D. J. Enright is an English poet of unusual accomplishment who has spent a good many years of his life teaching at universities in Japan and the East. Because of some unaccountable and greatly-to-be-regretted oversight, his books have never been published in this country. It may simply be that behind the firmly controlled uninsistence of his lines American ears, grown accustomed to the clamant verse of poets like Robert Sward, who is discussed below, have not yet recognized the concentration of Enright’s verse, its nerve, its distilled lack of irrelevancy. He has described the tone his poetry aspires to very well in “Elegy in a Country Suburb”:
To strike that special tone,
Wholly truthful, intimate
And utterly unsparing,
A man communing with himself,
It seems you need to be alone,
The key phrase here for Enright’s poetry is “utterly unsparing.” But Mr. Enright’s latest volume, The Old Adam, from which these lines are taken, probably gives a reader first approaching him a less adequate idea of his poetry than earlier books. Here is a representative poem from Bread Rather than Blossoms, 1956:
A shabby old man is mixing wa- ter with clay.
If that shabby old man had given up hope
(He is probably tired he has worked all day)
The flimsy house would never have been built.
If the flimsy house had never been built,
Six people would shiver in the au- tumn breath.
If thousands of old men were sorry as you,
Millions of people would cough themselves to death.
(In the town the pin-ball parlours sing like cicadas)
Do not take refuge in some far-off foreign allusion
(In the country the cicadas ring like pin-ball parlours)
Simply remark the clay, the wa- ter, the straw, and a useful per- son.
Decorum is an indispensable quality in good poetry, which we discuss rarely, perhaps because in a levelled society princes prefer to talk like clowns. But in this poem called “Broken Fingernails” Enright has achieved a perfect decorum in discovering a speech of exactly the right elevation for the occasion. The dry, matter-of-fact rhythm, the slightly weary repetitions suggesting dogged persistence of purpose, the identification of cicadas and pin-ball machines which effectively demolishes human illusion, transform the last line, unarresting in itself, into a highly charged and dramatic ascent through clay, water, and straw to apotheosis in “a useful person.” Although the poem is composed entirely of commonplace words, by introducing the rather pedantic verb “remark” in the last line Enright achieves exactly the right altitude at which to define the experience of the poem and his attitude towards it. The “shabby old man” rises to a formal dignity he would never have attained had Enright chosen to say: consider, regard, observe, look at, or some equivalent. “Simply remark” is the indispensable leavening without which the moral statement he wishes to make would have remained unrealized and blurred. This kind of precise instinct for words is inseparable from moral knowledge, and the two together are essential to decorum, which is nothing less than a rapprochement between literary form and moral meaning. In Enright’s poetry this marriage is celebrated in one of the most unassertively personal rhythms possessed by any contemporary poet.
DECORUM is the quality most conspicuously absent from Robert Sward’s latest volume, Thousand-Year-Old Fiancée & Other Poems. Mr. Sward is less concerned with man’s essential dignity than intrigued by his own ability to love the most abject specimens. According to the publisher’s blurb, John Malcolm Brinnin called Sward’s first volume (which I have not seen) “fierce,” and it must be confessed that the soft center at the heart of the present poems, their irreducible core of sentimentality, is usually encased in a hard shell of obscenity, or in a tough verbal cynicism. But these qualities turn out to be whimsy in the end.
The title poem is the shock-piece where most of the “fierceness” in this volume is concentrated. The poet has a sexual encounter with Death’s thousand-year-old fiancée, and the poem ends with this line: “Death, there is nothing I will not love.” In “Song of Myself” Whitman made a similar affirmation that carried total conviction because his poetry had earned him the right to say it. But here in their rather tedious unpalatability are the lines from Mr. Sward’s poem on which his conclusion depends:
We do not embrace,
She is in her middle sixties, with varicose veins,
Whitish hair and buttocks as large as Russia.
Things come off her in waves, merriment,
Exuberance, benevolent body lice,
Hundred-year-old blackheads. I kiss her hives.
I lick her nose that shows she drinks bottles
And bottles of Fleischmann’s every day.
I am standing there in my Jewish hair
Facing her with my life….
Yeah. After a while I go under and kiss
Her ass. It takes a bit. Fathers and sons,
I am up to my knees in the moon.
Kiss this ghost, she says of a cer- tain light.
I plunge my tongue into it to the ears. Madam,
I say, astounded, choking, feverish,
I have not as yet had you. Have me, she says.
Under my foreskin there is a star, whole
Constellations. Goddamnit, I am not
Speaking to you here of sex!
