Of Vision and Discipline

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

After six years absence, I have just published a review essay in the great Contemporary Poetry Review, one of the first important internet critical journals.  The review is of two new books by the western poet (and skier) David J. Rothman.  Here is an excerpt from my discussion of the second book, whose opening sonnet introduces The Aeneid as a command metaphor for the journey the book as a whole undertakes:

This substantial book (of whose contents surprisingly little has appeared in magazines) is composed almost entirely in sonnets—Petrarchan and Shakespearean—, villanelles, a couple instances of terza rima, along with a handful of nonce forms, most of which look like sonnets that have slightly overshot or undershot the mark. These latter, in contrast with the excesses of Catapults, add variety and counterpoint to the collection, giving Rothman’s voice added texture or range, rather than interrupting it like a cough.

The book begins,

Older, wiser, more knowing and now sad,

Let us marvel at confidence and joy,

Marvel at the long-extinguished boy

Who woke each day and all at once was glad.

Where is he now? Why are some nights so bad?

How did time earn the power to destroy?

Who hauled the awful horse up into Troy?

For now his smoldering mid-life world’s gone mad:

Here is a poet in full possession of his powers. In a suave Petrarchan octave, he assumes a public voice that moves limpidly between the fleeting position of the personal to the enduring classical form of that consummate story of historical devastation’s path to rebirth in the eternal city of poetic form, Virgil’s Aeneid. The sestet pursues the analogy: this whole book will be a journey through the kingdoms of experience, even through the underworld of the self, toward some kind of hard-earned but real resurrection:

There’s sorrow here and more hard times ahead.

Silent, he watches the city go up in flames.

You can read the whole of “The Ecstatic Discipline of David J. Rothman” here.  It is, I think, a mixed review and I hope it serves as one model of how a literary critic can meaningfully criticize in an age where praise is largely reduced to sloganeering and sales pitches and critique to a savage sort of scapegoating that would require citations from Rene Girard to explain.

One of the first, in my view anyhow, important pieces of criticism I wrote was for CPR, a comprehensive examination of the poetry and poetic theory of George Santayana.  And it became the publisher of the first four installments of my book, Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade, which remains to this procrastinating, snowy day about twenty pages shy of completion.

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