At the university where I first approached the study of literature as a discipline, the only sanctioned method of criticism - in principle if not always in practice - was still what is usually referred to as "New Criticism" - the theory of close reading, of the linguistic analysis of a poem without regard for the time in which it was written or the poet who wrote it. It always seemed to me an absurd notion, that idea of poem as an object disembodied from its creator. Formulated by such critics as John Crorwe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks as a reaction against excessive emphasis on history and autobiography in critism, this theory, like most "correctives," went too far in the opposite direction and merely substituted one excess for another. Nevertheless, the dogma of New Criticism has been as slow to die as the idea that "contemporary" peotry means the work of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Fortunately for those of us who suspected all along that it is worth something to know the literature of our own time and who have persisted in seeing that literature as inseparable from the wroters who write it, there are critics like David Kalstone, whose Five Temperaments is a lively and thought-provoking investigations of "how individuality or temperament emerges as peotic form" in five American poets who have done the majority of their work since 1950: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich and John Ashberry.
Kalstone has chosen his poets wisely. All came of poetic age after World War II and the shapes of their individual careers have largely followed the trajectory of American poetry in the last 25 to 30 years. All begin under the influence of New Criticism, the concren for "the single perfect poem," and were first admired for their formal excellence. And all fice have, in very individual ways, undergone that radical transformation - a relaxation - of style and subject matter (the use of more explicitly autobiographical material, for example), that critic and poet Richard Howard once called "the longing to lose the gift of order, despoiling the self of all that had been, merely, propriety." Despite the similarities, however, these five poets offer original and individual voices; and Kalstone eschews meaningless generalizations in favor of the careful observation of how in each case individual temperament, the characterising manner of thinking and feeling, provides strategies for writing about the self.
As a result, each of the chapters is an excellent piece of criticism about the work of a single poet; Kalstone's method of looking at a poet's entire body of work and focusing on obsessice patterns, repeated words and images, yields numerous insights. It is impossible to rate one chapter above another, although I found of particular interest his comments on Ashberry, whose importance is just being recognized, and regretted that Lowell's last book, Day by Day (published just before his death in September), did not appear in time for Kalstone's analysis.
Although Kalstone avoids easy generalizations, he does reach one interesting conclusion: "The new license to write more explicity about the self has brought with it an equal and opposite awareness of the difficulties of such writing." There are critics who insist that our poets are writing their way into silence by their increased awareness of the problematic nature of both language and the self; reading Five Temperaments one can believe that these poets and those who follow them will continue to find new strategies with which to re-enact that struggle with the self which has enriched lyric poetry at least since Woodworth's Lyrical Ballads . (Oxford, $10.95)