window high over Washington Square. Near the back of a college lecture
hall, a student daydreams. Her thoughts are interrupted by the voice at
the front of the room reading from William Carlos Williams's Paterson,
“You lethargic, waiting upon me, waiting for / the fire and I /
attendant upon you, shaken by your beauty // Shaken by your beauty . //
Gone, in that moment, the wandering thoughts about who knows what. She turns her eyes to the speaker. He doesn’t read, he inhabits
the lines Williams wrote about the city where she was born. She is
glued to her seat. The words wash over her, the whole class (fifty
students at least, perhaps seventy-five) is riveted by the lines their
teacher recites. The rest of the world vanishes. They too are standing
in that Paterson room with the doctor/poet; they see the patient/woman
through his eyes.
Compact, muscular, benevolent, slightly tousled, Professor M. L.
Rosenthal holds the entire room in his sway. The year is 1971. He has
been teaching poetry at New York University since the late 1940’s. He
will continue to teach it until his retirement in 1985. Previously that
semester, he introduced the class to Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens.
He reads the poems they are studying with a deep resonant voice,
naturally, not mannered or stilted, more conversationally, with
intimacy, gravity, irony, or humor as the poem might ask, with an Irish
lilt or an English accent, as the poet himself might have heard his own
words. The student does not appreciate at the time how unusual this
The textbook they are using, Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America,
Fifth Edition, lists M. L. Rosenthal as the third of three editors. She
only understands much later that this means her professor has done the
lion’s share of the work. Scattered throughout its pages are her notes
in pencil taken during his lectures. Over time, these notes have faded.
The dust jacket, despite being much mended, is falling apart. She
certainly has not yet begun to realize that this anthology is the
product of a life-long immersion in modern poetry, as is his masterful
teaching. She had no idea then that she will hold on to this volume
through a divorce, remarriage, and half a dozen moves, including one
cross-country. That this book will survive 9/11 when it was coated with
dust and ash from the fallen Twin Towers. That she will return to this
anthology when teaching poetry to college students herself.
Over the course of his long career, M. L. Rosenthal did so much to
advance poetry that it is hard to tease apart his many roles. Besides
being Professor of English at New York University for over fifty years
and the founder of the Poetics Institute there, he was a literary
critic whose assembled articles and reviews, collected in Our Life in Poetry, amount to over five hundred pages. In a review of Life Studies by Robert Lowell for The Nation (10 September 1959), it was Rosenthal who first used the term “confessional.” He was also a pre-eminent scholar of Yeats, Ezra Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams,
and the editor of works by these poets. At the same time, Rosenthal
edited several important poetry anthologies (in addition to the
MacMillan textbook mentioned above) and was Poetry Editor for long
stretches at The Nation, The Humanist, and Present Tense. A selected list of his publications appears at the end of this article.
What the undergraduate taking “Modern British and American Poetry I” in
1971 did not know, would not learn for many years however, was that her
professor, M. L. Rosenthal, was also a well-published poet himself. The
following year, 1972, he would publish his third collection of poetry, The View from the Peacock’s Tail. All told, he would publish six collections of poetry, beginning in 1964 with Blue Boy on Skates, and ending with As for Love: Poems & Translations in 1987. His full-length poetry collections were published by Oxford University Press; one limited edition chapbook, She,
was originally published by BOA Editions. Widely respected by his
fellow poets, who praised the collections in reviews, it is unfortunate
that Rosenthal chose not to include his own poems in the anthologies he
edited, especially given the growing role of anthologies in introducing
readers to poets. This means that his poetry collections languish in
university libraries largely undiscovered by the current generation of
readers. Similarly, during his lifetime, internet publishing was still
so rare that Rosenthal’s poetry is not available digitally. The very
few exceptions include individual poems in the archives of The Nation.
you asked most people, M. L. Rosenthal, professor,
critic, editor, poet, was the quintessential New Yorker. And you would
be right. After all, he worked his entire adult life in New York City.
His three children were born there. He and his wife, Victoria, lived
their entire adult lives there and in nearby Suffern, NY. Their
two surviving children still live in the area.
And yet, just as many New Yorkers come there from other places, M. L. Rosenthal was one of these.
