The American Poets Project is a series that aims to present “the most significant American poetry” written by poets who are, well, dead. (The lone exception to this rule is Samuel Menashe, whose richly deserved New and Selected Poems was published this year.) The series is published by the Library of America, and includes sixteen volumes thus far, with several more (Emma Lazarus, Theodore Roethke, and Poets of the Civil War) just out, and many more planned. Three things should be said about the project. First, whatever objections one might have to individual selections, the series as a whole is a worthwhile undertaking that stands a reasonable chance of getting good poetry into the hands of more people. Second, the books themselves are extremely well put together (design is credited to Chip Kidd and Mark Melnick) Finally, the project’s website claims that the series is edited by “today’s most discerning poets and critics,” but it’s hard not to notice that, with one exception, every editor is over the age of fifty. What you think this says about the future of the game called “American poetry” will depend on where you sit in the bleachers.

Yvor Winters: Selected Poems. Ed. by Thom Gunn.
Library of America. $20.00.

In a 1986 essay called “Responsibilities: Contemporary Poetry and August Kleinzahler,” Thom Gunn announced his dissatisfaction with the Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler. According to Gunn, Vendler had made the mistake of favoring poets of “anxious urbanity” (like Merrill and Bishop, in Gunn’s view) at the expense of “two of the most important lines of tradition in contemporary poetry.... You might call them the Open and the Closed.” For Gunn, the “Open” school included sprawling poets like Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg, the “Closed” such cinched-in versifiers as J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers. Of course, as with most binary oppositions, this scheme cries out for a unifying figure. But who could unify two such contradictory impulses? Who could possibly sound like a cross between Allen Ginsberg and J.V. Cunningham? Why, he’d have to be...he’d almost seem...he’d look sort of like...Oh, right. Thom Gunn.

So, did Gunn like to imagine the field of contemporary poetry as stretching between Olson and Cunningham because it made his own poetry seem more essential? Or was the shape of Gunn’s poetry determined by his belief that these, truly, were the forces a good poet needed to respect, if not reconcile? Do we love the things we love for what they are, or for how they make us feel? These questions are unavoidable (if unanswerable), and they’re worth repeating here because Yvor Winters is the ultimate personification, if not the ultimate source, of Gunn’s so-called “Closed” school. Winters (1900-1968) was for forty years a professor at Stanford, where his students included Gunn, Robert Pinsky, Donald Hall, and Philip Levine. As Gunn’s sympathetic and engaging introduction to this volume puts it, Winters was “a maverick’s maverick”—he taught The Waste Land before almost anyone else, and was nearly fired for it, then rejected Eliot before almost anyone else, and was treated like an oddball by many for that.

Like most systematic, serious, deeply learned, and conscientious theories of poetic practice, Winters’s ideas were, at bottom, absurd—which is not to say they were more absurd than alternate systems with better PR machines. Essentially, Winters believed that, as he put it, “It is the business of the make a statement in words about an experience: the statement must be in some sense and in a fair measure acceptable rationally: and the feeling communicated should be proper to the rational understanding of the experience.” Further, “The theory of literature I absolutist. I believe that the work of literature, insofar as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of objective truth.” This ultra-rationalist approach places a tremendous ethical burden on poetry, a burden Winters came to believe could be borne only by traditional, formal work. So aside from some early experiments, that’s what he wrote. As you might expect, the result is often clickety-clack moralizing, as in “To a Woman on Her Defense of Her Brother Unjustly Convicted of Murder”:

Yet may you two, bound in a stronger whole,
Firm in disaster, amid evil true,
Give us some knowledge of he human soul
And bend our spirits to the human due!

“Amid evil true”? An archaism is annoying; an archaism with a dose of preachiness is actionable. Still, notwithstanding low moments like the above, Winters emerges from this volume as a reliably skillful and generally interesting poet. Like many moralists, he’s also a sensualist; the iron bars of his best poems are swaddled in velvet. Notice the lush variations in the final three stanzas of “A Summer Commentary”:

Now summer grasses, brown with heat,
Have crowded sweetness through the air;
The very roadside dust is sweet;
Even the unshadowed earth is fair.

