Voices of Their Own

Thom Gunn

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THRONES, 96-109 DE LOS CANTARES, by EZRA POUND, New Directions.

BONE THOUGHTS, by GEORGE STARBUCK, Yale University Press.

KO, OR A SEASON ON EARTH, by KENNETH KOCH, Grove Press.

A WATER WALK BY VILLA D’ESTE, by JEAN GARRIGUE, St. Martin’s Press.

PORTRAIT OF YOUR NIECE, by CAROL HALL, University of Minnesota Press.

IN AN IRIDESCENT TIME, by RUTH STONE, Harcourt, Brace & Co.

THE SUMMER ANNIVERSARIES, by DONALD JUSTICE, Wesleyan University Press.

Thrones, 96–109 de los cantares is the culmination of a method based on the assumption that, so long as there is a general topic to the poetry, it is legitimate for the author to introduce any information written in any manner and in any order. In other cantos, particularly the very early ones, Pound frequently used the method with moderation and success (though some of the successful parts could just as well be extracts from poems written in a more orthodox style). But here it is reduced to absurdity. On page 11 there is a short prose statement, perhaps a quotation, perhaps by Pound himself: “If we never write anything save what is already understood, the field of understanding will never be extended. One demands the right, now and again, to write for a few people with special interests and whose curiosity reaches into greater detail.”

It is very interesting that Pound, so late in his career, should feel it necessary to justify himself in this way, but it is no justification unless the specialness of the interests and the extent of the detail can be defined; such a general statement is impossible to disagree with—every poet who ever lived has made a similar demand. And the interests are largely crankish, while the curiosity and triviality of detail are without any limit. It is not as though Pound has ever tried to persuade us that the interests are of importance, either: he writes for those who already agree with him about money, Jews, etc. Thrones is a jumble of nonconsecutive and usually extremely obscure allusions in many languages, including Chinese. There is of course no apparent organization. They read like the most fortuitous jottings on his reading in various subjects that interest him, they are like references and notes without a text. Maybe their organization is not fortuitous, but my point is that his method has brought his poetry to a state where the finished work is indistinguishable from rough notes.

It is difficult, then, to take these cantos as either good poetry or good communication. R. P. Blackmur, in the fine essay he wrote some twenty-seven years ago, came to the conclusion that even when we can understand all the material within a canto we still have no way of knowing what Pound is doing with it. His essay, though it deals with only the first thirty cantos, is still by far the best thing written on Pound. He does make the reservation that, in spite of everything, there are still “many fine lines and lucid passages,” but in Thrones there is a comparative absence of even these. There is a small handful of impressive phrases like “hidden as eel in sedge” and “furious with perception” (the second of which refers, one gathers, to Hitler), but it is very small, and scarcely justifies the publisher’s assertion that here “there are lyric passages as fine as anything Pound has written.” A comparison between Cantos 4 and 106 should be enough to dispose of this claim. Meanwhile, the following passage will be no surprise to those who have read much of his recent poetry:

When kings quit, the bankers began again.

15.08 Denmark and Scandinavs (ratio) in ‘73

               18, that is 1873

on which Mr. Benton would have reflected, as per:

the CONtinuous effort to have it different somewhere or other.

And if these were quarter dhirems in Friesland

               they should be of ratio 6 & one half

to the quarter (talis est) dinars of Spain.

               “The olde double-ducat,

               The olde turkish grouch.”

And this from the man who once made the crack that poetry should be as well-written as prose. There is little one can say about it, except that it is dull writing on a dull subject. The passage, like almost all of the book from which it comes, is the result of a rigorously cultivated illiteracy. One may admire the rigor of the cultivation but hardly its results.

It is interesting, nevertheless, to speculate about the people to whom such results could appeal. Thrones is probably selling pretty well, partly because Pound has been good enough in the past for a lot of readers to be still curious about anything he writes, and partly because he is a fashionable name in the universities. But I suspect that the only people who will take real interest in this volume are those who intend to work it up into some kind of thesis. These are the “few people” with special interests and greater curiosity to whom Pound refers. He has, in the last forty years, developed from the most vigorous and positive force in modern writing to a poet whose sole audience is made up of academic specialists.

It is difficult, then, to take these cantos as either good poetry or good communication.

