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Poetry Out of Chaos

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

No Retreat. By Horace Gregory. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. The Collected Poems of 11 art Crane, Edited, with an introduction, by Waldo Frank. New York: Horace Livcright. $3.00. last Poems. By D, H. Lawrence. Edited by Richard Aldington and Giuseppe Orioli, with an introduction. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50. A Green liowjh. By William Faulkner. New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas. $1.75.

Ahundred years have passed since Coleridge spoke of the poetic genius as balancing and reconciling “a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order.” In that century of progress the poet has had to accommodate himself to a world Coleridge would not recognize. Undoubtedly, it is one calculated to produce a more than usual state of emotion. But such order as it may exhibit must be imposed upon it by the poet. He has not merely to choose, alter, or invent the form in which he is to write. He has to shape the chaos in which he finds himself; at worst, keep it from destroying his poetry. Indeed, with the economic framework so obviously out of joint, with society in a state of flux, with religious sanctions fallen away and science not yet happy in supplanting them, the poet has not merely to respond to and interpret his world,—he has practically to create it.

Of the four contemporaries to be considered here, three have been plainly conscious of this problem. One of them died of it. One, accepting, not choosing, death, believed that man would regain his lost state of innocence with the overthrow of the machine. The third, hammered by all the obscene forces that drove Hart Crane to women and drink and finally to suicide, that made Lawrence writhe and spit like a fretful invalid,—the third, with his back to the wall, pleads quietly for the power “to stay in no retreat and not to die.”

If Horace Gregory had not put this brave request into a poem, his book would yet have implied it on every page. For what he has done in “No Retreat” is to show us a man walking, without armor, into the blaring streets and dingy cemeteries, into the rich orchards and beside the gracious rivers, and then back into the nervous rooms of this America, where men and women, maddened by the complexities and tragic absurdities of modern life, chatter, brood, make love, dance, get drunk, and sometimes, with a markedly deliberate gesture, put out the light. He shows us this man plunging into subways, climbing skyscrapers, scanning headlines, answering the telephone,—this man beaten upon by the city lights, the city noises, reaching out to answer the solicitations of the countryside, seeking to satisfy the hungry intellect, the starved spirit,—this man watching, listening, with quivering nerves and shaken heart, remembering, pitying, and loving.

Mr. Gregory’s references are classical—he draws on the Greeks and the Romans, on Shakespeare and the Bible— but, influenced by the symbolists as he is, his allusions point a state of feeling that is of the living, of the passing, moment. The fluent images, the sudden close-ups, the shifting angle of vision, suggest the technique of the cinema. The changing music—reminiscent of Spenser and Tom Moore and Catullus, abruptly broken by a shrill modern note—suggests the swift transitions of the radio. His work is nothing if not contemporary. His attitude is unflinching. He acknowledges chaos with a candor that cannot evade fear, but he seeks refuge neither in an irrecoverable way of life nor in oblivion.

Technically, this volume shows a great advance over his first book. The phrasing is surer, the harmonies richer. Though it is still clear that he has studied Eliot, it is plainer that he is not going to be mastered by him. Some of the poems suffer noticeably from the obscurity inherent in the symbolist method, but all of them communicate a deep emotion, and the disorder of the presented scene is more apparent than real.

When one turns from Horace Gregory’s lyrics to the collected poems of Hart Crane, one is aware of having entered a world that seems curiously both larger and narrower. It is larger because, as Waldo Frank points out in his rather fuzzy-minded and inarticulate introduction to the book, Crane was a mystic, and as such, had to make his peace with something bigger than himself or than the confused age in which he happened to live. It is narrower because Crane’s manner of expressing himself was so elliptical and idiosyncratic. The most significant piece in the collection is, of course, “The Bridge,” epical in content, lyrical in feeling, a poem not without grave faults in execution but with passages of superb power and flaming vision. The Bridge is a magnificent symbol, spanning more than a continent, compassing the heroic voyage of Columbus and an America that shall have realized the promise of the machine, joining the mechanical genius of a Poe with Whitman’s dear love of comrades. It is difficult, at moments intensely personal, yet holding implications far beyond the poet’s private wishes and despairs. The reader must puzzle out for himself, not always successfully, the packed hieroglyphic idiom. Yet if it is not to be immediately grasped, it is one of those rare performances that reward repeated readings. Mr. Frank makes much of Crane’s allegiance to Whitman. The influence most obvious in his poetry is, however, not Whitman, with his enormous gusto, his loose generalities and casual catalogues; it is Laforgue, with his quick nerves, his sharp modern lingo, his peculiarly individual approach. The sardonic note that was so often sounded by the French poet recurs more plangently in Crane’s later lyrics, included in the section entitled “Key West, An Island Sheaf.” One is grateful for the handful of adolescent pieces published in an appendix to the collection, not so much for themselves as for the indication they give of Crane’s development. In the brief essay on “Modern Poetry”—originally contributed to O. M. Sayler’s symposium on “Revolt in the Arts”—which appears in the second appendix, one observes the poet recasting—as we all must—passages of Wordsworth’s famous Preface.

