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The Naked Voice

ISSUE:  Spring 1964

Collected Poems. By Elder Olson. University of Chicago Press, $6.50.
Collected Poems 1919–1962. By Babette Deutsch. Indiana University Press, $4.50.

One of the conventions of the current literary scene is that when a poet offers a volume called collected poems he is saying here I stand; which is a risky business and the kind of risk most of our poets reflexively avoid. It means more than standing alone. It means standing without the armor of honors or awards, without a careful barbwire of blurbs written by friends and debtors. It means exposing the naked voice itself. It is reappraisal, a speculative gamble of everything, which is rarer than ever nowadays when our poets, like everyone else, want insurance against everything. Poets, like ladies in high comedy, spend an inordinate amount of time in the care and preservation of reputation. A collected poems discards even this veil. All of which is probably why these two books, each by a distinguished poet, have received next to no attention from the reviewers who profess and call themselves arbiters of poetry. Elder Olson’s “Collected Poems” offers the reader a representative collection of his work beginning with “Thing of Sorrow” (1934) up through “Plays and Poems” (1958) and including a section of previously uncollected poems. For various reasons Olson is better known as a critic than as a poet. His poems are not widely anthologized, do not appear in those periodic social registers of the literati produced by poets who have stopped producing. This is a pity and a loss at least partly made up for by this impressive volume. There are enough poems, 194 pages of them, to give us a sense of his considerable achievement over a sustained period of time, and this is the sign of a true poet. (The word prolific is used pejoratively only by those writers who are having difficulty writing anything.) One is impressed at once by the variety and the consistency of his work. There is a wide variety of conventional forms, including a full range of the lyric and dramatic. These are sound poems, well-made and built upon the certainty of critical theory. They are literary in the best sense, the poems of a man of letters, an intellectual who finds abstractions as real as a toothache and thus is able to use them with a validity rare and surprising enough to cast a shadow of doubt on the old rule to “avoid the abstract.”

The dominant quality of this book is the poet’s voice. It is consistent, a voice that does not try to please and is not, in fact, a pleasing voice. But it is a true one. Serious, cerebral, self-conscious, introspective, and often anguished, it is an accurate echo of the intellectual of our times, Though it hurts, the reader will recognize this truth and will be compelled to salute the poet’s integrity. And his courage. Yet there is something missing. There are moments of wit, irony, and deep feeling, but there is very little joy. Though many of these poems can be called religious, there is a curious absence of charity. There is a reticence and coldness. Olson seems to he aware of this when be writes in “Directions to the Armorer”:

All right, armorer,
Make me a sword—
Not too sharp,
A bit hard to draw,
And of cardboard, preferably,
On second thought, stick
An eraser on the handle.
Somehow I always
Clobber the wrong guy.

One can appreciate and even be amused by the mildly self-deprecating irony and one can be sympathetic with the problem. This is an honest voice and a clear one. It is not, however, the voice of someone whom one would like to know well. “The wrong guy” would find his aching jaw unsoothed by Mr. Olson’s inner doubts.

The voice that sings through the poetry of Babette Deutsch is that of someone the reader would like to know and should. Her “Collected Poems 1919-1962” moves into a different, more interesting dimension, exhibits a wholeness almost unequaled in contemporary poetry. This book is the harvest of half a century of continuous creativity, and it is one which dazzles the reader with its virtuosity and at the same time defies him to remark any lessening of the essential vigor and energy of the artist. This is the voice not just of a poet, but of an artist in exactly the same sense that Picasso is an artist or Stravinsky. And her voice is never just the voice of the intellectual, though as a matter of fact she moves with grace and agility among unruly ideas. And it is never just the voice of a sensitive critic, the critic whose “Poetry in Our Time” is the critique of modern verse and poetry. Nor is it only the voice of a superb technician whose “A Poetry Handbook” has been hailed by poets everywhere. It is the voice of a complete human being. Sophisticated in the laudatory sense, free and easy among many languages, cultures, and disciplines, she has yet been blessed with a child’s unceasing capacity for wonder, an untarnished innocence, a quick sense of deep feeling. It is because of all these things that she is one of the very few modern poets, living or dead, who is able to move a reader to the edge of tears, as for example in the brilliantly realized “To An Amiable Child” or in this superb rendition from the Japanese of Okura:

Since he is too young
To know the way, I would plead:
“Pray, accept this gift,
O Underworld messenger,
And bear the child pick-a-back.”

There is God’s plenty of wit and humor, but there is also a true sense of humor which can generate more than a smile. In many of these poems she takes a tough, unsentimental look at the evils of a bad world, but back to back with these poems are others which celebrate the goodness of creation. Celebration, joy, wonder, and a profound sense of compassion are characteristic; so much so that the reader must be cautioned lest he conclude that these virtues are in any way typical. They are not. They remain in our time as fugitive as unicorns or phoenixes.

Olson’s poems are true poems. In them we recognize the articulation of truths about ourselves. Babette Deutsch’s poems are exemplary in the classical sense, representing what any artist aspires to most—from the long struggle with the craft so hard to learn a sense of grace, from the inner and outer sufferings of a bad century the strength and pride to suffer and rejoice. One good book and one great one. More than enough, more than we deserve.


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