Five Good Poets in a Bad Year

Recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, PETER VIERECK holds the combined posts of Associate Professor of History at Mount Holyoke and Visiting Lecturer at Smith. Terror and Decorum, a collection of his lyrics familiar to readers of the Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Horizon (London), and Poetry {Chicago), has just been published by Scribners.


As WE look back on the poetry books of 1948, the collected works of older poets, notably Allen Tate, stand out as fresher than the work of the new poets. Par from being the expected thing, this is an unusual situation. It contrasts with the two preceding years, which rewarded us with such exciting new material as Lord Weary’s Castle by Robert Lowell and the books of Richard Wilbur and Howard Nemerov. But today too many of the fashionable moderns recall to us an amazingly prophetic warning by Theodore Spencer {Journal of English Literary History, September, 1943): —

In much contemporary verse there is a kind of verbal free-wheeling, a lack of connection between the words used by the poet and any commonly shared association. In our society, with newspapers, radio, and movies continuously blaring out a series of emotional platitudes, poets are justifiably scared of saving simple things in simple language; they are afraid of being trite and sentimental. Consequently the coloring of their poetry sometimes resembles the hectic purple of a bruise ... a school of false poetic diction.

Among the many new books of 1948, there are two exceptions to this warning; except for them, the reprinted collected poems are livelier than the new ones. The exceptions are Randall Jarrell and Theodore Rocthke. Jarrell’s Losses (Harcourt, Brace) are our gains, for the poems have an astringent and classical rightness of diction making this his best book so far. This is particularly true (except for a too directly rhetorical last stanza) of his “Camp in the Prussian Forest,” dealing with the emotional impact upon the American observer of gruesome relics of Hitler’s mass murders.

Roethke’s The Lost Son (Doubleday) is too obscure (it. is time for a frontal assault on obscurity as inartistic; if critics still hesitate to take this plunge, it is for the understandable fear of playing into the hands of poetry’s philistine enemies). But Roethke’s original imagery and stark emotioncharged vocabulary outweigh all objections. His concluding poem, “The Shape of the Fire,” keeps up an apocalyptic tone of ominous short outcries for several pages, absurdly humorless yet creating a marvelously powerful rhythmic effect, full of spondees and without enjambement, recalling Hart Crane’s spondee-laden line: “Betrayed stones slowly speak.” “The Shape of the Fire” has had an immediate popular success unparalleled in the annals of “difficult” poetry. During 1947-1948, it appeared under four different distinguished auspices: in t he magazine Partisan Review, in Selden Rodman’s anthology 100 American Poems (Penguin Books, New American Library), in Roethke’s own book, and now in t he new Oscar Williams anthology, A Little Treasury of American Poetry (Scribners).

Aside from Jarrell, Roethke, and one or two others, Spencer’s warning of 1943 sums up the new poetry of 1948 (one thinks of books like Cruickshank s In the Tower’s Shadow). Again and again, I found the virtues of our new verse, its return to formal disciplines and metrics, spoiled by that persistent problem of lurid diction: “the hectic purple of a bruise.” The infallible wrongness of contemporary diction lies in its reliance on the unimaginative cliches of revolt, the dully “daring” juxtapositions of incongruous adjectives for the purpose of startling or shocking. Even more rigid and stereotyped than the open dogmas of conservatism arc the secret, dogmas of avant-garde. The most conformist dogma of them all — a sure sign of being too much at one with your time — is to repeat (without possessing (ride’s genius) the Gidean formula that '‘to be at odds with his time, there lies the raison d’etre of the artist.” Greenwich Village and Main Street are the parallel lines that meet in inanity.

No trace of these impurities of diction appears in three un-new and non-younger poets published this year: Allen Tate {Poems 1922~19Jf7, Scribners), Mark Van Dor on {Xew Poems, Sloane), and Theodore Spencer (Poems 194O-1947, Harvard). All three are so individual, so idiosyncratic in their styles that the only common denominator linking their names for us is their place in the scholarly world. Spencer is Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard; Van Doren is a Professor in the Columbia English Department; Tate has constantly alternated between academic and editorial posts.

All three have written many of their finest works while busy with scholarly research at our universities. And they are, of course, as well known for their critical prose as for their creative verse. According to a widespread prejudice, this background should result in an esoteric bookish verse, full of dry-as-dust abstractions and ingenious pedantries. Perhaps in a paradoxical defense-mechanism against this popular reproach, these three poets — more than most non-academic poets today — look for spontaneous freshness, the heartfelt simplicities of life. In this quest they succeed superbly, as if in illustration of Toynbee’s theory of “challenge and response.”Felicitous result: they are lyricists and philosophical poets at the same time.

