50 Poems. By E. E. Cummings. Duel!, Sloan and Pearce. $1.50. The Broken Span. By William Carlos Williams. New Directions. $1.00. The End of A Decade. By Harry Brown. New Directions. $1.00. Open House. By Theodore Roethke. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Selected Poems. By John Pealc Bishop. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00. Poems: 1930-1940. By Horace Gregory. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.
It is possible to read well into his “Fifty Poems” before the discomforting notion occurs to one that E. E. Cummings has exchanged the categories of pure sensation for those of pure thought. It is a disagreeable notion on the whole, because it confirms the wisdom of Cummings’s previous disposition of his affairs as a poet, and punctures a useful suggestion that he someday try his luck with an idea. No better hunch occurs to me, at any rate, for the absence of his usual collage of brothels, petals, and smiles in the present volume, and for the presence everywhere of a suffocating argot, of which the following is typical:
(daughters of if but offspring of hopefear
sons of unless and children of almost
The phenomenon which is here taking place is not intended as a parody of bigwig patter, nor is it wholly beneath serious consideration. It partakes of the serious in so far as it implements Mr. Cummings’s search for abstractions and absolutes in the years that bring the philosophic mind. Yet ripeness is not all; when Mr. Cummings returns from the syntactical gases it becomes plain that although he has more or less taken thought, he has not taken it very far:
(out of some undering joy and overing grief nothing arrives a so prodigious am a so immediate is escorts us home through never’s always until absolute unAs an exercise in teleology, this kind of double-talk is scarcely as basic as “She cannot read nor write, la moon,” or
time is a tree (this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and I am for you
It is hardly possible to affix even the customary postscript pointing patiently to Cummings’s genuine flair for small effects in the ordering of language and sensation. Only the old monkeyshines remain, to cut to ribbons not only the margins of his pages but the heart of a buoyant and venturesome idiom. Nothing ought to detain a reader among the fatigued obscenities of these poems, unless it is the spectacle of a wiseacre skipping his syntax like a handful of rubble across the parody of a talent.
Two good-sized and well-mounted pamphlets of verse by William Carlos Williams and Harry Brown are at hand in the Poet of the Month Series undertaken by the New Directions press. In Dr. Williams’s case, the word “month” may be stricken out at once, since any representative group of his poems is obviously the concern not of a month, but of poetry in our time. In “The Broken Span” Dr. Williams presents, as always, a very uncritical mixture of the slack and the intense, yet a handful of strong poems remains to confirm all the satisfactions that have become associated with this poet’s art. “In love dear love our love,” he has remarked, “detail is all”; and he turns at once to such bracing exactitudes as the “bulletheads” (of starlings) “bent back, their horny lips chattering to the morning sun,” a gull flying “upstream, his beak tilted sharply, his eye alert to the providing water.” The piquancy of the “bulletheads,” the eye for simple fact of “upstream,” and the casual precision of the “providing water” are all of a piece. As such, they constitute an effect that is no longer small, but total; and it is this total attentive-ness that endows Dr. Williams’s best work with the stature, as well as the secret, of the whole.
Harry Brown’s “The End of A Decade” offers only practice pieces in craft, tone, touch, in the late 1930 school of velocity. Mr. Brown has apprenticed himself to some fine masters and has the advantage of a good head and a trained ear; these poems, however, do not turn his abilities to any notable account. For the most part, his ear in cocked to the sound of his own voice as it picks its way cautiously among its models, without emphatic address to anyone in particular. His style is the svelte, the knowledgeable, the streamlined, and there seems to be no live correlation between the activity of his language and the specific reasons that must have existed for the writing of any given poem. The result is almost wholly facade, a process of rendering elegant one plane surface after another, all with very much the same stock of ornamental scrolls and painted perspective. Good taste and a devoted sense of purpose are everywhere evident; yet when the surfaces of his poems have been inspected one finds that the poem itself was conceived as surface, and that, this past, no further job remains for either reader or artist.
Theodore Roethke’s “Open House,” on the other hand, bears directly upon a center which is its very reason for being. Many of his lyrics refer specifically to a concept of a “core,” or seminal cluster of insights and images which stand for the identity, and make of the individual and the world a third thing, which is the poem.
Compression cannot break A center so congealed The tool can chip no flake The core lies sealed.
In the special stresses of his own struggle, it is hate, as well as art, which accomplishes the work of compression. Mr. Roethke nowhere confronts his demon squarely enough, but the feud begins, apparently, with the very accident of physical selfhood—”Myself is what I wear”—and the attendant imagery of blood, bones, veins, skin, strikes at times almost a lacerative emphasis.