These lines are not shocking for the reasons the poet obviously thinks, but because they are tasteless, self-indulgent, and totally irrelevant to the conclusion, which when considered in relation to the rest of the poem becomes irresponsible and sentimental. The sentimental nature of Mr. Sward’s well-meaning compulsion to love everybody becomes more obvious when stripped of its macabre trappings, as in this poem:
Bad people glow too. People who smell
Bad, and people who write bad poems….
Guitar players, when they are not playing the guitar,
Are surprisingly bad people.
But they glow too.
Sometimes in the eyes, or hands
Or all over….
They all glow, sometimes.
And sometimes I have shot some of them.
But never not let them glow.
A second poem, presumably a sequel, begins:
Another thing that glows is dogs.
As one might guess, so warm a sensibility is not suited to satire, and Mr. Sward’s several satiric efforts, if sometimes amusing as in “The Republican National Convention,” lose their point in unravelled rhythms that appear to have been plagiarized from the casual encounters of a promiscuous tape recorder. Here are some representative lines from “American Heritage”:
…there is Barbara Frietchie.
Hi, Barbara. Barbara’s pregnant.
She is soon to be the mother
Of Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
And Carl Sandburg.
In Enright’s poetry commonplace language is persuaded through subtle technical control to render up uncommonplace effects. Although Mr. Sward’s vocabulary is just as insistent on the ordinary and commonplace, the total absence of decorum in his verse makes any transformation of the commonplace extremely unlikely. The passage just quoted is from a poem that aims to debunk the kind of bogus American values represented by the Civil War Centenary—in itself a highly moral purpose. But the language is so amorphous, so free from any implicit reference to securely grasped values of its own, that it can provide no reliable verbal launching pad for its satiric thrusts. Barbara Frietchie, Abraham Lincoln, and Carl Sandburg are indifferently absorbed in an attitude of wise-cracking that is never able to sharpen into the moral focus Mr. Sward desires.
LOUIS SIMPSON is one of the best critics of poetry writing in this country at present, but although he won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for 1964 (Mr. Simpson himself once delivered a diatribe against the committee for awarding it to Phyllis McGinley in 1961), his Selected Poems leaves one with strong reservations. As a poet Mr. Simpson has all the qualities Mr. Sward lacks—taste and discretion, technical control, literary intelligence. But his poems appear to me to be a monument to his critical judgment and literary training rather than the living expression of any inner impulse. He has a good eye for a subject but is possessed by none. The movement of his poems is polished and controlled and yet they rarely give one the sense of inherent or inevitable rhythm. His imagery is often literary in inspiration, which is not in its disfavor, but it can sometimes be curiously old-fashioned:
Here were the walls, the gates where death had set
His warnings—in a city carved in stone
The citizens were busy; farmers whet
Their scythes in meadows never to be mown.
The kings and judges sat in their high places,
Then, at the sound of a loud trumpet blown,
They crowded, with pale terror on their faces,
From Death ascending to his dread- ful throne.
One need not go all the way back to Freneau’s “The House of Night” or Poe’s “The City in the Sea” to find antecedents. This kind of thing thrived among the late Victorians. But this is unfair, for Mr. Simpson’s most characteristic idiom is restrained contemporary, frequently by way of Whitman, as in “American Poetry”:
Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.
Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
This is a good poem. The Whitman inflection strongly present in the first three lines is personally assimilated in the last three—and the last line is the best, which is fine. Perhaps it is wrong to expect more of so slight an effort. But we have been here so many times before that only Mr. Simpson’s intelligence and skill prevent the poem from dropping into banality, and this situation seems to me to recur more often through the volume than a poet can afford. As a poet Mr. Simpson possesses so much talent and tact that it only serves to emphasize there is some ultimate secret he doesn’t know. He himself has put it beautifully:
There is the day of the Negroes with red hair
and the day of the insane woman on the subway;
there is the day of the word Trieste
and the night of the blind man with the electric guitar.
But I have no profession. Like a spy
I read the papers—Situations Wanted.
Surely there is a secret
which, if I knew, would change everything.
ROLFE HUMPHRIES’S excellence as a translator of Roman classics may have somewhat overshadowed his reputation as a poet, but on the showing of his Collected Poems he is clearly an important writer. The trouble is—and I suspect this may be why Humphries has not been more “taken up”—there is often a slightly old-fashioned lyrical quality to his verse. A representative poem like “A Landscape, and a Lady” is a case in point, presenting us with a blend of the modern and the Victorian. This is the kind of poem Wallace Stevens liked to write, and did, only he would probably have called it “Landscape of the Mind,” and used more eccentric imagery. According to the moods of the Lady’s mind, the various seasons are alternately projected outward on the orchard in which she stands:
The scene would change before the watcher knew:
Was this another garden, or the same?
