Nobody likes to be told how to think. What’s worse is when we’re told how to feel. This is probably why poetry critics, when they consult the list of occupations we intensely dislike, find their job always near the top. What if we give them a chance, though? What if we think of a good critic more like we do a beloved coach? A poetry coach: Somebody in sweat pants and a salt-stained mesh cap who’ll show us what we, in our haste, may have missed. Of course, great poems stand on their own (they ought to), but with the help of a good coach they may stand in ways we couldn’t ourselves have imagined.
James Longenbach is one of a relative few consistently interesting critics working today, and in his most recent collection of essays, “The Virtues of Poetry” (Graywolf Press, 169 pages, $14), he doesn’t disappoint. Don’t let its lofty title fool you: The word “virtue” in its earliest uses, Longenbach reminds us in the book’s preface, “gestured toward a magical or transcendental power,” and it’s within this connotation that Longenbach works. He’s interested, among other things, in the moment of takeoff, that moment when language ceases to be simply a vehicle for meaning and in a poem becomes something more like us: alive, always moving from discovery to discovery and anchored by an infinite, unplumbable hope.
In “The Virtues of Poetry,” you’ll find 12 fine essays on more than a few of the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Yeats, Pound, Dickinson, Whitman and Bishop, among others. You’ll also find the rare kind of criticism which (dangerously) is often as fun to read as the work about which it’s written (think: David Orr or Daisy Fried). These essays are, by turns, beautiful, witty and wise and in the end they’ll (hopefully) leave you better equipped to experience and enjoy great poems.
“Thinking in poetry is what turns us, changes us, makes us move,” Longenbach writes, and it’s often the case with the language of this book that it becomes the very thing it sets out to describe, moving “with the interlaced energy of surprise and inevitability that distinguishes alert conversation, and, as a result, the [writing] consequently feels driven by forces larger than a single speaker’s intention to express what he already knows.”
So hats off to coach Longenbach, whose achievements and great imagination broaden the game of poetry and under whose tutelage we’re sure to become better players.
Ryan Vine is author of “Distant Engines” and Rose Warner assistant professor of English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. His work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.