The soft voice of the nesting dove,
And the dove in soft erratic flight
Like a rapid hand within a glove,
Caress the silence and the light.

Amid the rubble, the fallen fruit,
Fermenting in its rich decay,
Smears brandy on the trampling boot
And sends it sweeter on its way.

Poems like “A Summer Commentary” demonstrate that, however ferocious and dogmatic Winters may have been as a critic, his own poetic gifts were quiet, almost fragile, and decidedly minor key. But maybe “minor” is too loaded a word. As a teacher, Winters inspired several talented poets, and his own poems are often solid examples of their admittedly limited type. That’s no small achievement. In our fixation on who’s “major” and who’s “minor,” and who’s “major minor,” we sometimes forget the debt that many of our best poets owe to an early encounter with a mind intensely committed to poetry. However peculiar his theories, Winters had such a mind. And in that, there’s a considerable dignity—and a not-quite-greatness that is perfectly good.

John Greenleaf Whittier: Selected Poems. Ed. by Brenda Wineapple.
Library of America. $20.00.

John Greenleaf Whittier was a Quaker poet and abolitionist who died in 1892, which makes him, chronologically at least, a peer of Walt Whitman’s. Though Whittier is mostly thought of nowadays as a minor New England writer (if he’s thought about at all), he was hugely popular in his own time, and his new Selected Poems reveals a poet of considerable insight and moral integrity. It also reveals a poet who is, unfortunately, dull as dirt. And worse, it’s not the dullness that arises from overwriting or overreaching, but the dullness of having only one thing to say and saying it as gosh-darnedly as possible. As in:

Then shame on all the proud and vain,
Whose folly laughs to scorn
The blessing of our hardy grain,
Our wealth of golden corn!
—From The Huskers

Or: “Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave/Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!” It’s telling that while both these quotes end in exclamation points, neither is unrepresentative of Whittier’s work as a whole.

Perhaps realizing that poetry alone can’t carry this poet, Brenda Wineapple spends much of her adroit introduction to this volume discussing Whittier’s admirable character, particularly the bravery he displayed in support of the abolitionist movement. Your heart goes out to Wineapple, because saving Whittier from his own writing makes for a tough slog. The most obvious difficulty is technical: at best, the verse here is decently workmanlike; at worst, it sounds like this:

Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes.
—From The Barefoot Boy

“He used no self-irony,” Wineapple notes. That’s for sure. The deeper problem, however, is that Whittier’s abolitionist poetry—the poetry that supposedly demonstrates his depth and seriousness—rarely rises to a sentiment more complex than Slavery=Bad. For instance:

Lower than plummet soundeth, sink the Virginia name;
Plant, if ye will, your fathers’ graves with rankest weeds of shame;
Be, if ye will, the scandal of God’s fair universe—
We wash our hands forever, of your sin, and shame, and curse.
—From Massachusetts to Virginia

It’s to Whittier’s credit that he could see that slavery was a “curse” at a time when many thought it a system worth defending. But the difference between political poetry and propaganda is that political poetry gives the reader the sense that the poet could have argued the opposite case and still been compelling, though perhaps not convincing. (Whittier sounds so pleased with himself when he’s right that one can only imagine how unbearable he’d be if he were wrong.) We should remember that in 1855, the same year that Whittier was writing lines about “rankest weeds of shame,” Walt Whitman was writing this about a female slave:

Her daughters or their daughters’ daughters—who knows who shall mate with them?
Who knows through the centuries what heroes may come from them?
In them and of them natal love—in them the divine mystery—the same old beautiful mystery.
—From Proto-Leaf

Mystery of any kind, sadly, is exactly what Whittier’s poetry is missing.

American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse. Ed by John Hollander.
Library of America. $20.00.

