Three Poets

The Moving Target

by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 97 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Weather and Seasons

by Michael Hamburger
Atheneum, 51 pp., $3.95

A Peopled Landscape

by Charles Tomlinson
Oxford, 64 pp., $3.75

English critics have a taste, perhaps excessively developed in recent years, for concentrating on the local, the assignable qualities of any poet, what the poem can tell us about accent, physical pitch and range of voice, natural habitat and landscape, social class, political views, literary grouping, sexual tastes; the new volume of verse is seen as a small dossier. These three poets have all published a lot in England, but have never perhaps any of them had proper critical recognition there (apart from Mr. Tomlinson, in F. W. Bateson’s Essays in Criticism), partly because none of them can be pinned down in this way. Again, the fashion in contemporary England is for poetry, like Philip Larkin’s, which is highly and consciously literate, and at the same time deliberately unliterary, anti-rhetorical, anti-evocative, in Auden’s phrases, “sotto-voce” and “monochrome.” These are three “poetic” poets, European rather than insular, and at their best spirit-voices or ghost-voices—thin but penetrating and disturbing echo-voices—rather than grossly particular fleshy presences speaking to us. All three, also, like the great early romantics, write to be overheard rather than seek to get into an imitation of social relations with the reader. Hamburger is an Englishman of German-Jewish ancestry who escaped to England in his childhood from Hitler, and whose mind is still haunted; in the quiet provincial English university where he teaches, by the violence and insecurity of European history and the age-long tragic sufferings of the Jewish people. Merwin is an American who lived in England for many years, making a living mainly by doing brilliant translations, particularly from Spanish, for the BBC’s Third Programme. Tomlinson is unique among younger English poets in attempting to carry on the particular kind of cosmopolitan “traditionalism” that we associate with Eliot and Pound; he uses also, in this latest volume, Wallace Stevens and the twice-broken, three-member verse line of William Carlos Williams. He is preoccupied with the aesthetics of perception. Writing in America, it is easier to “hear” the voices of these three poets than when writing in England. But I still have to struggle with the contemporary English prejudice against a certain ominous vagueness and against ghostiness, against the poem that sounds like the soughing of the wind in trees.

The demand of the English literary scene (to put it another way) is that the poet should be a socially interesting and engaging person, quick on the uptake, not a bore: there is a distrust of slowness, hesitation, prolixity, and a forgetting of Laurence Binyon’s great aphorism, “Slowness is beauty.” The punishment for the demand is, often, a clever-silly yap-yap. There is not this in these three. Hamburger has a long poem, in ponderous, worried blank verse lines, about Eichmann, in which what seems at first like willed moralistle rhetoric ends as human puzzled fineness:

And yet and yet I would not have him die
Caged in his words their words—one deadly word
Setting the seal on unreality
Adding one number to the millions dead

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