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Five Ways of Poetry

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

The Last Look, and Other Poems. By Mark Van Doren. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.00, A Letter to Robert Prost and Others. By Robert Hillyer. New York; Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Hounds on the Mountain. By James Still. New York: The Viking Press. $2.00. Sign of Capricormts. By Kathryn, Worth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Year’s Und. By Josephine Johnson, New York: Simon and Schuster. $2.00.

By bringing together some seventy of his recent poems, Mark Van Doren, while continuing old themes, makes it clear that he has interested himself in a new theme for poetry. Psychologists might call this new preoccupation empathy, an intense and subtle identification of the poet with the structure, pattern, direction, mass, and plane of material things in all their variations and combinations. To the description of things in these terms Mr. Van Doren brings quiet ecstasy, without which such poetry would be dead matter. The result is a sort of domestic metaphysical verse at a very sensitive level, a heightened reality, a satisfying recognition of the gods inhabiting things.

As a book of poems, “The Last Look” is rounded out by the inclusion of poems of people and poems of remembered childhood; here Mr. Van Doren recreates forms and pictures in the more usual manner. He can write both sorts well. It is when he combines the two ways of writing poetry that he seems most excitingly to have located and claimed a new theme, a new way of looking at the world. His poetry is quiet. Its quietness is partly a result of monotonous limitation of stanza-form and line-length, partly of the fact that it is the eye, of all the five or ten or fifteen senses the poet has, that Mark Van Doren uses most. When he looks at people like “The Runaways” or “The Little Doctor” or the “Exaggerator,” it is with a warm enough human sympathy, yet his eye and his measuring mind see them in terms of matter moving in patterns. For some reason this produces a dreamy quality in much of the verse, and this quality is nowhere quite so satisfying as in the section made up of poems about boys and young people, and especially in the poems about small boys. But as he says in the last poem,

I am in love with joy, but find it wrapped In a queer earth, at languages unapt; With shadows sprinkled over, and no mind To speak for them and prove they are designed.

Mr. Van Doren partly provides that mind, partly proves the design, and finds the language; it is to be hoped that he will penetrate still further with new poems.

Robert Hillyer has revived the bland wit and amusing malice of the eighteenth-century couplet in his seven long letters in verse, collected under the title of one of them, “A Letter to Robert Frost.” They are, as they should be, mostly of worldly matters, very personal and confident. In the letter to Frost, Mr. Hillyer takes occasion to salute his old friend, then to discuss contemporary poetry and poets, with no patience for Pound and Eliot, and respect only for the slow growth of tradition. “A Letter to the Editor,” addressed to Bernard de Voto of the Saturday Review of Literature, may be paired with this, for here Mr. Hillyer takes prose writers to task, laying about him recklessly and not always with justice. The letter to Charles Townsend Copeland, who was Mr. Hillyer’s predecessor in the Boyl-ston Professorship at Harvard University, is an occasion to draw good portraits of great teachers of the old days there: Kittredge, Child, Briggs, and Copeland himself. And again this letter pairs itself with one to Professor Munn of Harvard, because in it Mr. Hillyer outlines an ideal university and a university education. In an epistle to Randolph Peyton Campbell, a friend who was killed in the World War, Mr. Hillyer begins to concern himself with a larger theme, which is peace both private and public, spiritual and national. This theme is further developed, and with more sincere passion, in the letter to his ten-year-old son. The last letter is hardly in key with the other six, for it is to a woman who has been dead thousands of years. The woman is Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. But this poem is bound to the feeling of the preceding two by its lyric concern with peace, and the book still holds together in design and spirit.

The poet’s life has been blessed richly in his friends, and whether or not he chose them at random, each letter reveals a different but complementary side of himself: the series of seven letters is a study in autobiography. They gain by being gathered in book form, and they are, moreover, excellent for reading aloud, so cleverly and so musically do the lines run and the couplets click. It is a very different Robert Hillyer who emerges in this book; he shows himself in the foreground, a living man of forty or more, with certain conclusions reached.

In a handsome, and sensibly limited, edition, James Still’s “Hounds on the Mountain” suggests a reticent and somewhat more traditional Jesse Stuart. The author is a librarian in the mountains of which he writes with a tone partly native, partly literary. “Heritage” is one of the best examples of his manner and feeling.

I shall not leave these prisoning hills Though they topple their barren heads to level earth And their forests slide uprooted out of the sky, Though the waters of Troublesome, of Trace Fork, Of Sand Lick rise in a single body to glean the valleys, To drown lush pennyroyal, to unravel rail fences; Though the sun-ball breaks the ridges into dust And burns its strength into the blistered rock, I cannot leave. I cannot go away.

Being of these hills, being one with the fox

Stealing into the shadows, one with the new-born foal,

The lumbering ox drawing green beech logs to mill,

One with the destined feet of man climbing and descending,

And one with death rising to bloom again, I cannot go.

Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond.

