New Voices in Poetry
Poet critic, and former drama editor. LEAH BODINE DRAKE makes her home
by LEAH BODINE DRAKE
THERE is an idea popular with non-poets that every man is a poet in his youth, and in his youth only. After that, his poetic arteries harden and he gives up verses and devotes himself to prose. If the Victorian poets are pointed out in rebuttal, the answer is that they only looked elderly on account of those beards. Two current books by poets well past their salad days, who are not only writing poetry but better poetry than before, should give the final blow to that old chestnut. Edwin Muir did not start writing until he was thirty-five years old. John Hall Wheelock has just published his first book of verse in twenty years; and although its title is Poems Old and New, many of the poems in it were written as late as 1955.
Orkney man Edwin Muir has only recently begun to acquire the audience his poetry deserves — at least in the United States. With his latest book, One Foot in Eden (Grove Press, Evergreen Books, $1.00), this semi-neglect should become one with Babylon and Tyre. For here are grand poems, in the true sense of the word, built around the themes of good and evil, man’s lost innocence and hard-won experience, his refuge in dreams and memory from a world he never made, but which his original fall from grace undoubtedly influenced for the worse. In Muir’s interpretation of sin and its consequences he seems to be the poet counterpart of theologian novelist C. S. Lewis. Here are moral poems by a profoundly Christian poet, and in them the old religious ideas are given new vigor.
Muir often uses the classic myths, as well as Biblical themes, to point up the human situation. Prometheus and Helen move through his verse, their stories freshened by the poet’s insight and keen intelligence; and although the poems in One Foot in Eden certainly have a “message,”they are never preachy or platitudinous. Deceptively simple in style, they are miracles of organization. Often a line will seem headed straight for a cliché; then — like the garden path in Through the LookingGlass— it will give itself a twist and end unexpectedly. In “Milton” comes such a twist:
But heard the steely clamour known too well
On Saturday nights in every street in Hell.
Muir’s diction is stripped of fashionable embroidery and the broken-backed syntax by which some modern poets hope to appear original and profound. He is direct because he is profound; his poems are plain in texture because he has so much to say that he won’t waste time on gilt and gewgaws. In “Outside Eden" we find this plainness:
In innocence discovered sin
Round a lost corner of the day,
And fell and fell through all the fall
That hurled them headlong over the wall.
Their children live where then they lay.
Man in these poems looks backward to lost splendor, lost simplicity, to a time when the Absolutes of courtesy, kindness, wisdom, and purity of heart were his crowns and royal vestments. “The Young Princes” say:
In artless state, with brows as bright and clear
As morning light on a new morning land.
Yet oven in his exile man can still hope, and this poem ends:
We still, as through a dream that comes and goes.
Know what we are, remembering what we were.
In his title poem, too, the poet sees light in our spiritual dark. With C. S. Lewis, Muir says that God can make use of Satan to further His good, although the new good may be different from His original plan. Not all is lost:
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
These are completely realized poems, hard-cut. as gems, where each facet is worked to its own particular meaning and has its own flash of understanding. Muir has looked at our state of ungrace and found it not too bad, as long as we can, by memory and hope, experience and dream,
From the dull mass each separate splendour out.
In my opinion Edwin Muir’s book is one of the year’s most important literary events.
In Poems Old and New (Scribner’s, $3.50), John Mall Wheelock has brought together some of his most felicitous early poems — such as “The FishHawk,”“De Coelo,” “The Lion-House,” “The Black Panther,” “The Undiscovered Country” and at least forty poems which have been written in the past two or three years. It might be feared that his turn-of-the-century pieces, written at a time when American poetry was bathed in a warm goo of sentimentality, would reflect the prevailing and less than felicitous mannerisms of their period. But except for one or two poeticisms sprinkled here and there, these earlier poems stand up well. For these are the work of an ardent, sensitive nature combined with a disciplined craftsmanship.
In much of Wheelock’s verse there is the same sense of resignation and bafflement before life’s “inexplicable will” that we get from Hardy’s, the same deep compassion for the human and animal victims of it. Poem after poem reflects this somber wonder — “ Reconciliation,” “ Herring-Gull, “The Two Societies,” and that recently written poem, “The Abandoned Nestling,” which ends:
Out of peace, a suffering.
Drawn back into it now.
In the section called “Scherzo,’ Wheelock indulges in a flurry of light verse. But oftener he is the man who lives “in an old house on a dark star,” who sees—as in “Bonac and Amagansett Beach” — the old night that surrounds the globe and its beauties, outward symbol of man’s personal dark, through which he walks to unknown ends:
Along the surface of this lonely planet,
Now naked to the hunger of the stars,
Man and beast — on the old pilgrimage -
They passed together here, not long ago.
