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 …
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Letters August 20, 1964