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Without a Common Denominator

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

One Times One. By E. E. Cummings. Henry Holt and Company. $2.00, The Seven Sleepers. By Mark Van Doren. Henry Holt and Company. $2.50, Selected Poems: 1923-1943. By Robert Penn Warren. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The Giant Weapon. By Yvor Winters. New Directions, $1.00. A Wreath for the Sea. By Robert Fitzgerald. New Directions. $2.50. An Act of Life, By Theodore Spencer. Harvard University Press. $2.00, Love Letter from an Impossible Land. By William Meredith. Yale University Press. $2.00. Passport to the War. By Stanley Kunitz. Henry Holt and Company. $2.00. Poems. By Dunstan Thompson. Simon and Schuster. $2.00.

Among the nine poets whose recent books I shall no- tice, Mr. Cummings is the most widely known, because of the e. e. cummings manner. And this manner has its advantages. The distorted typography suggests those stretchings and shrinkings of the moment’s experience that reveal the integral whimsicalities of life. Then, too, it is well adapted to satire. Hence it is that the satirical poems in “One Times One” stick in the mind more firmly than the others. For instance, Mr. Cummings has in four lines said the definitive word on that useful and ubiquitous anthologist, “mr u.” But when Mr. Cummings writes of love, his manner is too often merely an irrelevant masquerade for a conception of love one has met before:

. . . the worlds move in your
(and rest, my love) honour

A song, a dream, sunlight, a rose—the usual furniture of love —are re-arranged but not transmuted by these verse-forms.

Incidentally, the e. e. cummings manner has sobered. There are but few wild vertical distortions of ordinary arrangements. Parentheses splitting a word or phrase frequently appear, and capitals are not used. But the most pervasive oddity is a matter of diction. Adverbs and indefinite or interrogative pronouns—”where” and “which” and “who”—replace expected nouns. I suppose Mr. Cummings would signify by this device that generalities are lifeless. Only the particularized I and she and it deserve the accolade of noun-hood. But this is no innovation in Mr. Cummings’ poetry; and his book as a whole breaks no new ground.

In every way a solider book is Mr. Van Doren’s “The Seven Sleepers.” The six titled sections are concerned respectively with war, man’s general nature, the characters of particular men, the countryside, the traditions of education, and the life of the family (probably an autobiographical section). In general, the poetry represents a mind disciplined by reflection and matured by experience. It is the mind of, in the good sense, a literary philosopher. But per-haps not quite a mind ineluctably destined to poetry. It often seems as if Mr. Van Doren had deliberately translated his ideas into symbols, rather than attended upon the symbol until it wears the complexion of an idea. The best poems seem to me those in which an image or cluster of homogeneous images constitutes the structure of the whole poem; for a central image can be held before the writer’s mind by an act of reflective will. Metaphors flashed out by the way are a sign of the poet to the manner born; but with Mr. Van Doren, such images often tend to fly off een-trifugally from the poem’s theme. “Single Hero” and Total War” illustrate his characteristic kind of success. Still, one of the most striking poems—”Down World”— does embody thinking through rather than translation into symbol. As for more general preferences, I think the poet is less at ease in the first or war section than in the section he calls “The Middle Creature,” concerned with the general estate of a being “a little lower than the angels.” War is something which Mr. Van Doren feels obliged to think about, no doubt, but it does not spur his imagination. I like better his Connecticut farm-scapes with their sober hues and economical detail. I can even see this poet as a self-subdued Horace living in a more modest—as befits Connecticut— Sabine villa, practising the trivium, respecting the quad-rivium, and enjoying his family. (On the former two points, see the same author’s delightful “Liberal Education.”)

Of most enduring importance among these books is, I think, Mr. Warren’s “Selected Poems.” For in this poetry the image, the idea, and the phrase form a trinity in unity, each of the members supplying definition to the other two, yet no one being lost in the others. There is philosophy in this poetry, also, but in the best poems it is not readily detachable as doctrine. The poem is the object or idea or moment elucidating itself; the philosophy is the elucidated material. This kind of philosophy overflows doctrine, for it is coterminous with experience.