Thus Wheelock spoke thirty-odd years ago, but today he is more hopeful that the total ol life is somehow good:
And I start up from sombre reverie,
The light of a god upon me from afar —
Pierced by great light, the glory of a star.
Out of a cloud, in kindness, suddenly
A god has looked at me.
N Peter Viereck’s new book, The Persimmon Tree (Scribner’s, $3.00), the poet displays a more mellow mood than in his former volumes ol verso.
] 1 is technical virtuosity is still here; some of the poems pop with surprises as fantastic and absurd as any in a Bosch canvas. But there is a sensuousness, a gentleness, developed — ii I guess correct 1\ — in Italy, where Mr. Yioreck was recently ^ isiting Professor at the University of Florence. Gone is that vague unease, that preoccupation with nightmare and fugue, that haunted his earlier work, along with his slight posturing of being a devil of a fellow. Under Italy’s hard blue skies the poet seemed to find reality as being quite good enough. In “Etruria,” the earth herself says:
And even Inna’s half-lights, clinging, contour
My several greens exultantly specific.
Is just itself, no symbol and no dream.
That dust is three-dimensional. The olives
Are really there. I am the land I seem.
This is one of the best poems in the book, but what a clumsy rhyme — “sol lives’ with “olives !
In what to me is the book’s loveliest poem, “Frutta Di Stagione,” there is the same warmth, acceptance of reality, and a new-found tenderness. In this poem he half sadly, half whimsically advises some young girl — an innkeeper’s daughter, perhaps—to savor all her seasons,
You of a season, Valerie Sophia.
He tells her not only to gather her rosebuds while she may, but to welcome her autumn, too, with all the fruits of “the menu . . . you never wrote”; and the poem ends:
Pales vulnerably perfect, Valerie.
Believe the menu, fruits were always so.
Say: “Of the season,”
voice as kind as rain;
Believe no branches,
eyes as sad as spray.
When destined, tears are seasonable wines.
And each one gentle, Valerie Sophia.
For a poet of Viereck’s stature, some of the things in this book are pretty thin stuff, seemingly little more than notes for poems. Yet even here we find the sharp phrase, the arresting imagery. And “I Am an Old Town Square" demonstrates anew that nobody can pick odd subjects for poems like Yiereck!
Norman MacCaig blends insight with craftsmanship, a daring use of words with traditional form, and lyric warmth with a wry, shrewd humor, all of which make his new book. Hiding Lights (Macmillan, $1.75), a pleasure to read. Mr. MacCaig, like Muir a Scotsman, has the same sure sense of structure, and often opens with the same dramatic punch:
Bury my name in the ground and watch, it grow.
He is a master of the pungent phrase and the exact if startling image. How aptly he can write of the early morning!
A wind picks up the argument it had lost;
The horizon like a train of gunpowder
Smoulders from east to west.
And day dries on the stones.
MacCaig’s world, like that of the Georgians he resembles, is a morning world in which simple, familiar things—haystacks, hedges, horse troughs, and herring gulls — are seen in a clear light, not transcendental, but that of common day:
Here’s the light coming that will make
Another move towards the moment when
Over the fields lie’ll stoop and whisper “Check".
Her haps MacCaig seems overocoupied with death—actual death, no spiritual defeat as is Muir’s concern — hut he isn’t bitter about it and means to make full use of his time upon earth. So do all the creatures in his poems:
No dark diminishes the lion. Each
Inhabits his own moment and his house
Leans on a shelving and a dangerous beach.
And time will be when mouse and lion can,
being dispossessed, fall heir to all of man.
Being a Colt, MacCaig has the faculty of identifying himself with the natural world around him, as in that fine lyric “Summer Farm”;
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
Loving the natural world, it follows that MacCaig has no soft illusions about it. “Birds all Singing” is lumest and I’unnv and delightful:
Or so we are told — they woo no sweet and fair,
With coarse descriptions of any other cock bird
That dare intrude a wing
In their half acro — bumptious and absurd.
Tumbling-down sweetness and ascending bliss
Klaborate unrepeatable ancestries. . . .
Not all the poems in Hiding Lights are as good as this. A [any of them, underneath their nimble, gift-o’-the-gab richness of imagery, ring rather hollow. Some of (lie sophistication seems posed. But they are evidences of a subtle mind and of a capacity for transmitting experience.
