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Homage to A. MacLeish

ISSUE:  Winter 1977
New and Collected Poems, 1917–1976. By Archibald MacLeish. Houghton Mifflin. $6.95 (paper).

Almost 60 years of poetry in just under 500 pages, this new book by Mr. MacLeish. Think of it. On this account alone, though many poems have been omitted, especially from the early years, it is a remarkable accomplishment, an honorable and exemplary accomplishment, as it is on other accounts as well. Mind, I write as a fellow poet, no pretence of a view sub specie aeternitatis,which would be impossible anyway in the world as it looks today. Or tomorrow. Yet I do lay claim to the degree of objectivity that professionalism—no, no, no, not those terms! All wrong, and they smack of a discredited philosophy. Let’s say I lay claim only to the sympathetic but realistic understanding of problems, triumphs, and defeats that long practice confers. And then let’s say I also am very pleased to belong (if I do) to the company that includes Archibald MacLeish, the ancient company of poets. By virtue of many presences, but not least by virtue of his, it is a company not only honorable but intelligent, gifted, perceptive, and humane.

A distinction must be drawn, however, which is valuable to poets and I think to readers also. What is it that makes poetic genius, a Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Browning, Ezra Pound? Poetic talent, of course; that comes first. But something more is needed, the capacity to push that talent, roughshod and in hell or high water, over everything, and this capacity is the more important ingredient. Genius is idiosyncrasy; often enough it is aberrance. Other poets, equally talented, who lack this capacity, who are too modest, too humane, too uncertain, or (if we must be psychoanalytical) too inhibited, fall short of genius. They take their verbal styles from more flamboyant or more persuasive poets, they work only gradually toward modes of personal expression, and they devote much of their artistic energy, not only outside their poems but inside them, to the needs of others, instead of pressing forward in the course of a relentless monomaniacal vision. They are, make no mistake, very good poets, yet they fall in the second rank, the journeymen who sustain and always have sustained civilization’s artistic enterprise. I think of Gray and Crabbe and Dowson and many more. I think of Anonymous. In our time I think of Mark Van Doren, who was MacLeish’s friend, and Edwin Muir, who was I believe his acquaintance, and of course of MacLeish himself. They are among my favorite poets.

(Yet, parenthetically, one must give precedence to the masters. A few years ago when I edited an anthology of American poetry, I allotted far fewer pages to MacLeish and Van Doren than to some others. Which is only one of the many distressing duties of the anthologist. )

At all events my rereading of MacLeish’s poems in this new book has reaffirmed my admiration and has shown me excellences I had overlooked before. Above all I see a devotion to excellence in general, artistic excellence, which means not simply the excellence of craft but that of mind and heart, perhaps especially that of mind and heart. MacLeish began, like most other poets in the period of World War I, with more or less conventional, Georgian verses, but quickly fell under the influence of Eliot. Is that right? Was there a direct influence? (I am not a student of biographies. ) Did Herrick write like Jonson because Jonson told him to or because that was the only way he could write—he and many others—with the example of Jonson before him? Certainly we know, with the example of “The Waste Land” (1923) before them, what American and British poets did, scores and hundreds of them who had no more acquaintance of His Grace than the look of his verses on the page (and who would have actively disliked him if they’d met). We know what MacLeish did:

That year they went to the shore early—
They went in March and at the full moon
The tide came over the dunes, the tide came
To the wall of the garden. She remembered standing,
A little girl in the cleft of the white oak tree—
The waves came in a slow curve, crumpling
Lengthwise, kindling against the mole and smoldering
Foot by foot across the beach until
The whole arc guttered and burned out. Her father
Rested his spade against the tree. He said,
The spring comes with the tide, the flood water.
Are you waiting for spring? Are you watching for the spring?

And so on. The echoes are unmistakable, cadences, modulations of sound, syntactical patterns; and elsewhere one can hear other echoes of Eliot’s other, different modes, equally distinct. One is distracted by these echoes at first, even irritated by them, but as one reads further, with closer attention to what MacLeish himself was doing, one comes to see—at least I have—that although the whole impact is slighter—yes, still, 50 years later; one is bound to acknowledge it—nevertheless MacLeish’s poems contain passages better than anything Eliot ever wrote, more lucid, better integrated, with a more sensitive judgment of the qualities of diction: in short, in the manner, unquestionably, but not as mannered. It is the achievement of a very intelligent craftsman, and not many were able to do it.

