Twenty Questions / Edition 1

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Overview

In Twenty Questions, one of America's finest poet-critics leads readers into the mysteries of poetry: how it draws on our lives, and how it leads us back into them. In a series of linked essays progressing from the autobiographical to the critical — and closing with a remarkable translation of Horace's Ars Poetica unavailable elsewhere — J. D. McClatchy's latest book offers an intimate and illuminating look into the poetic mind.

McClatchy begins with a portrait of his development as a poet and as a man, and provides vibrant details about some of those who helped shape his sensibility — from Anne Sexton in her final days, to Harold Bloom, his enigmatic teacher at Yale, to James Merrill, a wise and witty mentor. All of these glimpses into McClatchy's personal history enhance our understanding of a coming of age from ingenious reader to accomplished poet-critic.

Later sections range through poetry past and present — from Emily Dickinson to Seamus Heaney and W. S. Merwin — with incisive criticism generously interspersed with vivid anecdotes about McClatchy's encounters with other poets' lives and work. A critical unpacking of Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Miss Blount" is interwoven with compassionate psychological portrait of a brilliant poet plagued by both romantic longings and debilitating physical deformities. There are surprising takes on the literary imagination as well: a look at Elizabeth Bishop through her letters, and a tribute to the Broadway lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and the tradition of light verse.

The questions McClatchy poses of poems prompt a fresh look and the last word. Free of scholarly pretension, elegantly and movingly written, Twenty Questions is a bright, open window onto a public and private experience of poetry, to be appreciated by poets, readers, and critics alike.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of American Studies - Kate Fullbrook
Charming, genial, but altogether accomplished.
Los Angeles Times
No American poet critic.... has written such beautiful prose or wielded such manifold and supple terms of analysis. McClatchy analyzes poetry as only a poet could, with an insider's knowledge of the craft — and of the terror of the blank page.
The New Leader
The full force of [McClatchy's] probing intelligence and emotional insight catches us up with infectious gusto.... T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, Howard Nemerov, Louise Bogan, and Randall Jarrell all commaded adminration for their essays and their verse. McClatchy belongs in this select company, and his skills in one mode complement his gifts in the other.
San Francisco Chronicle
In this time of literary 'scattering,'when many poets admire and practice techniques of fragmentation, McClatchy's voice resounds with urbanity, clarity, deadly wit. The power of this civil tongue is classical, expository, the voice of the integrated psyche.
Robert Pinsky
It's no surprise to find in Twenty Questions qualities that have always distinguished J.D. McClatchy's work: sparkling intelligence; learning; an informed immersion in the poetry of our time.... In a noble tradition of the essay, he chooses to write about the writers who interest him, personally, not always part of the familiar academic canon.... A generous, bracing collection.
Journal of American Studies
Charming, genial, but altogether accomplished.

