The Book Club

Gioia and Wood

Dear James Wood,

We face the rather daunting task of discussing five new volumes of poetry: The Mercy , by Philip Levine; The River Sound ; by W.S. Merwin; Figurehead, by John Hollander; Beliefs and Blasphemies , by Virginia Hamilton Adair; and Appalachia, by Charles Wright. The books cover an extremely wide range of styles and subjects. I will make some specific comments on the individual volumes as we go along, but I want to begin with some general remarks about what these books suggest about the state of American poetry. After all, the Millennium approaches. What critic can resist a little speculation?

As I read the books under review, I kept thinking how oddly the 20th century is ending for American poetry. One hundred years ago our poetry was in a dismal state. All of the great “American Renaissance” masters (Dickinson, Whitman, Longfellow, Emerson, & Co.) were dead, and no equally powerful, innovative, or even particularly interesting authors had replaced them. There was instead a great crowd of now forgotten poets, eminently capable but unoriginal talents. The early Modernists grew up in a poetic culture of exhausted and superannuated Victorianism. The prevailing fashions were decorous, verbose, high-minded, and sentimental. The last American fin de siécle was long on poetic style but short on substance.

Reacting against this soggy status quo, the Modernists refashioned American poetry in a variety of ways. Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers created what might be called a tough-minded Naturalist style. Moore, Eliot, and Pound worked out a hard-edged objective approach. Stevens explored a different sort of impersonality steeped in metaphysical speculation. Cummings, Williams, Ransom, Crane, and Hughes each made his own contribution. Ultimately, the Modernists not only changed our poetry, but together they constituted perhaps the greatest cluster of talent in the history of American literature. Although they represented a range of aesthetics, they shared a conviction that poetry benefited from compression, intensity, and evocative lyricality.

Reading these new books, I kept thinking that we were more or less back where the century started. Most of the poets are so besotted with style and amiably garrulous that it sometimes seemed I was perusing collections by late Victorians like John Davidson or William Morris. Such skill, fluency, and refinement, but so little fire. I was reminded of Morris’ famous remark after completing his first poems, “Well, if this is poetry, it is very easy to write.” (I must, however, immediately qualify my statements here by saying that none of them apply to the sole woman on our list, Virginia Hamilton Adair, whose work appears to have been written–mostly for the better–in an alternate universe. I’ll save her unique case for later.)

I find these problems particularly evident in Merwin’s new book. The River Sound is nothing if not stylish, but most of the poems seem vague, diffuse, and prolix. Style, of course, has been Merwin’s one abiding passion. For fifty years he has moved restlessly from one poetic manner to another. The new book shows him frequently returning to traditional form and exploring narrative. At the center of The River Sound stand three long poems: “Lament for the Makers,” “Suite in the Key of Forgetting,” and “Testimony.” These three pieces make up more than half the book, and they reveal Merwin at both his strongest and weakest. “Lament for the Makers,” which first appeared as the title piece of Merwin’s 1996 poetry anthology, seems to me the best poem in the new book, but it displays an odd sort of excellence. The poem is a contemporary version of William Dunbar’s famous sixteenth century elegy on the transience of life and the passing of fellow poets like Chaucer and Gower. Merwin not only copies Dunbar’s meter, stanza, tone, theme, narrative structure, and title; he even adopts a slightly archaic phrasing. The poem begins with these oddly awkward lines:

I that all through my early days
I remember well was always
          the youngest of the company
          save for one sister after me

But the poem quickly takes flight, and its total effect is quite touching. In borrowed antique clothes, Merwin convincingly acts out the story of his own poetic career, lamenting the passing of his literary heroes, friends, and mentors. The poem achieves an emotional intensity, immediacy, and specificity beyond anything else in the book. Although it runs over 200 lines, it also displays a compactness that the other two long poems lack.

“Testimony,” the volume’s longest poem (which continues for nearly forty pages), adopts a similar strategy but never takes off. It, too, is modeled on another poem, Francois Villon’s famous “Great Testament” of 1461. I found Merwin’s poem so dull, digressive, and sentimental that I went back to reread Villon. Maybe that villainous French criminal was to blame. But, no, Villon’s “Testament” was still terrific–by turns funny, touching, outrageous, and lyrical. The climax of the original poem is a series of lusty and resonant bequests. Villon wills poems, weapons, insults, and ribaldry to his mostly disreputable friends. By contrast, Merwin bequeaths bland and pleasant memories in flat-footed rhymes. The emotion remains private because the language insufficiently embodies it. Here is a typical bequest:

to Harry Ford so he will have
somewhere disposed to keep body
and soul agreeable I leave
at the moment the Gramercy
Tavern and Union Square Café
both for variety an art
demands devotion constantly
though the taste of it may be short

I am tempted to say that the moral here is that a poet is better off associating with pickpockets, whores, cutthroats, and vagabonds than with artists and intellectuals, but I don’t think that is entirely true. The lesson is that fine sentiments don’t necessarily make fine poetry, and lots of sensitive description contribute less than a single luminous phrase. There are three or four fine short poems in The River Sound, but, most of the volume seems overlong and underpowered.

But perhaps this book changed your life. Am I just suffering from Modernist-envy or pre-Millennium malaise? Please advise.


Dana Gioia