Collected Poems of John Wheelwright
Tape for the Turn of the Year
The pure products of America don’t always go crazy: Dr. Williams himself is a demonstration of this. But the effort of remaining both pure and American can make them look odd and harassed—a lopsided appearance characteristic of much major American poetry, whose fructifying mainstream sometimes seems to be peopled mostly by cranks (Emerson, Whitman, Pound, Stevens), while certified major poets (Frost, Eliot) somehow end up on the sidelines. This is suggested again by the unexpected appearance of two voluminous Collected Poems by two poets who now seem destined to pass abruptly from the status of minor to major cranks.
Both John Wheelwright and A. R. Ammons are full of tics and quirks; both frequently write as though poetry could not be a vehicle of major utterance, as though it were itself a refutation of any such mythic nonsense; in both the poem is not so much a chronicle of its own making as of its unmaking. Often, as in Ammons’s “Working Still” or Wheelwright’s “North Atlantic Passage,” the final product looks like a mess of disjointed notes for a poem. Yet each poet finishes by stretching our recognition of what a poem can be and in so doing carries the notion of poetry a little higher and further. Each seems destined to end up, albeit kicking and struggling, as classic American.
Unexpected is perhaps not the word for the publication of Wheelwright’s Collected Poems; it was first announced on the jacket of a small pamphlet of his Selected Poems published by New Directions in 1941, a few months after Wheelwright was killed by a drunken driver in Boston at the age of forty-three. Why the present volume has been in the works for so long is not explained, and is all the more inexplicable in view of Wheelwright’s close ties with so many well-known writers of his time, to whom many of the poems are dedicated: Robert Fitzgerald, Malcolm Cowley, Matthew Josephson, James Agee, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, Howard Nemerov, Horace Gregory, and Wheelwright’s brother-in-law S. Foster Damon, to name a few. If at least some of these were his close friends it seems strange that no one, including James Laughlin (another dedicatee), has managed until now to rescue this brilliant poet’s work from obscurity.
Perhaps there was some kind of opposition from the family, and one suspects also that many of the writers with whom “Jack” was on close terms appreciated his engaging personality and odd political views (Boston Brahmin-Anglo-Catholic-Trotskyite) but drew the line at his “recalcitrant” (the apt word is that of his editor, Alvin Rosenfeld) verse. Three volumes—Rock and Shell, Mirrors of Venus, Political Self-Portrait—were published in his lifetime by the Boston publisher Bruce Humphries in tiny editions and have long been unobtainable, as has the New Directions pamphlet; a fourth collection, Dusk to Dusk, was ready for publication at the time of Wheelwright’s death and now appears for the first time in the Collected Poems, along with some hitherto uncollected poems.
Besides the mystery of the book’s long-delayed arrival, Mr. Rosenfeld’s thoughtful preface leaves several other questions unanswered. Where are the original texts of the previously unpublished poems, and how were the present readings established? The fact that a poem published in the 1941 Selected Poems as “Staircase Thoughts” appears here in somewhat different form as “Esprit d’Escalier,” while another now called “In the Bathtub, to Mnemosyne” was printed in the earlier volume as “Bathtub Thoughts” with a final stanza which has here been omitted, suggests that significantly different versions of other poems might well exist.
One wonders too about the sketches for a long poem on St. Thomas (the skeptic-believer Wheelwright’s favorite saint) which Mr. Rosenfeld says were “deemed too fragmentary for publication,” and whether there are other such fragments. What happened to the book on American architecture which Wheelwright, whose father was for a time city architect of Boston and built among other things the Stadium Bridge in Cambridge and the troubadour-style Lampoon Building, was working on at the end of his life? These are, of course, secondary questions which will have to await a later stage of Wheelwright scholarship; meanwhile one hopes that the present volume will initiate that stage.
Wheelwright is a difficult poet, not merely for the erudition he presupposes though this in itself is intimidating. His own footnotes usually compound the difficulties. One poem, he says, “is a literal contradiction to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Voiceless“; another “quotes the Hymnal, the Psalter, the Bhagavad Gita, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Stonewall Jackson, and an anonymous ejaculation made at the Jamestown [sic] Flood.” Elsewhere it is a question of Baring-Gould’s Lost and Hostile Gospels, “Walker’s translation of a Nestorian novel on the Acts of Thomas,” “Maurice Samuel’s translation of Edmond Flegg’s Jewish Anthology,” Böhme, Engels, Dietzgen, “the Journal of Pastor Higgenson,” and, even more to the point, episodes from the poet’s private life: ” ‘Lobster Cove,’ an essay in pastoral, represents what occupied the end of a day at the Madame Goss House in Annisquam, on Cape Ann, while the Author was brushing up some chores for the Damons.” (The reader will look in vain for a poem with this title in the Collected Poems; it was one of the titles, here omitted, of the nine groups of poems that comprise Political Self-Portrait.)
