A Usable Past: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetry by Paul Mariani

By Paul Mariani

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The man continues to write eloquently and with a rare empathy for his country and its plangent, earthly music. Just now American critics seem preoccupied with another Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, eleven years Montague's junior, and Heaney is an extraordinarily gifted poet and the one with whom I feel the closest personal affinity. But it is Montague who now needs the critical attention he has long deserved, and we Americans would benefit by giving him a closer reading. The Berryman essay was a work of love for several reasons: first, because Berryman has a genius for the unexpected.

I think one answer to that question, if I have learned anything from working on Williams, will depend on the specific contours as well as on the underlying myth that spurred someone on, and gave him or her a deep sense of self-definition. I mean anything of course but the public mask, the face most people see when they look at Hemingway or Hart Crane or Emily Dickinson or Thoreau or Emerson or Poe. I mean that it is the biographer's special agony and his or her glory to grasp that reality, that radiant gist, that energy and direction, that should inform, in-form, a thousand thousand otherwise disparate facts and make them dance together.

By the mid-1970s I was becoming more and more immersed in the figure of Williams, though I would still like some day (some day) to write a critical biography of Father Hopkins, whose presence is now acknowledged everywhere in British and American poetry, Auden, Lowell, Berryman, Ted Hughes, and Robert Penn Warren being just a few of the names of Hopkins's progeny that come readily to mind. I came to Williams belatedly, some half dozen years after I had found Hopkins. By then Williams had also been dead half a dozen years.

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