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Pictura Ut Poesis

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Behind Dark Spaces: Poems. By Melville Cane. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. The Hasting Day. By George Herbert Clarke. London and Toronto: J. M. Den,t and Sons, Limited. 3s. 6d. Pire for the Night. By Babette Deutsch. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.00. The Wind in the Cedars. By Glenn Ward Dresbach. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.00. Half-Light and Overtones. By Henri Faust. New Haven: The Yale University Press, $1.25. Preludes and Symphonies. By John Gould Fletcher. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.75. Imagist Anthology, 1930. New York: Covici-Friede. $3.50. Points Hast. By Rachel Field. New York: Brewer and Warren. $2.00. Leaves of Wild Grape. By Helen Hoyt. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. Upper Pasture. By Charles Malam. New York: Farrar and Rinchart. $2.00. Balm in Gilead. By Helene Mullins. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. Selected Poem. By William Alexander Percy. New Haven: Yale University Press. $3.00. Seed of the Moon. By Calc Young Rice, New York: The Century Company. $2.00. The Winter Alone. By Evelyn Scott. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $2.50.

The future of poetry, Matthew Arnold prophesied, is immense. We are necessarily too close to our own bards to know whether his prophecy is all awry; and because we are accustomed to think of the Victorians as the last of the giants, because the paradox of greatness is that the closer we are to it, the smaller it seems, we can not know whether the great succession goes on. Already, however, the men of 1910 are beginning to take on the mists of sublimity so that those who are pessimistic about the contemporary poetic movement have begun to compare the recent offspring of the muses with the great days of Amy Lowell and the earlier Sandburg, “The Spoon River Anthology” and the founding of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, to the disparagement of the newer generation. The heartening fact is, however, that there is a newer generation; that the molds and methods of the 1910 group are already with the classics even although most of its members are alive and productive. Whatever the ultimate worth of the better poetry of the last decade proves to be, I do not at any rate detect any recent slackening of poetic energy; Lnd in truth I believe the position could be defended that, as ait, poetry is much more of a going concern than is the essay or the novel or the drama.

At the same time there are serious problems of significance and technique that will not down. It is a nice question whether the war generation or the post-war generation is the actual “lost generation.” If the volumes under inspection be considered a representative group in contemporary verse, it is evident, I believe, that while keener and sharper intelligences are, generally speaking, at work, the results are atomic rather than cohesive. The visible world exists; a trained and acute mind, as in the cases of Hart Crane, Evelyn Scott, and Babette Deutsch, is set to work to report with fine accuracy and painful intensity the reports of super-subtle senses upon experience in the visible world. Nothing can be more admirably reported, for example, than Miss Scott’s poem, “Snow,” of which the opening lines are:

The furred, brown trees, On the grey sky,

Suggest frail patterns on the wings of moths. An ivory dew is in the air. The soundless dray horse wears a silver comb. There are the mouse-steps of the passersby Across the silvery ash.

Mr. Cane is on occasion equally acute and veracious: of February in his poem “Frail Light” he says:

Through the steaming opaque mass

Frail lemon light may pass

And pierce the thickest vapors

That shroud skyscrapers,

And make a warm aerial alley. . . .

These are notes for a modern painting; and we are once more enmeshed in the pictura ut poem theory. In truth, the fashion has gone so far that, with our enthusiasm for Donne and the seventeenth century intellectualists, the business of reporting the visible world acutely has become a kind of game in which the moderns strive to outstrip each other in new and dazzling feats of reportorial acumen. Henri Faust, for example, tells us that “the sun blurs on the horizon like a blood clot,” that “starsurf washes the ambient grass”; and Babette Deutsch remarks of a September afternoon that “swathes of flushed melon-green slide over silken-dark water,” in two poems presents us with her sensations while having a sun-bath, and asks us to imagine, in “November Day,” a “sea of amber,” upon which “leafless bronze” floats “like masts with charred sails lying furled.”

