In Twenty Questions, one of America's finest poet-critics leads readers into the mysteries of poetry: how it draws on our lives, and how it leads us back into them. In a series of linked essays progressing from the autobiographical to the critical -- and closing with a remarkable translation of Horace's Ars Poetica unavailable elsewhere -- J. D. McClatchy's latest book offers an intimate and illuminating look into the poetic mind.
McClatchy begins with a portrait of his development as a poet and as a man, and provides vibrant details about some of those who helped shape his sensibility -- from Anne Sexton in her final days, to Harold Bloom, his enigmatic teacher at Yale, to James Merrill, a wise and witty mentor. All of these glimpses into McClatchy's personal history enhance our understanding of a coming of age from ingenious reader to accomplished poet-critic.
Later sections range through poetry past and present -- from Emily Dickinson to Seamus Heaney and W. S. Merwin -- with incisive criticism generously interspersed with vivid anecdotes about McClatchy's encounters with other poets' lives and work. A critical unpacking of Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Miss Blount" is interwoven with compassionate psychological portrait of a brilliant poet plagued by both romantic longings and debilitating physical deformities. There are surprising takes on the literary imagination as well: a look at Elizabeth Bishop through her letters, and a tribute to the Broadway lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and the tradition of light verse.
The questions McClatchy poses of poems prompt a fresh look and the last word. Free of scholarly pretension, elegantly and movingly written, Twenty Questions is a bright, open window onto a public and private experience of poetry, to be appreciated by poets, readers, and critics alike.
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