John Hollander’s snappy selection of twentieth-century light verse is an absolute pleasure, so let’s start with what’s wrong with it. First, there are a few “wits” missing. Chief among these are J.V. Cunningham (“The ladies in my life, serially sexed/Unscrew one lover and screw in the next.”) and Thom Gunn (“Spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling:/Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing”). Hollander justifies these omissions by arguing that Cunningham’s work (and presumably Gunn’s as well) isn’t light verse at all, but rather “real” poetry in the mode of Martial’s epigrams. It’s a perfectly reasonable point, but it’s still a pity not to see those writers here, if only because they deserve wider exposure.

Second, Hollander generally limits his definition of light verse to, well, verse—only a couple of poets here forego metrics. Again, it’s a reasonable position: metered poems set up expectations that wit can overturn. Hollander also argues that readers have grown so unfamiliar with the forms of poetry (whether in verse or vers libre) that they have almost no ability to tell when a particular structure is being tweaked for a comic effect. But what about light verse that isn’t dependent on specific metrical conventions, but rather on the reader’s familiarity with the basic “shape” of contemporary poetry? Consider the journalist Hart Seely’s “Glass Box,” first published in Slate:

You know, it’s the old glass box at the—
At the gas station,
Where you’re using those little things
Trying to pick up the prize,
And you can’t find it.

And it’s all these arms are going down in there,
And so you keep dropping it
And picking it up again and moving it,

Some of you are probably too young to remember those—
Those glass boxes,

But they used to have them
At all the gas stations
When I was a kid.

The words are from a Donald Rumsfeld news briefing (December 6, 2001); the form is pure red-wheelbarrow free verse; the combination suggests that this volume wouldn’t have been hurt by a slightly broader definition of “wit” and “craft.”

But this is quibbling. American Wits offers some exceptionally clever writing, much of which will be unfamiliar to many readers (and therefore all the more amusing). Hollander sensibly allots the most space to Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker; the selections from both are solid. But Hollander’s good judgment is best demonstrated by the third most represented poet here, the screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947). In addition to some worthy longer poems, Hoffenstein’s selection includes such heartfelt tributes as:

If you love me, as I love you,
We’ll both be friendly and untrue.
—From Love-songs...

Throughout American Wits, the blade is driven home with similarly exacting aim. The poetry world currently has a surplus of writers who are eager, sometimes even desperate, to be funny, but we’re suffering from a shortage of genuine wit. Maybe it’s time to take back the knife.

Amy Lowell: Selected Poems. Ed. by Honor Moore.
Library of America. $20.00.

“On or about December 1910,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “human character changed.” You can tell a lot about someone by how much irony he reads into this announcement. Many people have taken Woolf’s statement at face value, leading to the persistence of what you might call the creationist theory of Modernism. (And Eliot said, “Let there be a general sense of displacement and alienation”: and there was a general sense of displacement and alienation.) As many critics have noted, this can be a deeply unsatisfying way of looking at early twentieth-century poetry—for one thing, it tends to overstate the importance of minor but “modern” looking poets like H.D., while struggling to explain the persistence of major but un-“modern” looking poets like Frost. If human character really changed in 1910, someone would seem to have forgotten to tell quite a few humans about it.

It’s useful, then, to remember that “Modernism” was at least as much a convergence of period styles as a literary revolution. Nothing illustrates this fact quite as decisively as the poetry of Amy Lowell. Lowell, who died in 1925, was an enthusiastic modernist, a talented literary impresario, and an unremarkable poet in the Poundian imagiste mode—>which is just another way of saying that most of her poems look like this:

Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.

Of course, the above also looks a lot like this:

Through the upland meadows
I go alone.
For I dreamed of someone last night
Who is waiting for me.
Flower and blossom, tell me do you know of her?

Which in turn could easily be mistaken for this:

Frail beauty,
green, gold and incandescent whiteness,
narcissi, daffodils,
you have brought me Spring and longing,
in your irradiance.

