THE GULF IS WIDENING in American verse between poetry that speaks from experience and makes its appeal through sensuous images, narrative, and drama, and poetry that is highly mannered, aiming to derive pleasure from words alone. The new books I am about to discuss show the contrast clearly. They are all first books -- John Bensko's has been published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and Jared Carter's has been given the Walt Whitman Award for 1980 by the Academy of American Poets.
John Bensko's Green Soldiers (Yale University Press, $9.95; paperback, $4.95) opens with imaginary scenes and incidents: the poet Garcia Lorca and a one-legged schoolteacher are shot; a "Young Woman at Amiens: 1914" watcher her friend march off to the Great War. The object of inventing history in this way is to make us feel it as present. Like his "Veteran of the Great War" the poet " . . . calls together the neighborhood children/and tells them stories in which every day/is today." Words create history -- words, therefore, may be history.
The secong half of Green Soldiers speaks to a later generation and the setting is domestic -- instead of the Western Front, a house and back yard. It begins innocently enough with: Lemon peels, freshly ground ginger in a pile on the table, all the bright faces washed and ready for eating. But we fall out of this Eden -- "We learn," says the narrator, "to be good/at being guilty," and the guilt grows by leaps and bounds. In "The Pet Cat" the tale is of a cat that has eaten a canary and the retribution visited upon the cat. In this house and yard an Aeschylea tragedy develops, involving the child and his mother. Clytemnestra, Orestes, and the Furies are in the yard, watched by a chorus of toads, ants and bees. The child moves into a universe of disembodied hands and manic behavior. The only solution appears to be to mediate and imagine. So the love and the meditation go on, turning a white sheet and a girl into a night blooming cactus. This is a very bright, a brilliant book. John Bensko should go far.
J. D. McClatchy is also concerned to affirm the reality of imagination, as the title of his book, Scenes from Another Life (Braziller; paperback, $495), indicates. However, there is a vast difference between the two poets. Bensko writes transparent language and relies on images of intensity; the words, to use Whitman's description, don't stand like curtains between the reader and what is being presented. McClatchy on the other hand writes in a formal style that draws attention to itself. There is a marked subordination of meaning, or any drama of feeling or idea, to the form of expression. At times he echoes W. H. Auden -- it is certainly the manner of Auden we hear in "A Capriccio of Roman Ruins and Sculpture with Figures," and in these lines from "The Tears of the Pilgrims": Driving back across the border After a cheap dinner in Spain, The startling burst of bonfires -- Some in tenament courtyards, But most in parking lots Where anyone's car and orange crates Burnt up and up into votive sparks -- Made us simultaneously afraid And playful, as if (but by that time Local friends in the backseat Had explained tonight was St. John's Eve) We too could have stopped to circle Those shooting flames all night long.
Richard Howard, who wrote the introduction, says that the strength of McClatchy's poems is in their "attending" to both "the merely lived life, experience, which means death, and, on the other side, to the splendors of the life imagined, vision, which means -- for him, at least -- love." But for this reader the poems did not measure up to the praise: the experiences rendered by McClatchy are a bit tame, the splendors tend to be touristic. I am surprised to see a poet writing in 1980 as though he were writing in 1950 -- as though he were unconscious of anything, any experiment in language or form, that had happened in between.
The subordination of feeling or drama to a formal arrangement is as marked as Douglas Crase's The Revisionist (Little, Brown, $10.95; paperback $5.95). I don't mind poet's using a mannered style -- Yeats, for instance, could be very grand -- but I object to verbosity, and Crase is verbose. And he uses abstract language: For a person, it gets to be a matter of concern Being the transport of too many arguments not your own And under a season patiently endured . . . so that his argument is obscure -- and he is always arguing. But in fact, what this writing produces is not a line of argument but a sound. It is what philosophy sounds like. As with the later poems of Wallace Stevens, to understand what Crase is saying you would have to study the poem -- you cannot grasp it as a whole, sound and meaning both, while his ponderous sentences are unrolling. That is to say, there is the disassociation of sensibility split between sound and meaning, Eliot pointed out to 50 years ago. Some poets and critics actually seem to prefer it -- this is why Stevens has been having a vogue. They prefer ratiocination to the kind of involvement that lyrical and dramatic poetry demands.
The following passage by Crase will show what I mean when I say that he is producing the sound of philosophy -- lulling, no doubt, to those who like it. So many versions at any time are all exemplary (In fog, suspended drops of rain; in a blizzard, Each driven crystal the authentic apotheosis of the snow) It is impossible to choose, to even want to choose From millions of improbably accurate identities, Things as they are. Selection magnifies, but concurrently It excludes and how can that be satisfactory When present estates, so-called, include all recollections Of what they were as well as the motives for remembering them? ("The Lake Effect") Throughout his book Crase refers to topography, geology and the weather in order to raise questions about the nature of perception. But we don't arrive at any insights, for ideas in poems have no effect unless they are realized in images or embodied in an action we can see and feel.
Jared Carter is at the opposite extreme from Crase and McClatchy, taking his place with the poets who create images and may even create characters and a story. The poems in Work, for the Night Is Coming (Macmillan, $10.95; paperback $5.95) are about small town lives. He owes something to Rousseau and Wordsworth, finding virtue in rural scenes and people who are almost inarticulate. It is an American tradition to find poetry titled "Tintypes," a series of monologues delivered by the dead, is strongly reminiscent of Spoon River. Sam Bass, "train robber and outlaw," describes the manner of his dying: It took three days for me to bleed to death. People crowded around the shack Where they had me, but I never talked.
He concludes, If a man knows anything He ought to die with it in him. This poetry is plain-spoken and as hard as 10-penny nails.
Carter will have to guard against another American tradition that ties in with sympathy for the inarticulate -- the tendency to say nothing at all. In order to offset this he develops a significant, emotive ending, as in the lines quoted above, moving the poem outward. This could lead to moralizing, however. His best writing is in lines that present experience just as it is: There is the bar where she went each night to sit There is the sparkling SCHLITZ sign over the mirror There is the jukebox that only works if you kick it. ("Walking the Ties") This is how poetry is found in America, not in some green pastoral scene. But it takes courage to hang in there. No wonder some poets would like to escape in artificial language, a structure and style as far removed from speech as possible. As Baudelaire said, "Anywhere . . . out of the world."