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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”:

   The shadow of a pine-branch quivered
On a sunlit bank of pale unflower- ing weed. I watched, more solid by the pine,
The dark exactitude that light delivered, And, from obsession, or from greed, Labored to make it mine.

It is difficult to imagine this better done. As an English poet Thom Gunn seems to have brought to California a “corrective” much needed—though one wonders who is corrected by it.

The relation I am trying to make here between the poet’s private vision of experience and a more general view throws light, I think, on W. S. Merwin, who is very much a poet of a particular vision. His poetry derives from a way of looking at things which is essentially animistic. Animism projects onto objects separate from oneself the power of acting independently according to laws of their nature which are their attributes. Thus an animistic view of a pencil is that it contains within its wood and lead all the words or drawings which it is capable of unreeling from its existence, independently of any person who may happen to write or draw with it. This is W. S. Merwin’s view of a pencil:

Inside this pencil
crouch words that have never been written
never been spoken
never been taught
they’re hiding
they’re awake in there
dark in the dark
hearing us
but they won’t come out

The poem about the pencil is simplistic and I quote it only as an elementary model of the way a Merwin poem operates, in this case a bit mechanically. His animistic approach can be applied to nature, to objects (such as doors), and even to abstractions such as Habits:

Even in the middle of the night
they go on handing me around
but it’s dark and they drop more of me
and for longer

then they hang on to my memory
thinking it’s theirs

One wonders whether this isn’t a trick, itself a habit which has taken Merwin over, of seeing things reversed, the person who acts and looks as acted upon and looked at. A lot of Merwin’s poems are like variations on the theme of what Ruskin termed “the pathetic fallacy,” the projection upon nature of our human passions. The repetitiousness of this attitude makes them a bit monotonous: more, I think, than the form, which has little variation.

However when all this is said, these poems communicate a sense of someone watching and waiting, surrounding himself with silence, so that he can see minute particles, listen to infinitesimal sounds, with a passivity of attention, a refusal to disturb with his own observing consciousness the object observed. It is as though things write their own poems through Merwin. At their best they are poems of total attention and as such they protest against our world of total distraction. He gives the reader the feeling that the things we see in nature can be withdrawn from our eyes and restored to their integral separateness; and that, in doing this, rituals and sacraments which have been lost, and a sense of the sacredness of living, are restored. He gives things the invisibility of covering darkness and then watches light re-create them for us.

This is the poetry of the newness of every moment of creation. And though one may find the machinery of a reversed way of looking at things a bit tiresome at times, there are marvelous trouvailles. Merwin has the capacity to make us see things which we feel we are aware of at the edge of consciousness:

These are days
when the beetles hurry through dry grass
hiding pieces of light they have stolen

James Merrill, like Gunn and like Merwin, has his particular private world, but it is very different from theirs. The word that seems to describe it is enisled. He is a poet in a situation of leisure, travel, civilized friendships, airplanes, motor cars, Mexico, Greece. He can be unashamedly “camp” and he has fun and wit, but his brittleness is redeemed by his sympathy. His themes are often those of pathos, a rather unfashionable emotion today. But the subjects of his poems (which can be extremely obscure) are really only excuses for the very rich harvest of a purely poetic—imagistic, allusive, word-jocular—world.

Among much that is striking, there is one very extraordinary success in this book, “Days of 1935,” a fantasy remembered, perhaps from the poet’s childhood, of his having been kidnapped at a time when children of extremely wealthy Americans seemed as exposed to this danger as air travelers are today. The poem is a tour de force of the waking dream, carried forward with an irresistible technique, at once as impetuous and much more sophisticated than the ballad. In it the child imagines himself the captive of Floyd and Jean, the kidnappers, who take him to their home where he is exposed to their hot, violent life of the senses. They provide him with their stifling propinquity in which there is at all events a warmth lacking in his millionaire home. This is a fantasy, vicariously sexual, but not sentimental, of burrowed into rather than shared passion:

Sometimes as if I were not there
He put his lips against her neck.
Her head lolled sideways, just like Claire
Coe in “Tehuantepec.”

Then both would send me looks so heaped
With a lazy, scornful mirth,
This was growing up, I hoped,
The first flushed fruits of earth.

