These books are by poets that arrive recommended in various ways. April Bernard’s book won the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award for 1988; Edward Hirsch’s last book received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he has had grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation; Michael Hofmann’s’ Acrimony was the 1986 Poetry Book Society’s Choice in Britain and won the 1987 Geoffrey Faber prize; and Les Murray is widely praised as the best living Australian poet. Something in each of them has attracted notice beyond what most poets achieve; and if I feel some disappointment turning the pages—“Not what I want,” I think, “Not enough,” I think, “Why can’t he/she…?”—I also will remember some poems from each of these books.

It is borne in on me, reading these poems, how much more I want from poetry than many other readers apparently do. They seem pleased with a plangent story, or an infusion of indignation, or a cascading shower of words, or a moral neatly drawn, or a precise description of an object, or a confession, or a piece of colloquial language embalmed for the future, or a venture into ethnic nostalgia. They are responding to poetry as they might respond to any piece of writing: a war memoir, an autobiography, a sermon, an ethnic reminiscence, a recollection of a neighborhood. I could read these books this way, too, as pieces of writing. Do I now know about the Murphy bed Edward Hirsch’s grandmother had when he was a child? Have I had passed on to me through Les Murray some tall tales from the outback? Do I feel what it was like for Michael Hofmann to grow up the exiled son of an adulterous, self-absorbed father? Do I understand why April Bernard thinks biographies of writers are beside the point? Yes, yes, yes, and yes again: these are all good enough writers to make me imagine their pasts, sense their atmospheres, glimpse their stories, know their temperaments. Shouldn’t that be enough?

As soon as I say “no,” and ask myself why, the multiplicity of answers discourages me. It is rarely something present and accounted for that is the cause of my dissatisfaction; it is something absent. A reader of a book, at this point, is rather like the chef in the kitchen tasting the dishes for the dinner—this doesn’t have enough salt, this sauce is too thin, this has curdled, and who ever decided to put skinless chicken breast, cauliflower, and rice all on one white plate? With books one wants to say “not enough music,” or “not enough vivacity,” or “not enough variety,” or “not enough originality.” These remarks come down to the fit between content and form. However interesting, profound, moving, or enchanting their subjects, poets are after bigger game than the writing of memoirs or reminiscences. Poets are addicts of form, martyrs of the perfect fit. The fit is to something invisible, half in the past, half in their head. Whitman forgot nothing he had learned from Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and bel canto when he fitted his phrases to a hum in his head that was half Fourth of July oration, half love letter.

Each of the poets under review has attempted a personal style of this sort with greater or lesser success, and in what follows I’ll say something about the best and worst sides of each style. Such things can’t of course be proved; and the bristling jacket recommendations standing guard over the books come from people with authority. These are partly true; what they say of the book can often be said with propriety about some of the poems within the book, the best ones. If only such blurbs could escape the iron requirements of the genre, by which they must praise a book rather than its best pages, they could be heeded.

April Bernard’s style when it sins, sins by derivativeness. One listens to her but hears, for instance, John Ashbery:

Almost no one in them.
If it looks like it flies two continents it must be the right kind of thing.
It is encapsulating it for the sake of whatever sake.
I’m a lumper rather than a splitter.

And she should not, unless she wanted to induce a backlash of admiration for Dickinson, have published her Dickinson poems:

If there were just one Answer
to every Question posed,
If every thorn along the way
bloomedsuddeninto Rose

If blood be wet, and roses red,
and youmy Valentine
Then does my heart await in me
as rubiesthe Pickin mines?

Dickinson would have winced at the grammar and rhythm of the closing lines. In the twelve-page title poem of Bernard’s book, mercifully printed last, the echoes of The Waste Land are rawly unassimilated:


Now that you walk with fear beside you like a baby brother,…
Now that you drag your father’s ghost from the wickiup,…
Now you cry, and their hearts break no more.

. . .

Oh, you who say nothing and remember everything
You who have stood through fire and snow and taken this beating
Speak back, say something else
of these bad times to me.

