Fred Chappell’s A Way of Happening is a gathering of some 17 critical pieces, together with an important personal essay about teaching writing (“First Night Come Round Again”) and an essay-length introduction (“Thanks But No Thanks”), published between 1985 and 1997, all but three written expressly for and published by the Georgia Review. Chappell, author of seven novels, two collections of short stories, 13 books of poems, and a book of essays. Plow Naked (not to mention his translations from classical drama and French Renaissance poetry), has earned a considerable and enviable reputation and, as well, has received significant awards including the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the Ingersoll Foundation’s T.S. Eliot Award, and the Aiken/Taylor Award from the University of the South. For more than 20 years, he has been writing book reviews and literary criticism of all kinds for a variety’ of newspapers, journals, and literary magazines. This new collection, focused strictly on contemporary poetry and consisting primarily of a sequence of chronicle reviews of more than 80 books, should justly call attention to Chappell’s achievements as critic, one whom we most urgently need and ought to cherish.
Truth is, the reviewing and criticism of contemporary poetry is in a sorry state. There are some notable exceptions — one thinks at once of Henry Taylor, Richard Tillinghast, Ted Kooser, Brendan Galvin, Neal Bowers, R.S. Gwynn, and Anthony Hecht, for example; poets themselves, of obvious integrity and sound judgment—but most of our reviewers and critics seem to be deeply and sincerely self-serving, eager players in a game dedicated chiefly to the care and maintenance of a particular, peculiar literary’ establishment, one they had much to do with creating in the first place and obviously have a vested interest in preserving at all costs. One result of their stance is that the establishment stars and celebrities, though deemed worthy of intensive criticism, are not, in fact, regularly subjected to the commonplace rigors of being widely reviewed. They don’t need to be reviewed to be known and celebrated, to maintain place and status in the literary hierarchy. Most of our celebrity poets are institutional (corporate) creatures, working for colleges and universities: happy institutional campers, by and large. When—as here and now—image is almost everything and “reality” knocks only at the back door, what is poetry and how does it come into our lives? The celebrity writer is, on the one hand, strongly advised and sorely tempted to create a kind of brand name (voice) and, if it works well, to repeat it endlessly, mindlessly. Moreover, “successful” poets will not, as a rule, risk the capital of their modest celebrity by frequent tests and trials in the public arena. Another result, dependent on the above, is that new poets—as well as, of course, poets who are not, for one reason or another, members in good standing of the official establishmentare rarely reviewed at all. Thus the establishment remains largely unquestioned and unchallenged.
And then along comes Fred Chappell, fully aware of the limits of all literary criticism to do good or ill, as he wittily tells us in “Thanks But No Thanks” and in the brief, brilliant “Afterword” where he says that “my purposes in criticism have been to laud the ways I found beautiful and truthful and to censure, as gently as conscience allowed, the ways I found faulty and unfaithful.” (How many poets have lately invoked beauty and truth as criteria of excellence? How many have mentioned conscience?) Chappell does not need to assert, since he demonstrates and dramatizes these virtues in each of the essays, his sanity and decency, his hard-nosed humility, or a level of constant integrity rare enough to be breathtaking. A Way of Happening becomes what it is meant to be—a model for all of us.
To begin with, there is no separation of the well-known and little-known poets and their work, no segregation of sheep and goats. Poets like Alfred Corn, A.R. Ammons, Elizabeth Spires, Raymond Carver, Norman Dubie, William Matthews, Eleanor Ross Taylor, James Tate, Reed Whittemore, William Jay Smith, W.D. Snodgrass, T.R. Hummer, Carolyn Forche, and James Applewhite share space and equal, fair-minded attention with many others whose names and work are not so public. Chappell has long had a reputation for flinty integrity, extraordinary fair-mindedness. He will cheerfully (and fairly) kick ass when that is in order. Here he is on the honored and prize-winning efforts of James Tate: “Tate can write this stuff by the yard, and after one reads twenty or so yards, it all begins to sound the same, like the chaff of AM radio playing somewhere in the neighborhood” (“Every Poet in His Humor”). Or, in the same essay, a tough look at the art of Reed Whittemore: “Unfortunately, the book is more attractive as a physical object than as poetry. Almost all the poems here are intended as humorous, but few of them are because an apparent laziness in Whittemore’s thought and expression invites sloppy banality.” Friend or foe, no matter: all are equal. James Applewhite, for example, is a lifelong friend of Chappell, and Chappell has written and here writes admiringly of his work. Yet he is unwilling to suspend the critical enterprise: “For all his determination to confront the new, Applewhite still subscribes to the Agrarian fairy tale about antebellum culture. It forms the ground of his critical stance when he looks at the South about him now” (“An Idiom of Uncertainty: Southern Poetry Now”). Praise and criticism go hand in hand. And Chappell is secure enough in his demonstrable honesty to be fearless in his instruction: “I would be joyous to think I am wrong in my surmise, but I can’t help gaining the impression that contemporary black poetry as represented in the Fast Talk collection doesn’t really desire to communicate broadly, that it takes pleasure in ethnic exclusivity.” What other matador would wave his cape before the multicultural bull?
It is more than worth the price of admission to come upon some of Chappell’s discoveries. For example, he is not the first critic, by any means, to encounter and honor the work of Brendan Galvin; but his laudatory critique of the book-length Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat (“Once Upon a Time: Narrative Poetry Returns?”) is a genuine contribution to a particular problem for contemporary poetry: “If Alan Shapiro is accurate in predicting a return of narrative poetry, I would point to Saints in Their Ox-Hide Boat as the kind of narrative I would like to see produced.”
In short, then, this remarkable book of criticism has a number of distinct values. Yes, it is a model of good criticism, good sense, and good writing when we need these most. And, like the best criticism, it points and leads the reader directly to the books and themes discussed. And it is an exemplary reminder—here taken for granted by Chappell—that poetry matters, even now; that we need to be aware of it as best we can, in all of its successes and excesses.
[A Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry, by Fred Chappell (New York: Picador USA) 322 pp., $24.00]
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