One Life, One Writing!: The Middle Generation.
--"Field and Forest"
And all is sweetness there in the deep, enchanted silt.
My life's fever is soaking in night sweat--one life, one writing!
Strangeness grew in the motionless air.
--"In the Naked Bed, in Plato's Cave"
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.
--"The Lost Son"
We are on each other's hands
--"Homage to Mistress Bradstreet"
It's probably futile to try to speak about them dispassionately, these initiating poems--these first presences--who lodged in me long before I ever understood what they asked of us, these core writers whose work launched so many of us into poetry, who delivered us to our own enchantments, our own imaginative lives. I stumbled across The Lost World at about the same time that I discovered Questions of Travel and For the Union Dead and Summer Knowledge. Soon I had also given myself over to the linguistic richness--the splendid oddities--of "The Lost Son" and "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet." I used to walk around reciting lines from these poems to myself, daydreaming them, so that they all started to fuse together in my mind. Somehow the farmer who stripped down to a blind wish in Randall Jarrell's "Field and Forest" merged with the man who decided to become a witch doctor--a sacaca--and goes down under the river in Elizabeth Bishop's "The Riverman." Somehow the watchful, waking, feverish writer in Robert Lowell 's "Night Sweat" combined with the nameless speaker surveying the shadows in his room in the middle of the night, smoking at the window, in Delmore Schwartz's "In the Naked Bed, in Plato's Cave." I still love the invocation to the animals, the primal creatures, at the beginning of Theodore Roethke's "The Lost Son." I'm moved by the Blakean suggestion that all that lives is holy. It's an invocation to the Muse, a cry for divine help, that takes us down to the earth. And I still link it to that affecting moment in John Berryman's "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" when the twentieth-century poet declares to the seventeenth-century one, "We are on each other's hands/who care. Both of our worlds unhanded us." Berryman's lines are a statement of lyric interdependency, a recognition that the dramatic poet does not have his meaning unto himself. His need calls out, and he turns for help to a poet from [the past. All these poems are in some sense about the urgent necessity--and the cost--of vision. They get down into ou r bodies, our deep minds. They speak to--they are--enchantments that [put off the practical world, that estrange us from the familiar and signal the presence of something in us that is deep and demonic, something wild and unruly, irrational, imaginative. We followed these voices into the silken river-the blind wish, the night mind--and ended up giving our lives to the visionary realms they inaugurated.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free
--Bishop, "At the Fishhouses"
It's the dark poetic knowledge--mesmerizing, mobile, free--that we sought from them. It's the human clarities they brought back from the deep. And it's the intensities they proposed, the excitement with which we poured over their poems and took them into ourselves. I remember the wild fervor and exaltation with which I first encountered the vehement, flamboyant, exclamatory lines--I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk ("The Lost Son"), and You know what I was/You see what I am change me, change me! (Jarrell, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo")--and at times almost shouted them aloud:
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord Cod formed man from the sea's slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the 'rainbow of His will.
"The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket"
We imbibed these apocalyptic poems like sacred texts, as if they could teach us the secret of poetry itself. They were the strangely American portals through which some of us passed into poetry--the signs under which we walked--and their fluencies had come to set up house inside us, their rhythms circulating in our blood.
Sometimes when I am lying in bed at night with my eyes closed, the phrases start to come back to me, a little jumbled, out of order, almost like a dream, with a dream's utter indelibility. It's as if the words have come welling up from the unconscious, like the answers to a riddle. At these moments the lines seem to have come from a single cauldron, like audible formulations of the darkness, instructions from the deep. A wish, come true, is life. (Jarrell) Like me a believer in total immersion. (Bishop) The mania for phrases enlarged his heart. (Lowell) "To own an eland! That's what I call life!" (Jarrell again) All the untidy activity continues,/ awful but cheerful. (Bishop again) I hear a famisht howl. (Berryman) To what strangers, what welcome. (J. V. Cunningham) What dream's enough to breathe in? (Roethke) I have had to learn the simplest things/last. (Charles Olson) We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black. (William Meredith) The sun roars at the prayer's end. (Dylan Thomas)
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
They were the voices of first permission, and their poems point to the eternal unfolding of what exists, everlasting omen of transformation. Each of these poets adapted an utterance, inscribed an indelibility. So original is their contribution, so distinctive their achievement, that it takes an effort of will to recall how seriously they struggled with feelings of belatedness, with the anxiety that everything had already been accomplished. It's true that after the titanic achievement of the great Modernists who were very much at their peak when these writers began, after the impersonal heroism--the heroic impersonality--of Modernism itself, their work seems quickened by losses, freshened by warmth, scaled down to human size. They were highly personal writers. They may have begun under the scrupulous and austere sign of New Criticism, but, ironically, they ended up using their ironic sensibilities to bring a messy humanity, a harsh luminosity, a well of tenderness, back into poetry. To do so they had to walk o ut from under the living shadows, the Jamesian greatcoats, the smothering grandiloquence. They are like Yeats at the turn of the century. Everyone got down off their stilts. They found more enterprise in walking naked.
