• Email
  • Print

An Alphabet of Poets

A Look Round the Estate

by Kingsley Amis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 49 pp., $3.95

Short Poems

by John Berryman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 120 pp., $4.50

Words

by Robert Creeley
Scribners, 143 pp., $4.95

The Hard Hours

by Anthony Hecht
Atheneum, 103 pp., $2.45

Woodwo

by Ted Hughes
Harper & Row, 184 pp., $4.95

Body Rags

by Galway Kinnell
Houghton Mifflin, 61 pp., $4.00

The Harvester’s Vase

by Ned O’Gorman
Harcourt, Brace & World, 49 pp., $4.50

The Marches

by James Scully
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 57 pp., $4.00

Iliad of Broken Sentences

by Rosemary Tonks
The Bodley Head, 30 pp., 15s.

How happy our poets should be these days! Relieved of all their former responsibilities, they can go about their business of making poems with words, as pure as any scientist alone at his Institute blackboard, solving theoretical problems that have absolutely no practical application at all. (A quotation, actual but not for attribution: “Anybody who discovers a cure for cancer in this place ought to be fired.”)

Both in the largest and in the smallest matters of their craft the Muse has let go her rules, and the destinies of their nations expect even less from poets than they can expect from their nations. Of course they may take political stands if they want to. But Clio no longer demands that they labor on some great Epick to bring their own lands and their mother tongue the glory that the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or Italy, and those Hebrews of old, brought to their languages, gods, and armaments. We have had our few long poems—the Cantos, Four Quartets, Paterson…. Relieved of epic plots and heroes, even of romance heroes and heroic deeds, they are words: lots of words, it is true, but words. Poets need no longer frame even a tale. And from the Tragic Muse and the Comic Muse alike they are delivered. Pastoral, Historical, Satirical, Historical-Pastoral; Meditation, Argument, Ode, Elegy, Anacreontic…for gestures only or for parodies. Even that favorite twentieth-century mode, the dramatic monologue, is largely gone, and, to speak rather freely, the mode today is only that someone, generally to be taken for the poet himself, is writing—or speaking—words at no particular time to no one in particular. Words, we might say, appear, and declare themselves poems.

POETS need no longer study the old forms, nor practice to fill out with suitable matter the stanzas of rhyme royal or sestina; they need not ponder the English or the Italian sonnet, or the heroic couplet as against unrhymed heroics. Meter itself they can take or leave alone as they choose. Lines, if poets choose to set their words in printed lines, rather than to breathe them with their own voices onto tape or into amplifiers, even lines are all at their disposal, just as they please, and nobody asks them why they run on or stop short or just hang there. The protests and riots over free verse were calmed long ago, and integration reigns unquestioned, the ideal integration of the totally un-noticed. So poets have the perfect freedom of their words. Nobody really cares what they say or how they say it. A typical poem of today is a collection of words (unless it is a Concrete Poem), about as many words as are given to the obituary of a college professor or a minor millionaire, only in the poem the words have more white space around them.

This is meant to be descriptive, not invidious though it may sound so. Let me turn and defend our contemporaries. It was always the word that counted, and the spirit with which that word somehow connected. Never was the form primary: “It is not ryming and versing that maketh Poesie: One may be a Poet without versing, and a versefier without Poetrie.” Thus Philip Sidney, in a time that like our own had no great stock of forms: almost nothing, he said, “but that Lyricall kind of Songs and Sonets.” (Marlowe was then about sixteen or seventeen years old.) Sidney thought too that nobody cared for Poesie, but what claims he made for it. (If these claims seem antique and preposterous, think then not of our own time nor even of Sidney’s, but of what we know about the ritual functions of poetry in primitive societies.)

No more to laugh at the name of Poets, as though they were next inheritors to fooles, no more to jest at the reverent title of a Rimer, but to beleeve with Aristotle, that they were the auncient Treasurers of the Grecians divinitie; to beleeve with Bembus, that they were the first bringers in of all Civilitie; to beleeve with Scalliger that no Philosophers precepts can sooner make you an honest man, then the reading of Virgil; to beleeve with Clauserus, the Translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly deitie by

Hesiod and Homer, under the vaile

of Fables to give us all knowledge, Logicke, Rhetoricke, Philosophie, naturall and morall, and Quid non? To beleeve with me, that there are many misteries contained in Poetrie, which of purpose were written darkly, least by prophane wits it should be abused: To beleeve with Landin, that they were so beloved of the Gods, that whatsoever they write, proceeds of a divine furie. Lastly, to beleeve themselves when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.

Well, we may believe too, or remember that we once believed, something like this—even though the poets are themselves blessedly unburdened of such weighty exercises. A word is less than a breath; it can’t even blow out a candle, let alone keep one lit. Words are all the poets have left. But then, words are really all that we have ever had.

