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Can Poetry Be Reviewed?

Moly and My Sad Captains

by Thom Gunn
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 91 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Writings to An Unfinished Accompaniment

by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 128 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Braving the Elements

by James Merrill
Atheneum, 73 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Wintering Out

by Seamus Heaney
Oxford, 80 pp., $4.00

The Crystal Lithium

by James Schuyler
Random House, 96 pp., $1.95 (paper)

They Feed They Lion

by Philip Levine
Atheneum, 76 pp., $3.95 (paper)

A Change of Hearts

by Kenneth Koch
Vintage, 277 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Poetry is nothing unless it is the breaking up of routine attitudes toward living. There is therefore something sad about reviewing it. For the assumption behind criticism is that routines of technique, vocabulary, tradition, moral attitudes can be extracted from past or from contemporary poetry and applied to the work under review. Yet that work—if it is worth reviewing—contains an element of that which is unique to the poet as a sensibility, uniquely situated in his own life, a historic and geographical space, unprecedented.

Reviewing” is a rule-of-thumb application of one contemporary’s judgment within a code of rules, which are constantly being altered by new circumstances, to the poet’s immersion in those new circumstances. In this respect it is different from “criticism,” which deals with past literature, a kingdom where Arnold or Eliot or Leavis majestically applies laws which consist of making comparisons among precedents. It is notable that these very critics when they turn to their contemporaries are nearly always lost. They praise what is precedented and often fail to recognize genius. They are blind kings in the realm of the unprecedented.

A poet is someone who lives his experiences in words to an extent exceptional among his contemporaries. He also has thoughts about these experiences, and the thoughts from time to time become as it were mythological to him, assume shapes that are legendary. At such moments, like a tailor taking up a length of cloth and cutting off a measured piece of it, the poet takes up his pen, in lieu of scissors, and cuts off some yards of his experience which he may well make into a form. The form is a projection onto the material of his idea of what a poem should be. Formlessness (which is also the idea of some poets of what a poem should be and is therefore itself a kind of form) is the expression of a poet’s conviction that the “material,” the density and thickness of the cloth of the life experienced, is what matters and that he should communicate the roughness of the surface and texture, cutting off lengths which consist of the time that it takes for the experience actually to happen and handing them over to the reader, without making the rawness of actuality into a pattern.

Most of the poets under review are “traditionalists” in wanting to transform their experiences into forms derived from their experience of past poetry, from which they have formed their own idea of what poems should be. Thom Gunn, W. S. Merwin, James Merrill, and Seamus Heaney all have in common a certain respect for conventions, though the kind of imagist style and form adapted to his own purposes by W. S. Merwin does not go back earlier than the present century. James Schuyler appears to set up within the poem a kind of one-to-one correspondence between the imagery and language and the reality going on, as it were, behind it. It is as though the poem were a sensitized plate held up to a real landscape, transforming the objects actually there into poetry and creating form which is dictated by the rhythms of the sights and sounds actually present. Philip Levine is a “special case” whom I cannot fit into either conventional or unconventional categories. And Kenneth Koch’s book falls really outside the rest under review, since it consists of skits and parodies.

Confronted by this assortment of books reflecting different views about poetry and differing sets of values, one must ask what should be the role of the reviewer. My immediate answer to this question is that I do not think there should be poetry reviewers. We have the means to dispense with reviewing altogether: that is, we have the mass media. Ideally, contemporary poetry should be the subject of lively discussion and debate—spoken only and not printed. Two critics and two poets—let us say—should discuss on television the books under review. The several thousand people who are interested in contemporary poetry should listen to the discussion and then forget about it. The critical opinion which is today’s “reviewing” should consist of words that flow away on water. It is bitter to reflect that we have today the means to create the circumstances of debate and discussion that should surround contemporary literature—a kind of Mermaid’s Tavern on TV—and that there is absolutely no chance of the media being used in this civilizing way.

Poems should be printed. Opinions about them expressed in conversation. The fate of the reviewer is to be condemned to print views having little more force than involuntary prejudice. One can verify this by asking oneself how much published opinion about contemporaries has been worth while since the beginning of literary journalism. Very little on the whole. And every opinion that has been worth while has always the force of conversation. Moreover, that which was wrong or silly would not have mattered if it had been conversation. There was nothing wrong in calling Keats and Shelley the Cockney School of poets. This was a perfectly good conversational gibe. In print it is silly and damaging, and boomerangs down the ages on whoever made it.

