Technique and Inspiration: A Year of Poetry

A Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, PETER VIERECK has had two poetry books published by Scribner’s, Terror and Decorum and Strike Through the Mask, with a third, The First Morning, appearing later this year. This spring the Beacon Press will publish his selected political and literary essays, reapplying the ideals of his “humanistic new conservatism.”He is known on a dozen American campuses for his guest lectures on European history and for his poetry readings.



CRITICS today rarely use the adjective “inspired.” Why? Partly because it sounds pretentious. Partly because it is an embarrassing word, like “ecstasy,”“heartbreak,”and “soul.” Partly because the most fashionable critical equipment copes best with irony, ambiguity, and allusion, not with magical inspiration. Partly because the human race has produced so few consistently inspired lyricists. Yet to this very rare genre of sheer intensity belong the two most exciting poetry events of 1951: the posthumous edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems (Macmillan), and Theodore Roethke’s Praise to the End (Doubleday).

Every sin, probably even obscurity, can be forgiven to a poet who exalts and exults. To convey ecstasy, not by explicit denotation but by rhythm and connotation, has a lucidity all its own, a metacommunication, a fourth dimension that transcends — in a way that 99 per cent of obscure poets fail to do — the issue of clarity versus obscurity. Roethke belongs to this obscure but felicitous 1 per cent. He is a poet of “fine phrenzie.” Admittedly I am making grandiose claims for him. They can be substantiated not by my prose but by his verse:-

I could watch! I could watch!
I saw the separateness of all things!
My heart lifted up with the great grasses;
The weeds believed me, and the nesting birds . . .
And I walked, I walked through the light air;
I moved with the morning.

Any man who can write like this may well become a great poet of that same utter exaltation once sung by Rimbaud and Hölderlin.

Of a more contemplative genre but equally impressive is W. H. Auden’s Nones (Random House). Its felicitous technical, intellectual, and musical triumphs justify his well-deserved eminence. He is often spoken of as a cerebral poet rather than as a pure lyricist. To some extent that is true — for example, in his new book, the wit and insight of “Under Which Lyre.” But other new poems, like “In Praise of Limestone,” “Song,” and “The Fall of Rome,” show that high IQ is no bar to High Song:

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently and very fast.

Richard Wilbur, born in 1921, is the youngest of America’s leading contemporary poets. He is also their outstanding perfectionist. Few surpass him in sensitivity of simile and in delicacy of rhythmic modulation. He has all the qualities of a great, artist except vulgarity. By that I mean: he seems often to lack the human-all-too-human quality that gives a poet universal earthy humanity. That is the price he paid in his first book, The Beautiful Changes, for too serene a poise. But his second book, despite its characteristic title of Ceremony (Harcourt, Brace), advances beyond the impasse of what seemed a sterile glass-flower perfection. At its best, Ceremony adds the terror of an under-ground Dionysus to the decorum of the above-ground Apollo.

Wilbur’s new capacity for a lurking ferocity will save him from his greatest esthetic danger: blandness. This compelling tension between surface sunniness and subsurface storms makes his deceptively bland title an ironic “double-take.” The subsurface Dionysian storm is most typically suggested by the closing lines of Ceremony:

What’s lightly hid is deepest understood,
And when with social smile aud formal dress
She teaches leaves to curtsey and quadrille,
I think there are most tigers in the wood.

Four and a half years ago I wrote in the Atlantic, “Robert Lowell may become the great American poet of the 1950s, for he seems the best qualified to restore to our literature its sense of the tragic and the lofty.” Though these words were written of his more substantial earlier book, yet I am pleased to see them quoted on the jacket blurb for his most recent book, and to let my words stand unrevised. This latest work, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Harcourt, Brace), is neither an advance nor a decline. Therefore, my partly skeptical emphasis (”may become”) still holds true. So does my wholly admiring emphasis on “tragic and lofty.”

The Mills of the Kavanaughs is Lowell’s third book. By now, his style is beginning to freeze in its particular “fine excesses,” so that its surprises, though ever more skillful, are ever less surprising. This is a loss and a gain. We lose the thrilling immediacy with which this fire-trailing comet of faith and torment first swam into our ken in the 1940s. But we gain the minute, objective observations of the telescope we meanwhile had time to construct for revisiting an outstanding poet.

