Poetry as Written

Thom Gunn

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Paterson (Book Five), by William Carlos Williams, New Directions.

95 poems, by E. E. Cummings, Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Body of Waking, by Muriel Rukeyser, Harper & Brothers.

Selected Poems and New, by Jose Garcia Villa, McDowell, Obolensky.

Poems of a Jew, by Karl Shapiro, Random House.

I Marry You: A Sheaf of Love Poems, by John Ciardi, Rutgers University Press.

A Place to Stand, by David Wagoner, Indiana University Press.

The Dark Houses, by Donald Hall, Viking Press.

The Sum, by Alan Stephens, Alan Swallow.

I suppose Pound’s remark that poetry should be as well written as prose has become pretty well worked by now, though it has been taken seriously by few writers, even among his contemporaries. Yet it is still an epigram that every poet ought to write at the start of every new notebook. What it suggests is that we should apply to poetry the same rigorous standards of clear English as to good prose, e.g. that we should refrain from irrelevance and support all our general statements. And after this the poet should perhaps write a short prayer that he be not captivated by his own public character and thus forget that he is “saying something” quite as much as the novelist or dramatist or essayist. The sad fact is that six of these nine books are far less competently written than various modern novels that I have read lately; and at least three of these six do not contain poems as direct or as witty or as energetic as the best songs on the juke box of the bar next door. I say this, not in contempt of poetry, but in the knowledge that poetry is, today as at any time, potentially the greatest of the written arts.

William Carlos Williams’ book is not such a fearful warning as some of the others, but I doubt that he would have dreamed of publishing it if his public hadn’t acclaimed his recent work so uncritically. He is, after all, one of the most distinguished poets of the century; he was one of the few to write imagist verse that is still interesting (Stevens and Marianne Moore were from the start much more than imagists), and in many of his poems there was a cleanness and directness of style which was more than merely salutary, for it explicitly embodied an attitude to life. But every imagist has the same tragic flaw: his ambition to write an epic. And the present book is, of course, a continuation of Paterson, which we had all thought finished in four books; it appears that, like Pound’s Cantos, it can go on, if necessary, forever.

On the credit side, there is purity of language, which is nothing to be sneered at. Certain characteristically sharp details are memorable:

                                  a rabbit’s rump escaping

                            through the thicket.

But purity of language is not quite enough: we also have to take into account what such language is about. The early poems are available for comparison, and comparison, however unkind it may be to the old age of Williams, is inevitable and appropriate: they are proof of what the man can do and has done with his style. In such poems (I am thinking of, say, “To an Old Lady”) the language is used, with discipline and toward explicit ends, to describe exactly no more and no less than there is of his subject, whether the subject is a thing or a sensation or a combination of the two. In Paterson Book Five you are never really certain what the subject is.

Auden defined poetry as memorable speech: Miss Rukeyser’s speech is about as memorable as President Eisenhower’s.

The real trouble is in the organization of the poem, which is completely random. The meditations in Four Quartets are designed to appear random in organization, but are actually no more so than the order of events in Hamlet; whereas whole sequences of Paterson Book Five could be rearranged and still mean about as much and as little as they now do. There are many reflections on paintings, vague feelings of lust toward a girl seen in the street, suddenly a translation from Sappho, an inconclusive dialogue about “what poetry is,” and some letters from personal friends which are either dull or pretentious (in the second category a very self-consciously vatic letter signed A.G.). So what does it all add up to? Why should it stop or start where it does? Why are the reflections and scraps of correspondence given in this particular order and not another? What determines the inclusion of one fragment and the exclusion of another (I am assuming, since it is only thirty-three pages long, that Williams has left out something)?

It appears that once one has trained himself in the imagist discipline one has rendered oneself largely unfit to write poetry of consecutive discourse unless one is prepared to make a break with the ideas behind the technique. It is doing a discredit to Williams’ best work to call Paterson his “major work” as some critic has apparently done, and a greater discredit to imply that the fifth book is even up to the standard of the first four books. It is the very minor work of a major poet.

The next three poets are in a somewhat different category, as they have not yet, to my knowledge, written anything that could be loosely termed great. Again I am struck by the different criteria people have for prose and poetry: E. E. Cummings, Muriel Rukeyser, and José Garcia Villa say things in these books that they would never think of saying in prose—because in prose we have become accustomed to disliking vagueness and clichés. But when it comes to poetry, many readers only regard the reputation of the poet, or at most his originality. (This last would be equivalent to admiring a jockey for sitting backwards in the saddle even though by doing so he lost the race.)

