New Books in Review

Poems and Books of Poems

Thom Gunn

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TORSE 3, by CHRISTOPHER MIDDLETON, Harcourt, Brace, & World.

POEMS, 1954–1962, by ADRIENNE RICH, Harper & Row.



COLLECTED POEMS by WELDON KEES, University of Nebraska Press.

SILENCE IN THE SNOWY FIELDS, by ROBERT BLY, Wesleyan University Press.

In some collections the poems can be read not only as separate poems but as parts of a whole, to which the themes and style give unity. The pattern of the book may not have preceded the writing of any individual poems, for its unity comes from the unity of a mind that is consistently dominated by certain concerns, and is consistently attracted by experiences that illuminate those concerns. Thus, the most unsuccessful poems will be interesting for the light they throw on the themes of the successful ones.

Why then does the new book—the product, clearly, of a good mind—usually look as if it has been written by about six different people, one bright and the other five dull? It is true that the cause may lie in something as simple as uneven writing. And it is also true that most books are simply anthologies of what their authors hope are the best poems they have written in the last few years—and we must be grateful for the good ones included. But in spite of such gratitude, or even because of it, we may speculate that the disunity arises from a conception of style as a kind of good in itself, a technique applied to the material of experience in order to make it something other, rather than as an embodiment of attitude and a part of the poem’s meaning. It may be that today we have so many styles available, so many “traditions” to work in, that the smaller talents get lost in the undergrowth of ceaseless experiment, trying all the styles in turn without concentrating on a single one so as to strengthen it and strengthen themselves.

The most common reason for a lack of unity may be that some of the poems are written in the author's style and some of them in somebody else's.

The last conjecture is prompted by Christopher Middleton’s varied collection. His epigraph, a dictionary definition of his title, runs: “A developable surface; a surface generated by a moving straight line which at every instant is turning, in some plane or other through it, about some point or other in its length.” If I understand this correctly, it is a description—a very apt and ingenious one—of poetry as craft, and in fact the concern of his book is usually more with how he is writing than with what he is writing.

Mr. Middleton uses several clearly distinguishable styles, ranging from that of direct statement to that of impenetrable obliquity. In “At Porthcothan” he describes how he throws a bird’s dead body into the sea: in such a place he says, “such bodies best belong . . . among the elements that compose and decompose them”

. . . Or perhaps (for I could not see the body falling)

A hand rose out of air and plucked the corpse

From its arc and took it, warm still,

To some safer place and concealed it there,

Quite unobtrusively, but sure, but sure.

“Perhaps” indicates, I suppose, that he does not know whether he wants to say this or not, and I can understand his hesitation. Nevertheless, however hesitant the tone, this is the poetry of statement. On the next page, in “The Alien Town,” there is more statement, but since here there is no security to be sought in the external world the tone is rather mysteriously conversational, like Kafka’s. And then again there is the lmagist manner of “Pointed Boots,” behind which, presumably, there lie Imagist assumptions; or the humorous-grotesque manner of “The Sniff”; or the abrupt elliptic manner of “The Ant Sun”; or the rhapsodical rhetoric of “Tenebrae”:

Shaking the timbers of the compatible world

Wisdom along her veins and her eyes withdrawn

One instant from her dream on the obedient stair,

Night seas unfurled through glory into her form.

The quick changes from style to style may be partly explained by the fact that Torse 3 is a collection of twelve years’ work, but even so the effect is less of an evolution in the writing than of a man trying on different coats.

Mr. Middleton is at his best in “Ode, on Contemplating Clapham Junction,” “Objects at Brampton Ash,” “The Guest,” and “The Thousand Things.” The textures of style in these poems never seem superimposed on the meaning. The oddity and particularity of the imagery are not gratuitous, because the sense exists in terms of it.

Dry vine leaves burn in an angle of the wall.

Dry vine leaves and a sheet of paper, overhung

by the green vine.

This is the start of “The Thousand Things.’’ In the lines that follow, the items in the fire are presented with a peculiar intensity, an intensity which depends partly on the repetitions of phrase, until suddenly there is a break, and the poem ends

A naked child jumps over the threshold

waving a green spray of leaves of vine.

This poem is worked out in terms of the things it speaks about quite as much as in terms of its style. And in this it differs from most of the poems in the book.

