New Poetry

A native of Colorado, a graduate of Harvard in the class of 1949, and a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University. PETER H. DAVISON joined our editorial staff after making a distinguished record at Harcourt, Brace and at Harvard University Press. In his leisure time Mr. Davison writes poetry of his own, some of which has appeared in the ATLANTIC. We have asked him to appraise the new books of verse which have recently been published by his contemporaries.

ONE of the knottiest problems of the modern poet has been to find the truest way of expressing intense emotion in his verse. For the younger poet the problem is knottier still. He is relatively unknown. He has no audience on whom he can depend for an echo, as Homer had for his epic chanted before the fire. Though his elders (like Robert Frost or T. S. Eliot or that Caruso of modern poetry, Dylan Thomas) may possess distinct public personalities, his — to his frequent regret — remains very private. The only response he can be sure of is his own. The particular feelings that are of most value to the younger poet are those which he cannot, in a public way, share and which depend on the most personal kind of response: love or the destruction of love, loneliness in face of the ultimate facts of birth and death and the shape of the world, amazement in the face of an archetypal myth seen anew, reverence for the simple facts of nature, anguish or contentment with the daily round of life, fascination with the way in which poems are made and with how they differ from life itself, horror at the world man has made for himself.

The poet’s feelings about any given object are at the core of the poetic act; but how do they find their way into the very muscle and action of his verse? An object and the poet’s feelings about it wrestle together, and out of the struggle, as out of the tug of war between a man’s two hands, come tension and force. So vision wrestles with feeling. Then, in the actual writing, another grappling takes place, this time between the combined vision-and-feeling (which, for convenience, we will call the substance of the poem) and its opponent, the form that the poem will take. Substance now wrestles with form. The poet, however, will seldom see the process this way. As often as not, the object in nature cannot even offer itself, and the poet’s feelings about it cannot be released, until the form (the rhythm, the shape) of his final utterance has emerged from somewhere in his mind to catch the substance of the poem like a fish on a hook.
Poems can hardly exist without emotions to drive them. What makes one poet’s work differ from another’s is the kind of things he feels strongly about, and the kind of feelings he has about them. From these feelings grow both the substance of his poems and the forms that he chooses (or that choose themselves) as the best vehicles for revealing his vision. Five volumes of verse published in the last few months show how some of the younger poets are working and may give some indication of what they are working toward.
Robert Huff is thirty-five years old. Of all these poets, he is the most traditional in technique. He relies on strong regular meters and rhyme. His subjects are simple and often stem from nature: birds, animals, old men and young, lake many beginning poets, he sometimes has trouble lettingwell enough alone, and when he sees an occurrence in life, he often feels it incumbent on him to dress it up with some deeper afterthought taken from literature. This is a pity, because Huff’s eye is keen, his ear is sharp, and his poems about nature have a clear focus. One of the best in His book (Colonel Johnson’s Ride and Other Poems, Wayne State University Press, $2.75) is the first poem, “Mole”:
Once by sea and twice by lake,
A vision showed me what I make,
I saw a dwarf wedged in a hole
Skin out the carcass of a mole
Three times, by water, for mind’s sake.
Then came the waves. I watched them break.
My eyes were taken by their roll.
I confused spirit with the soul.
And still the shapes my meat can take —
Clumsy brown hound, black bear, blue snake —
Paw, rip, and rage, or nose a hole
Above the damp bones of a mole.
This mysterious vision comes from honest feeling, and the poem rings true with the sound of it. The “message" of the poem stands inherent in the image of a man in animal shape crouched digging above a hole by the waterside.
Huff responds sensitively to wild nature, although birds enter his poems too often, particularly since the bird poems express only a limited range of mood. There is a fine long blank-verse poem, “Early Snow,” and the clear fragrance of country air makes his poems refreshing to the taste. Yet his reflections on the inner experience sometimes go lifeless before they have been absorbed into the blood stream of the poem, perhaps because image and idea have not yielded themselves simultaneously to the poet’s perception.
ONE of the best poems in thirty-two-year-old James Merrill’s second book, The Country of a Thousand Tears of Peace (Knopf, S3.95), is “Salome,” a poem in three sections identical in form, each of which, by taking a central character as an illustration, plays with the idea “That you can have enough/Of human love.” In the second section Merrill reaches his height of direct and vivid statement:
Our neighbors’ little boy ran out to greet
The chow, his runaway pet,
And was fearfully mauled. Breaking its mouth on fences
Down the struck street the orange mad dog tore
Until my father’s pistol made of it
Pinks, reds, a thrash of senses
Outside the stationery store.
The economy of this is remarkable. At once the poem takes us into the explosive seizure of the dog and the horror with which the neighbors view the calamity in “the struck street”; and the increasing pace of the dog’s movement into the blur of running, then death, echoes out of the ragged verbs: “Breaking,” “tore.” and in the final “thrash of senses.” Merrill is a very subtle poet, and he likes to play on words, as in “stationery store.” With these gifts, and his fine ear and cunning use of rhyme and meter, he can bring home an image like this one forcefully and clearly.
But he prefers to go on here, as elsewhere, to use this directness of statement to create symbols for ulterior and dispassionate themes. In the poems cited above, the three sections make much of water as a symbol of love and employ John the Baptist, the mad dog, and a psychoanalyst as illustrations. A great many of Merrill’s poems operate in the same way. The central emotion that gives shape to the poem veils itself under a series of disparate surface images which Merrill pulls together by an intellectual effort and by cleverly weaving the fabric of his verse into a poetic statement that, more often than not, erects a chilly but ornamental barrier between the reader and the underlying feeling. These poems arc brilliant, neurotic, subtly made, and extremely intelligent, but too often the terrifying shapes underlying his poems trick themselves out in elaborate and elegant masks. Then, too, Merrill’s ambiguous intentions are often betrayed by the vagueness of his punctuation. One section of the book is largely given over to modern treatments of mythical archetypes; another sets its themes in foreign lands and uses the sensations of travel to inject the poems with energy. But, though these poems often seem to have been made and seldom to have happened, there are fine things in them. Here is the beginning of one:
They met in loving like the hands of one
Who having worked six days with creature and plant
Washes his hands before the evening meal.