The final two ellipses are, alas, Bernard’s own.

But there is more to April Bernard than these leftovers from the past. She is rather improbably described on her book jacket as “also a playwright, journalist and screenwriter… at work on a book about hurricanes and a novel.” She may end up outside poetry altogether; or she may find a way to carry on as a poet in her best vein, which is socially observant, often satiric, self-critical, and dashing. I reprint in full her poem “Gases” on successive unsatisfactory dates with various men: it despairs of encountering anyone who can be known and trusted, anyone who is not a threat or a trap:

The cough like oysters in the throat, the light from the lamp oyster-white
“My business is to discover what makes for the intellectual impulse
Dear God and all that time with me here thinking you were an ordinary guy

She had eaten lunch with the fourth unsung hero of our generation this week
An understandable fatigue was the result
When the water is brown the only civilized thing is to make tea

Since the biographer will be here any minute you’d better tidy up
Things said with the ring of truth rarely have it
Get all the best people and mistrust them.

The meaning of consecutive and sus- tained has made a sustained dis- appearance
Every office has a trapdoor slightly to one side of where you’re standing
The hand on the throat like a fever, like an airgun, like a fork

A shrewd glance at worldly invitations animates “Nevertheless”:

They are ready to build edifices around me.
Or, they are ready to take me into their arms.
Because I am an embraceable you.
This set of friends, that sort of music,
someone else’s grasp of the higher things.
If it gets dullthen,
replace me, you replaceable you.

“Nevertheless” is the last poem in a sequence called “Prayers and Sermons for the Stations of the Cross,” and corresponds to the rubric “He is laid in the tomb.” I find the connection useless in this instance, suggestive in some others; but for a sequence on the Stations, it’s hard to compete with Claudel, who did it so well as to discourage others. Here is Bernard’s “first fall,” a rape poem from the same sequence:

Learning to walk is learning to fall.
There’s a lot of cute songs about things like that.
Fox went out on a chilly night, just down to the corner
for cigarettes. Goose drove into his jaws
on teetering wheels, but I guess
that’s an old story.
The farmer’s daughter who didn’t come home
though they threw open the window to look
when fox grabbed grey goose via neck.
He didn’t mind the quack quack quack
and the legs all dangling, down-o.

American demotic—“just down to the corner for cigarettes” or “There’s a lot of cute songs about things like that”—is still making its way into lyric. Bernard is rather too enamored of it (she thinks she can make a lyric sequence out of a bank heist) but she has an ear for it, and should keep on making use of it. She has antennae for the censored, the dramatic, and the indicative detail, especially when she writes with female props:

The difficulties, in passion,
are not news: the knot at the throat,
the lipstick that smears, the skirt
which induced such provocative hobbling
yet will not rise above the thighs.

The language here, so far from her Eliotic languishings in “Blackbird Bye Bye,” is brisk, artfully paced, and wry. The piece I have just been quoting is from an ars poetica entitled “Come As You Are” that tries to find a language about dressing that will be appropriate for “The Way We Live Now” (the Trollopian title of the two-part poem of which “Come As You Are” is the first part). Bernard’s witty pieces of advice to herself on how to write show she knows what does not work (“the aria will not soar/if the diva is sitting down”; “we do not advocate nudity, exactly”). More promisingly, she dismisses her own dangerous affection for the role of the hard-boiled movie moll: “nor / the slattern in the unbelted kimino / swigging beer from a bottle by the electric fan.” She does not answer her own problem, but she puts it well, and honestly, and funnily.


Edward Hirsch, on the other hand, is lugubrious. He means well, but he wants to be sad on behalf of the world, and his huge generalized portraits—of the fourteenth-century plague in Europe, of the Chicago fire—are soggy. It says something about the vagueness of his portraits (full of historical detail, they are tonally amorphous except for a sentimental all-purpose chanting) that one could substitute stanzas from the Chicago fire in the plague poem and vice versa, without anyone’s noticing:

   This was the Great Catastrophe
And some responded to the terror By kneeling down in embers
And crying out for release from the


. . .

