Untitled Book Review

EVER since the days of English bards and Scotch reviewers, it has been customary to take our poets with a pinch of salt — or a smear of honey. According to Theodore Morrison, who is both poet and teacher, we need more salt to-day.
FROM the account of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, himself an old campaigner and eyewitness, Archibald MacLeish has derived material for his Conquistador (Houghton Mifflin’, $2.50), which treats of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. Mr. MacLeish seems to speak most naturally and magically when he evokes the sense of a long past or of the earth as the transmitter of speaking legends and racial echoes:
The clean wave runs among the island flowers:
Ancient is all that earth: a long-used dwelling:
The dead are silent in that ashy ground.
Such is the turn given to Bernal’s reminiscences. Perhaps the best section of Conquistador is that called ’Bernal Diaz Preface to His Hook, in which the old conqueror indulges freely his memories and the sentiment they breed in him. But Mr. MacLeish gives a welcome freshness and immediacy to any scene which calls upon the senses. It is when he has to go beyoud the immediate world of sensation and memory, with their natural accompaniment of feeling, that he gives less satisfaction. It seems true of many literary artists to-day that in oblique psychic suggestions they show an uncanny power, while in overt reflection they are ill at ease and distrustful. So when Mr. MacLeish says.
The sad thing is not death: the sad thing
Is the life’s loss out of earth when the living vanish,
the drop in tone and style is noticeable. Moreover, Mr. MacLeish’s method prevents the solidity and coherence of structure which would have enabled Conquistador to make a more lasting impression. It is rather a series of allusions, deliberately disjointed, than a full-bodied narrative poem of the conquest; and so its parts are more impressive than its whole. Not only are moral and historical perspectives less rich and clear than we might ask, but definite characterization suffers as well.
One rises from a first acquaintance with the poetry of Robinson Jeffors feeling the shock of enormous power; and it is true that Mr. Jeffers is possessed of power. The difficulty is that on examination so much of his strength turns out to be studied violence. It may be that in Thurso’s Landing (Liveright, $2,50) the story suffers by the very fact that it approaches more closely to reality than Tamar or Roan Stallion. The gigantesque figures of some of the author’s earlier narratives have become human; and, moving obviously on the plane of men and women, they expose more clearly those elements of overstrain and extravagance which
deform the work of Mr. Jeffers. Often enough in Thurso’s Landing he reveals the force and pregnancy of the pure poet in him; and sometimes, amid the general violence of the story, he reveals the eye and hand of an unusual narrator. But the book is vitiated by a central weakness: the degree to which, in story, in temper, in language, in imagination, it is constructed of purely physical horror and agony. There is no denying the merciless particularity, the awful inventiveness and imagination, with which Mr. Jeffers goes about bis ghastly work. But shocking extremities of purely physical injury and pain, descriptions of crushed lizards and of broken human backs, are not in themselves of any artistic significance, nor does Mr. Jeffers justify them by any transcending poetic or moral view in which they are included. It is in his own character as author that he writes at one point;
. . . No life
Ought to be thought important in the weave of the world, whatever It may show of courage or endured pain;
It owns no other manner of shining, in the broad gray eye of the ocean, at the foot of the beauty of the mountains
And skies, but to bear pain; for pleasure is too little, our inhuman God is too great, thought is too lost.
In language much of this is of the essence of poetry; and certainly Mr. Jeffers is entitled to his view that no life is important. But why, then, such importance in enduring pain?' If no life is important, why is pleasure too little for its consideration?' We do not ask of poetry a moral system constructed by logic; we do ask t hat it s perceptions be true and consistent on their own plane. If this is Mr. Jeffers’s philosophy,—and the poem is only to be justified by some philosophy, he seems not to be resting on a true and consistent perception, but to be striking an attitude, marred by false heroics.
Prestige attaches each year to the volumes which receive the Pulitzer awards, for human nature is always agog to know who has pulled a plum from the bag, whether or not the prize measures the intrinsic attainment of those enviable people whose thumbs wear the purple stain. The award of the prize for a volume of poems published in 1931 to The Flowering Stone, by George Dillon (Viking Press, $1.75), raises the question whether critics and readers of the present day are able to distinguish, or wish to distinguish, between what is genuine in poetry and what is essentially debased coinage. Mr. Dillon’s verses have enough of the a la modi’ lyric about them to pass’ as specimens of an art to which their real claim is doubtful, the it la mode lyric is a dreadful thing at any time; yet it is always much praised, and is much praised now. American verse generally is much praised — indeed pampered like a goose. What, I wonder, would do our poetry half so much good as a stringent critical scathing and chastening?
THEODORE MORRISON