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Poems for an Ignorant Year

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

The Tomb of Thomas Jefferson. By Lawrence Lee. New York: Charles Scribncr’s Sons. $1.50. In What Hour. By Kenneth Rexroth. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.75.

Lawrence lee and Kenneth Rexroth differ widely in style, imagery, literary allegiance, poetic form. But the verse in each of these volumes is predominantly elegiac in mood; the two poets, both humanely sensitive, respond inevitably to the primary stimuli of current existence. Lawrence Lee, privileged to “walk in fields, tranquil and bright with peace all day,” finds himself forced to reflect that “elsewhere the innocent cannot count their dead.” Kenneth Rexroth, “alone on a hilltop in San Francisco,” feels the pressure of “dead flesh mounting over half the world.”

Measured and consistent development has made Mr. Lee’s a medium adequate to the rigors of the present moment. His earliest verse was distinguished for its singular lyrism—rare and valuable in contemporary poetry; his most recent verse, “The Tomb of Thomas Jefferson,” is equally distinguished in its emotional and stylistic concentration. But the lyrism has not failed: it remains to give poignancy to his social epigrams, to his reflections on current history, to his moral affirmations. There are poets who have understandably resorted to cacophony, broken image, grotesque juxtaposition, in order to convey the paradox of the South—poverty-stricken amidst its richness. Lawrence Lee conveys it in the four brief, unstrained, musical stanzas of “The Plentiful Hills”; and again, with less universality but even greater succinctness, in “The Great Crop.”

The symbolism of Thomas Jefferson, introduced in Mr. Lee’s “Monticello” volume, is extended and made more prominent here. Jefferson’s fundamental democratic assumption—that the human spirit, in its simple justice, will survive and transcend manifold injustices—becomes the pervading faith of these pages. There is anguish in the spectacle of common men and common acts thrown against the lurid background of cruelty; but there is hope in the conviction that superior reality abides in common men and common acts. This is the theme of the two most ambitious works in the present collection.

“Call Home the Heroes” is a sequence of lyrics, various in form and movement:

Use now the voice that they will know And call the heroes home To learn that they are men.

It is as men, not as stormers or dictators or the creatures of dictators that they may come to be identified with that which endures.

“The Tomb of Thomas Jefferson,” at the end of the volume, summarizes and reiterates. Hitherto, Mr. Lee’s best work has characteristically been in brief forms: but here the firmly patterned two- and three-stress lines completely sustain the mounting and relatively extended argument of the poem:

This is an ignorant year Within a cruel time,

but we, “walkers of mud,” can, through humble expenditure of sweat and blood, ally ourselves with the living and creative spirit which Jefferson personified for other difficult times. We may, thus,

Seeing afar,

Believe that good will come As the first star.

Kenneth Rexroth writes not in one style but in many. His disposition is metaphysical; his preoccupation is the intricacies of being and value. In diverse moods, he explores diverse levels of consciousness; hence the diversity in his manners. Constant are his assurance in the handling of loose or tight rhythms, his striking—frequently startling—manipulation of image, his verbal virtuosity, his power to interweave concrete and abstract so as to accomplish mutual illumination.

The poetic exploration of “In What Hour” leads Mr. Rexroth to impersonal symbols of value, mountains, rocks, and stars:

Here where the glaciers have been and the snow stays late, The stone is clean as light, the light steady as stone. The relationship of stone, ice, and stars is systematic and enduring.

His intimate familiarity with the Sierra Nevadas and the Coast Range provides him with his steadiest fund of effective images.

Mr. Rexroth’s metaphysical talent is exemplified at its best in the condensed and haunting poem which stands at the beginning of his book: “Hiking on the Coast Range on the Anniversary of the Killing of Sperry and Conderakias in the San Francisco General Strike, Their Blood Spilled on the Pavement of the Embarcadero.” The long title is worth quoting in full, because its words serve as a compendious introduction to the range of the volume which follows. In “Toward an Organic Philosophy,” Mr. Rexroth achieves the effect of reflection by means of purely descriptive writing. “Requiem for the Spanish Dead,” “An Early Morning Exercise,” “Songs for Marie’s Lutebook” illustrate his various skills in the utterance of agonized seriousness, of irony, of a modulated lyrism.

Some of his most forceful lines occur in unintelligible contexts. “Gentlemen, I Address You Publicly” is anything but public address: public understanding is disdained as irrelevant. There are other pieces, too, which thumb their nose at anybody who does not share Mr. Rexroth’s private insights and associations. This, undoubtedly, will enhance their value for some readers; for others, the satisfactions provided by indubitable talent and considerable skill will be punctuated by frequent irritation.


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