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"Think What's Got Away . . ."

The Hazards of Holiness , by Brother Antoninus. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962.

Traveling through the Dark , by William Stafford. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Imperatives , by Anthony Ostroff. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1962.

Uncle Dog , by Robert Sward. London: Putnam, 1962.

Children Passing , by Richard Emil Braun. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962.

A Wedge of Words , by Frederic Will. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962.

A Local Pride , by Raymond Souster. Toronto: Contact Press, 1962.

Run with the Hunted , by Charles Bukowski. Chicago: Midwest Poetry Chapbooks, 1962.

Letter to an Imaginary Friend , by Thomas McGrath. Denver: Swallow Press, 1962.

My Friend Tree , by Lorine Niedecker. Edinburgh: Wild Hawthorne Press, 1961.

One tends to value any kind of statement for what one can take from it as a content, or a state of feeling some way about something, a viable association between what the statement has "said"

Poetry , April 1963.


and what terms of response it can gain in who hears it. We learn young that the way in which some thing is said, the tone of voice, the literal words used, and all the relations implied in the context of their use—all these say "things" too. It is equally a commonplace that in a poem such content may have, finally, a greater value for the reader than the literal facts the poem is otherwise making clear.

The work of Brother Antoninus begins, first of all, with a very emphatic content, characterized by him as follows: "A poem, like a dream, is a 'whole' to the extent that it registers the mystery of the psychic complex which produced it." The Hazards of Holiness is a collection of specific tests, of "scalps torn dripping from the skulls of interior adversaries," which last way of speaking will not outrage those who are willing to admit that a "Dark Night of the Soul" may exist for a man who attempts to find himself in relation to God. Again as Brother Antoninus says, "These are the terrible wrestlings his verse begins to register; and this is the harrowing ambiguity, so fraught with terror and mystery and meaning, that cross-riddles this demon-haunted realm."

Such a way of speaking will have, of course, an immediate impact, and it will either be one of respect and sympathy for the man who has so endured, to speak, or it will be perhaps a questioning of such an invention of agony in a world so substantially tormented. Either response will here depend on the reader's own relation to the literal facts dealt with, the faith in God which is the issue. But, in either case, there can be without such question a simple response to the ways the words are working, as here:

Christ-cut: the cedar
Bleeds where I gashed it.

Lance-wound under the narrow rib.

Eve's orifice: the agony of Abel
Enacted out on the Tree.

Blood gushed
From the gash . . .

The heavy, harshly stressed alliteration is sign of the intent, and it is, at times, a rhetoric that is present apart from demands of specific content; I find this most the case, for example, in the more dramatic poems, as "Saints" and the two parts of the title poem. I do not like—and it is my taste which qualifies: "Herodias, that corrosive female wrath, / Black grasp of the invidious breed, / Blanched, swore blooded reprisal . . ." But I cannot avoid or deny the force of


this language, despite my own characterization of it as often melodramatic, that is, an enlargement of occasion purely willed. What the poems effect is a language, itself a formality, a distinct way of engaging feeling, a testing of tones of response and recognition. They speak in one voice because their occasion—despite the variation of subject—is always the same, the search for substantial faith.

The poems of William Stafford are, in some contrast, much quieter in tone. But, despite the frequent colloquialisms, an equally conscious rhetoric seems to me at work. For example, it is present I think in this kind of balance of manners: "no acrobat of salvation, / I couldn't help seeing. . . ." Stafford familiarizes his reality, makes it often subject to a "we," generalizing in that way the personal insight. The primary tones of his work are those of nostalgia, of a wry wit, often, which can make peace with the complexities of times and places. He says "that some kind of organization / is the right way to live." The danger is simply that things will become cozy ("The earth says have a place . . ."), and that each thing will be humanized to an impression of it merely. When the irony can outwit this tendency, then an active intelligence comes clear. In the following poem I am put off by the personifications of the first verse, but, in fairness, they do underline what becomes the point of the second:

Found in a Storm

A storm that needed a mountain
met it where we were:
we woke up in a gale
that was reasoning with our tent,
and all the persuaded snow
streaked along, guessing the ground.

We turned from that curtain, down.
But sometime we will turn
back to the curtain and go
by plan through an unplanned storm,
disappearing into the cold,
meanings in search of a world.

Formalization of intelligence, or whatever to call it—that is, the manner which wants to invest subject with its own wit before there is any subject—can become a great problem. At present there seems still a "style of the period" which got its authority from the work of the New Critics, and which still lingers, heavily, despite the fact that it grows increasingly out of fashion. All fashion is a distraction, and perhaps old modes, in this respect, are really more pleas-


ant than new ones. But I must object, just that I lived through it, to the manner in which Anthony Ostroff writes. Here is the first poem in his book:

Matinal: The Stockyards

Wooly wooly

The bright brick shines

The sheep's feet peck there
All in a line

And lines in lines
Moves out on the wet

Brick in the light

The sheep forget

This is not the primary tone of the book, or, rather, the way in which the poems are usually organized or directed. The book is really a collection of literary manners, exercises, in conventional styles of our day. There is a "Dirge" ("Where are the lips, the breast, the thigh / That were such poetry . . ."), a "Folk Song" ("Sing deathily, deathily, deathily sing. / The crops are to seed and the seeds are rotting . . ."), and other usual visits to the country, elegies, "littlest sister," and so on. The technical means seem competent, although stiffly present—again, the will "to write" "a poem" is dominant. And the intelligence is so battered in the process of getting it all, just so, together, that very little otherwise gets said. It is taste, as ever, balking, but I cannot react any longer to tricks like this one: "The library thinks of itself I think . . ." I question that anyone is thinking at all.

