Outside Faction

Thom Gunn

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New and Selected Poems, by Howard Nemerov, University of Chicago Press.

The Drunk in the Furnace, by W. S. Merwin, Macmillan Co.

Horatio, by Hyam Plutzik, Atheneum.

Stills and Movies, by Ralph Pomeroy, Gesture Press.

Say Pardon, by David Ignatow, Wesleyan University Press.

The Distances, by Charles Olson, Grove Press.

Poetic theory in America is at present in an extremely curious state, resembling that of England during the Barons’ Wars rather than that of a healthy democracy or well-run autocracy. It is not even a decent civil war, traditionalist against modernist. At one extreme, it is true, there are the academic-suburban poets who aim so low that it is difficult to see why they bother to aim at all; at the other there are the remnants of the neo-Bohemians, who aim everywhere and thus nowhere. Between these comparative majorities of those who are timid or eccentric on principle exist the Barons, each commanding a troop of ill-equipped and determined fighters, and each against all the rest: Baron Bly, recommending a slightly surrealist imagery that looks a little old-fashioned nowadays; Baron Rexroth, ex-director of the Beat advertising campaign; Baron Fitts, who has just announced that the one distinguishing characteristic of true poetry is Strangeness; and a host of others who are convinced that they, and they alone, have discovered the criterion for good poetry. What is interesting, or rather, distressing, is that none of the Barons’ retainers are good poets. Or if they are ever good, it is only when they can forget the precepts of their masters. Just as Herbert is good in so far as he is unlike the rest of the School of Donne, so James Wright, for example, is at his best only when he is not trying to write like Robert Bly.

The Barons certainly get the ear of the public; for one thing, they are mostly good journalists, and for another, they are so original. The result is that a Ginsberg, a Starbuck, an O’Gorman receives unlimited publicity for a brief season, while Howard Nemerov, Louis Simpson, Edgar Bowers, and a few others scarcely inferior are acknowledged only here and there, and often grudgingly. But it is these last, I suspect, who will still be read in fifty years’ time. Part of their virtue lies in the very fact that they have not been seduced into literary politics: they have learned from the whole of literature, not merely from writers of a special kind; and they do not view the writing of poetry as a group activity, but as a lonely and difficult task for which the rules are so extraordinarily difficult to define that each poet must reformulate them for himself.

If one associates Nemerov with other poets, it would be only with the contributors to the defunct Furioso, who made up a group so loose that it hardly counted as such, including men as different as Coxe and Kees. He has always been, very individually, one of the best poets of his generation, but with the emergence of his New and Selected Poems it becomes necessary to class him outside the category of a mere generation; for the book makes it clear that he is one of the best poets writing in English.

As it is, his poetry tells us something about a thing or an event with great accuracy, but is curiously barren of individual emotions or ideas.

Nemerov’s early poems were like marvelous tricks, brilliant in themselves, but each in a sense isolated from the rest. In some of them it almost looked as if he were setting himself difficult problems in style and tone for their own sake. “History of a Literary Movement” and “Carol,” for example, though they are excellent light verse, bear little relation to each other (in the way all of Robert Lowell’s early poems bear a closely definable relation to each other) except in so far as they show an unusually efficient use of two different styles, parody and folksong. But the value of the apprenticeship served in the early poems becomes apparent in his succeeding work: for rhetoric is now an instrument with which he can pry open what he pleases.

He is at equal ease in the modes of epigram, comic poem, meditation, and narrative, yet his work in each is now clearly related to his work in all the rest. His style has great range. He can write the abstract statement of the following passage from “The Murder of William Remington,” statement which is careful and qualified, and derives much of its strength from Renaissance writing.

There is the terror too of each man’s thought,

That knows not, but must quietly suspect

His neighbor, friend, or self of being taught

To take an attitude merely correct;

Being frightened of his own cold image in

The glass of government, and his own sin,

Frightened lest senate house and prison wall

Be quarried of one stone, lest righteous and high

Look faintly smiling down and seem to call

A crime the welcome chance of liberty,

And any man an outlaw who aggrieves

The patriotism of a pair of thieves.

He can also, however, elaborate images in the much more casual, seemingly random manner of the beginning of “Writing”:

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters,

these by themselves delight, even without

a meaning, in a foreign language, in

Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve

all day across the lake, scoring their white

records in ice.

