Excellence and Variety

Thom Gunn

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Summer Knowledge, by Delmore Schwartz, Doubleday & Co.

Saint Judas, by James Wright, Wesleyan University Press.

A Dream of Governors, by Louis Simpson, Wesleyan University Press.

Light and Dark, by Barbara Howes, Wesleyan University Press.

Apples From Shinar, by Hyam Plutzik, Wesleyan University Press.

The Self-Made Man, by Reed Whittemore, Macmillan Co.

The Crow and the Heart, by Hayden Carruth, Macmillan Co.

Of the Festivity, by William Dickey, foreword by W. H. Auden, Yale University Press.

Life Studies, by Robert Lowell, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy.

I have sometimes wondered, in reading through a group of books for review, whether I wasn’t suffering from a species of mental delusion: could these poets really be so incoherent and so inept in so many different ways? Surely their work must possess a virtue which I was—either from habit or from some inborn frailty—unable to perceive? Did the publishers see something in them? Obviously. Did the public? Probably. Perhaps, in fact, clarity, common sense, and skill had been superseded by some other quality, to which I alone was blind. In light of these doubts, it is with a sense of renewed mental security that I prepare to recommend no less than eight books of poetry published in the last six months.

Before I come to them, however, I should like to call attention to a ninth book which has recently come out, because it is typical of the kind of poetry avoided by the eight younger poets. Its author, Delmore Schwartz, has had the misfortune to flourish at a time—the late ’thirties and the ’forties—when poetry was written with a recklessness that must be unparalleled in literary history. (For many of its practitioners it had almost ceased to be a craft.) And since he was not only characteristic of this time, but one of its leading spirits, the results, as published in his new and selected poems, Summer Knowledge, are extremely painful to read.

The following lines, from an early poem, are probably as good, as lacking in vagueness, as Mr. Schwartz’s writing ever gets. (He is speaking about “some who are uncertain,” though one is never sure of the cause for their uncertainty.)

Tentative, hesitant, doubtful, they consume

Greedily Caesar at the prow returning,

Locked in the stone of his act and office.

While the brass band brightly bursts over the water

They stand in the crowd lining the shore

Aware of the water beneath Him. They know it. Their eyes

Are haunted by water.

One’s first impression is of the sheer accumulation of words. It is almost as if the author were unsure of what he wanted to say, and figured that the more he wrote the more likely he would be to hit on some meaning or other. The first three words overlap in sense: “tentative” already implies the other two. “Act and office” (what exactly does “act” mean here?) could also, surely, have been put in one word. It is only too obvious that stone and water are symbolic, but there is no precision in the symbolism. And the passage does not even have the virtue of being original: as the first three lines echo the Eliot of “Triumphal March,” so the remaining four echo Auden with a vague social portentousness; the whole passage consists of manner without conviction, and a manner that was common property of all the fashionable poets of the ’thirties. But the poem from which it comes is a model of clarity and originality compared with the rest of the book. Few of the poems have any beginning or end: they seem chopped off the same unending tapeworm of discourse which varies in tone only when some better writer is being imitated, which is full of large unrealized abstractions like “guilt” (guilt of what?), and which is—after one has made all other criticism—verbose. And verbosity is the cardinal sin for a poet.

The critics reproach the young with being tame.

The reaction against this sort of sloppiness was bound to come: the only surprising thing is that it has not come more unanimously and come earlier. But it is now almost complete among the younger poets; and even a few of the older ones who spent a wild youth are in their middle-age reverting to a positively Augustan style. The critics reproach the young with being tame. None of the poets I am about to review can be called tame, however: they have turned back to the traditional conventions (meter, logical structure, sometimes rhyme) principally because they hope that these will allow them to work at the fullest possible strength in many different ways, and all show a very healthy vigor. Nor are they in any sense of the word a Movement; I doubt if any two of them are well acquainted, and there is a considerable variety in their excellence. I do not want to overpraise them—they are still comparatively young, and they certainly have faults, but their faults are heavily outweighed by their virtues: and the greatest of these virtues is that they respect their readers as people with whom it is possible and worthwhile to communicate.

There is a simplicity, a solidity, a soundness about James Wright which has attracted me since I started reading his poetry a few years ago. At his worst he can be labored, rather long-winded, and wooden in movement: but he is incapable of pretentiousness. He is concerned overtly with the development of style as a moral instrument, and at times it is done a bit too overtly for us to be really persuaded. At times, too, as in “The Revelation” or “Devotions,” the situation on which the moral instrument should operate is left too obscure for the good of the poem. But in his best work—on the whole the shorter poems—both situation and comment on it are clear and interdependent. Luckily the title-poem, “Saint Judas,” is short enough to be quoted in full.

When I went out to kill myself, I caught

A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.

