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Commentary on Sparring with the Sun
Rhina P. Espaillat

My bundles of rejection slips and acceptances, like the many oral critical comments I can recall receiving over several decades, offer, at least tangentially, many different views of just what constitutes a poem. One rejection from a 1980s magazine editor suggests that while the work I submitted contains “valuable insights and arresting imagery,” I ought to “lose the rhyme and meter.” A passing comment from an academic colleague conveys wonder over my writing sonnets when “people don’t write those anymore.” But another aside, from a fellow sonneteer, rebukes me gently for composing work in haiku stanzas when I’m capable of “our kind of real poetry.” And still another, from an excellent photographer with a scientific background, questions my addiction to craft, since all that does is “complicate the message, which is what really matters.”

In addition to those cavils about the usefulness (or not) of this or that formal device, I’ve encountered others about the role of such non-literary aspects of writing as the author’s personal identity, political leanings, social and economic sympathies, sexual or religious attitudes….The list goes on. One passionate attendee at a poetry reading in which I was not a participant once told me he felt obliged to leave because the poems read, although admittedly worthy as poems, did not “engage enough with the world,” and therefore struck him as “invalid for our time.” One editor objected because a phrase in a poem of mine was in Spanish—my native language—and suggested that I was trying to be fashionably multicultural. Another, on the other hand, complimented me on my “timely” use of the word “hostage” in a poem that had nothing to do with the crisis then taking place during the Carter administration. When I pointed out that the reference was wholly unrelated, she refused to believe it.

When the critical list of Dos and Don’ts ranges so wildly, how is the average reader to know whether or not he is wasting his time on what is in print before him at any given moment? Come to think of it, how is the poet to know whether she is wasting her time trying to get anything into print, or writing it in the first place?

In Part III of Sparring with the Sun, Jan Schreiber settles down to deal with that troublesome question, in chapters titled “Yvor Winters: The Absolutist,” “Judgment: An Agenda for Critics,” “The Functions of Poetry” and “Poetry and the Problem of Standards.” There is so much to learn in these chapters that I found myself reading them all again and jotting down ideas that were wholly new to me, and therefore challenging: that even the narrowest standards—or the broadest—may offer something of value; that much of what we call “taste” depends on personal needs that have little to do with aesthetics; that art changes both its creator and the viewer. Absorbing all of that should have been difficult, but Schreiber’s language is so clear and reasoned that the second reading was, instead, an even greater pleasure.

Parts I and II of the book, “Six Poets of the Late Twentieth Century” and “The Aspirants,” deal with poets whom Schreiber considers important to varying degrees; they cover both specific poems and general tendencies of each poet, in every case illuminating the work discussed. His remarks on each text have invited me back into poems I love and thought I already knew thoroughly, and—better still—coaxed me to revisit the work of two or three poets I now suspect I’ve misjudged. Some of the poets on Schreiber’s list may never hold as high a place on mine. Nevertheless I propose to read them differently now, with more attention, with the same kind of honesty, patience and justice he exhibits even when exploring their flaws. He has, in other words, made me a better reader, and I am grateful for that.

But it is Part III that I keep returning to, because in it the author does, out in the open and in print, what the critical mind at work does consciously and alone, but that the rest of us do, if at all, only in passing and in bits of disparate intuition that never permit a whole picture of the process to take shape. It was an intellectual discovery to watch Jan Schreiber take apart a complex theme—the life, work and influence of Yvor Winters, for instance—so that what Winters wanted poetry to be, what he approved and disapproved in the work of others, his misreadings and obvious biases, his principles, the value of the standards he upheld, and finally his own work, are all spread out for the reader to weigh separately and finally combine into a whole. It is a lesson in the need for justice and humility to follow the process as he analyzes Winters’s judgments on such poets as Emerson, Whitman, Crane, Eliot, Stevens (“a hedonist”?) and finally Frost (“a spiritual drifter”!), and then, as Schreiber phrases it, “separate the usable principles from the dogmatism.” The section ends with a list of those critical principles that Winters rightly defended, and that every poet ought to consider. I’ve come away from this reading with a new understanding of, and grateful respect for, the role of the critic.

What I did after a second reading of Part III was return to Parts I and II and reread those as well, with even greater satisfaction than before, noting how completely the author rises above the abominable “poetry wars” that created, in the twentieth century, painful divisions over personal choices and perceived differences among poets. Sparring with the Sun may not have neutralized the verbal acids contained in some of my collected rejection slips, but it has succeeded in teaching me something about the chemical processes that produce them in critics and poets alike: temperament, background, life experience, the impact of a given environment, the age, tradition, the need for consensus and “reassurance,” and the countervailing need to reject the accepted and reassuring. More surprising still, this richly instructive book has pointed out ways in which those processes, producing those same acids, were—and may be forever, in some dosage—essential to the creation of poetry.

Jan Schreiber is a poet, critic, and translator. Over a varied career as a social scientist, software entrepreneur, and literary scholar, he has written frequently on American poets and the problems of understanding and evaluating modern poetry. He lives with his wife Frances in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Rhina P. Espaillat’s poems, essays and short stories, in both English and her native Spanish, have appeared in journals and anthologies, as well as her three chapbooks and eight full-length books. Her most recent are a poetry collection in English, Her Place in These Designs (Truman State University Press, Kirksville, 2008), and a bilingual collection of her short stories, El olor de la memoria/The Scent of Memory (Ediciones CEDIBIL, Santo Domingo, D. R., 2007). She has received, among others, the Wilbur Award, the Nemerov Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry, the Robert Frost “Tree at My Window” Award for Translation, the May Sarton Award, a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from Salem State College, and several honors from the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Culture, the New England Poetry Club and the Poetry Society of America.