A Critic And Poets
FROM that stimulating and witty volume, The Fine Art of Reading (Stratford co., $2.50), by Professor Robert E. Rogers. I lift this quotation: ’Poetry is the result of the imagination at work daydreaming, making something out of nothing, spinning out its fancies like a spider her thread, making pictures, telling stories.’ The definition may be handy in reading Mr. Morrison’s estimate of some contemporary poets.
A CRITC AND POETS
Practical Criticism, by I. A. Richards (Harcourt, Brace. may well be recommended to readers ol poetry. It is an attempt, not to express final or personal æsthetic criteria, but to examine into the difficulties which a group of intelligent students actually found in the appreciation of poetry. The best way to treat difficulties is to secure specimens, Mr. Richards accordingly gave the members of his group printed sheets on which appeared a series of poems, with no indication of authorship, and asked them for written criticisms. These criticisms reveal, one would imagine, nearly all possible barriers to appreciation. The procedure was rudimentary, and of course the criticisms are rudimentary. A ot even a practised and enthusiastic reader of poetry can refine his faculties by the kinds and degrees of failure Mr. Richards has brought to light. The book contains also, among other suggestive chapters, some excellent and valuable remarks on poetic form.
The great and primary failure, of course, was in understanding. But more is involved, as Mr. Richards shows, than simple misapprehension of mere sense. This vras fundamental and surprisingly frequent . But, not to mention other mistakes and incapacities, failure to understand the ’tone’ in which the poet was addressing his hearers was equally disastrous.
Mr. Richards makes more than ever clear what ought always to be evident, that a poem, for the reader, is an experience—an experience in which sense, form, tone, and emotion are merged in a felt whole. Let but one of these elements fail to be apprehended, and the misunderstanding is apt to be total, for no element is independent of the others.
It follows that we may ask of the poet sense worthy of occupying the mind, form capable of arousing æsthetic pleasure, the tone of a man addressing his fellows in one of the large, recognized ways, whether tragic, ironic, or lyric, and emotion springing from the union of the other three. What experiences, in this quadruple sense, arc the poets of the day creating for us? I have just come from reading several new books of poems with an enthusiasm which I hardly expected to feel when setting out. bet me begin with Malcolm Cowley, whose Blue Juniata (Cape and Smith, is his first volume of verse. The book contains a number of pieces marked by quiet and sensitive excellence, along with a larger number that fail, either through weakness, immaturity, or because their material is inherently inferior. In such poems as ‘The Urn,’‘The Death of Crowds,’ ‘The Streets of Air,’ Mr. Cowley’s somewhat attenuated blank verse is very delicately and beautifully attuned. His thought, not large, is sensitively perceptive; his images are particularly well matched. ‘The Urn’ is a poem that truly forms a precious possession; it can be turned to again and again and read with gratitude.
S. Foster Damon has given his new book of poems the needlessly preposterous title Tilted Moons (Harper, $2.00). Mr. Damon, a scholar and critic as well as poet, gives much more to the reader in the way of experience than Mr. Cowley. His thought is larger, more acute, and more mature. It draws on much wider resources of reflection and reading. He is able to give in condensed, sharp stanzas dramatic summaries of characters and situations, ironically pointed. Moral judgments are present in his poems: they are sound and terse, as in his stanzas on the woman taken in adultery, entitled ’Magdalene Festival.’ I should not say that Mr. Damon is an exponent of grace or richness in poetic style. A dryness can be felt in the measure of his lines as well as in their thought and wit. There is little undulation. The intellectual qualities arc the chief, and they are of great merit. Yet his imagination is resourceful, and many original and striking figures are at his command. Mr. Damon has included in his book several fugitive impressions reminiscent of Amy Lowell, which might well have been left out or worked into larger and better-formed poems. But he deserves a tribute for his ode written for the Beethoven Festival in Boston two years ago. It takes a high place among occasional odes.
