Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Vicissitudes of Literary Fame

I don't make it down to the campus mailroom much anymore, despite the fact that the current pooh-bah down there knows a good beer when he sees one, and is a good guy with whom to down a few.  Packages are delivered straight to the office, and almost nothing important comes by actual, envelope-encased mail any more.  But I meandered down that way earlier today in quest of some student center chicken curry, and when I popped open my mailbox I found, in amongst the book catalogs, the miniscule royalty checks, and the miscellaneous ephemera, something I hadn't expected: another review of Laureates and Heretics.  The book has had the good fortune to receive long, positive notice in a few places (notably PN Review and Contemporary Literature) and a very brief but also nice notice in the New York Times.  This new one is by Barry Wallenstein, and comes from Choice.  It goes like this:

Archambeau’s unique study will please—perhaps fascinate—those with a serious interest in US poetry. [Yvor] Winters was a major literary critic and theorist and a proponent of the New Criticism movement; the other five [Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, John Matthias, John Peck, and James McMichael] were in Winters' last batch of graduate students at Stanford (ca. 1962). Two of them — Pinsky, Hass — became poets laureate, the others gained modest reputations.  In observing that the non-laureates and Winters were "heretics" writing "outside the laws of canonization," Archambeau (poet, critic, scholar, Lake Forest College) — who opposed the 2001 appointment of Billy Collins as poet laureate and backed Anselm Hollo as "anti-laureate" — might have used "whims" instead of "laws."  Why some writers become famous and others do not is as interesting as the larger questions of artistic mastery.  In looking at how Winters helped shape the poetics and careers of these then-young poets, Archambeau taps deep into the traditions of poetry in English, revealing his knowledge of the many schools and tendencies that developed in Winters' lifetime and about previous critical work (n.b., ten pages of works cited).   The chapters on Winters’s literary offspring provide worthy introductions, but his book is ultimately a meditation on taste and the vicissitudes of literary fame.

I really do think there are something like laws of canonization, and that we can, with enough study, come to something like an understanding of the mechanisms by which these things operate.  But that's a minor point of disagreement with Wallenstein.  And a guy who refers to me as "Archambeau (poet, critic, scholar)," and remembers my little Collins stunt of a million years ago is okay by me.  I may have to declare him the next anti-laureate.