The radical impulse to self-exposure is, perhaps paradoxically, one reason these poets were so liberated by the dramatic monologue, which they mastered and deployed in order to probe a selfhood. (I am obliged to perform in complete darkness/ operations of great delicacy/ on my self, Berryman's alter ego Henry announces in The Dream Songs.) It allowed them to act as anonymous shape-shifters, to conceal secrets inside their exclamatory revelations. I'm something else, Theodore Roethke, the most animistic of these poets, declared with evident glee in "Where Knock Is Open Wide." One primary source for the mid-generation poets was Emily Dickinson, whose forthrightness could be so bracing (I like a look of Agony,/ Because I know it's true--, she famously confessed in one poem, Men do not sham Convulsion,/ Nor simulate a Throe--) and angled to confess the truth, all of it, at a radical slant. "When I state myself, as the Representative of-the Verse--it does not mean-me--but a supposed person," she explained.
The quest for identity is a key subject for these poets, who had so much anxiety about the nature of the self, and so much faith in its metamorphosis. They are tireless and self-renewing. It's worth recalling the seven dramatic monologues in The Mills of the Kavanaughs, which stand between Robert Lowell's early work and the so-called confessional poems of Life Studies, which give the carefully fostered impression that the reader is breaking through into life and getting the literal or actual Robert Lowell, whereas in truth we are getting a canny and dynamic invention, a supposed person, a created figure, a made man. Lowell may have removed the mask--as M. L. Rosenthal first suggested--but he replaced it with another one. He never spoke "unequivocally" as himself, but he did draw radically-shockingly--from a secret well of feeling and experience, a hidden world which he exposed to the glare. He refigured and refashioned his raw and wounded self into a series of brash and layered self-portraits, colorful exposu res crafted into an artistic fable, a cracked family album. It's a move from painting to photography. It's telling that Lowell followed Life Studies with his book "of versions and free translations," Imitations. He resurrected and expanded, perhaps unrecognizably, Dryden's notion of "imitation," in order to give himself a greater range of voice, of voices, turning for inspiration to the whole compass of European poets from Sappho to Pasternak. He took a startling and controversial license with his sources; the book that resulted doesn't seem to me a collection of-translations so much as a work of mergers and acquisitions, a book of possessions, a series of dramatic monologues animated by one far-reaching voice displacing and distilling its elf into the voice of other poets--Rimbaud, say, or Rilke--and inhabiting the body of other poems. Lowell's obsessive and at times maddening revising of his own poems, especially his sonnets, his compulsive way of deranging and re-arranging them (to adapt Bishop's words) wa s also a way of revising, re-making, and even re-envisioning himself, so much so that the saddest thing Bishop could think to say about him, in her touching memorial poem, "North Haven," was The words cannot change. Sad friend, you cannot change.
The dramatic monologue provided a strategy--a space--for self-projection and metamorphosis. I think, for example, of the brilliant way in which John Berryman learned to administer pronouns, at first in "The Ball Poem" and then in "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" and, culminating, in The Dream Songs, wherein he created a purposefully sliding boundary line between himself and the character of Henry. (There ought to be a law against Henry./'Mr. Bones: There is.) I think, too, of how Weldon Kees invented the self-revealing character of Robinson, a figure known only by his nearly anonymous last name, in order to inscribe the existential dilemmas of American life at mid-century.
The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.
It's altogether remarkable how Randall Jarrell thrust himself so fully into the role of a woman in the splendid triad of poems strung across his work: "The Face," "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," and "Next Day." Each of these women stands both as herself and as a sort of Everywoman. The double standing makes these figures exceptional. Or so it seems. This is what happens to everyone, the woman declares in "The Face": At first you get bigger, you know more,/ Then something goes wrong. Jarrell's poems unnervingly pursue the moment when something invisibly turns and goes wrong, goes awry, when the naked self radically breaks down its last defenses. Their wit belies their fury. I find myself reeling a little at the shocking recognition in the last two stanzas of "Next Day."
And yet I'm afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend's cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her, I hear her telling me
How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I'm anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.
