Laurence Lieberman’s two dozen essays on contemporary American poets—some (Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren) well known, others (Mark Strand, Frederick Morgan) not—are written in the self-expressive and dithyrambic mode of D.H. Lawrence and James Dickey. Lieberman wants literary criticism to be “personal and instinctively charged,” to carry an “electric pulse that is nakedly alive.” He has misgivings, not unwarranted, that the essays may seem “rather fragmentary and unfinished, rough-hewn.”

Some of the best criticism ever written is a little on the fragmentary and roughhewn side. A more serious problem is that dithyrambic criticism tends to be obtrusive, limiting, and uncritical. There are readers who do not object, but there is the possibility that they should. Even if it is all simply a matter of taste, it may be worthwhile to try to explain to those who welcome a clamorous and jumpy manner why some of us cannot join in.

It is not that we hate spontaneity, enthusiasm, or asymmetry. We have been guilty of those ourselves. But a quiet, even a dry manner in the critic allows us to slip in and, all on our own, notice what needs to be noticed. For us, the “electric pulse” is a joy only when it is all our own, coming right out of our response—no more than focused by the critic—to the poem itself. We do not want the pulse secondhand. One man’s pulse is another man’s short circuit. It has a tendency to become nothing more electric or romantic than hype.

Self-expressive criticism also succeeds all too often in short-circuiting understanding itself. Like most other dithy-rambists, Lieberman forgets that before there can be dancers there has to be learning of steps. The idioms of modernist (and “postmodernist,” which is still modernist) poetry are notoriously difficult (some poets solve the problem by insisting that one valid purpose of language is to avoid communication). Except for poetry strongly indebted to Imagism or to the prose tradition of “realism,” modern poetry heaps on obscurities unblushingly, even tries to make them a virtue. Intelligent readers—or would-be readers—need first of all simply to understand: what the poem means at specific points; what a given line or image may contribute to the poem as a whole; why this particular poem may be more successful, or less so, than certain other comparable poems; what a particular poet’s strengths and limitations seem to be. Effusive and primarily celebratory criticism just does not do enough to illuminate the fundamentals.

Lieberman’s criticism is limiting in other ways too. It fails to convey the quality of the poem as an aesthetic whole, end-product of a glorious plenitude of imaginative and technical resources. A durable poem is multum in parvo and unity in diversity. The achievement deserves a dithyramb, but only after that little miracle has been demonstrated. If poetry is an art—if it has to some extent distanced itself from autobiography and personal “commitment,” and if art means several elements working together—then a poem’s expressed attitude is only one element and should not be allowed to tyrannize over the others, or over the critic’s account of the poem. But in the dithyrambic approach the critic’s enthusiasm is mostly a response to that implied—sometimes shouted—attitude, which is always correctly humanitarian or nihilistic, and to the mere fact that the idiom is modernist and therefore automatically something to be happy about.

In the abstract, love of spontaneity (or what seems such) sounds like something no one with head still on shoulders could possibly object to. But as a critical demand, spontaneity becomes limiting. Lieberman wants poems to give the impression that the poet is “thinking on his feet” or “soliloquizing in the heat of passion.” He has no taste for tradition, convention, conservatism, restraint, tightly logical and formal construction, refinement and repose, the mask, aesthetic distance, epigrammatic sagesse. As it hardens, this typical American bias regards poetry as “bursts of passion,” and poetry-as-art (Racine, Baudelaire, Yeats) as some sort of outmoded Old World thing, the sooner dropped the better. The bursts-of-passion doctrine is what gives us the late 20th century’s vast non-treasure heaps of thin (but all too heavy), casual, sloppy, prolix instant poems where verbal brilliance and fresh, hardworking metaphor are censored as unrepresentative of democratic mediocrity.

Lieberman may well understand but he never touches on the idea that the effect of spontaneity, in poetry or anything else, usually requires the artifice, the structuring, of revision. Even Theodore Dreiser revised, though he still seems to drag the whole “real life” thing, with all its irrelevancies, banalities, stutterings, and redundancies, onto the page. Shelley’s manuscripts show that he made numerous drafts of his seemingly extemporaneous lark song. Spontaneities—feelings, images, metaphors, rhythms, lines that spring right into the light and prove to be acceptable—are part of the operation, but they seldom make a whole poem that has a chance of lasting past the artificial life-support of grants-in-aid and clique puffery. What comes spontaneously is often what comes off the top of the head, or out of feelings not really sorted out. About what comes naturally there is nothing inherently rich and strange—which may explain why so many of the poems Lieberman admires are seldom rich (though often strange) and are democratically flat, leveled into the banal top-of-oneself made up of cliches, trendy jargon, and social-political Pavlovwords.

There is something satisfying about being allowed to reach one’s own emotional and aesthetic conclusions. Lieberman has no need to insist on insisting that in “Suburban Surf” Robert Lowell achieves (my italics) “an astonishing new poesy”; that W.S. Merwin is a “prince of alchemists,” one of whose later poems (“Gift,” which some readers will find colorless and melodramatic) “approaches ecstatic generosity of spirit”; that Theodore Roethke—”I shudder every time I think of the poems he might have written had he lived”—is a poet of “profound humanness and tenderness”; that William Stafford possesses “enduring resources of human warmth and personal intimacy” (I thought humanists thought almost everyone possessed those qualities); that Frederick Morgan has a “prodigious reservoir of . . . intellectual resources” (many of us went to school and can read). Chekhov advised a fellow writer to “Try to be somewhat colder. . . . The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.”

Lieberman does raise some interesting issues, especially in the three sections on Robert Lowell and in the essay on A.R. Ammons, which is the most intelligent commentary to date on that poet. Lieberman is also completely free of that cold egotism, now fashionable in the universities and everywhere in feminist criticism, which extols the divine gift of criticism and rises superior to the poems, whose sole justification is to provide material for the expatiation of one’s own enlightenment and relevance. Lieberman does love the poems.


[Beyond the Muse of Memory, by Laurence Lieberman (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 304 pp., $24.95]