Notes of a Quaint Reader

By Lea, Sydney | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Notes of a Quaint Reader


Lea, Sydney, The Hudson Review


I WANT TO BEGIN by engaging two foreseeable challenges to what follows: the first nepotism, the second undue bias.

When I founded New England Review, someone advised me that a good editor would at length have no friends. Yet my first and best editorial mentor, Frederick Morgan, sustained the excellence of this magazine for half a century, his friendships are legion, and I can only pray out of briefer experience that mine are too. Many of my friendships were initiated by attraction to certain authors' work, here including that of Robert Cording and T. R. Hummer, who once shared NER's narrative poetry prize. I did not judge that competition, but I made sure I'd meet men who wrote so brilliantly. Cording now writes even more brilliantly; likewise Hummer, who in fact became my successor at NER Nin Andrews proved my most exciting student ever in the Vermont College M.F.A. Program.

Like anyone, I crave good fellowship. Thus, although I was once briefly introduced to Philip Schultz, and published at least one of his poems, because of his new book I'll try to make a truer acquaintance, as I will with Rafael Campo, a stranger to me. Were I to review only such strangers, in my sixtieth year I'd be so restricted that I'd give the business up.

In the realm of poetry, at my age it seems idle to worry much about personal prejudices of any sort. My selections here may have grown directly out of bias, but whose don't, whatever their tastes, their coterie? I set aside a number of books just because they seemed impenetrable. I'm unashamed by my inability to make head or tail of too many current stars; oh, I'm sure at length I'd come to some grips with the latest from Jorie Graham, say-but why might I bother? Life grows short, and I have better things, not all literary, to do than puzzle out ... puzzles.

I want to be moved by what I encounter in print, a desire that appears to be off the postmodern map; hence my quaintness, and fine by me. Underneath, I was always so quaint. It's just that now I no longer even feign gratification over decoding Ezra Pound at his densest, for example, the poet's alleged complexity in the end more nearly resembling complication. (Modern and Postmodern may have more in common than we're advised.) The seeming accessibility of Robert Frost, on the other hand, belies a genuine complexity, and my admiration for him grows by the year.

A poet needs to invite me along, to show some generosity-to suggest, in Frost's famous words, "You come too." His or her poem must be available, and immediately, on some level. I'm willing to do as much heavy lifting as a subject demands, but at least let me know who's talking (other than some unidentified, imputedly "sensitive" poet)-about what; where; why.

So I drop any mask I may have worn till now among more "serious" readers, lest they take me for a Philistine, insufficiently hip to savor any genius of the obscure. Many writers of poetry and their fans blame such Philistinism for poetry's meager audience; few ever turn the lamp on their own practice. What planet delivered us poets and critics who find clarity of diction, expression of emotion, or love of story to be archaisms, or-oddly-instances of political reaction? One imagines the lift of their eyebrows upon reading this: IMAGE FORMULA3

The "doubters" would tribalize us in diversity's name. Campo, however, downplays his own claims to tribal status (he's "gay," as he would say, "or even queer," as would our cutting-edge theorists, and Latino to boot) in favor of broader values, "bourgeois" ones like "trust" and "love."

Old-fashioned stuff, of course. So is "hope." That last figures prominently in this impressive collection. Many of its poems are occasional -for New Year's, Valentine's, Thanksgiving, Christmas, for his brother's wedding-and Campo chooses such ritual gatherings not to celebrate our alienations but our commonality, in which for the good doctor hope resides. …

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