A character in one of Howard Nemerov’s new verse plays makes the observation: “Living in time has warmth and decency. It’s like a sheep-lined coat in a cold night.” Certainly Nemerov has done extraordinarily well in six books of verse, by devious ways and direct, in celebrating this warmth and decency. There are few living poets by whom one can more confidently expect to be amused, enlightened, and sometimes moved. A reactionary in the vital sense that Allen Tate used to advertise himself, he has been learned, witty, and domestic, caustic, funny, and humane, in about equal measure. Those fixed stars of our era—family, job, friends, Nature, ironic foresight, and elegiac aftersight—have a surprisingly durable, mutual life in his verse, keeping him solidly in the middle range but illustrating again how various it still can be.
Unlike Robert Lowell, for whom poetic wisdom is the latest poem written and for whom universality consists in a deepening Rimbaud-like candor, Nemerov from the beginning took the stance of the gentleman-scholar-poet for whom wisdom was to be the income from a carefully hoarded capital of attitudes about the proper way to behave. Autobiography, of course, but always from behind the same mask; projected, histrionic, as conventional by the time’s standards as Pope, and as high-minded as Dante. A rugged, literal, plain-speaking instinct for construction, for intellectual architecture of the functional sort, for the defense of homely ritual, and the decencies as liberally conceived in the hard working academic community—Bennington, Vermont, under the aspect of eternity—all this has balanced a plunging skepticism, a passion for minimal definitions of life, and the austere Hebraicism of the Book of Samuel from which he takes the Witch of Endor story for his wonderful verse play, Endor.
This play seems to me a complete success, as much so as poetic drama can still be. Nemerov has shrewdly assigned speaking roles to the two companions Saul is said to have taken with him on his visit to the kindly, culinary Witch; a “Commander” to represent the military, and a “Minister” to handle the Stendhalian ironies of power. This minister is the Conte Mosca in the courts of Israel, whose presence is an opportunity for ringing all kinds of changes on the “Biblical theme without departing by so much as a comma from the tone, substance, and grandeur of the text. What results is elegantly firm and pointed, as true to the Muse as to the spirit of Biblical scholarship—a vigorous, mouth-and-mind-filling diction.
Another play, Cain, may suffer somewhat from the nebulousness of the material provided. Genesis seems to be peculiarly intractable; witness Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. If you are funny, like Nemerov in picturing Cain as a meek vegetarian who discovers Will in avenging himself on his stuffy, meat-eating brother Abel, then your transition to high pathos—when Adam and Eve are left alone and Adam passes from fatuity to lines like: “Old woman, girl, bride of the first sleep. In pleasure and in bitterness all ways/I love you till it come death or daylight.”—may require a leap of faith possible only to medieval audiences. Anyway, the question rises whether an Adam so obtuse about his unconventional son Cain could turn so quickly into a self-consciously devoted husband. this may be humanism gone slightly over-ripe. More likely Adam would have said, “O Hell, I’m tired,” and gone to sleep, like the dumb peasant patriarch the Biblical author obviously supposed him to be in his post-Edenic existence. Paraphrasing Genesis is about as easy as paraphrasing King Lear.
Adrienne Rich’s new book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law, moves in predictable ways to escape the epithet “enchanting” once hung on her by a sympathetic Randell Jarrell, who wrote that she “…lives nearer to perfection than ordinary poets do.” This book is unmistakably middle-aged, middle-period, in intention at least, spare and hard with experience, trying as hard as possible, against her taste for melodrama, to be ordinary. Modern poetry supplies a ready set of conventions for this change of key: the emotional or domestic crisis defined in a sort of imagistic shorthand that gives only a mood or state of mind away, not much of the crisis itself; the short, dour, columnar, unrhymed poem ending with a swat—“you are their king”; “Your glory was here.”; “That is your true element.”; “It is only a door.”—all last lines from this book. And a rather relentless mention of missed opportunities, friends lost or gone wrong, dryness, acedia, hopeless suffering, stiffening mental joints—“Today we stalk/in the raging desert of our thought/whose single drop of mercy is/each knows the other there.”
Because I liked a half-dozen poems in this book, it may be worth carping at Audenisms like the above, Empsonisms like “It is the grass that cuts the mower down/It is the cloud that swallows up the sky” or Lowellisms and Audenisms mixed, like “Baudelaire, I think of you! Nothing changes,/rude and self-absorbed the current/dashes past, asking nothing, poetry/extends its unsought amnesty,/autumn saws the great grove down.” Well, we all think of Baudelaire now and then, it’s a pardonable luxury, but Miss Rich is a fair distance in many of the poems from substantiating her luxuries of imagery and tone. They are elegant notes, suggesting wide reading and devotion to the best, most anguished models.