Other poems in the volume—notably “After the Fire” and “Days of 1971”—confirm the impression that Merrill has a gift for dramatic monologue of a Browningesque kind. However, comparing “After the Fire” with “Days of 1935,” I think in the former poem there is a shift of point of view which weakens the effect. The scenario of “After the Fire” is as follows: the narrator (presumably the poet) is visited by an old woman called Kleo the morning after a fire (luckily not serious) in his house (in Athens presumably). Kleo has brought him a cake. She cries. Is it from joy because the fire has caused so little damage? Perhaps. But also “her old mother has gone off the deep end.”

From their basement window the yiayia, nearly ninety,
Hurls invective at the passing scene.

She accuses her daughter of being a whore, her grandson, Kleo’s son, of being a

   Degenerate! a Thieving
Faggot! just as Kleo is a Whore!

Kleo explains that the grandmother with this “terrible gift of hindsight” is warm, feverish—the physical manifestation of her illness. Next day the narrator visits the family. The son, Panayioti, addresses him as follows:

Ah Monsieur Tzim, bon zour et bon retour!
Excuse mon déshabillé. Toute la nuit
Z’ai décoré l’église pour la fête
Et fait l’amour, le prêtre et moi,
Dans une alcove derrière la Sainte Imaze….”

At the end of the poem the yiayia comes in and shouts:

It’s Tzimi! He’s returned!
—And with that she returns to human form,
The snuffed-out candle-ends grow tall and shine,
Dead flames encircle us, which cannot harm,
The table’s spread, she croons, and I
Am kneeling pressed to her old burning frame.

It seems to me that the last lines of this poem strike a false note, where the pathos of “Days of 1935” does not. “Days of 1935” is pure fantasy, wish-dreaming. In “After the Fire” the reader suspects the poet of imposing upon a carefully drawn “real life” situation a sentimentality which lies partly in the portrayal of the members of the family (in spite of its close “documentation”) and partly of the feelings about “Tzim”—the narrator himself—which he describes as those of the family. I do not at all mean by this that the picture is false or that the family (if they really exist) do not love “Tzim.” I am considering the poem simply as a scene and situation described, as I would, say, a painting by Greuze. From the point of view of the reader who is, as it were, handed this feeling, and who has to judge it, it seems a defect that he is given no idea of what the relation between the Greek family and “Tzim” is. Does Kleo wash the dishes for him? The reader does not see the family from any point of view except the narrator’s own and only sees the narrator through the eyes of the family, which in turn is seen through “Tzim’s” eyes. To use Jamesian terminology, it is the “point of view” which seems sentimental, not the situation itself. It is as though the situation in The Wings of the Dove were seen entirely through the eyes of Milly Theale moved by her own feelings about the love which Merton Densher did indeed feel for her.

The beautiful “In Monument Valley” begins with a recollection of riding horseback in twilight during a lull in the war:

Stillnesses were swarming inward from the evening star
Or outward from the buoyant sorrel mare

Who moved as if not displeased by the weight upon her.

Marvelous. After two stanzas, the third stanza opens with two lines which indicate a lapse of time:

Yet here I sit among the crazy shapes things take.
Wasp-waisted to a fault by long abrasion,
The “Three Sisters” howl. “Hell’s Gate” yawns wide.
I’m eating something in the cool Hertz car

When the shadow falls. There has come to my door
As to death’s this creature stunted, cinder-eyed,
Tottering still half in trust, half in fear of man—
Dear god, a horse. I offer my apple-core

But she is past hunger, she lets it roll in the sand,
And I, I raise the window and drive on.
About the ancient bond between her kind and mine
Little more to speak of can be done.

Here the beauty as it were overgrows the pathos. But perhaps with James Merrill’s poetry the pathos is the nail upon which he hangs the poetry that is about itself, its own richness and baroque density. The emotions themselves are not very strong and tend to become overgrown by the shrubbery.

It is difficult to know what to say about Seamus Heaney except that he is very good, very Irish, very honest. His poems are, I suppose, autobiographical and are direct reports on experience. Nothing, on the level of the experience, seems invented. At the same time, he is intoxicated with language, so that the event, almost cinematićally described, is dense with the texture of the words:

O we tented our wound all right
under the homely sheet

and lay as if the cold flat of a blade
had winded us.

More and more I postulate
thick healings, like now

as you bend in the shower
water lives down the tilting stoups of your breasts.