I say even more to the point because Wheelwright’s literary references, if they could be tracked down, would finally be of as little help in explicating the poetry as are the unstated facts of his biography, which are given the same telescoped, allusive treatment. This is not to say that the references don’t matter; they, or their abstruseness, matter crucially in the long theological epics, where there are stretches unrelieved by the chiaroscuro glitter of the equally obdurate but less programmatic lyrics. But the difficulty proceeds less from arcane allusions than from Wheelwright’s peculiarly elliptical turn of mind which convolutes and compresses clarities to the point of opacity. There is no more point in doing one’s homework first than there is with the Cantos: one has to wade in, grasping at what is graspable and letting the extraordinarily charged lyrical climate accustom one little by little to the at first blinding brightness or darkness.
Ellipsis is not a principle of construction, as with Pound, nor is there a willful, romantic obscuring impulse like Crane’s. Wheelwright demands that we follow a logic perceptible to him but only intermittently so to us, and that we be prepared to abandon it without warning for another kind of poetic logic. If Crane’s poetry presents a baroque façade, Wheelwright’s is the architectural underpinnings and calculations that would support such a façade, which we glimpse only rarely in his calmer, lyrical moments. Meanwhile the feats of engineering that we can take in are almost enough in themselves.
It is best perhaps to start with the shorter, seemingly easier poems, not because they are actually much easier but because they contain some of his most radically original poetry unburdened by a narrative or dialectical function. This one, “Familiar,” is from Dusk to Dusk:
O, gilded Boston State House; O, gleaming Irish hair!
I saw Lady Bountiful taking a walk in clean sunlight.
A goodlooking girl, if only she hadn’t lips for eyelids.
I thought I saw two persons, and I got all mixed up.
You see, it was this way…Lady Bountiful was modestly, even stylishly
dressed in two dimensions. But Lady Bountiful’s shadow
had three dimensions, and crept behind like
pickpocket stenches of belches of Welch wenches.
Even while beginning to wonder what this is all about, one is overtaken by its conviction. I think it succeeds, just as I think the very next one, “Stranger,” doesn’t:
(While Boston blossoms into one brown rose)
how is it, Girlie, on your way
from Saroyan’s whimsy play
Over the Hills and Far Away
to suffocate black incubator babies
that you carry a tall walking stick
embossed with the many-breasted Artemis;
but rubbed on its prepuce nether tip?
Did you lift it from my steady’s mother?
In both cases I am unsure of what is being said, but also fairly sure that it doesn’t matter, that we are in the presence of something as dumbfounding as Cubism must have seemed to its first spectators and as valid as it now looks in retrospect.
Even at his most direct Wheelwright is up to something other than what appears, as in “Dinner Call,” a poem about a posthumous visit from Amy Lowell. The setting owes something to the Eliot of “Aunt Helen” and “The Boston Evening Transcript.” The specter of the poetess arrives “while my Aunt and I were sitting round the house/waiting for the time to come for us to be sitting/and waiting for the time to drink our tea,/what brought her to Nantucket seven months after decent burial?/Digging up color for Scrimshaw and Jade Fish?” Miss Lowell gossips about her recent post-mortem activities as this seemingly prosaic but incredible domestic scene unfolds:
When Anna carried in the urn, the lamp, slop-bowl, the pot, et cetera for tea, the Sacrament of tact; Aunt Dolly lit the alcohol.
Whereat, from that oracular orifice and steaming snout of repartee, the kettle’s grape tendril of vapor gushed:
“Amy’s got next the tripod of cookies,—great girl; she helps herself while helping others…(It’s hot spit shut my eye.)
Let’s let her let us help ourselves,—look how she takes up the entire settle…” (The lamp went out.)
She departs and the narrator accompanies her for a while until their paths separate:
But I turned for “Good-bye” to Amy Lowell, Biggest Traveling One-Man Show since Buffalo Bill caught the Midnight Flyer to contact Mark Twain:
“One would be inclined, at moments, to doubt the entire death!” I shouted.
Grinning from ear to ear, she shouted back: “Mr. Brooks, you are perfectly right;—one would be.”
We know, because Matthew Josephson mentions it in a recent memoir of Wheelwright in Southern Review, that Wheelwright met Amy Lowell at the home of one of his aunts; that he once nettled her at a lecture she gave at Harvard by asking, “Miss Lowell, how do you write when you have nothing to say?” and that he later explained he had merely meant, “How does one write when one has nothing to say?” Yet the poem, which Josephson calls “a rather jocular elegy for Miss Lowell,” seems to work on a number of levels: first as anecdote, though even here much remains to be explained. Why is the ghost returning? Why the sarcastic parting at the end? Wheelwright alludes to their exchange at Harvard, but a reader unfamiliar with the incident might well take it as another fictive bauble and miss the point.