Hervcy Allen’s New Legends (Farrar and Rinehart, $2.00) reveals him as a thoroughly accomplished poet, thoroughly mature in his mastery of poetic style — varied rhythms, richness of verbal texture, line command of imaginative figures. His tone is of the most agreeable, pleasant lightness. Il is unusual to find this in conjunction with the true breath and being of poetry, but the union is present in Hervey Allen. I make these remarks thinking largely of one poem in the book; others reveal the same qualities in less degree, and with less significance of matter. ‘Sarah Simon’ is the poem that particularly excites my enthusiasm. It is a long story in blank verse, and il is a rare experience to read anything that gives equal delight as poetry, at the same time contriving to be so wise, human, fresh, and touching. Continual lightness and continual poetry flow together in the verse, while the long life of the simple, heroic Negro woman, with her love of earth and animals, her knowledge of them, and the gradual alienation of her stupid children through the well-meant intervention of misunderstanding whites, is told with discernment, humor, and pathos. Hervey Allen delights in effects of opulence and color, of the exotic; but in ’Sarah Simon’ this habit of mind is merged with becoming simplicity. One could believe fora page or so that Sarah belonged on Cape Cod instead of in the tropics, that she was white instead of black; and she never loses a self-reliance that would be at home in New England.
All these are men of excellent capacity, but still men. A figure of an altogether different stature has been waiting in the background. Robinson Jeffers has much in common with the great story-tellers, and something in common with the masters of poetic drama. his power seems at times to be almost without limit the strong, sw ift compression of his phrases, his rapid, condensed command of narration.
Great tragedy is the prov ince of Mr. Jeffers, but he has committed some aberrations in the to government of his realm. He is as nearly wit limit reticences as a writer can well be. I feel that his rough assaults on traditional modesty are often entirely natural and justified. They have a function in the story he is telling, and Mr. Jeffers is simply not even faintly prudish. But at times his disregard of the usual rules of restraint is not really needed, and then the detail in question might better be left out. And the trouble goes deeper. In some of the poems for which Mr. Jeffers is best known — ‘ Roan Stallion’ and ‘Tamar,’ for example — the material as a whole is at fault. Incest is a favorite and not very successful subject. I am not sure how far some of his most violent scenes are intended for symbolism, and how far some of his failures may be due to imperfect mastery of it. In any case, what the reader finds is horror so extreme that it falls into the grotesque, and misses its object by excess.
But read Jeffers at his best, as he may be seen in ‘The Tower beyond Tragedy and in the principal poems contained in his new book. In ‘The Tower beyond Tragedy’ he deserts his favorite scene, California, for ancient Greece, and writes a poetic drama on the return of Agamemnon to Mycernæ, his murder by Clytemmestra, and the vengeance of Orestes. It is magnificent. No one has guessed the depth, the height, the power of contemporary poetry until he has listened to the Cassandra of Robinson Jeffers, and the voice of the murdered king crying through her. In this poem the music of Jeffers is at its best. I do not feel that he always makes the form of his work count as form. His usual lines are long, irregular, and unrhymed. True, they are often strongly rhythmic, and not as loose as the vagabond sentences of Whitman. But their length usually forbids the recognition of typical units of rhythm, on which the form of poetry so much depends. In ’The Tower beyond Tragedy,’ however, Jeffers succeeds in combining freedom from the usual measures with the distinct and unmistakable presence of poetry. The lines are like a pack of hounds in full cry — noble music indeed to the ears of any reader wearily dissatisfied with the ‘diminutive lyrics’ to which so many magazines and volumes of the day are limited. One thinks of Shakespeare’s envious phrase, in the sonnets, for his rival: ‘The proud full sail of his great verse.'
‘The Tower beyond Tragedy’ may be read in Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (Horace Liveright, $3.00). Jeffers’s new book. Dear Judas (Horace Liveright, $2.50), is in his best strain. The title poem is a pseudo-drama on the Passion. What other profane writer has dreamt such a Christ, such a Judas, such a Mary, let alone setting them down in the glory of such poetry? ’The Loving Shepherdess’ is a story of to-day, terrible and harrowing, but full of poetic beauty and power. Who would have his bowels of compassion wrung, let him read this. Other poems cry for mention, but I must leave the reader to explore Jeffers for himself.