AN UNUSUAL variety of new books of poetry has appeared in recent months. In a comparative reading several superlatives suggest themselves. The most important book of 1949 is the Complete Poems of Robert Frost (Holt). It is — to make a point-blank value-judgment — the year’s “best” by any American poet. The most exciting new book to come from abroad is Edith Sitwell’s Song of the Cold (Vanguard). It is full of surprises for those critics who had pigeonholed her work as gorgeously irresponsible and hermetically “l’art pour l’art.”She confutes her classifiers by writing movingly about such immediate social problems as the war and the atom bomb.
Edith Sitwell is a “difficult” poet. Unlike the celtists of deliberate Opaqueness, hers is the legitimate and ultimately rewarding difficulty of a deep pool rather than the meaningless obscurity of a shallow and muddy puddle. In her latest book, which differs from her more ornamental earlier work, the reader is not forced to choose between form and content; he will be delighted with both. The vivid metaphor-crammed form and the profound ethical content are equally attractive. Occasionally the welding process that unites them — the acetylene torch of the conscious craftsman — seems too mechanical. But when a seamless welding does take place, the result is marvelous poetry. Edith Sitwell sings of t he evil “cold in t he heart of Man.” Equally she exults (in “Three Poems of the Atomic Age”), “ I cry of Christ, the ultimate Fire" who will burn this cold away. This, too, is the theme of “Metamorphosis,” the most compelling incantation: —
So, out of the dark, see our great Spring begins
— Our Christ the new Song, breaking out in the
fields and hedgerows,
The heart of Man! 0 the new temper of Christ, in
veins and branches!
He comes, our Sun, to melt the eternal ice
Of Death, the crusts of Time round the sunken
soul. . . .
By far the most controversial book of the year is Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (New Directions). He wrote it while imprisoned for his anti-American radio broadcasts to our soldiers in Italy (among whom was the reviewer). During one of the most crucial wars of history his talks attempted, quite unsuccessfully, to incite mutiny against our Commander in Chief, faith in fascism, and sympathy for Hitler’s anti-Semitic mass-murders. Far from being an ivory tower of pure esthetic form, as one would gather from many reviewers, the Pisan Cantos explicitly proclaim this same political ideology. The book attained two additional superlatives: it was for most readers the most incoherent and incomprehensible book of the year, and it received the highest financial award for verse, the Bollingen Prize of $1000. I shall discuss it at length later.
Robert Frost’s name is rarely heard among the exquisites of avant-garde. His poems are like those plants that flourish in the earth of the broad plains and valleys but will not strike root in more rarefied atmospheres. The fact remains that he is one of the world’s greatest living poets. Frost, W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams are the contemporary poets in America whose styles are most intensely original, most unmistakably their own. Of the four. Frost is the only one to be widely read in terms of general circulation and the only one who has never been adequately subjected to the Higher Criticism of the subtiles of the Little Magazines.
On first reading, Frost seems easier than he really is. This helps account both for the enormous number of his readers, some of whom like him for wrong or irrelevant reasons, and for the indifference of the coteries, who become almost resentful when they can find no double-crostics to solve. Frost’s cheerfulness is often mistaken as smug, folksy, Rotarian. This fact, plus his reputation for a solid New England conservatism, frightens away rebel youth and “advanced” professors.
In truth, his cheerfulness is the direct opposite of Mr. Babbitt’s or even of Mr. Pickwick’s. It is a Greek cheerfulness. And the apparent blandness of the Greeks was, as Nietzsche showed in his Birth of Tragedy, the result of their having looked so deeply into life’s tragic meaning that they had to protect themselves by cultivating a deliberately superficial jolliness in order to bear the unbearable. Frost’s benign calm, the comic mask of a whittling rustic, is designed for gazing — without dizzinessinto a tragic abyss of desperation. This is the same eternal abyss that gaped not only for the Hellenes but for such moderns as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Kafka. “Pascal,”wrote Baudelaire, “had his abyss that followed him.” In the case of this great New Fngland tragic poet, the desperation is no less real for being a quiet one, as befits a master of overwhelming understatements. His almost too smooth quietness is a booby trap to spring the ruthless doubt of the following typical Frostian quatrain: —
It was the drought of deserts. Earth would soon
Be uninhabitable as the moon.
