Three Young Poets

Stand With Me Here, by Robert Francis (Macmillan, $1.75), is a great deal more than a young man’s first book of poems. It has the best sort of promise: a large measure of present achievement. The editor of the Saturday Review recently remarked that poetry nowadays is expected to do anything except give pleasure. Robert Francis has been rash enough to depart from this rule. His poems, within their unassuming limits, give pleasure fully and completely, to the point of delight.
Already, on his first appearance, he has learned invaluable lessons; perhaps he did not have to learn them, so naturally and unaffectedly does he write. He is strong enough to be unpretentious, free from all suggestion of stridency. He knows the value of distinctness. His best poems are perfectly precise, each presenting its image or its little turn of idea with welcome wholeness and clearness. A few exceptions aside, Mr. Francis says his say, his complete say, simply and naturally, and no word more. He knows also another enviable and difficult point of the art: how to make a poem all poem. He does not need to philosophize or comment; all that he has to convey is contained in the poem as a product of art: the image, the rhythm, the specific scene do all the work, and there is nothing left over to demand the services of the expositor or moralist. Mr. Francis has perhaps acquired these virtues at such a precocious point in his career only by paying a price for them. Some readers will feel that he has bought his distinctness at the cost of being trivial. Certainly most of the poems in this volume are very slight. But profundity is not the only virtue, and it is notable that Mr. Francis already has his eye on qualities in human experience. He has an exquisite sense of nature, but is not limited to the descriptive poetry by which so many novice versifiers are circumscribed. The question about him is, no doubt, how deeply can he penetrate into human life? How warmly can he feel it? The question can be left to subsequent proof without undue mistrust, for the more serious poems in Stand With Me Here are by no means discouraging on this point. Mr. Francis has summed up his present position with classical simplicity: —
Life the hound
Comes at a bound
Either to rend me
Or to befriend me.
I cannot tell
The hound’s intent
Till he has sprung
At my bare hand
With teeth or tongue.
Meanwhile I stand
And wait the event.
Another beginning poet who should be encouragingly received is Edward Weismiller. He is as yet predominantly descriptive, as the title of his book implies: The Deer Come Down (Yale University Press, $2.00, in the Yale Series of Younger Poets). The volume is generously populated with foxes, partridges, hawks, moles, rabbits, and other non-human poetical properties; but the life of the senses amid nature is after all one of the mid-tracks of poetry, and Mr. Weismiller brings to the observation of the countryside an alert, and discriminating sensorium, very agreeable in its reports of wind and cloud and grass. He also brings a good car for versification, although his diction will bear some strict pruning.
As yet he has extended himself only into the moral qualities of experience that lie next door to the sense-qualities, notably a sort of physical imagination of death. But if his poetry can make itself more various and more responsive to men and women, its beginning among the concrete realities of the senses will in no wise impair it. And it must be admitted that descriptive lines are sometimes sufficient in themselves for one level of satisfaction: —
But after dark the hemlocks crowd around
Softly, trailing their long dark gusty sleeves;
And two by two the wary eyes come out
Above a thin cold rustling in the leaves.
The poems of James Still, perhaps even more than those of Edward Weismiller, are given over to impressions recorded on the responsive sensorium of a young man. That James Still is a writer of fine promise I have not the least doubt; but I have seen one or two short stories of his that considerably excel his poems in both maturity of experience and mastery of literary form. Hounds on the Mountain (Viking Press, $2.00) contains thirty-five short descriptive poems, all saturated with the love of nature in Mr. Still’s native region, often miraculously wild and fresh in phrase and image, but advancing very little at any point beyond the keenness of a young man’s senses and the internal vividness of his moods. Mr. Still can write of a fox hunt in such terms as these: —
. . . a swollen moon rides the sky-orchards.
The hills muffle the long crying, then suddenly clear
Over razor-back ridges comes a wild freshet of barking.
On any page the book will yield such images as this, and very little else. Nothing could be better in its way, and nothing could define more clearly the limits of descriptive poetry.
Mr. Still’s versification is as spontaneous and impressionistic as his moods. But while it is often enchantingly fresh in a single poem, it is always monotonous through any half-dozen. For variety of effect in versification, a much stricter application to definite verse forms is necessary.