With Einstein (1929) and New Found Land (1930), MacLeish began to hear his own voice more surely, a discovery coinciding more or less with his return to the U. S. after the years of expatriation. It came to full flower with Conquistador (1933). We know its characteristics, the faint rhymes, the falling line-breaks and sudden enjamblments, the heavy reliance on connectives, the mixture of rough pentameters and hexameters and sometimes shorter lines.

And they told us Tenochtitldn was a whitened filth and a
Great guilt in the air: and deception: and falseness:
And filled with the salt of the dead as a reed with pith:

And they themselves had beheld it—
    and we saw their
Eyes like sorcerers and the uncertain
Shadows behind them on the height of walls:
And they said to us—”Have you not known? Have you not
And they said—”Has it not been told you from the beginning?”
“Has it not been said from the founding of the earth?”
And they said we should enter and come and lie within
And dwell in trust and with faith sure—
    and we knew the Odor of death on their tongues as a thawing wind!

What to say of Conquistador, that splendid poem? One can hardly imagine a more compelling theme for our time, the conquest of Mexico, the confrontation between Cortés and Montezuma, those great men, incorporating everything we have come to feel about the European take-over of America, our pride and its voidance, our helplessness and self-reproach in the face of historical process. And the writing fits the theme; they are welded, they cling together. Still the poem is flawed. One can see how (again speaking as a poet) MacLeish was tempted by the chronicle of Bernal Diaz, the only account of the Spanish expedition possessing contemporary authenticity: there it was, all laid out, the plan and plot of the poem. But in the end MacLeish was hampered by Bernal, who became in the poem only a testy old warrior recalling the exploits of his youth, a tedious narrator. There is too much description in the poem, not enough drama. I remember reading once a far inferior poem on the same topic in which the poet had chosen Maria for narrator, the remarkable young Indian woman whom Cortés picked up on the coast to serve him as bedmate, guide, and interpreter during the march inland to Tenochtitlán. In her splendid and terrible whoredom—imagine it, her treachery in bed with god—she assumed all our predicaments, moral and psychological, and gave the poem, potentially at least, a genuine dramatic structure. So I wish MacLeish, in some similar fashion, had been more willing to fictionalize, to mythologize; for isn’t that what epic is all about—myth? And do not doubt me, MacLeish was writing the American epic. That is what he had in mind. Epic needs fiction, however, needs myth, and usually a good dose of it, not just history. Does anyone, for example, believe the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon was really that important in the siege of Troy? (And incidentally, what would Hart Crane have done with the long poem he was projecting on Montezuma, during those same years when MacLeish was writing Conquistador, if he had been able to carry it through?) Still and all, Conquistador is what we have, it is our best epic (and I do not except The Bridge), it is coherent, complete, and strongly conceived, and it contains many, many magnificent passages. It merits a good deal more attention than it has been given lately.

*    *    *    *    *

[The next day. ] Already I have written more, I see, than book reviewers are normally permitted. Well, I ask the editor’s and the reader’s indulgence: my topic is important, a man’s lifework, and I have a little more to say. Last night, when guests came to our house, one of them told of having seen the interview with MacLeish which appeared on public television a few months ago, I think conducted by Bill Moyers, and of how youthful MacLeish was there—appearance, voice, and attitude those of a far younger man. It is what I would have expected, though I’ve never met him. Poetry, if it doesn’t kill you, will keep you young, and MacLeish’s poetry is distinctly the kind that sustains, not the kind that destroys (of which latter species we have seen so much in recent years).