Technically considered, The Mills of the Kavanaughs is an exaggeration of all the peculiar Lowell mannerisms that we noticed in the earlier books — only we never really noticed them until now. For example, it was always noticeable, but until now not obtrusively so, that the author has a harmless but obsessive tic of beginning a new sentence on the very last word of a rhymed couplet. The abruptness of such extreme enjambement, such overflow into the next line, is not a fault but a triumph of style when it deepens the mood and meaning. This indeed is the function normally performed by alliteration, accentual shift, and onomatopoeia. Here the function gets transferred to enjambement by a blend of innovating audacity and traditional effect. But what happens when this is used once too often? What happens when it is used automatically, as a mechanical conditioned-reflex for its own sake, instead of functionally for mood and meaning? In such cases, its abruptness is that of the guest who, after the most un-gauche conversation all afternoon, suddenly spills (with a tremendous crash) the teacup on his knee, in his hurry to begin a particularly urbane new sentence.

The Mills abounds with examples of this. “In the end of my line” (to adapt Eliot) “is my beginning.” Note the end-of-line, new-sentence abruptness of the monosyllabic “Then” — note the distracting pop: oops, there goes that teacup! — in the following typical couplet:—

“Horns of the moon,” they chant, “our Goddess.” Then She wakes. She stacks her cards, and once again . . .

Yet elsewhere Lowell writes best in this allegedly outworn form of the rhymed iambic pentameter couplet. Through the centuries of English prosody, it still outwears that succession of schools who try to discard it as “outworn.” And of this ancient form, as his new book confirms, there are few modern practitioners more masterful than Lowell. Hence the truth of a remark made by Richard Wilbur to refute free verse and to justify the confinements of formal discipline: “The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.”

Meeting the challenge of formal confinement with the response of attractive idiosyncrasy, the genie-strength grows inwardly in range and variety. Its range, as proved by Alexander Pope at his best, must not be confused with certain more conventional eighteenth-century misuses of the heroic couplet. And the range and compression give tragic finality to the best eight lines Lowell has ever written. I quote the closing lines of his title poem, a reverie of childhood, marriage, and heart-emptiness, in which Kavanaugh’s widow is soliloquizing: —

For neither conscience nor omniscience warned
Him from his folly, when the virgin scorned
His courtship, and the quaking earth revealed
Death’s desperation to the Thracian field.
And yet we think the virgin took no harm:
She gave herself because her blood was warm —
And for no other reason, Love, I gave
Whatever brought me gladness to the grave.


IN HIS third book. The Seven-League Crutches (Harcourt, Brace), the highly gifted poet Randall Jarrell has reached a crossroads. It is a book of hot and cold showers. It alternates between emotion and wit. His emotion, in turn, alternates between terrific power and corny bathos. In his future development, he must choose between exploring further either his satiric daytime poetry or his emotional nighttime poetry. Only the former alternative, the daytime choice, can guarantee him success. He cannot help but be brilliant if he chooses to be a cerebral poet. But though he cannot fail, neither can he in that role succeed in being more than “successful.” The second alternative, the nighttime choice, has no such unconditional guarantee. To show emotions, to be unashamedly wild, is little understood and easily ridiculed by the particular critics he must face. But I hope he will risk taking that risk. The stakes of that greater game are worth the candle.

Again and again after poetry lectures, I am asked: “Is any one book available to introduce the general reader to a cross-section of the newer and younger poets?” The answer is: Mid-Century American Poets (Twayne), ably edited by John Ciardi. Fifteen poets are represented, each by a generous sampling of about ten poems along with a prose statement of his poetic credo. The credos are sometimes instructively controversial, with both sides of the New Critic debate represented. Read Mid-Century American Poets before you decide which books of younger poets you want to buy. Only thus can you know ahead “what you are getting.” Since tastes vary, you might as well judge for yourself, via direct samples.