The most common reason for a lack of unity may be that some of the poems are written in the author’s style and some of them in somebody else’s. Here are passages from two new books, looking as if they came from quite old ones:

As solid-seeming as antiquity,

you frown above

the New York Sunday Times

where Castro, like a walk-on out of Carmen,

mutters into a bearded henchman’s ear.

                                                  (Adrienne Rich)

Knowledge is slow to form;

     And I grow old
     Seeking, not to be warm

With life, but to be cold,

Almost indifferent,

     Almost unmoved;

     Although intent,

Alert, impartial, and removed.

                                      (Charles Gullans)

The first reads like recent Lowell, in the topical particularization and the lines of irregular length composed of scarcely impeded iambs; the second reads like Winters, in the sententia of the first line, the vocabulary of the second stanza, the general language, the stoical attitude. The passages read like, but at the same time have characteristics of undeliberate parody. Lowell’s or Winters’ style, after all, emerges from and embodies an attitude to a particular lifetime of experience. The attempt to annex style is thus ultimately an attempt to annex experience, which is impossible. One cannot be Lowell and Winters; one can learn from them, but what is to be learned is not what makes each recognizable.

The problem is not new with Adrienne Rich. The title poem of her last book, “The Diamond Cutters,” was full of echoes from Yeats, and the Yeatsian influence paralyzes the movement of the first poem in this one. By contrast, the influence of Lowell is a sort of liberation, in that it makes one use one’s powers of observation rather than try to show how abstractly passionate one is. “I can’t name love now,” she says, “without naming its object,” a sound and sensible enough statement, from which it would be difficult to withhold one’s approbation. On the other hand, she says elsewhere, “Don’t think I think / facts serve better than ignorant love. / Both serve. . . .” It is the word “ignorant” that pulls me up short, suggesting as it does the enduring presence of Yeatsian romanticism. Both facts and love do serve, no doubt, but unless the particulars can bear some relation to the emotion, diminishing its ignorance and increasing its understanding, either fact or love is doomed to become part of an increasingly meaningless accumulation.

At worst in this book, the object is there without the emotion to justify it, as when she speaks of “scissors of cockcrow (that) snip the air.” The explicitness is virtually for its own sake here, as in the detail about Castro. At best the relation between facts and feeling is admirably established, as when, addressing a dead woman, she remarks that in life “you had long since become / crisp as a dead insect,” or, to a living woman in another poem,

Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,

heavy with useless experience, rich

with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,

crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge

of mere fact.

The explicitness of image is used here for the purpose of the statement being made, and only for that purpose, both tenor and vehicle being firmly established in relation to each other, and the relation bringing about our understanding of the passage. Fact is here as indifferent as we know it: cruel or salutary, it is inevitable. And the observation, in all its complexity, is from Adrienne Rich herself, not from Adrienne Rich trying to view life through the eyes of Lowell or Yeats.

The problem of derivativeness is different for Charles Gullans. Miss Rich is almost certainly unconscious of the extent of her imitation, but Mr. Gullans is clearly trying to write within a certain tradition, that of rational self-restraint in content and style. The trouble is that the majority of his poems echo too closely the personal styles of the different exemplars of this tradition, from Ben Jonson, through Bridges, to Winters, Cunningham, and even Edgar Bowers and the early Donald Davie.

Moreover, we have to remember the decorum shared by these writers is a precariously maintained discipline over the understanding confronted by the rich confusion of experience. But with Mr. Gullans, the discipline usually enters before the experience has a chance. “First Love” begins

She fled in anguish, he pursued desire,

A god grown fleshly in a mortal fire,

and ends

He plunged, intent, by matted bush and tree,

And then was startled from himself to see

Her brows descending toward a harsher mien

And where his hand touched flesh a quickened green.

This poem avoids every vice but that of cliché. It is typical of a fair number of poems in the book, which illustrate the vices of being too distant from one’s subject even as a fair number of Miss Rich’s poems illustrate the vices of being too close.

Happily, Mr. Gullans has a talent for satire, satire in the style of Dryden—that is, not necessarily funny—which is shown at its finest in “Return Voyage, 1955.” Speaking of American foreign policy, he says

. . . I care, so I must fear

Involvement in imperfect policy,

The bland deceit of patriots, whose pride

Is passionate confusion of the scope

Of moral empire with imperial power,

I fear their judgment, and I fear their fear

To face the deep compulsions of the hour.