Macha Louis Rosenthal (Mack to his friends) was born in Washington, DC,
in 1917. He was “taken very quickly to nearby Mount Rainier and
Brentwood [Maryland],” as he recollects in his essay, “Notes
Toward an Unauthorized Autobiography.” By the time he was five, his
parents had divorced, his mother had remarried, and he moved with
her and his step-father to Woodbridge, CT, a suburb of New
Haven. The rest of his childhood, the family moved around quite a bit
due to the Depression and his step-father’s work as a house painter.
After Woodbridge, they lived in Boston, Newark, Cleveland, and Chicago,
where he went to college. After earning a B.A. and M.A. from the
University of Chicago, he took a job teaching soldiers in Michigan
during World War II. By 1949, Rosenthal had moved to New York City to
get his Ph.D. at New York University. He would never leave.
Even though Rosenthal lived only the first five years of his life in
the DC area, he continued to spend summers and the Christmas holidays
visiting his father, who remained in Brentwood, and with his mother’s
family in Baltimore. The area’s impact on him was deep and enduring. In
the autobiographical essay, he describes being rewarded for reciting
poetry, “My father gave us kids a nickel every time we recited a poem.
A poet who was a friend of his one day told him: ‘You mustn’t do that.
They’ll grow up thinking there is money in poetry.’” Somewhat later, he
recounts, “My first memories of Whitman,
in fact, come . . . from hearing him recited in Yiddish translation by
Jewish poets whose tone and gesture were strongly influenced by Russian
Futurist mannerisms and Mayakovskyan declamation. To me, in effect, he
was a Jewish poet named Voltvétman, who was part of a Russian-Jewish
movement of the twentieth century.”
The impact of his parents’ divorce permeates Rosenthal’s poetry with a
sense of loss, and he often writes of the love he continued to feel for
both his parents, together with his despair at their no longer being
together. Of a childhood prize from this period, he writes “It simply
disappeared into the world’s storehouse of lost childhood possessions
and hopes, like the tricycle, and the trip to the circus that never
happened, and the restoration of the Eden I had shared with my
parents.” These specific subjects appear in his poems.
The son of “somewhat bohemian” Jewish immigrants with little formal
education who spoke Yiddish at home, Rosenthal acquired traits which
would define him as a poet from both his parents. His father, who
became an Orthodox Jew after the divorce, instilled in his son a deep
respect for learning, a fondness for philosophical and dialectical
discussion, an innate skepticism—this last perhaps unintentionally.
From his mother he learned optimism, a faith, even, in the face of
disheartening experience, in the beauty of life. Many of his best poems
are haunted by her as a source of enrichment. One of his more charming
poems about their combined legacy appears at the end of Poems 1964-1980 under “About the Author”:
The left-handed child of divorced parents,
What could he do but make
every triumph a mare’s nest
and all delight a stammering mistake?
The unassuming humor of this poem, coupled with a whimsical wisdom, are
typical of the way Rosenthal writes about deeply personal subjects.
All three of his parents (including his step-father) were politically
left. Though not officially a “red diaper baby,” he belonged to that
generation of children of radically liberal and highly political
parents. Wars, disasters, genocide figure in his poetry. Rosenthal’s
essay “On Being a Jewish Poet” is a masterpiece which connects personal
anecdote and aesthetic considerations with historical issues. In this
essay, Rosenthal observes, “No doubt Jews have a special memory and
awareness engaged with the prophetic tradition that suffuses their
whole sense of life and language. And the Holocaust is ‘ours’ in a way
that no Gentile would want to steal from us. . . . there are all the
kindred memories and associations of Jews the world over almost—the
synagogue and its worlds of thought and reverie, the shtetl,
idiosyncratic turns of exaltation and vulgarity, vision and
deprivation. But a Jew may write about sunlight on a Sussex hillside,
or about love in a way that does not echo the Song of Songs.
If his “non-Jewish” poems are good enough, then lo! they have
willy-nilly added to the sum total of Jewish poetry.” Looking over his
earliest work, he is surprised how more much of it is “on explicitly
Jewish themes than I had remembered.” In subsequent collections, this
material comes more to the fore.