E. E. Cummings is a more famous poet than Williams: in fact he is almost as famous as Eliot and Pound. This is mainly because he is the modern poet every sophomore has read. His talent is especially suited to two kinds of writing: the humorous poem like the famous one on Uncle Sol or number 28 in the present collection (“as joe gould says”), both of which I find very funny; and the trivial but genuinely attractive sentimental poem like number 17 (“for prodigal read generous”).

But there are plenty of less famous writers with the same talents: what covers up Cummings’ sins of triteness and sentimentality, for his admirers, is quite simply that he continually uses a lot of what are by now rather wearisome tricks, which to them are proofs of his much-repeated hatred of orthodoxy, organizations, totalitarianism, etc. These tricks also have an effect similar to that of the advertising gimmick—the spectator gapes at the originality and forgets to look for what is behind it all. He could get away with rewriting a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (and sometimes comes pretty close) so long as he punctuated it in his own fashion and wrote it in lower case.

The claim made for these devices is that they are an integral part of the meaning and can transform a platitude into an intelligent statement. I doubt the possibility of this: most of them are purely visual, anyway. Even the innovations in language are on an extremely crude level. One might ask oneself if such words as “undead,” “unbig,” and “deathful” are really better than certain words already existing in the language. For me, they are about as subtle as the rest of the Newspeak vocabulary.

Cummings’ admirers might take a look at the last poem in this new book, and try to explain why, apart from a deliberate disorder, it could not have been written by Robert Service. I look through it in vain for supported generalizations, and for vivid epithets or images, but can find only didacticism and clichés. Yet it is typical of Cummings’ work. Meanwhile I am much more troubled by the following lines, from number 42:

mind without soul may blast some universe

to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars

but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall

even prevail a million questionings

against the silence of his mother’s smile

—whose only secret all creation sings

I would like to think that there is irony in these lines, but you cannot fight the words on the page.

With the next two books we reach the lower limits of poetry. At least Cummings has energy and a sense of humor, and at least he knows what he wants to say. I doubt if either Muriel Rukeyser or José Garcia Villa has any idea of what she or he is saying. Auden defined poetry as memorable speech: Miss Rukeyser’s speech is about as memorable as President Eisenhower’s. She makes a considerable attempt to achieve the grandiose in statement and symbol, but all she manages is a constant flatness and some vague emoting, enlivened by a certain fashionable disjointedness. The first four lines of “The Loan” are a fair specimen of her writing:

You told me resurrection in images of roots,

Taking upon your summer my defeats.

Now I take on myself your wound’s meaning

Private self-given torment, on my mouth.

The jacket of Selected Poems and New states that “Mr. Villa is a literary experimenter.” This is very true: Mr. Villa is a professional experimenter who makes Cummings look like a prince of discretion. The experiments are pretty naïf, and it is surprising that anyone should take them seriously. For example, there is a comma after every word in some poems, and in one every word is put inside parentheses. He, explains, that, the, commas, are, there, to, remind, you, to, pause, after, every, word, (but) (does) (not) (explain) (the) (parentheses).

Poems of a Jew is a selection of the poems Karl Shapiro considers, not his best, but the “documents of an obsession,” the obsession of being a Jew. Therefore it is an interesting book, but not a particularly good one. I wish he had tried to turn the ideas of his Preface into a poem; if he had, it might have been the best in the book. As it is, I feel disarmed: it seems unfair to criticize poems offered to you as documents. There are, it happens, some rather bad ones: “Israel” is similar to C. Day Lewis’ “Ode on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Russian Revolution” in its overemotional didacticism. Some, like “The First Time,” are touching, but there is little here approaching the subtlety of movement and meaning found in a poem like “Love for a Hand,” which is not included.

With John Ciardi we return to serious poetry. But the poems in I Marry You are curiously scrappy. I will quote the lines where, in my first reading of the book, I started having reservations. They make up the second of the six stanzas in “To Judith Asleep”:

Far and familiar your body’s myth-map lights,

traveled by moon and dapple. Sagas were curved

like scimitars to your hips. The raiders’ ships

all sailed to your one port. And watchfires burned

your image on the hills. Sweetly you drown

male centuries in your chiaroscuro tide

of breast and breath. And all my memory’s shores

you frighten perfectly, washed familiar and far.