Problems coming in pairs, Robert Sward joins Anthony Ostroff to drive the point home. What are literary "manners" and how can we be rid of them, so that poetry can become again an active investment of all the range of language and all the reality which can be found there? Sward's humor is a good sign, but why destroy the poem with banality:

Hello wife, hello world, hello God,
I love you; hello certain monsters . . .

And why insist, so often, that the range of experience dealt with has to be an itsy-bitsy business of tiny tots and their ironic elders? The assumption that all childhood memories—or these curious recollections that now pass as such—are intrinsically valuable baffles


me. In Sward's book there are also letters to a psychiatrist, take-offs on advertisements, odd animals (and again I wish these could be let rest), and other arch inventions. I like best those poems in which he does invent, wildly and wittily ("Beach Scenes—and Other Scenes" for one), but here also the wiseguy manner grows tiresome.

It is curious, if terrifying, to see how deeply a literary manner can cut into resources that must, at some level, be holding the whole unwieldy coherence together. Richard Emil Braun has a complicated and interesting mind, but he wants to say everything in one breath, not so much grandly as conclusively:

             The bodies of the children
whose characters I am hired to strengthen are grotesque:
        faces eruptive, extremities
      disproportionate, voices stridulous.
The ensemble, ugly with cruel, abrupt
        asynchronous growth cripples their minds
which I am paid to fortify by means of Caesar . . .

And I can sympathize with what's going on in his head, so to speak, having taught Latin to such children in the Southwest. But what happens, then, to the poem—is what I question. I am not, I hope, being sentimental. In any case, he tends to "subjectivize" the poem's content to that point where no possibility of what's outside him remains volatile, free in its own term, even when he "speaks" in the guise of the several voices he chooses, as in "Late Promenades."

When the literal thought of the poem has energy, then a sharper gauge of means seems to occur. There is not that working up of a subject so dulling in Ostroff, or so glib in Sward. Frederic Will writes in a traditionally developed manner, but he feels perceptions in a poem specifically:

Across the Street

Those berries on fire from fire:
I shall repair
Losses of passion here.

Memling would have held the instant
Sure in a cardinal's hat
Taking it down in sight.

I am less sure.
What will not cool from the word,
Ashed in the very instant?
Lost, when heard?


The last line gives pause, certainly, for reflection. I wish something freer, quicker, might have been found for the statement of the second two lines; Memling is also a distraction, though that is clearly my opinion. I don't like the "Ashed . . ." in the next to the last line. But the poem is interesting, it says something beyond a manner; and no matter what I may cavil at, I hear it.

In a like sense one hears this poem by Raymond Souster:

Morning Certainly

Coming back from away out, a darkness,
there is light at the window
my clothes are on the chair, as if waiting,
there is even
someone in bed with me.

After so much self-consciousness and preening, I like the flatness, the very openness of this language. It is simply said, but I had never thought of it that way, and I am left, quietly, with the perception.

But it isn't all that quickly an issue of a vocabulary because Charles Bukowski uses very open speech, and common sentiments and references. But not the same thing comes of it; " . . . hooray say the roses, today is blamesday / and we are red as blood . . ." does not think in the way that Souster's poem thinks. Souster also at times drops to a level of response that he knows too well, feels even too comfortably, despite the pain of the reference. The starved, the poor, the bewildered, the dragged, sullen reality of usual life does not want, or not want, to be a poem. The work is still to be done.

Even a life is no continuity, it happens here and there, now —then it was or will be. Letter to an Imaginary Friend , by Thomas McGrath, is very moving in the world it makes tangible in its opening sections, the harsh farm world of a young boy:

 . . . I couldn't quit. I came out of sleep at four
Dazed and dreaming and ate my food on the run,
And ran to the barn . . .

Then it tends to become programmatic, crossed by defined purposes, as are even the terms of love it meets with early. Approximations of reality take the place of literal orders, or, more fairly, the reader is given attitudes rather than precise contexts: "Now in the chill streets / I hear the hunting, and the long thunder of money. . . ."

How can such life be told? In his introduction to Lorine Niedecker's My Friend Tree , Edward Dorn makes a useful comment: "What


is in will come out, it does not always work the other way. . . ." And he ends by saying: "I like these poems because first they attach an undistractable clarity to the word, and then because they are unabashed enough to weld that word to a freely sought, beautifully random instance—that instance being the only thing place and its content can be. . . ." I cannot believe that there is anything, finally, to be proven. All we see, we see. By nature, then, and of course unfairly, I will stick with Miss Niedecker, who writes:

Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what's got away in my life!
Was enough to carry me thru.


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