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Comments on Recent Poetry

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Land of Unlikencss. By Robert I.owcll. The Ciiminington Press. $3.00 and signed $6.00. Thirty Poems. By Thomas Merton. New Directions,. $1.00. The Phoenix and the Tortoise. By Kenneth Rcxroth. New Directions. $2.50. The Summer Landscape. By Rolfc Humphries. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $1.75. The Soldier. By Conrad Aiken. New Directions. $1.00. Album of Destiny. By Jesse Stuart. E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00. No Arch, No Triumph. By John Malcolm Brinnin. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Preface to Maturity, By Selwyn S. Schwartz. The Press of James A. Decker (Prairie City, Illinois). $2.50. Plight into Darkness. By Ralph Gustafson. Pantheon. $2.00. The Winter Sea. By Allen Tate. The Cummingtoii Press. $5.00 and $10.00.

Catholic poets enjoy one poetic advantage over many other poets today, simply because they are Catholic. As a reward for their act of faith in a given tradition, they can see the objects, events, and persons of daily existence from a point of view that confers unusual significances, novel imports, upon these, without disintegrating them. In contrast, the non-Catholic poet, who is often engaged on a hunt to find his philosophical or religious point of view concealed somewhere within or beneath the materials of daily living, must break these up-even pulverize them by his imaginative analysis—before he can extract from them any general significance. Hence it is that many questing poems exhibit a curious intangibility of image and an aridity of diction. From such an effect Catholic poetry, whatever its faults, is likely to be free; and the books of Mr. Lowell and Mr. Merton both illustrate this fact. In other respects, their books are unlike. In “Lund of Unlikeness” Mr. Lowell imagines his Catholicism strenuously; he would seize upon the Beatific Vision by violence; his style is all baroque metaphysical, not unlike that of Crashaw. Probably he is not at ease with his religion. To accept the tradition of Mother Church, he has had to reject a tradition which, however parochial, was at least near to him: the tradition of Lowells in Boston. And reject it he does! He fairly spews it out of his mouth; though to be accurate, one must note that he finds the root of New England evil rather in Emerson and Concord than in Louis-burg Square and Kidder-Peabody:

This Church is Concord, where the Emersons
Washed out the blood-clots’on my Master’s robe
And then forgot the fathers’ flintlock guns  . . .

Yet such a poem as “On the Eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: 1942” suggests that Mr. Lowell’s attitude toward our later wars is that of a pacifist. Hence it may be that such phrases as the “burly love” of the Mother of God and “Christ the Drunkard” are an attempt on his part to assert an intimacy with the objects of his faith closer than that of the organized Church, because that Church is less strenuous in its advocacy of peace than Mr. Lowell is.

In some sort, he may be appealing to Catholicism against the Catholic Church of his day. At any rate, be his inner tensions what they may, they have resulted in an arresting poetry. In comparison, the quieter poetry of Mr. Merton in his “Thirty Poems”—a poetry in which Catholic devotion blends pleasantly with the vesper landscape of the Kentucky region around the Trappist monastery which he has entered —though superficially less disturbing to a reader’s sensibilities, is of less enduring importance.

Not all philosophically individualistic poets pay the stylistic penalty I have described, and among this happy number are Mr. Rexroth and Mr. Humphries. The former by deliberate and evident intention—a note on the flap of the dust-cover saying that he has “evolved from an early use of dissociative technique” suggests that he is a reformed surrealist rake—and Mr. Humphries rather, I should suppose, by natural bent, find themselves among a contemporary group who practice not the faith but the style of, the great tradition. Clarity of statement and image, unity and continuity of mood, characterize their poems. Mr. Rexroth goes so far as to revive the didactic function of classic poetry. If Dyer’s eighteenth-century “Fleece” was versified sheep-raising, portions of Mr. Rexroth’s title-poem, “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” are versified philosophy in a quite technical sense. For example, most readers will recognize certain lines as a translation of a passage in Aristotle’s “Poetics.” The general drift of this poem and of the book as a whole can best be conveyed in the words of Mr. Rexroth’s own preface: he seeks “the discovery of a basis for the recreation of values in sacramental marriage. The process as I see it goes something like this: from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility—from the Dual to the Other.” I can see why Mr. Rexroth thinks these poems “might well be dedicated to D. H. Lawrence,” even though they are utterly unlike his in style. But I am puzzled when he goes on to invoke Albert Schweitzer as his ideal, even though he does so on the ground that Schweitzer is “the man who, in our time, pre-eminently has realized the dream of Leonardo da Vinci.” (I wonder what M. Schweitzer would think of that encomium?) And, turning to Mr. Rexroth’s poetry itself, although I can quite clearly trace the process from abandon to what is, I suppose, erotic mysticism, I find no scenes or images that embody with comparable vividness the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, much less the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility. This last remains for me a matter of sheer statement, confined to a few passages. Moreover, since Mr. Rexroth seems to dissociate himself in any way from participation in America’s present military undertakings, his “universal responsibility” seems to consist of a critique of the actions of most human beings, conducted from a not clearly indicated point of vantage somewhere above the range of the average human apprehension. This I find unsatisfactory. But the movements of his mind in criticising philosophic positions from which he dissents are interesting to follow, and he has a good gift for paraphrase of the Latin and Greek classics, and for poetry in the manner of ancient epigram.

