A native of Colorado, a graduate of Harvard in the classof 1949, and a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University, PETER 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.
IT IS curious how poets arc forced to live in cubicles, or nests of them. All over America, it seems, there are poets working away; and yet our country is too large for us to see aggregations of poets flying free, like flights of swallows. The poet’s work is lonely, like that of all writers; but a little lonelier than that of some because his audience is smaller. Recognition can come for the poet in only a few ways. When he is young he may be taken into membership in a group, the members of which know one another, and congregate together if it is geographically convenient, and read and admire one another’s work.
A directory of one such group may be found in a recent anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (Grove Press, cloth $5.95, paper $1.95), edited by Donald Allen. Most of the forty-four poets represented here are well under age forty, and the book (which does not by any means represent all the new American poetry of the last fifteen years, in fact displays almost none of the best of it) draws its battle lines along the directives laid down years ago by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The subcommanders of this exclusive movement — for such it would appear to be are Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Greeley. Among the marchers can be found many poets of talent, and many more who seem to have made the mistake of confusing intense personal emotion with poetic value. With these the reader is torn between sympathy for the keen and sometimes anguished feelings that stutter across the pages in verbose free verse and irritation with the writers for not keeping quiet until they had learned how to write.
Many of the poets represented in this anthology have received publicity as members of the Beat Generation, and much of their poetry has something in common with the prose output of the Beats: an intense and often sensitive disgust with the grisly aspects of our society, and an ignorant and perverse inability to be articulate about them. I am afraid that this collection as a whole has more sociological than poetic interest to it, and the title is a misnomer: these poems are not nearly as new as they are recent.
Another kind of recognition for the younger poet can come from prizes and fellowships. These differ from private recognition by a group of peers in that they carry semiofficial dignity and bring money with them. The poet may win a fellowship, endowed by a charitable foundation or administered by the editors of a little magazine, which enables him to live abroad for a year and devote himself exclusively to his writing, or a prize may underwrite publication of a book.
The administration of such endowments would appear, prima facie, to be less subject to cliques and piques than the word-of-mouth procedures governing movements. On the other hand, once money is to be given away, committees must be formed, and no committee’s response to a poet’s work can carry with it quite the excitement and spontaneity of the direct reaction of ordinary readers and fellow poets. Yet, such is the indifference of the American public to most poetry that the younger poet must depend on gifts like these for his support and for any kind of wide hearing in the first ten or fifteen years of his writing career.
George Starbuck’s first book. Bone Thoughts (Yale University Press, cloth $3.00, paper $1.25), shows an emergent young poet at this stage of recognition. It is the fifty-sixth in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the volumes of which are selected annually by an editor who contributes an introduction. For many years the editor of the scries was W. H. Auden, who has this year been replaced by Dudley Fitts.
Bone Thoughts is a very good book. For one thing, Starbuck has mastered all kinds of intricacies of technique to an extent that might excite envy in a much more experienced poet. With dexterity he interlaces short lines, as in this description of the bombardment of the Normandy beachhead from “A Tapestry for Baycux":
Over the seaworthy cavalry arches a rocketry wickerwork. . . .
This comes at the outset of a poem that moves gradually from this pretty first blush to a deeper and desperate absorption of the ripping carnage of the bombardment. In addition, the first letters of each line make up a concealed satirical poem; doggerel, it is true, but not bad for a poem within a poem. In “Tapestry,” as in his elegiac poems on Boston and Chicago, his satiric verses on contemporary science (he has a poetic flair for this subject which is rare), and in poems that paint deft word pictures, Starbuck is fortunate in having wit on his side. I cannot illustrate his gifts better than in these lines, which unite music, sense, passion, and freshness into a complete statement:
Spring, like an ill bird, settles to the masthead of here and there an elm. The streets are misted. A Boston rain, archaic and monastic, cobbles the blacktop waters, brings mosaic to dusty windshields; to the waking, music.
Read that aloud and listen to the subtle sound of it.
Louis Simpson is a little older than Starbuck, and one step further up the ladder of recognition, having held several fellowships and grants. A Dream of Governors (Wesleyan University Press, cloth $3.00, paper $1.65) is his second book, and you will find in it some of the best traditional verse being written by a young American poet today. American poetry needs more than anything else a reinfusion of the narrative element, and Simpson is devoted to narrative. His book contains a long poem about World War 11 and the feelings of men in battle. It is, unfortunately, less a narrative poem than a short story told in well-written blank verse; its story gains little from having been told in poetic form. When it deals with a dramatic confrontation, as in the final battle when the Germans attack at Bastognc, it succeeds admirably; but it fails in conveying the passage of time, which is one of the hardest things for a narrative in verse to do.
