The Poet’s Mistake by Erica McAlpine

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Erica McAlpine expends considerable energy on defining what she means by a mistake in poetry. At first glance, mistakes are just mistakes – somebody has written something and got it wrong. McAlpine’s example of turkeys in England (in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1) when there were no such birds in the land at the time is an excellent example of what is meant by an incontrovertible mistake. McAlpine quotes fellow critic Austin when distinguishing between error, mistake and accident (22). The argument is that the question of justification must be aired and that volition has to be considered. In the curtailment to the discussion, she argues that certain types of mistake in any book (including hers) are necessary.

The mistakes she considers are those deemed genuine according to factors she considers empirically determined: mistakes in grammar (Wordsworth, Chapter 1), mistakes in the use or meaning of words (Browning, Chapter 2; Clare, Chapter 3; Dickinson, Chapter 4), mistakes in historical fact (Elizabeth Bishop, Chapter 6; Seamus Heaney, Chapter 7), and mistakes in reading and interpretation (Hart Crane, Chapter 5). In Mc alpine’s view, “When poets celebrate the unconscious creativity associated with error, they likewise confirm mistake’s inevitability – and the importance of acknowledging it” (26), defending it, and letting it go. After all, “Poetry encompasses error as it does any other contingent element of form” (27). Readers may find that, having made much of mistakes, errors and accidents, McAlpine seems to have found the distinction an impediment to explanatory comment, and leaves bemused readers in her wake.

McAlpine’s text is a careful compilation of simple errors analysed in abstract terms. She is a critic, an academician, who treats her subject exhaustively and in the process supplies her readers with information not normally noticed. The term eagle-eyed is not inappropriate when applied to Erica McAlpine. Having raised issues, she does not end there, but delivers an analysis of a troubling point or a summation of what has been achieved. Her treatment of Wordsworth’s ’imperfect perfect’ is a case in point. She reminds her readers that, by definition or by common acceptance, “mistakes are still born of intention” (46). She maintains that, in using Wordsworth’s error to shape our own meanings for the poem, we accept meanings Wordsworth made unintentionally, while at the same time his mistake requires us to recognise his conscious choices too. She cross-references searching for examples of “the poet’s ambiguous treatment of death” (23) in other poems about children, other examples of “grammatical impropriety” (23) and so on. Out of this cross-referencing comes the idea of differentiating between ‘accident’ and ‘mistake’.

In her treatment of Browning she identifies that the poet places little value on mistakes, and exhorts the reader, by way of contrast, to pay them scrupulous attention. She warns that Browning’s poetry “fends off concrete or absolute meanings by never quite managing to represent what it intends” (64). She does not see this as a flaw, but analyses the poet’s work in admirable precision of language, finishing with a sentence that should be remembered as a classic approach to interpreting Browning: “We do him more of a disservice when we ignore his frayed ends than when we pick at and unravel them” (73).                                                                                                    

 The level of academic scholarship never falters in this text. McAlpine writes about the slovenly John Clare with as firm a hand as she does the eccentric Hart Crane or the inimitable Emily Dickinson. Her comment on Dickinson,

her persistence in making certain mistakes and her complicated feelings about fixing them may more accurately prove that when she was wrong, she was emphatically wrong. [Further]…Dickinson demonstrates that a poet can act deliberately and also be wrong…Accidents and mistakes are not the same thing, after all” (117 – 18)

 strikes me as both explanatory and original.

McAlpine’s conclusion to her discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, in particular In the Waiting Room, raises the idea that “what is not factual may still give a sense of accuracy – one that courts the spontaneous and mysterious elements of poetry that ‘cold, hard’ facts occasionally preclude” (155). The ability to encapsulate the essence of the poet (in this case the fact-driven Bishop) is one of Mc Alpine’s major strengths. It all makes sense when we read her treatise.

While the value of the discussion in the text is beyond dispute, McAlpine has been poorly advised on the art work and general presentation. A dull green background is employed as both the front and back cover. A puzzling collection of birds (plus a solitary butterfly) projects disdain for both the market and the reader. This is the only art work. It comes courtesy of Shutterstock and screams amateurish design. Bold text, in both black and white lettering, is crammed beyond belief on to the back cover, half of which is made up of reviews, written in support of the book’s theses.

McAlpine has shown that errors can be signposts, directing the reader to the connection between the poet and the tradition of poetry writing. The author’s style is friendly and warm, and although her ideas are abstract, her approach is engaging and her attention agile. Her contribution to poetry criticism is enormous. Serious poetry critics simply must read her work.

The Poet’s Mistake


By Erica McAlpine

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-20349-2

$US29.95; 264pp


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