NTO TRUE of Kingsley Amis, hardly any of what I say above. (My alphabet of poets is alphabetical in order only, not complete.) For fifteen years a successful novelist, and now the inheritor of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Amis has also been a poet, in something of the flat anti-poetical vein of Philip Larkin, mixed with music hall tunes. The thirty-five poems of A Look Round the Estate are dated 1957-67. Their theme is single, the theme of Lucky Jim: the poems remark simply that “Art,” “Love,” “Religion,” “Patriotism,” all the traditional values of the educated and cultured classes are rot. Sex, automobiles, and liquor are not only real but good. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, and anyone who does not act on this knowledge, who does not provide himself with these real and good things, is probably a coward.

That slimy tune,” I said, and got a laugh,
In the middle of old Franck’s D minor thing….

Thus the poet echoes Lucky Jim’s famous “filthy Mozart” remark, and goes on to explain why: he once believed “Keats and the rest of them”; now he knows better: “‘Slimy’ was a snarl of disappointment.” Deliberately flat and deflated in language, as simple as possible in form—quatrains, couplets, simple short-lined rhyming stanzas—the poems deny suggestion, mystery, feeling. They are amusing to come upon in the pages of The Spectator or the New Statesman because they are witty and because they do have a point. They say exactly what they want to say, neatly and clearly. Without these simple forms of quatrain or couplet, the remarks would be only remarks, the jokes only jokes; but caught up in these forms, the casual daily words become more than remarks, they become a comment on speech itself, specifically on the kind of speech that can tell these kinds of truths.

Sex stops when you pull up your pants,
Love never lets you go.

Men have no doubt said this before in almost these very words. But here, in the lines preceding those quoted above, we have read “quid pro quo” which, we find, rhymes with “go,” and “romance” which rhymes with “pants.” In themselves these pairs are small jokes, modest surprises discovered in the sounds and meanings of the English language. And there is something like a small joke, too, something that gives us that little release of pleasure, like a small spark, when we find that the phrases of the most ordinary talk will neatly fall out, when properly chosen and manipulated, into something we recognize as a line of verse. Amis’s verses are a lesson in the minimum. Since his message, too, intends to be a lesson in the minimum, they thus together, words, form, and meaning, combine as what we know about art tells us they should. And small as it is, made of the flimsy materials at hand, a contraption rather than an engine and running on very inexpensive fuel, this verse is something that works.

Two of the poems end, after the sour confession of a small episode, with the sad, impudent remark that all of them imply: “What about you?” Are you any better, with your fine feelings and your moral pretensions? If this is serious enough to answer, I suppose we could reply with a variation on another Amis remark. He said, about the expansion of British higher education, something like this, “More is worse.” One could say here, “Worse is better.”

JOHN BERRYMAN’S Short Poems includes his first volume, The Dispossessed (1948); a small privately printed volume, His Thoughts Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt (1958); and “Formal Elegy,” a poem on the death of John F. Kennedy. The poems in The Dispossessed were written in the years between the poet’s early twenties and his middle thirties. Like many good poets, Berryman began by apprehending at once in his youth the best current style of the time, a style won through years of hard work by his elders. The style of Yeats and Auden allowed him the range of his intelligence and sympathies but seemed not unlike what others could do as well.

I wish for you—the moon was full, is gone—
Whatever bargain can be got
From the violent world our fathers bought,
For which we pay with fantasy at dawn,
Dismay at noon, fatigue, horror by night.

Skills of the time, the careful variations in the regular line, arranged to give some emphasis to the abstract words violent and horror in a voice at once idiomatic and yet capable of employing such words. If this seems more noticeably mannered now than it did then, and if, on the whole, the meditative and summarizing tone, as of one who has appropriated and is bequeathing—largely from “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”—if this tone seems a bit presumptuous for so young a man, then, at least, it is decently and carefully done.

Berryman’s publications of his poems seem not always to reflect immediately the time of composition, and it seems that he may have worked in several styles at once, so that to observe his progress in detail will require some digging when the time comes for a full-scale appraisal. But it is clear that at some period when he himself was in his thirties, shortly before the publication of The Dispossessed—I do not know if he was then working on Mistress Bradstreet—he developed the new, radical, intensely personal style that led eventually to Dream Songs. An early stage of this style can be seen in “The Lightning,” a poem from The Dispossessed. Certain surface eccentricities of punctuation, of general impatience with the standard academic tone of the time, had appeared in “Canto Amor,” which seems to have been earlier. “The Lightning” still keeps the basic framework of the iambic line, of a set rhyme-scheme, and of standard syntax. Transitions are rapid and connections implicit in the movement of the poem, but they are perfectly intelligible. However, a new energy is pushing through the structure of the verse, and although the movement back and forth from personal circumstance to reviews of current events and the moral order is no different from what Berryman had always been doing, here neither the personal circumstance nor the public events are embedded in formal address. The poem is not too long to quote entire, and since, I believe, it is a key poem in the history of contemporary verse, it may be worth the trouble to read it through. Perhaps there are readers who have struggled with the enchantments of Dream Songs without having had the chance to see, in this poem, a kind of introduction to the method, language, and even to the weirdly and frantically abrupt despairs and joys of those marvelous poems.

