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Richard Poirier

By Richard Howard

“When I write I write and when I talk I talk,” Gertrude Stein wrote or said in Everybody’s Autobiography of 1936, “the two are not one.”  And shortly before he died, our friend Richard Poirier proved as much by developing Stein’s words into a commentary on “Balanchine in America,” one of the remarkably varied essays in his ninth book, Trying It Out in America (a final title which readily covers, or uncovers, Poirier’s foregoing eight): “what is classic,” observed our late critic, “can be inferred from the vernacular, the vernacular from what is classic; to see and hear this in Mr. B’s troupe is to witness a veritable act of democratic civilization.”

The seventeen essays in that alas ultimate book are perhaps nearer to talk than to writing (if I understand Miss Stein correctly) because they are nearer to arguments with certain critics whom Poirier insistently shows to be mistaken (arguments about Whitman with contemporary troublemakers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, or about Melville with ancestral spooks like Horace Traubel and Hershel Parker), than to arguments with himself about those encounters with Melville and Marianne Moore and their performances of veritable acts of democratic civilization.

The phrase does catch one up, for it is not plain to see in Poirier’s production from last to first that he is constantly concerned with such acts as specimens of specific and characteristic American achievement, the varying grain of our natural culture, though Poirier reveals them in all their suggestive temper without a mote of the usual provincialism or fanfaronade.

Reading upstream, against the temporal current of Poirier’s intense examination, say in his masterful seventh and eight volumes where we encounter the arguments about Emerson and William James, about Frost and Stevens, you find this perception of a native strain at its most powerful and passionate, though I contend it would be fallacious to deny power and passion to Richard Poirier’s third, fourth, and fifth books.  Indeed, even The Comic Sense of Henry James, which I have just rediscovered to my immense satisfaction after what must be an entire generation of James criticism—even this initial and perhaps most argumentative book of all has the authentic (and inimitable) textual twang of all Poirier’s subsequent production—a resonance probably connected to, if not derived from, a life of words he knows will be judged to be indispensable, meant to be heard on the page—is it any wonder, after ten years as an editor of Partisan Review and having founded Raritan Quarterly in 1981 at Rutgers University, where he had taught literature with great distinction for many years, and having also served as Chairman of the Board of the Library of America since its inception….

Never was Richard Poirier a teacher of mine, only a close friend, yet I am now convinced that for the fifty-some years I knew him, I was his devoted student.  Moreover I am acquainted with many others, men and women in this hall tonight, who would proudly profess—shaving off a lustrum here, adding a decade there—an equivalent devotion.

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