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Varieties of Romanticism

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

The Complete Collected Poems: 1906-1938. By William Carlos Williams. Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions. $3.00. The Carnival. By Frederic Prokosch. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. M: One Thousand Autobiographical Sonnets. By Merrill Moore. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $5.00.

Here are three poets who, for all their common dedication to the proposition that life cannot be understood, exhibit three very different types of romanticism. To William Carlos Williams, the tough anti-poetic doctor, and to Merrill Moore, the soft literary psychiatrist, life is a witless sequence of fragmentary impressions, and any elevation of facts to the realm of ideas is a falsification by the corrupting intellect. At this point, any important resemblance ceases; for Williams, as “The Complete Collected Poems: 1906-1938” shows, is a fine stylist, and Moore’s “M: One Thousand Autobiographical Sonnets” shows him to be no stylist at all: the difference between great technical proficiency and a total ignorance of technique must qualify any further remarks about Williams’ and Moore’s common anti-intellectualism and common abandonment of traditional form. Frederic Prokosch, author of “The Carnival,” is more nearly a pure romantic poet than the other two. He has not reached the plane on which anti-intellectualism must be willful, and he attempts not even a fragmentary record of life as it is lived. His subject matter is confined, broadly sjieaking, to a single nostalgic mood.

The seductions of analogy are here more than ever dangerous: we are dealing with an important minor poet (certainly one of the half-dozen important poets of our time); with a young poet having a considerable gift for meter and phrase; and finally, with a man who, for all his twenty-five thousand “sonnets,” can hardly be called a poet at all. The distilled mastery of thirty-two years and eleven volumes which we have in Williams’ “Complete Collected Poems” makes ordinary itemization unnecessary, and even brief summary comment unprofitable. In one sense, Williams is a poet’s poet: only readers who have tried to face the same difficulties will realize that he mastered rather than debauched free verse, and that his workmanshij) is skillful and deliberate almost beyond the possibilities of illustration. Yet the sharp vertebrate line, so exquisitely controlled by a definite and subtle prosody, the mastery of emphasis and pause, the pure and traditional diction—all are at the service of the peculiar and fatal poetic of contemporary verse:

And we thought to escape rime by imitation of the senseless unarrangement of wild things . . .

Even though he acknowledges this direct unordered imitation to be “the stupidest rime of all,” Williams proceeds immediately to define the poet’s function as that of the cataloguing reporter.

As a reporter Williams is certainly repetitious, yet always sharp and precise. His barren subject matter, which invites a cloying sameness of imagery, is nearly always saved by a wealth of brilliant detail. He is at his worst when he tries to rise above his limitations: as a thinker he is nearly always bad. He runs the gamut of romantic ideas from A to B; from Whitmanesque or Laurentian naturalism:

My stuff

is the feel of good legs and a broad pelvis . . .

to the related naturalism of the emotions: It is passion

earlier and later than thought that rises above thought . . .

The age has had its share of photographers; of mirrors dawdling down rather sordid lanes. It has also had its share of flatulent thinkers. I suspect that the poems most likely to survive are not those on the dignity of poverty and simplicity, or on the “dignity of mud,” but rather those few which, dealing with isolated moments of grief and joy, rise above their isolation, and have something general and impersonal to say about these emotions. In the final analysis, this comes down to a matter of style: Williams is a stylist first and last. His language is at once masculine, pure, and un-derivative. It is a fact sad to contemplate that no modern poet has expended such an inordinate effort to escape the traditional and lasting medium of English poetry:

How easy to slip

into the old mode, how hard to

cling firmly to the advance.

Frederic Prokosch almost never slips out of the old mode. He is, superficially at least, a traditional poet: in his songs (such as “Evening” and “The falcon rides the waves of heaven”), a pure and unemphatic language combines with a firm and varied prosody to produce a rich slow-rhythmed style. The two poems are unpretentious, and the absence of perception is scarcely noticeable. Rut as the reader progresses to the more violent efforts, he becomes increasingly aware that everything is blurred. Life makes no more sense to Prokosch than it does to Williams, but here, instead of clean though fragmentary detail, we have merely violent rhetoric and a profusion of Shelleyean image.

The songs are so good that the failure of the longer poems comes as a real disappointment. The changes of tempo in “Evening” and in the second stanza of “The falcon rides the waves of heaven” show a skillful if unsubtle command of traditional meters, and a rare purity of diction. But in “Hesperus, the gentlest star,” we hear the familiar Hous-man metronome, and we find already a certain treacherous facility: a tendency to substitute imagery—any imagery— for perception and detail. Prokosch’s greatest faults, glib-ness and vagueness, become only too apparent in the fourth poem, “New Year’s Eve.” This is the first poem with a more or less pretentious subject: loneliness, and the nostalgia of a man living in Williams’ and Moore’s degraded and materialistic world for a time when it was possible to have romantic illusions. This, it later transpires, is the only subject on which Prokosch has anything to say; it is, simply and entirely, his subject matter.

Nearly all the poems have at least one bad line; more commonly, at least one bad stanza. But this comment is not, applied to a poet publishing only his second thin volume, wholly pejorative. The following poems, in addition to those I have mentioned, seem worth careful examination: “Sun-girdled Heliogabalus” (though the seventh and eighth lines are stolen from Swinburne), “Bathers,” “Eclogue,” “Fable,” “Fishermen,” “Idyll,” and “Nocturne.”

Merrill Moore is interesting chiefly as a subject for statistics; he is a “curiosity of literature.” Life is too short for reviewers to read all of “M: One Thousand Autobiographical Sonnets,” and it is perhaps because of this—because of the fear that one of the unread sonnets may be tolerable— that most commentators have received this fat volume with an equable charity. It would indeed be rash to estimate the limits of Dr. Moore’s subject matter, but, judging by an even three hundred sonnets, his poetic understanding is even more incomplete than that of Prokosch. (This, although his anti-intellectualism is intellectually stated, and although he writes about everything under the sun.) Section IX, “Preoccupations on the Theme of Death,” is a rather entertaining record of Dr. Moore’s hospital experiences, but even here the fifth-rate fine-writing, obtained uncritically at seventh hand, seems to have had the myopic effect which such language always has.

As I understand it, nearly everything that Dr. Moore experiences turns itself automatically into a sonnet; miasma in the form of hackneyed images and literary phrases always floats nearby. Perhaps this immediate conversion of experience into sonnets represents the highest development of modern science’s power to classify. In any case, it is apparently futile to argue with Dr. Moore about his literary methods: one can only express concern for what all this may do to the man. I think Dr. Moore ought to see a psychiatrist.


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