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Poetry Going and Coming

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

Pocms. By W. H. Audcn. New York: Random House. $2.50. Prom Jordan’s Delight. By R. P. Blackmur. New York: Arrow Editions. $2.00. Mon-ticello and Other Poems. By Lawrence Lee. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00. Address to the Living. By John Holmes. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.00.

Two centuries ago the literary cult of careful smoothness (CCS) was in full swing. Today by way of extreme reaction we have CAI, the cult of automatic incohesion. Addison’s Ned Softly wrote to his versifying Mira thus:

When dressed in laurel wreaths you shine, And tune your soft melodious notes,

You seem a sister of the Nine, Or Phoebus’ self in petticoats.

Today young Mr. Auden broods upon man in this manner:

Is first baby, warm in mother, Before born and is still mother, Time passes and now is other, Is knowledge in him now of other, Cries in cold air, himself no friend.

A decade ago when this muse was still “warm in mother” (i. e., in the “Tender Buttons” of Gertrude Stein) its birth was foretold in my “Cycle of Modern Poetry.” Therefore the new baby drew my sympathetic interest. I have read intently every single word in Mr. Auden’s first American volume, though most of it, unlike the passage quoted above, in entirely unintelligible. Two-thirds of the way through the author exclaims, “”What have I written? Thoughts suitable to a sanatorium.” This is correct, aside from the word “thoughts” and the fact that the other patients have to be considered. Those “thoughts” are suitable to solitary confinement. And here, exactly, is the damning paradox of CAI: it pursues a kind of reality that ceases upon publication. The man who tells his dreams is a bore because they are real to him alone. So with all disjunct images. For instance, the other day the following popped into my brain: “fingers picking fishbones mussily from yellow teeth onto rim of white plate.” For me this has a reality of which Mr. Auden’s thousand and one items are devoid; because it has for me a context, mostly subconscious, which may some day take form as a paragraph—probably not a poem. Mr. Auden may presently become a poet, though his gift seems more for prose. There are sporadic passages of clever and amusing composition in this volume. But on the whole it is Mr, Auden’s preliminary notebook of jottings, the sort of thing that is usually published after the deaths of great writers by admiring relatives of the deceased. Mr. Auden has published it himself, too soon after birth, and under the title of “Poems.” Therefore a reviewer who is not a member of CAI must with regret pronounce this book showy, monotonous, unreal, and sillier than Ned Softly.

Mr. Blackmur’s “Beyond Jordan’s Delight” is a third as long and thirty times as valuable. His work is much immersed in CAI, but is also emergent. One moment it is a tangled mess of seaweed in a tumbling wave; the next, a luring gray-brown pattern, cryptic but real, in the outgoing swell. This book is made of Maine coast, where the author’s forebears toiled and suffered.

Now from long looking I have come on second sight, there where the lost shores lie the sea is breeding night.

Like many, he is reacting from the New-England faith and has not yet found another, or the same in a broader and richer form capable of winning a modern poet. Critic as well as poet, he issued two years ago “The Double Agent,” a collection of analytic essays on the craftsmanship of recent writers. His survey of them led him to insist that “the



typical great poet is profoundly rational, integrating, and, excepting minor accidents of incapacity, a master of ultimate verbal clarity. Light, radiance, and wholeness remain the attributes of serious art.” His own verse has not yet, in this his first volume, radiance and deep integration or adequate clarity. But it has a mordant veracity of spirit which enables him at times to find such original perfection of form as the following brief poem:

Pray for a night-storm pray for an open sea. Hidden upon the land the body will be warm, while the soul, cold and free, raises a bare hand over a full sea.

“Cold and free”—but elsewhere he exclaims, “Beware this bleak elation.” He turns from it to human love, which he treats acidly but not unbelievingly; often with a morbid anxiousness to give the body its due, sometimes with a delightful grotesquerie. And there is a deeper tone, half hidden; heard, for example, in the following, where his themes of night, sea, and love merge together:

May you who have been watched, observe

that as watched stars fade and the sea

thins to a line illimitably

it is the same bottomless reserve

I fasten on in you, you me.

From Mr. Blackmur’s bleak coast pass to Mr. Lee’s warm South, in “Monticello and other Poems.” Note the following nostalgic recollection of his native place:

Such bright birds filled the sun, Like flower boxes in bloom, And sleepy music would run Along the roofs at home.