ANOTHER celebrant of nature, although of her less human aspects, is Eric Barker, whose Directions in the Sun (Armitage Press-Gotham Book Mart, $3,00) won for its author three of this country’s most princely prizes—the $1250 Borestone Alt. Award lor the manuscript, the same amount lor the published book, from the same group, and recently their $300 prize for the “best poem”: his “In Memory of Dylan Thomas,” which first appeared in the Atlantic. With forewords by Robinson Jeffers and John Cowper Powy s, Mr. Barker’s book is one of the most stimulating and unusual of the current offerings.
1 use the word “unusual” not because the structure or diction of the poems is bizarre—quite the opposite! This book is unusual in that it is by a younger poet yet it is not an attempt to be bizarre, complex, and incomprehensible. Here is poetry in the rich, romantic tradition, with a basic elemental quality that gives it virility and truth. Barker’s deep-rooted empathy with the wild country in which he lives — near Point Lobes, California — gives his verse almost a religious tone, if only in the pagan sense. Like MacCaig, he too is as often the seen as the seer. Barker has identified himself with his subjects — the old, wind-twisted trees, the defiant rocks of that stormy coast, the gulls and seals:
I stand and listen,
Perhaps as crabs and sea-urchins listen,
All creatures christened with salty names.
Drenches the dark, and my sea-lost name,
Whatever it was, is named again
In the name of the deep baptismal mother. . . .
He employs a style midway between traditional and modern, toward which most of the younger poets seem to be working. And he has a fine ear:
Beating like a calling bell
My legs would follow to the steeple’s view
And the gilded cock with the four winds in his tail.
Some of these poems seem a little hazy in concept, and a few display more frosting than cake. Yet in the total effect we have an authentic poet, one with a deep if narrow vision, and with his own voice, his own music:
And in its element embathed as gulls in air
Has gone beyond all mourning by the sea,
Is nothing even of what in blindness breeds,
A rage in nature and an eating fire, . . .
Richard Wilbur’s Things of This fa World (Harcourt, Brace, $3,00) contains only thirty-two poems, bid enough to win its author the coveted National Book Award for poetry. (This year the award, for the first time, consisted of $1000 as well as a gold medal.) In his latest volume there is evidence of the same mellowing effect of Italy on a poet’s work as we find in Viercck’s. Mr. Wilbur used to be a kind of backward-looking, Ibrwardaspiring fellow. If it were a spring day, he perversely wanted it to be an autumn one. If it were the elegy season, then his poetic desires panted after the water-brooks of spring, lake the invalid in Pollyannu, if he wore brought calf’s-fool jelly he wanted soup; if presented with soup, he wanted calf’s-foot jelly.
But all is changed now. In his newest work he stands squarely in the midst of the things of this world and likes all of what he sees, smells, hears, touches, and tastes. He accepts, as they conn1, the fruits of the season, and he, like Yiereck, seems to have shed some of his gothic distrust of the flesh, He says, in “A Voice from under the Table":
I take this world for better or for worse. . . .
If Things of ‘This If ’World is marked by Wilbur’s new-found sense of reality, it still exhibits what have come to be the trademarks of his work—formal elegance, unusual although never grotesque imagery, control, quiet gaiety, and an agile imagination. Now that Wallace Stevens is dead, Wilbur seems headed toward being the dandy of American verse. He has been accused of loving a poem’s fine clothes a little too much, of overloading his lines with qualifiers, and he still does this at times, as in “Altitudes”:
Wainscot, the oval windows and the fault-
Less figures of the painted vault.
Strolling, conversing in that precious light. . . .
But he can be as stripped to the buff as Muir or Yeats, as in “John Chrysoslom ”:
Down on his knees and hands
Remembering lust and murder
Felt now a gust of grace,
Lifted his burnished face
From the psalter of the sands
And found his thoughts in order
And cleared his throat at last.
Yet who would do without those adjectives so aptly, so precisely chosen, that sparkle through his poems, as in “A Plain Song for Comadre”?
Sometimes the early sun
Shines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash Like angel-feathers.
“The Mill" is a curiously haunting poem, teasing the reader’s mind with hinted-at significance, a vague but pronounced sense of mystery almost, but never quite, resolved. In “Digging for China,” too, is this feeling for the strangeness an everyday things, although the mood here is playful. In this same poem he sums up, so to speak, his discovery of the things of this world:
Blinking and staggering while the earth went round
And showed me silver barns, the fields dozing
In palls of brightness, patens growing and gone
In the tides of leaves, and the whole skv china blue.
All that I saw was China, China. China.
The digger for China in the poem is a child, and W ilbur the man has gone full circle and come back to that lost sense of delight in the actual world which a child knows, and which every poet carries inside him, however he may have thought he had mislaid it for a time.