Obituaries: Professor M. L. Rosenthal

Walter Baumann
Monday 12 August 1996 23:02

When some 20 of us piled into a tiny hot room in the abbey of the Dordogne town of Brantome last summer to listen to M.L. Rosenthal's paper on Provence, Ford Madox Ford's miscellany in praise of southern France and the good life to be had in the appreciation of literary culture, we were not to know that this was his swansong to the International Ezra Pound Conference, of which Mack, as we all called him, had been a loyal and enthusiastic supporter ever since T.C. Terrell (Orono, Maine) and Philip Grover (Sheffield) had brought it to life in the mid-Seventies.

The New York Times very aptly headlined his obituary: "M.L. Rosenthal, Who Championed Poetry, Dies at 79". Indeed, he was just as much an unwavering lover of world literature as the subject of his swansong to the Pound Conference. Like Ford, Rosenthal constantly advocated that literature, and above all poetry, mattered in everyone's life. Although he had a distinguished academic career and remained Professor of English at New York University until the age of 70, he was less at home with academics than with fellow poets, whom he sought out all over the world, not least in the British Isles.

Seeking and selecting true poets and truly live poetry was Rosenthal's primary mission. Hence, especially at the beginning of his publishing career, a large part of his time was given over to the making of poetry anthologies and to the writing of poetry for a succession of American magazines (the Nation, the Humanist and Present Tense). His books of criticism were simply the second stage. Having established his canon, he now supplied "how to read" guides, in which attention was drawn not so much to sources and background, but to what actually happens in the poetry. Though Seamus Heaney has amply recognised Rosenthal's merits as authoritative guide, evaluator and summariser of poetry, it is regrettable that his books have so far had little circulation in England.

Though he was not an anthologised poet, Rosenthal's poetry has received high praise from fellow poets as a direct expression of human passions. His verse is, as Ezra Pound wanted it, "language charged with emotion".

This lyric intensity kept him from growing old. As the advocate of the poetic sequence, about which he and his co- author Sally M. Gall wrote a 500-page study (The Modern Poetic Sequence, 1983), he had no difficulty in regarding individual lyrics as building blocks of a boundless larger whole. It is this that made it easy for him to appreciate unity and coherence in Walt Whitman, and among the Modernists, even in Ezra Pound. Unlike other Jews, Rosenthal was not prevented by Pound's anti-Semitism from appreciating the poetic genius of The Cantos. However, for Rosenthal il miglior fabbro was W.B. Yeats.

The fruits of Rosenthal's lifelong preoccupation with the Irish poet are gathered in what was to be his last volume of critical commentary, called after one of Yeats's poems, Running to Paradise (1994). It is dedicated to the memory of his son David, also a poet, and a translator of Catalan literature, whose death of cancer at the age of 46 was the greatest blow the Rosenthal family had to bear.

We Poundians shall never forget Mack Rosenthal's marvellously poetic sing-song voice, his modesty and graciousness, and I shall never forget the look of his study where books of poetry filled every available space. There, in the idyllic little house in Suffern, New York State, in the company of his equally charming wife Vicky, Mack lived an exemplary literary existence.

Macha Louis Rosenthal, poet, critic and teacher: born Washington DC 14 March 1917; Professor of English, New York University 1961-86, Director, Poetics Institute 1977-79; married 1939 Victoria Himmelstein (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Suffern, New York 21 July 1996.

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