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Living Ghosts

Lament for the Makers

by W.S. Merwin
Counterpoint, 89 pp., $19.00

The Vixen

by W.S. Merwin
Knopf, 70 pp., $21.00

Flight Among the Tombs

by Anthony Hecht
Knopf, 76 pp., $23.00

The Bounty

by Derek Walcott
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 78 pp., $18.00

What is the nature of the difference between poetry and—the poetical”? The two cannot be clearly separated and yet they do remain distinct:a distinction clearly apparent to a later generation, after the poets in question have themselves departed for the Elysian fields. What is poetical then begins to resemble a period piece. Could anyone have ever been physically thrilled and startled, stirred and electrified, by, for example, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads? And yet they were. Readers—young readers—knew them at once for the true thing—exciting, authentic, and subversive. Today they move the sympathetic reader in another way: as a poetical voice from the past.

The whole question remains ambiguous nonetheless. It is not just a matter of telling the good from the bad, or the deathless from the merely dated. Louis Untermeyer’s huge anthology, Modern American Poetry, which went through several editions in the Twenties and Thirties, is just such a period piece today; but to browse through its dense pages is thoroughly absorbing. Hosts of poets from not so very long ago seem to be pleading for our continued attention. It may be for the kind of attention which has led W.S. Merwin to compose a Lament for the Makers, heeding the supplication shrilly and yet forcefully made by Edna St. Vincent Millay, at a moment, and in a poetical style, which already seems long ago.

Stranger, pause and look; From the dust of ages
Lift this little book, Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die! Search the faded letters, finding Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

It may be significant that Merwin uses for his lament a meter as “poetical” as Edna St. Vincent Millay’s or indeed as Swinburne’s—supple and cunningly jointed, as if to celebrate not only a dead poet but the kind of monument in which poetry, too, must lie before it is resurrected, not so much in the spirit as in the hush of collected editions and the quietness of anthologies. Like Anthony Hecht and Derek Walcott, in their poems of the present time, Merwin’s seem elegiac in a radical sense, as if the “modern” in poetry—defined as the injunction to break bonds, to strive for the new and untested, to eschew the classical sensibility of one’s poetic forebears—was no longer worth bothering about; for look what has happened to those who assumed its importance in other days. Merwin is wonderfully sensitive at indicating how a reader in whom poetry lives, although he may not necessarily be able to write it, sees the poets as individuals and yet as part of his own being too, since they have “become their admirers” (as Auden put it in his elegy for Yeats) as well as being themselves in and by reason of their own poems. Merwin writes,

I found the portraits of their faces
first in the rows of oval spaces
in Oscar Williams’Treasury
so they were settled long before me

and they would always be the same
and in that distance of their fame
affixed in immortality
during their lifetimes while around me

all was woods seen from a train
no sooner glimpsed than gone again
but those immortals constantly
in some measure reassured me…

then word of the death of Stevens
brought a new knowledge of silence
the nothing no there finally
the sparrow saying Bethou me…

and not long from his death until
Edwin Muir had fallen still
that fine bell of the latter day
not well heard yet it seems to me…

Williams a little afterwards
Was carried off by the black rapids
that flowed through Paterson as he
said and their rushing sound is in me

That was the time that gathered Frost
into the dark where he was lost
to us but from too far to see
his voice keeps coming back to me

then the sudden news that Ted
Roethke had been found floating dead
in someone’s pool at night but he
still rises from his lines for me

I dreamed that Auden sat up in bed
But I could not catch what he said
by that time he was already
dead someone next morning told me

Merwin has caught some of the accents of the Scottish poet John Dunbar’s original medieval “Lament for the Makers,” and he has skillfully echoed and adapted the meter. Significantly a “maker,” the Anglo-Scottish word for poet, suggests the poetical craft, rather than that sudden surprise of new and shocking speech which poets and their readers for some years now have been accustomed to strive for and to expect. Sylvia Plath is indeed in Merwin’s pantheon, as is Ezra Pound, but Merwin, like Hecht and Walcott in their latest volumes, does not seem in the least concerned to Make It New; he wants to cherish what has been made and preserved by poets who have been “sustenance and company/and a light for years to me,” poets like the still-today-almost-unknown David Jones: “…from the sleep of Arthur he/wakes an echo that follows me.”

That echo sounds not only in Merwin’s “Lament,” and in the personal anthology he chooses to accompany it, but in the haunting poetic monotone of the poems in The Vixen, composed as if on one note and yet with a plangency beautifully fulfilled in the fluid variations of their meter. “Upland House” is a perfect example of what might be called the new piety in today’s poetry: a piety about the poetical itself, which seems to slip away into the past and live among poetical predecessors there.