After Conquistador, as we know, MacLeish moved further into poetry of political and social feeling, and we may as well say bluntly that these poems don’t stand up. Plenty of strong feeling, no doubt, and sound reasoning too; ringing declarations, prophetic ironies, angers and maledictions; but in effect they were versified editorials, not poems. MacLeish committed the same error made by many young radical poets of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, namely, the failure to transmute feeling and ideology into dramatic or lyrical structures through the intercession of the artistic imagination. Asseveration does not make art; the Declaration of Independence is a political, not a poetic, document. That this failure of transmutation is not a necessary consequence of political objectives in poetry, as many critics have argued, is proven easily in the works of the few recent poets who have avoided it—Levertov, Rich, Duncan, Lowell, and others—and by the considerably more numerous examples in French and Spanish poetry; yet the problem does seem to be acute among poets writing in English. I don’t know why. (It would make a valuable topic for somebody’s doctoral dissertation. ) I think the main point to be made about MacLeish’s politically inspired poems, once we acknowledge their artistic defect, is that they were definitely of the sustaining, not the destroying order, as I have used these terms above. During those years of the Depression and the War, MacLeish wrote not as a personal crusader, never as a political crank or lonely visionary, but instead as the spokesman of the people, and like all such spokesmen, if they are true to their roles, he wrote with humility, while his “ideology,” if you can call it that, was humanitarian common sense and liberalism, as these could then still be understood without the taint of bourgeois insincerity they have acquired more recently. His poems were outgoing, in other words, products of basic poetic and human loving kindness, and whether or not they succeeded as poems they were works of humane purity and valor.

Without abandoning his political predilections, during the 1950’s and 1960’s MacLeish moved back again toward the personal lyric, where he has always been at his best: poems of love and death, friendship and other attachments, landscapes and seasons, cosmological and moral disconcertions. To my mind his most often quoted lyrics are not his best, such poems as “The End of the World,” “Ars Poetica,” and “You, Andrew Marvell,” though because of their pointedness and self-containedness they make good anthology pieces. Others are better.

Coming down the mountain in the twilight—
April it was and quiet in the air—
I saw an old man and his little daughter
Burning the meadows where the hayfields were.

Forksful of flame he scattered in the meadows.
Sparkles of fire in the quiet air
Burned in their circles and the silver flowers
Danced like candles where the hayfields were, —

Danced as she did in enchanted circles,
Curtseyed and dance along the quiet air;
Slightly she danced in the stillness, in the twilight,
Dancing in the meadows where the hayfields were.

That from the 1950s: a perfection of lyrical feeling in every sound and motion. And this from much earlier, the 1920s:

Landward on relinquishing seas,
By the sliding of water

Whom time goes over wave by wave, do I lie
Drowned in a crumble of surf at the sea’s edge?—

And wonder now what ancient bones are these
That flake on sifting flake
Out of deep time have shelved this shallow ledge
Where the waves break—

Or then this, from very recently:

Old men live in a life
as the Gaels in those ocean islands,
a croft by the sea and a wife
and sons for a while;

afterward wife and croft
and the sound of the sea and the thought of it,
children and all gone off
over the water;

even the eldest son,
even the youngest daughter,
all of them vanished and gone
by the way of the water.

A man and his wife, those two,
left on the ocean island:
they talk as the old will do
ana they nod and they smile

but they think of their sons, how they laughed,
and she calls but it’s not for them—
“she’d rather a kitten to have
than a child to remember.”

You can live too long in a life
where the sons go off and the daughter
off over sea and the wife
watches the water.

Notice how beautifully and naturally MacLeish plays syntax against the measure, e. g. , in the last stanza, to produce, or induce, an effect almost unnatural. The natural-unnatural, is that one way of saying “lyric”?

And yet . . . the sentiment of that last poem hurts us, moving as it is—in fact, just because it is so moving. I began this piece as an homage, and I shan’t change my title, because homage is conventionally the form taken by this respect I feel for a poet who has always been true. But MacLeish never asked for it; on the contrary, explicitly and implicitly, his poetry has denied any such need. So I wish now to amend my homage by emphasizing one aspect of it, the aspect of salutation. For your lyrics, for Conquistador, for works I have not mentioned (including the plays, the essays not in your new book), and for your long devotion, a salute to you, friend MacLeish!—and more years yet, I hope, of such productiveness.


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