August 2003

David Harris


Essays on Poetry by Ralph Mills, Jr.

How much do you love poetry? How deeply do you believe that to understand the poem, you need to understand the poet? If you answer "Not much" to either of these questions, then this book of essays is probably not for you. However, if you are interested in how contemporary American poetry is influenced by the lives of contemporary American poets, this is a detailed, well-informed set of analyses by one of the greatest recent critics of poetry.

As Michael Anania points out in his introduction to the volume, Mills's essays have the sense of "reading turned outward" -- the essays chronicle Mills's reading and understanding of poetry rather than pretending to be an "official" judgment delivered from on high. With this approach, readers of this volume will find they can compare their readings of the criticized poets to those of Mills.

Mills wrote most of the essays in this volume between the 1950s and 1980s prior to him returning from criticism to poetry itself. However, the pieces sit together nicely as a package with a useful opening and introductory chapter, "Creation's Very Self: On the Personal Element in Recent American Poetry." Mills explicitly avoids the temptation to classify the interest of contemporary poetry out of existence and so stresses that he is looking at a feature that appears in contemporary poetry without it being defining. Contemporary poets are cast as reacting to the rationalism and impersonality of their predecessors, turning to their own situations as a source of valid experience. The contemporary poet constructs an identifiable self within the poetry, even if this self is not the same as that of the physical poet.

Of course, poetic styles ebb and flow, and with the introductory chapter written in 1969, the poetic landscape is no longer quite the same. However, much of what Mills has written about poets contemporary to the mid-20th century still applies today.

It is perhaps only because of this feature of contemporary poetry that Mills could write the essays of this book. Most focus on individual poets and combine readings of their poetry with dips into their biographies. For example, the essay on Wallace Stevens examines his poetry in the light of his theology; Edith Sitwell is considered as a key poet among those who constructed masks for their poetry-conveyed personalities.

Part two is a series of essays written in 1965 covering the works of Stanley Kunitz, Theodore Roethke, Brother Antonius (William Everson), Karl Shapiro, Isabella Gardner, Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov and James Wright. Again, these essays consider poetry in the context of personal histories. As Mills's reading of a poet evolves before our eyes, so do the poets mature throughout the essays, often driven by the events of their lives.

Part three takes a more thematic approach concentrating on aspects of a poet's work or a particular stage of their career. Poets covered in this section include Rene Char, Henri Michaux, Samuel Beckett, David Ignatow, Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall, Robert Bly (both poems and prose poems), Hilda Morley, and Philip Levine.

Mills's Essays on Poetry will add much depth to any reader's understanding of the poets discussed but entering into those discussions takes some commitment, and being widely read in contemporary poetry would certainly help.

Essays on Poetry by Ralph Mills, Jr.
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564782948
458 pages