Critical Mass

Maureen McLane’s Early Summer Reading Notes

By Maureen McLane

Dipping in to Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: necessary memories from history and the arts (Norton) – a book that begs dipping into, organized as it is alphabetically, from Anna Akhmatova to Josef Goebbels to Edward Said to Stefan Zweig. Excerpts have run on – I recall reading James’s essay on Borges there. Note: the generally three-to-five-page essays are often defiantly digressive, an essay on Sir Thomas Browne (the 17th C. essayist) modulating into riffs on Raymond Chandler, the piece on Louis Armstrong devoted in large part to Bix Beiderbecke. This kind of riffing and shifting is his mode but also his implicit argument: culture as a vast network of associations. Reading more extensively in the book what strikes me is the strong and often appealing didacticism: Read this! Every young person should have this on his shelf! Every aspiring artist should have that! James is a button-holer almost as forceful as his oft-quoted Ezra Pound. James’s style of high-low switchbacking, his careering from pop song to TV to German philosophy to balletomanes, seems very late 20th C., and very British-cum-Australian. One thinks of the art critic and fellow Australian-born personage Robert Hughes (and James must be tired of the comparison): an equally pugnacious, vivid writer full of contempt for the mandarins of theory.


On the subject of contempt: William Logan is at it again in The New Criterion, slicing and dicing the poets he believes deserve it. Here’s his piece, courtesy of the fine folks at Poetry Daily. See in particular his takedown of John Ashbery’s latest, and of Frieda Hughes (daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath). Schadenfreude city! He’s kinder to Frederick Seidel and Henri Cole. Logan is a scarifying critic, sometimes unfair, often astute, and always impassioned – and he is the rare critic whose reviews often make me laugh out loud (David Orr’s versified review of Billy Collins was another such case). Watch out, Robert Lowell’s children….


More summer dipping – Elaine Equi’s Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press), snazzy funny sly economical things –


Bad Folk Song

It ain’t bad

living in a

bad folk song.

The people

are friendly,

and the weather

is nice.


And from the small press Pressed Wafer in Boston, Ed Barrett’s “Kevin White, ” a prosepoem novel about everything from former Boston mayor Kevin White to the Big Dig to old movies to pleasurable strolls en route to the local coffee shop . . .


— Maureen N. McLane, NBCC Board Member