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The New Artificiality

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

First Will and Testament. By Kenneth Patchen, Norfolk: New Directions. $2.50. A Turning Wind. By Muriel Rukeyser. New York: The Viking Press. $2.00. The World I Breathe. By Dylan Thomas. Norfolk: New Directions. $2.50. The Connecticut River and Other Poems. By Reuel Denney. New Haven: Yale University Press. $2.00.

These books provide perhaps as fair a representation as could be obtained of the work being produced by the higher grade younger poets. All of the writers are in their middle twenties, with the exception of Mr. Denney, who is a graybeard of thirty and who yet is the least mature—or it may be only the least aggressive and the most traditional—of the group. If I were compelled to apply the yardstick of my critical principles to him, I should have to consider him the best of these poets. In point of fact, I consider him the least important—though that is not to deny his merits. Let me confess that I find it hard to evaluate work of this sort. Much of it is unintelligible to me, and intelligible or not, much of it strikes me as bad. On the other hand, I was often pulled up to a breathless full stop by Miss Rukeyser and Mr. Patchen, the two poets of the group of whom I should, I suppose, most disapprove. If the confession appears naive, it is hardly more so than the malediction laid upon the readers of Kenneth Patchen’s “First Will and Testament”: “I . . . charge you by the religion of poetry itself not to sneer at some things which may seem strange to you fin this book].” It may therefore be almost sacreligious to quote the lines encountered five pages further on:

Here rixnag, hi piphog, riding the bubsea, Reeling like a soplad after this dohgal. Hark my hunddipper, pimpgetter whole. Smear it up, Death; knock it down, Godie-Boy.

But I am not sneering; I even think I understand. All that I do is to question the poetic value. The truth seems to me that all these poets, though all of them are, in varying degrees, genuine enough, are barking up the wrong poetic tree. What they consider originality is only a sedulously sought novelty. They strive to be “different” and succeed as a rule only in producing oddities that will soon strike us as being as artificial as the most egregious conventions of the mid-Victorians. They might take a lesson from feminine headgear : there is nothing that goes out of fashion so quickly— or that so quickly “dates”—as that which is at the moment most up-to-date.

There is also in most of them pretentiousness. Thus Mr. Patchen announces that he is at work upon no less than nine volumes of verse—he even supplies their titles—which are to have an epic importance and are to be a life work. I am no prophet, but I venture to say that if he produces one more book he will be doing well. Not Shakespeare, not Dante could have announced in advance his poetic designs. I venture to dismiss this as bluff.

Yet I am not going to dismiss Mr. Patchen as a fake. He is not, even though he is always trying to put something over on his readers. The man has real gifts. Time after time he stabs us broad awake. But his self-consciousness, his striving for the unusual, his grunting and growling under a self-imposed burden make us—or at any rate make me—uneasy as to his future. He can achieve true pathos, as in “Peter’s Little Daughter Dies.” He can be powerful, as in “You May All Go Home Now.” He can be touchingly simple, as in the poem “In Memory of Kathleen.” But so often he destroys his effect by his attitudinizing. I should like to quote the poem on page twenty-two—its title runs to two lines of capitals followed by six in italics, and so is a little cumbersome to mention. It is a good poem, a very good poem, but its value is greatly lessened for me by the fact that the poet outdoes even Edna St. Vincent Millay in boasting about his love affairs. They appear to have all occurred in cheap hotels and hall-bedrooms and ditches.

Muriel Rukeyser’s “A Turning Wind” shows her to be more accomplished, though less gifted, I think, than Mr. Patchen. She is obviously a very clever young woman, and is probably destined to go far. She is like Mr. Patchen to the extent of using the surrealist technique—the imposition of realistic details one upon the other to achieve an ironic effect. Generally, however, these details create so much confusion—in verse, at all events—as to cancel one another out. She too strives and poses and makes faces. But she is primarily concerned with life—being a woman—where Mr. Patchen, not of course because he is a man but because he is a muddled one, is concerned with death, his private and perverse obsession. Perhaps the best of her poems are the concluding “Lives”: of the artist, Ryder, of the scholar and “character” John Jay Chapman, and of Ann Burlak, the organizer. Muriel Rukeyser strikes me as being more alert to what is going on than is Kenneth Patchen—even if he has fought in the Spanish war.

Dylan Thomas is a Welshman whose work, we are told, has taken England by storm. If that is really the case, England is going to crumple up badly under Herr Goering’s bombs. But of course I don’t believe the blurb, or England’s susceptibility to work of this sort. It represents, despite its specious appearance of modernity, an ineffectual culture. The poems derive from the assonance of Wilfred Owen and the analyzed rhyme of my old schoolfellow, Frank Kendon. All is graceful; nothing sticks. The short stories with which the book concludes are a cross between Mother Goose and Caradoc Evans.

Stephen Vincent Benet, bound by the duty of an editor, praises Reuel Denney in the Foreword (why can’t people say “Introduction”?) to “The Connecticut River and Other Poems,” The subject matter of the title poem seems to have been mainly derived from Van Wyck Brooks’s “The Flowering of New England.” And some of the other poems-touching New York, Alabama, Michigan, pioneers, the Appalachians, the Northwest—suggest that Mr. Denney has consulted a good many guide books. He lives in Buffalo. He does, however, catch the spirit of America, or comes closer to catching it than Miss Rukeyser or Mr. Patchen. These that I quote are good lines of verse, even though I have to lay aside still better lines in the other books in order to find space for them. Mr. Denney, upon making his first bow, needs a pat on the back even from so crusty a critic as myself: the others will survive what I say about them and live to throw bricks at my own work.

Let them bring moss the lowland grows On oaks where slow Savannah flows, And acid fruits of juniper, And acorns, and the chestnut flower, And pickerel weed from brooks of Maine, And a pine’s silver-dusted cone. Each state will yield a separate bloom To garland up his noiseless tomb.


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