And though it is hard for a reader not to grin when, in “Midas Among Goldenrod,” the king with the golden touch is represented as a hay fever sufferer, a few pages later Merrill can write this way in a reflective poem about sand dunes:

Before long they have ceased to be makeshift.
Wiry grasses keep them from blowing away,
As does a certain creeper yearning seaward
Over a dry admonitory drift.
THE poems of Charles Causley, a forty-two-year-old Cornish poet, now appear for the first time in an American edition. In Union Street (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00), he brings selections from his first two books together with nineteen new poems, and the total collection gives a view of an evolving and accomplished body of work which, as Dame Edith Sitwell remarks in her preface, has a flavor all its own.
Causley by temperament leans to the ballad form, and the style which we associate with the old ballads often clothes subject matter which at first seems alien to it. But in his best poems, Causley’s feelings about his subject matter transform his material into shapes which ride happily on the meters of the ballad. About one third of his poems deal with war in one shape or another, since Causley is old enough to have undergone the full experience of World War II. Many others have the sea at heart. A few of his earlier poems are written in a descriptive free verse, full of catalogues, that reminds the reader of Whitman at his second-best. But the later ones show a crisp originality. One ballad, “Death of an Aircraft,”describes the capture of three Cretan guerrillas by the Germans:
One was sent to the county gaol
Too young for bullets if not for bail,
But the other two were in prime condition
To take on a load of ammunition. . . .
The soldiers turned their machine-guns round
And shot him down with a dreadful sound
Scrubbed his face with perpetual dark
And rubbed it out like a pencil mark.

Causley’s poems often gain power by evoking memories from the past through their form alone, and by letting the contrast between the present and the past reveal itself in racy twentieth-century diction that moves through the old forms like paratroopers through a Norman keep.

Another ballad deals with an ancient theme — the story of Sir Henry Trecarell, who built a parish church in 1511 after his young son died:
But when the boy-baby, as naked as sin,
Stood up in a cold Cornish basin of tin
His nurse went away for a little napkin
And he fell on the water and breathed it all in.
Causley’s continual understatement, musically uttered, has a freshness and vigor that the younger English poets seldom capture today. The best poem in his book — too good to be quoted except in its entirety — is a long lilting lyric about an indifferent bridegroom, “On Phrontis.” In poems like this one, Causley uses very strict metrical forms to channel and concentrate the tart independence of his own reactions to experience by means of an ironical contrast between the rigidity of the form and the passion of the content. His way of feeling and speaking his feelings is all his own.
THE most natural of all these poets is the Scottish Alastair Reid, the same age as Merrill. His second book, Oddments, Inklings, Omens, Moments (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.75), shows a far greater case and confidence than his first book, published six years ago. Reid is content to take a mood, an image, a sensation remembered, a likeness perceived, and let it echo in his poem and in the reader’s mind.
His poems are, unfashionably, populated by genuine ghosts and by beckonings from the supernatural, and they are written in the most subtly modulated of rhythms. Reid seldom uses strict meter, but his rhythms have the dependable recurrence of a heartheat rather than a clock’s tick, and there is something of the same quality in the substance of his poems.
Because of the apparent case with which he writes, this poet seldom irritates the reader by interfering between him and the substance of the poem; but this casualness is deceptive. A poem called “The Rain in Spain” starts off like this:
today, the punctual sun
sulks and stays in
and heavily down the mountain
across olive and pine
rolls a scrim of rain.
The short “u’s” in “the punctual sun sulks,” with the hard consonants interspersed, evoke, in that mysterious way that sound has, the balkiness of the sun; and the abruptness of “scrim” interrupts the mountain view like a shade pulled over a neighbor’s window. The poem goes on to tell of the trials of this rain-haunted day:
The Dutch poet is sick.
The postman kicks his dog.
Death overtakes a pig.

