Magazine article World Literature Today

The Virtues of Poetry

Magazine article World Literature Today

The Virtues of Poetry

Article excerpt

James Longenbach. The Virtues of Poetry. Minneapolis, Minn. Graywolf. 2013. isbn 9781555976378

Like a man who takes clocks apart for the sheer joy of showing us the marvelous ways in which they work, James Longenbach displays a great talent for insightful close reading, a process through which he reveals the inner workings of a poem in ways that augment rather than diminish our wonder in reading it. This process is too elaborate and delicate to reproduce here, but the result is often both an astute understanding of a particular poem and a useful sketch of a broadly applicable poetic principle, as when his reading of Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" leads him to conclude that "the language feels inexplicably complex by virtue of its restraint, by virtue of implications the language raises but does not acknowledge having raised." For the reader intent on growing as a poet, such insights offer accessible yet admirable models for imitation. For the poetry enthusiast intent on growing as a reader, they offer a handle by which to grasp many of the best poems in English.

"Restraint" is a virtue that Longenbach returns to throughout the volume, not surprisingly since Longenbach's own spare and evocative poetry exhibits this virtue so well. In reconsidering the paradigm of "confessional" poetry, for example, he notes that "to varying degrees, both Lowell's and Bishop's poems embody a tension between reticence and revelation, a tension crucial to any art that might otherwise seem merely reticent or merely revelatory. …

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