In her first collection of essays, Molly McQuade performs the role of the ideal reader-passionately interested in ideas and irrepressibly ambivalent. She considers poetry from its composition or translation to its publication, critical reception, and consumption. Her close readings of poems by Emily Dickinson and John Ashbery, among others, offer new insights for those readers blinded by familiarity. She reflects on the consequences of literary friendships, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop's, and contends with hostile influences and their benefits-in her own case, confronting and absorbing the work of E.B. White.
But McQuade refuses to stay within the lines that describe poetry per se. Her thoughts on the genre are also enriched by discussions of distinctly nonverbal poetic expression in painting and film, theater and dance. McQuade invigorates prosody's perennial questions-form and function, fashion and faction-and addresses the importance of humor as an elixir for thinking. She dares to define the subject of poetry itself as pleasure. "Poetry," she ventures, "doesn't need to be literary."
In every instance, these essays feature a fine mind's play on the page as well as McQuade's characteristic expertise: an awareness that is at once historically informed and hip. If metaphor itself expands the mind's capacity for contrary ideas, then McQuade is a metaphor made manifest. Among writers on writing, here is a writer who is utterly and remarkably unlike any other.
Molly McQuade's essays and criticism have appeared in The Village Voice, Hungry Mind Review, New England Review, Boston Review, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune , and elsewhere. She has served as editor of the monthly Poetry Calendar magazine and previously founded and edited the poetry review column of Publishers Weekly. Her writing has received fellowships and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Illinois Arts Council. Her first book, An Unsentimental Education , a collection of biographical portraits of writers, was published in 1995 by the University of Chicago Press. Her poetry, nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, ha
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Read an Excerpt
A Word Predator
Lately, I've been taking dream dictation from E. B. White. He tells me sinuously in my sleep how to write and what to think. He urges me to be more serious, yet light on my feetvirtuous, like a verb that spins away. White's style, a passion while he lived, is assertively nonchalant. His wisdom is impossible to retrieve, word for word, the morning after. Still, I wake up knowing that I have been instructed in loomingly small points of how to fashion words into something good enough, if not better. The form taken by the wordspoetry or proseseems unimportant. The lesson offered concerns precision, composition, and boldness. I hardly dare learn it well enough to repeat it.
This tale must sound freakish. Yet the experience is dauntingly actual. I can't quarrel with it. If anything, I wish that these dreams were more fanciful. For it's terrifying to submit, against your will, to a teacher who's a stylist. The sensation of learning can break you. You may have to decide to give up what you knew, losing your cynicism, your common sense, and the skill you taught yourself when certain that the world had mainly bad things to teach you. It all makes you feel incontinent and larval. Since you are in New York, there are times when you feel still worse, like a pulp on the street about to be kicked or killed by a large seeing-eye dog.
I would have accepted a nocturnal tutorial more readily from Emily Dickinson or Allen Ginsberg, difficult as that, too, might have been. They're poets; I would have listened. Unlikethem, White is not regarded as one, although from time to time he wrote and published verse. "To me," he remarked, "poetry is what is memorable, and a poet is a fellow or girl who lets drop a line that gets remembered in the morning. Poetry turns up in unexpected places, in unguarded moments." It turns up even in the manuscripts of blithely self-abasing poet-journalists. In a poem called "H. L. Mencken Meets a Poet in the West Side Y.M.C.A.," White wrote, perhaps in part about himself, "Poetry is the sleepy weed/The dumb, the sick, and the dizzy need." He confessed in the preface to his collected verse: "Having lived happily all my life as a non-poet who occasionally breaks into song, I have no wish at this late hour to change either my status or my habits even if I were capable of doing so, and I clearly am not. The life of a non-poet is an agreeable one: he feels no obligation to mingle with other writers of verse to exchange sensitivities, no compulsion to visit the 'Y' to read from his own works, no need to travel the wine-and-cheese circuit, where the word 'poet' carries the aroma of magic and ladies creep up from behind carrying ballpoint pens and sprigs of asphodel."
In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, White instead wrote essays for The New Yorker; his cool, plain-mannered chic and wit are closely linked with that magazine's. And he is well known as the author of two novels for children, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. But whatever his disclaimers, I now believe that White was essentially a poet, and was also a frustrated poet. If he hadn't been both at once, he wouldn't have mattered as a writer. And he wouldn't matter to me.
Because I didn't always accept White naturally as a writerly influence, I have had to listen harder to him now. There has been a fight. (The fight continues.) He talks to me when, semiconscious, I can't answer back, in an unevenly matched set-to over writers' issues: diction, concision, accuracy, imagination, and other midnight fantasies.