But this poet is far from being luxurious and idyllic; incidentally, he early removed from Alabama to Virginia and has made excursions further north. So he can love what he calls “the hour of bareness”:

Comfort stood in a yellow tree. Of leafy sound

Shaken to music, now no leaf.

That color swirls free

And music hisses across cold ground—

And is excellent past belief.

Those two opposite poles of “music” are comprised in Mr.

I Lee’s dominant mood—his quiet, keen feeling of the passing seasons and the “great circle” of the universe turning,

| turning, about our “small and common ground.” The dark incertainty of change is here:

Nothing is sure; and you and I tomorrow, Corrupt with argument and weak intent, May find each other stranger, in no sorrow Kin, and the promised ecstasy unspent.

j But also there is a certain sense of permanence; for, “of each cherished thing the spirit stays.” Hence the following beautiful vista:

Behind us, sweet in the enormous light, The summers are an avenue of green.

Mr. Lee’s sonnets, from which I have just quoted, are remarkable for large firmness of movement. In the last two poems of the volume (his second publication) he tries interestingly, but not yet distinctively, for more of human variety and drama in his work.

Mr. Holmes’s first volume, “Address to the Living,” is exceptionally vital and promising. He is free from the current cults. He confesses having served a youthful apprenticeship to “meager men . . . the sick of soul . . . the mean with hate half-blind . . . those who twist whatever truth is true.” He turned from them to “the good, the great, the wise”; and he expresses gratitude (this is startling in present-day verse) for the mediation of school and college teachers with their “patient anonymous joy in making clear.” He believes it is time for the poet to

Say that the lost innocence is wisdom now.

Say in the poem that only the whole is true. . . .

He has found anew the old mystery of art, i. e., of form:

I rubbed the colors of the world away. Nothing was left but form, and form was strange, Not human, for I saw it would not die, But last forever and forever change.

This is not quite true; it is too Emersonian. Form, though not mortal, is not, at its best, “not human.” The truth of it was better known by a minor Christian poet three hundred years ago when he wrote of “Eternity who yet was born and died.” Mr. Holmes grew up not far from Concord, Massachusetts, and in his philosophic moods eternity tends to be at once too easily accessible and too unhuman. But in addition to ecstatic zest he has right human humor and a shrewd wit, which I have not space to illustrate. The point is that he is pursuing a full and balanced view of life. He notes that there is

No health or love in body, book, or state Without known death and evil and defeat.

But he does not yet really know that truth, and I earnestly hope that his study of it will quickly lead him away from the poets of the nineteenth century to those of the sixteenth and seventeenth. Meanwhile, whatever his theory of Form, he can experience it as richly human, for instance in a lovely poem of which I quote the first third:

Being young, her eyes let in so sharp a light

It crowded memory with green and white,

With skies, and hills, with doors, with printed words,

With downward rain, and downward-drifting birds.

As wakeful as a soldier standing guard

She looked at every flower long and hard, And scrupulous as old astronomers

At nameless faces looking into hers,

And being young, she would not run away.

The light shone in her open eyes all day

As bright as noon on country colorings.

She saw the honor of the shape of things,

And though she saw nowhere two things the same,

Not one but asked her mutely for its name.

When the poet sees “the honor of the shape of things” he experiences Form as both divine and human—like the kind of love which causes it:

Let all our thought be of each other now, Gentle as time is not; and be so plain, So patient in our love, that each will know His fear of mortal loneliness is vain.

These four books are fairly typical of our latest poetry. It has not yet succeeded in breaking away from the charmed circle of the nineteenth-century spirit. CAI is the dying kick of Romantic incoherence. Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” has now become automatic spurtings of colorful commotion. And poets who emerge into Form win it after the general manner of the past era; that is, by means of “Nature” disjoined from the institutional life of man and experienced, gloomily, as inhuman or, gladly, as a quick (too quick) revelation of eternity. But that narrow “Nature” is now pretty well exhausted. Poetry since the time of Milton has explored every cranny of it—every byway outside our chief human institution, Christianity. God forbid that I should seem to advocate ecclesiastic verse! But, as previously hinted, it seems to me increasingly clear that our oncoming poets cannot well escape from the nineteenth-century round of “Nature” without the aid of a fresh, a liberal-catholic, re-growth of the Christian imagination; which finds nature and eternity, and great evil and true glory, in the difficult dramatic life of social and institutional man.


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