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Book Review of David R. Slavitt’s Re Verse

Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets
David R. Slavitt
Northwestern University Press
ISBN: 0-8101-2084-4

David Slavitt´s Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets is at once a meditation on his long and varied career, an investigation into the nature of poetry, and an homage to some of America´s finest (if not always most celebrated) poets. Slavitt has studied with or been friends with many of the biggest names in writing and publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, and for that intimate vantage point alone, this collection of essays is a must-have for every academic library, every scholar and student of American literature, and every would-be poet.

Re Verse immediately strikes the reader as well suited as a supporting text to a poetry workshop. In the reworking (with present-day, memoir-like commentary) of his Master´s Essay on Dudley Fitts (the original essay having been written for his MA at Columbia), Slavitt shows a profound understanding of how poetry works and how we learn to become poets. Slavitt writes: “You learn to write defensively, as you learn to drive defensively, always looking out for sudden wacky things those with whom you share the road are likely to do. But there is a limit beyond which caution becomes anxiety so that you can´t even get into the car.” How true. But this essay offers more than just wise, quotable catch phrases. It, and the collection as a whole, “gives the reader the tools with which to construct a canon out of the labor of thought and reading,” as Mark Rudman´s blurb on the book´s jacket claims.

Its usefulness is therefore not limited to the workshop environment, but would also serve well as a warmer companion text in advanced and intermediate American Literature courses. Daniel Mark Epstein writes of Re Verse: “David Slavitt has known some of the finest poets and teachers of the twentieth century and writes about them with delightful humor and enthusiasm. His tone is a unique blend of fireside storytelling, literary analysis, and heartfelt reflection.” In place of a jargon-laden text destined to make students who once loved literature switch their major to pre-law, Re Verse will deepen the understanding and appreciation literature fans bring to the classroom, while at the same time instructing. But Re Verse is more than mere textbook. These are personal essays as much as they are essays on literature.

It would be a lapse not to mention Slavitt´s ponderings on his own career in Re Verse. Slavitt has published some eighty-odd books in his career. He has been included in numerous anthologies (Best American, Norton, et cetera), and he has made millions writing under pseudonyms, while at the same time being respected as one of the premier literary translators. By all respects, he has had an astonishing career. Yet we find references to himself as a “minor” author, or lines such as this one, from his essay on Winfield Townley Scott, occasioned by an article Slavitt read in TLS in which Scott is dismissed as minor: “The word that stuck with me, though, was ‘minor,´ which hurt as much as anything else because it is probably true, and I have been thinking about what that means.”

There is also an undercurrent of investigating what it means to be Jewish that intermittently pops up in Re Verse. It does not define or restrict the essays in any way, but it is there. Offhanded remarks such as the claim that comedy is to the Jewish people what the Blues are to African-Americans, or the notion of the Jew as the sayer of the unspeakable (e.g. Freud speaking candidly of sex in an age that repressed sexuality, or Marx pointing out class struggles when it was uncouth to mention such things in polite company).

Slavitt can be scathing and dismissive, and often the most enjoyable pieces in this collection are ones in which he is saying what no one else will. In his essay on (against?) Harold Bloom, Slavitt aptly points out much of Bloom´s intellectual posturing. The following passage shows Slavitt´s deft, harsh dismissal of Bloom:

“His [Bloom´s] bullying classroom habits are not easy to put aside, however, and addressing us common readers he can be abruptly confrontational. I cannot otherwise explain why he would write: “My late friend Paul de Man liked to analogize the solitude of each literary text and each human death, and analogy I once protested. I had suggested to him that the more ironic trope would be to analogize each human birth to the coming into being of a poem…I did not win that critical argument because I could not persuade him of the larger human analogue; he preferred the dialectical authority of the more Heideggerian irony.’

This is pure Bloomishness, graceless, pretentious, and absurd” (p. 92).

Slavitt goes on to point out that Bloom´s “late friend” was a Nazi collaborator and that Bloom should not have been so concerned with not convincing de Man, but rather concerned that he, “in the intricacy of the engagement, […] neglected to call him a fucking collaborator, slap his face, and then do [his] best to see that he got fired.” Bloom mentions de Man with warm regard, failing to so much as acknowledge the disgrace de Man heaped upon Yale (and humanity), in a typically defiant gesture, “a show of Bloom´s refusal to be intimidated by mere evidence.”

From his heartbreaking, elegiac essay on Thomas McAfee to his friendly essay on Fred Chappell (“Ole Fred”) to his investigations into the nature and uses of depression, or his illuminations on Robert Penn Warren (under whom Slavitt studied at Yale), Re Verse never panders and never obfuscates for the sake of sounding smarter than it is. This collection is the real thing, a rare find, and probably the best book about poetry published in years.

Okla Elliott

[The above review originally appeared in Pedestal Magazine.]