Six Modernist Moments in Poetry. David Young. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006. xiv + 175 pp. $29.95 (cloth).
"These are six rooms," David Young tells us by way of introduction, "in my gallery of modernist poetry" (ix). Young's latest book, Six Modernist Moments in Poetry, offers readers a stimulating tour of his gallery, featuring the poems of six modernist poets: Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Bowl of Roses," William Butler Yeats's "Among School Children," Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," William Carlos Williams's "January Morning," Marianne Moore's "An Octopus," and Eugenio Montale's "Mediterranean." Young's experience and skills as a poet, translator, and teacher result in an engaging and accessible reading experience for general readers, as well as a thought-provoking analysis for scholars.
Young provides a personal rationale for why he selected these six poets and why these six poems. The book, he states, is the "outcome" of an encounter with modern poetry that began for him as a freshman at college when he pulled Stevens's The Auroras of Autumn off a library book shelf. Consequently, the book is the culmination, what Young describes as "composite portrait," of many years of studying, teaching, translating, composing, and loving poetry. His conclusion is this: "the modernist narrative is really many narratives at once and that modernist poetic practice as I understand and value it can best be demonstrated through close attention to six exemplary poems" (ix). He presents each poem in its entirety at the opening of a chapter devoted to its exploration. The inclusion of these poems should be a valued introduction for some readers and a welcomed reentry point for others. Following the poem, Young offers his readers a thorough, clearly written close reading. For the chapters devoted to Rilke and Montale's poems, he provides his own lucid translations which, given his extensive experience in translating their works, further aid the ensuing explications.
In his introduction, Young states, "It's my hope that grouping them together and examining them in the company of someone who has spent a lot of time with them will prove a helpful experience for the reader" (x). By reading this book, one undoubtedly will be helped to see the interpretive nuances of each poem. It is as though a master poetic guide leads you through the textual ambiguity helping you to both see and understand the modernist aesthetic. A case in point is his presentation of the final section of Yeats's "Among School Children." He patiently guides readers to the conclusion that contains the "most inconclusive images and its slipperiest language" (38). He convincingly points out:
The reader can, for example, decide that the final lines introduce a resounding unity or that they open up a gulf that reveals a crisis of meaning and signification. However, the articulation of such resolutions and chasms is a choice that a reader makes, not a conclusion so firmly built into the poem that no one can argue it or mistake its meaning. (42)
Such a comment reminds me of the best teachers I had as a student. In Young's case, he aims to open up interpretive possibilities for his readers, while not foregoing an appreciation and understanding of the language and structure created by the poet. It is not about reducing the poem to a single interpretation, rather it is about illustrating to his readers how the poem plays with language and offers us the possibility to engage it imaginatively.
Of the six modernists in Young's book, three of them-Williams, Moore, and Stevens-are Americans who stayed at home to write rather than travel to Europe. Their selection indicates part of Young's purpose for this study. "[l]f modernist art was to be truly valid, applicable to every place and every culture," he argues, "then it could and should be naturalized and practiced on American soil" (xii). Young admits in his introduction that his appreciation for Williams came later, for it took him longer to "hear" the "music. …