In "Twenty Questions, " one of America's finest poet-critics leads readers into the mysteries of poetry: how it draws on our lives, and how it leads us back into them. In a series of linked essays progressing from the autobiographical to the critical -- and closing with a remarkable translation of Horace's Ars "Poetica" unavailable elsewhere -- J. D. McClatchy's latest book offers an intimate and illuminating look into the poetic mind.
McClatchy begins with a portrait of his development as a poet and as a man, and provides vibrant details about some of those who helped shape his sensibility -- from Anne Sexton in her final days, to Harold Bloom, his enigmatic teacher at Yale, to James Merrill, a wise and witty mentor. All of these glimpses into McClatchy's personal history enhance our understanding of a coming of age from ingenious reader to accomplished poet-critic.
Later sections range through poetry past and present -- from Emily Dickinson to Seamus Heaney and W. S. Merwin -- with incisive criticism generously interspersed with vivid anecdotes about McClatchy's encounters with other poets' lives and work. A critical unpacking of Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Miss Blount" is interwoven with compassionate psychological portrait of a brilliant poet plagued by both romantic longings and debilitating physical deformities. There are surprising takes on the literary imagination as well: a look at Elizabeth Bishop through her letters, and a tribute to the Broadway lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and the tradition of light verse.
The questions McClatchy poses of poems prompt a fresh look and the last word. Free of scholarly pretension, elegantly and movingly written, "Twenty Questions" is a bright, open window onto a public and private experience of poetry, to be appreciated by poets, readers, and critics alike.
No American poet critic... has written such beautiful prose or wielded such manifold and supple terms of analysis. McClatchy analyzes poetry as only a poet could, with an insider's knowledge of the craft-and of the terror of the blank page. Los Angeles Times The full force of [McClatchy's] probing intelligence and emotional insight catches us up with infectious gusto... T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, Howard Nemerov, Louise Bogan, and Randall Jarrell all commaded adminration for their essays and their verse. McClatchy belongs in this select company, and his skills in one mode complement his gifts in the other. The New Leader In this time of literary 'scattering,'when many poets admire and practice techniques of fragmentation, McClatchy's voice resounds with urbanity, clarity, deadly wit. The power of this civil tongue is classical, expository, the voice of the integrated psyche. San Francisco Chronicle It's no surprise to find in Twenty Questions qualities that have always distinguished J.D. McClatchy's work: sparkling intelligence; learning; an informed immersion in the poetry of our time... In a noble tradition of the essay, he chooses to write about the writers who interest him, personally, not always part of the familiar academic canon... A generous, bracing collection. -- Robert Pinsky Charming, genial, but altogether accomplished. -- Kate Fullbrook Journal of American Studies
ReadingDreamingMy Fountain PenCommonplacesTwenty QuestionsReading PopeAspects of "Battle-Piece"Woman in WhiteWildness Asking for CeremonyAt Her Other DeskLaughter in the SoulSongs of a CurmudgeonThe Exile's SongChiselled BreathSitting Here Strangely on Top of the SunlightThe Lost UplandEncountering the SublimeBraving the ElementsMastersThe Art of Poetry