Running to spare his suffering, I forgot

My name, my number, how my day began,

How soldiers milled around the garden stone

And sang amusing songs; how all that day

Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone

Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,

Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope

Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:

Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,

The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,

I held the man for nothing in my arms.

If the title made us think of the capriciously haloed bores of Graham Greene’s novels, we are pleasantly surprised: this saint is a saint for a real reason. Except for the runover between lines ten and eleven, which is clumsy rather than ambitious, there is nothing unorthodox in the poem. Except, perhaps, for the word “amusing,” there is not an unexpected word. The style is so unassuming, Wright is so deliberately trying not to distract our attention with decorations or special effects, that the poem could almost be called drab. But it is the very plainness of the writing that makes it move us as deeply as it does: we are forced to concentrate only on the meaning. This poem, “An Offering for Mr. Bluehart,” and “Sparrows in a Hillside Drift” are all fine achievements: Wright is obviously one of the best of the new poets.

Louis Simpson has little in common with him, except that they are both talented poets working in the traditional conventions. A Dream of Governors is in many ways a brilliant book. What one first notices about Simpson is his power over the single line—it is harmoniously filled-out in the manner of some such musical Elizabethan as Sir John Davies.

The treasures of Cathay were never found.

In this America, this wilderness

Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound,

The generations labor to possess

And grave by grave we civilize the ground.

This power is symptomatic, however, of his chief temptation, which is toward decoration for its own sake—decoration which may finally take the strength of the poem away, as it does in the first poem, “The Green Shepherd.” A converse danger, though it is less extreme, is toward the didactic, as in poems like “Tom Pringle.” (And here I ought to mention a long poem, “The Runner,” though it is neither decorative nor didactic. I cannot help thinking that such a narrative would be more effective in prose.)

His strength lies between these extremes, in poems where neither rhetoric nor intention takes force from the other. Some of these are remarkably successful. If one jots down a list of the best poems in the book—“Orpheus in the Underworld,” “I Dreamed that in a City Dark as Paris,” “Old Soldier,” “Hot Night on Water Street,” “Carentan O Carentan”—one is struck by the fact that they are almost all about either hallucination or something pretty close to it. Description of hallucination can be mere fooling, but the way in which Simpson does it is serious and with a purpose. Behind the real situation a ghost situation suddenly appears, grows clearer, and, without obliterating it, becomes as vivid as the original situation: so that each acts not only as a contrast but as a kind of verification to the other. The possibilities of this kind of poem are shown most strikingly by the structure of “Orpheus in the Underworld.” The first nine stanzas, about Orpheus, seem part of a very accomplished but slightly academic exercise; then suddenly the narrator uses the first person (Simpson is an old hand at springing the first person on the reader with good effect: he did it in “The Battle,” in his earlier book), and the narrator merges with Orpheus. As a result, the coolness of the description that has gone before now becomes in retrospect the restraint of a man who has gone through the same sort of experience as Orpheus. The story continues about Orpheus and the narrator simultaneously, each acting as a metaphor to the other, but each stronger in itself than a mere metaphor. The advantage of such a structure is obvious: the author has set himself at a remove from his subject, but not at such a remove that he is tempted to use fanciful embellishments. “I Dreamed that in a City Dark as Paris” does the same sort of thing, but even more subtly: a modern man (one suspects a soldier) dreams that he is a French soldier in an earlier war.

The helmet with its vestige of a crest,

The rifle in my hands, long out of date,

The belt I wore, the trailing overcoat

And hobnail boots, were those of a poilu.

He watches two planes at a dog-fight, “till one streamed down on fire to the earth,” and at the end, returned to his modern self, comments:

                            My confrere

In whose thick boots I stood, were you amazed

To wander through my brain four decades later

As I have wandered in a dream through yours?

The violence of waking life disrupts

The order of our death. Strange dreams occur,

For dreams are licensed as they never were.

In a sense, this is his justification for the dream and hallucination as subject-matter. But the poems themselves, honest without being tame, are justification enough.

From two poets primarily concerned with poetry as statement, I come to two poets who are primarily rhetoricians. Louise Bogan is quoted on the back of Light and Dark as saying that its author, Barbara Howes, has among other things “found her own voice.” Yes, I thought, glancing through the book for the first time, but isn’t that voice a trifle affected? Why, for example, does she say Cocorico rather than Cockadoodledoo? And don’t the following lines

Cicadas at their pastime, drilling

Eyelits of sound, so many midget Singer

Sewing machines

impress one only with their eccentric ingenuity?

