FEBRUARY 24, 2021
READING ERICA MCALPINE’S The Poet’s Mistake alerted me to a phenomenon I’d previously been unaware of. It seems that, bucking the vast and sweeping consensus of the rest of humanity, academics have — as a rule — come to think of poets as being infallible. As far-fetched a proposition as this may sound, McAlpine has proof (and, sure enough, produces plenty of it) that certain eminent scholars might have found a lucrative calling in the supple art of yoga, such are the calisthenics they’re willing to perform on behalf of any author under heavy bombardment, or even lightly accusatory questioning. Defending the honor of the poets, however factually, grammatically, or typographically flawed a particular line or image might be, appears to have become a point of principle, with several throaty literary bodyguards citing the happy accidents occasioned by any alleged “mistake,” its capacity for generating a new and, if anything, richer set of meanings and associations, its essential rightness. Poets one, pedants nil. Yet McAlpine — herself an associate professor at Oxford replete with plenty of learned bona fides — begs to differ, putting forth a thesis that sometimes poets are, well, wrong, and that we do them and their work a disservice by pretending otherwise.
So far, so seemingly unobjectionable. The problem is, McAlpine picks a slightly slippery set of key examples to put forth her case, and in at least two or three instances one finds oneself on the side of the poet after all, or at least willing to give their “mistake” the benefit of the many doubts evinced by their donnish defenders. Take Hart Crane, for example, whose “lack of formal education” — to put it somewhat euphemistically — McAlpine flags up, pointing out that even some of his most vocal champions were willing to admit his many flaws were “almost of the nature of a public catastrophe.” McAlpine’s analysis in this chapter focuses on Crane’s use of the — misspelled, she says — “wrapt” in a line from “Voyages”: “Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love.” She makes plenty of reasonable points in arguing that this is, most likely, a typo for “rapt,” highlighting the Miltonian overtones, the lack of a contemporary model for a proper spelling of what Crane is probably driving at. She’s also refreshingly honest in admitting that she doesn’t fully understand the surrounding lines, or this image, for that matter — hardly boxing herself into a minority position. One feels, however, for all her sage and matter-of-fact discussion, that tackling a poem like this, and a poet like Crane, with the aim of fishing for mistakes is a slightly thankless move, akin to trying to explain the science of a joke. Crane’s often convoluted syntax and language is many things, but immediately explicable is rarely one of them, and to claim conclusively that what could be read as intricate musical paronomasia is actually typographical error feels a little tin-eared, or at least overly literal. Herbert Leibowitz’s analysis, cited by McAlpine, feels closer in spirit to the passage and the way in which it might best be approached: “When the sea mockingly laughs at the ‘wrapt inflections of our love,’ it is laughing at the self-enclosed isolation of the lovers, but also at the lovers so rapt by their emotions that they do not see its impending dissolution […]. Crane is obviously punning on the words.”
It’s that “obviously” McAlpine seems to take the most issue with, and on that score we can all agree — nothing is obvious here, after all — but in criticizing the certainty of the poet’s apologists McAlpine inadvertently risks taking up an equally calcified position. It doesn’t help that some of her argument relies on what is, to my mind, a slight misreading of a key piece of Crane’s prose. In “General Aims and Theories,” the poet wrote that “[i]t is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader’s consciousness henceforward.” McAlpine seems to take this somewhat plainly, seeing it as the delegation of meaning-creation from writer to reader, whereas it seems more in line with the Coleridgean concept of “esemplastic power,” the capacity of the lyric to bring something into the world that wasn’t previously there via the charged meanings and associations of a poem’s language, to generate rather than reflect an articulation of thought, to add to the language by pushing beyond previous usages. McAlpine thinks Crane’s defenders place too much emphasis on readers’ willingness and ability to act as poets themselves, and on that score — that is, on her deflation of anything-goes reverence — earns one’s sympathy, even if her unpicking of this particular “mistake” doesn’t fully land.
Crane has something in common with Emily Dickinson and John Clare, other notoriously unorthodox, even deliberately ornery poets whom McAlpine also summons to the stand and likewise fails to fully convict of their crimes, and for similar reasons. While her prosecutorial arguments are always fair, balanced, and based on sound evidence, there is enough reasonable doubt to mean that neither is ever quite bang to rights, as it were. If those three innovators, in their various ways, prove tricky customers, Elizabeth Bishop is more straightforwardly caught out in a “mistake” — but, once again, McAlpine’s argument is not without its own undertow of difficulty. She is right that the cited number of National Geographic in Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” was, in fact, from an entirely different month, and that strictly speaking either Bishop’s inner fastidiousness or the New Yorker’s fact-checkers should have clamped down on the error at the time. Less convincing, however, is the not quite fully expressed sense that had Bishop been forced, either by the red pen-wielding staffers or her own sense of Hardyesque rectitude, to stick to the issue she claimed to be remembering the poem would still have been a success. Her inclusion of the “awful hanging breasts” inserts an air of bodily horror that is fundamental to the poem as a whole, as McAlpine admittedly points out, and without which the rich string of associations and mortifications would be much diminished. So can it truly count, in the final reckoning, as a “mistake,” if by bending the “truth” Bishop ended up with a far stronger poem? Bishop’s confession to the error and her story about having been caught out by the reliably punishing letter writers of her day feels less an admission of artistic guilt than a somewhat wryly resigned sigh. If McAlpine is right that “[i]t seems doubtful that such a mistake — with respect to printed material especially — could be carried off today,” one feels it is the readers, rather than the delinquent poet, who are left the poorer for it.
Perhaps the nature of this book brings out one’s own inner nitpicker. In the main McAlpine is on steadier ground, and even in the examples cited above her arguments are not without merit. Pleasingly, too, she writes in a cogent and jargon-free prose, her sentences mostly uncluttered and approachable, in contrast to a number of the academic disquisitions she cites. She’s more convincing when she picks up on Wordsworth’s mistaken use of tense and Seamus Heaney’s misremembered, or at least mislabeled, placing of Wordsworth during a skating phase, while a chapter on Browning’s erroneous use of the word “twats” almost verges, somewhat endearingly, on the border of parody, balancing a stifled urge to laugh with a compensatory sobriety. That her central argument — poets aren’t infallible, sometimes mistakes are simply that — should be an outlier suggests that an unduly deferential approach to literary criticism has been allowed to proliferate among the towers of learning. McAlpine takes the side of Empson, who wrote: “[L]iterary critics have been so unwilling to appear niggling and lacking in soul that upon these small technical points the obvious, even the accepted, has been said culpably seldom.” Indeed, this book, while hardly soulful, has a useful role to play, albeit in the unlikely cause of bringing poets, or at least their most complaisant enablers, down a peg or two.