Sick with the lightning lay my sister- in-law,
Concealing it from her children, when I came.
What I could, did, helpless with what I saw.

Analysands all, and the rest ought to be,
The friends my innocence cherished, and you and I,
Darling,—the friends I qualm and cherish and see.

…The fattest nation!—we do not thrive fat
But facile in the scale with all we rise
And shift a breakfast, and there is shame in that.

And labour sweats with vice at the top, and two
Bullies are bristling. What he thought who thinks?
It is difficult to say what one will do.

Obstinate, gleams from the black world the gay and fair,
My love loves chocolate, she loves also me,
And the lightning dances, but I can- not despair.

First, the language. Not only sister-in-law—to get that into a poem, even in the twentieth century, is no small achievement; and no small risk, either, for once you have said sister-in-law you may slip into the world of the funny papers, if you can, but you had better not slip into the world of poetic diction. Then, the poet is also chancing the eternally legal but ever risky game of switching the so-called parts of speech; The friends I qualm…and violently, he yokes mundane facts to extravagant morals, as in the third stanza. But above all, two things. Perhaps out of Hopkins, perhaps out of early Auden or Empson, or maybe out of left field, but anyway possessing instantly authority and originality, comes the telegraphic style. What he thought who thinks…. And with that, because this condensation requires that we punctuate heavily with the stresses and pauses of our own voices to make this collocation intelligible, comes the pressure that smashes and yet keeps the pieces of the iambic pentameter line. What I could, did, helpless with what I saw. Two stresses together are common enough. But three? Auden said it was impossible. (Some would say the pauses complete the iambic foot.) Yet here they are together, and the strange collision revives again on the printed page our speech and our song.

This style, as I have said, seems to be the beginning of that loony voice of the Dream Songs, a voice part baby-talk, part jazz, part minstrel show, part tags of English verse, part American vernacular. The voice is cramped into song, it makes fun of the age-old poet’s privilege of inverting word-order to fit the forms of song and rhyme; it leaves out connections. The voice is oracular, and often the reader can’t tell what the song is about. The motto of His Thought Made Pockets is a stanza of one of the Dream Songs, something about Henry’s frequent crazy feeling of responsibility, his proud fear that everything is his fault.

Henry sats in de plane & was gay.
Careful Henry nothing said aloud
but where a virgin out of cloud
to her Mountain dropt in light
his thought made pockets & the plane buckt.
“Parm me, Lady.” “Orright.”

THE PUBLICATION of Short Poems is an opportunity for readers to catch up with poems by Berryman not readily available before, which everyone who still reads verse should want to have around: “Venice, 182-,” “They Have,” “American Lights, Seen from off Abroad,” “Note to Wang Wei,” and others: poems which I believe will stand with the few poems of our time that seem to condense in our best language our deepest feelings. In a few years, these poems will seem less arbitrary and eccentric than they do now, but I believe their force will remain. In them Berryman has caught phrases that are not exactly the phrases we speak now, but they sound like them; he has caught these phrases in a form that modifies the traditional forms of English verse and yet preserves the function of these forms in making the phrases call attention to their own sounds in a way that makes them true mimicry, true imitation; and the subjects and feelings of the poems, distracted and fractured as they now appear to us, will one day be seen as representative of the way things were.

Some of Berryman’s later poems are difficult because the particular circumstances presented in them, whether circumstances of place, action, or speech, are not generalized by the poet. If the reader wants a generalization beyond the experience itself, then he must make it for himself. The circumstances, however, are extraordinarily vivid. Look back for a moment at the fragment above. Henry sats in de plane & was gay. I have made the generalization, vaguely enough, that this is about Henry’s solipsistic delusion of omnipotence, which frightens him. But look at the exact items of this experience. From the mock dialect of that first line to the comically exact notation of dialect of the last line—comic because it is so exact—the language is abrupt and clear, even though it is dealing with the mysterious hallucination or cloud effect or perhaps the visitation of the “Virgin out of cloud.” Henry’s illusion is stated as simply as possible. The simplicity of the statement contains and presents to the reader the complications of the poet’s feelings about the experience: Henry is simple, rather childlike here, nevertheless the experience is one that can be clearly presented: there is a place, a time, an event, and human voices. Proceeding from these exact things, the reader may, if he wishes, consult his own experience for analogues that will let him share, or if he prefers, simply, estimate the experience. Especially in the last line, and again implicitly, appears the final reason for the whole thing: there is a pleasure in the precise observation and notation of experience.

