The Virtues of Poetry
Graywolf Press 2013
James Longenbach‘s The Virtues of Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2013) is not interested in the vices or failures found in some poems, so his concerns are not necessarily moral ones, but instead, as the title of the book suggests, he is interested in understanding what makes a particular poem (and poet for that matter) flourish, and therefore what makes a reader flourish. And it is this relationship – the one between reader and poem – that James Longenbach’s book honors through his ingenuity of reading poetry through the framework of virtues, such as boldness, compression, dilation, excess, restraint, and shyness to name just a few he identifies, and he unearths these virtues by focusing on a poem’s prosody and diction and syntax and even the poet’s life – apprehended through letters – as well. The Virtues of Poetry is a joyous book of criticism, written by a poet and critic who does not seek to reprimand poems – which is usually the result of someone mired in taste – but to identify why certain poems can be considered achievements and also to celebrate the paradoxical nature of poetry itself – that poems, no matter when they are written, embody the impulse to clarify the world, while also wrestling with the world’s unsettling mysteries. During our chat, we discuss how poetry found him, the creative similarities between writing poetry and prose, and of course, the virtues of poetry and so much more. I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did.