nasty. Great Britain, maybe. (I’ve written about some of these issues before; you can read further here, if you’re curious.)
Maybe it’s enough to say that Larkin—like Stevie Smith, like Bishop—is the kind of poet we seem bent on reducing, in part because he often seems desperately eager to contain something about himself. One of the more interesting perspectives on Larkin appears in an essay by Donald Justice from 1995. Justice’s nominal subject is Larkin’s short yet masterful poem “Coming,” but the real topic is exactly this kind of restraint:
It has been claimed for Larkin that he was never sentimental, never brutal. But the truth is that I find him both sentimental and brutal, though in different poems, or in different parts of the same poem … Irony, diffidence, skepticism, wit: not all of these together are enough to keep out a certain unreasonableness of feeling—the sentiment, the sentimentality—that keeps rising up out of Larkin’s poems. Actually, it is what saves them. Doesn’t everybody really know this?
Everybody doesn’t know it, actually. Even now.
The best thing about The Paris Review, aside from the editors’ formidable liquor stash, is the magazine’s sense of history. Sure, there are older American literary journals (The Yale Review was founded, no joke, in 1819), but The Paris Review has had a consistent idea of itself for longer than many publications that predate its debut in 1953. Of course, that consistency makes some aspects of the magazine vulnerable to, oh, for example, parody. But it also makes The Paris Review’s archive a useful tool with which to survey an art—and one’s personal response to that art—over several decades. So for the next month or so, that’s what I’ll be doing for the gracious and impeccably shirted Lorin Stein, and the equally gracious (and presumably impeccably shirted) Thessaly La Force.
Let’s begin at the beginning, which for me was the spring of 1974.
In the poetry world, this was a season of uncertainty and transition, as seasons in the poetry world so often are. The popularity of the “deep image” style associated with James Wright and W. S. Merwin was just beginning to wane; John Ashbery was on the brink of arriving at his full prominence (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror would complete the only hat trick in the history of the major poetry awards in 1975); and W. H. Auden, whose hand both stirred and hindered several currents in American poetry, had died only a few months earlier. In fact, Auden is the subject of the “Art of Poetry” interview in the Spring 1974 issue, lending a poignant touch to that meticulously casual series. This being Auden, things get pretty droll pretty quickly:
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any aids for inspiration?
AUDEN: I never write when I’m drunk.
INTERVIEWER: Have you read, or tried to read, Finnegans Wake?
AUDEN: I’m not very good on Joyce. Obviously he’s a very great genius—but his work is simply too long.
Allan Peterson is a poet and visual artist from Florida. We love his philosophically and psychologically dense dispatches from “a paradoxical world / where the expected is the once unexpected.” —Dan Chiasson
An insidious little poem for today by Michael Snediker. We liked the confrontational flirtation here, the crispness of its Jamesian distinctions, and the uncanny feeling of being caught holding a missing puzzle piece. —Dan Chiasson Read More