Maybe Pound is partially and indirectly to blame for the modern emphasis on what Richards called tone. Tone is important of course, but so is the sense of a poem, and the sense is often disregarded. Many poets of the last thirty years could be described in Henry Adams’ words about the tendencies of the New England character: for they have “the habit of doubt; of distrusting (their) own judgment and of totally rejecting the judgment of the world; the tendency to regard every question as open; . . . the love of line, form, quality.” Line, rather than the thing the lines depict; tone, rather than the thing said; a voice, rather than the thing the voice is doing. In fact, we have reached a stage where the highest (and often the only) recommendation we find on the jacket of a new book of poetry is that “this poet has a voice of his own.” (The Elizabethans would not even have considered this to be praise.) The assumption is that if you have a voice you don’t need anything else. Whether the voice is a good one, whether it is firm and coherent, whether it ever succeeds in saying anything, does not apparently matter: it merely has to be “your own.” Mr. Dudley Fitts shows himself to be a voice-worshipper in selecting George Starbuck as this year’s Yale Younger Poet. Mr. Auden, whose editorship of the series ended last year, occasionally stressed elegance at the expense of everything else, I sometimes thought, but at least it was a real elegance: Hollander and Bogardus, though a little too dandyish for my taste, had a certain panache, a wit, and a real power of turning a neat phrase. The trouble is, Mr. Starbuck is not even very elegant—he tries hard to be, but all that results is a kind of stylish stumbling. It is true that he has tone. Tone, page after page, and not a thing to say. A constant air of being amusing, but nothing so crude as a direct joke. “Fable for a Flipped Lid,” for example, could be a very funny poem if it were more straightforward. It is about a rat in a laboratory which is rewarded with food for doing tricks in experiments, and finally goes on television to choke

. . . on a room-

ful of non-retur-

nable furniture

from “Bride and Groom.”

But the narration is too indirect for the anecdote to have much of a chance, and the joke is spoiled by anticipation when the rat announces that

“I’d eat Cape May

if I won it.”

If Mr. Starbuck really wants to write comic poetry, he would do well to take a closer look at the books of Reed Whittemore (he has obviously looked at them superficially) and to study the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. However, it is unlikely that he will do this: he clearly sees the business of being a poet as involving the accumulation of unusual mannerisms, and not much else.

Kenneth Koch’s Ko, or a Season on Earth comes a little closer to success. Mr. Koch is rather unconcerned with tone, being much more interested in writing a comic verse narrative. Such an interest is, after all, healthy. The story itself is a good idea, but if the fantasy were kept in better control, it would probably be more amusing. The real trouble, though, is in the writing, which with the exception of a few pages is consistently slipshod. The poem he is trying to write is of the kind with which Byron and Browning succeeded, in which the joke consists largely of far-fetched rhymes. Comparison between the worst of Don Juan and the best of Ko tells us at once why and how Mr. Koch has failed. His rhymes are far-fetched, but they are lazy and usually involve irrelevance, and the meter is almost always clumsy. The following stanza tells us about the direction in which a dog called Sandro is lying in a hotel bedroom in Rome. We have been told that his head is pointed toward the Appian Way:

Beyond it there is nothing but the country;

And, Sandro, while his head was pointed there,

Pointed his tail toward, in Rome, the one street

That can compare with it for dazzling air

And pure long brightness, clarity, and some sweet

Mysterious event the gods prepare –– 

For Sandro’s tail, which wouldn’t want to fool ya,

Was lying pointed at the Via Giulia . . .

There is a certain insouciance about such writing, but it would be clearly all to the good if Mr. Koch could cultivate a bit of souciance.

Jean Garrigue is another Voice. There is certainly something behind her A Water Walk by Villa D’Este, though I must admit at once that I find this a wildly irritating book, exemplifying just about every weakness poetry can have, in meter, language, imagery, and structure. What that something is can be best exemplified by “One for the roses,” which strikes me as the most successful poem.

My dancing roses, dancing in November,

Blood of the year in this dark plot,

The frost is black on the grass, green-grey the ice,

And still in this red square you dance.

The four lines are hardly ambitious, but they are vivid. The phrase “blood of the year” will not stand up to close examination, but it is nevertheless an attractive phrase, and the whole poem, of which this is the first stanza, is an attractive poem. At the same time, it has no real structure—the order of the stanzas could be juggled around; and in spite of the agreeable sensuousness there is no particular point to it all.

A few pages later we come to a longish poem called “Swiss altitudes,” and this shows Miss Garrigue at her most typical. It consists of a description of a journey on a mountain-train in Switzerland. She works at her attractiveness so hard that most of the poem gives us no impression at all besides manner. There is an infernal amount of word-spinning, much of it a kind of diluted Dylan Thomas, and the lines are full of tricks. If one can speak of “the less wandered land/ Of the wonderland of four languages,” one is surely guilty of a rather frivolous attitude toward words. There is endless decoration obscuring the subject of the poem, but there is at least a subject to be obscured, as we can see from these lines, describing a skier:

He rode a ways on the mountain car

In the powdery blow, and got out.

