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Five American Poets

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

King Jasper. By Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. The Mediterranean and Other Poems. By Allen Tate. New York: The Alcestis Press. $7.50. Thirty-Six Poems. By Robert Pcnn Warren. New York: The Alcestis Press. $7.50. Minute Particulars. By John Peale Bishop. New York: The Alcestis Press. $7.50. Ideas of Order. By Wallace Stevens. New York: The Alcestis Press. $7.50.

Dissolution is not a new theme for Edwin An lington Robinson, for it was in “Merlin” that he told of a noble civilization falling back into violence and barbarism. It was the war that made Robinson feel so. In his latest and last book, “King Jasper,” he returns to this point of view, having in the meantime studied and re-studied the involved psychological effects of death on small groups of characters. The new poem is the symbolic story of the crumbling of an entire industrial order. Mr. Robinson, with the eyes of a man who knew he would not live long, looked at the contemporary world and saw nothing to rejoice in.

terly distasteful to him, The queen disliked and distrusted Zoe’s influence over both Jaspers. But the king loved Zoe, or life, almost as fiercely as his son did. The queen found no solution but death, while the king could not die until his kingdom died. It is curious that Mr. Robinson saw little that is lovable in young men, and little to put trust or hope in. The bitterness of his contempt for revolution is even more remarkable; he felt thai; it destroys all, even the young. It must have been a desperate and perhaps, to Mr. Robinson, a not wholly satisfying’ conclusion to leave the poem with the one gleam, that of life, and nothing else, continuing. His despair must have been dark and deep; certainly his lines have far more vigor and savage power in telling the story than they have held for several years.

The eleven-page introduction by Robert Frost is a surprise, and a piece of critical writing to be cherished. Aside from the plain wisdom with which he sums up what others have needed volumes for, the present situation in poetry, he defines Robinson as a poet. Robinson, he says, was a poet of grief, and not of grievances. The greatest poets have always had the tragic sense of life, though there has always been, as there was with Robinson, the small gleam somewhere, the sceptic’s deeply cherished hope. “Not for me,” says Mr. Frost, “to search his sadness to its source, He knew how to forbid encroachment. And there is solid satisfaction in a sadness that is not just a fishing for ministration and consolation. Give us immedicable woes—woes that nothing can be done for—woes flat and final.” But Frost knows what we all know who have read the Robinson poetry all these years, that behind the gravity plays rich, ironic, happy humor. There is even humor in some of the lines of “King Jasper,” and that is the peculiar quality of Robinson’s achievement.

Allen Tate has ceased to be tortuously intellectual, and has arrived at a salty, native style that sounds and feels like a true, matured poetic self. “The Mediterranean” is his first hook since 1932, and contains fifteen poems, dated variously from 1928 through 1934, though most are assigned to 1932. Insofar as it is possible to say that this book represents his present manner, that manner is much more convincing than his earlier, strained style. One of the original Fugitives, he has been long away from home in his poetry, but now he has returned; his are native moments. But he has discovered himself as well as his South. Allen Tate being like Hart Crane was far less readable and real than Allen Tate is when he is being like himself. The poems in this book make him seem immediate, ironic, humorous, sane, whole. With genuine poetic translation he takes his own experience and makes poetry of it. Other Fugitives have used a good deal of Latin and Greek scenery and nomenclature; none of the younger men assimilate it so successfully. His well-remembered “Aeneas at Washington” is here, and exemplifies his balance between books and experience, both being useful poetically, One likes to feel a living poet in or behind his lines, not an impersonal intellect functioning in discontinuous imagery. He is at his best in pieces like “The Meaning of Life,” “Sonnets at Christmas,” “To the Lacedemonians,” and “Fragment of a Meditation.” These are warm to the touch, spiced to the tongue, idiomatic and quickening in the throat. When Tate says, in “The Meaning of Life,”

When I was a small boy I lived at home For nine years in that part of Old Kentucky Where the mountains fringe the Blue Grass. The old men shot at one another for luck; It made me think I was like none of them. At twelve I was determined to shoot only For honor; at twenty not to shoot at all; I know at thirty-three that one must shoot As often as one gets the rare chance—

it is, as he says, explicit, and it is poetry with flavor and significance. It is the essence and not the commentary, and that is what Tate has arrived at. With this book, and because of this achievement, he takes his place among the Fugitives second only to John Crowe Ransom in poetic power.

