Monday, May 08, 2017

Laureate Poets and Heretic Poets in the TLS

I've always romanticized the Grand Old Literary Newsprint Journals—the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and, best of all, the Times Literary Supplement. It's not often I've encountered references to my own work when flipping through the TLS (three times, not that I'm counting), so I was delighted to run across Stephen Burt's "Laureates and Heretics" in the May 3 issue—an article that takes its name from a book of mine that came out several years ago.

Burt's essay isn't about my book: it's a review of two books of essays by contemporary poets, Alan Shapiro's The Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration and John Matthias' At Large.  But—noting that both Shapiro and Matthias studied in the considerable shadow Yvor Winters cast at Stanford (Matthias under the man himself, Shapiro under his disciples)—Burt chose to use Laureates and Heretics as a means of understanding the two poets.  My book, after all, was about Winters' last generation of students, and the poetic careers they went on to have.  Burt gives a good, quick sense of the book in his introductory paragraph:
In 2010 the Illinois-based poet and critic Robert Archambeau published Laureates and Heretics, about “six careers in American poetry”: those of Yvor Winters (1900–68) and five of Winters’s last graduate students at Stanford University. Of those, Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass became US Poet Laureates, while John Peck, John Matthias and James McMichael (the heretics) found small, loyal, contrarian audiences for their drier and more obviously learned poetry. Archambeau showed that Winters’s astringent yet charismatic pedagogy, his early modernist experiments and the severe doctrines of his later years – against raw emotion and modernist uncertainty, in favour of reason, control and inherited rules – could generate sharply divergent poetic programmes. He also showed how a particular way of reading, indebted to Winters’s poetic tastes and touchstones (including Ben Jonson, J. V. Cunningham and George Herbert’s “Church Monuments”), could persist for generations, even as its acolytes diverged.

Burt goes on to use the notion of "laureate" and "heretic" poetics to describe Shapiro and Matthias, respectively:
Shapiro’s fourth volume of prose. Most of its nine essays recommend, persuasively and movingly, what Archambeau might call a laureate programme: personal but guarded, never opaque, fiercely committed to the double notion that poetry can be read by everyone, and that it requires hard work to write. Shapiro may never become US Poet Laureate, but his moderate, democratic, inviting prescriptions fit Archambeau’s laureate frame.... John Matthias remains one of Archambeau’s heretics, and he writes for readers who have already read a great deal, or in some cases for readers who have read every issue of Notre Dame Review, the literary journal that Matthias co-edited in the 1990s and 2000s.
There's something in that critical distinction.  And there's something special in it for me: it's always good to encounter one's own paradigm put to use.

The article is available in print, and online, here, to subscribers.

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