This is the American vernacular pressured to a Rilkean pitch. The ruthlessness of insight, the startling truthfulness, the depth of ordinary courage it takes for the speaker to recognize herself in her dead friend, as her dead friend, to confront her own bewildering and commonplace fate, seems heroic to me. The poetic technique operates in such a seamless and unassuming way that it's easy to overlook: I'm thinking of how the rhetorical argument relentlessly pushes the voice to its heart-rending conclusion, as in a Shakespeare sonnet (And yet; But really), of the shapely, symmetrical six-line stanzas with their cuttingly abbreviated second and fifth lines, of the timely, ferocious progression of triple adjectives in the fourth line ("Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body") that Lowell also made one of his signatures (your old-fashioned tirade, he writes in "Man and Wife," loving, rapid, merciless--breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head). The rhymes in the last stanza of "Next Day" act as a ghostly haunti ng of sounds; I hear the identical rhyme on the word "exceptional" (a word refuting itself), the irrefutable connection of "have" and "grave," the off-rhyme on the words "anybody" and "solitary" that drives home the unbearable truth. It's characteristic of Jarrell, as it was of Bishop, to put his technique in the service of an ordinary woman's voice. No wonder he loved Hardy. It seems to me that Jarrell's poems are not authentic or convincing because he learned about and understood female experience per se, but because he credited himself with "a semi-feminine mind" and he mined it to project himself into another skin, another body, another self. He used all the imagination and technique available to him to propel himself across a divide, which is to say that he both recognized and displaced himself in the guise of a woman.
Like Wordsworth and Rilke, both of whom he revered, Jarrell also showed a genuine capacity for re-entering--re-experiencing--childhood ("Child Randall," Lowell called him in one of three elegiac sonnets), which he registered in a fresh American idiom, not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand, to quote the lines, the trumpet-call he adored in Marianne Moore, but in plain American which cats and dogs can read! What Jarrell said so adroitly about Robert Frost also seems to me evidently true about himself: "His wonderful dramatic monologues or dramatic scenes come out of a knowledge of people that few people have had, and they are written in a verse that uses, sometimes with absolute mastery, the rhythms of actual speech." I like Suzanne Ferguson's characterization of the subjective voice in Jarrell's poems as "tender, querulous, astonished, sardonic, outraged, amused, even ... frightened." It is at times oddly hopeful, at times heartbroken.
Jarrell was especially drawn to the dramatic monologue from early on because he was seeking a register that left room for uncertainties and doubts, for stuttering hesitancies and bewilderments. He sought a poetry, as David Kalstone once put it, "that accommodated more of the human voice and its contradictions." Yet in an acute essay about Jarrell's work in his book Modern Poetry after Modernism, James Longenbach also points out how little Jarrell actually had to do to turn "The Face" from a self-portrait into a fictive dramatic monologue from an unnamed woman's point of view. He simply changed the word "handsome" to "beautiful" in the first line (Not good any more, not beautiful--) and added an epigraph from Der Rosenkavalier (Diealte Frau, die alte Marschallin!) and, presto!, someone else was speaking. Wisdom is learning what to overlook, as William James said quotably, and so it may be unwise to point out that there's an uncanny continuity of voices between the housewife who speaks in "Next Day" and the ma n himself who shows up in "A Man Meets a Woman in the Street." And why shouldn't there be? Sometimes, We can't tell our life/from our wish.
For a little while, forget:
the world's selves cure that short disease, myself.
--"Children Selecting Books in a Library"
I find in these American poets a deep sympathy, an attentive regard, an overwhelming and overwhelmed reverence for all living things, but especially for whatever is wounded or broken, flawed, vulnerable, lost. This sympathy runs like an electric current through their work, and connects them like an invisible chord. They are seduced, enabled, and traumatized by sympathy. They are bedeviled and determined by it. They are its broken masters. But I identify myself as always,/ With something that there's something wrong with,/ With something human, Jarrell put it eloquently in "The One Who Was Different." This defines a sensibility--it locates poetry on a human scale (Jarrell, like Bishop, was always emphatic about this)--and it bespeaks the empathic imagination. The epigraph from The Tempest that Berryman chose for Recovery speaks to the nature--the character--of that imagination. Miranda says, Oh! I have suffered/ With those that I saw suffer. (1.2.5)
I want to linger for a moment to digest that this passionate involvement and deep identification with the sufferings of others, this apparently simple commitment to the humanly flawed, this way of weighing things on a subjective human scale, is radically different from the impersonal and objective standard set forth in the Pound era, by the Eliot generation. Such a credo, a textual project, carries a radically different politics, a democratic ethos, and speaks up against authoritarianism. They did not fear social contagion, or edit out their semifeminine minds, or embrace reactionary politics, group hatreds. Who among the previous generation, except perhaps William Carlos Williams, could have written a poem such as Jarrell's "Say Good-bye to Big Daddy," an elegy for Big Daddy Lipscomb, the Baltimore Colts defensive tackle and a mountain of a man who died of a heroin overdose and once said, as Jarrell quotes him, I've been scared/ Most of my life. You wouldn't think so to look at me./ It gets so bad I cry mys elf to sleep--? Jarrell's Complete Poems is like a Quaker