Can Poetry Be Reviewed?

Moly and My Sad Captains

by Thom Gunn
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 91 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Writings to An Unfinished Accompaniment

by W.S. Merwin
Atheneum, 128 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Braving the Elements

by James Merrill
Atheneum, 73 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Wintering Out

by Seamus Heaney
Oxford, 80 pp., $4.00

The Crystal Lithium

by James Schuyler
Random House, 96 pp., $1.95 (paper)

They Feed They Lion

by Philip Levine
Atheneum, 76 pp., $3.95 (paper)

A Change of Hearts

by Kenneth Koch
Vintage, 277 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Poetry is nothing unless it is the breaking up of routine attitudes toward living. There is therefore something sad about reviewing it. For the assumption behind criticism is that routines of technique, vocabulary, tradition, moral attitudes can be extracted from past or from contemporary poetry and applied to the work under review. Yet that work—if it is worth reviewing—contains an element of that which is unique to the poet as a sensibility, uniquely situated in his own life, a historic and geographical space, unprecedented.

“Reviewing” is a rule-of-thumb application of one contemporary’s judgment within a code of rules, which are constantly being altered by new circumstances, to the poet’s immersion in those new circumstances. In this respect it is different from “criticism,” which deals with past literature, a kingdom where Arnold or Eliot or Leavis majestically applies laws which consist of making comparisons among precedents. It is notable that these very critics when they turn to their contemporaries are nearly always lost. They praise what is precedented and often fail to recognize genius. They are blind kings in the realm of the unprecedented.

A poet is someone who lives his experiences in words to an extent exceptional among his contemporaries. He also has thoughts about these experiences, and the thoughts from time to time become as it were mythological to him, assume shapes that are legendary. At such moments, like a tailor taking up a length of cloth and cutting off a measured piece of it, the poet takes up his pen, in lieu of scissors, and cuts off some yards of his experience which he may well make into a form. The form is a projection onto the material of his idea of what a poem should be. Formlessness (which is also the idea of some poets of what a poem should be and is therefore itself a kind of form) is the expression of a poet’s conviction that the “material,” the density and thickness of the cloth of the life experienced, is what matters and that he should communicate the roughness of the surface and texture, cutting off lengths which consist of the time that it takes for the experience actually to happen and handing them over to the reader, without making the rawness of actuality into a pattern.

Most of the poets under review are “traditionalists” in wanting to transform their experiences into forms derived from their experience of past poetry, from which they have formed their own idea of what poems should be. Thom Gunn, W. S. Merwin, James Merrill, and Seamus Heaney all have in common a certain respect for conventions, though the kind of imagist style and form adapted to his own purposes by W. S. Merwin does not go back earlier than the present century. James Schuyler appears to set up within the poem a kind of one-to-one correspondence between the imagery and language and the reality going on, as it were, behind it. It is as though the poem were a…

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