The poem which best embodies these preoccupations for me is “The Gate.”
Although this poem dates to Rosenthal’s first collection, Blue Boy on Skates,
published when he was 47, its themes resonate throughout the rest of
his work. Written in five sections of a single spare quatrain each,
this poem has haunted me ever since the first time I read it. I
immediately understood its central situation: the speaker goes out into
the night, looking for something cherished. While wandering the foreign
streets (whether due to the dark or for other reasons is unclear—and
unimportant), the speaker unwittingly crosses over into a world in
which past and present simultaneously exist. The past world, that of
his ancestors, and specifically his father, becomes real for the
speaker; the parallels between then and now are both comforting and
painful. There is no easy resolution.
“The Gate” is a deceptively direct poem. I could quote almost any
single line, and there would be nothing “poetic” about it: the diction
is conversational, even flat; there is no enjambment or rhyme; there is
no regular meter. Yet, a line (or two) from each section will
illustrate the poem’s evocative power: “It is not so dreadful after
all” and “I will teach you a trembling grace” (from Part 1); “I did not
know where I was going” (from Part 2); “Strange that not until tonight
/ Have I seen the stars in all their silence” (Part 3); “Love broke
their backs, but so long ago” (Part 4); “I did not know of the gate, my
dear. / I did not know. I did not know” (Part 5). The poem ends on a
note of suspended comprehension and imminent loss.
In his notes about this poem in “On Being a Jewish Writer,“ Rosenthal
elaborates that the speaker “went out to find his son but found, as
well, the immense universe and in it the unforgotten world of the dead.
Especially, he found his father, who, he now sees, also ‘passed through
the gate’ once, perhaps in search of the speaker.” He goes on to
insist, however, “I should not force my private associations on the
poem. They are merely part of the background of its feeling, though
conceivably the sense of being in an alien universe and coping with a
devastating break between generations is presented in images and
phrasing with some Jewish resonances.” This leads to a further
observation: “The tragic sense of irrevocably disappearing communion
between the generations is a deep American motif because of all the
constantly dissolving continuities of our complex and ever-changing
culture. . . . each poet will use it and change its bearing to
accommodate his own inner reality.”
For an poet deeply familiar with the cadences of Auden, Eliot, Williams, and—above all—Yeats,
finding one’s own voice and gestures as a poet might well be especially
daunting. The voices in one’s ear make their way onto the page.
Unconsciously and consciously. Echoes, homages, to the poets he revered
appear through Rosenthal’s body of work. Small scale and large. There
are poems in historical forms. There are references to the imagery and
subjects associated with the poets whose work he knew so well (swans,
towers). There are poems in dialect and Old English. There are nursery
rhymes and nonsense verse (three poems in Blue Boy on Skates originally appeared in The Nation under the pseudonym M. Riddle).
There are parodies, odes, ballads. There are many invented “nonce”
forms. However, even when poetic references are apparent to a reader
less intimately familiar with his sources, Rosenthal’s poems are never
imitations. The references are always put to his own very individual
purposes. Rosenthal constantly weds high to low; the idiosyncratic,
specific, contemporary (images and word choices) to historical allusion
and elevated diction. In “Footnote,” an extended prose poem meditation
prompted by William Carlos Williams’s “The Sea Elephant” at the end of Blue Boy on Skates,
Rosenthal writes, “And here is a pretty thought: That the poem is a
putting out of the soul to scavenge. To believe even this, one other
belief is required: in the soul.” More than any other subject,
Rosenthal wrote of love—for others, present and past, especially his
wife, mother, and children, of his attachment to this world, of his
passionate engagement with the creative life.
Throughout his long career, Rosenthal’s work explores human history.