Meeting House for those who have something wrong with them, who feel misallied: sick children, teenage girls, boyish soldiers bewildered at being sacrificed, sad office workers, aging suburban housewives. I think of all the misallied and misshapen creatures in Bishop's work, from "The Man-Moth," which she wrote in 1936, to "Pink Dog" (O never have I seen a dog so bare!) which she completed before her death in I think of Lowell's many poems of social outrage and public engagement--from his early Catholic radicalism and apocalyptic anti-war poems (I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,/ and made my manic statement,/ telling off the state and president, he famously summarized in Life Studies) to the humane northern engagements of For the Union Dead (Pity the monsters!) to his improvisatory History sonnets, such as his memorial poem to Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Two Walls") and his elegy for Robert Kennedy ("For Robert Kennedy 1925-68") and his dedicatory po em, "For Eugene McCarthy," which praises McCarthy for being coldly willing/ to smash the ball past those who bought the park. Lowell could be stagy, but he used that stage to speak up on behalf of the disenfranchised. Who among the previous generation would ever have proclaimed, as Rukeyser did at the peak of the Nazi genocide, To be a Jew in the twentieth century/ Is to be offered a gift ("Letter to the Front"), or written with such sympathetic intelligence as Berryman about The Diary of Anne Frank, or praised freedom as eloquently as Robert Hayden in his sonnet "Frederick Douglass," which speaks of liberty as this beautiful/ and terrible thing, needful to man as air,/ usable as earth? I suspect many contemporary poets, readers, and critics are continuing to read and respond to the mid-century difference from Modernism, without always defining it, and thus find themselves turning for company to a more approachable and vulnerable group of democratic masters. As Theodore Roethke put it in a notebook entry: "Th ose who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries." (Straw for the Fire)
There was something broken in each of these poets, I suppose, something that could not be mended--was there ever a generation of poets more prone to alcoholism, more stormed and afflicted by mental illness, more devastated by suicide? I'm cross with god who has wrecked this generation, Berryman declared accusingly in one of the Dream Songs, a work which magnetizes the deaths of his contemporaries at every point, like iron filaments. And yet one of the things that strikes me about these poets, in retrospect, in this fresh century, is how actively, how acutely they managed to transfigure extreme suffering into a body of work characterized by "wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence" (to employ on a larger scale the words that Robert Lowell used to describe Randall Jarrell). They are personal, playful, learned, heartbreaking.
The titles of their essay collections are emblematic: Poetry and the Age, The Freedom of the Poet, The Life of Poetry. Their devotion to poetry was passionate, feverish, and all-encompassing. It was unstinting and lifelong. Poetry paid them back by giving them the means--the opportunity--to transform pain into art. "Art matters," Jarrell wrote, "not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself." He also said that "poetry does not need defending, any more than air or food needs to be defended." This statement is as fresh and apt today as when Jarrell first made it--in 1953. It ought to be hung on banners and posted on Internet sites.
We are grabbed by these poets into art. "I'm sure that writing isn't a craft," Robert Lowell told an interviewer, almost offhandedly: "It must come from some deep impulse, deep inspiration." We asked to be obsessed by writing,/ and we were, Lowell also recollected in his elegy "For John Berryman." The poem, written after reading the last Dream Song, has a retrospective shine. It speaks to an intention--almost a prayer really--that had been transformed into lifetimes of work.
You need to read good poetry with an attitude that is a mixture of sharp intelligence and of willing emotional empathy, at once penetrating and generous.
"The Obscurity of the Poet"
Jarrell's witty, fierce, enthusiastic, and passionate devotion to poetry set the gold standard for his generation and, perhaps, for the one to follow. We ought to bring it back as a standard of measure. I discovered this aspect of Jarrell's influence and character in the first book of criticism I ever bought on my own, the elegiac collection, Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, edited by his friends Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren. I paid $2.45 for the Noonday paperback in 1 968, my freshman year in college, and it paid me back with an affectionate, insightful, and teeming group portrait that instilled in me the sense, which I have never quite shaken, of what a literary life could be, how it might be conducted. I poured over the photographs, too--Jarrell with Delmore Schwartz, Jarrell with an engraving by Durer, Jarrell teaching poetry with great animation and evident joy (now there was a novel idea: teaching poetry!). I was particularly struck by John Berryman's elegy, "Opus Posthumous #13," with its bewildering title, its overwhelming nostalgia, and its tender-hearted, nearly unbearable longing for a final reunion:
In the chambers of the end we'll meet again
I will say Randall, he'll say Pussycat
and all will be as before
whenas we sought, among the beloved faces,
eminence and were dissatisfied with that
and needed more.
I noted, too, that in a review of Poetry and the Age, a book which I went out and found the next day, Berryman had praised Jarrell's criticism because "it sounds always like a human being talking to somebody." The idea was so simple it seemed--and still seems--revolutionary. And he added: "But what really matters in Jarrell are a rare attention, devotion to and respect for poetry." This rhymed for me with Lowell's observation that Jarrell's essays "have the raciness and artistic gaiety of his own hypnotic voice."