And, in the end, while the sleepers of the village “groan in nightmare,” the day seems to come to an end. But does it?

For who is weather-wise
enough to recognise
which ills are the day’s, which his?
One poem, dedicated to Robert Graves, gives a hint of where Reid has found a model for the independence from poetic fashion that his poems display. In the soft rhythms and in the nostalgia that some of these poems frankly confess, there come back some of the tones of poetic feeling favored by the Georgians in England forty years ago; but Reid avoids the Georgians’ anxious reaching backwards in time to a vanished society. At any rate, it would be hard to pin the influence of any particular poet or school on this final stanza of a poem called “Growing, Flying, Happening.”
The point is seeing — the grace
beyond recognition, the ways
of the bird rising, unnamed, unknown,
beyond the range of language, beyond its noun.
Eyes open on growing, Hying, happening,
and go on opening. Manifold, the world
dawns on unrecognising, realising eyes.
Amazement is the thing.
Not love, but the astonishment of loving.
Reid’s poems happen. They do not try to arrange their substance rigidly, but rather in a natural irregularity, like a Japanese garden. Accordingly, their titles are sometimes too whimsical, and the poems do not often have that finally indestructible quality found in Graves or Yeats. But Reid is a fine poet who takes feeling where he finds it, without categories.
FAR better known than any of the previously discussed poets is Robert Lowell, who is forty-two. Lowell has published three volumes previous to his latest, Life Studies (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, $3.50), and his second volume won a Pulitzer Prize. He has been much praised and sometimes overpraised by his contemporaries. In this latest book, Lowell’s verse takes a quite new direction. His earlier poems were always guided by a rigorously controlling hand. The meters were regular, the language strong, the sound rich and powerful, the passion intense; but for this reviewer Lowell’s earlier poems often failed because whatever feelings drove them — and his poems glowed with intensity — the feelings often seemed to bear little kinship to the subject matter of his poems. The intensity seemed private and uncommunicable.
Like Yeats at one stage of his life, Lowell now sees “more enterprise in walking naked.” These poems are close to home. His new book consists mainly in portraits from memory, and it contains a long fragment of Proustian prose autobiography, brilliantly written, telling of his childhood on Beacon Hill in Boston. The title section of the book, “Life Studies,” is made up of fifteen situations in autobiography, written for the most part in a bald free verse. These are filled with childhood memories, impressions of the poet’s parents and family, and experiences from his own life in a psychiatric hospital and in jail (as a conscientious objector). Their frank personal directness is both shocking and effective.
One of the best of these is a long poem, “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” the recollections of a child of five of the last time he saw his youthful uncle. It ends this way:
Uncle Devereux stood behind me.
He was as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse.
His face was putty.
His blue coat and white trousers
grew sharper and straighter.
His coat was a blue-jay’s tail,
His trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle.
He was animated, hierarchical,
like a ginger snap man in a clothes-press.
He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease. . . .
My hands were warm, then cool, on the piles
of earth and lime,
a black pile and a white pile. . . .
Come winter,
Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.
This conglomeration of unrelated images gives the accuracy of the child’s view: close to the ground, sharp-eyed, relentless; and the images combine to paint a portrait of a man about to disintegrate.
But for the most part, Lowell has not yet solved the dilemma of feeling. Although, by presenting intimate events without comment, these poems might have enabled feeling to emerge unhindered, something is lacking. It is not enough in poetry to state what brought about feelings; in the texture and movement of the verse and in the very quality of the imagery (as in the fragment quoted above) the feelings must be released again, recreated. In a few of these poems, as in the group on the poet’s father (which is supported by the prose autobiographical chapter), the feelings realize themselves; but most of the others, in spite of their compassion, their sensitivity, and their honesty, simply do not startle the reader with the involuntary catch of the breath, the unexpected shock of recognition. Lowell’s poems have, in this new book, narrowed the gap between feeling and subject matter, but they have not closed it. They have not yet taken on a life of their own separate from their author’s. The miraculous transformation of the object seen into the subject of a poem does not take place often enough, and the reader remains more fascinated by Lowell’s life than by his poems.