In other words, shortly after December 1910, everyone from Amy Lowell (first quote) to John Gould Fletcher (second) to F.S. Flint (third) sounded like a Chinese translation. Viva la revolucion! Honor Moore, the editor of this volume, argues that Lowell’s achievement is best seen not in her earliest poetry, but in “the erotic lyrics she wrote to the woman with whom she lived the final twelve years of her life.” She’s right. Yet even Lowell’s strongest poems in this vein remain far less interesting than Virginia Woolf’s correspondence with Vita Sackville-West, to say nothing of Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography. But then, how could it be otherwise? Virginia Woolf was a genius; Amy Lowell was only a modernist.

Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems. Ed. by Robert Polito.
Library of America. $20.00.

Kenneth Fearing writes noir poetry, which is no surprise, considering that he also wrote several noir novels, including The Big Clock. Fearing, who died in 1962, spent his days as a journalist, pulp author, left-wing activist, pants salesman, part-time publicist, lumberjack, and all-around cynic and dark heart. His poems flirt with narrative (but rarely commit), and they’re written in a jittery free verse that sounds like the by-product of a paranoid, slightly strung-out Whitman (“The metropolitan dive, jammed with your colleagues, the derelicts; the skyscraper, owned by your twin, the pimp of gumdrops and philanthropy.... Essentially, Fearing’s poetry is what you’d get if you threw five newspapers, ten comic books, Das Kapital, the script for The Big Heat, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury into a blender and hit “puree”:

And wow he died as wow he lived
going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep
and biff got married and bam had children and
oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die.
—From Dirge

Mrs. Ralston-Beckett quoted Sir Horace Bennett. “O Beauty,” she said,

“Take your fingers off my throat, take your elbow out of my eye,
Take your sorrow off my sorrow,
Take your hat, take your gloves, take your feet down off the table,
Take your beauty off my beauty, and go.”
—From Cultural Notes

As Robert Polito points out in his skillful and entertaining introduction, “A void transmits from the core of Fearing’s enterprise.... Multifocused and decentered, all his writing frames an elaborate disappearing act.” As the poet vanishes, everything else rushes in to fill his absence—as if people, companies, and products were interchangeable. When Fearing is in satiric, Marxist mode, this leveling can seem tinny and unconvincing; the caricature of the Cadillac-craving bourgeois wasn’t all that interesting when Fearing was alive, and it’s only gotten duller since his death. What makes this poet worth reading is his unnerving command of atmosphere:

So it is resolved, upon awakening. This way it is devised, preparing for sleep. So it is revealed, uneasily, in strange dreams.
A defense against grey, hungry, envious millions. A veiled watch to be kept upon this friend. Dread that handclasp. Seek this. Smile.
—From Dividends

There are plenty of people currently writing variations on Fearing (possibly without being aware of it), but it’s tough to beat the stylish chill of the original. These poems may be leaves the wind blows from one gutter to another, but sometimes the gutter’s the only place to be.

Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poems. Ed. by Adrienne Rich.
Library of America. $20.00.

If you think of poetry as a kind of specialized social work, then you may agree when Adrienne Rich claims in her introduction to Muriel Rukeyser’s Selected Poems that “the range and daring of [Rukeyser’s] work, its generosity of vision, its formal innovations, and its level of energy are unequalled among twentieth-century American poets.” If you have a different perspective on art and life, however, you may find yourself on the side of Weldon Kees, who reviewed Rukeyser’s Wake Island with a single sentence: “There’s one thing you can say about Muriel: she’s not lazy.”

Rukeyser was born in 1913, which puts her in the generation of Bishop, Berryman, Lowell, and Jarrell. Her poems range from the sprawling to the epigrammatic; they often have a flat, documentary feel (“The tunnel is part of a huge water power project/begun, latter part of 1929”), and they’re formally various (excerpted sections from a single long poem, “Letter to the Front,” contain both a sonnet and a sestina). In her opening remarks, Rich opines that Rukeyser “created a poetics of historical sensibility—not as nostalgia but as resource to express and interpret contemporary experience and imagine a different future.” “Is she,” you might ask, “really that boring?” Fortunately, no; or at least, not always. At its best, Rukeyser’s work can be open, energetic, and well constructed, if a little enamored of its own goody-goodness (“Women and poets believe and resist forever”). Consider the precision of “Salamander”:

Red leaf. And beside it, a red leaf alive
flickers, the eyes set wide in the leaf-head,
small broad chest, a little taper of flame for tail
moving a little among the leaves like fear.