Since we do not use the media available to us for the purpose of creating a civilization in which the creators create, the critics compare past examples, and the reviewers talk merely, reviewing becomes the only form of public discussion of contemporary poetry, and one has to undertake it, for poetry should be discussed. But for my own part I can only say that I have scarcely ever written a review of poetry which I did not later regret. The reason for the regret was that I was stating opinions which were inevitably one-sided. For example, it weighs on me that in a review in these columns of James Wright’s poems I attacked the Spanish influences in his poetry. It is true I had examples in mind which could illustrate my objections: but if instead of reviewing there were debate among colleagues, in such a discussion someone would have possibly countered my example of a ludicrous Hispanism by James Wright with a good one.

In considering the books under review I shall adopt the principle of trying to judge them according to two standards. One standard I shall call that of “uniqueness,” which I suppose might be called that of the poet’s “originality,” if that had not become a term of denigration. The other standard will be to try to compare the poet’s particular vision of life to a more general one; derived, I suppose, from my own experience, but of which it at least may be said that this includes a considerable body of other poetry.

The assumption I am making is that the poet has his private vision, and that the reviewer should pay heed to this. The most he can do tentatively by way of criticism is to consider this vision as comment on life, relate it here to the objective realities—in so far as he can judge these—and perhaps also to that wholeness of poetry which is the tradition. The distinction rather breaks down with the first poet I am attempting to deal with—Thom Gunn. For Gunn doesn’t exactly have a vision; he has a determination, which is a very different matter. What he believes in is the will in himself and, wherever he finds evidence of it, in heroes. The idea of the will is not, I repeat, a vision. It is like worshipping a stone.

Vision is vouchsafed, will is determined, and Thom Gunn’s poetry, itself intensely voulu, expresses and realizes the desire to find examples of heroism in the strangest places. What others might well think were examples of moral collapse he finds to be determination, concentration, precision, selfcreation. What distinguishes his poetry is the contradiction between its conventional form and its often Californian “with it” subject matter of Hell’s Angels, the psychedelic culture, “pot” and “acid,” etc. It is as though A. E. Housman were dealing with the subject matter of Howl, or Tennyson were on the side of the Lotus Eaters. This is poetry of the will written by the will to celebrate the will even in its perversity and negation. Thus in “Black Jackets,” “The red-haired boy who drove a van / In weekday overalls but, like his friends, / Wore cycle boots and jacket here,” in the bar where he drinks with his friends, recalls:

   If it was only loss he wore,
He wore it to assert, with fierce devotion, Complicity and nothing more.
He recollected his initiation,

And one especially of the rites.
For on his shoulders they had put tattoos: The group’s name on the left, The Knights,
And on the right the slogan Born to Lose.

The poet with whom Thom Gunn might be compared is Stefan George, who chiseled German into imitations of the external achievements of those who had willed their names and dates upon history. Thom Gunn sees Claus von Stauffenberg, a leader of the bomb plot of 1944 against Hitler, as a hero of the will:

A few still have the vigor to deny
Fear is a natural state; their mo- tives neither
Of doctrinaire, of turncoat, nor of spy.
Lucidity of thought draws them together.

As it appears in the poem, the only difference between Hitler and von Stauffenberg and his friends (apart from the negative ones of not being doctrinaires, turncoats, spies) was that Hitler’s eyes “filled / A nation with the illogic of their gaze,” as against “The rational man” (von S) who “is poised, to break, to build.” This is a dangerous argument since even if Hitler were illogical, a good many of his followers were not. Moreover I suspect that Mr. Gunn’s Black Jackets would see nothing defective in Hitler’s illogicality. Historically, of course, von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were drawn together by far more than “lucidity of thought”—which by itself would have been one kind of emptiness of sheer will power confronting another kind of emptiness of Hitlerian illogicality equally dependent on the will, and by no means always illogical. What was illogical about the “final solution”? Like Stefan George, Thom Gunn has a vision of ancient Rome, which he uses as a standard against which to measure the present. Thus von Stauffenberg:

The maimed young Colonel who can calculate
On two remaining fingers and a will,
Takes lessons from the past, to detonate
A bomb that Brutus rendered possible.

The connection seems strained because it parallels Hitler with Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar did not fill a nation with illogic. Brutus betrayed his friend. This may seem niggling, but my point is that in setting up the will as a standard by which behavior is judged this poet arrives at some strange justifications, including leather jackets, motorcycles, and “acid.” However, even if his attitudes seem dubious, Thom Gunn scores the glittering successes of his outward eye. His poetry is at its best—and most justifies the externality—when it is pure observation and draws no morals, as in “Words”:

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