I've always adored the wise enthusiasm in Jarrell's essays, especially his encomiums, his pieces of praise (for Whitman, for Frost, for Moore, for Williams, for the early Lowell, for the late Stevens). "Eulogy was the glory of Randall's criticism," Lowell said memorably: "Eulogies that not only impressed readers with his own enthusiasms, but which also, time and again, changed and improved opinions and values. He left many reputations permanently altered and exalted."
(This may be the place to add, parenthetically, that I've felt for some time Jarrell's deadly negative and at times cruel reviews have been overvalued and badly misused as a model by many contemporary poets. They're filled with wickedly clever quips, many of which I, too, have quoted over the years, and yet they seem unworthy of Jarrell's true soulfulness. And they've been used to authorize a lot of negative and even nasty reviews. Surely, most of what Jarrell set out to kill would have died a quick natural death on its own anyway and, occasionally, as in his unfortunate piece about Muriel Rukeyser, he did lasting harm to a reputation. I've sometimes felt that Jarrell used his acid wit in places where he was himself vulnerable, or antagonized, since, as he well knew, his own ordinary human feeling and natural tenderness, his warmth and child-like enthusiasm as a poet left him open to charges of rank sentimentality, which unfairly dogged his reputation from the beginning. I'm reminded of Philip Larkin's idea that critics call a poet sentimental whenever they feel he has more feelings than they think he ought to have.
(So, too, I hope that we'll permanently retire the over-quoted maxim that Jarrell "put his genius into his criticism and his talent into his poetry." It's clever but untrue, and it sets up a needless dichotomy between Jarrell's poetry and his criticism, which are both, after all, part of one project, one practice. One life, one writing! What matters in both Jarrell's poems and essays are his canny intelligence and uncanny insights, his deep reserves of tenderness, his acute emotional enthusiasm and presence, his reverent humanity. Why has post-modern criticism almost entirely passed him by? I feel like the first men who read Wordsworth, he writes in "The One Who was Different," It's so simple I can't understand it.)
Poetry is a terminal activity, taking place out near the end of things, where the poet's soul addresses one other soul only, never mind when. And it aims--never mind either communication or expression--at the reformation of the poet, as prayer does.
It's characteristic of Berryman to compare poetry to prayer. What he said about Jarrell applies equally to himself, for he showed his own "rare attention, devotion to, and respect for poetry." Among the dozens of possible instances and examples, I would summon up that moment when Berryman testifies to how radically he was affected by the comprehensive air of majesty--the sublime assurance--that emanated from a review by R. P. Blackmur which first appeared in Poetry magazine. Blackmur's statement is highly revealing, but so is the characteristic intensity of Berryman's response. The poem "Olympus" quotes, lineates, and extends one of Blackmur's keynote sentences across two quatrains so that the prose commentary is transformed into a singular piece of poetry itself:
"The art of poetry
is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse
by the animating presence in the poetry
of a fresh idiom: language
so twisted & posed in a form
that it not only expresses the matter in hand
but adds to the stock of available reality."
I was never altogether the same man after that.
Poetry is for Blackmur both expressive and generative and, in retrospect, it seems almost as if he was invoking and magically summoning up the radically twisted and utterly fresh idiom of The Dream Songs.
Ever since I first discovered it in The Open Hand, I've liked W. S. Merwin's poem, called simply "Berryman," in which he recalls his teacher's astonishing advice:
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
Berryman deeply understood, as his advice suggests, that in the writing of poetry there is always something outside the dispensation of the will, something dependent upon luck or grace. And he was humble before that force, that knowledge. He wanted to instill such humility in his protege. Merwin also recollects Berryman's passionate vehemence, his utterly authentic, highly physical, even bodily mental engagement, with poetry:
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his view about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
One feels, reading Merwin's poem, say, or Philip Levine's evocative memoir, "Mine Own John Berryman," or James Merrill's preternaturally clever poem for Elizabeth Bishop, "The Victor Dog," or Allen Grossman's acute essay on Lowell in The Long Schoolroom, that the lesson was not lost on the generation that followed.
Berryman's long preparedness helped give him later access--it cleared the path to the mysteries. I've found something of that same access to joy in Dylan Thomas's work, though most of it now seems a bit rhetorically staged, overblown. Yet Thomas belongs with these poets, and I retain a durable loyalty to him, the affection of youth. I labour by singing light, he declared in "In My Craft or Sullen Art," a poem that held me in thrall all through my late teens and early twenties. I loved the noble Yeatsian austerity of it, the romantic image of writing by moonlight on "spindrift pages," the poetic figure of the towering dead/ with their nightingales and psalms, the conclusion that Poetry is a solitary act and that its intricate craft exists in the service of a wild, wayward, grief-stricken passion. After all, Thomas's poem announces that it is written for the lovers whose arms encircle the griefs of the ages. I discovered Deaths and Entrances at the same time as Lord Weary's Castle and together they taught me th at poetry requires a fanatical will (both books, which, coincidentally were published in the same year, are densely packed, verbally clotted, and filled with elaborately artificial verbal structures), but that poetry really only becomes poetry when craft is lifted into art and takes on an aura of magic, of vision and prayer. Indeed, "Vision and Prayer" is the title of one of Thomas's key sequences--its poems all shaped as diamonds and wings. They embody a form of praise for what shines and flies.