What for that matter had it ever been?
Who advised man to come and live therein?
Or ponder upon the following four lines. where again the meaning sneaks up on you imperceptibly and leaves a sense of ephemeral human smallness in the eons it takes for the sun to burn out : —
The play seems out for an almost infinite run.
Don’t mind a little thing like the actors fighting.
The only thing I worry about is the sun.
We’ll be all right if nothing goes wrong with the
lighting. Or this: —
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.
Let those who consider Frost obvious or superficial brood a bit upon the last line of “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.” Consisting only of simple monosyllables yet subtly musical and full of “the shock of recognition,” that concluding sentence is perhaps the most beautiful single line in American literature, a needed touchstone for all poets writing today : —
He would declare and could himself believe That the birds there in all the garden round From having heard the daylong voice of Eve Had added to their own an oversound, Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed Had now persisted in the woods so long That probably it never would be lost. Never again would birds’ song be the same. And to do that to birds was why she came.
Many writers have described nature’s brutal threat to mankind, but rarely with so strong a metaphor as Frost’s description of the hills of earth in “Sand Dunes”: —
Sea waves are green and wet,
But up from where they die,
Rise others vaster yet,
And those are brown and dry.
They are the sea made land
To come at the fisher town,
And bury in solid sand
The men she could not drown.
But the poem ends with hope, for man remains free to think. This hope is based not on the pollyanna of easy optimism but on the tragic wisdom of those who through the ages have not only stared into the abyss but have out stared it. This is probably the final message of Frost’s Complete Poems.
A word about his metrics and his diction. Frost is one of the few poets today who dare use contractions like “as ‘twere” and “e’er.” I don’t care for this sort of thing, especially in a poet who makes a point of catching the idiom of everyday speech. But I don’t let this annoying anachronism spoil my enjoyment of him. Equally old-fashioned, but this time in a better sense of the word, is the fact that his meters scan with a beat-by-beat regularity, usually in the form of rhymed iambic pentameters. In this connection, do not overlook his thoughtful preface on poetic techniques and meters.
Frost’s stubborn conventionality of form makes many young poets and readers think his is also a conventionality of meaning. On the contrary, he is one of the most original writers of our time. It is the self-conscious avant-garde rebels who follow the really rigid and tiresome conventions.
THE versatile Rolfe Humphries, who has a new book of poems this year, is equally well known as a critic, novelist, and translator. His translations of Garcia Lorca and (with Malcolm Cowley) of Louis Aragon seem to me, along with Ludwig Lewisohn’s translations of Goethe and Bowra’s of Russian poetry, the most brilliant translations of our time. Nevertheless, it is as a poet that he most deserves to be read. Proof of this is his Wind of Time (Scribner’s) with its serene classical rhythms. Long after our ephemeral trumpeters are forgotten, the lovers of beauty will be listening to the quiet flawless music of Rolfe Humphries.
Very few American readers have heard of Mrs. Elizabeth Daryush, daughter of Robert Bridges, the late Poet Laureate of England. Her Selected Poems (Swallow Press and William Morrow) may remedy this. The first three stanzas of the second poem in the book show her delicate music at its best: —
O strong to bless
comfort thou me;
thou who alone
mortal hurt canst heal,
most merciful one
to thee I kneel.
Though man may set
his soul to harsh ill,
despising thee, yet
thou lovest still.
Such poems have a small perfection. If one does not like her style (and most American reviewers did not), one can underline the word “small"; if one does like her style, and I’m inclined to, one can underline the word “perfection.”Equally good is the poem “Still-Life.”Yet its end is spoiled by a couplet of cloying coyness which an anti-feminist in poetry would call all too feminine: “... even the unopened future lies/like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.”