Some of Simpson’s shorter narratives do succeed: he retells myths (St. George, Orpheus, and others) in a rich aura of mysticism and moonlight. One day he will have achieved the full flavor of what he is striving for in his narratives; but this collection is uneven, and that time has not yet come. The final group of love poems, however, has things in it as whole and true as in any recent love poems I can remember. Poems like “The Gustom of the World,” “Rough Winds Do Shake,” and “Summer Storm,” a touching and humorous sonnet, are humane entities, full of feeling and vitally expressed. Listen to another kind of love from “The Goodnight,” a poem to a small daughter:
The lives of children are Dangerous to their parents With fire, water, air, And other accidents; And some, for a child’s sake, Anticipating doom, Empty the world to make The world safe as a room.
This is memorable writing.
Robert Francis is one of the outsiders. He has been publishing for almost twenty-five years, but is, unfortunately, no better known than younger poets like Simpson and Starbuck. Living alone, outside the cities and the university circuit, he has held his own course; and if his verse has antecedents, it resembles only that of the most independent of all our poets, Robert Frost. He is far less ambitious than Frost, and his individual strokes do not work, as Frost’s do, to fill in a moral picture of the world. Yet The Orb Weaver (Wesleyan University Press, cloth $3.00, paper $1.65) is a genuine, if quiet, accomplishment.
There are many poets (many of them not very good at poems) who write about nature to avoid writing truly of themselves. Francis writes of nature steadily, solidly, and as a matter of fact, because nature is a part of him. He breathes nature, drinks it in (“His mind holds summer as his skin holds sun”), and wrinkles his brow at the puzzles in it, as in a poem, “Encounter,” about poison ivy, which reads in part as follows:
Those who have touched it or been touched by it Or brushed by something that the vine has brushed, Or burning it, have stood where the sly smoke Has touched them — know the meaning of its name. . . .
My neighbor’s cow grazing beside the road Munches with joy (and almost with a smile) The salad of its leaves, transmuting them Into sweet milk that I will drink tomorrow.
There are not. many surprises in these self-effacing poems, except for the refreshing surprises that lie in seeing natural objects as they are, truly and clearly.
THE later stages ot an American poet s career can obviously bring wider recognition. After the grants, the publication in magazines, the appearance of two or three books, the fortunate ones may suddenly find themselves, often unpredictably. recipients of one of our national prizes, which have the ability to make a poet known to everyone who cares. By this stage in his career, however, the poet has often already brought into being all the newness that is in him and has something other than newness to give. “Maturity,” Robert Frost has said, “will come. We mature. But the point is that it is at best irrelevant. Young poetry is the breath of parted lips. For the spirit to survive, the mouth must find how to firm and not harden.”
Three poets who have won Pulitzer Prizes in the past have this spring published new collections, and it is not mere maturity that makes their work differ in quality from that of the poets already discussed. Marya Zaturenska won a Pulitzer Prize in 1 938. and her new book, Terraces of Light (Grove Press, cloth $2.75, paper $1.45), draws heavily on European sources and traditions. These are intensely mystical poems, imbued with a gray symbolism that has seldom found its way into the poetry of our language, and with good reason. You will read here of streams and trees, skies and the sea, light and dark, angels and heaven; but the blend is one that leaves a vague and somewhat disagreeable taste in the mouth.
These poems read curiously like translations, and they neglect so many of the rich resources of English as to be in many cases almost devoid of tone or flavor. At their worst they are devoid of meaning as well, l ake the following octave from a sonnet called “A Vision of Judgment” (I guarantee that the punctuation is reproduced exactly):
Under the half-closed eyelids earth appears Wide with its vision, growing more and more The walls of heaven arise, its golden door Stretches immense into the unlived years — Time like a desert burns unpeopled, vast But God’s long shadow hovering over it With wrath and wrathful pity overcast Not to be moved by beauty, power, or wit.
Ezra Pound once laid down the stark dictum that verse should be at least as well written as prose. Set aside the wasteful repetition of ideas between “hovering” and “overcast”; the feebleness of the verb “appears”; the vagueness of “more and more.” Is this good prose? Is not the syntax muddled, the punctuation misleading, the grammar incorrect? Whose are the eyelids? Over what does “God’s long shadow” hover? Who or what is “not to be moved”? What, in short, is the poem about? A symbol cannot raise echoes in the reader’s mind unless it stands clear by itself; and these symbols, whatever their inner meaning, are expressed in such slipshod language as to vitiate most of their inherent power.
Many of the poems in the book suffer from the same difficulties as this sonnet; and those that succeed best are poems that are held erect by a backbone of narrative, like “The Castaways.” This is poetry that sounds as though it were written out of habit, without the rigor and scrupulousness that go hand in hand with poetic vitality.