Some 68 pages of later poems have been placed first, followed by a concluding group of 28 pages of earlier poems. Probably Mr. Warren wished to direct attention upon his more recent work, and that work deserves it. Yet a reader unfamiliar with these poems would do well to begin with the earlier ones, which are less complexly phrased. In them the young poet is occupied with the intense though not as yet markedly varied particulars of his experience, and more especially with the contours and shadows assumed by these particulars when assembled in a vista leading on to death. This pre-occupation seems, incidentally, to be a “note” of young poets before any full relation of love between themselves and their own generation has given them matters nearer at hand to think about. Re this as it may, these earlier poems are in no way mawkish. They are scrupulously phrased, and their rhythms are at once energetic and controlled. Among them, the brilliantly macabre “Pondy Woods” has already become a permanent item in the Platonic idea of an American anthology.

Many of the later poems also are touched with a sense of the ominous, or at least of impending urgency. Rut the earlier tinge of sorrow has been purged away; for death, when confronted less egoistically, no longer directs its sharp sword of loss point-blank at one’s own desires. In Mr. Warren’s maturer work the dark element is not so much death as the conspiracy of heredity with time—man’s self joining with his exterior foe to overthrow him. In “The Ballad of Billie Potts” a well-told Kentucky ballad-story and the poet’s comment on its symbolical value alternate— a device, in my opinion, not wholly successful—until at the close the two fuse in what I must admit is a thrilling realization of the ominousness of human endings. The names of other poems—”Terror,” “Pursuit,” “Original Sin,” “Crime,” and “Ransom”—evidence Mr. Warren’s characteristic motif. Yet without losing his native poetic accent he can achieve quite different successes, as in the humorously mordant “Mexico Is a Foreign Country: Five Studies in Naturalism.” (By contrast, “Variations: Ode to Fear” seems to me merely rather unimportant high jinks.) Also delightful is the modulation on a theme entitled “The Garden: On prospect of a fine day in early autumn.” And the imaginative method, as well as the style, varies. In “Aubade for Hope” an acutely realized scene is transposed in the closing lines to the plane of psychology. Conversely, in “Revelation,” two pages later, a psychological situation is prior to and predominant in the ordering of the imagery.

I can best convey directly Mr. Warren’s quality by quoting what seems to me a beautiful stanza from a fine poem, “Eidolon”:

All night, in May, dogs barked in the hollow woods; Hoarse, from secret huddles of no light, By moonlit bole, hoarse, the dogs gave tongue. In May, by moon, no moon, thus: I remember Of their far clamor the throaty, infatuate timbre.

Mr. Yvor Winters, to judge by this “selection of the poet’s best work of the past fifteen years” began as poet with the interests and technique of an Imagist, and as critic began as, or has become, a Stoic in the Aurelius-to-Arnold vein. Sometimes the two elements lie side by side in his poetry, as in “Sonnet to the Moon” and “An Elegy.” At first the reader may be disturbed by the accompanying transition in style, but several readings will, I think, show that the juncture is skilfully managed. I am less able to approve of all the manifestations of Mr. Winters’ ethics. He is admirably frank and ardent in defense of individual victims of injustice; and as a change from the kind of welldoing that dissipates itself in enlightened sociological generalizations, this is refreshing. Rut Mr. Winters on occasion generalizes, too; and when he does so, he seems to me unduly minatory:

Fool and scoundrel guide the State.
Peace is whore to Greed and Hate.

Still, this outbreak is exceptional. More generally, one may object that poetry which is usually restrained in style and attitude gains most from being encountered in the mass. There are not enough poems in this book to make the reader feel the centrality of whatever ideas Mr, Winters regards as central in his work as a whole.

Writing like Mr. Winters in that his style is equable and the logical relations between his images or metaphors are made explicit (with a few Symbolist exceptions), Mr. Robert Fitzgerald offers in “A Wreath for the Sea” a considerably larger body of poetry in “a sequence, setting various realms of imagery, personal and impersonal, in relief against each other.” This scheme is carried out by group ing the poems into numbered sections, some devoted to themes with a contemporary or even autobiographical setting, others devoted to translations or suggestions from the Classics, chiefly Latin. For example, “Georgic” consists, so far as I have investigated the matter, of passages translated from Vergil’s “First Georgie”; and in “Farewell” readers will recognize Catullus’ “Furi et Aureli.” “Latium,” however, is Mr. Fitzgerald’s own coolly favorable estimate of the Romans:

With strict limitation on mourners,
Funeral dirges and incense,
They sanely buried their dead.

