A Summoning of Stones
The Hard Hours
Millions of Strange Shadows
The Venetian Vespers
Even while we are hoping that Elizabeth Bishop was wrong in evaluating ours as the “worst century so far,” and that future historians will look more gently upon the scrambling lives we lived under the gathering clouds of the third millennium, hers is a judgment that many of us—and perhaps most writers—share. How obvious it sounds, and how complex it makes our existence: we perceive ourselves as the inhabitants of a dark age. When future literary historians examine us (with the assistance, no doubt, of technological marvels that will make our own newly emergent computerized concordances and statistical studies look very primitive indeed), they may well choose to begin their analyses with this perception.
Of course no one can say which of our literary judgments these historians will eventually corroborate, and which will be deemed confused or shortsighted. But whether or not our age looks as dark to them as it does to us, surely they will regard as central to our literature this perception of gathering darkness. To read Thomas Hardy near the end of his life defending himself from the accusation that his most recent volume had been “gloomy and pessimistic” (quite the contrary, he insisted: “I had been, as I thought, rather too liberal in admitting flippant, not to say farcical pieces into the collection”) is instantly to perceive how much has changed in our literary climate since the first decades of the century. In recent years it is the poets of celebration, like Marianne Moore and Richard Wilbur, who may feel a need to defend their work against a charge of optimism or, worse, lightheartedness. In a century that has witnessed two global wars, and a steady, incremental amassing of weaponry that would seem designed to ensure that the next conflict finally “gets the job done” by expunging humankind from the planet, the poet almost inevitably defines himself against what, in a more religious time, might have been called the Forces of Darkness.
Not surprisingly, that process of definition is often provisional and complex. Responses run deep, and in many directions. Some poets will turn to polemical protest or to raw documentation. (Such poetry seems to surface less often now than in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the “antiwar poem” for a time fiercely flourished.) Others will simply turn tail and run. (A common enough occurrence these days, when the unnamed tragedy at the heart of so many volumes seems to be the frustration of teaching poetry-writing at an unappreciative university.) There will be poets who take a queer glee in their own impotence, the utter inability of any verse to influence the times, and there will be poets like Berryman who seem sometimes to regard the world’s evils as some subset and manifestation of their own egos, and in a struggle at once noble and quixotic and distressing will set out to subdue them. Even Marianne Moore, one of the sanest and calmest voices of the century, may have turned …