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Images of Secret Life

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

Parts of a World. By Wallace Stevens. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Have Come, Am Here. By Jose Garcia Villa. The Viking Press. $2.00. The Second World. By R. P. Blackmur. The Cummington Press. $2.50. Song and Idea, By Richard Eberhart. Oxford University Press. $1.50. Ruins and Vision: Poems 1934-1942. By Stephen Spender. Random House. $2.00. The Lincoln Lyrics. By John, Malcolm Brinnin. New Directions. $1.00. Our Lady Peace and Other War Poems. By Mark Van Doren. New Directions. $1.00. Poems. By John Berryman. New Directions. $1.00. The Garden Is Political. By John, Malcolm Brinnin. The Macmillan Company, $1.75. Blood for a Stranger. By Randall Jarrell. Harcourt, Brace an,d Company. $2.00.

A mong the books of poetry listed below, all notable

for excellence, one of the two which most interested me was “Parts of a World.” Indeed, its author, Wallace Stevens, seems to me to share with Robert Frost the first place among living American poets. (I count T. S. Eliot as now an Englishman.) Probably the admirers of each poet will resent the conjunction of their names; and I should be surprised to learn that either poet ever studied the other’s poems. Though their fundamental attitudes toward life may some day be recognized as not dissimilar, the unlike-ness between the two imaginations which convey those attitudes makes the partisans of one the enemies of the other. For example, Mr. Frost speaks nearly always through characters—one of them being the poet himself—talking and acting in situations; and the larger idea implicit in a poem, if it is also stated explicitly, comes as an aside or afterthought. His imagination lies somewhere between the narrative and the dramatic. By contrast, Mr. Stevens’ soliloquizers pass from sensory objects and qualities directly to abstract ideas. For his soliloquizers are not people, but philosophical points of view—or impulsions toward these. They do not talk; they see, or fail to see, or see beyond. Stevens’ deepest interest is epistemological*. he is trying to discover through his poetry what we can know and how we can know it. The multitude of objects in his poems—”Study of Two Pears,” “The Glass of Water,” “The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air,” “A Dish of Peaches in Russia,” and the like-hints at his answer: that whether or not the ground of existence be a One or a Many, for us as limited beings in space and time, knowledge is attained not by denying objects or explaining them away, but by dwelling on them, by clinging to them intently with our minds. Such a pluralism might centrifuge into poetical statistics, were it not restrained in Stevens’ poetry by the unifying elegance of his imagery, his diction, and his rhythms; so that the total body of his poetry moves toward “The ultimate elegance: the imagined land.” Since Mr. Stevens has been accused of being a fastidious manipulator of bric-a-brac because of this very elegance, the concluding words of his prose epilogue may be offered in rebuttal:

”. . . We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.

“Nothing will ever appease this desire except a consciousness of fact as everyone is at least satisfied to have it be.”

The other book which particularly struck me was Mr. Villa’s “Have Come, Am Here.” This is a first book, and one’s interest in it arises partly from surprise. The poetic current in America has seemed to be setting strongly toward empiricism, analysis, and collectivity. Yet this young Philippine writer posits his poetry on the “I,” and an “I” so mystically extended that it is indeed difficult to know, as Omar Khayyam put it, “Which is the Potter, pray, and which the Pot?” For Villa tells us that

God is all naked, I am all incandescent. God must begin His ascent To me the Created.

God is my elected. Him have I chosen To be berosen. Him have I elected.

Such an absorption in the immediacy of the relation between the Whole and the I exposes a poet to faults of a kind Mr. Villa does not always avoid. For words are particulars; and a writer who is wrapped up in his sense of the Whole (or of the I) may be negligent or peremptory in his ordering of these particulars. Heaven may lie about us in our infancy, but the converse holds a life-long tenure: that from the Infinite to the infantile is but a step. Sometimes Mr. Villa skids that brief distance. Yet elsewhere he suggests, not by imitation but by similarity in emulation, now something of Blake, now something of Emily Dickinson. And nonetheless he is different from either, in part because he combines sexual and religious imagery with a boldness peculiar to Spanish mysticism, and in part because his technique suggests still other affiliations—with E. E. Cummings (to whom, with Mark Van Doren, his book is dedicated) in its insouciance of form, and with Wallace Stevens in its juxtaposition of images (“Bring the pigeons watermelons, Abel-ard”). One of Villa’s recurring images—that of battering a skull—I find disagreeable, and therefore recommend an intending reader to begin with the section headed “Lyrics: II” and proceed on to the book’s end. He may then be better able to digest the cranial violence in the earliest section, “Lyrics: I.” Violence of statement is a characteristic note of this poetry, but usually this is mediated by images that provoke no instinctive repulsions. And such violence is probably inseparable from the attempt to state and enforce Mr. Villa’s fundamental conviction: that whatever is known or imaged implies its opposite, does not exist apart from that opposite, and with it forms a single being: through Antinomy to Unity. But opposites fuse only under great pressure.

The remaining books deserve notice in a detail precluded here by limitations of space. “The Second World” displays in a small sheaf of poems Mr. Blackmur’s sensitiveness and scrupulous artistry. I do not yet know how to define his distinctive quality, and must take refuge in an adumbration: to me he seems a Kafka transmuted into poet. Mr. Eberhart, whose poems, like some of Mr. Blackmur’s are distinguished from most of this poetry by their singing quality, manifests a Jacobean pre-occupation with the comment on life uttered by the busy worm in the grave. Typically, his poems take off from country sights and sounds; these justify his book’s title by achieving both “Song” a a “Idea” more completely than do many country poems, which bog down into description. Stephen Spender, in whom a genuine lyric impulse often wears the disguise of the rhetorical (a respectable but different art), has in “Ruins and Visions” turned aside from his earlier Shelleyan social apocalypticism, and now concentrates on the integration of his personality. He is, as formerly, skilled in evoking in his reader a resonance of sympathy for mankind. John Malcolm Brinnin’s “The Lincoln Lyrics,” Mark Van Doren’s “Our Lady Peace,” and John Berryman’s “Poems”—all three booklets in New Directions’ “Poet of the Month” series—contain poems of distinction evoked by war and crisis. Of distinction, because all three poets have tried, in Yeats’ phrase, to “hold in a single thought reality and justice.” That is, they have tried, while denying none of the facts of war, to explore the implications of those facts on many planes, rather than merely on the two stereotyped planes of enthusiasm and denunciation. And finally, Brinnin in his larger and later collection, “The Garden Is Political,” and Randall Jarrell in his “Blood for a Stranger,” in poems for the most part of strenuously imagined statement, uncover a number of the omens underlying the bewildering surfaces of modernity. The attitude which results is not unlike Mr. Eliot’s “Give, sympathize, control”; but the crisp diction of these poets makes doom seem more malleable than it seemed in “The Waste Land.”


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