The first glance is misleading, however, and I now find Miss Howes a very exciting writer. It is true that she, like Stevens sometimes, is too ready to rest back on the sheer, rich, subtle “texture” of her writing, and that at its worst her poetry can be merely perverse ornamentation, but at her best—and a large part of this book is her best—the very indirection of her style contributes to her meaning. Her most considerable power is in her control over language. In “Danae,” for example, she refers to the “martins flying in concert” as a “breathing shape hung on the air.” “Breathing” is both brilliantly original and brilliantly accurate. But the rhetorical unit is still the poem rather than the phrase: “City Afternoon” starts

Far, far down

The earth rumbles in sleep;

Up through its iron grille,

The subway, black as a chimney­

Sweep, growls . . .

We pass upward through escalators, disposal units, apartments—eighty stories up—until

The whinnying

Of Venetian blinds has ceased: we sit

Invisible in this room,

Behind glass. In a lull

A chance abatement of sound, a scalping

Silence, far

Down we hear the Iron

Maiden whisper,

Closing upon her spikes.

The effect of the whole poem, of course, is in the metaphor of the last two lines, and this is so elusive that it is difficult to paraphrase. Sometimes, too, she will circle around her subject, extracting associations from it in a seemingly random manner: but it only seems random. For the effect of a poem she places much more dependence on the suggestiveness of language than, say, Wright or Simpson does; but her writing is still a rational poetry rather than the poetry of broken suggestiveness that we have had from Eliot and Pound. Her method is one of oblique precision. One of her finest poems is “Light and Dark,” which actually has a simple sense: it is a momento mori. But by virtue of its beautifully sustained ominous tone it succeeds in being a very complex piece of work.

         That beckoning host ahead

Inn-keeper Death, has but to lift his hat

To topple the oldster in the dust . . .

Who would have thought it possible to use the word “oldster” in combination with the medieval personification of death as an innkeeper? That she does use it so, and uses it well, is a tribute to her stealthy control not only over the separate lines but over the poem as a whole.

I call Hyam Plutzik, also, a rhetorician because, though he writes about things I consider permanently outside my experience, he carries me with him by the force of the way in which he describes them. His greatest fault is that he is too free with his dreams, ghosts, and angels, and too ready to use words like “mythos” and “universe.” Richard Wilbur says that Plutzik reminds him of Robinson: I must say I find it hard to think of a poet less like Robinson. James Wright, perhaps, could be said to resemble Robinson in his determination to evaluate experience in plain terms; but Plutzik seems to look upon experience as essentially ambiguous and his terms are far from plain. What is surprising is that much of Apples from Shinar comes off very well.

The predominant feel of the book is one of strangeness; and the strangeness is used as an end in itself rather than as a means of judging life as we know it, so Plutzik is a complete contrast to Simpson. The subject of “Jim Desterland” could be either epilepsy or a saint-like perception of unity with the universe, but we are not told which it is: whether the visitation is sub-mental or super-mental.

The doors swung open, the little doors,

The door, the hatch within the brain,

And like the bellowing of ruin

The surf upon the thousand shores

Swept through me, and the thunder-noise

Of all the waves of all the seas.

Though the poem from which this stanza comes remains something of a mystery to me, I have to admit that it is a beautifully-done mystery. If its author reminds me of anybody, it is of Blake, but he is not like Blake in style (being much more elaborate, much more ingenious, much more calculating), he is only like him in his deliberate cultivation of a second­sight which one assumes he considers meaningful. This cultivation would be dangerous for most poets; what, however, saves Plutzik from phoniness is his concentration upon particularity, his response to the senses.

                           the sweet

Rot of the indolent cucumber,

Apple-smell, stubble-reek, pumpkin-vinegar.

Such writing, though it is sometimes in danger of turning into picturesqueness, can carry us into the heart of experiences which would otherwise be completely obscure to us.

These four books are published—simultaneously in paper-backs and hard covers—by Wesleyan University Press, and they make a very fine start to its new program, being not only good books in themselves but very pleasantly produced. Another new paperback series of poets who are not safe and established in anthologies comes from Macmillan, and is also something to be grateful for, in spite of the ugly cover-designs. The two most interesting of the Macmillan Poets are Reed Whittemore and Hayden Carruth. Reed Whittemore’s The Self-Made Man confirms my earlier estimate of its author as the funniest living poet. His specialty is in the elaborate and almost always successful explosion of cliché (and in some ways he is rather like Kingsley Amis in the ease, common sense, and modesty with which he accomplishes the explosion). He carries our assumptions a good deal farther than we ever expected to see them carried. To discover the difference between Life and Art he takes an acorn squash and tries “shoving its roundness into a lyric book.” In another poem he defines an Epicurean—

An Epicurean

Lives in a Paramount lot where De Mille and Griffiths

Are doing together, at last, a definitive version

Of “Erotica”—the longest, fleshiest,

Raciest, lewdest

Love scene ever produced . . .