What more than saves the title poem, “A Marriage in the Sixties,” some of the “Readings of History.” “Antinuous: the Diaries,” “The Afterwake” or “The Loser,” is the pressure of having something to say beyond the need to write a certain kind of poem in a certain year at a certain age. Once a poet has slipped off her coming-out dress and donned the homely, melodramatic smock, we are as much on guard against an over-neat house as once we feared the party manners. But in her best poems here, Miss Rich puts us at ease with some graceful nuggets of truth. “Sometimes, unwittingly even, we have been truthful./In a random universe, what more/exact and starry consolation?” Her skill and taste are beyond question.
Long Live Man is too clouded an oracle to provide weighty conclusions about the New Poetry, which claims Gregory Corso as its own. As a matter of fact, he still enjoys writing an entirely graceful, old-fashioned style of verse. On Frost, for instance:
Old bard I like you more
now I know that you’re
no Saturday Evening Post philosopher
Nay but such who plagiarizes God
Whose pen is a rod
miracling all that is lovely old lovely
Where marble stood and fell
Into an eternal landscape
I stand ephemeral
Anchored to along season in a quick life
I am not wearied
nor feel the absence of former things
my relations to my country
the weak dreams their weaker success
the reactions to death
Apart from some mild peculiarities of punctuation, and the new verb, “to miracle,” these fragments might have been written by any of Mr. Corsco’s academic bêtes noires. Their presence in this fifth book of his verse may show how far he still must go to achieve the rich, strange diction he often aims at The raffish life seems to require a raffish hallucination, but the mind constantly snaps back to the crystal Elysium of plain cold-water sense. In this collection I liked best the long, uneven poem, “Greece,” the following passage from which shows considerable skill and jollity:
O isles! dry wartshells of Poseidon
Poseidon his thrice-pronged scepter is a barnacled bone
He no longer rides his frolicky sea-throne
He is flapping on the dry roof of the sun
Far-off Samos that solitary isle of Victory
broke accustomed water with holy flee!
Corso’s more ambitious ventures intodérèglement, like “Ode to Myself and Her” or “Beyond Delinquency,” have their flashes and felicities but don’t quite make it, as the poet would say. There are too many contending idioms, insufficiently fused. Others may find more than I do in their mere co-habitation.
Robert Creeley, who studied, taught, and edited at Black Mountain, brings us into the very penetralia of the New Poetry. But how different from Corso’s barbaric chirp is this dark, hypnotic, laconic, sometimes painful seriousness. It’s a peculiar seriousness to define. Easiness, a mild wit, a simple pleasure in living, even real gaiety (see his “Ballad of the Desparing Husband”) are within Creeley’s range, but for all his subtlety of rhythm and plainness of speech he is too much of a high priest for sustained light-mindedness. Creely is one of the deep ones; a poet of one subject that chose him rather than he it, that made him a poet, to which he gives himself wholeheartedly. His title is unusually accurate: this collection of 150 short poems is for Love—difficult, kaleidoscopic, life-creating, and renewing love, between men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters. The poem creates the woman:
Then sing, of her, of whom
it will be said, he
sang of her, it was the
song he made which made her
happy, so she lived.
and love creates the poet and the poem. It’s as simple as that, except in the way it galvanizes this poet. In his very different way he is another Coventry Patmore. The distinction of Creeley’s love poetry is its relative freedom from the mystagogical doodling that increasingly serves for ballast in poets of his “school.” After the lapse of revolutions, he seems to have found a subject with enough intrinsic difficulty and sensuous reality to set him apart.
Some of my favorites in this collection are: “The Crisis,” “Naughty Boy,” “The Business,” “The Way,” “Ballad of the Despairing Husband,” “The Door,” “The Rain,” “Song” (p. 128), “Song” (p. 132), “The First Time,” and “For Love.”
What impressed me most about these poems—which should be read in bulk to be enjoyed properly—is not so much their extreme economy and directness, impressive enough, as their concentration on one experience, and the extent to which, having taken love for granted as a reality, the poet is yielded the returns he wants. Nothing is exploited for its cuteness or oddity. Creely gives us a speech and style of living that, like most styles, is half instinct and half premeditation; the two work together uncommonly well.
February 1, 1963