In a few provocative pages, Harvard professor and author of the NBCC winner Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, once again demonstrates her talent for smart and sympathetic reading of poetry. She looks at four poets and their particular uses of a donne (meaning theme but derived from the ``given'' of the title): for Robert Lowell, it is the persistent drive of history; for John Berryman, the mischievous and frightening id; for Rita Dove, the color of her skin; for the trilingual Jorie Graham, the problem of translating thought into language, into phenomenon. Almost all of the chapter on Berryman is devoted to his brilliant, funny and disturbing Dream Songs, while in Dove, Vendler follows differing, equally intriguing manipulations of her theme from ``Parsley'' to Thomas and Beulah and Grace Notes. Perhaps most interesting, because personal and poetical are so vividly intertwined, is her examination of Lowell. Vendler carefully outlines his changing interaction with history and its effect on his style, from the often overwrought public historical passions of The Mills of the Kavanaughs and the more intimate history and form that followed his parents' deaths and his own bout with manic depression. Although she occasionally gives in to the lure of such words as victimage and necessitarian, which tend to reflect dully on her usually lucid style, it's a small thing in her subtle, beguiling essays. (Dec.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Economists, political scientists, and philosophers who see the theory of rational choice as the only possible basis for social science have frequently argued that their exploration of the consequences of treating mankind as 'optimisers' or 'rational maximisers' is no more than a sophistication of our commonsense view that we ought, rationally, to do the best we can. Utilitarians have similarly appealed to the obviousness of the assumption that each of us ought, prudently, to do the best we can for ourselves in arguing that all of us ought, morally, to do the best we can for all of us. Michael Slote deftly and convincingly demonstrates that commonsense finds much that is acceptable and indeed rational in non-optimising behaviour. Moderation is a virtue, and notjust because moderation in the short run is Instrumentally optimal in the long run; the person who sticks to her plans without incessantly seeking to improve on them is not irrational -- but the optimiser may justly be deplored as a restless, immoderate, and insatiable character. Displaying in argument the same judiciousness and moderation he defends as virtues, Slote does not claim that the divergence between commonsense accounts of prudence and reasonableness and the assumptions of rational choice theory is a knock-down refutation of the latter. He is content to persuade us that an adequate theory of prudential (and moral) rationality must embrace complexities few philosophers have been willing to recognise. He has written a most engaging, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book."
-Alan Ryan, Princeton University