Even in the slighter descriptive pieces, all is concentered, aimed, intended. Fine lyrics like “The Coming of the Cold” begin as a capacity for delight in the “known particulars” of a countryside or a season, and end as a test of identity. Ample time is allowed for private exactitudes of all sorts: the pumpkins that “sweat a bitter oil,” the special angle of vision in
A man’s head is an eminence upon
A field of barley spread beneath the sun.
Nor is it surprising to find that Mr. Roethke’s operative words are monosyllables: adjectives like “spare,” “strict,” “pure,” “sere,” “ripe,” “fine,” “true”; nouns like “rage,” “shock,” “hate,” “poise,” “maze,” “care,” “blood.” All drive strenuously toward what is most essential in his thought, and in “Death Piece” and “Road to Woodlawn,” they fall like blows to testify that “the true substance bears the hammer’s weight.” Other lyrics, like “Feud,” “Prognosis,” “Genesis,” reveal the strains of craft when brought to bear on concepts and abstractions. Here the poet’s pressures, instead of fusing the parts, drive wedges between the statements and rhythms, and Roethke is left to patch his lines with substitute diction like “legacy of pain,” “vocal brook,” “inclement weather,” “antic branch,” “gilds the scene.”
Horace Gregory’s “Poems: 1930-1940” and John Peale Bishop’s “Selected Poems” continue a labor of selection and collection recently in progress among the poets of the last decade. Mr. Bishop, in a handsomely written piece called “Speaking of Poetry,” stresses the need for a sustaining “ceremony” that will “wed Desdemona to the huge Moor,”
Traditional, with all its symbols
Ancient as the metaphors in dreams
Strange, with never before heard music; continuous
Until the torches darken at the bedroom door.
The allusions in these extremely well-made poems touch upon the principal epochs that comprise the modern humanistic tradition: Greek myths, friezes, dances, wars; Roman politics from the time of the barbarian invasions; translations from Petronius and the Palatine Anthology; profane and devotional mediaeval lore; Renaissance drama; Donne; Rimbaud—up to the First World War, the depression years, “snow in Connecticut,” and the heraldics of Mr. Bishop’s private involvement in the American tradition.
Occasionally, as in “No More the Senator” and “An Interlude,” Mr. Bishop’s multiple contexts strike almost too close to home for comfort, and the play of nuance is always high-spirited and responsible. The point is that the poems are felt as play rather than as enactments of experience—as things done with the resources of an able wit and a lively technique, operating upon traditions readymade, instead of penetrating the fund of the past. We are content with such an order of poetry if Mr. Bishop is; yet his intention is plain;
. . . it is not enough That they should meet, naked, at dead of night In a small inn on a dark canal. . . . The ceremony must be found.
Horace Gregory has found both a ceremony that is his own and a manual of devotion fitted to his times. His emphasis is a purgatorial one on the whole, a struggle for affirmations, in which the will to die and the will to survive engage each other at close quarters. “Chorus for Survival,” his third volume, offers the completest resolution of his position, yet his very earliest pieces are among the most urgent he has written. Their indignation, however, remains somewhat private, lonely, fractured, and the counterplay of out* rage and sympathy is at times pointlessly strident. The full tone emerges in the variations of “Chorus for Survival,” where the “ceremony” is acknowledged to be tentative, mysterious in character, and the bravado of “Chelsea Rooming House” reshapes itself as prayer:
Tell us that love
returns, Not soft nor kind
But like a crystal turning in the mind Light where the body is.
Survival is seen at last to imply a pattern of continuing test and struggle, rather than a gift of grace—a context which the individual creates for himself out of the intellectual, sensory, and procreative resources within him.
The collection reprints the material of Mr. Gregory’s three volumes published from 1930-1935, and offers a group of new pieces (1935-1940). The more recent poems are in a vein of oblique self-characterization popularized by Eliot, but I find it difficult to collate either the spinsterly Abigail and Minerva or the baroque Mirabel with any of the poet’s previous commitments. What is unclear is the very reason for their construction in these terms, for, along with the imagery of sundials, fortune-telling, wishing-castles, letters, family papers, and an over-all slackening of rhythms, they imply a shift in the center of gravity that is major. In the altered perspectives, something has gone blue with distance, and what was once neither “soft nor kind” seems almost plaintive.