These give the effect of a sort of loose Donne, loose partly because of the imagery and language, partly because of the meter. Most of Ciardi’s poems tend to get topheavy with images, but here there is a principle of unification: journeying systematically over a female body is, of course, a traditional poetic occupation. In this case, however, the journey is not so systematic. At first, the body is a distant country, seen in a single glance, as from above, and surrounded by sea. Suddenly the focus changes: what exactly are the watchfires doing, in terms of the woman? The only “image” left by a fire is a black patch: the patch could, no doubt, take the shape of a woman, but the idea is unconnected with the conception of a woman as a whole country. The focus has changed. Next she becomes the sea (“your . . . tide”), which is confusing, since the whole point has been that her history is like that of a country surrounded by the sea, from which “raiders” emerge. (And the sea has no history.) Meanwhile, the land has become “my memory,” which is not quite the same thing as “you.” The inconsistency of the imagery, however pleasing the isolated images may be, prevents me from getting the central idea of the stanza with any clearness. The language, besides, fluctuates between suggestive precision and complete recklessness. “Myth-map” is a little unfortunate, perhaps, but its general sense comes over. The sixth line, impressive as it may sound, is confusing: the word “male” fits in with the poem’s conceit all right but means nothing in itself: he does not explain why centuries should be male rather than female, or indeed why in the context time should have a sex at all. And “chiaroscuro” is a mere arty intrusion. The casual use of anapaestic substitution takes much of what strength remains in these lines; and the somewhat meaningless repetition of the phrase from the beginning of the stanza wrecks the meter of the last line. Besides this, the placing of a heavy caesura after the third foot in four successive lines creates (though I assume it must be deliberate) an inappropriate effect of monotony.

A stanza must be taken in context, of course, but I think I am fair in saying that the faults of the stanza are those of the poem. The resemblance to Donne diminishes with each reading, and Donne would have been incapable of the concluding lines:

                                            My dear of all

Saga and century, sleep in familiar far,

Time still must tick this is, I am, we are.

The chief fault of the book is that Ciardi uses images—sometimes very fine ones—mainly as a decorative approach to a final statement which consists, in effect, of “you are wonderful” or “I love you” or “you make me happy.” Love poems are notoriously difficult to write: a strong emotion is sincerely felt, but the emotion is by definition so complete in itself that there seems little to say about it, except that it exists, and how good that it exists! But Ciardi has hardly solved the problem. The particularity of his images do not often lead up in any connected manner to the final statements—they are not “functional”; and it is significant that “In the Rich Farmer’s Field,” the poem with the tightest structure in the book, is not a direct love poem.

It is a considerable relief, after all this, to turn to the remaining three books. David Wagoner, for example, can write clear expository verse, which may seem a simple achievement, but which none of the previous six poets have proved they can do in the books under review. This is the beginning of “The First Word”:

There had been sounds before: the trumpeting snout,

The crackling of the earth.

The trees had spoken for a million years;

Water had fallen; the great bees, gesturing,

Droned in their hollows, crying what was sweet.

Deep in his cave, he heard them; and his throat

Clouded with shapes and storms.

What could he do, whose tongue was but a thing?

The simplicity of this stanza is deceptive. The arrangement of details in it is more than a mere list; they are already part of the argument of the poem. Also, Wagoner knows when to stop: Ciardi would have gone on about the bees for another two stanzas. And it is honest writing—Wagoner has something to say, and he tries to make it as clear as he can.

The weakness of the book is in the recurrence of a sort of grotesque dandyism, a style I suspect Wagoner adopts especially when he is short on substance. It occurs in “Lullaby through the Side of the Mouth,” a poem which is pleasing but overhung with a rather portentously sinister air which is not completely explained by what is said. But the style is sometimes turned to good account, as in the fine “Words Above a Narrow Entrance,” and is absent from many of the poems.

It is, after all, a very promising collection. I particularly recommend “To My Friend Whose Parachute Did Not Open,” which has been deservedly praised—it is probably the most successful poem in the book, and the ending, which at first looks either whimsical or pretentious, is actually very serious and very ingenious, suddenly introducing the writer’s relationship with the dead man and thus justifying the passionate tone of the previous stanza.