His rhythm elsewhere is what it seems to be in this poem: it does not beat with mechanical regularity; it approximates a form. His images rise from the mind solemn and slow; now and then some passion quickens the words, but one feels that he is like the mountain people in quietness. The book is full of mountain weather and the feel of things against the body, rich with emotion, and sincere. No poet need travel to improve his writing, if he grows within himself. But regional writers who go out of their way to insist that they are forever happy at home in their valley also needlessly foreshadow limitations. In James Still one suspects this declaration is youth. More memorable and representative are his curiously unmetrical lines. “He is waiting under the shadow of these hills.” “I have gone up to the graveyard on a laurel-thicket hill.” “The traces and forks carved like wagon tracks on stone.” And in poems like “Infare,” “Spring on Troublesome Creek,” “With Hands Like Leaves,” and “Horseback in the Rain,” we find the best of James Still’s flavor, and of the mountain country that gives him his poetry.

Kathryn Worth brings to the poems of her first book, “Sign of Capricornus,” a mind at once womanly and un-f eminine. She is much concerned with astronomy as a source of her poetic imagery; hence a strictness, an antique imagery of science and magic, gives her poetry its characteristic note. But being a woman and a mother, as well as a chemist and star-gazer, she makes a unique mixture of her poetry. The first fourteen poems of the book exhibit this variety; here is a lesser and a twentieth-century John Donne, and a woman. The middle section of “Sign of Capricornus,” concerned with a child, lacks the distinction of the first part, having at best a limited interest as poetry or even as record; this is even truer of the following section, which is called “Genealogical,” and is that sort of poetry most amazing and distasteful to men. With the final poem, “Elegy for Benedict Arnold,” she regains some of the tautness and tartness of the opening section. Kathryn Worth is a poet of distinction. But in this book we do not have very much of her best work; having read what there is, one wishes for more.

It is significant that Josephine Johnson’s book of poems, “Year’s End,” opens with an “Apostrophe to Truth,” in which she says,

You will arrive some day.—I know this surely. I am aware of dust on far horizons, and I hear The quiet thump of feet on distant roads.

The impact of passionate simplicity, of the mind and spirit of one poet among many vocal people, of a woman who remembers things that most of us have forgotten, is tremendous—and that is the effect of reading Miss Johnson’s book. Think, for example, of the imagery that pities the wasp and the bee, and despises the octopus—this is more powerful in poems than it seems thus compared. Miss Johnson thrusts forth her contempt as vividly as her admirations, and the latter are for proud, trustworthy, brave, hard men and women. She deals in ultimates, in finalities. Without very much outward discipline of form, she states an inward discipline more convincing still, as in these lines from the poem, “Let Go. Return.”

This is the need, the deep necessity of every life: To scatter wide seed in many fields, But build one barn… .

Then may it be said of you:

Behold, he has done one thing well,

And he knows whereof he speaks, and he means what

he has said, And we may trust him.

This is sufficient for a life.

In a few poems in “Year’s End,” one feels a preoccupation with objects as symbols that may be called feminine, or that may be considered merely on a second and more trivial plane than most of her poetry. But the degree of emotion and maturity in poems like “You Have Not Heard Sound” and “If Any Come Offering” shows that these come from a deeper level than do the macabre ballads, and from a depth not often revealed in contemporary poetry. Such poetry makes the reviewer who has seen books of poetry week in and week out for several years feel that Josephine Johnson has written the sort of book one turns them all over to find. It burns in the hand and mind; reading it is an emotional experience, which is more than can be said for many books of poems. Pride is the word to describe this poetry, and the sense of it deepens with every page; it is a stormy pride, a deep and passionate pride, and its shadows are the shadows near fire. If many of the poems seem filled with suffering, it is the suffering of a superior spirit that will not retreat from the world. Such poems as “Last Betrayal,” “This Is the Trouble With Us All,” “Postscript,” and “Prescription,” must all be taken for what they are, poems of integrity in spite of pain; and then they must all be set against a poem like “The Pure in Heart” in order to understand Josephine Johnson. How long is it since there has been a young poet uncomplicated and intense enough to write a poem called “The Pure in Heart”?

The title poem, which is the longest poem in the book, almost gives a first impression of hysteria, of a whipping-up of pity; as it would if anyone but Josephine Johnson had written it. Eventually the poem carries the reader away, and its relentless realism, its scorn and bitterness and self-scourging, get under the skin at the heart. The conclusion she reaches in it is that nothing of all she shows to be wrong with the times will be right until each man and woman alive says, “It is I, Lord, it is I,” and shares the misery and so lightens it. It is hard to say in the face of such piercing words that her short poems are better poetry, but it is so. They are poetry on such a high level that she need not care whether this or any judgment on the longer poem is wrong or right. There it is in the book for anyone who cares about the essence of poetry to read; but it seems to this reviewer that, in spite of everything that now so takes the compassion of generous people, her shorter poems will be re-read when the longer one begins to be overlooked. It is too much a document of the times, and whether for better or worse, the times never stand still. In other ways her work is dateless.


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