To be a poet-critic in the 21st century, especially one espousing the values of the western intellectual tradition, is to be in the line of an apostolic succession that has run out of heirs. The line last thrived in the mid-20th century when figures like T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Randall Jarrell reigned as the English-speaking world’s last fully-fledged men of letters. They handed down their literary encyclicals to a sympathetic congregation, a house of true believers who by and large shared the same faith as the critic’s. If the line has thinned in the meantime, blame it on the breakdown of the old hegemony. Poets have increasingly eschewed traditional poetics and critics have become enchanted with abstruse postmodern theories. It seems that the two sensibilities can no longer coexist in the same person.
Occasionally, though, this force-field is breached by an anomalous figure like Eric Ormsby, whose extraordinary new collection of essays, Fine Incisions, is his bid to bind himself to the old role. Ormsby brings the requisite broad learning to the task, as well as an ear tuned to the fine musics of many languages, and a comprehensive gift of sympathy for the great variety of the human experience. Having long established his bona fides in one genre, Ormsby here adjusts his sights and goes out to explore the weather as a critic, a role that permits him longer and deeper looks into subject matter, and more time to ponder than the poem’s usual brevity tends to allow. Time after time, he brings back eloquent evidence that the universe is still full of mystery, and that it demands illumination by minds like his, minds tuned to the subtlest melodies.
He begins in the climate with which he is most familiar, poetry. He addresses the work of figures ranging from William Butler Yeats to Elizabeth Bishop, staying within the canon of 20th century literature, and applying the whetted tools of close textual reading. Orsmby looks for what he calls “shadow language,” a species separate and more numinous than the common speech of William Carlos Williams, a speech combining music and the echoes of foreign languages with material that has “the solidity of physical objects,” in which “a complex and tensile music prevail(s),” so as to release the “magic” that “lies in the deftly burnished illusion of actual speech.” The best poetry inevitably involves artifice, Ormsby believes, but an artifice that disappears when the poet’s gifts are brought to bear on his materials. He writes that language is “in incessant need of revival,” and that it is “at once inviolable and immutable but also malleable and expansive.” Ormsby calls for a fidelity to the written word that is almost priestly in its sense of the sacred. The poet’s task is to perform rites that must be reinvented and improvised upon as the urgency of a given occasion demands. He locates the apotheosis of his requirements in the work of poets like James Merrill and Geoffrey Hill, both canonical, one Apollonian, the other Dionysian. In Merrill he finds a poet with whom he has perhaps the greatest affinity, reading in his work an “unassailable elegance,” calling him the Proust of verse. Indeed, Ormsby revels in the hothouse effulgence of Merrill’s language, a tendency he sometimes indulges in himself. Both writers share a gift for lacquered surfaces and architectural structures. Merrill’s only flaw, writes Ormsby, is his flawlessness. At the other extreme is Geoffrey Hill, the aging English bard whose gnarled and tightly coiled stanzas Ormsby describes as having an “austere opulence.” Ormsby approves of Hill’s unfashionable devotion to tradition and craft, finding him passionately engaged with it “in a way that makes plain that for him it is a living thing—to be contested as much as upheld—and not some genteel legacy.” The fact that he finds much to praise in each of these very different poets is indicative of Ormsby’s catholicity. His criticism is not a search for doctrine, but a quest for faith. In all his readings of poetry, his method is to proceed in line-by-line exegesis, searching for leitmotifs and congruences, seeking to open the mechanics of the poet’s own inner navigations. Ormsby always exemplifies his own strict critical standards, especially in his essays on poetry, which often startle with insight even as his prose sheds lustre across the printed page.
But Ormsby doesn’t restrict his attentions to poetry in this collection. He ranges into the fiction of writers like Katherine Ann Porter, Richard Yates, and J. K. Huysmans, and writes lovingly and knowingly of cities like Prague and Rabat, refreshing the genre of travel writing with his brisk intelligence. Two essays, “Shadow Language” and “Fine Incisions,” qualify as touchstones; they should be required reading for anyone who would call themselves knowledgeable about the written word. Particularly delicious is his review of Christopher Ricks’s Byzantine volume on Bob Dylan, which Ormsby describes as an “almost comically inflated gloss.” Written in a tone of restrained mockery, the essay is a much needed corrective to the work of academics who forsake sanity as they pant after the approval of the young.
A review like this one can only brush the surface of a collection so rich. And it’s simply impossible to praise it sufficiently. Its rare erudition and worldliness provide perfect ballast for the chiseled sentences of the essays, which flicker and snap with the energy of live wires. Ormsby borrows his title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, and does her honor in these essays that have the penetration of literal incisions, openings that cut deep into mystery, opening it to reveal all its shining interior.
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.