William E. Engel’s compliment to J.D. McClatchy’s critical comments included in his Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation holds true for this issue of the Sewanee Review itself as a whole: “Written in an easygoing prose style, there is something in each section for every kind of reader.” George Bornstein adroitly reminds us readers in his essay on W.B. Yeats the irrevocable delicacy of the fact that “in poetry how something is said is what is said.” And throughout this issue all the writing explores and expounds upon this basic principle further demonstrated by Ben Howard in “Firewood and Ashes”:
whether what you heard
was a clear well-chosen word
or, sometimes, a log
falling with a thud.
In a personal essay Robert Lacy remembers a time when country music “was music to live by.” In the essay, he says, “The music of the underclass had finally arrived, but in the process it had disappeared, having been swallowed up by the great autonomic mulching machine that is American consumer culture. This country has a genius for that.” Lacy’s lament rings notably true and in tandem with Dawn Potter’s claim in her essay on craft that “today poetry has become a career rather than a vocation.” The more poets are drawn into the leveling out of society, the further they get away from the discovery that’s necessary for poems. As Potter declares: “great art grows from the intensity of an artist’s interaction with his or her own life.” Anything less is a backing away, which fails to match the honesty that’s required of a life given over to art: “the artist must make long acquaintance with her days.”
Not everybody finds writing such cozy occupation. Russell Fraser claims Samuel Johnson “wrote to drive away his demons.” While Richard Buffington, in an aside, reports about Allen Tate writing “The Vigil of Venus,” a translation of the late Latin poem Pervigilium Veneris: “It was, like ‘most verse,’ he wrote, introducing the translation, ‘written accidentally.’” And as Jennifer Davis Michael, in her review of Fred Parker’s The Devil as Muse, reminds us, there’s a “perennial and peculiar affinity between the artist and the Devil. By the sheer act of creation, the artist treads dangerously close to Lucifer’s challenge of divine authority.” It is “how poets make use of this adversarial muse” which absorbs Parker’s study and leaves Michael to admit that “The suggestion that a writer who has encountered the Devil thereafter ‘lives between two worlds’ is provocative.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise so many writers are haunted in one way or another and entertain favorable feelings toward the occult and mysterious. Henry Hart shares that Ted Hughes saw “rituals, the machinery of religion” as a means to maintain control over his work. Ann E. Berthoff keys readers in on the friendship of Kathleen Raine and Margarett Fay Shaw as being spurred on by “a fervent interest in the occult” and that “at least a third of their correspondence” is taken up with “cats—their names and antics, injuries and progeny, but most of all their role as beast-companions.” Being “women of imagination; each had invented a life” and recognized in each other attributes of an admirable artist. Similarly, Hart reports that Seamus Heaney says of Hughes, “I’m a different kind of animal from Ted,” and yet acknowledges he feels “secured by his work and his way of being in the world.” And “Heaney was as aware as Hughes that wounds can be dangerous muses, destroying as well as stimulating creativity.”
In a short review, Robert Lacy covers Alexandra Styron’s memoir of her father, the novelist William Styron, and recalls, “‘My father used to scare the crap out of me,’ she told the mourners at a memorial service for him in 2007, and then she related how he used to come into her room at night and tell her stories about ghosts and demons.” And David Yezzi establishes “a disparity between seeing ‘things’ and seeing beyond them” in his analysis of Louise Gluck’s poetry and notes: “How a visionary poet responds to this disparity between the material world and the eternal often becomes their defining feature, informing both their worldview and even their style.” Thus echoing Bornstein’s description of how Yeats came to find his early poems as “almost all a flight into fairy land, from the real world” and in his later work felt he must force himself into “a movement downwards upon life, not upwards out of life.” Of course, maintaining one’s own relation to “life” is essential less the poet falls into what Fraser notes as being Johnson’s measure of Milton that “he lacked the vast experience of the physical world that empowered the ancient epic poets. He lacked ‘human interest.’” One thing the Sewanee Review does not lack.