John Simon, known for the pungency of his drama and film critiques in New York magazine and elsewhere, here delivers himself on writers touched by the spirit of poetrydreamers of dreams, in the words of the prophet Joel. The principal essays in this collection have appeared, from 1991 onwards, in The New Criterion. The author, well versed in prosody (traditional poetic form) does a lot of close reading, phrase by phrase and line by line. As to content, he is scornful of what he takes to be mere cleverness and mystification (pseudoprofundity, he calls it, in the case of Joseph Brodsky). Hence his thumbs-down verdict on some people with major reputations: Brodsky, Rainer Maria Rilke (self-absorbed and aristocratic), John Ashbery and his fellows in the New York School of Poets.
To Simon’s mind, clearly, testing and judging is the critic’s role. In his essay On Translation he refers to the superior scholarship of criticswrongly, I think, for the two activities are far from identical. Most of these essays, even the lengthy ones, are book reviews, assessments of someone else’s scholarship on a particular author. A trio of essaysWilde the Poet, Rimbaud, the Anarchic Demiurge and A Great Baggy Monster: Rilke’s Duino Elegies’capitalize on the author’s own early scholarship, his doctoral work at Harvard upon that paradoxical form, the prose poem.
To my mind, Simon is at his best in positive assessments, because even there he presents the greats with all their warts and lumpsand sexual proclivitiesbut with appreciation. Such are his essays on Philip Larkin, Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Oscar Wilde and, brightest of all, Stephane Mallarmé. Larkin he admires for being a crotchety, uproarious, perennially schoolboyish yet amazingly canny human being. Akhmatova intrigues him as virtually untranslatable because she worked, in Russian, so effectively with the poetry inherent in the sounds of a language’s words. Paul Celan impresses him as having applied Central European ironic lyricism tellingly to the scars left by the Holocaust. Oscar Wilde, ostentatiously amoral yet also childlike and sentimental, is, not surprisingly, the poet of paradox, provoking us not just to thought but to laughter. As to Mallarmé, whom he considers the supreme modern poet, Simon presents him not as an abstracted perfectionist but as a flesh- and-blood, highly admirable person.
John Simon grew up with his parents’ Hungarian, his native Serbian and his home-spoken German, and later with French and English. He was a youthful reader of poetry in all these languages. The pickiness, impatience or, to put it frankly, anger with most translators and translations that we find in these reviews and essays stems partly from this multilingualism. In his few pages On Translation, he calls the process a balancing act between faithfulness and creativity in the second language. He allows, in theory, that even a bad translation is much better than none. In practice, he is devilishly hard to please. In a review essay of translations of 20 poets, only three come off reasonably well.
John Simon is competent and mostly appreciative on the subject of Arthur Rimbaud and dismissive, in fact scathing, on the New York School of Poets. He agrees with the French critic Maurice Blanchot that Rimbaud has pushed to the farthest extreme ambiguity, which is the essential movement of poetic activity. He finds the New York School guilty of anti-poetry, scot-free associations, the openness to infinite, arbitrary private readings. But this raises a question. How different, after all, is Rimbaud the fumiste from the wishy-washiness that Simon finds in vogue among the sophisticates? Whatever the answer, I must admit that Simon’s strictures resonate with my own inability to read, that is, to follow John Ashbery, Barbara Guest or the many younger writers so much admired today for their pattern of non sequiturs.
John Simon cannot resist a showy phrase. I had finished most of the book when I came upon Jesuit hairsplitter. Please! Mostly he is old-time, a stickler, claiming at the close of his Introduction, there are not that many modern poets worth writing about at length. This, despite his having just mentioned several dozen, both American and European. There are lots more out there, producing respectably. The problem for Simon is that they are minor, not major. If these categories hold water, the task for a critic would seem to be appreciating the minor and nudging him or her toward major by emphasizing what deserves the praise, to say nothing of broadening the public’s appreciation.