There is little objection to these images, individually considered, but the succession of them, poured forth with intensity by poets determined at any cost to be intense, dazzles the eye, deafens the ear, and deadens the senses. Experience is so nervously conveyed that there is no climax because there is no resting point. Organic unity is sacrificed to a succession of brilliances depicting a dehumanized and mathematical world. And because the greatest poetry says more than it conveys, because it contains a meaning transcending the sense and the imagery, it seems to me that the pure in-tellectualist approach, despite the brilliance of its triumphs, is essentially suicidal. That temporary suspension of disbelief which is the essence of poetry is, by reason of the absorption in technique, transformed into the attempt to astonish and. compel belief.

In a broad sense this way of writing is imagism—albeit how far we have progressed in psychological subtleties it is possible to measure by re-reading John Gould Fletcher’s “Preludes and Symphonies,” a volume compounded of his earlier “Irradiations” and “Goblins and Pagodas.” These poems “date” not because the artistry is not sound and good (despite Mr. Fletcher’s over-apologetic preface), but because intellection has carried us far beyond the symbolists with whom Mr. Fletcher confesses that he began. Or another way to measure is to compare the “Imagist Anthology: 1930” with the earlier issues. Almost none of the contributors now clings closely to the original program of the movement. For one thing it is a little absurd to go back to 1913 when “people made noises like guns and steam drills and sand-paper machines.” Almost all of the contributors to the new volume seem to be hunting for a philosophy; and a number of them are obsessed by, the sexuality of love—the deepest and most characteristic weakness of the modern movement. For love, too, has got itself involved in the mechanical universe to which poetry has been driven.

Against this brilliant, metallic, and mathematical universe, so hard, so inhuman, against this perpetual exploitation of the senses, there comes inevitably a movement of reaction. Consciously or unconsciously, the poets seek to populate a universe empty except of color and sound. Accordingly while Mr. Cane, Mr. Faust, and Miss Scott continue to weave their meticulous images, it is interesting to note how many of the other volumes are concerned with men and women. The “Selected Poems” of Mr. Percy, somewhat old-fashioned and, rhetorical in the romantic manner, sings of Sappho and Enzio, Keats and Calypso. Mr. Rice, with his extraordinary attraction to painful emotions, once again poses his characteristic tragedies against a world in which he has little faith, but which he sees philosophically rather than sensorily. Miss Hoyt, in her “Leaves of Wild Grape,” a work of talent at any rate, traces maternal emotions from the meeting of the lovers through the babyhood of the child. Miss Mullins is interested in Shakespeare and Titania, Louise de la Valliere, George Sand and Chopin. And together with this return to men and women as the center of poetry, it is noteworthy that there is a return to disciplined form and to narrative.

Perhaps Rachel Field’s “Points East,” another product of the eternal New England renaissance, is the farthest removed from the intellectualist position. Her blank verse tales, in which the clipped speech of sea-coast people mingles oddly with romantic narrative, are scarcely a part of the tradition which has produced Mr. Cane. For that matter, the pleasant lyrics of Mr. Malam in “Upper Pasture” (another New Englander) are in the general tradition of Georgian poetry, and the broad descriptive poems of Mr. Dresbach, who paints the Southwest in “The Wind in the Cedars,” owe little to intellectualism. There are, in short, three major currents in this verse—the advanced or radical tendency, the poetry of personality and philosophy, the traditional or standard notion of poetry as immediately intelligible song.

If one were to ask himself how these three might commingle in a particular artist, it would be useful to compare Miss Deutsch’s “Fire for the Night” with Mr. Clarke’s “The Hasting Day.” Mr. Clarke is in the honorable but unexciting academic tradition. One has every respect for his volume, but it is not for the reader of modern poetry an absorbing book. Miss Deutsch, on the contrary, has fused in her art the standard forms, an awareness of the new intensities of contemporary poetry, an interest in emotion and personality; and if she lacks the narrative interests of others, she has at any rate the dramatic quality—a quality which has led her to write a sequence of sonnets on the fall of man. It seems to me that in many respects therefore she is the most representative talent in the group; so that, if we ask ourselves what the future of poetry is to be, we must say that it lies in the direction she is travelling rather than in the direction Mr. Clarke is going. Old wine in new bottles I is an unsafe recipe; there is some hope, however, that in poetry new wine can be poured into bottles which, if they are not precisely old, are at any rate not eccentric. The intellectualist revolt has sharpened our sense of poetical precision; old traditions of form may, it is just possible, keep us out of anarchy.


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