Flickering red in the wet week of rain
while a bird falls safely through his mile of air.

Often, however, Rukeyser’s poetry is every bit as tedious as Rich makes it sound. At its worst, her work has the campy, creepy tone of someone soliciting for the International Union of Absolutely Good People:

Woman, American, and Jew,
three guardians watch over you,
three lions of heritage
resist the evil of your age:
life, freedom, and memory.
Bubble of Air

It’s worth thinking about what we really mean when we pat poets like Rukeyser on the back for having a “sense of ‘the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility’” (as Rich does in her introduction). The implication of such language is that a special virtue—almost like a good citizenship badge—automatically attaches to poetry that involves phrases like “Scottsboro trial” or that urge us not “to despise the other/Not to despise the it”; or to poems that avoid irony in favor of fist-pumping affirmation. Yet Rukeyser’s alleged “complex and open political vision” has had no more (and arguably less) practical political impact than Elizabeth Bishop’s supposedly “private” poetry. Maybe it would be good to recall that disciplines like politics (and science, and medicine, and law) have their own considerable bodies of knowledge, and that poetry’s claimed engagement in these areas should be judged by the same standards the disciplines have set for themselves. And it wouldn’t hurt either to recognize that history tends to view the most “engaged” poets as those who have made art worth engaging with.

Karl Shapiro: Selected Poems. Ed. by John Updike.
Library of America. $20.00.

Time has not been kind to Karl Shapiro. It wasn’t always thus: Shapiro won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, when he was only thirty-two; he was designated Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress when he was thirty-four; and he replaced Hayden Carruth as editor of Poetry when he was thirty-seven. Yet as he was becoming one of the most famous young poets in the country—a deft formalist, a truly American Auden—he was also making a name for himself as a controversialist and all-around boat-rocker. When the first Bollingen Prize was awarded to Ezra Pound for the Pisan Cantos in 1949, Shapiro was one of only two dissenting judges—a reasonable position at the time, and one that looks even better today, but not a smart political move on a panel that included Eliot, Auden, Lowell, and Louise Bogan. And Shapiro wasn’t content simply to say “no” to Pound and move on; instead, he proceeded to take up arms against Eliot, Pound, and pretty much the entire modernist project in blistering essay collections like In Defense of Ignorance. If you’re looking for someone willing to argue that The Waste Land was a hoax, Shapiro is your guy.

To all this, one might say: so what? Self-consciously contentious poets are nothing new, and their poetry can often be all the more interesting for its iconoclasm. The problem, though, is that Shapiro was an ambivalent rebel—and the ambivalence creates a hole at the center of even his best poems. Here’s the beginning of “The Bed”:

Your clothes of snow and satin and pure blood
Are surplices of many sacraments
Full of the woven musk of birth and death,
Full of the wet wild-flower breath of marriages,
The sweat, the slow mandragora of lust.

Mandragora=mandrake root, for you Donne fans. This isn’t bad writing at all, but it’s difficult to believe that the author of these lines has his heart set on overthrowing Eliot. Even in later poems in which Shapiro does manage to jettison his modernist tendencies in favor of an aggressively bourgeois, I’m-just-a-fella stance, the rejection is so ostentatious as to beg questions about its depth (“My fame’s not feeling well;/Maybe I should get it a Fulbright...”). Reading through this work, it’s hard not to feel that if this poet had been more sure of himself, he’d be Philip Larkin; as it is, he has most of Larkin’s crabby dismissiveness but little of his fluidity or resonance. (“The beauty of manhole covers—what of that?” asks Shapiro. Good question.) Perhaps, then, he kept picking fights not because they needed to be picked, but because the conflict gave him a sense of poetic identity that was otherwise lacking. After all, if you’re fighting with Pound, you know exactly who you are: you’re the person fighting with Pound. It’s a pointless battle that Randall Jarrell captures neatly in his appraisal of the later work of one of Shapiro’s heroes, William Carlos Williams:

[Williams] is a notably unreasoning, intuitive writer—is not, of course, an intellectual in any sense of the word; and he has further limited himself by volunteering for and organizing a long dreary imaginary war in which America and the Present are fighting against Europe and the Past.