Seamus Heaney has a richness of vocabulary which recalls Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which in turn recalls James Joyce. He is still at the Dubliners stage of his development. His poetry expresses deep personal feelings, and I suppose it will enlarge to a much wider subject matter, especially since he comes from Northern Ireland, and the Irish situation must be boiling in him.

James Schuyler writes what I have called cloth-of-life poetry. Life goes on in front of one’s eyes and has a very complex and rich texture. The senses receive it and transform it into poetry:

Rain falls on the trash burning in an old oil drum and does not put it out.
It smoulders.
It is not because of the widely spaced big drops that the fire smoulders.
Garbage in the trash makes the fire smoulder. Banana peels, the thin skin in egg shells, sots, etc.
A thick white stench moves off not much higher than the rim of the oil drum into the woods to the stones.
The woods reek.
The stench stinks.
The fire mumbles its food.
It is not a successful combustion.

One is right there, watching all this, and in its way it is extremely pleasurable. This poetry is close to a certain school of New York realist painting. Mr. Schuyler has lines which are like those paintings in seeming entirely representational and yet with a clear black-and-white beautiful purity like Chinese brush drawings:

   Coming from the
movies last night snow
had fallen in almost
still air and lay
on all, so all twigs
were emboldened to
make big disclosures.

The language, seeking to do nothing else but portray, works like brush strokes. The word “emboldened” opens itself out like a hole to prepare for the mysterious hollow space of “disclosures.” The emotions expressed are warm and loving:

   How
grand to begin a new
year with a new writer
you really love.

Philip Levine has, like Schuyler, an utter scrupulousness of observation. His poems are personal, love poems, poems of horror, poems about the experiencing of America, which instead of simply representing the objects and the “scene” concentrate on the physical body experiencing these things:

The first snow falls dusting the raw faces
of the oak stumps, the first snow thickens like paste
between the slender fingers of the raccoon.

He lies face down on a rumpled bed and feels
creation ticking in his heart, tick- ing in his bowels,
he feels the blood and its rushing into black stones.

Awareness of the outside world as a threat to the individual perceiving it is the subject of many of his poems. In “To a Fish Head Found on the Beach Near Malaga,” the poet is made aware by the dead fish head of his own loneliness and terrors, of his own head resembling the fish head:

Here, halfway
from home, I discover my head, its hideous
King Tongue going. My good hands explore it,
the hair thinning, the eyes scratched
and hot, that let the lids thump down,
and the poor muscles, unsleeping,
as burned as drawn ropes.

Then finally he discovers companionship in the death of the fish:

   Fish head and man head,
communing in their tongue, an iron yawn
out over the waves, the one poem born
of the eternal and always going back.

The object seen, in order to be seen, is dependent on the body that perceives it. Since, without that witness, there will neither be seer or thing seen, then the act of seeing is a reminder of death, a threat of murder almost. In some of these poems Philip Levine seems to see life and death interlocked—in fact more than that, as a perpetual collision of the killed with the killer. Some of his poems are about accidents, and they give a sense of this coitus of life with death as though the accident were a metaphor for living. Reading these poems one feels in the presence of a strange, alarming, and irrefutable way of seeing things. At the same time they contain observations which are pleasurable very much in the manner of James Schuyler’s poetry.

In A Change of Hearts, Kenneth Koch publishes his “short plays, films and other dramatic works,” mostly social and political satire, written in a style of carefully calculated guilelessness. They are oddly reminiscent of social satires like The Dance of Death written by Auden in the Thirties. Like the early Auden, Kenneth Koch can make exhilarating use of deliberately naïve rhymes:

How enthralling! How exciting!
And in the harbor, fish are biting.

The plays are written in a variety of styles, parodying other styles: Noh drama, morality plays, the Renaissance high style, the school chronicle play, and operatic libretti. There are some excellent, if sometimes a bit overdriven, jokes, such as an interminable conversation between two Buddhist monks about the Gold Standard. E. Kology, a skit, as the name indicates, on pollution and antipollution, etc., is brilliantly done. The Election, about Presidents Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon, is a bit disappointing to read—one would have thought the material would yield richer results—but is probably excellent to produce. To read, far and away the most brilliant piece is the title play, called a one-act opera, A Change of Hearts, about heart surgery, in which a college president’s heart is transplanted into the body of a rebel student leader, that of the rebel student leader into the college president’s body and so on. Kenneth Koch is enormously inventive and has the funniness which comes out of exuberant vitality.

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