Gorgeous with scarlet, yellow, roy- al-blue,
Where ruby-throated humming-birds took aim
At the red bee-balm; where the goldfinch came
To the golden-glow; or the rare tanager
Burnt like an ember of the pop- pies’ flame;
Where purple aster rhymed with lilac’s lavender.
Yet there was winter visible in the east:
Across brown fields the tattered leaves were blowing,
And some one on a gray and jaded beast,
Cowboy or knight, there was no way of knowing
In the bewildering dusk, with day- light going,
Stumbled downhill across the hum- mocked grass,
An image seen through snow be- hind a glass,
And even within the picture it was thickly snowing.
Like Stevens indeed; but also very like William Morris:
Folk say, a wizard to a northern king
At Christmas-tide such wondrous things did show,
That through one window men be- held the spring,
And through another saw the sum- mer glow,
And through a third the fruited vines a-row,
While still, unheard, but in its wont- ed way,
Piped the drear wind of that De- cember day.
But Humphries’s late Romantic imagery is usually qualified from lushness by the clarity and precision with which he outlines action, episode and motive. “The King of the Grove,” based on the opening pages of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, is a genuinely distinguished poem, and it perfectly exemplifies these qualities. Mr. Humphries’s poems are always musical, and at times tend towards a somewhat Yeatsian rhetorical elevation.
Silent, the proud and luckless lord of Hell,
Dark monarch of the dark domain below,
Listened to Orpheus’ song and heard his plea,
And wept, for once not quite im- placable,
Yet being an ironic god and wise,
Knew what a lord of hell was bound to know,
That out of loss alone the great songs rise
And knew that this musician, be- ing free
To make the ultimate choice, would turn his eyes,
Would execute the sentence, none but he,
Loosed from the one, bound to the other spell,
So Pluto gravely called Eurydice,
Gave his false terms and watched them leaving Hell.
FOR MORE than thirty years Richard Eberhart has rightly occupied an important and honorable place among American poets; nevertheless there is something oddly inconclusive about his achievement and reputation, and the new edition of his Selected Poems that New Directions has brought out confirms rather than resolves this inconclusiveness. His shorter lyrics are usually appealing, especially the earlier ones, but they often have the air of preening themselves for inclusion in some standard anthology rather than being intent on expressing a personality in poetry:
Go to the shine that’s on a tree
When dawn has laved with liquid light
With luminous light the lighted tree
And take that glory without fright.
Go to the song that’s in a bird
When he has seen the glistening tree,
That glorious tree the bird has heard
Give praise for its felicity.
Then go to the earth and touch it keen,
Be tree and bird, be wide aware
Be wild aware of light unseen,
And unheard song along the air.
This is very pretty, but deep down it’s much nearer to a poem like James Thomson’s “Give a man a horse he can ride” than one might think. Eberhart’s opening lines are nearly always arresting, but they too often disconcertingly suggest the self-conscious poet with poised baton on the brink of stunning music:
When golden flies upon my carcass come….
Where are those high and haunting skies….
If I could live at the pitch that is near madness….
Caught upon a thousand thorns, I sing….
One may even have a certain fondness (as I do) for this kind of thing, but poems that begin with such color and swoop usually have only short, conventional flights before fluttering down. In his earlier career Eberhart emulated Blake:
I with joyful vision see,
I cannot his purpose acquire.
For if the Critic were truly free
He would love, and not be a liar.
But as a writer of short lyrics Eberhart was in those days much farther removed from Blake than he was from Leonora Speyer or Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Mr. Eberhart’s deepest bias is to a rhetorical mode of utterance. His rhetoric is not the cadenced solemnity Mr. Humphries occasionally employs: it is more portentous and public in manner. Undoubtedly Mr. Eberhart’s best poem (and it is a very fine one) is the well-known “The Groundhog.” Beginning with the discovery of the rotting carcass of a little groundhog in a summer field the poem moves into a beautifully rendered imaginative experience of death in relation to life. Returning to the same field three years later, Mr. Eberhart, finding no traces at all of the groundhog left,
thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of St. Theresa in her wild lament
Something about these lines makes it difficult to believe Mr. Eberhart really did. In any case, the groundhog that had been responsible for so fine an opening deserved to end with something better than this declamatory peroration in the forum.