What the two passages have in common, perhaps, is an easy authority of tone, by means of which particular observation is generally placed and generalization is seen in relation to a particular context.

The latest poems, occupying more than the first quarter of the book, are the most exciting. For from traditional materials he has fashioned a kind of blank verse which I believe to be, in Pound’s sense, an invention. Its most striking characteristic is the almost continuous use of runovers. It is normally difficult to run-over many consecutive lines and still write good poetry, since the metrical norm tends to get lost, as we can see for example in the more breathless passages of “Endymion,” by which Keats was protesting—a bit inadequately—against the tightness of eighteenth-century verse. The effect in Nemerov’s poems, in say “Mrs. Mandrill” or “Death and the Maiden”—two of the best—is of an unceasing flow, an unchecked movement without looseness or breathlessness: the unit of the line is never destroyed or forgotten (though it is true, as often in blank verse, it has become less important than the unit of the paragraph), and the constant use of runovers, instead of causing the disintegration of form, has created a new form. I find this a technical invention of great importance, and have little doubt that Nemerov will have his imitators within a few years. What is more, the speed at which the verse moves enables the writer to introduce a great many juxtapositions of detail which would seem forced in a slower-moving verse. Seemingly discrepant images are caught up and absorbed by the swift movement to bring about a continuous enrichment and qualification of meaning.

On the night that Mrs. Mandrill entered Nature,

squirrels and mice and crickets everywhere

were squeaking, while the dark spilled up the sky

and the marble moon rolled out over the hills. . . .

“God?” Mrs. Mandrill said, “I have no God,

and not afraid or ashamed to tell Him so

either, if it should come to that. I am

fatigued, and would find no fault with these arrangements,

did they not cause me pain.”

But while she said,

her skinny feet troubled the waters, rattled

the leaves, and picked at the nervous vines where crossed

every last telephone in the weird world,

with all the crickety conversations of them

describing how the moon rolled out like a marble

and how the dark spilled up instead of down . . .

Nemerov gets a wide range of material and tone into these passages, yet there is a unity of effect. There is in fact a concentration of experience without the loss of richness and variety that concentration can involve.

Most of the poems in this selection possess a similar authority, and are composed—to apply to him one of his own phrases—with “a singular lucidity and sweetness.” It is a distinguished and important book.

Lucidity and sweetness are also characteristics of The Drunk in the Furnace. I always find difficulty in adequately explaining my faint misgivings on reading the work of W. S. Merwin. For, though he doesn’t have the range of Nemerov, he has an exceptional control over the resources of language and movement, an understanding of the relation between which enables him to perform, for instance, the audacities of documentary language in “Cape Dread” and “The Portland Going Out” in this book. And each poem, moreover, has a beautiful self-sufficiency: part is linked to part firmly and cleanly.

Why, then, do his poems not interest more? In a sense, it may be that a poem by Merwin is too self-sufficient. It has reference only to the subject, which is not usually placed in a world larger than itself. One poem, “Burning Mountain,” is a vivid and original account of a mountain containing a mine which has been on fire for years:

                                                      all night,

Here and there, popping in and out of their holes

Like ground-hogs gone nocturnal, the shy flames . . .

. . . Smothered and silent, for some miles the fire

Still riddles the fissured hill, deviously

Wasting and inextinguishable . . .

And it ends

Before long it practically seemed normal,

With its farms on it, and wells of good water,

Still cold, that should last us, and our grandchildren.

This is, even when quoted in snippets, surely writing of distinction. Yet the poem as a whole somehow looks only inward. We are given a description of a burning mountain, which leaves us more or less as it found us: it would come to much the same thing if the poem were about a giant tortoise or an abandoned railroad truck—the author’s attentive respect and technical virtuosity would be as great, no doubt, but such qualities are not quite enough. Merwin lacks that absorption in his subject matter which paradoxically ends by making a poem look outward, to the rest of the world. As it is, his poetry tells us something about a thing or an event with great accuracy, but is curiously barren of individual emotions or ideas. There is a sameness to it—both to a single poem and to the whole book—an evenness of texture, and a lack of any real contrast.

The triumph of this collection is in the translation from Catullus, where the material for his skill is, for once, an individual emotion. Comparing it with the Latin and then with Gregory’s or even Fitzgerald’s translation of the same poem, you can discern the extent of Merwin’s achievement—his faithfulness to the original, the firmness of his execution, and the consistency of tone.

