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Poets and the European Sickness

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

Valhalla and Other Poems. By Robert Francis. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. The Five-Fold Mesh. By Ben Belitt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Concerning the Young. By Willard Maas. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.00. A Glad Day. By Kay Boyle. Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions. $2.00.

“VALHALLA,” by Robert Francis, is a beautiful long poem, not too long, being one hundred pages; some excellent lyrics are appended. Of the books under review, it constitutes the solidest piece of work. It records the whole history of a family in Vermont with almost Greek fidelity; rather say it is another emanation of the somber, trenchant spirit of New England. Restraint, dignity, austerity mark the work. The poem will compare favorably with a long poem by Robinson or Frost; it has the intensity of a Jeffers long piece, without the fireworks: there is a steadier flame instead.

In brief, the poem deals with the idyllic life of a family in Vermont, united on its farmstead called Valhalla. It treats of time and the parents, their three children, and the final death of all, except one child. Eden, having made a marriage of necessity, and having gone away, lives—the only character integrated with life beyond the farms: what a subtle point is there I The author uses a poetic blank verse remarkable for its strength, lean and efficient, and for its sustained tenderness. Mr. Francis possesses the ability not to overstate; there is no sentimentality. The verse moves with subtle balance and composure. Everywhere there is compassion for the characters, no blinking at the tragedy of each life, but a mature acceptance. Especially in his handling of the young is Mr. Francis adroit; his Leif, and Eden, and Johanna are remarkably portrayed. He has almost an uncanny way of indicating some major change in the history of a character by a plain statement, the meaning of which is nevertheless oblique. The impact of what has happened comes out later. The poem is a “Comedie humaine” in little. The issues are central, universal. The philosophy is one of recognition, acceptance, but without weakness. Starkness and despair are mitigated by humane feelings; the author is too civilized to champion ultimate starkness and despair. Indeed, the mood is wonderfully serene, although the worst has happened: “We die from what we love. It has to be.”

Even random quotations show the texture of the verse: “So when you eat the peas you eat the year.” “They heard the storm-sigh of Valhalla trees.” “A man may love the woman that he steals from.” “Besides, who lives alone needs no great fire.” “The years that once seemed many and now seemed few.” And:

Death was the word that no one dared to say. Death was darkness and the beautiful deer. Death was lightning, storm, the sea Leif loved Drawing him down and down with open eyes.

Anyone who has attempted a long poem will know Mr. Francis’s

need for a world Clean-cut, uncompromising, self-contained

—terms which fit the poem.

In several ways Ben Belitt’s “The Five-Fold Mesh” and Willard Maas’s “Concerning the Young” may be contrasted. In the former, the emotion has been controlled, and cast in formal patterns; in the latter, one senses an attempt sometimes to burst the bonds of verse. Mr. Belitt is willing to print the concentrated results of eight years of writing; Mr. Maas is diffuse, wishes to find an answer to urgent problems which assail him forcibly in the present. If Mr. Belitt misses some of Mr. Maas’s fire, Mr. Maas, by diffusion, fails to produce, throughout, complete poems. The one is more private and traditional; the other more socially conscious, and experimental. There is something gravid about Mr. Belitt’s work, yet you are not so fetched by a lyric of his that you know it will stick in your mind continuously; Mr. Mass’s poems can excite, yet their imperfections assail one from too many pages. My point is something like this: Mr. Belitt has suffered, but does not inflame us with his realizations; Mr. Maas has suffered, but one is not content with the residuum.

In his volume Mr. Maas, with “Contemporary Legend,” strives to find “something to live for” in a world, as he says elsewhere, “With machine guns mounted on the window sills.” The poem employs a kaleidoscopic technique; lines are broken down into staccato, abbreviated rhythms.

In Section V of this poem (compare also the second stanza of “Valedictory”) witness the line “The pink and yellow advertisements in the subway train,” which suffers by qualitative comparison with Crane’s

There is some way, I think, to touch Those hands of yours that count the nights Stippled with pink and green advertisements.

Similar flatness is found in lines like “The world is large and the happenings small.” Also, poems like “Stop Watch” or “Express in Passing” exhibit a contemporary offense of images run together without benefit of strict grammar.

“Journey and Return” is a good poem, but again single lines suffer by comparison: “Millionaires and their Byzantine towers” lacks the reference and incision of Eliot’s lines on the silk-hatted Bradford millionaire.

“And the delicate lips set savagely Against the world” finds a more mature utterance in Mr. Belitt’s “And loose the inward wound to bleed afresh,” from “The Unregenerate,” in which Mr. Belitt sees, and asks:

The hand of God laid over, like a stain:

Where shall the flesh find sanctuary

From the hard query

That looks forever toward the burning city

And the mortal fault,

Probing the ashes of its wrath and pity,

Freezing the mind to salt?

Kay Boyle needs no introduction as a prose writer. Her poems have needed to be introduced by James Laughlin IV of New Directions. “A Glad Day” as title sets the mood; she is gay, sprightly, mildly exciting: the effect of the whole book is that of a kind of extravaganza. Poetry is here not the fundament. Miss Boyle either does not care seriously about a poem as an inviolable entity, or else she is unable to make a poem exist as a perfect whole (exceptions: “A Letter to Francis Picabia” and “Career”). Her poems exist as lesions of prose, generally speaking; the most poetical lines, good in themselves, are pathologically attached to the prose body. It is interesting to note that the prosaic surd takes much from Pound. She has taken part of Pound’s method, but has not used it so thoroughly, subtly, or well.

An example of the above contention may be seen in “Angels for Djuna Barnes,” where there are two pages of long lines with the more properly “poetic” effort stuck on at the end, this last a serious poem providing a fusion of formal method with personal statement.

Miss Boyle has the European sickness. One enjoys the artiness of a decade in reading her. Poems are addressed to Laurence Vail, Nancy Cunard, Djuna Barnes, William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, Harry Crosby, Francis Picabia, and others. You feel that she had to do this to make it all more sociable, and to cover up an inferiority in the poems. It is all so European, so complex, so slightly decadent; a few indecent words are sprinkled in, to show superiority to the usual canons. And if you strike the titles from such poems as those above, named for friends, the poems suffer. You could switch names in some cases and it would make no difference. One poem is addressed, in particular, to M. N., R. D., M. R., J. G., H. M., H. C, B. S., M. M., H. C. Jr. The title becomes a pictograph, more impressive than the poem, although this poem is pleasing. Finally, the book has newly minted prose passages, many fine lines. One will be glad to have read it. The entertainment value is considerable.


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