Some people imagined a black giant striding Across the land, Others saw the Fourth Horseman

of the Apocalypse.

   Some believed the plague had

In a rain of serpents and scorpions When sheets of fire fell on the

. . .

   And people jammed the streets With wagons and carts, with Wheelbarrows of belongings.
They came tumbling out of windows

and doorways,

Shrieking in all directions.

. . .

A mother saw the face of death

seated on the face

   Of her startled daughter,
A father saw the emeralds of death

   In his son’s eyes.

These excerpts come, respectively, from the fire, the plague, the fire, the plague. Both elicit from Hirsch the same Muzak crooning, with vaguely psalmodic roots, soaked in parallelism and anaphora (beginning successive lines with the same word or phrase).

It is all well meant: destruction of life, terror, scapegoating, apocalypse, prophecy, lament (and in the case of the fire, a brave new world envisaged on the ruins). But it is also fake, like an elaborate movie set, hollow at the back. The coy copy on the jacket, telling us that the plague poem “on the surface deals with the terrible European plague” wants us to say, “Aha! AIDS!” to ourselves, but saying so doesn’t improve its weepy staginess:

   Across Central Europe
They were greeted as the frenzied redeemers Of Christ the Tiger, Christ
The Avenging Angel, who rose up And put his sword on their shoulders.

Soon they were rushing for the

Jewish quarters,

Trailed by citizens

Howling for revenge and shrieking for blood. And thus began the lynchings
And the slaughter of innocents For poisoning wells and cor-
rupting air.

What were they howling for? Revenge. What were they shrieking for? Blood. Who were slaughtered? Innocents. What were poisoned? Wells. And who said “Christ the Tiger”? Eliot. And who in the late twentieth century narrates by saying “And thus began”? Nobody I know. It is hard to imagine how the style of this book—part Bible, part Whitman, part Williams—could seem inventive or new to the poet writing it. When Hirsch is not being historically stagy, he is being familially prosaic, as he recalls stories told by his parents:

The night that Ida’s husband was murdered
Locking up his grocery store in Irving Park,
The winter of mourning that she lived with them,

The trips across the country for the births
Of Roselyn and Sherwood and Larry, the familial
Poloposis [sic] that eventually killed Max.

Yes, it’s too bad that Max had polyposis, but do we care? Perhaps we’re not meant to care, but since Hirsch spends a lot of time on these feeble renditions of “family stories” (his title), I think he means we should:

The annual two-week vacation to Rochester, New York,

Aunt Celia’s scrambled eggs, Uncle Max’s impulsiveness.

Maybe, bored by his inventory, we are supposed to realize that our own inventory—Uncle Everett’s quotations, Mildred’s cruise to Curaçao, the stroke that killed Nana—is just as boring, but I fear not.

On the other hand, when Hirsch stops trying to embrace countless relatives, several siblings, and the entire body count of past plagues and fires, he is capable of quiet, believable poems. The one I believe the most is one about infertility. Because Hirsch tells it personally and privately, it works. (I suppose he could have done one of his panoramas with it, with hordes of the infertile weeping and praying as in a modern plague, but fortunately he didn’t) “Infertility” is not a stylistically inventive poem, but in it Hirsch’s characteristic tone of lacrimae rerum is brought up, at the end, against a strict and exact realization. I quote it in full:

We don’t know how to name
the long string of zeros
Stretching across winter,
the barren places,
The missing birthdates of the unborn.

We’d like to believe in their souls
drifting through space
Between the Crab and the Northern Cross,
Smoky and incandescent,
longing for incarnation.

We’d like to believe in their spirits descending,
But month after month, year after year,
We have laid ourselves down
and raised ourselves up
And not one has ever entered our bodies.