To enjoy Van Doren’s latest collection, about which I become more enthusiastic at each reading, it must at once be realized that the book is cluttered up with too many unpurged trivia; these are not so much bad poetry as facile poetry, too relaxed to be his best. They are easy to spot; and once they are disregarded, what is left is valid and moving, proving once and for all his permanent place in American literature. Rhythmically flawless is his poem “News of Snow. ‘ Here the physical impression of snow piling up, flake by flake, is wonderfully conveyed by the sheer rhythm of the line “settling, settling, not to be denied.”Equally successful are his more profound, if less musical, stanzas on “Thomas Hardy, Poet.”

While Tate appears to trust in no absolute redemption, and while Spencer employs the rebirththrough-death symbolism of the phoenix, Van Doren’s redemption is via the mediators, those dedicated servants of loveliness and aspiration who are exiles, queer ducks, and saviors at the same time. “The Close Clan” he calls them in his most haunting poem. And their unself-conscious presence among us is what makes our darkness bearable: —

Even from themselves they are a secret,
The like ones that dwell so far asunder. . . .
But the flesh lives in certain ones that wind
And dust and simple being have distinguished.
Whatever these, and howsoever born,
They are the ones with perfect-lidded eyes. . . .
They are the ones who comprehend the darkness,
And carry it all day, and sweeten it.

The most misunderstood of the three poets is Theodore Spencer, praised and blamed for the wrong reasons. Most reviews condescendingly compliment his verse as “elegant” and “graceful,”as if it were some kind of debonair vers de societe. Actually he will some day be recognized as a poet of the tragic and the tender, the two values most lacking in a culture of shallow gregarious hedonism. Certainly these qualities are not achieved in every poem or even in most of his poems; here, too, we stumble over too many blandly competent trivia. But when it does come off, his effect of sweet and tragic poignancy is achieved by the contrast between the light charm of his lines on first reading and the philosophic richness unveiled by later readings. The overtones reveal a cool craftsman controlling difficult forms with the assurance of an eighteenth-century neoclassicist. The undertones reveal a mystic.

This whole process is camouflaged by its bantering Harvardian understatement which only serves to double, once the reader gets the hang of it, the impact of the integrity and emotional sincerity behind it. At times Spencer evokes a pagan mysticism of the flesh, as in the “Song” which ends: “Proved is the joy that crowds out of Always When to our loving my darling comes walking.” Equally often we find a Franciscan mystique of the spirit, as in “Invocation”: —

Wipe from my mind, lord, the inner smirk
That swells from lack of love’s humility. . . .
Protect me from the Zeitgeist and its claws. . . .
Fix me in danger firmly, so that I stand
Able to be bowled over by your hand.

This hungry passion for loftiness, this tension between vision and everyday fact, makes his opening piece, “The Phoenix,” his best. I have read it a dozen times and never once without being moved. After contrasting the mortality of man with the immortality of the legendary firebird, the poet asks in a climax of tragic tension: —

Why is man so wrought
That he must make his creatures
Wistful to outlast Nature’s
Marriage of flesh and bone?

On the purely technical side, Spencer is a master of the Yeatsian refrain. (Occasionally his very skill at this gets the bit in its teeth and canters away with the actual poem, as if the refrain were written first and the poem written around it.) Whenever he repeats a refrain-line in his lyrics, it is the same line yet different; each new stanza gives the unchanging refrain a changed context, a richer dimension. An example is the poem “Union,”with its subtle handling of the refrain “Did you say that, or did I?”

There are no trivia in Tate’s Collected Poems. Every line seems to have found its inevitable final form, even if this took years of tinkering by the master workman. Here, too, we find Yeatsian echoes, this time in metrics, especially in those short two-beat lines whose nervous irregular scansion varies sensitively to reflect the varying moods. Tate uses Yeatsian refrains less frequently and with a more convincing subordination to the poem as a whole than does Spencer — or did Yeats. An example is Tate’s translation of the Latin poem “The Vigil of Venus,” where everything depends on the rendering of the refrain “Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet.”In an introductory note Tate explains, “In the fall of 1942 the refrain of the Pervigilium came back to me and for several days kept running through my head; then I suddenly knew that I ‘had’ it.” His solution is one of the most accomplished refrains I can remember: “Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love.”

Hart Crane once urged Tate to be true to “your language” in “so pure a way that it will be noticeable, and you will do well enough.” Today Crane’s prophecy has been more than fulfilled by Tate’s long aesthetic asceticism, his uncompromising devotion to language. Much can be learned by studying the successive revisions of his “Ode to the Confederate Dead,”culminating — after ten years of unintegrated versions—in the present piece. In addition to “The Mediterranean,” his masterpiece, my own favorites among his many beautiful poems include “Winter Mask” (in memory of Yeats), “Seasons of the Soul” (in memory of John Peale Bishop), “To a Romantic” (addressed to Robert Penn Warren), and “To the Lacedemonians.”Despite other poems, which defeat themselves in labyrinths of overcomplexity, all this adds up to producing the most interesting book of the season.