I wish literary critics would say what they mean. Being vague or abstruse hardly qualifies them to make comments about other people’s writing. Jason Guriel’s recent praise of Clive James’ poem, “Japanese Maple,” is an example of critical opacity. (“A Final Flood of Color,” by Jason Guriel, New Republic, May 2015 pg. 84.)
James is a writer/poet suffering from leukemia. In his poem, he sees death approaching yet takes comfort in a newly planted Japanese Maple which he hopes to see burst into its first blaze before he dies.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
About these lines Guriel writes, “…the doubling up of ‘that,’ project[s] a sense of control and provides just enough jolt.” (Ibid, pg. 84.) Jolt? Whatever does he mean? And what sort of control does he refer to?
In the hands of an amateur, the use of “that” would appear vacuous. Instead of dazzling us with a bright image, the unknown poet drops an empty word, twice. What jolts is a paucity of art. Yet Guriel insists the lines are artful. Unfortunately, he feels no obligation to explain why — as if papering his conclusion with opinion is enough. It isn’t.
What makes the double “that” effective is its sound, a sound which begins softly but ends with a “t” which, when repeated, becomes staccato, a cracking, like the rat-a-tat of fired bullets. Death comes not on muffled tiptoes. Yes, that…That will end the game.
Might an explanation of the onomatopoetic use of “that” have been of greater help to the reader than to be told the repetition shows “control” and provides “just enough jolt”? To be fair, much of Guriel’s essay is beautifully written. Still, I hate when a critic rests on his laurels and expects us to take his opinions at face value. I do hate that…that….that.