When they meet me they say:
You haven't changed.
I want to say: you haven't looked.
And looked and looked our infant sight away.
"Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance"
I want to take a moment to praise Elizabeth Bishop's vision as well as her eyesight. She did look with great forthrightness at the way things changed, and she described the world with a scrupulous, variegated, almost offhanded virtuosity that has been justly praised. Jarrell set the terms when he reviewed her first book and said, "All her poems have written underneath, I have seen it." But I would also say at this late date that there's a strong element of anxiety and at times even desperation that gives Bishop's descriptive hold on the world so much of its tenacious force. "Surely there is an element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art?" she asked rhetorically in her memoir about Marianne Moore, "Efforts of Affection." Surely there's more than an element of such mortal panic and fear--there's a deep, almost oceanic undertow--in most of Bishop's characteristic poems. I've always loved her letter about Darwin which all readers of her poetry eventually come to since it reveals so much about the nature of her project:
There is no "split." Dreams, works of art (some), glimpses of the always-more-successful surrealism of everyday life, unexpected moments of empathy (is it?) catch a peripheral vision of whatever it is one can never really see full-face but that seems enormously important. I can't believe we are wholly irrational (and I do admire Darwin!) But reading Darwin, one admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconscious or automatic--and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.
Bishop has probably been a bit overpraised for her reticence and modesty, and somewhat under-praised, under-appreciated for her artistic ruthlessness, for her endless heroic observations that suddenly give way and swerve off into the unknown. She's an odder, dreamier, arid at times more introspective poet than most criticism would allow. She's also nervous about her own introspectiveness--she's afraid of falling through endless interior corridors--and so tethers herself to the watery world, the wet and sandy shoreline. I suspect she saw herself reflected in the sandpiper who takes the roaring of the ocean for granted and recognizes that the world is inevitably going to tremble:
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
Bishop was a homeless traveler, a nervous quester, a seeker who sometimes saw the world as mist and sometimes as minute and vast and clear.
Bishop, too, represented herself in her poems as a supposed person, a supposed observer on whom nothing is lost. It was not just in her life but also in her work that she carried on what James Merrill so acutely called her "instinctive, modest, lifelong impersonations of an ordinary woman." Like .her contemporaries, the dramatic monologue gave her a space both for revealing and concealing herself, for escape and transfiguration. "I envy the mind hiding in her words," Mary McCarthy readily admitted, "like an 'I' counting up to a hundred waiting to be found." I can't help but think of the Giant Snail who says, Draw back. Withdrawal is always best ("Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics"), and of the numerous animal masquerades that move so hauntingly through her work. "With few exceptions," Lorrie Goldensohn observes, "she keeps her most pained and bewildered selves undercover in terrestrial or marine disguise as snail, sandpiper, fish, armadillo, man-moth, or moose." I think of her first prototypical dramatic monologue, "Jeronimo's House," and of her double sonnet, "From Trollope's Journal," and of her altogether revealing poem "Crusoe in England" where she uses Defoe's character--Crusoe's supposed experience--to mythologize, as Merrill puts it, "the cheerfulness and awfulness of her own self-imposed years in the tropics."
I've always been fascinated by the poem "The Riverman," perhaps because it's such an unusual, even unlikely poem for Bishop to have written since it doesn't present itself or pose as a lyric of description--as so many of her most typical poems seem to do. It doesn't build up the beautiful solid case--or even appear to--before taking off for the unknown interior, the sacred spaces. That's one reason Bishop herself was so discomfited by the poem, which uses the story of shamanic initiation to probe her own deep-reaching expressive powers and commitments. She hadn't been to the Amazon yet when she wrote the poem and so here at least one would have to revise Jarrell's formulation to read, I have envisioned it. Charles Wagley's book, Amazon Town, which lent the poem so many of its authentic details, may have helped her to escape the literal--her literalist-self. A triggering Amazonian voice and folkloric subject matter opened her up to charges of primitivism, but also freed her to relinquish the claims of the ord inary social world in order to write--to embrace-an extreme poem of vision.
Yet really we had the same life,
the generic one
"For John Berryman"
our generation offered.