The book is full of elisions like “o’er, “neath,” and “e’er,”used far more obtrusively than in the case of Robert Frost. On the part of a less skillful craftsman, this would be a ruse to save a beat and make the line scan. On her part, it is occasionally that, but usually only a harmless, though not admirable, leftover from the nineteenth-century fad of pseudo-archaisms. However, I must register protest when, to get one syllable out of the trisyllable “movedest,” she writes the unpronounceable word “mov’d’st.” Such an abomination would never take place if poets recited their work aloud.
Another twentieth-century poet with a nineteenth-century diction is Siegfried Sassoon. His Collected Poems (Viking) begins with the poems about World War I, already deservedly famous in America and found in all anthologics. Then the book gets progressively duller and ends by being embarrassingly unfascinating. Even the satires of the later part are smug, somehow complacent -paradoxical as a complacent indignation may seem.
Some critics have tried to explain Sassoon’s decline by saying that only war inspired him to his best abilities. But the poems dealing with World War II seem the flattest and most conventional of all, despite the inspiration and excitement of the theme of England standing alone in 1940. What a contrast with the bitterness-not irrational, irresponsible bitterness but mature disenchantment of his World War I poems! The latter are not in the least dated. More contemporary in tone than Ins poems of the forties, they amply justify the purchase of this book. Consider the vigor-what Yeats would call the “savage indignation" —compressed into the following night lines:-
The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!”
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “ Home, sweet Home.”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
A short new book by Robert Hillyer adds a different dimension to his already established technical skill. Except for his “ Epistles,”he is best known for his very short lyrics and for his traditionalist craftsmanship in manipulating intricate rhymes and meters. His Death of Captain Nemo (Knopf) is a new departure. It is a single long poem, reflective and narrative, in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse here conveys a magical variety of rhythms and— thereby-of human moods, ranging from lines of hovering loveliness to the strong final crescendo of the closing page.
Conrad Aiken between 1915 and 1920 composed a series of long philosophical poems, subtilled “symphonies.”These were published separately. Yet he conceived them as component parts of a single work to be called the Divine pilgrim. Under that title it is appearing this fall (University of Georgia Press), as it was originally intended, with the addition of a single, relatively short later poem, “The Changing Mind.”In this form, it can be surveyed for the first time as a single poem, which Houston Peterson called “one of the most ambitious and monumental of the past half century.”
Thus surveyed, it is far from being an American equivalent of Faust or Peer Gynt though of that genre. In that sense the book is more “ambitious,”to quote Mr. Peterson, than “monumental.”Its divine pilgrim, despite the author’s aim to represent Man, is merely man. He is merely a pilgrim, rather than the pilgrim of Goethe or Ibsen. Let us, instead, defy Conrad Aiken’s intent and see the book not as a whole, nor as a sage’s mellow wisdom, but as a series of separate passionate moods. So doing, we discover that these are among the most moving lyrical fragments of at least “the past half century.”I have read aloud a half dozen times with growing enthusinsm the wistful, melancholy passage beginning: “It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning.”The emotional richness of Aiken’s mood of introspection is summed up in the fine closing lines of “The Pilgrimage of Festus":“ And joyously into the world of himself set forward/Forgetting the long black aftermath of pain.”
THE Bollingen Prize for the best American poetry of 1948 was awarded in early 1949 to Ezra Poun’ s Pisan Cantos by a committee of the Library of Congress. The committee included Eliot, Auden, Tate, Aiken, Shapiro, and others equally eminent. Amid the public indignation that followed, Auden and Tate wrote letters to the magazine Partisan Review (April and May, 1949) defending the award on esthetic grounds. They vigorously repudiated the book’s fascism and anti-Semitism. Karl Shapiro, America’s outstanding poet of World War II, had been against the award and had written an equally vigorous letter expressing his minority view: —
The jury that elected Pound was made up partly of Pound’s contemporaries, those who had come under his influence as impresario and teacher, those who had at some time made declarations of political reaction, and those who had engaged in the literary struggle to dissociate art from social injunction. The presence of Mr. Eliot at the meetings gave these facts a reality which perhaps inhibited open discussion. For reasons of personal loyalty, which one must respect, and for reasons of sectarian literary loyalty, which one may or may not respect, few poets anywhere are in a position to say what they really think of Pound’s work.