“Of the hour” is a weak piece of rhetoric, but in the rest of the passage (and of the poem) language embodies idea, and idea embodies the subject of the poem so precisely that there is no possibility of evasion through the use of another man’s style. The idea is the experience. Such a coincidence occurs in only a few of the meditative poems, notably in “Daimon I,” which is so intensely thought out and so compactly executed that it succeeds as a very compelling statement, in spite of the closeness of the subject to many of J. V. Cunningham’s.

Shadow of my perfection,

Since, to be more than shade,

You must be less, election

Destroys you as you are made.

The paradox of the last line is not there for the sake of cleverness: it is the subject of the poem. And again, nothing intervenes between idea and the statement of idea in this first stanza; emotion is implied by the very restraint with which the writer holds himself from saying anything not strictly relevant.

The split in Anne Sexton’s book is also between better and worse rather than between kinds or subjects. On the whole she is showing more control over her material than she did in her first book, where most of it was too close for her to speak about it very coherently. And the structure of her poems has become tighter and clearer. On the other hand, she too has trouble in subduing the idiom of Lowell, which has evidently replaced Auden’s as the most attractive of our time; her symbols are facile at times (one poem, for example, is entitled “Doors, Doors, Doors”); and she can still relapse into bombast like the end of the following:

My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are:

with mercy

for the greedy

they are the tongue’s wrangle,

the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.

This is the last stanza of a poem addressed to a friend who has been trying to persuade her to take the sacrament of confession, so there is considerable point to the conceits of the first few lines quoted, though I doubt that any Catholic would be convinced by them. But the transition “this is what poems are” is too easy (she was not born writing poems, after all), the special relevance of “greedy” to the passage or the poem is not clear, and the last two lines appear to be there more for the suggestions of the words than for the meanings.

What is most encouraging about this collection is that she is getting rid of the faults of rhetoric and self-dramatization of her first book, in spite of all her admirers:

A Canada goose rides up,

spread out like a gray suede shirt,

honking his nose into the March wind.

In the entryway a cat breathes calmly

into her watery blue fur.

These are only a couple of details, perhaps, but they are securely presented, solid in their own existence, and in no way distorted by the poet’s intentions. And some of the other poems are impressive, not only in detail, but as wholes. “Old Dwarf Heart” is about the true seat of Miss Rich’s “ignorant love,” which turns out to be a bit like Chicken Little in Pohl and Kombluth’s The Space Merchants:

Like an imbecile she was born old.

Her eyes wobble as thirty-one thick folds

of skin open to glare at me . . .

And in “In the Deep Museum,” Jesus is transported from the tomb in the stomachs of rats. The poem is ingenious in conception and powerful in the writing. Jesus says, of the first rat,

It is panting; it is an odor with a face

like the skin of a donkey. It laps my sores.

It is hurt, I think, as I touch its little head.

The last line, risking indifference by its understatement, is to me far more moving than anything in Miss Sexton’s first book. It may well be that she is most credible when she fictionalizes her experience: certainly she is at her best when she presents it indirectly or from a distance.

Weldon Kees’ book can of course claim to a different sort of unity from that of a single coIIection, since it is the result of a career. However, most of the first half is practice only, in the comic-melodramatic mode of the early Auden and the early Hitchcock, the fashionable style of the ’thirties, when Kees started to write. There is little in this part of the book which is not dull except as a preparation for the second half.

The Auden manner dies hard––there is talk of “the marvellous cities” and “the evil millionaire” even toward the end of the collection. Besides this, the atmosphere of the horrific is too readily evoked, and the symbols of meaninglessness are often merely glib:

And brown surf muddying the shore,

Deposits fish-heads, sewage, rusted tin.

Yet there remain a large number of poems that lack such vices. Kees’ subject is that of the ordinary world as bearer of the seeds of its own apocalyptic destruction. In fact, the world is, in a sense, in the process of that very destruction. We survive, for the time being, less because we are ignorant than because we manage to interpose habit as a convenient obstruction between us and the vision of meaninglessness. But, ironically enough, habit itself is a realization of the meaningless. The nature of the survivor is first described clearly in one of the earlier poems, “Robinson”—which turns out to describe not Robinson but his surroundings. For they reflect him: “Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian,” yet he gives them merely identity, not meaning. Without him

The pages in the book are blank,

The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,

Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson

Calling. It never rings when he is here.

