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Visions of Presence in Modern American Poetry.

Here are separate essays on Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, A. R. Ammons, James Wright, and Howard Nemerov. Scott is a clear, appreciative critic with a broad intellectual culture, and the essays are pleasant reading. They describe the Weltanschauung of the poets, and, more particularly, their religious attitudes.

Scott is one of those persons who think there is a big difference between saying "the turkey is" and "the turkey is instinct with Being." In his lexicon, "Being" is "that transcendens which, as the enabling condition of everything that exists, is 'wholly other' than and distinct from all particular beings, even in their totality" (37). Though Being is "other," it is also that which inwardly constitutes "the things and creatures of earth" and enables them "to be what they are" (35). Being has moral attributes; it is "steadfast, reliable, gracious, and deserves our trust ... is for us" (36-37), and it displays "infinite generosity" in that it "lets things be" (97). In short, Being is another name for God, but, given Scott's nexus of interests, it is an especially useful name, since it allows Scott to explore religious sentiments of poets who, as far as formal or traditional religion is concerned, were mostly skeptics or non-believers. The mere ebullition of natural vitality may become, in Scott's reading, a joy not only in being but in Being.

Scott finds that Stevens, in his late poems, "is a profoundly religious poet" (38). Why? Because he shows "the various concrete realities of the world" in the wonder of their being what they are and invites us "to offer a kind of Amen to them" (35). In Stevens "the transcendentality of being is apprehended as given in and with and under the immanent" (38), and this formulation is repeated in connection with several of the poets Scott takes up. It is perhaps the murkiest of Scott's utterances, and whoever can take it is in tune with his book. In the essay on Auden the emphasis falls again on the late poetry. This is viewed, sensibly, as a comic poetry affirming the potential dignity and grace of ordinary existence. Such poetry is "deeply formed by the perspectives of an Incarnational faith" (58). The essay on Roethke describes his "sacramental vision" of things: "Indeed, there is rarely to be found in the literature of our period a body of poetry so predominantly psalmic and doxological as Roethke's: almost everywhere, it seems, the poet's voice is lifted up in jubilant alleluias ... praising the glory and greatness of the world" (88). Bishop is "a poet without myth, without metaphysics, without commitment to any systematic vision of the world, perhaps the most thoroughly secular poet of her generation" (117), and Scott cannot carry her very far toward reverence, though he seems hopefully intrigued by her close observation of things. As W. P. Ker remarked long ago, description is the poet's act of love. Of the poets Scott discusses, Warren most stressed the fact of evil, and though Scott brings this out as he summarizes the poems, he does not explore the problems this creates for Warren's general affirmation of things as they are. How could Warren assert that "beauty is one word for reality" ("Synonyms"), while also drawing attention (much to his credit) to multifarious, enormous cruelties, natural and human? Though Richard Wilbur can also insist on such things, he is more inclined to celebrate "the radical holiness and the indelible beauty that indwell the things of this world" (193). Ammons is deeply impressed with the "ontological weight" (203) of the world, with the abundance, variety, complexity, continual transition, and inexhaustibility of things, and takes the perceived phenomena as analogies to "the underlying that takes no image to itself" ("Identity"). Though Wright, like Warren, frequently voiced depressed feelings and perceptions, which Scott calls "sour" (245), he too raised his "resounding affirmation" (270).

Scott is not the first to have described this contemporary affirmation of immanence, but he takes up more poets than others have, offers more quotations, and makes his own interpretation of it. The book is a considerable service to readers. Scott offers no literary or cultural history of the way of imagining things that he describes, but he knows very well that it is a kind of Romanticism, and often mentions Wordsworth and Emerson as predecessors. In its contemporary context this affirmation of immanence lacks the credibility that, according to Wallace Stevens, must belong to a supreme fiction, and I regret that Scott does not weigh the "witness" of his poets against opposing interpretations of the world. He should, I think, show them struggling more seriously with the problem of evil or himself consider it more seriously on their behalf. Though undeniably these poets often affirm or imply that "Being" is deserving of praise, their "Amen" was more desperate and precarious, less continual and resounding than the one Scott hears in them. In this connection it is important to note that Scott has some limitations as a reader of poetry. He is not highly sensitive to the psychological needs that may motivate whatever "witness" a poet gives, and he does not keep in mind that this witness may not be wholly that of the poet, since what a poem says may be shaped by tradition and convention. Scott tends to read poetry as univocal statement, and may thus ignore ambiguities and contrapuntal movements that, deliberately or otherwise, qualify this statement.

To describe a poet's ideas and sentiments is a traditional critical project, but we do it only because of the poetry. A poet's ideas and feelings are not, in themselves, more significant than those of other people. I say this because Scott expresses in various ways an impatience with formal analysis, with critical emphasis on style, and yet such analysis at least focuses on the reason for writing about poets at all. Pose, gesture, characterization, story, build up, climax, surprise, overtone, diction and its various registers, images in interrelation - by the manipulation of such things a poet practices his ancient art, and the art gives weight to the ideas that are expressed as parts of the poems. An idea does not become truer for entering into a poem, but there it becomes saturated with feeling, concrete occasion, and particular relationships, and a poem may enable us, as has been suggested, to feel how it might feel to believe such a thought. I think this is what Scott responds to in the poetry he discusses.

Reviewed by David Perkins Harvard University
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Author:Perkins, David
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:1090
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