In “Thirty-Six Poems,” Robert Penn Warren mixes some native moments with a good many intellectualized efforts, and the latter are remote and impersonal in effect. We have in this volume seven parts of his “Kentucky Mountain Farm,” the strong and unforgettable picture of the fleeing Negro in “Pondy Woods,” and the no less familiar if somewhat surprising “Letter of a Mother.” Others will be familiar to readers of the Southern quarterlies, and of the fine poetry supplement of the American Review last year. There is a poem in this book called “To a Friend Who Thinks Himself Urbane” which is direct, and deftly cutting, satire; one would wince at being the subject. But it is direct. The feeling of most of the other poetry is of savagery for its own sake, not for satire’s. The poet’s vocabulary seems deliberately edged, flinty, and roughened; designed not to please; designed to strike somewhat cruelly the mind and ear. Robert Penn Warren was the youngest of the Fugitives, and his poetry was at first closer to his native region in sympathy and subject than it is now. But even then it was pulling away, or it touched on a sort of inner conflict unknown to the others of the group. Just now he seems to be passing through a phase of his growth during which he looks in many directions at once for poetic manners. His best poetry, in spite of this search, is that in which he is at home with himself and simple. The last three poems in the volume become suddenly calmer, in movement at least; “To One Awake” comes as a relief to the ear. But outer influences are at work on him, and the uncertain violence of transition marks this book.

“He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars,” runs the quotation from which John Peale Bishop takes the title for his book of poems. Most of these are of very recent production, and some will be remembered by readers of Southern magazines. “Minute Particulars” is peopled very largely from the past; in fact, there are too many Greeks and Romans in Mr. Bishop’s poetry. The use of names of cities and of people from Greek and Latin story is common among the Fugitives and other Southern poets. However, with Mr. Ransom, such Latinity as now remains in his poetry is there for incidental reasons. With Mr. Tate it is lately much the same. But with Mr. Bishop one feels that the poet has retired into another and antique world for its own sake. Thus the minute particulars of his poems are like the details of a frieze, exact, profuse, and remote from the eye. An exception to this static sort of poetry is “Sword Dance,” full of rich sound, color, and movement:

Thunder: in golden clamor they tread the clouds Dancing, a burnish of youths, their changing lustres Move in a tumult of light, the pointed swords Touch to a sound of rain outdistanced by thunder.

Swift armor is chiselled in gilt mythologies: Gorgeous the cuirasses, less bright than the gleaming Ankles, the golden thighs than the leaping knees. Their eyes are alight, their mouths are a shout, they are demons.

The poem goes on to describe them dancing deathless, like the figures on an urn. And in poems of love Mr. Bishop brings out warmer tones, especially in “Metamorphosis” and “A Recollection.” When he writes of present ills it is in terms of ancient troubles; he does not attain a fusion. He never brings Aeneas to New York or to Washington, as Mr. Tate can with success. The short, realistic, and hopeless “Night and Day” is a poem of the present. In a few others he looks at the immediate world. He sees the under-sea in “Apparition” in a Virginia forest, and has a poem on Southern pines. He has a series on New England, which he finds to be a chilly, decaying, dirty countryside. Some part of Connecticut oppressed him; he makes it as convincingly distasteful in the poem as it was to him. In all of this the poet is a skilful craftsman with measures and words, and a maker of subtle music; he has much variety within the somewhat narrow region he has chosen.

What Louis Untermeyer calls the ambiguous world of Wallace Stevens’ poetry is further enlarged in a new book called “Ideas of Order.” Mr. Stevens is well known for the rarity with which he publishes collections, his last but one having come in 1923, after ten years of publication in magazines. His name is also well known for the curious fascination his poetry exerts without ever seeming to mean anything at all more than a mood, an exotic and shifting dream. It is poetry that, as Llewelyn Powys says, “is beyond good and evil, beyond hope and despair, beyond thought of any kind, one might almost say.” Mr. Stevens is, in short, one of the most successful non-communicating poets of his day. But it is only ideas that he does not communicate, ideas, morals, epigrams of a sententious kind. Through the most fantastically logical world of imagery which these generations know, he does communicate feeling. That feeling is specific and pleasing. Anything that Mr. Stevens does is pleasing, is in fact a matter for sincere amazement and admiration. Meaning it has never had, in the ordinary superficial sense, because it has so little to do with the world of actuality. But this time some meaning has crept in. If Mr. Stevens’ poetry is of his own mood, then recent moods of the real world have affected him, and they show in this book. Among the wilful and delightfully patterned movements of his new poems there moves an unaccustomed form of meaning. The reader feels this most in the piece called, though only God and Mr. Stevens know why, “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” It is a series of fifty of his most pungent statements, brief, various, and brilliant.

Except for “King Jasper,” all these books appear in the identical format of a severely limited, generously high-priced edition that can scarcely, for these reasons, reach but a fraction of the public that would like to read and own them.

They are all desirable books, those from Mr. Tate and Mr. Stevens being perhaps the most re-readable, and it is to be hoped that they will appear soon again in a far more generous edition. Meantime, the format is good, though not physically very durable.


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