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Poets and New Poets

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Poems and New Poems. By Louise Bogan. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. What Are Years. By Marianne Moore. The Macmillan Company. $1.50. Be Angry at the Sun. By Robinson Jeffers. Random House. $2.50. Shenandoah. By Delmore Schwartz. New Directions. $1.00. The Poem of Bunker Hill. By Harry Brown. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00. The Mind’s Geography. By George Zabriskie. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. The Metaphysical Sword. By Jeremy Ingalls. Yale University Press. $2.00. Selected Poems. By George Barker. The Macmillan Company. $1.90.

Hese books of poetry present a wide range, not only in spirit and expression, but in technical competence. Some are filled with metaphysical yearnings, others exhibit a pedestrian realism; there are narrative poems, lyrics, and verse dramas; some of the work is completely traditional and some is idiosyncratic experiment; the group includes books by established poets as well as the first efforts of novices. It is perhaps not surprising, though it is disappointing, to find that the older poets come out best.

By far the greater part of Louise Bogan’s “Poems and New Poems” consists of poems published in earlier volumes, and it is pieced out with a couple of translations—one in prose, the other remote from the music of the original—and with such slight if penetrating things as this “Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell”:

At midnight tears

Run into your ears.

It seems noteworthy that the latest poems are not the most interesting. Rather, one returns to the sensitive and craftsmanlike lyrics which were originally gathered under other titles. Miss Bogan has a fine ear, a gift for the exact epithet, and the signal power of combining discipline with passion. As a result, even so personal a lyric as “Packet of Letters” has more than a private value, while “Baroque Comment” remains one of the memorable poems of our generation. Marianne Moore’s “What Are Years” is in the vein of her earlier work, a collection of observations made with spinster-ish precision and presented to the accompaniment of a kind of harpsichord music, charmingly delicate when first heard, but irritatingly thin when long continued, As usual, she relies largely upon quotation from a variety of sources, duly acknowledged in notes appended to the book, which adds to the somewhat pedagogical effect of the whole. The noble poem that gives the volume its title is distinguished from the rest by its intensity and power, as by its larger view.

There is more variety and surprise in “Be Angry at the Sun,” the latest volume by Robinson Jeffers, although the narrative poem with which it opens presents the familiar Paolo and Francesca theme in the familiar Point Sur setting, handled in Jeffers’s usual fashion. What is new is a sheaf of verses in a style foreign to this poet, and also the more frequent references to contemporary events. There are a few lyrics which suggest the work of such men as Yeats and Hardy, but the best things in the book are unmistakably Jeffers’s own. His prefatory note, which offers a half apology for his preoccupation with the contemporary scene, concludes by asserting that “the calm to look for is the calm at the whirlwind’s heart.” He comes closest to it in the fine lyric, “The Excesses of God,” and at the end of the piece in which the poet holds converse with the dead. There are passages in the book that seem to give color to the suspicion that Jeffers has Fascist sympathies, notably the not quite successful dramatic poem about Hitler consulting the seer-ess; but the volume as a whole rather bears testimony to the temper of an aging man in an unhappy world, a temper in which a sadness tinged with savagery moves toward philosophic resignation.

The religious attitude expressed in certain portions of Jeffers’s book is the animating spirit of Mark Van Doren’s narrative poem, “The Mayfield Deer.” But in Jeffers’s universe the part played by humanity is small and on the whole despicable, whereas Van Doren is primarily concerned with man and his moral values. Unfortunately, the fable on which he hangs his philosophizing is too slight for the weight that the poet would have it bear. In spite of its good things, one cannot help feeling that in this poem his reach has exceeded his grasp.

More interesting as attempt than as performance is Del-more Schwartz’s “Shenandoah.” The title refers not to the Civil War, but to the conflict between cultural values in a country peopled by immigrants. In spite of its large claims, the poem strikes one as dealing rather privately with the author’s personal adjustment to American life. The writing, which combines colloquial prose with faintly Eliotesque blank verse, is undistinguished, and the poet has failed to do more than suggest the significance of his theme,

Mr. Schwartz’s play gains greatly by contrast with Harry Brown’s “The Poem of Bunker Hill,” a tedious narrative interlarded with rhetorical passages and informed with a romantic vision of America. More candid and dry, but not much more interesting, are the poems in “The Mind’s Geography,” by George Zabriskie, who has an eye for certain details of the American scene, but lacks the sharpness of metaphor and the sense of cadence which would make poetry of them. There are a few telling poems in the most recent addition to the Yale Series of Younger Poets, “The Metaphysical Sword,” by Jeremy Ingalls. Miss Ingalls’s work is worth study, largely because it presents a religious attitude unusual in her generation.

George Barker takes so keen a delight in all the resources of language, the rare word, the pun, the startling conjunction of bizarre images, that in his “Selected Poems” he sacrifices intensity to an ebullient playfulness. His debts to Auden, Spender, MacNeice, and Hopkins are large, but instead of putting what he has borrowed to effective use, he throws it about in a prodigal and spendthrift fashion.

These volumes offer confirmation, if it is needed, that emotion is no substitute for craftsmanship and that no amount of skill can do duty for the poet’s vision,


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