Retrospect: Poetry in Review

Penelope Laurans

When I began, with the blindness of ignorance, I expected this essay to be concerned with the poetry in The Yale Review over the course of its first fifty years — even to attempt to speak with dispassion about the past twenty-five years seemed to me presumptuous, since we are still too close to view them with proper objectivity. What I found as I began to read through issues, however, was that I actually had little to say about the poetry in the journal until the last twenty-five years. Partly this is because it is easier to offer original personal opinions when a general consensus has not yet been reached. But partly it is also that the poetry of the first fifty years seems now to divide into two distinct categories: a small group of great poems by acknowledged masters; and a large body of ordinary verse, of Victorian flavor, exemplifying a way of writing poetry that held on even while the world was exploding with the entrance of the great moderns.

Most editors of journals would like to think that they are open-minded, discerning about the new, and receptive to the revolutionary, but the history of taste and publication proves otherwise. In the case of the early years of The Yale Review, it is not surprising that the poetry published was not innovative or experimental and did not always even represent the best of the more traditional poetry being written. How difficult it is to spot the new! And what energy it takes to acquire it! And the fact is that, in Cross’s early conception of the journal, poetry simply did not seem to matter that much. As one looks through the early Reviews, noting a single poem here and there, it becomes clear that poetry was included almost as an afterthought: pleasant filler that might enrich the magazine but that was distinctly peripheral to its mission.

What appeared in the early years of the magazine, therefore, was a great deal of verse like this by Lee Wilson Dodd, from the earliest volume of the journal:

I know a garden hung in air

Above the dim Salernian sea,

A garden excellently fair,

Remote, walled in mysteriously;

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

But ah, far lovelier in decay

Are these dead stones that prop the rose,

The ruined strength of yesterday

Clad round with beauty and repose!

Far lovelier since the strong men died

Who reared them up in strife and hate,

Revenge and rapine, these their pride

Which knew no yielding—save to fate!

.    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

Only these trivial whispering things

Deepening the peace, till wish and will

Die out with the last whisperings,

And life seems death, it is so still.

Now, as things go, this is not bad Victorian verse. The Ozymandias theme of beauty and strength subject to decay, played out repeatedly in nineteenth-century verse, expressed here in regular iambic tetrameters and articulated in what seems to us now to be an overused vocabulary — this kind of theme appeared again and again in poems in the early years of the journal, and Dodd’s poem is an archetypal example of it. The point is that after all this has been noted there is simply not very much else to say. We are looking here at standard verse of its kind, verse that is perfectly fine but in no way great — and so, like all ordinary verse that is perfectly fine but in no way great, it has not stood the test of time particularly well.

Although I have not actually counted, I cannot be far wrong if I guess that the verse form which appeared most frequently in the early years of the journal was the sonnet. But while I looked, I could find no great example of this genre, only the blander examples epitomized in this sonnet by John Masefield (a poet who certainly wrote better elsewhere):


O wretched man, that, for a little mile

Crawls beneath heaven for his brother’s blood,

Whose days the planets number with their style,

To whom all earth is slave, all living, food;

O withering man, within whose folded shell

Lies yet the seed, the spirit’s quickening corn,

That Time and Sun will change out of the cell

Into green meadows, in the world unborn;

If Beauty be a dream, do but resolve

And fire shall come, that in the stubborn clay

Works to make perfect till the rocks dissolve,

The barriers burst and beauty takes her way.

Beauty herself, within whose blossoming Spring

Even wretched man shall clap his hands and sing.

Again, this is not bad. The apostrophe rings a bit false, the first quatrain has a funny moment (wretched man crawling a little mile), but there are nice things — the second quatrain, for example, where the spirit moves from the cell “into green meadows, in the world unborn.” But the poem isn’t memorable; it is not distinguished, even of its kind.

Am I being harsh? How will the poetry in the past twenty-five years of the Review come to be seen fifty years hence? There has been a great deal of ordinary poetry in evidence during these years too, but my suspicion is posterity may look a bit more kindly at these later efforts simply because, in the past twenty-five years, poetry has assumed a more important place in the magazine and more attention and care has been given to selecting it. Is the real problem, however, that as time goes by, the distinction between what is great and everything else simply becomes increasingly clear? Because there is no question that, particularly in comparison to three or four of the great Frost poems published by the Review in the late twenties and early thirties, everything else suffers. Badly. It is to the Review’s credit indeed to have published “Departmental,” “Tree at My Window,” and “Moon Compasses” — these are very great poems. And yet it is not surprising, given the kind of poetry the Review printed, to find these poems here instead of, say, some equally great poems by Stevens. It is perhaps finally salutary to note that the striking difference between the Frost poems and the rest of the poems the Review was publishing can be contained in one word: genius.

The perspective on poetry in The Yale Review might well have proved a trifle depressing to current editors intent on pride in the history of their magazine, except for the following. If the poetry of the magazine’s first fifty years seems disappointing, the poetry criticism does not.

