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

By Paul Mariani

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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. He can be comic, vulnerable, tragic, coarse, and profound, in electric succession.

Even after eight years of research, I was still finding Williams's letters in new archives or in private collections (a process, incidentally, that continues and is bound to continue for some time). By then I had already collected thousands of such letters and was beginning to find a certain repetitiveness in the process. I decided at that point to play a game with the new packets of material that crossed my desk and, after looking at the date of a letter, try to guess what the general contents of that letter would be.

Or Page 27 at least a particular range of language choices? I think there is, if the biographer is able to possess himself or herself of that language. The language used to portray a figure like Henry James should be made to reflect the world of James, just as, in the vast verbal kaleideoscope of things, another language could be made to flesh the world of a Wallace Stevens and another the worlds of a Hemingway or an Emily Dickinson. Some will, I know, object to such an organic view of biographical language.

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