Eric Ormsby is best known for his carefully crafted and sophisticated poetry, the most recent collection of which, Araby, appeared in 2001. However, he has long had a high reputation, especially in the United States, for his graceful, shrewd and wide-ranging reviews, most of which have distinguished the pages of the consistently top-quality journal The New Criterion. Now, beautifully produced, as one would expect from this imprint, he offers a generous selection of reviews and essays, all written in the past five years, to put alongside his poetry.
Of the seventeen pieces that comprise Facsimiles of Time, Ormsby starts the collection with a general essay on poetry and language, then goes on to tackle the work of Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Keats, Yeats, Geoffrey Hill, David Solway, Montale, Borges, Roo Borson and Umberto Saba, and ends by appending a fascinating memoir of his bizarre childhood and the way it helped him absorb Shakespeare. An unusual eclecticism, to say the least, demonstrating the unusual range of Ormsby's scholarship. And it's not only the writers themselves he examines but comparisons of biographies and translations, as well as many (helpful and delightful) asides about other writers. It's enough to give a reviewer nightmares about deficiencies in both their libraries and their literary ambitions. However, in our often dismally polluted age of "theory," of "isms" and narrow agenda-driven readings of literature, this book pleases and surprises with its clarity, generosity, enthusiasm, its sprightly humour, its elegant style and its well-judged conclusions. It has been a long time since I said "Yes!" so often when reading criticism, or wished so many times to thank the author for reinforcing and, indeed, expanding my views, or hoped so fervently that poetry students would read Ormsby as a powerful corrective to much of the cultural studies now deemed de rigueur in many university English classes. Thank God someone's still looking at literature this way, and, as a bonus, writing not only with force but with a subtle and graceful use of language. John Updike's comment on Eric Ormsby's poetry, that it is "resonant and delicately exact with words," applies equally to his prose, which, apart from a very occasional temptation towards a slight over-egging of the pudding (or performing verbal triple Salchows when a body-check into the boards might have been more effective) gives enormous pleasure.
I shall not herełthough I greatly enjoyed and was persuaded by them, and would love to rehearse the story of Ziryab who introduced underarm deodorant, asparagus and meatballs to Spain together with the bluegrass 5-string version of the lutełcomment on the essays on Arabic literature, made accessible by the specialist showing off his valuable wares (Ormsby teaches at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill), but, instead, can do no better than direct the curious reader to the special North African issue of Descant (114, Fall 2001), guest-edited by Ormsby, and superbly illustrated by both photographs and poems. In its pages may be found Ormsby's essay on al-Majat which won him a medal from the National Magazine Awards. The issue is an unusual and satisfying storehouse of North African culture, and, as a by and by, contains excellent poems by David O'Meara and a terza rima poemł"The Calligraphy Shop"łby Ben Downing which I can only describe as magnificent.
So what do we find in the essays on poetry and translation, apart from the obvious wide range of reading? Can anything coherent emerge from these long reviews of such disparate writers? Well, yes, though it never becomes programmatic or forced. It has to do with Ormsby's critical approach (although no one essay attacks from precisely the same angle) and with his gradually emerging beliefs, passionate yet often understated, in what makes the best poetry fine and lasting. Add to that a penchant for funny, pointed asides, and a beautifully weighted prose, and the book comes to assert, slowly as Ormsby's simultaneously shy and forceful insights accumulate, certain crucial revelations which take us to that place where the author grasps what it is that makes poetry central to his life: "the sense we possess, often when we first fall in love, that some profoundly meaningful musical order underlies our very being and abolishes coincidence."
Ormsby's instinctive critical gesture moves from wide to narrow, from contextual generalization right down into the writingłthe images, rhythms, stresses, rhyme, metre, tone, the right words in the right order. Over and over, reassuringly and perceptively, he shows us the quality of a piece of poetry by eschewing grand talk and putting our fingertips right on the sound, to let us feel the beating pulse of the language.
