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An Alphabet of Poets

Anyway, the breaks in these lines do invite the reader or the listener to believe that what he is getting is somehow important. That, I believe, is their purpose and function. Now, many people seem to have few enough occasions to feel they are in the presence of important incidents of language. If they can lend to these words their yearning for significance, if they are able to believe they are filling this emptiness (their own emptiness or the poem’s), with instincts of value, then who would wish to deny them this harmless pleasure?

Indeed, I would say in praise of Creeley’s poems that they do not invite vicious feelings of any kind, he seems to offer little opportunity for arousing or projecting aggressive sentiments or sentiments of scorn, expressions of personal superiority, greed, or any kind of socially disfunctional sentiment. Rather he appears benevolently to give opportunities to his readers or listeners for the invocation of the polymorphous, the inarticulate, the wistful, for “feelings” about nothing in particular, felt by nobody in particular, and quite charmingly without consequence.

This mood has always had an appeal for certain kinds of gentle adolescents; some years ago, for instance, it was satisfied by the nebulous religious effusions of Kahlil Gibran. There will always be people whose satisfactions in literature are reserved from the harsh world in a dreamy bubble of the “poetical.” A fragile refuge, doubtless; but if there is any harm in it, it is only that the location of the more tender sentiments in this vacuum may leave them, under the pressures of life, unavailable for real things. But if we started to ask poets to be responsible for the well-being of their clients sentiments, there would be no place to stop, short of Plato’s edicts. To define tastes and not to dispute them, that is our proper task. I do wish, a little, that I could induce Robert Creeley’s readers to consider what they are doing when they respond to his words; but that they respond to any words at all deserves our appreciation.

ANTHONY HECHT (Pulitzer Prize, 1968) is the poet who most belies the general remarks I began with. For Hecht, the strange searching among the correspondences in the sounds of words that was always, until so recently, the framework of poetry, is still the basis of a poem. Alexander Pope would appreciate the resourcefulness of Hecht’s rhymes, and, once he had accustomed himself to the casual imbalance and the colloquial disconnections of modern phrasing, he would appreciate the way these rhymes are deployed through intricate stanzas in natural lines of speech.

As Hecht’s structure consists of a precisely maintained form embedded in, or embodied in, an apparently casual flow of speech, so his theme consists of the terrors embedded in, embodied in, the casual flow of everyday life.

Out of the ornamented, sometimes foppish, elaborations of his earlier poems of A Summoning of Stones, Hecht has extracted a simpler language. He has maintained his old interest in the resources of rhyme and phrasing, but now his stanzas, like his subjects, are simpler too. But he can still astonish us with the accidents of the English lexicon. A rhyme for tariat? Of course: Captain Marryat. Eye rhymes in some poems, loins and Des Moines: ear rhymes in others, buzz and was, breast and blessed.

The tone is understatement and the method is wit. “The blind head of bone grinned its abuse at everyone like a good democrat.” Horrors are focused in urbanity. “But the most curious part of it is the dance. The victim goes, in short, out of his head.” Everything is clear, connected, and in good order—everything but the events themselves, which are cruel, casual, or demented. Thus his theme and his style work together, two things become one, and this is art.

All poets have their weaknesses, too, and Hecht’s is that sometimes the horror is too successfully contained in acceptance, as the language is too successfully mounted in the form. Then the rhymes become merely ingenious and the urbanity seems a pose. But many poems in this book show that the achievement of form in the old sense is still a living possibility in our language, despite all the proclamations of the death of the iambic line.

TED HUGHES’S Wodwo contains a collection of poems, five stories, and a play for radio, all of which, Hughes says, may be read as commentaries on one another. This is true. The collection has a single theme and a pervading tone.

The strange Middle-English word of the title is from Gawain and the Green Knight. “Wodwos” are among the creatures Sir Gawain has to fight with—snakes, wolves, bulls, bears, boars, as he struggles through the Northern allegorical landscape of his Arthurian quest. Gawain, locked into a system of frozen Christian morality in a world bristling with animistic terrors, bound on a mission gratuitously inexplicable, is indeed much like the heroes of Hughes’s stories and like the Egos who speak the various poems. In this book, the entire world—even the rocks of this world—are alive with menace, and as everything is menacing, so everything is menaced: rock is menaced by the trembling harebell which, in its tireless generations, will destroy the hardest outcrop stone. In this world there is, then, real menace, genuine physical menace of teeth, muscles, weapons; and also, internally and finally, there is the menace of madness. The animals and the fish and stones, like the heroes of the stories and speakers of the various poems, seem to hang on the verge of madness, muscles cramped, eyes staring, teeth bared.

In evoking this world, Hughes displays the insistent, accurate, impressionistic powers of empathy and description for which he is so well-known. As his jaguar runs, “Skinful of bowls, he bowls them/The hip going in and out of joint, dropping the spine…,” we are both inside and outside this creature, who seems like something the Voice of the Whirlwind might have frightened Job with. One short poem, “Sugar Loaf,” displays many of the qualities:

The trickle cutting from the hill-crown
Whorls to a pure pool here, with whisp trout like a spirit.
The water is wild as alcohol—
Distilling from the fibres of the blue wind.
Reeds, nude and tufted, shiver as they wade.

I see the whole huge hill in the small pool’s stomach.
This will be serious for the hill.
It suspects nothing.
Crammed with darkness, the dull, trusting giant
Leans, as over a crystal, over the water
Where his future is forming.

Alcohol”—both visually accurate and startling, and, as the poem develops, a key to its idea. As for the stories, they are frightening.