If Mr. Eberhart has a single subject that has consistently inspired his better poems it is death, and a stoic acceptance of it, and it is no mark against him if occasionally he strikes (in modern idiom of course) the note of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” as he does for example in “Off Pemaquid.” But he is not always free from the worst vice of the rhetorical mode, which is to mistake moral platitudes for moral revelation, as he does in the concluding lines of an unsatisfactory later poem called “Flux”:
Life is stranger than any of us expected.
There is a somber, imponderable fate.
Enigma rules, and the heart has no certainty.
TURN NOW to two poets who are at the opposite poles of contemporary poetry in America. Frank O’Hara’s Love Poems (Tentative Title) and Daryl Hine’s The Wooden Horse would be irreconcilable opponents in any literary lists. If I prefer the colors of The Wooden Horse I am not unaware that Kenneth Koch in Partisan Review once called Mr. O’Hara “the best writer about New York alive.” In certain respects this may be so, but it is poetry I would prefer to read as an antiquarian two hundred years from now. Still, his long invertebrate verse lines can be amiable and gay, like streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan:
HAVING A COKE WITH YOU
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irun. Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Traversera de Gracia in Barce- lona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
Mr. Hine is the youngest of the poets reviewed here. I make the point deliberately because the poems one most admires in this volume are often the poems imprisoned within the poems, still struggling to get out of their armorial cocoons of meter and syntax. That one is so aware of the life and intelligence confined in their intricate shells is an indication of the vitality, color, and flight one has a right to expect when the walls are finally broken, as they have been already on several fine occasions in the present book. Mr. Hine perhaps appears at his worst in the first poem, “Psyche,” particularly in the second verse where the sentence structure coils and throws its folds like one of Laocoön’s serpents. But the third poem, “Bluebeard’s Wife,” is an astonishing success: astonishing because one would have thought that any poem whose manner so obviously stems from “The Eve of St. Agnes” would either be demolished by the comparison or consign itself to the nether world of Victorian imitations. But this poem is Keatsian as “Hyperion” is Miltonic:
Now she attained the room of arti- fice.
Not a thing that grew there but was made:
Venetian glass that counterfeited ice
So close it seemed to melt, and green brocade,
The wind’s most subtle movements in a glade.
Nothing was modern, everything was old,
And yet it was not true that they should fade
Though time and fashion dim the emerald.
Each was at once an image and a deathless mould.
Dazzled, she shut the door, but through the next
Saw greater good than any she had seen:
A window open on the sacred text
Of natural things, whose num- ber had not been
Created or conceived, nor did they mean
Other than what they were, splen- did and strange.
One leaf is like another, and between
Them all the worlds of difference range;
The world is not destroyed, and does not cease to change.
A GOOD DEAL of Carolyn Kizer’s poetry seems to match the Whistlerian photograph of her on the back of the dust jacket in a Japanese kimono against a wall decorated with painted birds. Like most verse in English sensitively written under Japanese influence, it is cool and self-contained, literally a world of morning colors, soft rain sounds, and delicate relations. But the delicacy is supported in this volume by a play of ironic intelligence which, once the Eastern accent is dropped, can be withering. The jacket blurb is excessive in comparing Carolyn Kizer’s satires with Juvenal’s, but in lines like these which open a barrage on female poets, she is clearly a custard pie-thrower of distinguished accuracy:
I will speak about women of let- ters, for I’m in the racket.
Our biggest successes to date? Old maids to a woman.
And our saddest conspicuous fail- ures? The married spinsters
On loan to the husbands they treated like surrogate fathers.
Think of that crew of self-pitiers, not-very-distant,
Who carried the torch for them- selves and got first-degree burns.
Or the sad sonneteers, toast-and- teasdales we loved at thirteen;
Middle-aged virgins seducing the puerile anthologists
Through lust-of-the-mind; barbitu- rate-drenched Camilles
With continuous periods, murmur- ing softly on sofas
When poetry wasn’t a craft but a sickly effluvium,
The air thick with incense, musk, and emotional blackmail.
The heart and triumph of the book, however, is a piece called “A Month in Summer.” Written in the form of a diary, it has a prose entry for each day of the month interpolated by four-line haiku, and it tells the story of the rise and fall of a brief love affair. It manages to compress within a very few pages alive with self-irony and submerged humor more than most good novelists can encompass in a volume. Paradoxically, it succeeds in imparting a sense of spaciousness and leisurely development in almost epigrammatic form.
March 31, 1966