So now I am supposed to explain and justify this ghostly, scampish influence.
The likely source of his frustration: his merit as a journalist would have seemed to rule out poetic accomplishment, even footloose dallying with the notion. And at times, journalism did rule this out for him. But not often enough to deny poetry's potential place in a paragraph. Somehow, he fit poetry in.
Frustration actually consolidated his strength. Frustration honed and qualified his fascination with a word, or with a few words. The few did battle with the many. The goal was to choose. We all do choose, yet may forget the stakes. He reminds me what they are. Subtleties like these have been a part of my initiation and instruction.
Owing to my own frustration with White's nightly partnership, I have been spending the days rereading him, trying to fathom him as a poet. Maybe because expository prose rarely radiates the sheen of poetic choiceof these several words, and not thoseI am irrationally smitten, finding in White's typical modesty the élan or bravado of a word predator.
The predator, even if frustrated, is impelled by nerve and gaiety, like a stray cat at large in an old-fashioned bookshop. He specializes in anachronistic intricacy, recording life's commonplace details (the earmarks of a proper canoe; a raccoon's creaturely descent from a tree) as seen by a canny, gleaming eye despite passing shadows. Poetry is not just a matter of form but a habit of insight, and White's has snuck into impressively cramped, apparently anonymous quarters.
Another predatorial poetic instinct of his was to make a list. White tended to itemize scenes of gluttony and carnage with a matter-of-fact insouciance that avoided coming to any overweening moral conclusion. The saturation of garbage, say, in a barnyard or a fairground was enough to restore his spirits, if he could describe its overripe luxuriance briskly and simply.
To capture character in the flicker of an action, and in the flicker of a verb to equal it, was another favorite strategy. White's laconic preference was strangely effective and lankily mirthful.
A perfectly realized tone meant whimsy was allowable and affectation wasn't. This lesson is especially tricky.
Another: he could forget his worries and think about a piglet as a piglet would, if it could. (Negative capability.)
"Parvum opus" was a term he coined on behalf of someone else, but it applied well and positively to him. He thrived as a writer on the useful small parts of things. Words, punctuation, syntax, and informal rules of tongue were small enough, and they were useful. The smallest of all, as some poets know, can be the most germinal.
The smallest and most germinal is best shown when there is least of it to see. "Omit needless words!" a teacher had advised him, and White enthusiastically did.
His sense of humor was stealthy but well-mannered. He cared for the motor tenderhandedly. I'm unsure of what this has to do with poetry, since so few poems now are both humorous and earnest. Perhaps more of them should be.
He was fast, and he was gracious. Poetry is partly the craft of fashioning invisible transitions from thing to thing and thought to thought. White's observations of speed as a symptom of life in New York flit like Art Deco figures across the ice rink of the page.
* * *
Yet these qualities of White's aren't enjoying a full expression or fair impact as I grope for them. The poet in him was an extremist, even if the journalist wasn't. Extremism will briefly guide each of us, now.
My direct contact with this stylist has been ruddy, fraught, revealing. White has tempted me to put aside everything else, because his single-minded intensity, however clean and crisp the sentences, has been bombarding me. It's like this. On a chilly March evening after the monotonous forward zigzag of an industrious day, who wouldn't like to sit down on a hot dictionary? Having cooked in a history, the words in the book are ready to sting and sustain us, as White's are. Some people may require the intake of a fierce sparsityselected syllablesthrough their wan, wintry pores.
Not a very Whitean sentence at all!
I so regret being literary. Wise to the literary compulsion, and resisting it successfully, he didn't need to regret anythingor need to be literary. Poetry doesn't need to be "literary," either, a fact that tantalizes me about White and helps to lure me to him.
But regardless, one danger of literary influence is the unpredictable outcome. If I am nagged now and again by this punctilious mind, he may mean only the best, and yet be ill-served in the end. His usefulness depends as much on me as on him.
All influences worth having must be cunning, like his, to undermine your opposition. The process of becoming influenced is parlous, a belligerent romancing. The protagonists must also be antagonists. After all, you'd have little to gain from a mere, safe, congenial second self. He needs to be different or estranging. It isn't sweet or fitting to serve your own interests, really. You need to be contradicted. You've almost got to seek out someone who won't bother to respect you. I know I deserve no respect from E. B. White.
Sometime, will I feel compelled to mumble, late at night, to a stupefied sleeper?