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This review is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD A. ALVAREZ, New and Selected Poems (Waywiser Press)

It's always interesting to see how a writer adapts when moving from his major form to one which is not his or her specialty. Larkin wrote novels, D.H. Lawrence wrote poetry, and so on. Very few writers achieve equal rank in two forms so the critical task usually focuses on explaining the discrepancy. For instance, why was Melville such a brilliant maker of prose yet a conventional mid-Victorian poet. Among modern writers, for instance, Hemingway wrote some bad poetry which pointed the way to his writings' strengths (simplicity which suggests depths) and weaknesses (simplicity which fakes depth). John Updike writes essays on golf as an outing in which he can show the sunny surface of the green world which he anatomizes in his fiction. He also writes light verse which serves the same function. Since most ambitious writers like to try their hands at different genres (many, like big game fisherman or bird watchers, make a virtuistic point of checking off all the types of writing from their list) the minor genre can provide useful evidence about the major career, and, of course, vice versa.

A case in point is A. Alvarez's New and Selected Poems. As a non-fiction writer, Alvarez is best known for his studies of obsession: The Savage God on suicide and Feeding the Rat on the adrenalin-stoked world of rock and mountain climbing. Yet he is also the author of an autobiography called Where Did it All Go Right? whose title suggests a ...


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