IN CONTRAST to what I have said about Berryman’s poems, very rarely in Creeley’s appear a place, a time, an event, or—and about this there should be a quarrel from his school of poets—a human voice. This is strange in a poet who so often invokes William Carlos Williams, whose motto was, “No ideas but in things.” Creeley’s motto might be, “No things, thus no ideas.” Such things as are present in these poems are usually generic: “the seasons, the sun’s light, the moon, the oceans, the growing of things….” Creeley is particularly fond of the gerund, as in “the growing of things,” a way of generalizing action so that what takes place has no particular time. He likes to compound tenses, so that time is confused or denied. “She moves, she had moved…The bodies fall, have fallen…. Then the place is/ was not ever enough…. Then it all goes, saying, here they were, and are….” He likes confusions of identity. “There is nothing I am, nothing not…. This and that, that one, this and that…Who am I….” “If all women are mothers, what are men…. I wanted the man you took me to be…Again, let each be this or that, they, together…. The man who says hello to me is another man, another comes then…. You there, me here or is it me there, you here—there or there, or hereand here.”

It should be clear what the technique of the poems is. In the word of the oldest member of this school of poets, Charles Olson—but not as he seems to have meant the word—this is “projective” verse. The words are so general, the situation so vague, the personages so ectoplasmic, the action, if any, so small and obscure, that the reader is invited to fill this vacuum by himself in “projection.” The reader projects into these nearly empty forms not some memory of a feeling like that presented in the poet’s specific occasion, as in Berryman’s poems, but whatever he wants to put there. This is quite different from what I called earlier a search for analogues.

It would appear that many people enjoy doing this. Perhaps at its most intense it gives them a vague and pleasant feeling of being one with the universe, Freud’s “Oceanic” feeling, derived from unconscious desires to return to the protected environment of the womb, where, of course, one truly was united with the surrounding elements. A stanza of Creeley’s invokes this vision with suitable generality. It is the last stanza of a poem called “Rhythm,” about the eternal cycle of life and death.

The rhythm which projects
from itself continuity
bending all to its force
from window to door,
from ceiling to floor,
light at the opening,
dark at the closing.

This is an example of one of Empson’s sub-types of ambiguity, a passage that sounds expository and explanatory but which owing to the extreme vagueness of the subject and the resolute inscrutability of the verbs, remains impossible to follow. Empson’s example was the famous passage from “Tintern Abbey,” where Wordsworth tells us of the “presence,” the “something,” “a motion and a spirit,” that is “far more deeply interfused,” “dwells everywhere,” that “impels” all things and “rolls through” all things. Creeley’s “rhythm” only “projects” and “bends,” but it is the same kind of thing. It invites readers of like mind to join in this experience if they care to. And why should they not? We each of us have different requirements, require different verbal constructions, different strategies of definition and thought and connection of thought, before we are able to be convinced. Those who have what might be called high thresholds have no occasion to be indignant because others can satisfy themselves more readily. Particularly there is no cause for disparagement when those who are finding quiet enjoyment in filling these voids also know what they are doing. Creeley has a poem about this. It is called “Joy.”

I could look at
an empty hole for hours
thinking it will
get something in it,

will collect
things. There is
an infinite emptiness
placed there.

I quote it all, not only because it might be a motto for him, but because it gives an example of something I have not commented on, the arrangement of his words into lines. You will have seen that this arrangement has nothing to do with ordinary meter—syllables, stresses, and all that—nor does it have to do, directly, with the structural phrases of English. Briefly, I would guess that its intention and its accomplishment are consonant with the other qualities of the verse, in this way. Take the clause thinking it will get something in it. We can suppose that when the line ends thus, thinking it will—we pause. (I have not heard Creeley himself read this poem.) In ordinary matter-of-fact speech we would not pause there; we might even slide subject and compound verb rapidly together: it’ll get something. When we pause between the two parts of the verb, we create an expectation that what follows will be of some unusual importance, whether we are deliberately withholding for suspense, or just trying to think of what to say next. There is, of course, no way to guess, in verse like this, as there would be in old-fashioned meters, whether we should say, Thinking it will…GET something in it, or should say, Thinking it will…get SOMEthing in it. It makes a difference, but probably not very much.

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.

  • Email
  • Print