The door was not even locked and all through the day
light came in between the boards as it had always done
through each of the lives there the one life of sunlight slipping
so slowly that it would have appeared to be
not moving if anyone had been there to notice
but they were all gone by then while it went on tracing the way
by heart over the cupped floorboards the foot of the dark bed
in the corner the end of the table covered
with its crocheted cloth once white and the dishes yet on it
candlestick bottles stain under one bulge in the black
ceiling the ranges of cobwebs roots of brambles
fingering the fireplace the line continued across them
in silence not taking anything with it as
it travelled through its own transparent element
I watched it move and everything I remembered
had happened in a country with a different language
and when I remembered that house I would not be the same

There is a strong affinity here with the poetry of James Merrill, particularly The Changing Light at Sandover, and with later poems of John Ashbery like Flow Chart. The contrast with the poets who in their own different ways Made It New is very striking, suggesting almost that poetry today no longer seeks to achieve an unprecedented effect, or to punch a hole in the cool web of give-and-take language. It is as if the brutal excitements of poetry’s experimentation have today been left as far behind as the violent political experiments of our century. Piety, gravity, and nostalgia seem naturally to link this poetry of today with the poets who slumber alive and unforgotten in the pages of the Untermeyer anthology.

The sense we may have in these three poets—Merwin, Hecht, and Walcott—of poetry’s return to the poetical, by whatever original and unfamiliar means, harmonizes easily with words from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” one of the poets whom Merwin celebrates in his Lament, and selects for the brief personal anthology he has included in his book. Hypersensitive to the language of the living, Eliot also understood, as did Ezra Pound, the need for a new poetry to speak at times in the language of the dead.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.

The present itself is always in this sense a kind of limbo, which the poet must fill as he may. The striking thing about our three poets is how accurately, and as if in unconscious unanimity, they seem to have found in their own differing ways a language which is neither new nor old, but which liberates ghosts whose function is to reveal, and even to emphasize, the nature of our present poetic limbo. As our own time, the time of today, may seem to us to be lacking in strong feelings, so the language of this poetry mirrors that impression, conjuring up the past in an attenuated, almost tired voice that quite consciously contrasts itself with the vitality of poetry in the preceding periods. The past may seem obscurely and paradoxically to be present in the bustle of immediate contingencies to which much of our art seems more alert than it is to anything else. But Merwin’s art, like Ashbery’s in Flow Chart, seems adept at catching a much cooler impression of this contingency.

Vixen,” one of the most impressive poems in the collection so named, strives to find in the creaturely world both an antidote to the miasma of modern technology and a sense that the past is kept alive in a wild animal’s presence. Viewers who wistfully watch wildlife on television, captured in the unreal perfection of modern photographic technology, may feel the same sort of nostalgia. D.H. Lawrence had it for his snakes and fish and tortoises; but Lawrence was much more sanguine about the absoluteness of his creatures, their unique independence. Merwin’s vixen seems more like a ghost among ghosts, prey to the camera and the media, without whose flourishing industry she could hardly continue to exist.

Comet of stillness princess of what is over
high note held without trembling without voice without sound
aura of complete darkness keeper of the kept secrets
of the destroyed stories the escaped dreams the sentences
never caught in words warden of where the river went
touch of its surface sibyl of the extinguished
window on to the hidden place and the other time…

…when I have seen you I have waked and slipped from the calendars

…as long as it lasted until something that we were
had ended when you are no longer anything
let me catch sight of you again going over the wall
and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
guttering on a screen let my words find their own
places in the silence after the animals

A master of formal language, Anthony Hecht has always seemed content never to try to sound as if he were not writing poetry. Auden was his most revered master; but whereas Auden, in the midst of all his ingenuities and parodical poetic skills, always managed to sound happily informal, Hecht’s verse has a built-in elegance of manner which is never dropped for a moment. He is as stylish as Don Juan, but also as much and as spontaneously of flesh and blood. Flight Among the Tombs is his most mordant and witty, his most humorous collection to date. Yet at the same time the reader feels that Hecht would be quite content to take his place, in the pages of the Untermeyer anthology, with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Coatsworth, or even Carl Sandburg (“…in the dust, in the cool tombs”). Stylish writers all, with John Crowe Ransom among the most stylish, they all seem indifferent to time and to fashion, easily embracing each other across the years. An excellent company, of the sort that appeals to all lovers of poetry, and that only fools and postmodernists would ignore.

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