Sitting on a Seesaw: (Bringing the Month's Rejected American Poetry Into Focus)

IF ONE WERE constrained, under the conditions of this sort of journalism, to sketch hastily the central purport and character of the disregarded American poetry of the past few weeks, one might well postulate a sort of teeter-totter.

On the one hand—or seat, that is— there weighs the stern concentration on, almost the heady obsession with, the lack of any purport and character at all in the world about and within these poets. As Owen Frisian concludes in some of the most resonant of the recent overlooked poetry:

I don’t understand what principle is
at work here
I don’t understand what principle
I don’t understand

And on the other seat, not quire strong enough to cancel or even to balance permanently this first tendency, there is the pressure of a perhaps all too ready, even factitious, arrogation, often however in a very tiny way, of an ordering grip on life—a tendency also reflected by Frisian, in a second poem.

I’ve had a pit in my mouth since
A material pit, that I
Divested of an olive,
And that would make a tree. It’s

Frisian, in his Mud and Other Poems (turned down by Knopf), tends in this way to swing back and forth from poem to poem, and therefore (a pity, since he is refreshingly in command of his means for one so young) to cancel himself out.

self out. A poet who does not cancel herself out, at least not in this way—who adheres stoutly to the affirmation seat—is Lydia P. Messenger, whose Lines for Then and Now has just been sent back to her, at special fourth-class rate, by Random House. The author of “To a Youthful Friend” (“The Library lions don’t really care?/ Oh, come, I think they do”) and “Take Heart, Executives, Blood of the City" (“Now hop a subway pulse to the heart of town/ .And spurt to work”) is at bottom, one feels, and primarily, a pleasant-minded woman, who does not yield to the temptations of strident feminist trumpeting—as have so many recent poetesses manque not considered here (because they have all yielded to the temptations of publishing themselves or each other). But Messenger doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, after all.

up The recently ignored poet with perhaps the most total commitment to the other—the denial—end of the board is Trini Uhl, whose unprintable titled slim volume (last seen by Menemene Press), which brings together his entire output of nearly forty years, goes on mostly in this vein:

Who can even
Know for sure
His soul’s rotten

In his only other mood Uhl assails everyone whom even he might be expected to value.

Camus sold out ... to the Leading
Family Spray Come on Down Sartre!
Au Go-Go Come
On Down Sartre! Au Go-Go Come
on. , . .

There is something almost appealing about Uhl; but if his tropes occasionally charm, his attitude eventually grates, and we look for a less uniform spirit, a talent willing to grapple more widely on the board.

However, one of the boldest of recent failed poetic efforts—virtually a heroic one, at first blush—seems to be an attempt to break away entirely from this seesaw oscillation. No one is likely to come along soon who handles, or finds, language as Emory Groth does. In Closing (dories (just returned by University of Maryland Press) he calls to mind Stevens, Lowell, Dylan Thomas, even the later Yeats (and someone else difficult to put one’s finger on—Rilke?), and holds his own, in a sense, in that company. It is hard to believe that throughout a volume of twenty-eight long poems such a pitch can be maintained as in these lines from “Homeopathic I”:

Night hones no sleek charter here
In metastatic umber: Not until
Its plumaged hover grind
To siftings of Susannah
(Sheer. . . shudder. . . sheen)
Must you chirm that heavy arpeggio
Peggy o’mine.

But Grorh’s capacity for sustension is perhaps his downfall, for in the end so much robust diction rather wearies, and, further, when we look away from the language and rhythm to Groth’s ideas, I fear we find his back turned; until he turns around, we must be persuaded that Groth breaks away from the prevailing up-and-down pattern only by failing to be truly eontemporary—by failing to be in on, as we might say, the real pumping.

THOMAS FLUTE HAS always been a difficult unsuccessful poet to classify, and on the evidence of Flakes and Others (lost last week by Munford Printing and Publishing Company), he still is. Flute seems a very nervous sensibility, and his susceptibility to abrupt transcendence must finally he met with some reservation by the more even-tempered. What is one to say, for instance, of this passage from the title poem?

I am issuing note after note
No doubt faint but at large; they
remind you
Of snowflakes: not much but they
Have their shapes as they fall; there
behind you
Sweet Jesus! goes God in a boat.

There is unquestionably an immediacy here, as in many of Flute’s shorter poems, that is remarkable; but one could wish it were achieved at less expense in the way of unity of tone.

A new voice, which might almost have been a truly interesting one, is heard in Grant Moon’s first rejected volume Rut O! My Eyes Are (dean (Old Directions, just folded). This sprawling stretch of verse implies some talent, but on the whole that talent is drowned in essentially arid surges perhaps typified and self-convicted by the recurrent “Oh, I’m full of it this morning.” Before it can engage in any sort of significant action on our figurative board, this verse wobbles from the piquant to the banal in a single line (“Charon me back to cold Virginity, you swinging old bugger Art”), and at length dissolves—notably when Moon attempts to deal with material beyond his grasp (Logical Positivism, the sea)—into utter chaos, in which the ground for pushing up and down is completely lost and the board shakes off all riders and begins to rotate uncontrolledly into a clattering blur.

An established unpublished talent, to which we might hope to look for an effectual steadying, resolving influence, is that of ina Tomey. Tomey has been producing poetry now, along with supportive criticism and a novel-manuscript of near permanence, for the better part of a decade; her considerable following of close friends and editorial assistants will be both rewarded and made, one suspects, increasingly impatient by her latest book. In Bundles (“This one’s not for us either”—Valerian Press) homey has as usual invested considerable resources and determination in generally attractive, even at times compelling, lyrics; but, as usual as well, one finds the curious lapses from aptness that no one can ever talk her out of. The poet who can speak of “Oh,/ Those golden slippers,/ That glisten, and are gone,” is also the poet who can write

Were substantial as mattress-batting:
Near at hand;
Seemed almost to tiptoe
In the quiet

—the latter of which images is strained, out of nowhere, and, as anyone who has ever really attended to cattle’s gait in the quiet can attest, just wrong, But try to tell her that.

Perhaps, finally, the most finished and telling of this poetry is to he found in Avram S. Mistresson’s Misgivings: 9 (personal letter from someone at Viking). His is a fine steady command of all the tools: epitomized in the nice irony, the innate tact, of the refrain (in “Song”) “The behavioral sciences do not mind”; or in these lines, with their deftly calibrated, carefully modulated off-inner-rhyming and universality, from “Reflection”:

That I be not wasted
I aim to write a poem
That someone who knows
Knows is a poem.
How do they know?
I can taste it.

Whatever the subject of the poems here—loss at badminton, hurt animals, an unknown Puerto Rican woman and her child—Mistresson brings to it just such imagery evenly apt, rhythm and sentiment firmly balanced, a lyricism keen if sometimes fading. Such disciplined, well-earned tension is the result, we may infer, of an acceptance, a willingness to deal with the stiff pivotry of the seesaw—down and around the heart of the fulcrum, as it were. And here then may stir the potential by which the going pattern might legitimately be broken, the whole teeter-totter shunted horizontally forward—if, that is, such a poet as Mistresson can ever indeed generate the requisite torque, the heft, which are sadly lacking in these poems.

—Roy Blount, Jr.