As admirable as Shapiro could be, and as obnoxious as his opponents often were, much of his work wages just such an imaginary war, and as an unfortunate result, many of his poems can be no more than imaginary victories.

John Berryman: Selected Poems. Ed. by Kevin Young.
Library of America. $20.00.

Poets, we have been told, are anxious about influence—but of course, not all influence is created equal. Most readers are familiar with Harold Bloom’s conception of Influence as a generational struggle in which Major Poets brutally subject each other to various Greek and Hebrew catchphrases. But there’s also a humbler and more common influence. This is the influence that workaday poets exert on their contemporaries, or near contemporaries—the kind of influence that depends not just on poetry, but on personality, money, prize committees, and all the accoutrements of everyday life. Given the importance we attach to Bloomian Influence, it’s not surprising that regular old influence has sometimes hoped that, with the right lighting, it might be mistaken for its big brother.

These distinctions matter when we talk about John Berryman, because his generation is only now beginning to be judged by readers too young to have had personal experience with any of its leading figures (Berryman died in 1972; Lowell in 1977; Bishop in 1979). In other words, we’re now seeing the emergence of true influence, and the steady erosion of whatever pressures extra-poetic factors may have brought to bear on these writers’ reputations. Bishop has come out well so far, Lowell is an open question, but what about Berryman? To answer that question, it helps to ask: What do younger poets sound like? Do they speak in fractured voices? Are they comic? Antic? Hard to pin down? Do they seem interested in the idea of belief, even if that interest is expressed mostly through irony and mockery? Are they nervous? If so, maybe it’s time to give Berryman a little more credit in our hierarchies.

Most poetry readers are only familiar with Berryman’s The Dream Songs, so it’s good to see that Kevin Young has broadened the usual selection in this volume. To be sure, Young includes all the Greatest Hits (“Life, friends, is boring,” etc.), but there are also substantial excerpts from Berryman’s Sonnets (the peculiar book that appeared after The Dream Songs, but was written long before) and Berryman’s later, overtly religious poetry. Young argues that “if his middle, elegiac most in need of rediscovery, then these late poems are most in need of redemption.” It’s a good point. Although portions of Berryman’s late work are sloppy and erratic, these poems help clarify the spiritual struggle that motivates and sustains his best writing. Helen Vendler has argued that The Dream Songs combine the Christian conception of conscience with psychoanalysis; that relationship is vivid in “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”:

Under new management, Your Majesty:
Thine. I have solo’d mine since childhood, since
my father’s suicide when I was twelve
blew out my most bright candle faith, and look at me.
Confusions & afflictions
followed my day. Wives left me.
Bankrupt I closed my doors. You pierced the roof
twice & again. Finally you opened my eyes.

My double nature fused in that point of time
three weeks ago day before yesterday.
Now, brooding thro’ a history of the early Church,
I identify with everybody, even the heresiarchs.

John Chrysostom once declared, “this world is not a theater in which we can laugh; and we are not assembled together in order to burst into peals of laughter, but to weep for our sins.” Against this, we can set a long tradition of agitated, comic religious writers—Dostoevsky, for one—whose relentless self-undercutting (“I identify with everybody”) mirrors their flickering faith. Whether Berryman’s late poetry is the work of a doubting believer, or of a yearning secularist, his work forms some of the oldest patterns out of newer, and perhaps darker, materials. These are prayers that many poets may find they’ve known without knowing.
Originally Published: November 28th, 2005

David Orr writes the column “On Poetry” for the New York Times Book Review. He is the author of Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011).

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