In his second book, The Dark Houses, Donald Hall makes a deliberate effort to extend his range in subject matter and technique, in the latter more successfully than in the former. Clearly the book is not a mere random collection of the poems he has written in the last few years. The first section especially, “Houses on Residential Streets,” has been conceived as a unity: its subject is the loneliness and lack of given values in the bourgeoisie. Most of it is accurate and well put but has a certain obviousness. Hall’s attitude to his subject is complex, a mixture of identification and outsiderishness, of sympathy and exasperation, but one feels a thinness in most of the poems in this section. The best of them is “The Foundations of American Industry”—which starts like a piece of imagism but ends as far more, reminding me in structure of some of the poems in Harmonium; but more typical of the group is “The Widows,” of which I quote the first and last stanzas:

Up and down the small streets, in which

no two houses are exactly

alike, widows of all ages

sit alone playing solitaire,

or knitting, or sometimes baking,

left in the big, empty houses. . . .

Book clubs, television, and ways

to supplement their small incomes

keep them busy. It is not a

bad life, they say, for there are so

many left like you, though no two

widows are exactly alike.

Though the end gives the poem a very neat turn, I wonder whether the poet has really said more than, say, Terence Rattigan in Separate Tables (of course he avoids Rattigan’s sentimentality).

The other section of the book is less unified and much more interesting. It also deals with “Men Alone,” but they are on the whole more intelligent men than those in the first section, there is no overlapping of theme, and there is a far greater range of tone, as one can tell from reading such excellent poems as “The Tailor,” “Marat’s Death,” and “Sestina.”

Love poems are notoriously difficult to write: a strong emotion is sincerely felt, but the emotion is by definition so complete in itself that there seems little to say about it, except that it exists, and how good that it exists!

Perhaps the principal achievement of the book is in Hall’s use of syllabics and a kind of syllabic blank verse, two techniques by which he produces an effect where the deliberate flatness of a certain type of free verse is combined with the emotional control of regular meter. These techniques are especially appropriately managed in the “Three Poems from Edvard Munch”:

Charlotte, the will begins to

revise you to leather. How

volition hurts the skin of girls!

Marat is dead. The people

of France will endure his death,

l’ami du peuple and no man.

Marat had skin which boiled like

water on a stove. His wet

and cruel skin has one wound more.

This is only part of the second poem, “Marat’s Death,” which should be read in its entirety, but it demonstrates the unobtrusive intensity of his style at its best.

With Alan Stephens’ The Sum, I come to the only first collection among these books. It would be a pity if the fact that it is brought out by a relatively small publisher should prevent its reaching a large public, because it is a startlingly mature and satisfying collection. There is a danger, if he becomes as widely read as he deserves, of Stephens’ being regarded as a “country poet,” a sort of Western Frost. This would be a mistake, but an understandable one. Though his poems are filled with outdoor imagery, he has no intention of gratuitously reveling in nature; rather the countryside is the premise from which he starts, as we must all start from the premise of our surroundings. He is not part of his surroundings: he is always aware of the possibility of losing himself in them, but makes the distinction between himself and them without, as it were, rejecting them.

Quick to their sweet necessity

(As I work backward into speech)

The wild bees bend the timothy,

Take, and depart. I name and know,

Take in the distance where they go,

Bring bright creation within reach.

As can be seen from this stanza, his writing is more strictly “traditional” than that of most of the other poets I have been speaking about. And this accounts for part of his strength, for how he writes is never more important than what he writes—they are part of the same process. To say he is “traditional” is not of course to imply any lack of subtlety.

I could not see the life I live.

Wheeling to catch it as it was,

I found myself the fugitive;

There were my footprints, in reverse.

I could not praise them, could not curse.

Bare of their principle and cause,

They lay caught fast within that realm

No inquiry can justify,

No good or evil overwhelm.

To enter was to be interred

Where the gross lip absorbs the word.

It was what dead men occupy.

Here there is a very great technical subtlety (the movement alone would justify such praise), relevant intensity of feeling, an almost Metaphysical “wit,” and a power over both concept and image. The physical situation and the idea it embodies are one—neither, as we have them, appears to precede the other. The poem from which these stanzas are taken and about ten others from the same book deserve a place in any anthology of modern poetry. There is nothing else to say, really: this is a book to be bought.

Thom Gunn (1929–2004) was an Anglo-American poet. His collections include The Man with Night Sweats.
Originally published:
January 1, 1959


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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