His guarded belief in the ability of people to transcend their
differences through literature, especially poetry, would take him to
Germany (1961), Pakistan (1965), Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria (in
1966, when such visits were rare), Israel (1974), Italy and France
(1980) as a Guggenheim Scholar, a Visiting Poet, and with the US
Cultural Exchange. These visits were in addition to extended stretches
in London and Ireland. Late in life he was translating Catalan poetry
into English. Other translations are scattered throughout his body of
Closer to home, one of Rosenthal’s last professional projects was as Guest Editor of Ploughshares
“Works-In-Progress” Issue from Fall 1991. At 74 still actively
engaged in writing poetry himself (he included an unfinished sequence
of his own), Rosenthal convinced writers to let work out into the world
while it was still being written. The list includes many poets who will
go on to have impressive careers, including such an eclectic roster as Charles Bernstein, Eavan Boland, Robert Dana, Tess Gallagher, Rachel Hadas, Donald Hall, Sam Hamill, Brenda Hillman, Thomas Kinsella, Molly Peacock, Mark Rudman, Charles Tomlinson, and Barry Wallenstein.
Additionally, he asked each poet to write about the specific work
included. This is M. L. Rosenthal at his creative, mentoring, and
critical best. And a treat, I must add, for any contemporary poet to
That girl near the back of that long-ago classroom daydreaming out the window was, of course, me.
Looking over my undergraduate transcript, I realize it was not spring,
but fall when I took that course. Call it, in retrospect, poetic
liberty that twenty years later when describing a moment I thought I
remembered vividly, I turned fall into spring for the transformative
power of that moment in my life.
There must have been 75 students in that class. Multiply that by the
number of times M. L. Rosenthal taught just that one course. Multiply
that by the other courses he taught over his long teaching career. Add
to that the number of students who used his anthologies, read his
criticism, translations; the readers and writers who read the poems he
chose as editor; those who knew his own poetry, from journals and
collections. Add the expanding community of scholars whose lives were
graced by his gifts. For how many of us was the seed scattered in that
classroom, in those volumes, to become a life-changing experience? Not
so long ago, The New York Times Sunday Book Review
frequently published author queries. “Will anyone who studied with M.
L. Rosenthal at NYU between 1950 and 1985 please contact . . .”
If such a notice were still possible, the response would be huge.
As for this one student, when I finally found my way to writing poetry
twenty years after that course with him, one of the first poems I wrote
(but never published) was about that experience. It closes:
Beautiful Thing, you will lie there
Forever fixed in the humble awe
Of the poet. The doctor
Could not help you
As the teacher, reading
His words, does me. Beautiful
Thing, for you I lay down
My pain and weep.
How many others are there like me? Many, I suspect. We—unknown to
ourselves at the time, unknown to him for the most part forever—are
the beneficiaries of M. L. Rosenthal’s many gifts.
He shared his wide knowledge not to make writers of us, but to
communicate by demonstration the power of the word, the transformative
poem of poetry to move, heal, inspire sympathy, teach. For isn’t it
that to which we all aspire—as writers? As human beings?
This was NYU’s great gift to me, and many others—to give M. L.
Rosenthal an enduring professional home, and to give us a teacher of
poetry who made poetry come alive, who lived the creative life and by
doing so, communicated a spirit of openness and generosity by which I
still try to live today.
Poetry Collections by M. L. Rosenthal
Blue Boy on Skates (1964)
Beyond Power: New Poems (1969)
The View from the Peacock’s Tail (1972)
She: A Sequence of Poems (1977)
Poems 1964-1980 [New and Selected] (1981)
As for Love: Poems & Translations (1987)
All of the above were published by Oxford University Press, with the exception of She, which was originally published as a chapbook by BOA Editions and later included in Poems 1964-1980.
Selected Critical Works and Translations by M. L. Rosenthal
Exploring Poetry (with A. J. M. Smith)
A Primer of Ezra Pound
The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction
The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II
Poetry and the Common Life
Sailing into the Unknown: Yeats, Pound, and Eliot
The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry (with Sally M. Gall)
The Poet’s Art
Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews
Running to Paradise
The Authentic Story of Pinocchio of Tuscany (from Carlo Collodi’s text)
Selected Works, Anthologies, and Literary Journal Issues Edited by M. L. Rosenthal
Selected Poems and Three Plays of William Butler Yeats (1966)
The William Carlos Williams Reader (1966)
The New Modern Poetry: British and American Poetry Since World War II (1967)
Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America, Fifth Edition (with Gerald Dewitt
Sanders and John Herbert Nelson) (1970)
Ploughshares, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1991. “Works-In-Progress” Issue