While Shapiro was scrupulously fair to both sides, other protests went too far, absurdly accusing the Bollingen committee of fascist sympathies. The sympathies of the committee were not with Pound’s politics but with the widely held argument (an unhistorical and unpsychological argument) that artistic form can be considered apart from its content and moral meaning. The committee’s official press release included the following key point: “The Fellows are aware that objections may be made to awarding a prize to a man situated as is Mr. Pound.
. . . To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement . . . would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.”
Does this argument dispose of opponents of the award by making them appear to be the bigoted, unobjective enemies of “any civilized society”? Or, on the contrary, is not the evil of this book’s Nazism the real menace to poetry, to objectivity, and to “civilized society”? Even if the form were esthetically attractive, as the pro-Pound school alleges, even then beauty is banished by the moral ugliness basic to the content, the ugliness of such lines as the following: “The yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim [non-Jews] are cattle in gt proportion and go to saleable slaughter”; “Pétain defended Verdun while Blum was defending a bidet";“Geneva the usurers’ dunghill/Frogs, brits, with a few dutch pimps.”
The political message of the Pisan Cantos is: the war was caused by the Jews, whom Pound reviles as “usurers,” “loan swine,” “David rex the prime s.o.b.,” as well as expressions more unprintable. The war, he argues, was a Jewish plot: this also was the thesis of Adolf Hitler. And this is what Pound preached over Mussolini’s radio in talks directed at the American troops. In view of such sentiments and remembering the six million Jews gassed or burned by our Nazi enemies, the critic William Barrett asked a question that thousands of American poetry-lovers are echoing: “How far is it possible, in a lyric poem, for technical embellishments to transform vicious and ugly matter into beautiful poetry?”
No truly elegant avant-garde critic, reviewing Pound, dared mingle his praise with qualms about the immoral political message or the almost complete unintelligibility of the non-political bulk of the poem. This irresponsible qualmlessness about immorality and about unclarity is the result of two prevalent attitudes, originally liberating and refreshing but by now exerting a despotism of their own. The two attitudes are: first, the triumph of detailed textual criticism for its own sake, scorning “the heresy of paraphrasing" a poem’s meaning and content; second, the pushing of Eliot’s famous statement that modern poetry must be “complex” into a literary reign of snobbism where critics arc afraid to object to obscurity lest they be called insensitive middle-brows.
This reviewer is influenced in his own poetry by the criticism of Eliot, Tate, Hansom, Cleanth Brooks, and is perhaps more grateful to them than are their endless imitators. But he considers most of their admirers and “schools” to be like the second generation of any successful literary or political revolution: earnest, sterile, pedantic epigónes. These epigones have turned the anti-philistinism of their masters into a new philistinism as deadwood-conventional as the nineteenth-century cliches that their masters rightly overthrew. Marx said, “Je ne suis pas Marxiste.” Freud dreaded the Freudians. Similarly, Eliot and other idols of the “modern" critics, “modern” poets, and “modern” English departments ought to ask: Who will protect me from my protégés? A man’s worst enemies in such a case arc not his contradictors but his parrots.
For the record and to do justice to the pro-Pound case, I want to stress that among the countless ugly pages were a dozen lines of power and loveliness. These include the “pull down thy vanity” passage and the truly superb music of this lyrical interval:
Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,
Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows
Cries: “Blood, Blood, Blood!” against the gothic
Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.
Then the brief spell snaps. Off he goes again, sometimes into fascist propaganda but more frequently into the utter incoherency of what Yeats called the “nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion” of the poetry of Ezra Pound.