A better digested, though less system-making, ethics underlies Mr. Humphries’ book; it is specially evident in the impressive title-poem, “The Summer Landscape,” and in “The Voices,” a poem with a wrily honest ending. The moral impact, though not the pleasant details of landscape setting, in this satisfying poetry can be gathered from

But like a tree that stands

By the side of the water, so,

So we shall not be moved,

We shall not be moved, but grow

Taking the life of the water, How slowly, how late, Sentient above the confusion, The spume and the spate.

The next book, “The Soldier,” is among the shortest. Mr. Aiken, with the melody of cadence for which he is famous, tries to effect a reconciliation between the soldier—any soldier —and death. The solution seems to be a kind of mysticism in which the individual submerges his lot and desires within an accepting awareness of all lots and desires experienced humanity:

. . . we too know at last sheathed and unsheathed in knowledge, the love of earth beyond man’s love of himself, the love of life in the simple knowing of death, the love of knowledge in the knowing of pain.

This is an O altitudo! of ethical and imaginative insight whidh might be actualized by a poet with the genius and working on the large scale of a Dante. To say that the vision remains beyond Mr. Aiken’s poem is to say, not that there is any cheapness in his conception, but that his materials are too scanty to achieve his aim.

There is certainly no scantiness of material in Mr. Stuart’s “Album of Destiny.” It runs to two hundred and fifty-five pages, and contains over four hundred poems conforming more or less closely in structure to the sonnet. By means of these he gives utterance to the thoughts of possibly as many as one hundred and fifty Kentucky mountain folk, to say nothing of the grass, the trees, the copperhead, the black-snake, the lizard, and the scorpion, which are occasionally thrown in for good measure. The sequence of the “Album” is the sequence of the seasons: from spring through summer, autumn, and winter to “their resurrected spring.” In each season the dramatis personae—or, in the latter half of the book, their commemorators or descendants—voice the sentiments appropriate to the season or to the corresponding period of human life. Mr. Stuart had a chance here for a new, less sordid, and more pastoral Spoon River, in which the inhabitants would not be already under tombstones from the beginning. But he has thrown away that chance. A few of the racy Kentucky names belong to individualized persons—especially Jackie Sizemore, who was always seeing the Devil; and a few sequences of individualized destinies are worked out. But Mr. Stuart’s talent seems fundamentally that of a lyric poet with a nostalgia for rural landscape, spring, and love. Most of his people are indistinguishable from one another: most of them wish to gather rosebuds while they may, although this sentiment of carpe diem is expressed with some poignancy (if only so many changes were not rung upon it!); and most of them lie only restlessly in their graves, not so much reconciled as they try to be by the reflection that now their bodies are becoming an integral part of the America of the future. Probably in this they reflect their creator, who seems to have achieved no vision of life capable of ordering human desires. Mr. Stuart really has much less to convey to us than his elaborate scheme might lead one to suppose. He has unduly inflated the modest light of his regional lyricism by a monotonously multiplying contraption of lenses.

The remaining books all belong to the kind of “difficult” poetry with which, since the early days of Auden and the brief days of Hart Crane—to mention two dissimilar personalities—we have become familiar. This is the poetry which does not get much chance to sing because it is so intensely occupied with re-thinking experience. At its more simply intellectual and less deeply fell level it is likely to manifest some of the abstract dryness I have mentioned earlier. And in some degree Mr. Brinnin’s poems in “No Arch, No Triumph” do this. The general level of his style is competently sustained; his thinking rings genuine; he obviously is fighting resolutely against the paired horrors of the banal and the bombastic. He feels he must re-express each usual phrase to quicken—or at least to galvanize—it into new activity. But I think he has got too far away from the deep springs of mythopoeic emotion. (It was not for nothing that the deities of old were fond of haunting sacred well and fount.) In general, Mr. Brinnin’s situation is evidenced by the fact—or what seems to me the fact—that his best conveyed themes are semi-critical: he can satirize with level vigor our civilisation in “The Cafe Underground,” “The Neutral Man,” and similar poems. In detail, his situation shows itself in the fact that too seldom is a concrete detail allowed to develop into an image, much less a scene. Often the detail is forced by the general abstract-ness of its context to remain merely a new way of thinking an abstract concept. An example chosen at random is

Yet if the records of the crocus hold,

And if in that example we may build

For straight successions of our tenure here . . .