Obviously the poem is satirical, but who or what is being satirized? If it is Miss Lowell, we are not told why. Wheelwright’s attitude toward her and her poetry is tongue-in-cheek but uncommitted. And what is the function of the ghastly evocation of her corpse, straight out of El Topo: “As the lime rose, her neck turned grey, like stale ashes/of cigars; but gushes of dead blood mounted her neck./They flowed through her head; the cheeks turned red; the lips/glowed like scars. But her eyes? Her eyes were frightened.” Yet finally these questions scarcely matter. What matters is that the poem is alive and crackling with satire loosened from its object; it stands free of its narrative armature, though it could scarcely have come into being without it.
This is true of much of the poetry, including the long poems, and it points to a central problem: that lacking the precise reference, which is often not literary but autobiographical, we are forced back on the tributary beauties of the language, which are however frequently so substantial as to carry the poem alone. In this Wheelwright resembles another rediscovered Yankee crackpot genius, Charles Ives, whose gifts didn’t rule out occasional lapses into tedium which cannot and should not be isolated from the rest, because they too stem from an ambitious plan which was completely apparent only to its author but whose energy enlivens even the barren passages. Nevertheless there will have to be a study of Wheelwright’s sources before major poems such as the arcane closet drama “Morning,” published here for the first time, can be appraised for more than their coldly felicitous Landor-like purple passages.
Still, almost any random page from Wheelwright makes one want to persevere. A suggestion of the difficulties and delights ahead can be found in the remarkable ars poetica (of a sort) called “Verse + Radio = Poetry,” published by Rosenfeld and S. Foster Damon in Southern Review (Spring, 1972):
The music of poetry is more than sound—its music consists in the presentation of ideas as themes repeated, contradicted, and developed like musical ideas…. Ideological music is closely related to disassociation of associated ideas and the association of the disassociated. This philosophical process must constantly go on, in answer to constantly changing society, for ages and generations and for individuals from childhood to old age and from mood to mood. This makes spirits athletic, not only to guard against the change but to welcome change. The poetry keeps you awake. If it makes you dream, it warns you that you are half asleep.
I can’t leave Wheelwright without quoting in full one of his most beautiful poems, “Why Must You Know?” from Rock and Shell, to which one can return again and again, savoring it without penetrating its secret:
—“What was that sound we heard
fall on the snow?”
—“It was a frozen bird.
Why must you know?
All the dull earth knows the good
that the air, with claws and wings
tears to the scattered questionings
which burn in fires of our blood.”
“Let the air’s beak and claws carry my deeds
far, where no springtime thaws the frost for their seeds.”
—“One could fathom every sound
that the circling blood can tell
who heard the diurnal syllable,
while lying close against the ground.”
“My flesh, bone and sinew now would discern
hidden waters in you Earth, waters that burn.”
—“One who turns to earth again
finds solace in its weight; and deep
hears the blood forever keep
the silence between drops of rain.”
The clear mystery, the cold passion, and the warm intelligence are there in equal proportion.
A. R. Ammons’s Collected Poems comes almost as unheralded as Wheelwright’s sudden belated materialization. Ammons’s first book, Ommateum, published in 1955, seems not to have attracted much attention his second appeared nine years later. Recently he has been more prolific, and critics, particularly Harold Bloom and Richard Howard, have considered his work seriously and at length, but few had probably anticipated a Collected Poems of such dimensions (almost 400 pages, to which must be added the recent Norton reissue in a separate volume of his 200-page poem Tape for the Turn of the year). If his importance was suspected before, it is now, as so often happens, confirmed merely by the joining of several volumes in one—not only because the solidity and brilliance are at last fully apparent but because, as also often happens, the occasionally weaker early poems somehow illuminate and give access to the big, difficult later ones.
Without wishing to fall into the trap of comparing Wheelwright and Ammons merely because of the hazards of publication, one cannot help being struck by certain resemblances. Both are American originals (in the French sense of un original as someone who is also quite eccentric), and they are products as much of the American landscape as of its poetic tradition, in devious ways. Wheelwright’s relation to New England is as tenuous but as real as Ives’s cacophonous The Housatonic at Stockbridge is to the bucolic scene which prompted it. The relation lies deeper than resemblance. Ammons’s landscape is American sidereal; a descendant of Emerson, as Bloom has pointed out, he is always on the brink of being “whirled/Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear” from the safe confines of backyard or living room. But the fascination of his poetry is not the transcendental but his struggle with it, which tends to turn each poem into a battleground strewn with scattered testimony to the history of its making in the teeth of its creator’s reluctance and distrust of “all this fiddle.”
