Three American Poets

Poems, 1924—1933 (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00) is the most complete embodiment in a single volume of the writings of Archibald MacLeish. He is the most magical of contemporary poets. Like many modern writers in both prose and verse, he is a phrase-maker of dazzling imagination and fluency. Not less dazzling, though limited in range, is the skill which he exerts in rhythmic effects. He has arrived at perfect mastery of a rippling and loosely constructed chant, a turn of rhythm largely personal and individual. It is remarkable that this predominating rhythmic movement has served his turn so well in pieces as far apart as lyric and satire.
Mr. MacLeish has been accused of possessing more manner than matter, and the criticism is not without justice. A profounder limitation, I think, is that he has devoted himself too exclusively to suggesting and symbolizing his matter rather than allowing it to stand clearly in the forefront. Poetry can reside in a thought perfectly and lucidly said no less than in the most magical suggestion. Mr. MacLeish, in common with certain other contemporaries, has too often allowed his work to become a tissue of obliquities, evoking and alluding to its matter rather than presenting it with the strength and directness which it deserves, Conquistador, in substance an epic, demanding sustained characterization and lucid narrative, becomes at Mr. MacLeish’s hands a fascinating but disappointing collection of sensations and images, hauntingly charged with scattered lights of memory and momentary intensities of consciousness. Among the short pieces, ‘ You, Andrew Marvell,’ a poem magical to the point of ravishment, is characteristic. In pure power of suggestion it is wine, honey, spice, and everything select or rare; to any other properties it makes no pretense. I am inclined to think that The Pot of Earth is the most perfect of Mr. MacLeish’s earlier poems. Here suggestion has wrought a masterpiece. The intermingling of mythological and symbolic elements with the story of the marriage of a girl and her death in childbirth is accomplished with a tenderness and an inspired skill of composition not to be resisted.
Frescoes, which appeared last summer as a pamphlet, gives the invigorating sense that Mr. MacLeish has not solidified, that new and better poems are to be expected of him. There is much topical matter in the Frescoes; many passages will soon wear a date. But I should put them at the apex of Mr. MacLeish’s poetical achievement to the present. They are as magical and suggestive as any earlier poem, but they contain, too, a welcome explicitness, a power to deal the good clean cut of satire and sharp statement, and this with no loss of poetry, but rather a gain. Moreover, if many rereadings have not deceived me, the Frescoes give out strong, fresh, and genuine that imaginative love of one’s country and heritage which has been the spring of so much of the noblest English poetry of the past. Mr. MacLeish’s Frescoes have displaced for me some recent attempts at this poetic nationalism, including his own ‘American letter,’ that seem self-conscious and spurious.
The Collected Verse of Robert Hillyer (Knopf, $2.00) is really a volume of selections, representing the author’s choice. Mr. Hillyer’s poems are sharply in contrast to Mr. MacLeish’s. Mr. Hillyer has written faithfully in the conservative tradition; his syntax is regularly that of the fully developed English sentence, while the syntax of Mr. MacLeish ripples ahead by phrases and elliptical turns, rarely producing a period of which one is conscious. And while Mr. Hillyer at times practises oblique suggestion with a fine skill, I have always thought that his worst mistakes were committed in poems depending on private and not easily decipherable symbols. His finest poetry is found in a small number of short lyrics. ‘The Halt in the Garden,’ an unusual fusion of pleasant fancy and excellent humor with the true lyric essence, is an exception; it is among the longer pieces, and is one of the very best poems Mr. Hillyer has ever published. The ‘Ballad,’ included by the author among the longer poems, I include for the present purpose among the personal and lyrical pieces. In its twenty-two compact and perfectly turned quatrains I think Mr. Hillyer comes very near attaining his summit. The ‘Ballad’ is like a pure and perfect musical tone, the serene impression of which on the ear does not wholly conceal the intensities of vibration that cause it.
As I reread the poems after years of familiarity with most of them, it seems to me that the thirty pastorals, together with a few of the short lyrics otherwise entitled, will be found to contain Mr. Hillyer’s finest perceptions and fancies and his most perfect felicities of phrase. Quiet, conservative, and slight as these poems may be thought, they fall within the small body of contemporary verse which really may be read with intense pleasure and with that fullness of satisfaction which springs only from what is genuine in its kind. Mr. Hillyer writes with older rather than newer models in his eye; and this may be said of his poems, that in style the best of them strive toward that purity and perfection which constitute a permanent mode and defne a character and a kind of allegiance not bounded by fashion.
The Crows, by David McCord (Scribners, $2.50), is not a collected or selected volume by a poet already widely known, but the author’s first serious gathering of lyric poems for general publication. The most noticeable defect in the book is its idiosyncrasies of diction. The author habitually strains words out of all natural sense or application, or helps himself to words that have no other function than to provide unusual rhymes. Such idiosyncrasies usually represent an effort to find poetry in words when if has not been found in ideas; and if it were not for one poem which it contains, the want of substance in the volume could hardly escape notice. But a book that contains one true poem is a book to put on an accessible shelf and to be grateful for. When the poem is as fine as Mr. McCord’s ‘A Bucket of Bees,’ anything else is forgivable.
It is encouraging for the promise of Mr. McCord’s career that the best performance in his volume is the longest, the most individual (despite traces of Robert Frost), and perhaps the most free from his characteristic defects. ‘A Bucket of Bees’ has for its theme the vividness and purity of life in a child as against, ‘the contagion of the world’s slow stain’ in the adult. It is a sentiment. to which the Romantic poets were devoted, and suspicion of it is not unwarranted; but a string touched by Vaughan, Blake, and Wordsworth must have a note of pure music in it, and it was not a Romantic poet who first said, ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Mr. McCord has got home in ‘A Bucket of Bees’ to this fundamental music in its purity, and the sound of it is not to be heard without a stirring at the roots of certain fundamental emotions.