— Kate Fullbrook

Robert Pinsky
It's no surprise to find in Twenty Questions qualities that have always distinguished J.D. McClatchy's work: sparkling intelligence; learning; an informed immersion in the poetry of our time. . . . In a noble tradition of the essay, he chooses to write about the writers who interest him, personally, not always part of the familiar academic canon. . . . A generous, bracing collection.
Mark Doty
'There are no critics, ´ wrote Randall Jarrell, 'around the throne of God.´ But surely the angels -and Jarrell himself -would welcome J. D. McClatchy into their company, since these nourishing, opinionated, energizing essays are everything writing about poetry ought to be. Twenty Questions is a book of pleasures, a reader´s testament brimming with insight and ardor so evident as to restore to us poetry´s power to refresh, provoke, and delight.
Los Angeles Times
No American poet critic. . . . has written such beautiful prose or wielded such manifold and supple terms of analysis. McClatchy analyzes poetry as only a poet could, with an insider´s knowledge of the craft -and of the terror of the blank page.
San Francisco Chronicle
In this time of literary 'scattering, ´ when many poets admire and practice techniques of fragmentation, McClatchy´s voice resounds with urbanity, clarity, deadly wit. The power of this civil tongue is classical, expository, the voice of the integrated psyche.
New Leader
The full force of [McClatchy´s] probing intelligence and emotional insight catches us up with infectious gusto. . . . T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, Howard Nemerov, Louise Bogan, and Randall Jarrell all commaded adminration for their essays and their verse. McClatchy belongs in this select company, and his skills in one mode complement his gifts in the other.
Richard Howard
Authoritative but not peremptory, eloquent but not effusive, the tone of these essays ensures that the act of poetic criticism enables McClatchy to enter the realm of the Common Reader´s interests and beliefs and remain there.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"All criticism," according to Oscar Wilde and McClatchy, "is autobiography." Embracing that dictum, this second essay collection (after the Melville Cane Award-winning White Paper) from the acclaimed poet, librettist and Yale Review editor mixes literary observations with observations of the literary life. Whether giving a refreshingly balanced review of Seamus Heaney (from the New Republic), a memoir of James Merrill (from the New Yorker) or a list of favorite sayings and quotations (representing everyone from Louis Armstrong to Andy Warhol), McClatchy is a witty critic and a willing teacher. In his title essay, for instance, he starts with the question, "What exactly is `contemporary' poetry anyway?"and goes on to explain precisely that, in terms that any high school student would understand and any academic or fellow poet would find provocative. Clearly, for McClatchy, life and poetry must be discussed in the same breath, with the same grace and good humor. One of the collection's most personal essays, a hilarious, bittersweet account of McClatchy's first love and deeply bungled "coming out," ends with a translation of the Horace poems that brought these memories back. In another piece, McClatchy slides from a memoir of his mentor Anne Sexton into a triptych of dream-poems about Elizabeth Bishop. This book is belles lettres at their best. It will interest anyone who cares about the state of poetry todayand, what is rare for a collection of literary essays, it will likely widen McClatchy's audience. (Mar.) FYI: Twenty Questions is appearing simultaneously with a volume of poetry, Ten Commandants (see page 69), published by Knopf.
Library Journal
Most of the 20 essays in this collection by Yale Review editor McClatchy have been published elsewhere, with many revised and retitled for this slim volume. As a poet, critic, essayist, professor, and editor for more than 20 years, McClatchy has definite opinions about poetry and its purpose, both for poet and reader. The title essay does indeed pose 20 questions in the style of an interview that range from the autobiographical to the philosophical. The other pieces reflect mostly personal appreciation for the influence of poetry in McClatchy's life. Some of the essays are autobiographical, revealing his development as a poet and his acceptance of his homosexuality; other essays reflect on the nature of contemporary poetry in comparison to "the Classics," focusing on an eclectic choice of modern and classic poets and balancing literary criticism with personal anecdote with an unintimidating informality. Scheduled for publication the same week as Ten Commandments (LJ 4/1/98), a new collection of his poems, this collection is essential for anyone sharing McClatchy's passion for all things poetic.Denise S. Sticha, Seton Hill Coll., Greensburg, PA
Booknews
In these 20 essays, poet McClatchy focuses on the ways in which art works with memory and effects it. He begins with autobiographical pieces on his experiences with reading and musing. The subsequent essays on such poets as James Wright, W.S. Merwin, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, and Richard Wilbur focus on the terms of a career or the topography of an imagination, rather than on a specific book. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231111737
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 3/25/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.16 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author

J. D. McCLATCHY is the author of four collections of poems: Scenes from Another Life, Stars Principal, The Rest of the Way, and "Ten Commandments." His literary essays are collected in White Paper, which won the Melville Cane Award granted by the Poetry Society of America. He is the editor of The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and has served, since 1991, as the editor of the Yale Review. Named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1996, he received an award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991. He lives in New York City.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

ReadingDreamingMy Fountain PenCommonplacesTwenty QuestionsReading PopeAspects of "Battle-Piece"Woman in WhiteWildness Asking for CeremonyAt Her Other DeskLaughter in the SoulSongs of a CurmudgeonThe Exile's SongChiselled BreathSitting Here Strangely on Top of the SunlightThe Lost UplandEncountering the SublimeBraving the ElementsMastersThe Art of Poetry

Columbia University Press

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