At times I see them almost as one organism, an entity alive in all its parts, an Ovidian myth. Most of them were born in the second decade of the twentieth century. They began in the Depression, constellated after the violent years of the Second World War, marked the mid-to-late forties with their breakthrough collections, the first and second books that trumpeted their arrival: Genesis: Book One (1943), Little Friend, Little Friend (1945), North and South (1946), Lord Weary's Castle (1946), The Dispossessed (1948), The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948). Weldon Kees's initial collection, The Last Man (1943) belongs here, and so does Robert Duncan's first book, Heavenly City. Earthly City (1947). They endured what Lowell labeled "the tranquilized Fifties," (These are the tranquilized Fifties,/ and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?), and circulated America's social problems in their bloodstreams. Their personal lives swam away from them, swam back. "I have been thinking much about you all summer," Lowell wrote to Berryman in 1959.
and how we have gone through the same troubles, visiting the bottom of the world. I have wanted to stretch out a hand, and tell you that I have been there too, and how it all lightens and life swims back...
One thinks of the constellation of key middle works: Life Studies (1959) and The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), 77 Dream Songs (1964) and Questions of Travel (1965). All through the sixties and early seventies, their devotion to poetry remained intense and irrepressible, exalted, even as they instigated divorces and suffered breakdowns, and competed with each other, often unhealthily, like kids playing King of the Mountain, and won prizes, and lost them, and protested the Vietnam War, and lit up classrooms, and changed as the country changed--prying themselves open, breaking into blossom--and immeasurably deepened their achievements. I suppose that most of them felt they had made messes of their lives. All of them had to contend with what Berryman called the true subject of "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet": "The almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse at all in a land that cared and cares so little for it." And yet they registered a poetry that is quicksilver, luminous, and enduring.
We came of age reading them--and looked to them for poetic guidance. Each of us will have collections from the period we feel are unfairly neglected; mine would include Gwendolyn Brooks's second book, Annie Allen (1949), Karl Shapiro's delicately wrenching Poems of a Jew (1958), Delmore Schwartz's Summer Knowledge, 1938-1958 (1959), Lincoln Kirstein's Rhymes of a P.F.C. (1964), Muriel Rukeyser's Breaking Open (1973), May Swenson's exuberantly iconographic New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978), and William Meredith's The Cheer (1980). Theodore Weiss belongs here, and so do Josephine Miles, John Malcolm Brinnin, and Edwin Honig, whose 1944 book on Lorca effectively introduced the Spanish poet to a generation of American readers and whose 1971 translations of Fernando Pessoa registered the Portuguese poet for many English-speaking readers and, in so doing, enlarged our sense of the imagination of Modernism. Each of us will have volumes of Collected Poems we particularly treasure; I have a special loyalty to J. V. Cunningham, whose furious constructions fired my apprenticeship to poetry (The Judge Is Fury) and to Robert Hayden, whose work accompanied me all the years I lived in Detroit. And each of us will have favorite moments in overall bodies of work of continuous distinction--some of mine are early Lowell, middle Berryman, late Jarrell. Each of us can supply a somewhat different list of names and books. But I would have us stop pitting them against each other and instead celebr ate an inclusive, creative moment in American poetry, a ferment, a generation who worked under the stimulus of each other. I would celebrate the muddy vibrancy and dynamism of their excitement, the materialism--the odd extravagance--of their achievement.
The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once, Henry sings out in "Dream Song #26":--What happen then, Mr. Bones?/if be you cares to say. Everyone remembers their failings, their malaises, their manias--a critical industry has practically been built up around them. "As a group, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and Theodore Roethke were eccentric, unpredictable, unfaithful, alcoholic, violent, and insane," Jeffrey Meyers writes in a particularly egregious example of prurient criticism, but not everyone seems to remember the transfiguring power of poetry in their lives. I would also have us recall how in 1946 Delmore Schwartz told Robert Lowell, Let Joyce and Freud,/ the Masters of Joy,/ be our guests here ("To Delmore Schwartz"). Joy, too, was invited to the table. It did sit and eat. Find yourself/ a little spectrum of exact/ terms for joy, some of them/ archaic, but all useful," William Meredith recalls in his poem "What I Remember the Writers Telling Me When I Was Young." Nourish begi nnings, Muriel Rukeyser instructs us in her poem "Elegy in Joy": The blessing is in the seed. Everyone remembers that glorious moment in Bishop's poem "The Moose" when the giant animal--a figure of matriarchal grandeur--looms up out of the woods and a group of people on a night bus experience together a precious moment of childish wonder and pleasure:
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
Bishop's poem acknowledges with a sweet and rare insistence (we all feel, she repeats) a communal sensation of joy, a shared recognition of the mysterious sublimity of the non-human world.
Reading Bishop's poem, I feel akin to the speaker in Theodore Roethke's poem, "I Cry, Love! Love!" who declares, like some mad magisterial governor, I proclaim once more a condition of joy. I remember, too, how in his piece, "Open Letter," Roethke announced: "None the less, in spite of all the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck of these poems, I count myself among the happy poets." I feel almost like saying this about an entire tormented generation. One learns from these poets of tragic joy that no one escapes from overwhelming pain, that everyone suffers, perhaps inordinately, but that poetry itself is a joyous and even redemptive calling--a saving grace, a noble enterprise, a sacred passion.
Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now...?
Will I ever write properly, with passion & exactness
of the damned strange demeanours of my flagrant
The art of last things--memorial, humane, translucent. Art going on nerve, on raw courage. Art trying desperately to transcend itself, to go beyond art. There is something helpless--and triumphant--about their final books, completed achievements: The Lost World (1965), Geography III (1976), Day by Day (1977). The Far Field (1964), Love and Fame (1971) and Delusions Etc. (1972). These books are now inscribed in our literature., They are the late Shakespeare of post-war American poetry.
Perhaps they wanted to make/ something imagined, not recalled, as Lowell put it in "Epilogue," but in truth their houses were haunted by ghostly memories, and the ghosts were strong, at times invincible. So many insomniac nights, so much stated and unstated remorse. Yesterday brought to today so lightly!, Bishop observes in "Five Flights Up," the last poem in Geography III and then adds--poignantly, parenthetically-
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)
One thinks of Berryman's resignations (Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts) and the haunted understandings he is desperately trying to displace by projecting them--weakly foisting them off--onto Henry:
I won't mention the dreams I won't repeat
sweating and shaking: something's gotta give:
up for good at five.
"Henry by Night"
And there's Lowell's sense of helplessness before his own demonic memories. He is tethered to the past, whiplashed by what he has done, by what he finds himself writing:
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
This is the poetry of final changes, last revisions, letters of resignation, leave-takings. Art pared down to what is essential, art created at the edge of a void where language is unmade. So many final changes, resignations, accountings, so many lost worlds. The elegies they tried to avoid (I used to want to live/ to avoid your elegy, Lowell confesses in "For John Berryman") and ended up writing- for each other, such as "Glimmerings," the group of ten dream songs--one solid block of Agony--that Berryman inscribed for Schwartz (This world is gradually becoming a place/ where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?) There's Berryman on Jarrell (Let Randall rest, whom your self-torturing/ cannot restore one instant's good to, rest), on Thomas (O down a many few, old friend), on Roethke (The Garden Master's gone). There's Meredith on Lowell (The message you brought back again and again/from the dark brink had the glitter of truth), on Berryman (Friends making off ahead of time/ on their own, I call that w illful, John,/ but that's not judgment, only argument/ such as we've had before). There's Lowell on Jarrell, Bishop on Lowell, Swenson on Bishop, until it all starts to seem like a mournful procession, a sad vanishing, a terrifying regress ...
And yet there's also so much nobility in their ritual poems, their naked suffering. We are contacted and humanized by these poems, these books, we are made more present by these oddly American heaths. It's the end of the line, the end of all the lines. So many of their own edgy last poems speak to a final transformation. Here is Proust in plain American, Jarrell's three-part terza rima masterpiece, "The Lost World," and its splendid epilogue, "Thinking of the Lost World" (I hold in my own hands, in happiness,/ Nothing: the nothing for which there's no reward). Here are the nine poems of Bishop's last book, including her masterly villanelle, "One Art," which comes to terms with a universe of loss, and her Stevensian seashore lyric, "The End of March," and her scrupulous reconstruction of her own engendered identity, the poem that reels her back to the brink of self-consciousness, the dizzying recognitions of "In the Waiting Room" (But I felt: you are an I,/ you are an Elizabeth,/ you are one of them). Here ar e Lowell's last Odyssean voyages ("Ulysses and Circe," "Homecoming," "Last Walk?") and his final poems of praise ("Shadow," "Thanks-Offering for Recovery") and his Orphic dream ("Shifting Colors") and his ferociously self-accusing "Epilogue" which prays for the grace of accuracy (We are poor passing facts,/ warned by that to give/ each figure in the photograph/ his living name). And here are Berryman's "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," and his stoically suicidal "Henry's Understanding," and his jubilant "King David Dances" (all the black same I dance my blue head off!) These poems have the driving sincerity, the magisterial grandeur of prayer.
We learned from them a world of knowing. Peace, then, to the makers. I shall go on wishing them that final ease of being which Theodore Roethke describes so beautifully at the end of "North American Sequence":
Near the rose, in this grove of sun-parched,
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the
true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths
of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing.
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.
And I rejoiced in being what I was ...
Time itself should pause to reckon and savor what they created. Here was what Bishop called Life and the memory of it so compressed/ they've turned into each other ("Poem"), here was the postwar Imagination's daily claim. Really I began the day/ Not with a man's wish: "May this day be different," Randall Jarrell-confesses at the end-of "A Man Meets a Woman in the Street," But with the birds' wish: "May this day/ Be the same day, the day of my life."
EDWARD HIRSCH'S recent books include On Love: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf) and How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (Harcourt Brace).
This is the last installment of Edward Hirsch's column, which has appeared in APR for the last three years.