We’d like to believe that we have planted
And tended seeds
in their honor,
But the spirits never appear
in darkness or light.
We don’t know whether to believe in their non-existence
Or their secrecy and evasiveness,
their invisible spite.
Maybe it’s past us, maybe it’s the shape of nothing
Being born, the cold slopes of the absolute.

This poem, I suspect, will turn up in anthologies. It touches a particular connection between religious longing and secular pessimism that belongs both to the hope and desolation it commemorates and to the moment of scientific possibility and disappointment in which we live. “One incandescent dusky world is all there is,” Hirsch declares. The duskiness is evident enough; Hirsch feels (with a natural mysticism of some sort) the incandescence, and wants always to balance the negative with the positive. As he sits in a hospital by a dying friend, he sees an emblem of his ars poetica:

That night I saw living and dying in everything,
Even in long bands of light
climbing out of the water,
One rainbow penetrating the night sky
While a second one arched
over its spectral head,
The bodies luminous and doubled,
their colors reversed.

This luminous moment, with its tender and reverent rhythm, is what Hirsch feels poetry ought to convey. It is a frail moment of feeling—a touch more or less and it topples over into sentimentality. Tastes can vary here; the blurbs on The Night Parade use words like “lovely and moving,” praising Hirsch’s “poems of wonder and consolation.” The sentiments in the poems—familial attachment, human sympathy, admiration for aesthetic accomplishment in architecture, horror at persecution—are all irreproachable. To me, they give off a faint whiff of unbelievability—mostly because Hirsch can never seem to imagine himself except as one of the high-minded sorrowers over this world.

Michael Hofmann, on the other hand, expends all his sorrow on himself, with a good deal of glum power. Though Hofmann’s debt to Robert Lowell here is so great as to be almost, at times, parodic, he fills up the Lowell style with memorable matter, digesting his London and Cambridge surroundings into sour, smoldering lines:

The surfaces are friable, broken and dirty, a skin unsuitable
for chemical treatment. Building, repair and demolition
go on simultaneously, indistinguish- ably….
The Sun, our Chinese takeaway, is being repainted.
I see an orange topcoat calls for a pink undercoat.
A Chinese calendar girl, naked, chaste and varnished,
simpers behind potplants like a jungle dawn….

. . .

The pigeons mate in full view: some preliminary billing,
then the male flutters his wings as though to break a fall
They inhabit a ruined chiropodist’s, coming and going freely
through broken windows into their cozy excremental hollow.

There are intimations of a private life behind this apparently random scan. Change and sex strike the poet’s eye more than other things, the irreparable and the ruined seem the more stable qualities in the scene. After many pages of this one feels that nobody’s young life could be quite so unrelievedly grim. Sex seems mostly a matter of quarrels, estrangements, and impotence, while social life is positively sinister:

Now we’ve arrived at this hamburger heaven,
a bright hole walled with mirrors where our faces show
pale and evacuated in the neon. We spoon our sundaes
from a metal dish. The chopped nuts are poison.

Lethal nuts in hamburger heaven: it could happen only to Hofmann. The self-dramatizing sulk of so many of the poems conceals what other poems openly acknowledge—fear, insecurity, fastidiousness, a trembling. The bluster of the poems does not give equal time to the inner Hofmann who is ‘dissatisfied and unproficient.” Like a hermit crab, Hofmann identifies with his quarters, and we move with him from one grimy self-mistrust to the next:

There hasn’t been much to cheer about in three years
in this boxroom shaped like a loaf of bread,
the flimsy partitions of the servants’ quarters,
high up in the drafty cranium of the house.

All things tend towards the yellow of unlove,
the tawny, moulting carpet where I am commemorated
by tea- and coffee-stains, by the round holes of furniture
too much of it, and too long in the same place.