The poets included are Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, Richard Eberhart, Roethke, Lowell, Wilbur, Jarrell, Ciardi, W. T. Scott, Muriel Rukeyser, E. L. Mayo, John Holmes, Elizabeth Bishop, J. E. Nims, and Peter Viereck. Its next edition should be expanded. Besides Eaton, Simpson, Nemerov, Spingarn, Rodman, Bette Richart, and others, it ought to add the youngest poet first published in 1951: Adrienne Rich A Change of World (Yale University Press) by this 21 -year-old senior at Radcliffe won the annual contest of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. She is more than a “promising younger poet.”Some of her book not only promises but fulfills.

1951 witnesses three books of superb translations: a book apiece by Rolfe Humphries and Roy Campbell and a new Rodman anthology of many different translators. Humphries’s The Aeneid of Virgil (Scribner’s) is the best-written translation (its scholarly accuracy I cannot judge) this reviewer has ever read by a contemporary American, with one possible exception: the English version of Lorca by the same author. For the Pulitzer Prize, I should recommend — in addition to Auden. Roethke, and the other non-translations — the Aeneid of the honored but insufficiently honored translator and poet, Rolfe Humphries.

The translation of Poems of St. John of the Cross (Pantheon Books) by London’s South-Africa-born. Roy Campbell, with its valuable preface by Father M. C. D’Arcy, is the first satisfactory Englishing of this Spanish saint of the 1580s.

Even better is Campbell’s translation of a single brief song by Lorca: “Somnambulistic Ballad.” This song is part of Selden Rodman’s international anthology, One Hundred Modern Poems (New American Library). To know the poetry in our own language, it helps to know its world setting, its heritage from such foreign—but not “alien — movements as French symbolism. Rodman brings out these relationships not by pedantic prose criticism but by the living example of American and foreign poets read side by side. No book quite like it is available. It includes a dozen nationalities in really readable translations. All this and Parnassus too — for the pocket-book price of 35 cents! Another unusual anthology of 1951 is Man Answers Death (Philosophical Library), edited by Corliss Lamont with an introduction by Louis Untermeyer. Its 350 poems, reflecting the esthetically perceptive sensibility of Dr. Lamont, represent attitudes towards death in modern cultures as well as ancient Athens, Israel, and Rome.


As Frost is the greatest poet produced by the New World, so Yeats is the greatest of the Old World (with the usual qualification of “since Shakespeare and Dante”). Read and live and reread the new edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems. The experience can revitalize your own imagination, your own everyday language, your whole range of sensibility.

The most important new inclusions are the irregular, savagely musical rhythms and the bitterly passionate sexuality of Last Poems and A Full Moon in March. The misprints in the older poems are now corrected. But some poems from magazines and earlier collections are still unjustifiably omitted. So are the beautiful lyrics, self-sufficient poems in their own right, that spangle Yeats’s somewhat unplayable plays. Above all, why is “Purgatory” omitted? Presumably because its dialogue form gets it classified as belonging in some future edition of his Collected Plays. Yet this short poem, now unavailable, is one of his strongest and is obviously not a play at all unless you quibble. It experiments with unrhymed four-beat lines in a way new to our language. It builds tetrameter into a more flexible vehicle for realistic emotional intensity than even the blank pentameter of Marlowe. Once it becomes more accessible, “Purgalory” — the final point of Yeats’s technical development — may become the starting point for a new generation of poets.

This volume still remains a volume of selected poems, not of the full collected poems we have been impatiently awaiting from Macmillan since the rump Collected Poems of 1933. Even so, no poet will be without it. No textbook or course in so-called creative writing can teach a poet so much as reading and re-experiencing Yeats’s advance through his three successive stages: (1) the languid languishings of the 1890s, in the spirit of Pater, Wilde, and the Yellow Book; (2) the unlush, sinewy toughness of diction of Yeats as man-of-action on the Irish national scene; (3) the ballad simplicity and violent, spondee-rich tautness of style of the “crazy old man,” spurred by “lust and rage" — “What else have I to goad me into song?” To this third group belong the new inclusions of the new edition. And of these, the wisest revelation of the psychological twilight origins of all poetry is “ The Circus Animals’ Desertion”: —

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.