It is true that, in the earliest years, there were several pained cries about modernist poetry and modernist criticism, and I will chronicle these first. “We find,” admits Edward Bliss Reed in 1917, “the new criticism as perplexing as much of the new poetry” (he undoubtedly assumes the royal “we” here to express the distress of the multitude of traditionalists who shared his position). Later in his review, Professor Reed takes up Sandburg, giving him credit for parts of “Chicago Poems,” but asserting that “the more Mr. Sandburg approaches the normal forms, the better are his effects.” Sandburg was the most “modern” of the poets Reed considered in that piece: for the rest, he reviewed Masters, Untermeyer, Pierce, Dodd, and Robinson — and quite rightly found Robinson “in the foremost rank of American poets.”

The opinions of Charles Wharton Stark were even more to the point than Reed’s. Writing in 1920, shortly before the publication of The Waste Land, but after intimations of the future were already making their way across the ocean, Stark concluded:

Few people now desire poems that tell vaguely idealistic stories or point direct morals. . . . All the reader asks is that the poet shall have some community of interest with him, shall have a real meaning to express, and shall convey that meaning with as little obscurity as possible.

During the course of that review Stark indicts Conrad Aiken as a poet whose work has “some artistic, but worse than no human interest,” condemns John Crowe Ransom for his “slipshod meters” (of all things!) and “boyish kicks at other people’s beliefs,” remarks that Babette Deutsch’s best writing is found in the “fresh but universal notes of the sonnets,” and ends by emphasizing “communal emotion”: “Poetry should be simple, sensuous, and passionate. Simplicity and passion combine into sympathy, an emotion in common with our kind.”

Reviewing is a dangerous profession. I suspect that few of us, having offered our opinions in 1985, would wish them made public in 2005 — nor is there any reason we should. It is remarkable, then, that so many of the poetry reviews published by The Yale Review between 1911 and 1960 still read so well, and that the judgments in them have had such staying power. And this the Review owes principally to four individuals (and to the editors who contracted with them): Louis Untermeyer, Louis Martz, David Daiches, and Randall Jarrell.

The first of these individuals was Untermeyer, the subject of e. e. cummings’s clever, damaging, and unfair little epigram:

mr u will not be missed

who as an anthologist

sold the many on the few

not excluding mr u

Whatever his biases as an anthologist, as a reviewer Untermeyer did the Review many services. His judgment was limited in a number of areas, it is true, but it was also excellent in others. It was Untermeyer, for example, who undoubtedly was responsible for helping to secure a few of Frost’s great poems for the journal, and he wrote several times about Frost with insight and passion. While he never quite saw the dark side of Frost that it has been fashionable to emphasize in the past twenty years, he nevertheless always recognized the major note, and praised Frost for being “alive with revelation” and for writing “lyrics brimming with radiance, with the delight and pain of the senses.” For Untermeyer, Frost always stood as the touchstone.

Untermeyer was best on his enthusiasms, but his taste was more eclectic than is sometimes thought. He was no mere sucker for the formal or the sentimental. In writing a review of a number of books, he was canny in discussing Edna St. Vincent Millay, noting an “irritating coyness” in many poems in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems but praising the sonnets — including “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare” — as “among the finest of this generation.” Louise Bogan was given credit for “one of the most brilliant books of the last few years,” Ransom (after his earlier poor press in the Review) credited in 1925 as being “an imaginative poet, a technician of brilliance, a story-teller of power, whose flavor is as individual as that of any American writing today.” Perhaps more surprisingly, Untermeyer also — as early as the mid-thirties — praised two new “New Directions” authors, Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen:

Both authors set out to create excitement and both achieve it; Thomas by leaping images and wild associations, Patchen by sheer force. Few readers will immediately comprehend Thomas’s poems . . . but only the impatient will fail to finish reading them.

This last comment seems to me a good one, and a good litmus test: Untermeyer wasn’t quite sure he understood Thomas but he didn’t miss the excitement. Eventually no one else did either, but Untermeyer, in spite of his generally conservative, traditional taste, was open to him from the beginning.

Untermeyer’s limitations show most dramatically where two of the greatest poets of the century, Eliot and Stevens, are concerned. Not that he ever had anything deprecatory to say about Eliot: his comment on The Four Quartets sounds properly reverent, if a bit puzzled. “Eliot’s counterpoint of private experience and impersonal mysticism is not easy to follow,” he wrote. “But few will question the beauty of the communication; few will doubt the perfection of the poet’s art.” It is not what is said here, but what is not said that troubles; next to Untermeyer’s unqualified enthusiasm for Frost, this sounds a bit hollow. (No matter. Much attention was given to Eliot elsewhere in the Review.) Even earlier than this, Untermeyer had enunciated the skeptic’s major criticism of Stevens, a poet he viscerally could not appreciate:

For all its word-painting, there is little of the human voice in these glittering lines, and so, lacking the spell of any emotion, “Harmonium” loses both itself and its audience. It has much for the eye, something for the ear, but nothing for that central hunger which is at the heart of all senses.

Shades of Charles Wharton Stark and his “emotion in common with our kind”!

