By Tony Roberts

Shoestring Press. 284 pages. Ł12. ISBN 978-1-910323-17-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I have to admit to being partial to essays and reviews. Good ones, at least. Too many essayists and reviewers (especially) seem to think that writing about a particular poet or book is an excuse for them to demonstrate how clever they are. The idea that what they’re supposed to be doing is informing the reader, and potential purchaser of the book(s) in question, of what a poet may have to offer in general, or in a specific volume, appears to be alien to them. They’re out to establish a reputation for themselves, and if it’s necessary to destroy someone else’s in order to do it, then that’s what they’ll do.

So, it’s a pleasure to come across a reviewer and essayist who takes the view that he has a responsibility to the subject of his criticism and to the reader. In his introduction Tony Roberts refers to “celebratory essays” and says that what he offers is “an informative, entertaining commentary on some of our best poets, an illustration of poetry’s power – in the right hands – to enthral.” Note that  “entertaining,” and consider how many writers, of all persuasions, fail to be entertaining in the best sense of the word. It doesn’t imply a leaning towards quick and easy offerings. But it does suggest that it’s necessary to keep the reader interested. And it’s worth bearing in mind that Eliot was of the opinion that poetry is “a higher form of entertainment.”

Keeping the reader interested is something that Tony Roberts does well, and it may be that his penchant for allowing the poet to speak wherever possible is the key to his success. His opening essay about Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, “that ground-breaking National Book Award winner which helped launch the controversial ‘confessional` school of poetry” is flecked with judicious quotations which help lead the reader through Lowell’s work. I can’t claim any expertise in relation to Robert Lowell’s poetry, so the combination of positive critical commentary and the lines of verse gave me an insight into what the poet had been aiming for.

Roberts is knowledgeable about “Robert Lowell’s Circle,” as he calls it, and other pieces relate to John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and the almost-forgotten Randall Jarrell. Roberts suggests that it’s his poetry that is now overlooked, in comparison to his criticism, though I wonder how many people, outside of the academic world, bother to read the criticism these days? Not many, I suspect. But it isn’t the criticism, or Jarrell’s curious campus novel (one of the first of the genre?), Pictures From An Institution, that Roberts is concerned with. His survey of Jarrell’s poetry is meant to revive interest in it, and it does, again by following informative linking passages with apt lines of the actual poems. I was taken to my bookshelves to find the full texts, and that indicates how Roberts has succeeded in his aim of pointing to the value of Jarrell’s work beyond those heavily anthologised poems like “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”  

I don’t think there’s any point in denying that this group of poets had common problems in terms of mental instability. You can get a good idea of what their lives were like from Eileen Simpson’s memoir, Poets In Their Youth, where the struggle to create in the face of (or because of?)  their mishaps and misbehaviours is brilliantly narrated.

A range of other American poets, some probably known to British readers, some probably not, are dealt with by Roberts. I doubt that Michael Mott, Robert Hass, Dave Smith, Michael Waters, and George Goode have had much circulation here, even if a few of their books have been published in Britain, thanks to imaginative presses like Bloodaxe and Shoestring. They tend not to be reviewed widely. That Roberts takes the trouble to write about them is to his credit and our benefit. I’d be unaware of Dave Smith’s work had it not been for Roberts, for example, and his relatively short piece about George Goode prompted me into wanting to read more. I did previously know about poets like Richard Hugo and James Wright, but in both cases reading what Roberts had to say about them took me to the bookshelves and Hugo’s Making Certain It Goes On and Wright’s Above The River, large collections of their work. Roberts isn’t given to eye-catching phrases and works in a more-relaxed and subtler way when drawing the reader’s attention to specific parts of a poem or to its overall effect. Sometimes it requires quiet prompting from an astute critic to remind me that I have books I’ve neglected for far too long.

There are individual poems, too, that reading Roberts takes me back to. He makes a passing reference to Donald Justice’s wonderful “Dance Lessons of the Thirties,” which I first read in New Criterion many years ago and made a point of copying. Its final line, “O little lost Bohemias of the Suburbs!” delighted me and still does. There are lines, too, from W.D. Snodgrass’s often-anthologised “April Inventory” that have stayed in my mind for years and came to the surface again when reading Roberts on his work. At the risk of repeating myself I want to say that it’s a sign of a good writer if the reader is prompted into remembering poems he or she has read, and wants to refer back to them because the enthusiasm of the essayist or reviewer is evident.

Is it only Americans that Roberts writes about? The short answer is no, and there are excellent appraisals of Charles Tomlinson, Elaine Feinstein, David Harsent, and several other non-Americans. It’s noticeable that Roberts likes to concentrate his attention on poets who, while hardly neglected, are perhaps never likely to be highly popular, if poets can ever be said to achieve that status. Some do seem to forever be doing the rounds of festivals and like, and attract attention from the media in various ways, but none of those I’ve mentioned are in that category. This isn’t a comment on the quality of their work, but rather a reference to the fact that it requires a greater level of appreciation than can always be guaranteed at readings attracting large audiences. Before leaving this section in Roberts’s book let me say how pleased I was to see him writing about Ford Madox Ford’s poetry. It isn’t well-known, but deserves to be. Again, Roberts was responsible for bringing a favourite poem to mind, in this case Ford’s lovely “Champetre.”

The last part of The Taste In My Mind is devoted to “Poets in Prose,” with essays about Shakespeare, “Edmund Wilson among the Poets,” Louis MacNeice, Turgenev, and more. There is also a splendid piece about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I was pulled towards this immediately because it’s a book that I first read in the 1950s when I was in the army, and which started off a life-long fascination with the expatriate experience in Paris in the 1920s. And a collector’s inclination to locate books by Robert McAlmon, John Herrmann, and others, and copies of magazines like This Quarter, Transatlantic Review and transition. Roberts provides a succinct summary of the story, with asides about Hemingway’s character, including the anti-semitism which comes across in the novel. Robert Cohn, who the hero, Jake (Hemingway) doesn’t like, was clearly based on Harold Loeb, who had annoyed Hemingway by bedding Lady Duff Twysden, the real-life person behind the fictional Brett Ashley. Hemingway had tried but failed. Roberts doesn’t explain all this, and is probably not interested in the gossip behind the book. He rightly focuses on it as literature. I admit to a taste for knowing what may have given Hemingway the impulse to write the book, but I accept that the true test of it is as a novel. Hemingway wasn’t obliged to tell it exactly as it was.    

I hope I’ve managed to get across at least some of the range of Tony Roberts’s essays and reviews. His skills are evident in every piece as he deftly moves in and out a poet’s work and points to its qualities. Or he intelligently analyses Edmund Wilson’s understanding of poetry, and his encounters with Isaiah Berlin. And considers Robert Browning, Louis MacNeice, and Marilynne Robinson’s novels. There is much to be gained from The Taste In My Mind, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to read clear, well-written commentary and criticism.