Far later, miles down at a mountain stop

Where the driver braked and descended,

He appeared, in a whirlpool of snowdust,

The pallor of it all over him,

Well-bearded in the endowment

Of his sober and youthful manhood.

It is amazing how straightforward Miss Garrigue can get when she really has something to talk about. The movement of this passage is hardly exciting, it is true, and some of the language is flat, but there is in it a control over the subject-matter that is absent from the rest of the poem—“pallor” and sober,” especially, striking one as not mere fanciful epithets, but as indications of a serious attempt to convey an experience. The direct approach, however, is as suddenly abandoned as it has been taken up, and we go out after a few lines into a steady wind of diffuseness and a snowstorm of metaphor, metaphor with an irrelevance that indicates, surely, an evasion of experience:

And he in the darkness of white

Out of the aloof wind-eagling continent

Of incandescent earth-castling oblivion

In the fierce flame of the air blowing white . . .

What is the relation, if any, between the flame of the air and the darkness of white, one wonders? And what can conceivably be the meaning of the two pairs of hyphenated words, which grow considerably more obscure the more one looks at them? This is an all too typical example of the blurring approximation in Miss Garrigue’s use of language. I suppose there are people who like to think of wind and eagles and continents without having any idea of their relationship, but writing like this can only be enjoyed by an audience which wants from poetry an opportunity to bask lazily in a genteel sensationalism.

Carol Hall is a somewhat different matter from Miss Garrigue, in that she can write whole poems in either of two totally different styles—the tortured or the simple. The tortured style is modish, but none the better for that: in many of her poems I cannot help feeling that she is almost consciously applying ambiguity, indirection, and violence to her subjects. She starts one poem:

Death, dive on the history-ridden tree,

Trick the mad heiress in her tower,

And skillful Jane.

The mad heiress can be taken as a hypothetical character, but the other two references are impenetrable. At first sight I might choose to identify the tree as the Cross, but the end of the poem seems to dispose of such an interpretation; and Jane could be Jane Austen, perhaps—or perhaps not. But it is worth noting that in spite of her love of tortured language, gratuitous violence, and the applied difficulties, there is a good deal more to her poetry than to Miss Garrigue’s. After all, at its best her poetry is difficult from too much meaning, not too little. The second part of “Events at Oran,” entitled “The Trial,” runs thus:

The cancerous threads in the letters they read,

The hand that was secretly wet, and the node of blood

In the holy kerchief, and the rheumy bed

With its mocking sheets, joined the manacled fist on wood;

The slug in dressed meadows mouthing at the broad

Loose globes of fruit, conspired with the bad

Friend there with a winning air, the flaming wood

Budded with ants, portents of iron and blood.

Who put the circles on their cellar walls,

The tinkle of bells behind their secret casks,

Who touched in corners of the empty hall

The hand with the bull and the tube and the hidden flash?

There is at least something being said here, though it is at times a pretty perversely indirect something. It is possible to grasp a general significance to most of the details, though I find the fifth and sixth lines incomprehensible. Nevertheless, it is difficult writing, and I think needlessly difficult writing. In trying to incorporate the nightmare of the tortured into the indictment of the torturers she has made the indictment hysterical and confused. The expression has become a good deal more complicated than the thing expressed.

Mrs. Hall does, however, have the other style, which has very little in common with the style of the lines I have quoted from her so far. The two are so different from each other that it is hard to understand how she makes up her mind which to use. The second style is direct and plain. It is the style of “An Old Woman’s Words to Her Young Cat,” a poem I find very good indeed, and of “Epitaph for Our Landlord,” which I quote in full:

Underneath this blossoming bough

Is Stanley’s house of stone.

He cannot rent it to us now,

He must dwell there alone.

I consider this a much better poem than “Events at Oran” or “Death, Dive on the History-Ridden Tree,” because its simple statement is made clearly and with a carefully defined feeling. The words in it do as much as words can do—they convey a meaning. Simplicity such as this is hard, and I can only hope that Mrs. Hall will try it more often (and on more ambitious subjects) in the future than she has up to now. She has considerable virtues, but at present she is more concerned with hiding them than with using them.

It is lucky that I can turn to Ruth Stone after this, because the only thing I can dislike about her In an Iridescent Time is the title. Her subjects are certainly more limited than those of Miss Garrigue and Mrs. Hall, but the results are far more satisfactory. Unlike them, she is not trying to put distances between the reader and her subjects, and each poem is an intelligent and intelligible exploration of a part of the world. The following lines are about pornographic photographs of a rather stupid girl:

So her symbolic anonymity

Is shared in tortured prisons, and with free

Hoarse-throated boys with dirty hands; or deep

In the sea’s diatoms she may sleep

Beside a sailor’s beautiful picked bones,

Safe in his sea chest while the planet groans.