In the first half of Acrimony, Hofmann’s misery often seems disproportionate to its cause. But in the second half—a murderous sequence on his father (the German novelist Gert Hofmann)—the balance between cause and effect is restored.* In the story we can reconstruct from the poems, the young Michael begins by idolizing his father. The family moves from Germany to England, and Michael is sent to English schools. Then, after ten years, the parents move back to Germany, leaving their adolescent son behind to finish school and go to Cambridge:

When I learned that my parents were returning
to Germany, and that I was to be jettisoned,
I gave a sudden lurch into infancy and Englishness.
Carpets again loomed large in my world: I sought out
their fabric and warmth, where there was nowhere to fall

The irony in “jettisoned,” the kinesthetic “lurch,” the zeugma of “infancy and Englishness,” and the naked exposure of the adolescent clutching at carpets are all characteristic pieces of Hofmanniana. The father (the “nomad”) takes a job in Yugoslavia, and lives half the time there with a mistress, half the time in Germany with his wife and Michael’s sisters. When Michael is twenty, his father publishes a first novel, and writes, obsessively, six more in six years, hardly noticing his family. The son’s resentment mounts; he becomes “a remittance man” on the loose, on the dole from his father’s bank account. In a Lowellesque monologue the mother makes a confidant of the son, recounting her husband’s infidelity:

I know they stayed in Salzburg. With a horrible smile,
he told me he had been spoiled
   His hotel bills
are mountainous, there are telegram receipts, the lot.

This has the bite of circumstance. It couldn’t have existed without Lowell’s For Lizzie and Harriet, but it matches the complaining momentum of its model, as do Hofmann’s descriptions of his middleaged father:

But the beaverish wrinkles of feeding or disdain or both
have deepened beside your nose and mouth. Under your eyes,
clarified by balloon spectacles, I see bleak anal pleats.

Beaverish feeding, bleak pleats; there is a feral savagery in the “e” screech. The sequence charts a horror-movie transformation of man into monster, as the father disappears in the novelist. He even offers his son his clippings file to read:

Once, you offered me your clippings file—the human touch!
What next: a translator’s essays, a printed interview?
This time, there’s a new string to the bow of your activities.
Dressed in grey from top to toe, with a grey beard, grey face,
grey felt country hat, you disappear into the garden with a shovel.

But this “baffling and incommunicable” man—the double adjective another Lowell touch—begins to go “to seed.” The grown son, in a poem originally called “Not Talking,” comes home for a visit, and finds his father an old man. This, the best poem of the sequence—now called “Author Author” as the writer-son writes down the writer-father—attempts in its later lines an understanding of the father’s past and a declaration of the son’s mixture of past love and present revulsion. But it is strongest on its first, confrontational page, a series of splendid participles and adjectives:

Can this be all that remains—two or three weeks a year,
sitting at the opposite end of the din- ner table from my father?

To listen to his breathing, more snorting than breathing,
puffing out air through his nose dur- ing mouthfuls,

shewing loudly with open mouth, without enjoyment,
uninhibited, inhibiting, his only talk, talk of food?

And to watch myself watching him, fastidious and disloyal,
feeling my muscles through my shirt—an open knife!

(My own part of the conversation, thin, witty, inaudible,
as though I’d spoken in asides for twenty-five years.)

To come back to him unannounced, at regular intervals,
one of two or three unselfsufficient, cryptic,

grown-up strangers he has fathered, and see again
his small silver mouth in his great grizzled face,

head and stomach grown to childlike proportions,
supported on his unchanging, teen- ager’s legs…

To come upon by chance, while emptying the dustbin,
the ripped, glittery foil-wrapping of his heart-medicines,

multiplication times-tables of empty capsules,
dosages like police ammunition in a civil disturbance.

Hofmann is now thirty-two. Recently printed poems in The London Review of Books suggest that he has got Lowell out of his system and has learned to vary the sullen decibel level of his lines. He has a skeptical intelligence, an observant eye, a compulsion to speak the unspeakable, and the useful wariness of the displaced person. I look forward very much to his next book.

