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Poetry Old and New

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy, Foreword by Roark Bradford. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.50. Western Star. By Stephen Vincent Ben& Farrar and Rinehart. $2.00. The Book of New Poems: 1943. Edited by Oscar Williams. Howell, Soskin, $2.75.

In the photograph of William Alexander Percy opposite the title page of his “Collected Poems” one sees a face attractive, sensitive, and highspirited. That the face did not belie the man one gathers from his autobiographical “Lanterns on the Levee” and from the testimony of friends. It was natural, then, that his poems should be assembled into this handsome book. But when Percy said of his verse-writing “The results were intensely personal, whatever their other defects . . .” he did not see himself truly. The poet was less substantial than the man.

For one thing, his style is derivative. He seems to have been fascinated not so much by the way in which life may be translated into words as by the way life has been so translated. He states that “As far as I can make out, the towering bulk of English poetry influenced me tremendously . . .” Only late in his career, and mostly in shorter pieces like “L. P.” and “Altitude,” does his diction emerge clearly, free of blurring echoes of Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, and A. E. Housman. Similarly, his content derives from two stock romantic sentiments: the loneliness of the temperament that idealizes love but is too fastidious to respond to a lover; and the nostalgia of such a person for the Arcadianism which literature has conferred on ancient Sicily and Greece.

Percy’s poetry, then, sprang from what was least mature in his character. His ideals of conduct—courage and unselfishness—are present, to be sure, but simply as matters asserted. The prevailing mood is that of the adolescent who is still managed by other people’s dreams. (In this respect, Percy reminds one of the weaker side of A. E. Housman’s temperament.) One may wonder whether this arrest originates in an over-susceptibility to the writing of others, so that the derivative poet cannot free his life, so far as it comes to expression in his poems, from bondage to the communicated attitudes of those he admires; or whether, conversely, the imitativeness in theme and diction results from the poet’s failure in his personal life to resolve some of the situations which must be resolved if adolescence is to issue into adulthood. There is, for example, too much of the Ganymede, if not of the Narcissus, about Percy’s ideal of beauty. No doubt Percy was like most people in being partly adult and partly not. But it is his misfortune that his poetry is connected more closely with the latter than with the former side to his personality.

“Western Star” is Book I of what the late Stephen Benet had hoped would be an odyssey of the westward migration which founded and developed the United States, and which for most of the nation’s history has been the chief single determinant of American character. This first book carries us to the point at which the settlers had gained a permanent foothold in both Virginia and Massachusetts. By means of a cinematographic dissolving of scene into scene, and through a double plot centering around a London apprentice who runs away to Virginia and a young Puritan family of Londoners who make the pilgrimage to Plymouth, Benet introduces to us numerous personages, motives, and circumstances, both in the Old World and the New, which entered into the tragic and fantastic melodrama which was the life of the earliest settlers. All this is told mostly in unrhymed pentameter or rhymed tetrameter, with some lyrical interludes in other measures. The poem reads easily, and is sometimes exciting, occasionally more deeply moving. But as a whole it cannot be accounted memorable. The poet cannot sustain the dignity of his conception. At times, he plays the schoolmaster, as when he informs us that the Indians were really “neither yelling demon nor Noble Savage”; at other times, he cannot resist a comment which is merely the journalism of ethics, as when he contrasts favorably the colonists with “some well-dressed gentlemen and well-fed ladies . . . Who spent their years despairing of the Republic
And trying ways to beat the income-tax . . .”
This is evidently no voice with which to launch a thousand ships. But the poem will be prescribed for collateral reading in high schools for thirty years to come, and deserves this modest and entirely respectable longevity.

By contrast with these two books, Oscar Williams’ anthology, “The Book of New Poems: 1943,” is important poetically. Forty British and American poets are included, ranging in age from Robert Frost to members of the generation born during or just after World War I, for example, the English Alex Comfort and Gene Derwood, and the American Robert Lowell and Dunstan Thompson. Not all the contents were written in 1943; the editor has included a few earlier poems “chosen for their vitality.” And there is, of course, no such aesthetic category as “1943-ishness”; the calendar year is merely a convenient means of extracting a jugful from a river. Yet 1943 is present within this poetry insofar as, to quote the editor, “It is the current work of poets who have intensely felt the fact of war . . . They write, not of the movement of troops, the horror of the enemy or the mechanism of the tank, but of the state of ihe human organism in the emotion of now living.”

Curiously enough, one of the two or three most memorable poems explicitly about the war is by a non-combatant—Miss Marianne Moore, whose “In Distrust of Merits” is not only precise in her usual way, but plangent as well. Of the other poems about war, the most interesting were written by poets young enough to be in the present conflict (and I include also Mr. Tate), though most of these poems naturally do not so much explore war in itself as consider the readjustmerits in the trinity of life, youth, and love made necessary by the intrusion of war (and with Mr. Tate, it is irony rather than imperilled youth that complicates the poet’s communication). As for the non-combatant poets in general, they examine those tensions and forces in experience of which war is but the murderous and iron corollary. Wars are pre-en-acted in times of peace, though it takes the light of an explosion to enable most of us to see what we are doing.

Stylistically, too, these poems are of their time. The older practitioners naturally preserve the idioms by which we recognize them. The youngest poets, however, seem to share an idiom—one that is fairly new. They show pervasively the influence of what might be called the Audenish way of writing. I am not implying that this style was originated solely by Mr. Auden. No doubt some such style would have been shaped by the conditions of modern living. But it was at any rate in Auden’s poems that it first attracted widespread attention. It is a style that avoids the cadence and stresses the statement. It avoids the intimation and employs the item. Its metaphors are characteristically condensed into single epithets or remarks. The line Communication swallows the quicksilver swords of distance will serve as an illustration. The effect of the style is a presentation of reality in kaleidoscopic fragments which the poet jiggles before his reader’s mind until those patterns we call “insights” become partially or wholly evident. At its best, this technique communicates an exhilaration both of thought and feeling. When less successful, the Audenish way of writing congeals into a conscientious but dead Esperanto of metaphor. Yet, good or bad, this style has, as I have intimated, genuine roots in our age. The variety of things to which we must all nowadays adjust ourselves, and the rapidity with which we must often alter these adjustments, are sources of this centrifugal way of using the imagination. We shall not he able to discard it until we have moved on into a new way of life.

What these poets of 1943 wish that new life to be, is all to the good. What that life will be lies, to an extent seldom paralleled, in the hands of all of us. As Miss Moore says, There never was a war that was not inward .  .  .


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