So, to Eric Ormsby, the flaw in Andrew Motion's book on Keats is that Motion refuses to draw on his own instincts as a poet to attend to Keats' "patterns of verbal melody"; Yeats, composing his poem "Under Ben Bulben", is seen from the manuscript to slowly find rhyme and only then does the great music take a shape, begin to tighten, "as though by a process of timing"; Geoffrey Hill's tendency to grandiosity is examined, in one of the best essays here, as well as, interestingly, his (unconvincing) attempts to incorporate American accents and cadences into his work; the subtlety of David Solway's metrics and other "aural patternings" becomes the key element in Ormsby's review; Pat Lowther's use of hands, of tactility, as well as her growing, cruelly truncated, sense of self, is supported here by close reading and quotation; the lack of real development over the years by Roo Borson becomes a matter of her "aesthetic of happenstance" and dependence upon "an evanescent present," where too little "form and pattern" has been marshalled to oppose that happenstance; Hart Crane's Elizabethan influences, and especially "Marlowe's mighty line," are examined in penetrating detail; Marianne Moore's "colouring and shadings of syllables" present us with a sophisticated look at her poetic; the phrasings in different translations of Kafka (and how pleased I am that the ground-breaking work of Edwin and Wiilla Muir is not dismissed by Ormsby) are carefully moulded into an artfully convincing discussion of the literal versus the allegorical/symbolic imperative in literary translation; the essay on Musil relies almost completely on the sway and pull of his language; the rhythms and urgencies of Borges' poetry and prose lead us into a sophisticated and caring examination of his use of language; Montale's "slippery and quite elusive" poems become illuminated by discussion of rhyme in translation and a penetrating exploration of the poet's formal concerns; Umberto Saba's dependence upon song-like cadence, refrain and rhyme leads to Ormsby's conclusion that Sartorelli's translation ultimately fails.
Always, with Ormsby, things come down to the primacy of the wordłthe sounds which shape and give ultimate authority. This is refreshing. It's sophisticated yet not done in a complex or over-technical way. It helps to eliminate the general and abstract at the same time as it shows the way such things can and do transform the ordinary into something greater, more permanent, able, through the shaping, to encompass and embody experience. It's admirable criticism and scholarship, certainly, but with the added dimensions of a poet's working knowledge, of fluent multilingual abilities, and a determined search for the almost sacramental autonomy of word and form. It's a heady brew.
Oh dear. This sounds a wee bit too heavy for these essays which often move this reader at least to smiles and laughter. Like the poets he most admires, Ormsby moves gracefully from serious to ironic and even sarcastic; from rich analysis to unexpectedly waspish and tart asides. Without giving the best of the humour away, let me quote him on Yeats' workbook entry: " '[?held] [?the] [?] [?that] the [?] of . . .' which sounds more like Jorie Graham on a good day than Yeats on his worst." (Substitute any number of Canadian alphabet-soup poets for the obtuse American poet Jorie Graham, who now, I believe with sadness, teaches poetry at Iowa, where once Donald Justice promoted his exquisite taste and wrote his superb poetry.) The point is made lightly but decisively.
Reading these essays, firmly argued but never dogmatic, we begin to notice what it is Ormsby values most and towards which he unerringly moves through his close readings. In his opening essay, "Poetry as Isotope", he talks of poets as matchmakers who bring words together which had previously, normally, lived apart, thus heightening and transfiguring them to reveal "all that life, and the truth of life, can hold for that particular instant," and this bringing together of words, but also graspings of the imagination and feelingsłoften the low and vernacular with the high, the mystical/oratoricalłbecomes a kind of almost Arnoldian touchstone for Ormsby.
The close readings I have briefly discussed above prepare us for, and permit, wide conclusions. So, for example, in Marianne Moore, within the "dotty and authoritative" lives an "almost shamanistic being"; Yeats' power derives partly from the "counterpoint between the vernacular and the lapidary"; David Solway's Bedrock moves from thistles to "candles of affirmation" and "Eden glimpsed through a pane of ice"; "Pat Lowther's particular voice . . . merges . . . with a kind of mythic voice"; Kafka's The Castle "wavers between physical, even sordid description and the evocation of some farther, sublimer realm"; Borges is fascinated with knife fights, violence and low life yet finally may convincingly claim to be "god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world"; we find "the cryptic and the oratorical combined" in Montale, while Saba's poetic derives from an urgent desire "to rescue the worn old words 'love' and 'sorrow' with a helping of fish and chips."