Les Murray’s poetry pleases people who see it as a flexing of Australian muscle against an effete British tradition. Murray’s defenders attempt to preempt the moral high ground by suggesting that anyone who doesn’t like his work has a narrow and ladylike idea of poetry. Derek Walcott, praising The Daylight Moon in the February 6 New Republic, says,

Not many daylight moons ago, the barbarians [of the far-flung British Empire] were admired from a distance for certain things peculiar to them—…their unabashed bellowing to God on behalf of the capital named Literature—of which the dandies and the eunuchs of the empire are no longer capable. It is easy to hear any one of those voices urging Murray to keep his voice down.

Against this preemptive strike, one can only say that one wishes Walcott were above suggesting that criticism of Murray betokens emasculation in the critic. In the first place, Murray is no more “one of the roughs” than Whitman is. Murray betrays many influences, among them Anglo-Saxon poetry, ballad poetry, Hopkins and Dylan Thomas—but to me he often sounds most like Marianne Moore. Here are the concluding lines of a poem celebrating an outback telegraph operator named Tuckett who performed surgery with a razor blade by telegraphed instructions from a doctor a thousand miles away:

From Chungking to Burrenjuck, morse keys have mostly gone silent
and only old men meet now to chit- chat in their electric
bygone dialect. The last letter many will forget
is dit-dit-dit-dah, V for Victory. The coders’ hero had speed,
resource and a touch. So ditditdit daah for Bill Tuckett.

The little flourish at the end is pure Moore. And here is Murray-being-Moore in his version—called “Roman Cagecups”—of her “An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish”:

The glass flowers of Harvard, monks’ micro pen-lace, a chromo- some
needled to grow wings on a horse (which they’d also have done),
the freely moving ivory dragons- inside-a-dragon
ball of Cathay—the impossible is a groove:
why else do we do it?

These very ladylike cheers for Bill Tuckett and Roman artifice might be one thing to object to in Murray. Moore did it first; and better. And I’d say the same—only with Hopkins’s name substituted—with respect to Murray’s ode to the shower (the mechanical phenomenon, not the natural one):

   action sauna, inverse bidet,
sleek vertical coruscating ghost of your inner river,
reminding all your fluids, streaming off your points, awakening
the tacky soap to blossom and ripe autumn, releasing the squeezed gardens,
smoky valet smoothing your im- palpable overnight pyjamas off,
pillar you can step through, force- field absolving love’s efforts,
nicest yard of the jogging track, speeding aeroplane minutely
steered with two controls, or trimmed with a knurled wheel.

In fact, with Murray as with so many colonials, not excluding Walcott himself, the greatest danger is precisely the colonial’s fervent love of the parent literatures (I use the plural because American poetry is now as much a parent as English is, as any anthology of contemporary Australian verse reveals). If Murray’s style is as often as not British or American, his content is almost always Australian. There are very few poems here that do not declare their country of origin, and Murray’s opening ars poetica, a poem called “The Quality of Sprawl,” tries to define his poetics as a Whitmanian “loose-limbed” one, a vanquishing of genteel inhibition:

Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly….

Sprawl is Hank Stamper in Never Give an Inch
bisecting an obstructive official’s desk with a chain saw.
Not harming the official. Sprawl is never brutal
though it’s often intransigent….

Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first lines in a sonnet, for example….

Sprawl is really classless, though.

The populist side of Murray’s poetics, the vain dream of being “classless’ that besets the educated poet who knows he cannot, whatever his social sympathies, be a member of the proletariat, shows through in an alarming aside on poetics prompted by a pelican with a defective beak:

Its trouble looks like a birth defect, not an injury
and raises questions.
There are poetics would require it to be pecked
to death by fellow pelicans, or kids to smash it with a stick.

Just what is Murray implying? Whose poetics require thuglike acts on defective objects? Does he mean a poetics of “the beautiful”? But every poetics of the beautiful, at least since Aristotle, has allowed for the presence of the distorted, the ugly, and the maimed within the tragic and the sublime, as well as within the comic. Murray’s oblique remark sounds sociological rather than aesthetic in reference. There is something in Murray that wants to muddle things—to mix the persecution of the defective (a palpable social evil) with a nameless “poetics,” or, in the following excruciating lines, to confuse “Poetry and Religion”:

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either.