It took twenty-five years for the Review to arrive at a new position on Stevens, but when it did, in 1948 — still early for such warm appreciation — it was articulated by Louis Martz. It was Martz who did most to bring a full appreciation of the moderns to the Review. Early on, for example, he favorably reviewed Paterson (“We may be watching here the growth of one of the most important works yet written by an American poet”), zeroed in on Elizabeth Bishop’s special genius (“Much of the pleasure in reading these poems lies in watching how, with an artful casualness, the images themselves convince us that we are underestimating the weight they carry”), and gave close and discriminating attention to Pound, offering warm appreciation at the same time that he clearly enunciated what would become the central debate about the Cantos (“Is Pound succeeding in his aim of giving to the world an epic poem in an art form new to the English language? Or is he simply giving us a huge anthology, a load of junk and jewels?”).

It was clear from the first that Martz loved Stevens as much as Untermeyer had loved Frost. In his first discussion of Stevens in the Review, Martz began by calling him the “unique bird, inimitable,” and lauded Transport to Summer as “another landmark in American literature, along with his first volume Harmonium.” Martz went on in this review to deal with Stevens in loving detail, discriminating between The Man with the Blue Guitar and Parts of a World (“it was clear that Stevens was in the throes of working out a considerably different style”) and giving a full vote of confidence to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and “Esthétique du Mal.” It was the time and detail that Martz lavished on Stevens, as well as on Pound and Williams, that changed the tenor of the magazine, and placed it more firmly than ever among the leading publishers of poetry criticism.

David Daiches did not share Martz’s enthusiasm for Stevens (“[The poems] go on and on, and we are spellbound, convinced that there is a deep poetry there if only we could locate it”), but he wrote well and approvingly of Williams, and feelingly about Auden’s poetry of the 1940s (“Dexterity, metrical skill ... ironic wisdom, wry insights into history and its relation to the present — all this we have and it is sometimes worth having; but sometimes I would trade it all for one more lyric like “Lay your sleeping head, my love”). But what Daiches really mastered was the offhand observation which, to a reader some thirty-five years later, looks scarily prescient. He captured brilliantly the tragedy of Delmore Schwartz’s flawed genius when he noted early on that “the tension between naïveté and adult cunning is the source of much of Schwartz’s power and most of the special effects his poetry achieves.” He put his finger uncomfortably on the problem with Howard Nemerov when he noted straight off that “too many of the poems lack a burning core to mould the pattern and imagery of the whole into a compelling shape.” And with frightening and breathtaking accuracy, he spotted Lowell’s end, very near to his beginning, in his review of The Mills of the Kavanaughs:

There seems a lack of full control somewhere, an element of irresponsibility in the presentation which detracts from the human wholeness of each poem. I cannot help having the feeling that Mr. Lowell is letting his talents run wild and that these poems are not pulled together as they should be.

When Daiches wrote these assessments, he could not have known, of course, the future of any of these poets. But the testament to his strength as a reviewer is that we have to keep reminding ourselves that he did not. In every case, he is remarkably close to the bone.

Since I vowed to stop my discussion with the year 1960, I have to resist talking about Thom Gunn, whose judicious reviews begin in that year. But I do at least get to mention, as the last of the four poetry reviewers who made such an important contribution to the Review, the jewel in the crown — and that is Randall Jarrell. Since I have been so free in judging the judgments of the past, I will here offer for posterity one of my own (not very bold, I think): Randall Jarrell will survive as one of the three or four greatest critics of poetry of the age. And every word he wrote in the Review helps bear out that judgment. Whether in his long, considered two-part piece on Robert Graves (surely the best assessment of Graves ever written), in his full and damaging consideration of Pound’s Rock Drill (and by way of that, of the Cantos as a whole), or in his rapturous appreciation of Adrienne Rich’s second book, The Diamond Cutters, Jarrell is nothing short of amazing. It is not just that he is almost always right — although he almost always is — it is rather that, like Virginia Woolf, he has a way of expressing what the rest of the world intuits to be true but somehow cannot quite say. He reads poetry feelingly. He writes about it passionately. Though one might sometimes think him wrong, he is nevertheless always, always interesting.

Jarrell’s reviews do not excerpt well. That is principally because when Jarrell takes up a subject he does not let it go, and as one sentence moves to another and the complexity of his thought unravels, all the sentences come to seem necessary. So go to the library and reach for the Autumn 1955 and Winter and Spring 1956 issues of The Yale Review.

Or look the essays up in the collected volumes of Jarrell criticism that exist. Jarrell didn’t only write his essays for The Yale Review — in fact, Partisan Review, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, and The New York Times Book Review all got there first. But when John Palmer became editor in 1954 he did not lose much time beginning to exercise his powers of persuasion, and two years later (the blink of an eye in the life of a quarterly) Jarrell made his entrance. His reviews are great ones, and they cap a series of poetry reviews of which any journal could be proud.

Penelope Laurans was associate editor of The Yale Review during the 1980s. She is currently a senior advisor at the university.
Originally published:
December 1, 1985


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