The funniest part of this passage, I think, is the phrase “at last.” The poem from which it comes, “The Past, the Future, the Present,” is one of the best in the book. Two others I can recommend without any qualification, besides “The Tale of a Poem and a Squash,” are “The Tarantula” and “Paperboys.” Once or twice in the book his lumping together of incongruous elements is a little too facile, as, for example, in “In the O.E.D.” The O.E.D. has already done much of his work for him. But most of the collection is extraordinarily good.

It is probably just to say that the shorter in length and the more impersonal in attitude it is, the more likely a poem by Hayden Carruth is to succeed. In the four pages of “The Fat Lady” something gets lost, and I am not quite sure what the obviously very significant last line means in relation to the rest. I cannot make out either the subject or the style of the title poem, unless it is a parody of some poem I have never read. And “The Asylum,” in thirteen parts, is too broken up, too indirect, to come off as a whole. By contrast, “Lines Written in an Asylum” is direct, admirably controlled, and impersonal enough in the tone to be a moving and lovely poem. The one I like best is “Sparrows”:

I can easily imagine them

Asquabble in the copses when brave William

Led his band by, or even once

In the dust near Hannibal’s elephants.

Maybe in the primeval firs

They went at it: what’s his, what’s hers?

Apparently they do not welcome

Finality in sparrowdom.

It would be a mistake to call the poem from which this comes unimportant and childish. It is modest and fairly obvious in its intentions, but it is on a large enough subject, and it is written with an agreeable confidence in its own strength, akin to Robert Graves’. The reader feels positively complimented that the poem is done so well.

William Dickey reminds me rather of a young English poet, Gordon Wharton. Both have at present reached that important and exciting point at which they are relinquishing the influence of Auden for something of their own. As it is, there is still a good deal too much of Auden in Of the Festivity for one to say of it (and to say without the least condescension) more than “promising.” He is particularly attracted by the Auden of “The Witnesses,” but he is developing his own sense of the ridiculous, as in these lines, from “Questions of a Spaniel of Eleven,” which owe nothing to Auden.

After the operation she grew hair

At a terrible rate; her hormone balance changed.

There are also some more self-consciously serious poems, some of which (among them the title-poem) are a trifle awkward, but others of which really say something in an interesting way. “Memoranda” and “Twenty Years Gone, She Returns to the Nunnery” are a good deal more than promising. Most of the book, however, is the enjoyable and competent work of an apprentice who has good chances of becoming a master.

It would be a mistake to call the poem from which this comes unimportant and childish.

From these comparatively new and unknown poets I turn to one whom we tend to think of as from another generation, though he is actually only a few years older than most of them. The critics have been terribly guarded about Robert Lowell’s latest book, and it is indeed bewildering. It is a curious mixture, not only of the best and worst poems he has had in print, but of completely different kinds of writing. It is in four parts. The first consists of four poems both recognizably and unrecognizably in the “Lowell style.” They read, in fact, like parodies. The familiar bumps and grinds communicate no passion, and the poems are like the work of a slavish and unimaginative disciple. The second part of the book consists of a fragment of autobiography, which is certainly superior to the average New Yorker account of childhood but inferior to the first chapter of Henry Adams. It is here, I suppose, because it provides a background to some of the poems that follow. The third and fourth sections contain the interesting departure in subject-matter and style which is so surprising. The attitude of most critics I have seen is: this is not what we are used to from Lowell, so let us play safe by saying that it may lead to great poetry. I’m not sure that they will “lead to” great poetry, but some of the poems are remarkably perceptive and fresh in themselves.

Obviously if his old manner had reached the state of bankruptcy indicated by the first poems in the book, he was right to change. What he has changed to is about as far from Lowellese as can be imagined. It is unassertive and relaxed—at times so relaxed that we feel the poem could do with a bit of tightening up. But oddly enough the virtues of these new poems are similar to those of the poets I have been discussing earlier in this review: he is modest, he is literal, he is even charming (and no one could have called the old Lowell charming). The new poems vary a great deal in quality, from the catalogues of trivial autobiographical details, rambling and without unity, to the very moving statements about his personal situation which we find in “Man and Wife”.

Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed;

the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;

in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,

abandoned, almost Dionysian.

He speaks of the past, then returns to the present—

Now twelve years later, you turn your back.

Sleepless, you hold

your pillow to your hollows like a child; your old-fashioned tirade—

loving, rapid, merciless—

breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.

Partly what I admire here is the absence of vices: it is honest and clear, with little attempt at any rhetoric but the simplest; it risks—and sometimes falls into—flatness with its rather loose prosy style. And yet it does have a positive virtue, and so do such poems as “For Sale,” “Home After Three Months Away,” and “Skunk Hour.” The virtue is that of describing a human experience so that it is recognizable and at the same time has a certain meaning. Perhaps the very flatness serves to convince us.

Thom Gunn (1929–2004) was an Anglo-American poet. His collections include The Man with Night Sweats.
Originally published:
January 1, 1960


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


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