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Three Poets

The Moving Target

by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 97 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Weather and Seasons

by Michael Hamburger
Atheneum, 51 pp., $3.95

A Peopled Landscape

by Charles Tomlinson
Oxford, 64 pp., $3.75

English critics have a taste, perhaps excessively developed in recent years, for concentrating on the local, the assignable qualities of any poet, what the poem can tell us about accent, physical pitch and range of voice, natural habitat and landscape, social class, political views, literary grouping, sexual tastes; the new volume of verse is seen as a small dossier. These three poets have all published a lot in England, but have never perhaps any of them had proper critical recognition there (apart from Mr. Tomlinson, in F. W. Bateson’s Essays in Criticism), partly because none of them can be pinned down in this way. Again, the fashion in contemporary England is for poetry, like Philip Larkin’s, which is highly and consciously literate, and at the same time deliberately unliterary, anti-rhetorical, anti-evocative, in Auden’s phrases, “sotto-voce” and “monochrome.” These are three “poetic” poets, European rather than insular, and at their best spirit-voices or ghost-voices—thin but penetrating and disturbing echo-voices—rather than grossly particular fleshy presences speaking to us. All three, also, like the great early romantics, write to be overheard rather than seek to get into an imitation of social relations with the reader. Hamburger is an Englishman of German-Jewish ancestry who escaped to England in his childhood from Hitler, and whose mind is still haunted; in the quiet provincial English university where he teaches, by the violence and insecurity of European history and the age-long tragic sufferings of the Jewish people. Merwin is an American who lived in England for many years, making a living mainly by doing brilliant translations, particularly from Spanish, for the BBC’s Third Programme. Tomlinson is unique among younger English poets in attempting to carry on the particular kind of cosmopolitan “traditionalism” that we associate with Eliot and Pound; he uses also, in this latest volume, Wallace Stevens and the twice-broken, three-member verse line of William Carlos Williams. He is preoccupied with the aesthetics of perception. Writing in America, it is easier to “hear” the voices of these three poets than when writing in England. But I still have to struggle with the contemporary English prejudice against a certain ominous vagueness and against ghostiness, against the poem that sounds like the soughing of the wind in trees.

The demand of the English literary scene (to put it another way) is that the poet should be a socially interesting and engaging person, quick on the uptake, not a bore: there is a distrust of slowness, hesitation, prolixity, and a forgetting of Laurence Binyon’s great aphorism, “Slowness is beauty.” The punishment for the demand is, often, a clever-silly yap-yap. There is not this in these three. Hamburger has a long poem, in ponderous, worried blank verse lines, about Eichmann, in which what seems at first like willed moralistle rhetoric ends as human puzzled fineness:

And yet and yet I would not have him die
Caged in his words their words—one deadly word
Setting the seal on unreality
Adding one number to the millions dead
Subtracting nothing from death dividing nothing
Silencing him who murdered words with words
Not one shell broken, not one word made flesh.
Nor in my hatred would imprison him
Who never free in fear and hatred served
Another’s hatred which again was fear
So little life in him he dared not pity
Or if he pitied dared not act on pity;
But show him pity now for pity’s sake
And for their sake who died for lack of pity;
Break from the husk at last one naked grain…

The underpunctuation, the Elizabethan play on “pity”—one is queerly but appropriately reminded of Portia importuning Shylock—the troubled and sick generosity, perhaps over-generosity, of feeling, all add up to something which avoids the versified sermon by a fine margin, but does avoid it. Looking for the grossly human (in this same coarse Englander way) in Merwin, I find it in an untypical poem, “A Letter from Gussie,” a poem based on a kind of Glass Menagerie situation—the sister who had to stay at home reproaching the brother who got away:

Don’t you think I’d have liked
To get away also?
I had the brochures ready
And some nice things that fitted.
After all it isn’t as though
You’d ever married. Oh
And the plumbing if I may say so
Would not just have lain down,
And the school children
Would not keep drilling the teeth
Which I no longer have
With their voices, and each time
I go out with a mouthful of clothes- pins
The pits of the hoodlums would not be
Dug nearer to the back steps…

These two quotations contradict what I started out by saying (very properly, what one starts out by saying is a wild thing to be shot at): they have what Donald Davie, contrasting Pound and Wordsworth, once called “the reek of the human.” But more typical of Merwin is Eluard’s words for a Joan Miro landscape:

Never

Never

A usage I’m learning a beak at my ear
I hear
The hearts in bottles
The dice lying awake

The clock dropping its shoes and
No floor.

More typical of Hamburger is an attempt to do in verse what William Coldstream once did in painting:

A lighted window three rungs of rooftops higher,
London at dawn the broken man re- flects,
A hint of summer frocks, brightness contained,
Soon to explode in sparks of multi- colour
When, decomposed, housefronts as- sume their numbers.
Daylight identify their scattering ghosts.

Both fine, but both extremely “aesthetic,” without that “reek of the human.” And Tomlinson, in spite of his title, does not seem to me to have any people (he has figures in a composition) in his landscape. He makes us look: “Letter from Costa Brava” (the “crisp sheets” in the poem, are the sheets of paper on which the letter is written):

Its crisp sheets, unfolded,
Give on to a grove, where
Citrons conduct the eye
Past the gloom of foliage
Towards the glow of stone…
…But let them envy
What they cannot see:
This sodden, variable green
Igniting against the grey.

He does not make me, very much, feel.

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