Gwendolyn Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, Her new book. The Bean Eaters (Harper, $3.00), stands at almost the opposite extreme from Terraces of Light. Nothing vague here, nothing European, nothing mystical. These poems, generous and full of humanity, rattle with verbs and jangle with action. Their images arc everyday; their subjects are poor people (often Negroes), the dreams of the downtrodden, the frustrations of the meek.
Yet, for all the worthiness of their themes and their aims, you will probably find them incomplete as poems. Miss Brooks appears more concerned to condemn social injustice and to draw sympathetic character portraits than to write poems that echo on every level, and as a result she repeats the same kind of statement too often for poetic truth.
The best poem in her book is a ballad of racial segregation, with the stark rhythms and devices of the traditional ballad adapted to a theme that suits it perfectly. Most of this book, however, has the same virtues and faults as the title poem, which for the sake of journalistic realism ends in a catalogue that reminds the reader of nothing so much as Ogden Nash and destroys the poem’s serious intent. I quote the entire poem:
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair. Dinner is a casual affair. Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood, Tin flatware.
Two who are Mostly Good. Two who have lived their day, But keep on putting on their clothes And putting things away.
And remembering . . , Remembering, with twinklings and twinges. As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.
Mark Van Doren, the oldest and best established of the poets discussed here, won his Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and has achieved great personal eminence. His incandescent character, kindly and courageous, is as well known as his varied work oi fortv years’ standing. It is therefore difficult to have to report that his latest book, Morning Worship and Other Poems (Harcourt, Brace, $3.95), disappoints by its slackness. A number of the poems first appeared in Mr. Van Doren’s justly celebrated Autobiography and may have been included in Morning Worship for that reason alone. In any case, a younger poet might have omitted many of the 112 poems in this collection out of fear that the reader would not find the poet at his best. Less anxious, more tolerant, Mr. Van Doren has included them all, as one who is willing to let the reader choose for himself. His candor is admirable, but I wish he had pruned harder.
These poems suffer from a certain passivity toward their subjects which reveals itself in the static quality of the language the poet uses. Vitality in poetry comes from verbs, not nouns or adjectives, and Mr. Van Doren’s verse is indeed short of the energy that verbs could supply. Furthermore, his rhythms sometimes plod. Compare a passage from his Autobiography with one from a poem in this collection. Here is the prose:
By some odd chance and for no good reason I am happy. And there I rest. ... In ... a poem ... I said of the world that it was one for me as only music makes things one. Not faith, not reason; merely music, which I claimed I heard. Literally I do not, but nothing is more clear to me than this harmony that yields no sound and thereby does not force a single note.
And here is a passage from “Undersong”:
And if there be those who would mock me, saying: Music? None is here save in your head; Noises, yes, delectable, dismaying, But not in measure, as if more were said Than owls and larks will tell you, or mad crows, Or the wind-ravished rose, Or human chatter, changeless year by year; Then soberly I say to such as those: The sound is one, and is not sinister. It is an honest music through and through.
Seventy-three words of prose, seventy-seven of verse. Yet how much more eloquent the prose! In the prose we at least find verbs like claim, yield, and force; in the verse, we find four is’s and a be, and mock is the only active and transitive verb in the whole passage. The poem is squeezed by its pastoral convention: it must tell its story in terms of birds and flowers, even though nature is obviously not a part of Mr. Van Doren as it is of Robert Francis. The prose can travel where it will and branch out into talking of harmony. The poem, circumscribed by natural images that have to be forced into restful human terms, seems constrained and artificial; the prose can take a more natural rhythm and rise to the passionate iambics of its last sentence, free of such poeticisins as “save in your head” and “such as those.”
Talking too much of technical considerations can spoil a poem: but as you read Morning Worship. and if you feel something lacking, watch the verbs, and see if it isn’t through those apertures that the vitality and tension leak out of Mr. Van Doren’s verse, Too often in this book the direction of a poem seems to have been settled before the poem begins, as though it had been written to illustrate an idea. But a lyric cannot be written this way. To quote Robert Frost again: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. ... It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” With all their serenity, these poems of Mr. Van Doren’s play his feelings false by wearing a simplicity his feelings do not share.
From apprentice to prize winner: this is the way a poet grows toward acceptance in America. But any poet must ask himself about the difference between acceptance and achievement. The mouth of the older poet may not have hardened, but is it still firm? Writing not long ago in these pages about the Muse of poetry, Robert Graves ended as follows:
Observe him well, the scarlet-robed academician Stalled with his peers, an Order on his breast, And (who could doubt it?) free Of such despairs and voices as attended His visits to that grotto below sea Where once he served a glare-eyed Demoness And swore her his unswerving verity.