Four Modern Poets

THERE is an air of general propitiousness about Josephine Young Case’s At Midnight on theThirty-first of March (Houghton Mifflin, $2.00) that gives it an exhilarating effect from first to last. The notion of an American village thrown back on its own resources to live for a year without radio, electric lights, automobiles, or, as far as it knows, without any world at all beyond its own outer limits, is a propitious idea to begin with; it catches the reader’s interest immediately. Mrs. Case does not labor the plausibility of the situation: midnight on the last day of March is obviously the last second before April Fool’s Day. The discovery of the isolation of the village starts the reader off at once with an amused curiosity which is rapidly converted to more serious purposes.
Mrs. Case manages her characters well enough to give a sufficiently real impression of the village and its people, although she hops from one to another too often and too abruptly for the reader’s perfect comfort, and some of her personages are a little too obviously contrived for dramatic effect. What is most important is that Mrs. Case never loses her grip on the fundamental sentiments which belong to the story: she evokes from her villagers a communal gravity, a desire to be fair and wise, to husband resources, to foresee the future, to enjoy themselves with hearty simplicity, and to keep their chins up amidst uncertainty, which we should like to think of as possessions of the American people.
The book is of little interest as an example of the art of poetry. Its virtues in expression are directness and unpretentiousness. Too often the verse is little but metred prose, without image, without variety. A little diatribe by Grandma Smith, uniting natural speech with good verse, represents the book at its best on all sides: —
I see there’s changes, boy. You’ll have to make
Your mark in Saugersville. The rest can go
Wherever these poor idiots say it ’s gone.
It does n’t matter anyway. The world
Is mostly right around a body’s place
And does n’t need a radio to tell
You and your family what it thinks of you. . . .
You’d best get married, boy, and settle down.
Robert Francis, in his Valhalla (Macmillan. $5.00), also begins with the strong advantage of a fine conception. It is no such catching idea as Mrs. Case’s; rather it is sober, strict, subdued. the tragic history of a family of which the father unwittingly contrives the doom by impatience with anything less than a perfect and idyllic world for his children. He buys it for them at the cost of isolation from the real world; only one of them escapes into actuality with success. As we follow the last fated sister and daughter to her lonely end, we become aware that Mr. Francis has put us through an experience, grave, pathetic, and somehow (as tragedy should be) exalted too.
Mr. Francis excites his reader quietly and finely, never with show or glider. He does not raise his voice. His hand may seem sometimes a little slow, mild, and abstracted; but it is the hand of a craftsman, with the fineness of execution and tranquil assurance of a cabinetmaker. The short poems included with ’Valhalla’ are often little models of workmanship, and of perfectly sure grip on sometimes very slight, and sometimes not so slight, items of experience. The words of Mr. Francis persuade us by their literal truth: he speaks of the workaday and practical arm,’ and it is with just such a stroke of unassuming exactness that ‘ Valhalla’ closes: —
The air moved just enough
To take another leaf, and then was still.
Mr. Francis has gone ahead since his first book, Stand With Me Here. He is now a true minor poet, and ’minor’ is not said superciliously, but to corroborate the all-important word ’true.'
In turning from Robert Francis to Frederic Prokosch, it might seem that we were turning to a much more impressive talent. In Mr. Prokosch’s ’The Carnival (Harpers, $2.00) the tone is pitched much higher, intensity is more overtly aimed at, and the play for effect in both language and theme is much more obvious. But the more closely one listens to the poems, the more one becomes aware that all is not well. Mr. Prokosch seems principally occupied with a nostalgic conception of childhood, a sense of the transience of life, a sense that love is near of kin to death, and (perhaps) a vaguely revolutionary conception of current society. These themes are old enough or familiar enough, to be sure, but it is the vagueness that makes the difficulty — vagueness all along the line, in both art and matter. We hear of sin and love (Swinburnian overtones are more than faintly audible) but are never given a clear picture of a woman or a definite view of evil.
Where Mr. Francis is perfectly clear and definite about limited experiences, Mr. Prokosch is relatively pretentious and spreading in the neverquite-digested expression of what seem to be more ambitious themes. ’Workaday and practical’ would never do for him. A glance over his pages for symptomatic adjectives and epithets reveals fountained years, translucent bones, undying lanterns, tacit night, infinite dove of silence, serpentine caress, irrevocable channels. Yet in a short song or lyric Mr. Prokosch can often raise his prevailing indefiniteness to a note of incantation not without the beginnings, at least, of a fine and grave effect.
Donald Davidson, of the four writers here reviewed, has been longest before the public and has expressed himself on a much more extended front. He has not only proved his skill in poetry, but, as one of the Southern writers commonly known as Regionalists or Agrarians, he has taken part in the prose exposition of a social creed. His present volume, Lee in the Metuntains (Houghton Mifflin, $2.00 contains sixteen new poems and also
an earlier long poem. ‘The Tall Men,’ the reprinting of Which is to be welcomed as making his finest achievement in poetry newly available. ‘The Tall Men’ links the pioneer, the Indian fighter, the ghost story of the Negro, even the Anglo-Saxon fragment of the ‘Fight at Finnsburgh.’ with the modern generation of the rubber tire and the pneumatic doughnut under the haunches of the sedentary executive. It is full of good storytelling, wit, nostalgia for the heroic age, and spiritual wrestling with this contemporary age.
Mr. Davidson writes with an earnestness amounting to a cultivated and dignified zeal; he is moved by a strong sentiment of piety — the gratitude of the son for the good heritage of the fathers, and a sense of degradation in seeing that heritage despoiled. He is a scholar, but has preserved in his verse the simple idiom and direct plain language of the folk, chastened and perhaps made somewhat austere by knowledge. ‘The Running of Streight,’a blank-verse ballad on an episode of the Civil War. is almost saga-like in its hard, terse narrative phrases; not many writers of verse now can pull out the military stop with such uninhibited conviction as Mr. Davidson. Yet his of all the books here discussed, and of many contemporary works besides, is the most resolutely moral.
Mr. Davidson cannot forgive the world for being ignoble, and the world should know how to use such a man, especially when he knows how to write so well. But Mr. Davidson is inclined to give ignobility a date of origin that allies it with a particular cause, and his gaze persistently turns back toward this date; such at least is the not wholly unpardonable suspicion of one sincere admirer.
Hear, what I hear, in a far chase new begun
An old horn’s husky music, Randall, my son.
There is a lovely magic in these lines, of a kind that flashes brightly out from many a phrase and passage in Mr. Davidson’s poetry. But gallant charges led by old husky horns cannot be indefinitely reënacted, cannot be always new begun. The actual young Randalls of this world must find other beds to lie down in.