Reading the poems in sequence one soon absorbs this rhythm of making-unmaking, of speech facing up to the improbability of speech, so that ultimately Ammons’s landscape—yard, riverbed, ocean, mountain, desert, and soon “the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark”—releases the reader to the clash of word against word, to what Harold Bloom calls his “oddly negative exuberance.” The movement is the same, from the visible if only half-real flotsam of daily living to the uncertainties beyond, but one forgets this from one poem to the next; each is as different as a wave is from the one that follows and obliterates it. One is left, like the author at the end of his best-known poem, “Corsons Inlet,” “enjoying the freedom that/Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,/that I have perceived nothing completely,/that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”
The poet’s work is like that of Penelope ripping up her web into a varicolored heap that tells the story more accurately than the picture did. And meanwhile the “regional” has become universal, at an enormous but unavoidable cost; the destructiveness of the creative act in Ammons (“what / destruction am I / blessed by?”) permits him to escape, each time, the temptations of the paysage moralisé. Much has been written about the relation of the so-called “New York School” of poets to the painting of men like Pollock, but in a curious way Ammons’s poetry seems a much closer and more successful approximation of “Action Painting” or art as process. (“The problem is / how to keep shape and flow.”)
Marianne Moore pointed out that “inns are not residences,” and a similar basic corrective impulse runs throughout Ammons, giving rise to a vocabulary of pivotal words. “Saliences” (the title of one of his best poems), “suasion,” “loft,” “scary,” “motion,” and “extreme” are a few which assume their new meaning only after a number of encounters, a meaning whose sharpness corrects a previous one whose vagueness was more dangerous than we knew. A “loft” (also frequently used as a verb) is not a summit, but a way station and possibly the last one; saliences are pertinent and outstanding but not necessarily to be confused with meanings; suasion is neither persuasion nor dissuasion. The corrective impulse proceeds as much from prudence as from modesty; in any case it can coexist with occasional outbursts of pure egotism: “I want a squirrel-foil for my martin pole / I want to perturb some laws of balance / I want to create unnatural conditions” (but the poem of which this is the beginning is entitled “The Imagined Land”), just as Ammons’s frugality and his relentless understatement are countered by the swarming profusion of the poems.
This austerity could lose its point in the course of such a long volume: the restricted palette; the limited cast of characters (bluejays, squirrels, and other backyard denizens figure prominently, along with the poet’s wife, child, and car, not to forget the wind with whom he has dialogues frequently in a continuing love-hate relationship); the sparse iconography of plant, pebble, sand, leaf, twig, bone, end by turning the reader back from the creature comforts he might have expected from “nature” poetry to the dazzlingly self-sufficient logic which illuminates Ammons’s poetry and in turn restores these samples from nature to something of their Wordsworthian splendor—but Wordsworth recollected in the tranquillity of midcentury mindless America, and after the ironic refractions of Emerson, Stevens, and Williams. For despite Ammons’s misgivings, his permanent awareness of “a void that is all being, a being that is void,” his “negative exuberance” is of a kind that could exist only after the trials of so much negation.
I can’t think of a thing to uphold:
the carborundum plant snows
sift-scum on the slick, outgoing river
and along the avenues car wheels
float in a small powder: my made-up
mind idles like a pyramid….
—from “Working Still”
But if he is unable to find a saving word for the polluted (in so many ways) American scene, his speech elevates it even as it refuses to transform it. “No American poet,” writes Harold Bloom in an essay on Ammons, “When You Consider the Radiance,” in his book The Ringers in the Tower, “not Whitman or Stevens, shows us so fully something otherwise unknown in the structures of the national consciousness as Ammons does.” And for Americans who feel that America is the last truly foreign country, this something comes startlingly alive in poem after poem, as in the magnificent “One: Many”:
…and on and on through the villages,
along dirt roads, ditchbanks, by gravel pits and on to the homes, to the citizens and their histories,
I think how enriching, though unassimilable as a whole
into art, are the differences: the small-business
man in Kansas City declares an extra dividend
and his daughter who teaches school in Du- quesne
buys a Volkswagen, a second car for the family:
out of many, one
from variety an over-riding unity, the expression of
How perfect and how funny in its Whitmanesque nod to the automotive industry is that “buys a Volkswagen, a second car for the family”: it seems as much by its music as by its sense to sum up everything that is beautiful and wrong in our vast, monotonous, but very much alive landscape. And Ammons knows this well; he ends the poem with an unemotional summation that, in its reluctant acceptance of the “opaque” world that is still “world enough to take my time, stretch my reason, hinder / and free me,” can also stand for the work:
no book of laws, short of unat- tainable reality itself,
can anticipate every event,
control every event: only the book
of laws founded against itself,
founded on freedom of each event to occur as itself,
lasts into the inevitable balances events will take.
Amy Lowell's Cats April 5, 1973