Murray continues.

It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion.

Poeing a lie seems just what this poem is doing; or if not a lie, a muddle. If the relation between poetry and religion were this easy, all poets would be religious, and religions would not censor poetry. The problem is that a religious system “fixed centrally” may still be poetic in some aspects (e.g., symbols) but not in essence, since it has lost the defining mobility of the true poem, which is composed differently moment by moment, day by day.

Murray relishes a good tall tale, an expressive phrase, a local legend, the large new machines in the industrial landscape, his family stories. As a writer, he brings a lot of Australia into his work—its history, its architecture, its seasons, its shadow-relation with its aborigines, its laborers in saw pits and butter factories. But one wearies of the absence of any brake on description. Do we need 120 lines to describe “Flood Plains on the Coast Facing Asia”? Two hundred to convey “Aspects of Language and War on the Gloucester Road”? This must be intended as “sprawl”—but, to paraphrase Yeats, sprawl is not had as a gift, sprawl must be earned. It is better earned in the second of these two poems, which is interleaved with incident, as each landmark on the Gloucester Road reminds Murray of a story from the past. Pure description without drama makes the flood plain finally tiring, as the biological names succeed each other in dutiful enumeration: “leaf-running jacanas… knobheaded magpie geese… waterlilies… riceless paddies… the Intermediate Egret… the haunts of flaking buffalo,” and so on, and so on.

Murray’s poems often have the titles of paintings: “Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman,” “Self-Portrait from a Photograph,” “Three Interiors,” “Infant among Cattle.” Because Murray has a generous and precise eye, these have the interest of reportage and composition. But they also betray Murray’s suspect conviction that description is in itself a goal. In truth, it is only a goal insofar as it serves the other ends of poetry, which are the laws of form. A self-indulgent “sprawl” of description, like Hirsch’s rehearsal of his family stories, is of interest only to its author. It is poetry’s version of “slides from my summer vacation,” precious to the displayer, but stupefying to the audience.

Poets compel us to care about their descriptions—or their family stories—by the subtle compulsions of form. Elizabeth Bishop’s absolute command in directing our gaze horizontally, vertically, obliquely, as in the several stages of “At the Fishhouses” shows by contrast what Murray has not done in his unrelieved horizontal meanderings through the flood plains. Lowell’s superbly symbolic details in Life Studies render his family through bedrooms, billiard tables, tombstones—till the people are as solid as their motorcars. Compared to them, Hirsch’s family are solely pallid names with polyposis.

Whereas Hofmann’s landscapes and housescapes are suffused with the person who is describing them, we don’t know Murray much better after all our guided tours with him than we did before. Perhaps a poet like Murray, who dedicates his volume “To the glory of God,” has left human style behind. What might be defended as objectivity in his descriptions of Australia seems in fact an inadequate selfhood. Far from being the vivid colonial, he is more the stereotypical colonial, hat in hand, hiding out behind outback yarns and exotic photographs. He has neither mastered the rhythms of the empire (see the lumbering “Variations on a Measure of Burns”) nor wholly invented, in his unmeasured and awkwardly rhymed lines, a newly compelling rhythm or fashion of rhyming. I found it painful to read his hundred pages of unmusical lumpy choppiness, turgid and unbuoyant. Australia still awaits its Whitman.

It may seem ungenerous to raise objections, on various grounds, to all of these books (even while finding something to like on some of their pages). But when one remembers how many separate talents go to make a formidable poet—talents musical, imaginative, psychological, visual, intellectual, metaphysical, temperamental—one wonders that the thing is done at all. Poets who lack one or more of these talents remind us why we so much admire the few who possessed them all. Minor poets like the ones I have been looking at here—who retrieve part of themselves, the world, and language for us—sharpen our eyes for the next, hopeful look toward ampler, bolder, more musical, better work.

This Issue

August 17, 1989