It may be unnecessary to remark that this is clearly writing of a far higher order than that of any previously quoted in this review. The third line shows a serious (and successful) attempt to imagine experience, not an attempt to get away from it by the concoction of high-sounding phrases. The last four words of the last line, while less obviously necessary to the meaning of the poem, are more than simply harmonious. The girl—an “angelic idiot”—is imagined as being, through her photographs, in situations not only far outside her experience but far beyond it. Her pictures have now become part of the general tendencies of the world.

There is a solidity to Mrs. Stone’s attitude that is conducive to good poetry. She sees things first as things rather than as hooks for words. Most of her poems are tightly conceived and modest in expression. Many of them (“Forecast,” for example) are a little like Walter de la Mare at his best.

This similarity brings me to my one reservation. Like Walter de la Mare, she is delightful, but the very fact that the word delightful seems appropriate implies a limitation. A short poem about a dog ends thus:

He saw the snow toward evening flush to red,

And begged his bowl of milk from one sublime,

Rolled on his cozy self and smelled his skin,

And snuffed the night time out around the bed.

The detail about smelling his skin is good, but it is still not such an interesting dog as Theodore Roethke’s in his poem “The Return.” Now, I strongly doubt if Mrs. Stone would ever want to write about a dog in Roethke’s way, but that is not the point: Roethke has done something, very successfully, with his dog, whereas Mrs. Stone has done nothing of any importance with hers. Her limitation is less in subject-matter than in intention. Most of her poems have clear intentions, but often they are rather small ones, and I hope I do not seem niggling if I say that I hope this clean and careful writer will attempt in some of her future poems to examine more complex types of experience than she has in this collection. The results should be well worth reading.

In trying to incorporate the nightmare of the tortured into the indictment of the torturers Carol Hall has made the indictment hysterical and confused.

Donald Justice’s book appears in the excellent series from Wesleyan University Press. There are a few obvious misfires in it (the only disastrous one being the final poem, which is really too close to Auden to be taken seriously), but otherwise it is a most accomplished collection. There is a great deal to be thankful for in such poets as Ruth Stone and Donald Justice. Their very modesty is part of their virtue. They are humble before the tangible world, attempting to understand it at the same time as they reproduce it. It is a brave humility, too, much braver than the desire to do away with the rules of common sense and perception so that the idiosyncrasies of one’s personality may rule the page, much braver than the arrogant cultivation of an individual voice at the expense of everything else. Mr. Justice’s poem “Ladies by Their Windows” begins:

They lean upon their windows. It is late.

Already it is twilight in the house;

Autumn is in their eyes. Twilit, autumnal —

Thus they regard themselves. What vanities!

As if all nature were a looking-glass

To publish the small features of their ruin!

The language is formal, and the formality has a purpose. The last two lines clinch the stanza: the poet’s attitude becomes clear, the preceding details are given direction, and the ladies are set admirably in a world. We have here some very distinguished writing.

Mr. Justice is a gentle poet, and in his best poems the gentleness has its own firm clear strength, but sometimes there is a possibility that the gentleness may deteriorate to a mere wistfulness. This is one way of describing what goes wrong in the beginning of “The Snowfall”:

The classic landscapes of dreams are not

More pathless, though footprints leading nowhere

Would seem to prove that a people once

Survived for a little even here.

Fragments of a pathetic culture

Remain, the lost mittens of children,

And a single, bright, detasseled snow-cap,

Evidence of some frantic migration.

Something weakens in the third line with the unnecessary qualifications of “would seem to” and the redundancy of “once,” and the tendency becomes worse in the next line—”for a little even” is too tentative in tone, and reads a bit like padding. The next stanza starts strongly, but the eighth line is again a redundancy. The poem would probably be better without it.

There is evidence of some harder hitting in the last stanza of “In Bertram’s Garden”:

Soon the purple dark will bruise

Lily and bleeding-heart and rose,

And the little Cupid lose

Eyes and ears and chin and nose,

And Jane lie down with others soon

Naked to the naked moon.

Perhaps there is a slight recollection of Robinson in the third and fourth lines, but the poem is certainly none the worse for it. Like the ladies by their windows, Jane is suddenly seen not only in a particular time and place, but in a whole world, and the traditional echoes in the writing help to suggest the extent and duration of that world. It is a world worth writing about, but of the poets under review only Mr. Justice, Mrs. Stone, and sometimes Mrs. Hall seem to be interested in it. The others devote themselves to the cultivation of their “voices,” which they use in a private atmosphere that begins to seem more and more like a vacuum.

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

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