And in such a title as “Quo Dolore Contenebratum Est Cor Meum” the author’s Latinity reaches over into one of the contemporary sections, in this instance to caption a plangent lament that suggests the technique of a Rimbaud more than that of any Roman.

It is the richness of traditional resources contained in this Classical (and, to strengthen the influence, Roman Catholic) heritage that gives Mr. Fitzgerald an initial advantage as poet. Mr. Winters’ mind no doubt possesses a comparable order, and very possibly maintains more of it more constantly focused in consciousness; but effort has gone into achieving this result that might otherwise have gone into writing more poems. Besides, Mr. Fitzgerald has the kind of equanimity in the face of human derelictions from human standards, which a great tradition brings along with its standards. Most of his poetry does not, it is true, seem charged with a high potential of emotion. Still, a great deal of this commodity is loose on the world in various manifestations just now, so there is a timely place for the attitude of I imagine
Of time and the great dead, they too
Correctly make a tune with me; let me
Behold by their grave light my minuscule
Part in the swaying and tranquil grandeur here.
“Minuscule” skilfully expiates what would have been the sin of pride committed by the passage, had the word been lacking.

The next two books—both small—I must dismiss briefly. Professor Spencer’s is a by-product of the activity of an eminently gifted university teacher of English. About half the book is occupied by three poems delivered on Phi Beta Kappa occasions. Such poems must be serious, eloquent (except that nowadays interspersed tunefulness is allowed), and not so subtle or surprising as wholly to elude the listening ear of the well-fed. Professor Spencer meets these requirements completely; and one long poem, “The Alumni,” is incisive as well as thoughtful. And such shorter poems as “Inspection,” “Organism,” and “The Phoenix” demonstrate that their author has read wisely and is properly emulous of his masters. But more important is Lieutenant William Meredith’s “Love Letter from an Impossible Land,” for it is a beginning of what may be a main product. Not markedly rewarding are the earlier pages, taken up by an introduction by Archibald MacLeish, an admiration for Matthew Arnold, and some about graduating-age poems in which a seeming-solid vesture of ingenious phrasing under steady scrutiny collapses about the outlines of some simple enough theme. But the later poems in the book, in which the author, at the time of writing them a Navy flier stationed in the Aleutians, records his notations of the “impossible land” and of war in the air seen, as MacLeish says, “from within that experience,” reveal an adult mind reducing the intractable asperity of nature and tumult of man to an equilibrium of poetic statement. Mr. Meredith seems as poet and man to have attained imaginative self-possession.

Like Mr. Warren, Corporal Stanley Kunitz has divided his book, “Passport to the War,” into two sections, placing later poems in Part Two, and in Part One poems reprinted from his earlier book, “Intellectual Things,” now out of print. Aside from poems dealing with love, the chief themes are two: the author’s wrestle with his recognition of the fact that the tradition of family and culture within which he stands has been to many human beings an object of scorn or persecution; and the author’s search for the “Single Vision,” as the title of one poem runs—a search more complexly developed in “Invocation” and “The Guilty Man.” It seems as if, to distort T. S. Eliot’s phrase, Mr. Kunitz were saying to himself, “I must exist, having to eliminate experiences in order to exist.” Such an aim is typically an intellectualist’s way of ordering his life; and the text of these poems easily evokes the epithet—in no depreciatory sense— “intellectual.” One source of this impression is the fact that no one of these poems seems anchored to a recognizable person or scene or object, save one, “Careless Love,” which is about guns. The rest all appear to emanate from situations. I suspect this trait may result from life in a megalopolis; is Mr. Kunitz a product of New York City? In such an environment, men and the merchandise of men so scurry and swarm upon the attention that they become unpar-ticularized; they blur and merge into unhuman forces beating upon the soul. To embody his perception of these forces the poet may have no resource other than an excogitated imagery, drawn item by item from what the poet’s fantasies have learned from Freud or wherever. A universe of surrealism proliferates to upholster the bareness of reality, A good example of this outcome is the “Poem” on pages 42-3. The effect upon the reader is a kind of dry excitement. The instructed sincerity of Mr. Kunitz’ intentions sustains the reader on his way, but at the end the reader may suspect that elsewhere the waters of Helicon are less brackish.

