Granted, the Penny Press might let me down from time to time – but the main reason I love it is on full display at the newsstand this week. Clever people writing prose on deadline can be (present company of course excepted) moved to write the damndest things, and if you root through a huge swath of periodicals every week the way I do, you’re therefore of a certainty going to encounter your fair share of crapola. At which point, if you’re an old fan of the Penny Press as I am, you’ll do what comes naturally: you’ll fire off a peppery letter to the editor, tear out and archive the pieces that move you favorably or otherwise (always only a small fraction of the whole – most deadline writers being alarmingly forgettable), and move on. After all – infamously – magazines like The New Yorker tend to just keep coming, so if you pause for even a moment, you’ll be pulled to the dirt like an impala in the middle of a lion pride.
So you keep reading, hoping for the best. And the last two decades of the 20th century have spilled into the first two decades of the 21st an amazing inheritance: we live in an age of great literary journalists, people who routinely do fantastic work even though they’re working on deadline for money.
Take last week’s New Yorker – it featured a fantastic, sumptuously detailed review by Daniel Mendelsohn of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad, complete with shrewd insights into both the poem’s history and the art of translation in general. Or take The New York Review of Books, in which Gary Wills rounds off a fascinating little chunk of his smart new book Verdi’s Shakespeare and makes a fine short essay out of it – an essay that’s frustratingly short on Verdi but delightfully long on Shakespeare:
There are many signs of Shakespeare’s crafting roles for particular boys. In three plays of the late 1590s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It, he had one boy who was short and dark and another who was tall and fair. The contrast was so striking that Shakespeare made his lines play on it. He began with particular boys’ talents, and then wrote his scenes around them. He must have had a boy from Wales when he wrote I Henry IV, in which a woman speaks and sings in Welsh. One of the experienced boys, in As You Like It, was good enough for Shakespeare to create his second-longest woman’s role for him – Rosalind (686 lines).
True, even the NYRB has its idiosyncracies (NO idea how long they’re going to let Robert Darnton keep writing about his cockeyed and retrograde dream of a National Digital Library, for instance), but oh! they fade into the background when put alongside something as flat-out wonderful as Helen Vendler’s Olympian review of the new Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. Her review is titled “Are These the Poets to Remember?” – and her answer is a resounding ‘no.’ I myself dipped into the Penguin anthology with mixed feelings. Dove is a bad poet – a creation entirely of gender and demographics rather than even a shred of actual literary talent – but literature is full of great anthologies assembled by bad poets, so it’s no confirmed impediment. But I was immediately struck by huge problems in the works selected, and Vendler puts it better than I could:
Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Antologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as “elitism,” and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn’t be abl to take on the long-term commitment of a novel find a long-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff. Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?
The issue had a larger-than-average amount of great stuff (the letter exchange in the back between Peter Singer and Herbert Terrace is alone almost worth the price of the thing – and will certainly lead to a second round), and reading it all and rejoicing in it all very handily compensates for tepid weeks and dunderheaded deadline stuff – which we all on occasion write, alas.