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.
J.D. McClatchy is that rare essayist who is concerned both with the intellect and with the emotions. The essays gathered in Twenty Questions are erudite and engaging inquiries into his life, poetry in general, and the work of poets both ignored and renowned. McClatchy’s attention is democratic, as likely to scoop up a quote for his commonplace book (excerpted here) from Coco Chanel as Gertrude Stein, Alfred Hitchcock as W.H. Auden. Equal attention is given to the lives and work of Jean Garrigue and Stephen Sondheim as to those of Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill. McClatchy somehow manages to address the oeuvre of Seamus Heaney in under seven pages and not seem to give short shrift. His writing is as direct as poems can be oblique, avoiding altogether any hint of academic jargon or critical posturing.
McClatchy weaves his way through these poets’ lives and work, showing repeatedly the idiosyncratic balance between the private and the public, the straightforward and the hidden. These dichotomies are apparent more than anywhere in the life and work of Emily Dickinson. “Her life remains a puzzle,” McClatchy says, “at once demurely conventional and powerfully estranged. And her poems remain a mystery, plain as a daisy and as cryptic as any heart.” Though little attention is given to the current boom in poetry’s popularity, one can’t help but wonder if it might dilute McClatchy’s definition of poetry as needing “secrets” and “disguises.” “In a time when one is asked to admire a string-tied bundle of old newspapers at the Whitney Biennial,” he says, “why shouldn’t one take every heartcry-in-jagged-lines as a poem?” —Jane Steinberg