The Wreck of the Thresher
Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock
The reviewing of poetry, even at its plainest, especially at its plainest, has become one of the more exotic forms of human discourse. The cynical may attribute this to the noble bluff of a solipsist analyzing a hall of mirrors for the entertainment of an echo-chamber. But the death of poetry, like the death of God, virtue, Caesar and the novel, is always being exaggerated. I’m interested in the law of mimesis or imitative action that governs not so much the style or spirit of reviewing (both still as various as they ever were) but the subtle counterpoint between silence and statement, the docta silentia by which both poets and critics play their necessary game with those who persist in asking the Edmund Wilson-type questions about where poetry “stands” and what it “does.” And interested also in those tantalizing kingdoms of the clouds that materialize and vanish in a season. William Meredith, for instance, is credited with being “a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets,” but when I asked a distinguished poetry editor what this institution might be, or the duties, costume, and habitation of a chancellor, he drew a blank.
The silence deepens around poetry and the old hands write less and less criticism or propaganda. Very good verse is still written but these grey-beards in their forties and fifties, the well known poet-critics, grow more jealous of their silence, hoarding it as one of the few honest dividends of a beggared profession or honored hobby, however you wish to look at it. It becomes a resource to be handled as delicately as the sestina, terza rima, or any of the usual techniques. It lives in their verse as a pervasive sense of what-everyone-knows-and-doesn’t-want-said, lives in the common gossip that poet X is racing his sports car on the California beaches, poet Y is swimming the Hellespont, poet Z building a house out of newspapers on Cape Charles and won’t be bothered. I speak only of college vacations; term-time is equivalent to what monasteries call the Greater Silence which begins at a certain hour of the evening.
Exceptions there most certainly are. One of the most enthusiastic regular reviewers, Joseph Bennett of the Hudson Review, has just called, with many a flourish and many a pregnant semicolon, for a return to multifarious, modulated rhetoric on classical lines. Rhetoric is “the lost science”; the “fashionable” autobiographical mode in which each new poet cultivates an agonized personality or piquantly stylized Self, avoiding the obligations of the well-made poem, Bennett considers a disgrace. Like an American Malraux he summons the poet to the great imperial tasks of his art. I like Bennett’s enthusiasm, but find his program much like the exhortations of Winthrop Sargeant in The New Yorker to love that Tchaikovsky, adore that Bruckner, surrender to the “melody” in Barber and Menotti. This pre-Yeatsian call to arms has, like De Gaulle’s oratory, just enough lingering truth in it to invigorate our search for something new. Perhaps the “rhetoric” of the best verse being written rests as much on its silences as in its formal elaborations. Somehow these guarantee the material; and much as we would like to see something intricately splendid made out of it, we honor the mere sense of material in poetry as devoutly as in the other arts.
William Meredith comes almost too patly to hand, an excellent “formalist” university poet, remarkably even and durable. His earliest work was full of a well-digested wisdom about mortality, the long pull, the seemingly endless career possible today through the exercise of a proper spiritual hygiene. From book to book his mind plays over the same themes—the sea, trees and animals, the joys of monogamy, music and ballet, parents and children. He feels the strongest obligation not to be a bore; this book contains thirty-nine poems, several quite short and none of them dull. His one long venture into major statement, the title poem, is an admirable example of how a poet can still collaborate with what-everybody- knows to write powerful verse:
Whether we give assent to this or rage
Is a question of temperament and does not matter.
Some will has been done past our understanding,
Past our guilt surely, equal to our fears.
Dullards, we are set again to the cryptic blank page
Where the sea schools us with ter- rible blank water.
The noise of a boat breaking up and its men is in our ears.
The bottom here is too far down for our sounding;
The ocean was salt before we crawl- ed to tears.
Even so, thoroughly alive and sentient as the poet proves to be, silences as lone and level as the sands around the statue of Ozymandlas surround and inhabit these civilized poems.
James Dickey is both a good, clear-eyed, sure-handed, substantial outdoor poet and a Phenomenon. The Phenomenon, here as in his two previous books, like a tortoise out for a stroll, a flock of sheep in the road or a Vermonter discussing the income tax, takes its own sweet time. All right (it says), you want me to compose a “Sunday Morning,” a bonafide anthology piece that will bring all this shimmering strangeness, this limpid ambling iambic glory of light and shadow, these visionary animals, to a conclusion; you want me to arrive. But our impatient question, fair enough in the worldly economy of things, is like one of those illusions of perspective that give size and depth to many of Dickey’s poems. He is drunk on his own theory of relativity; when he seems farthest away he is sometimes closer than we still expect poetry to be. The first poem to read in this book is perhaps “Cherrylog Road” about an adolescent rendezvous of a boy and girl in an automobile junkyard. The poem is as much there, in detail and wit as any prose cityscape by Mailer. It only lacks the extra something, the momentum of a poet’s assurance that he had to be there and the reader with him; what Trilling would call Fortune. “Kudzu” is a splendid poem about a voracious Japanese vine imported to keep clay river banks from eroding but which becomes a haven for snakes so that hogs must be driven into it to destroy the snakes. There are several others as good, all keeping that special distance that Dickey alone cultivates. He is very much a poet of the book rather than the isolated poem.
Galway Kinnell and Dickey belong together like yin and yang, like a parable of North and South, Catholic and Protestant. It’s encouraging to think the continent still has room for two “nature poets” as different and as good. Where Dickey’s poetry seems a condensation of light and space, a Words-worthian openness to wonder and terror, Kinnell’s is as cool as a proposition in Aquinas. His first book, What a Kingdom That Was, opened with a half-dozen or so very accomplished conventional miniatures fashioned from the matter of Frost by the sensibility of an early Lowell: Catholic, New England, tragic and apocalyptic. It closed with a long poem about New York of extraordinary freshness—the long crowded day of a Whitman in a late mid-twentieth-century October. The metaphysical fever of modern Catholic poetry had vanished into a rigorous, modest, athletic attachment to the world. In Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock he develops this gift for a kind of luminous, feeling sobriety, especially in two long poems, “The Homecoming of Emma Lazarus” and “For Robert Frost.” Here is the final section of the Frost poem:
Poet of the country of white houses,
Of clearings going out to the dark wall of woods
Frayed along the skyline, you who nearly foreknew
The next lines of poems you sud- denly dropped,
Who dwelt in access to that which other men
Have burnt all their lives to get near, who heard
The high wind, in gusts, seething
From far off, headed through the trees exactly
To this place where it must happen, who spent
Your life on the point of giving away your heart
To the dark trees, the dissolving woods,
Into which you go at last, heart in hand, deep in:
When we think of a man who was- cursed
Neither with the mystical all-lov- ingness of Walt Whitman
Nor with Melville’s anguish to know and to suffer,
And yet cursed…A man, what shall I say,
Vain, not fully convinced he was dying, whose calling
Was to set up in the wilderness of his country,
At whatever cost, a man, who would be his own man,
We think of you. And from the same doorway
At which you lived, between the house and the woods,
We see your old footprints going away across
The great Republic, Frost, up mem- orized stopes,
Down hills floating by heart on the bulldozed land.
Letters August 20, 1964