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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reading Richard Poirier: Two Journals Honor His Legacy

Richard Poirier, who died last year (see the obituary in The New York Times), was a founder of The Library of America and he served as chairman until 2007. The author of several books, he was also a professor for five decades at Rutgers University. His contribution to American letters has been honored recently by two publications.

The most recent issue of Raritan, a quarterly journal that Poirier himself founded and edited until 2001, reprints several of his “Editor’s Notes” that show the breadth of his interests. One of them remarks on the “extraordinary reception” for the newly launched Library of America during a time when “book stores are going out of business everywhere” (this, in 1982). Another essay focuses on one of Poirier’s common plaints: the irony that so many works of social and literary criticism seem “written on behalf of people who could not be expected to read them.” In an appreciation at Paris Review Daily, Robyn Creswell writes:

Poirier didn’t think of himself as a public intellectual. He thought of himself as a reader, and supposed that expertise in reading gave him the credentials for commenting on everything else. . . .

In this sense, Raritan can be thought of as the intellectual bridge, or missing link, between those heroic organs of the past like Partisan Review (which Poirier edited in the sixties) and contemporary little magazines like FEED, The Believer, or n+1. There is a clear line of descent from Poirier’s famous essay “Learning From the Beatles” to Mark Grief’s “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” (both of which begin by complaining that our conventional ways of analyzing art do not help much when the subject is rock music).
Similarly, the latest issue of the online journal College Hill Review, is dedicated to Poirer; it includes eulogies, remembrances, and essays that honor his legacy, “even if they deal with texts he never commented on (Don Quixote, for example).” James Barszcz recalls a confrontation between Poirier and Norman Mailer:

At a party once in the 1970s, Poirier defended a man who was being attacked (only verbally, I think) by Norman Mailer. Poirier, who had written a book on Mailer for the Modern Masters series, received a letter from Mailer, saying the argument was none of Poirier's business and implying that Mailer didn't want to have anything to do with Poirier in the future. I happened to see a copy of Poirier's masterful letter in response, in which he described, as to a dullard, the childishness of Mailer's own behavior at the party. Poirier went on to say that he was only ever interested in Mailer as a writer, never as a person, so the threat to break off their relation meant nothing to him. (The break was repaired at least partially some years later, when Poirier published a favorable review of Ancient Evenings in the TLS.)

The issue also includes an interview in which Poirier discusses the worth of the idea of a “canon”:
So, yes, I believe in the canon, and canonical texts, in general, are the difficult ones. Or, to invoke a distinction I traced in The Renewal of Literature, texts that are “dense.” There, I tried to show that the “difficulty” of Eliot is not the difficulty you find in Frost. Frost seems simple, but he is quite difficult to understand. His difficulty, or density, is a function of his fidelity to the complex nature of the material—the words—he employs. You can never say it too often: literature is made of words, and the best proof of its goodness is the same as in culinary art. To what extent is it able to develop the qualities and the nuances inherent in the raw materials employed? Some people can get more out of a chicken than others. The meaning of “canonical” is simply that.

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