There are so many competing voices in contemporary poetry that any attempt to describe it in terms of opposing principles may be a futile exercise. Nevertheless, four recent books seem to represent the best possibilities of two conspicuous, contrary currents: on the one hand, the minimalist poetry of the image which has become the dominant (perhaps too dominant) way of presenting the inner life; on the other, a poetry that goes farther than ever in the incorporation of prose and speech tonelities, in order to deal with a wider range of seemingly prosaic experience.
Gregory Orr has a parable -- When Trakl crossed over, the angels accused him of the same poem again and again. He held up the face God gave him and showed them the deep and lovely line a single, recurring tear, sliding earthward, carved on a stone cheek. -- which sounds like a defense of the first kind of poetry against the criticism (leveled, often, by practitioners of the second) that it is formulaic in its language and monotonous in its concern with alienation. It is an eloquent defense, if not an absolutely convincing one (surely no one weeps continuously; and surely the best poets do bring many facets of their personalities to bear). a
But in Orr's case, it may be no more and no less than the truth. All of his best poetry so far has centered around the fact that he accidentally shot and killed his brother when he was 12 years old. With that event, he fell out of the world of richness and variety, and could regain it only by a prolonger purgative reliving of the trauma -- a reliving which is itself called a "steady weeping," and which finds a voice in the bleak, halting movement of the poems. The Red House (Harper & Row, $9.95; paperback, $4.95) concludes this story, in the almost heartbreaking last poem of the title sequence. But even when the dead brother is left behind, Orr's best poems (with one partial exception, "Walking Home After the First Encounter") are, like the Trakl poem, tragic in tone. At the moment -- one hopes it will not always be true -- when Orr tries to write of relaxation, maturity, happiness, he falls into pop psychology ("you never/let the early hurt be felt and so/it governs you"). Or else, lacking the pressure of anguish, he becomes indistinguishable from many duller young poets who value the visual record too much, the word and the line too little -- as in the following passage: We lie at dusk on the naked bank, watching as a red-winged blackbird perches on a cattail stalk and a muskrat paddles slowly through weedy shallows toward its mound.
The very existence of Louis Gluck's poetry constitutes a judgment on such writing, for she combines the stripped-down the imagistic, with a kind of splendor usually associated with the full-voiced masters. Consider these lines, which deal with the archetypal persons we sometimes feel we become in sex: At that time it was winter already. By day the sun rose in its helmet of fire and at night also, mirrored in the moon. Its light passed over us freely, as though we had lain down in order to leave no shadows, only those two shallow dents in the snow.
What is reticent, or muted, in these lines seems a part of the poignancy and the fearful awe; Helen Vendler has spoken of Gluck's "unearthly" and Almost posthumous tone." The title, Descending Figure (The Ecco Press, $9.95), suggests both the descent to the dead and the descent from Eden or a Platonic pre-existence. And the theme of an almost suicidal recoil against the death inextricably entangled with life is explored throughout the book, both in personal contexts (mourning, anorexia) and in cosmic ones (a retelling of the first chapters of Genesis). This gives the book a scope and unity missing in Gluck's fine earlier collection, The House on Marshland . There are occasional lapses: sometimes Gluck, like Orr, falls into banal psychologizing ("the need to hurt / binds you to your partner"); sometimes the poem's judgment seems grimmer than any provided context would justify ("Portland, 1968"). But at her best, Gluck reminds one of those early Renaissance painters she often alludes to: the gold leaf; the sparse, delicate, angular figures; the never-absent sense of the impingement of Last Things.
Louis Simpson tells us, early in Caviare at the Funeral (Franklin Watts, $7.95), that as a young man he aspired to be a novelist, not a poet. This is interesting, because while he has few of the strictly poetic virtues -- lushness of sound, interesting lineation, brilliant imagery -- he has so many of the novelistic ones -- conciseness, rightness of detail, inventive forms of delayed exposition -- that the reader quickly forgives him. Above all, he has the fiction writer's unaffected interest in a vast variety of people: some poor, some rich and corrupt; some Jewish, some as mid-American as you can get. With the latter, he is occasionally simplistic ("The Ice Cube Maker"); but for the most part he avoids falling either into satire or into the glorification of non-intellectual lives as somehow more "human." Rather, his poems concern themselves with the conflict, in all of us, between the unique individual we are for ourselves and the type we become for others. All of the best poems in the book could end as "A Bower of Roses" does: He supposed this was what life taught you, that words you thought were a joke, and applied to someone else, were real, and applied to you.
One instance of Simpon's subtlety as a storyteller will have to suffice. In a poem about the Normandy invasion, the speaker suspends time, leaving his past self pinned down under German fire, to reminate about a passage in Dotoevsky in which a man must choose either "to die, or to stand on a ledge / through all eternity." "Men who have stepped off the ledge," he tells us, "know all there is to know"; and then -- and only then -- As it turned out, we didn't have to, Instead, they used Typhoons.
The poem ends: Yet, like the man on the ledge, I still haven't moved . . . watching an ant climb a blade of grass and climb back down. This is masterly; and several other poems have equal narrative power -- notably "New Lots," "Sway," "Unfinished Life."