There are other poems later in the book about the same character. In “Aspects of Robinson” we see an apparent reversal: here Robinson is described as reflection of his surroundings. But the reversal is in syntax and not in sense. For they give him mere identity and not meaning: his clothes cover “his sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.” In “Robinson at Home,” he dreams of the excitement of extreme situations whose own waking situation is already extreme. And in “Relating to Robinson,” Robinson—or is it Robinson (for his voice is “like an echo” of the narrator’s)?—shows a consciousness of the nightmare he lives, in a poem rather like Baudelaire’s “Confession.” In spite of the melodrama and air of mystification, this group of poems, with “1926” and “Dog,” do succeed in making a coherent and powerful statement about what it feels like to wake in horror at the absurdity of the world, and to find that one has been living that absurdity.

Robert Bly’s book, alone of the group under review, possesses the type of unity I have spoken of, a consistency of style and outlook that has a direct relation to the quality of its contents. By the very act of discarding juvenilia and half-successes, he has helped to define the kind of poem on which he wishes to concentrate. In style he has developed a compact and lucid free verse that is reminiscent but not imitative of the early Williams. Philosophically, he is a phenomenologist. The epigraph to his book is from Jacob Boehme: “We are all asleep in the outward man.” Meaning is to be discovered through the senses; we must “open the doors of perception.” His trust, therefore, in the image as sole repository of the poem’s meaning is almost absolute: he is not interested, it appears, in the intellect and its workings, human psychology, or the social life as subjects for poetry, since to bring them in would force him to use concepts.

But, ironically enough, habit itself is a realization of the meaningless.

Such a program is far from original, but it is unusual to find a poet carrying it out with consistency and talent—really, in fact, writing as though he believes it. A small amount of thought does enter the poem even with Bly, however. For there is the problem of structure: since the poem is traditionally organized in either narrative, discursive, or dramatic terms, what is available to the writer who believes that the presentation of things is sufficient meaning in itself? How does he avoid the haphazard structure of the catalogue?

First we should admit that mere presentation does give some meaning, if only in our recognition of something well-described. However, such meaning is minimal. “A Late Spring Day in My Life” runs:

A silence hovers over the earth:

The grass lifts lightly in the heat

Like the ancient wing of a bird.

A horse gazes steadily at me.

But such presentation can be performed only on a small scale, or it will become boring or disconnected.

Secondly, there is the technique of reference back to the observer, which is found at its most elementary in Williams’ poem about the wheelbarrow. Mr. Bly starts a poem, “I love to see boards lying on the ground in early spring.” But he does not leave it at that:

The ground beneath them is wet, and muddy—

Perhaps covered with chicken tracks—

And they are dry and eternal.

And here a small amount of conceptual meaning leaks in, for in the last line certain qualities are found in the boards which seem to have a wider reference, a reference maybe even to human situations.

This kind of reference is impossible to avoid so long as one is using words, but Mr. Bly usually manages to invalidate it by a canceling out of connotations and similes. The trees are said to be dignified “like a fierce man on his deathbed,” moss is said to stand out “as if it wanted to speak”; on the other hand, in ‘‘Poem in Three Parts” the poet compares himself to grass, and in “Silence” he says

Even the young sunlight is lost on the window pane,

Moving at night like a diver among the bare branches silently

                                            lying on the floor.

Things have the qualities of humans, but then the few humans in the book have the qualities of things. By his abundant use of simile, he is merely pointing out that, as in his poem on page thirty, “one thing is also another thing.” If this is so, then the differentiating human consciousness has not come into Mr. Bly’s world yet, and indeed it is a world of total innocence, without evil, and simply for enjoyment:

Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!

I am wrapped in my joyful flesh

As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.

There is not complete silence in the snowy fields, for we can hear Mr. Bly’s voice describing them, but there is a singular lack of other human beings in his poetry, and it is only by other human beings and their acts that his view of the world can be tested. His virtues are that his language is almost always striking; his love for a world without evil is celebrated in a voice of singular purity; he evokes things and scenes immediately and vividly. Given his limits, his principal danger seems to lie in a kind of whimsy:

A dream of moles with golden wings

Is not so bad; it is like imagining

Waterfalls of stone deep in mountains,

Or a wing flying alone beneath the earth.

The mole with golden wings belongs in a book for children and the other two images belong to the same world of innocent surrealism. It will be interesting to see if people, discomfort, or badness can ever enter Mr. Bly’s world or if his poems will continue to be a series of acutely observed and beautiful landscapes.

Thom Gunn (1929–2004) was an Anglo-American poet. His collections include The Man with Night Sweats.
Originally published:
October 1, 1963


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The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

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