This crocus has appeared inconspicuously twenty-eight lines earlier, in the phrase “crocus-rude”; and it will not be mentioned again. It has no chance to take root in the central idea of the poem; it remains a distracting surface decoration. To be sure, Mr. Brinnin is no mere surface thinker: he has something important to say:

But once to hear the melody

Of life in its plurality Is to know the dialectic of the difficult. With the making faith we have we look toward its reality,

For truth is a result.

But it is his general attitude throughout his poetry rather than any specific poem that lingers in the reader’s mind— which is as much as to say that the medium scarcely rises to the level of the material.

Of Mr. Schwartz’s “Preface to Maturity” I can say little because I understand little of it. When Mr. Schwartz provides a key to the meaning of a poem, as he does for “the cobbler at dawn” (he does not capitalize titles), I can see the appositeness of most of the imagery, and can trace the routes by which it was arrived at. But for most of the poems no such clue exists. The words used are simple enough; and certain details of imagery—snow, cold, white, wind, clouds, sky—are more or less pervasive. But what is being said—even what is being talked about—usually eludes me. It is as if Mr. Schwartz’s mind, in viewing the world, had rotated some degrees from the customary position of the human mind, so that everything is viewed on the bias, as through a glass askew. And I cannot find the degree, direction, or cause of this mental rotation. The following opening stanza from a right-hand page illustrates, incidentally, the typographical arrangement of all the right-hand pages:

Only the Fawn is pontifical when lipless wind blows, And Peace a sizeable clod in careless snow; Ten rounds of thoughts in green less space as I see Lazarus and the wind, in the cathedrals of relinquished seasons.

What does this say? Building on the second line, I almost know; but not quite.

Finally, I come to Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Tate. I join them because I think they have written the best poems to be found in this group of five “difficult” books, and some of the best poems, as well, of this entire list. Of the two, Mr. Gustafson is the more uneven. I do not care much for his closing section, “Poems of Places and Sarcasm”; he handles this last mood heavy-footedly, except in “Cacoethes,” where Greek derivatives are created for a sprightly nonce. The high point of his book is the opening section, in which appear the powerfully suggestive title-poem, “Flight into Darkness,” and the ambiguous but provocative “Mythos.” Similarly, Mr. Tate in his smaller book reaches an even higher plane of imaginative intensity in its longest poem, “Seasons of the Soul.” This indeed seems to me one of the finest shorter poems (it runs to two hundred and forty trimeter lines) of our time. I must confess that I do not understand every line, or even every image, in these poems, particularly Mr. Gustafson’s. Why, then, should these be preferred to Mr. Schwartz’s? Put most simply, obscurity differs in extent and kind. With Mr. Schwartz I seem to be blundering through a region organized like a rapid kaleidoscope. I am too much involved in surface perplexities to become aware of binding units deep within the central network of human feelings. With Mr. Gustafson, I am sometimes uncertain which of two themes a poem is designed to develop (if, indeed, a choice be necessary); but I am able to read the poem satisfactorily with either interpretation. With Mr. Tate, I am not always certain how some image is intended to function: for example, the image of the centaur in “Seasons.” Nevertheless, when this situation occurs, I am able to sense connections somewhere below or above the level of the conscious thoughts I have been able to attain—connections which invest the baffling imagery with an aura of authenticity, even of necessity. It is even possible to state in words some of the central perceptions of Mr. Tate. He is the poet of time as against space; of history as against size; of human traditions as against mechanized organization. For him, these contrasted pairs are pretty much parts of a single contrast. I have not seen enough of Mr. Gustafson’s poetry to educe from it a similar leading clue, but I think that as he goes on writing, this may become feasible. Until then, I am ready in his case to let my judgment of value walk a step beyond my perception of meaning. As for Mr. Tate, some of his poems in earlier books have been my friends—occasionally, alarming friends —for years, and I find no decline of his powers in “The Winter Sea.”


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