To my mistress take these few sentiments,

              Put none too nicely:

Let her spread for her lechers and get her pleasure,

Lying wide to three hundred in one heat,

Loving none truly, but leaving them every one

              Wrung out and dropping;

But as for my love, let her not count on it

As once she could: by her own fault it died

As a flower at the edge of a field, which the plow

              Roots out in passing.

Gregory’s version is clumsy by comparison, and Fitzgerald’s coy. This is both literal and sensitive: the diction is striking and at the same time tactful; and there is a consistent relation between line and thought, an important virtue, since the syntactical unit and the line need a closer correspondence in English verse than they do in Latin.

To praise Merwin for this poem at the expense of the rest of the book is not to damn with faint praise. Translation requires a very special kind of talent, in which skill is combined with submission. Most of Roy Campbell’s original poems amount to very little, but his versions of Saint John of the Cross are probably the best verse translations of the century. And it seems likely that Merwin could match them if he were to publish a whole book of translations from Catullus.

The Horatio of Hyam Plutzik’s book is Hamlet’s friend: in the course of this long poem taking place in the years after Hamlet’s death he listens to the different misinterpretations of his friend’s actions, and tries in vain to correct them. In the first part we hear an ostler’s garbled account, the guess-work of pedants and gossips, and the interpretation of a cynical statesman. The weakness of this section of the poem is that the nature of what he is writing has by chance landed Plutzik in the middle of a style that has all the characteristics of Browning’s blank verse at its weakest:

He paused and swallowed. “Ah, but this warms the stomach—

No, not this wine—a prime hog-swill from Saxony—

But your weighty story. And listen! The secret thoughts

That he told you of, our philosophical madman:

Those sentiments, the to-be-or-not-to-be,

Do you not see their drift? Just as I said:

It’s Sein and Werden, the old dichotomy . . .”

There is the same mixture of broken parts as in Browning—pedantic reference, irrelevant aside (the wine), and hints of idiosyncratic “character.” The style is appropriate, no doubt, given the task Plutzik has set himself in this section, but the result is repetitive and not really interesting. We see early that the story of Hamlet has been misheard and misunderstood, and it becomes merely a question of how many times it is to be distorted and to what extent.

Sections two and three are a different matter, however. In the second, the story has reverted to a kind of primitive legend, Hamlet (now Ambleth) becoming among other things a violent and barbaric force that has entered the elements themselves:

He gnashes his teeth on the shore when the quest grows desperate,

Would gulp the ocean, curl his lips round the world . . .                                                                                                                . . . Sometimes

Seeing the sun wane in the hand of God

He flings himself toward the Evening Star

Or prowls the abysses behind the throne of Saturn.

Once at heaven’s gate near the house of the Unicorn

He found, new-wet with blood, a small bird’s feathers

And heard the whirring of cruel wings, but the night

Confused his search and he sank down weeping

Into the sea.

And in the last part, “In the Castle at Forstness,” Horatio, grown old and near death, meditates on the proper interpretation of Hamlet’s death, reaching an understanding only in the final images of the poem: he goes out to the parapet of a tower, where he is reminded of the platform to which he was first summoned to see the ghost:

            . . . while a great stag came out of the woods,

Broad-antlered, approaching slowly on the moonlit field,

And looked around him like a king and re-entered the dark.

Bird, you brushed my sleeve as I came to the stair.

Here Plutzik is at his best, completely controlling his material in a way reminiscent of the most interesting poems of his previous book, Apples from Shinar (where in fact part of the second section originally appeared). He has a most unusual freshness of vision which enables him to be master of two worlds, the natural and the supernatural, which overlap in his work as they do in the thistle Blake speaks of, which was a thistle across the path and at the same time an old man. His imagery is both astonishing and appropriate, with the strange aptness of the images in some vivid nightmare. Some of it recurs, like a Wagnerian motif: there is the lark dead on heaven’s stairs, and “the street of gibbets in the city of God.” And the old Horatio says

Was my father air? Do I dine on the cold sunbeam?

Does my dung, like that of the angels, have no stink?


                                               The footpads of twilight

Have stolen away the edges of things in this room

And soon the archthief night will take them wholly,

Looking for me. He grows more reckless lately

And sometimes lightly feels my throat with his fingers.