And Mr. Dunstan Thompson’s “Poems” almost over-prove the suspicion. What a spouting of images and phrases and alliterations this young soldier poet cascades over us! The first poem, “Water Music,” begins:

Over the river, sleeping, sleep your nights
Of never my delights, of famous flights,
Not mine, outshining moonstone stars, displayed
Like summer sailors from black water drawn
To dance on malachite, to prance parade
Past queens last-quarter afternoons of dawn,
First sunset mornings, break-of-day midnights,
O as the snow swans end their Rhenish flights.

The reader who for the first time steadily reads his way through fifty-five pages of this, is likely to feel simply stupefied. His imagination is swollen to bursting; he lies drenched and weltering in language. Rut a long breath, a restful pause, and then recognitions—stepping-stones for the imagination—strike the mind’s eye. Marlowe? Something of that; and “Prince Atlantis” with its From Babylon to Bagdad, from seven Troys, and its allusions to “Dr. Faustus” and to “Hero and Lean-der” underline the suggestion. The alliterations and interjected “O’s” hark back to Gerard Manley Hopkins who, whatever the Jesuits and his own theories may say, was nobly intoxicated by words. Several poems are addressed to George Barker, whose stylistic penchant is not dissimilar to Mr. Thompson’s. I question whether Mr. Thompson has got hold of more than the lesser side of “Marvel, the perfect poet”; at any rate, his text does not preserve the correct spelling of that poet’s name. The title “Images of Disaster” suggests surrealism—perhaps Dali or (rather, one hopes) Chirico. In temperament, though not in verse form, Mr. Thompson reminds one of that other American poet, Hart Crane, whose Bridge turned out to be a symbol he could not make viable because the symbol of his own nature was so obviously the sky-rocket. Mr. Thompson’s pyrotechnics are gorgeous.

Now, people who soar may be soaring toward, or away from. Crane was soaring away from personal dilemmas of frustration. The occasionally elaborate and always ordered stanzas of Mr. Thompson suggest that his personal situation is unlike Crane’s. Yet when one examines the sentiments in Mr. Thompson’s poems about the war, one is disconcerted at coming so frequently upon lines in the vein of The dead young man stood up in his grave: “Grieve, grieve for me,” he said. “I was brave . .  Elsewhere, Mr. Thompson well says Death is the chance we take to come of age. But there is a good deal in this poetry of youth pitying itself for being untimely cut short. In this respect, the attitude toward young men a-soldiering is much like that of A. E. Housman, only now it is one of the young men who addresses his fellows; and these are more than unpcrsonal-ized young lustiness: they are represented as personalities of talent and imagination. One does not feel with Mr. Thompson, as sometimes uncomfortably with Housman, that the poet’s years disqualify him for his attitude towards those of whom he writes. Still, this young author seems not to have ventured beyond comradeship—the celebration of its affections and sorrow at its cessation. And this limitation is a mark of adolescence. (Marlowe, it will be remembered, was in some respects adolescent to the day of his death.) To be sure, war is in part a prolongation or re-enactment of adolescence—luckily, of its touching heroisms as well as of its less desirable features; and the affectionate loyalties so vivid during adolescence are serviceable in war. But the inescapable fact remains that adolescence is not maturity. Mr. Thompson has brilliantly expressed the emotions of the young man already aware of his manhood, but not yet aware of the direction in which it must go. He must beware of letting his style hide from him his spiritual duty. He must go on to grapple with the inward adversary whose counsel is always, “Look back.”

In sum, I may say that from these recent books, I get the impression that an idiom of poetry has come into being which to the future may seem as generally characteristic of our age as what we call the “eighteenth-century poetic idiom” seems to us typical of its age. The dominant features of this idiom are the rhythms of T. S. Eliot’s longer-lined choruses, and the images and phrases of early Auden, though I do not suggest that these two poets have been the direct or only or even chief sources of these effects. As for particular judgments, Mr. Warren to date has achieved most; and what in the future will happen to Mr. Thompson is the most presently interesting matter for speculation.


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