For Ormsby, the genius of the poet resides in the almost magical ability to move, linguistically and imaginatively, between foul rags and bones and the numinous, as well as in the indescribable power of shaped words to embody that which remains life-enhancing and nourishing for the spirit.
Only the very best writers achieve this power. Without it, for instance, Ormsby finds Roo Borson's poetry of "the present instant" to be lacking in "tragic resonance; her griefs seem tangential." Geoffrey Hill, in Ormsby's view "the finest poet now writing in the English language," achieves such a garland largely because The Triumph of Love "winds beneath the conflicting auspices of two diametrically opposed tutelary spirits; the buffoonish and swilling Trimalchio .. . and the seventeenth-century German mystical poet Johann Scheffer. . . The device permits Hill to adopt a wide range of tones, from the savagely stately (his more characteristic voice) to the petulant and even squalidłnew and rather surprising timbres in his register . . . . That both polished erudition and rasping emotion wrangle for supremacy in these pages gives the verse at its best tremendous force." The seizing of the fact that what Hill is after "is a hard, baffled and searching love" is a brilliant insight into a difficult poet's work.
Even in the tonally very different memoir, "The Place of Shakespeare in a House of Pain", where Ormsby allows himself to become much more personal, we are shown how his childhood in an unhappy, fatherless southern family, where bitter grandmother and ruined alcoholic aunt trade deep resentments by shouting lines of Shakespeare at each other, becomes a demonstration of how shared literary language can both paper over (sometimes) deep personal divisions to hold the tottering family at a just bearable distance from full emotional disclosure, but also, altering a life of poignant vulnerability and bewilderment, when used as it was designed for, can bring, and did to Ormsby, amid the dysfunction, "the unparalleled exhilaration attendant upon the deployment of words . . . and it shaped my entire later life." This memoir, buoyant and vital, poignant, bizarre and painful, human down to its sinews, is worth the price of the book alone.
Cavils? I seem to be altogether over-generous after my enjoyable weeks with this book, but I have, if anything, restrained myself from enthusing more. I think I would wish the longest (by far) review here, of Hart Crane's and Marianne Moore's letters, to have been turned into two piecesłone on the letters (without as much on the fairly well-known Crane-Harriet Monroe demarche) and another on the poets' work itself, towards which Ormsby strains to go but seems held back by his reviewer's assignment. Perhaps, too, the final memoir might have usefully started the book instead of finishing it. I wonder, as well, if this particular collection is the appropriate forum for the essays on Classical Arabic literaturełthe two pieces seem much less strenuously argued and more like introductory overviews for the general reader, tending to dissipate, perhaps, a little of the high energy of the taut passionate essays on literature and translation which precede them.
Apart from such vague general suggestions, I'm left with only mild queries about how sonnets acquire an "octet", instead of the more usual octave, and how someone with Ormsby's marvellous ear can propose "flutter of wings" as a dactyl followed by a spondee. There are occasional slightly preening and over-elaborate extended metaphors which tend to draw more attention to their seductive unwindings than to what they are trying to accomplish. But when I'm reduced to such small reservations, it will be clear how warmly I welcome this book, which everywhere testifies to a large, restless, hungry mind, a breadth and depth of understanding, and, above all, a humane and sophisticated response to literature and life.
But I have to say that there is, finally, one thing here with which I disagree strongly. Ormsby writes: "I am not a teacher of poetry." How utterly wrong he is. There is more wisdom and understanding of poetry in this book than I have seen anywhere for a long time. ņ
Christopher Wiseman's most recent poetry book is Crossing the Salt Flats (1999).