It is unusual to read such a good long poem as this nowadays. The dangers one anticipated—that it is all going to be merely parasitic on Shakespeare—are completely dispelled: it is good in its own right, and Hamlet is no more than the starting point to a very original poem, a starting point that could as well be historical fact.

Ralph Pomeroy is as far outside the factions of the little and big magazines as any of these three poets. His book is of a slightly less consistent texture than theirs, at least partly because it is a first book and its contents thus represent a growth toward maturity in his writing. He will sometimes write with an artlessness that is not completely convincing.

Heaped in a hum of sun,

The bees will gun

It to new honey—odd fellows

Lunching on rose-carpets

In cool encampments,

Wild in a blur of yellows.

“Odd fellows,” with its suggestion of nursery rhyme, would work, maybe, in another context, but the remainder of the actual context is at odds with it: the phrase appears forced in view of the deliberate sophistication of “hum” and “gun it” in the preceding lines and the mature richness of the fourth and fifth lines.

It is when he is farthest from the artful rendering of the child’s or childlike vision and is most intent on the simple rendering of the adult vision that he is successful, in poems like “The Novelist at Home in New Jersey” or “Silence.” He is a good observer but his best observation takes the form less of mere description of the thing than of description of both the thing and the observer or participant, as here, in the last act of moving out of a house:

I hesitate and think to speak,

But am arrested by a calling horn;

Sift slowly down the stairs like an ensemble of ashes;

Stop, remembering sun in the windows,

And close the door as though opening others.

Both observations and the observer’s movement are one in the language and movement of the poem. The particularity of the imagery, implying almost a disembodiment on the part of the speaker, establishes a context in which the last line (which in isolation would come close to cliché) reverberates most effectively.

The book is full of felicities, ranging from the forceful plainness of

Take up this streaming fir-tree and shake its wet branches

to the slow sensuousness of

         Light hangs like grapes sweating in thick gloom.

It is true that the power of such lines and passages is not always sustained throughout the poems in which they occur: “To the Prince of Darkness,” for example, starts with some of Pomeroy’s strongest lines and dwindles to some of his weakest. But in many of the poems the writing is kept at a consistently high level, as in the delicacy of “A Frog, Leaping” or the bareness of “Corner,” which I consider his most achieved poems. The latter starts:

The cop slumps alertly on his motorcycle,

Supported by one leg like a leather stork.

His glance accuses me of loitering.

I can see his eyes moving like fish

In the green depths of his green goggles.

His ease is fake. I can tell.

My ease is fake. And he can tell.

The fingers armored by his gloves

Splay and clench, itching to change something.

There is a directness and accuracy to the language here, to “slumps alertly” for instance, which is very exciting. The mechanized policeman, by a paradox, is compared to animals, moving from the odd harmlessness of a stork, through the ambiguity of half-perceived fish, to—in the last-quoted lines—something predatory. The appropriate grotesqueness of the imagery is typical of Pomeroy, and reminds me a little of certain effects in the films of Jean Cocteau. And grotesqueness is the more effective for the unlabored clarity of the writing, which disarms us at first from realizing how fully ominous the scene is.

Something breaks through all of a sudden,

And he blasts off, quick as a craver,

Smug in his power; watching me watch.

After the tension of the encounter between the predatory and its potential victim, which after all amounted to nothing, the cop has become a mere human again—and a smug one at that. It is a powerful poem, and is in itself proof enough of Pomeroy’s development from a poet of somewhat haphazard effects to a poet with a firm implicit control over the whole poem.

The world of David Ignatow’s poetry is remarkable for the particularity of its detail. His attitude toward his art is summed up in “The Escapade,” which must inevitably be quoted in discussing this book:

Poet and gangster reach in the dark,

blind flashes reveal them.

The dead collapse and the living scatter

for cover. Alone now, they think the street

is theirs and swiftly make their getaway,

in the left hand the haul, in the right

jammed in the driver’s back the weapon

as they careen; and at the hideout set up

to repel the law—coming nearly as swift

sirening. In the inferno, started by both sides,

riddled, still seeking to shoot,

they sink to their deaths,

the haul beside them still theirs.

The idea of a poem as loot is particularly appropriate when applied to Ignatow’s work, and it does not necessarily involve flirtation with the figure of the poète maudit. His poetry is grabbed from the everyday, particularly from the urban everyday, and from dream or fantasy. Such is the abruptness, the completeness of his snatch—as if he were scooping up the white and yolk of a broken egg in one swift movement—that the poems of fantasy are as clearly realized as his poems of fact.