GALWAY KINNELL’S third book of poems, Body Rags, displays his wide range of experience in many lands, his active sympathies with the oppressed, and a sensitivity both to the beauties and the horrors of nature. His lines are arranged as groups of the orderly phrases in which he describes these experiences. The phrases are easy, in the good sense, as the experiences are admirable; but the poems are often easy in the other sense, too, and the phrases dissolve in the subjects. He has a penchant for flat statements about things that he might well make clear in other ways. I do not wish to hit everyone over the head with Berryman, but one could compare Berryman’s poem, “They Have,” a short piece establishing with sudden surprise and sharp evocation, all the way from the title and then back again, a man’s sympathy with the least of things. “A thing O say a sixteenth of an inch long, with whiskers & wings it doesn’t use, & many legs…,” and these lines of Kinnell’s:

For several minutes
two mosquitoes have been making love
on top of this poem,
changing positions, swooning, even they,
their thighs
fragile as a baby’s hairs, knowing
the ecstasy.

Kinnell knows a lot of things, names of plants, how things look, how people talk, but it is not really this easy to tell us about it.

THE HARVESTER’S VASE” is Ned O’Gorman’s fourth book of poetry. O’Gorman has converted many interesting experiences and ideas into verse. The experiences have a way of becoming extreme, even, with some regularity, apocalyptic.

At your waist I watch the moon rise and the lowlands
slide beneath your belly. Waterways mount your breasts.
I snap like green wood.

In addition to these extravagant phrases, the poet employs a good deal of synaesthesia, which is not always convincing.

…a ripe crack
of yellow feathers tapped the power from
my eyes.

When these things work, the results can be good, as in “The Bathing Place.” When they do not, the extravagance of confused imagery suggests merely imprecision.

I love to watch the body in its languor.
It is as if the body then
came upon a river of roots and gods
and meeting its beginning
turned rose, as a seed in flower will,
nearing the surface of the stem.

I do not mind the body being compared to a flower. But is this indeed what seeds do? My botany is uncertain, but I cannot recall that seeds become at some stage nearer to the surface of the stem. And one more puzzling example. A funeral procession is said to be “slow as the final, salty lurch of the landed trout.” Yes, death could be said to be a transition from one element to another, like a fish coming out of water. But I have never seen a trout move slowly when it is out of water; and while there are some kinds of trout that spend their seasons in the sea, there must be a rather special purpose in saying “salty,” because all our usual associations with trout are with fresh water. Perhaps there are somewhere flowers that have their seeds in their stems, or trout that move slowly when landed; but if there are, then these prodigies surely themselves call for explanation, rather than offer explanations, through metaphor, for other things. But that is too complicated and too generous. Here the poet is speaking not wildly, which has always been the privilege of poets, but merely loosely.

IN HIS FIRST BOOK of poems, The Marches, James Scully has caught the best style of the time and something of what seems to be our mood, a middleaged view of a cruel and worn-out world. His observations are exact and evocative: the first qualification of a poet. Blueberries on the bushes look “refrigerated, fresh”; and then like “a heap of old ball bearings wearing through the grease.” Then, following Robert Lowell, he rediscovers in the small change of our clichés an ironic reminiscence of what value this coinage may once have had.

…Down the coast
a spray of stony islands poked up,
blunt ruins holding their own.

The cottage hugging one of them
for dear life (darkened in the weather)
might have been a love nest, then….

So far, the least one could say is that his poems are very good of their kind. The best ones, “Midsummer,” “The Old Order,” “Chicken Country,” are better than that. Out of the observation of real things they reach understanding. He is a good writer.

The last poet in this truncated alphabet, Rosemary Tonks, is something else. In her second book of poems, Iliad of Broken Sentences, she produces that unusual thing, a collection of poems that presents a genuine personality, even a character, and a whole way of life. Kingsley Amis, the first poet in this list, does that too, but Rosemary Tonks’s is infinitely more interesting, more complicated, and certainly more sympathetic. To begin with, she can handle the least kind of thing her craft demands, that is, simple description. Sometimes it is the sort of description, hovering on the edge of preciousness, which we wouldn’t like much in a male poet:

Clouds which had cut themselves on a sharp sunset
(With its smoking stove of frosts to keep it cold) went by, bleeding.

The world is modern London, or a part of it, scruffy, very up-to-date, nervous, and insouciant, a world consciously achieved and defended in despair: dirty buildings, cafés, train stations, cinemas, cheap hotels, discothèques. Nineteenth-century France haunts this city, with “Dressing-gown hours the tint of alcohol or coffee,” and also, oddly, the Middle East, and, successfully and unpretentiously, all history and its cities. “…When the world goes ahead to the next city….”

The poems do not have the obvious elements of song—rhyme, or regularly repeated rhymes, or refrains—but with a kind of cumulating repetition of words and phrases she creates a movement of melody. The speech is direct, scrappy, and reckless—sometimes too direct and quite unnecessary, as when she tells us, in an otherwise effective poem, that there was “a raging disgust that shook me,” but often this speech seems to me alive, and even, if you will pardon the expression, charming.

Hurry: we must go south to escape
The bubonic yellow-drink of our old manuscripts,
You, with your career, toad-winner, I with my intolerance.
The English sea-coast is more oafish than a ham.

So much for the poets. And now, confident that such readers as may have begun this long review will have dropped out with their last favorite poet, I will return to the generalities with which I began. In their various ways and relative to one another, each of these poets has done a fine thing. They themselves, their friends, a few other professional poets, will be glad that they have done this. But had I not taken them up as part of a job, most of these books I’d have put aside after one or two glances. It is not the fault of the poets. Simply, those high offices which Sidney claimed for poets—and rightly claimed—no longer exist for any of the arts. Of all these poets, and they are among our best, only Berryman, I should say, in his dotty, frantic language, aspires to bring in civility, to make us honest men, to make us immortal. Without this aspiration, perhaps even words, which, as I said, are all we have ever had, are still not enough.

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