Crane could celebrate the machine in his poetry. But he could not endure a civilization that had failed to master its new tool. Lawrence, with more courage than Crane but less understanding of our situation, waged tireless war upon the machine. In his curious blindness, as in his sudden appalling insights, Lawrence was a good deal like Dostoevsky. He shared with the great Russian a belief that “in the world of things the wheel is the first principle of evil,” and that evil is in the soul of man “when it pivots upon the ego.” He shared Dostoevsky’s deep contempt for those who are neither hot nor cold, his exaltation of the flesh, his hunger for God, his snarling hatred, his impatient love. Lawrence knew, as in his supreme moments Dostoevsky knew, the pang of utter affirmation. He too could utter a shout of adoration.

It is remarkable that his posthumous “Last Poems,” edited with admirable faithfulness by Giuseppe Orioli and Richard Aldington, who has written a satisfying introduction to it,— it is remarkable that this volume should sound so often an hosanna. Lawrence, like Crane, was a mystic, and as one turns these pages, touching not a book, but a man, one comes to feel that where Crane’s mysticism was sometimes a tour de force, Lawrence’s was always simple and sincere. If, on the one hand, he was kin to that passionate doubter, Dostoevsky, on the other hand he was closer than Crane—for all the young American’s protestations—to the passionate yea-sayer, Walt Whitman. The noble poem, “The Ship of Death,” in which Lawrence accepts his end as only a man who loves life can accept it, recalls the awed serenity with which Whitman hearkened to the “whispers of heavenly death.” The poem, one of the last, entitled “God Is Born,” confirms this impression, and the penultimate poem, “Flowers and Men,” might well serve as Lawrence’s little testament: Flowers achieve their own floweriness and it is a miracle. Men don’t achieve their own manhood, alas, oh alas! alas!

All I want of you, men and women, all I want of you

is that you shall achieve your beauty as the flowers do.

Oh leave off saying I want you to be savages.

Tell me, is the gentian savage, at the top of its coarse stem?

Oh what in you can answer to this blueness?

. . . as the gentian and the daffodil. . . .

tell me! tell me! is there in you a beauty to compare

to the honeysuckle at evening now

pouring out his breath.

Lawrence, unlike Crane and Horace Gregory, was more significant as a personality than as a poet. He often wrote carelessly and inadequately, if always sincerely. William Faulkner’s verse, in “A Green Bough,” shows something of Lawrence’s honest sensuousness, and something of the interest in technique of the other poets considered here. Unfortunately, he is not sufficiently sure either of his feeling or of his craftsmanship to produce important poetry. His book fairly reverberates with echoes from such a variety of contemporaries as T. S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, E. E. Cummings, and A. E. Housman. The result is a faintly jangled but sometimes moving music. He is not least effective when he is content with a lyric simplicity, as in the bucolic piece that follows:

The sun lies long upon the hills,

The plowman slowly homeward wends;

Cattle low, uneased of milk,

The lush grass to their passing bends.

Mockingbirds in the ancient oak In golden madness swing and shake; Sheep like surf against a cliff Of green hills, slowly flow and break.

Then sun sank down, and with him went A pageantry whose swords are sheathed At last, as warriors long ago Let fall their storied arms and breathed

This air and found this peace as he Who across this sunset moves to rest, Finds but simple scents and sounds; And this is all, and this is best.

Here is a more than usual state of emotion and more than usual order, but the order appears to be possible because the emotion is not warped by the confusions of our age. In the other poets discussed the emotion was related to that confusion, and the interest of the poetry lay largely in the manner in which the individual poet ordered alike the expression of his feeling, and the object which gave rise to it. All three address themselves to their contemporaries, and where the emotion is purest and the order greatest, all three can speak to posterity. Unless, of course, the very memory of our confusion should vanish from man’s consciousness.


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