In the simplicity of his language and the sureness of his movement he is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, who in fact shares half the book’s dedication. Now imitators of Williams are two a penny these days, and practically all imitate him at his most slapdash and indefensible. And yet he is one of the few poets of this century from whom there are still useful lessons to be learned: the lessons of how to find value in the actual and ordinary, of how to speak of it with lucidity, and of how to present it as one unhurried but continuous act of perception. Ignatow is the only poet I have come across who has absorbed these lessons, and the last of them is the one he has learnt the best. His poems are accurate records undelayed by any elements outside of the original perception. His perception is careful and modest, and his control over the movements prevents the language from becoming flat. Here is the poem called “Errand Boy II”:

It was the way he went to pick up the carton

fallen to the gutter from his handtruck,

his arms outstretched, his body stooping

to the ground. I wondered at the smile,

weary and amused and so gentle withal,

as if this was what he had expected,

not for the first time and not

for the last time either.

The smile is inescapably there, loot from experience. At the same time one may note that though it is an impression certainly worth preserving, it is fragile in itself, and would have been no more than a detail in a poem like Williams’ nineteenth in Spring and All, the one about the errand boys. Ignatow’s publishers are being less than helpful when they claim that his poetry creates “a grand and tragic vision”: the point is, surely, that his poetry does not even set out to be grand or tragic, but accomplishes something very different and probably of equal value within certain clearly defined limits. With accomplishment and consistency it documents an attitude of tenderness and care for the human world.

Translation requires a very special kind of talent, in which skill is combined with submission.

The five poets I have reviewed are sufficiently outside the politics of poetry to be able to accept some kind of poetic norm quite casually. They would probably all agree, for instance, that poetry should be anchored rather firmly in the sensible world, and that the more clearly this world is realized the greater chance the writer’s purposes have of succeeding; they would also consider, moreover, that poetry is good in proportion to its lack of confusion and pretension.

Charles Olson, however, exists in the world of factions—of manifestoes and extravagant gestures. He appears to be influenced by such rebels against orthodoxy as Pound and the Rimbaud of Les Illuminations. So far so good, I suppose: Pound and Rimbaud were geniuses who succeeded, against all probability, in expanding the boundaries of poetry. In Olson, however, the habit of scholarly detail inherited from Pound clutters the imagination, and the habit of recklessness in the imagination (inherited maybe from Rimbaud) cancels out any possible consistency or relevance in the scholarly details. These twin disasters come about, I suspect, because he has little interest in the sensible world except as a handle on which to hang bits of poetry. The result is to be seen in the description of some motorcyclists on a beach in the poem with the attractive title “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs.”

             Wow, did you ever see even in a museum

such a collection of boddisatvahs, the way

they came to their stop, each of them

as though it was a rudder

the way they have to sit above it

and come to a stop on it, the monumental solidity

of themselves, the Easter Island

they make of the beach, the Red-headed Men

                                   These are the Androgynes,

the Fathers behind the father, the Great Halves

And in the whole poem there is little description of them, evocation of them, as they are: they continually are described in terms of what they are not. The things they are not (Androgynes, etc.) are evoked, it seems, purely at random: the poem consists merely of a gigantic list of associations accumulated at whim. If we want the explanation of his technique, we may find it in his essay on “Projective Verse,” printed in The New American Poetry 1945–1960 (Grove Press), which though it has been very influential, it would not be unfair to describe as the worst prose published since Democratic Vistas. This passage opens with the statement of a rule:

ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all points (even, I should say, of our management of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER.

The description of this psychological process was first made several hundreds of years ago, and the recommendation of it as a specifically poetic process was made at least as early as the start of the nineteenth century, but it is the complete lack of qualification, the absolutism of his demand, that distinguishes Olson’s enunciation of it as a rule for writing poetry. And there is a clear connection between what he is saying with this shrill jargon and what he is doing in the passage about the motorcyclists. “Put down anything so long as you keep writing” would be a fair enough paraphrase. The result is The Distances, which consists of performances as flat and inept as the feeble rhymes that are printed daily in the New York Herald Tribune.

Thom Gunn (1929–2004) was an Anglo-American poet. His collections include The Man with Night Sweats.
Originally published:
June 1, 1961


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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