The Old Adam
Thousand-Year-Old Fiancee & Other Poems
Collected Poems of Rolfe Humphries
Love Poems (Tentative Title)
The Wooden Horse
Knock Upon Silence
D. J. Enright is an English poet of unusual accomplishment who has spent a good many years of his life teaching at universities in Japan and the East. Because of some unaccountable and greatly-to-be-regretted oversight, his books have never been published in this country. It may simply be that behind the firmly controlled uninsistence of his lines American ears, grown accustomed to the clamant verse of poets like Robert Sward, who is discussed below, have not yet recognized the concentration of Enright’s verse, its nerve, its distilled lack of irrelevancy. He has described the tone his poetry aspires to very well in “Elegy in a Country Suburb”:
To strike that special tone,
Wholly truthful, intimate
And utterly unsparing,
A man communing with himself,
It seems you need to be alone,
The key phrase here for Enright’s poetry is “utterly unsparing.” But Mr. Enright’s latest volume, The Old Adam, from which these lines are taken, probably gives a reader first approaching him a less adequate idea of his poetry than earlier books. Here is a representative poem from Bread Rather than Blossoms, 1956:
A shabby old man is mixing wa- ter with clay.
If that shabby old man had given up hope
(He is probably tired he has worked all day)
The flimsy house would never have been built.
If the flimsy house had never been built,
Six people would shiver in the au- tumn breath.
If thousands of old men were sorry as you,
Millions of people would cough themselves to death.
(In the town the pin-ball parlours sing like cicadas)
Do not take refuge in some far-off foreign allusion
(In the country the cicadas ring like pin-ball parlours)
Simply remark the clay, the wa- ter, the straw, and a useful per- son.
Decorum is an indispensable quality in good poetry, which we discuss rarely, perhaps because in a levelled society princes prefer to talk like clowns. But in this poem called “Broken Fingernails” Enright has achieved a perfect decorum in discovering a speech of exactly the right elevation for the occasion. The dry, matter-of-fact rhythm, the slightly weary repetitions suggesting dogged persistence of purpose, the identification of cicadas and pin-ball machines which effectively demolishes human illusion, transform the last line, unarresting in itself, into a highly charged and dramatic ascent through clay, water, and straw to apotheosis in “a useful person.” Although the poem is composed entirely of commonplace words, by introducing the rather pedantic verb “remark” in the last line Enright achieves exactly the right altitude at which to define the experience of the poem and his attitude towards it. The “shabby old man” rises to a formal dignity he would never have attained had Enright chosen to say: consider, regard, observe, look at, or some equivalent. “Simply remark” is the indispensable leavening without which the moral statement he wishes to make would have remained unrealized and blurred. This kind of precise instinct for words is inseparable from moral knowledge, and the two …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Poem Withheld April 28, 1966