IT WASN'T SO LONG AGO that many of the poets of this country had intentionally and intensively to do with political and social terms common to us all. Whatever their disagreements otherwise, they came together in the integrity of their public commitment. Even now one may regain some sense of those days in Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night with its vignettes of political protest in which the unlikely company of Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Ed Sanders, and many, many more all stood up and were counted, and took the consequences. Our lives these days have certainly grown quieter, more muted, and the oblique blandness of much of the poetry now written must be an effect of the national temper. Even the proposed emotions seem largely symbolic.
These four books of selected poems -- by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Daryl Hine, John Logan and Gilbert Sorrentino -- are therefore a curious recollection of a time some of us only remember faintly, and some not at all.
Endless Life: Selected Poems (New Directions, $14.95; paperback, $4.95) is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's own selection from some 40 years of his work, and I think the result proves a stury rehearsal of his virtues: tough, public humor and accessibility. If J. Edgar Hoover (remember him?) once said of this poet, "it appears Ferlinghetti may possibly be a mental case . . . ," he is surely that person we dearly want the wit of, faced with such "institutions" as Hoover suggests, inside or out: The world is a beautiful place to be born into if you don't mind happiness not always being so very much fun ("The World Is a Beautiful Place")
From the early poems, with their wry, backhanded literacy and good-natured hope, to the final poem, a "work-in-progress" in which the insistent repetition of "Endless" is both an ingenuously proposed belief ("Endless the splendid life of the world/ Endless its lovely living and breathing") and a abetterly ironic emphasis ("Endless the waiting for God and Godot/ the absurd actions absurd plans and the plays/ dilemmas and the delays . . .), one is made to recognize the public consequence of any personal existence. We don't, we cannot, live alone: Home to the bed we made and must lie in with whoever' Or home to the bed still to be made of rags & visions the bed whose form is pure light (and unheard melodies dark despairs & inchoate ecstasies longings out of reach) who to decipher them who answer them singing each to each? ("Home Home Home")
No doubt this will read nostalgically to some, appropriately enough. There is, however, another kind of nostalgia present in Daryl Hine's Selected Poems (Atheneum, $11.95; paperback, $6.95). That part of Canada from which he comes, British Columbia, has still a significant incidence of literal "colonials" and, in yet another sense, the place of his "home," Vancouver Island, is self-consciously more "British" than the mother country. So one feels an unexpected kinship in his tone with writers as various as Edward Braithwaite and Alan Curnow, who are also far from the initiating places of their imagination. Therefore Hine's poems often read as tests of some imagined order, demonsotrations of a questioned ability, although who has so questioned him or thus set the test is never clear. These seems some haunting specter of taste as well, a demand for a practiced urbanity, cosmopolitan and cool inbearing, yet often forced to a shrillness tacitly hysterical: Ithyphallic, dactyl, Iambelegiac, Such cosmetic measures Seem preservatives or Spices to embalm the Evanescent sentence. Metrical devices With corrective lenses Bring the phrase in focus. Form is recognition Of an underlying Symmetry in something ("My Optics")
Of course this is a put-on, and becomes rather brutally more so. But it is an isolating use of humor, and it may be noted that much of the writing has the tone of a private joke, if not the fact. I am most moved by the poem no doubt the most ineptly vulnerable, "A.B.C. Diary," concerning the return of its author to his home. It is a grimly unfunny text despite the omnipresent "wit": My family present me with a bill Overdue and unreceipted still? I'll pay it if it kills me, and it will. Funny, under so much natural beauty To discern the dull deathhs head of duty Fixed in an uncompromising grin! We resident aliens end where we begin.
That particularly common wish to be one of the elect, to have the final authority of a generalized and generalizing "we," seems to me antithetically distant from the person of John Logan's selected poems. As he says, Only the Dreamer Can Change the Dream (The Ecco Press, $14.95), and it proves of necessiry a lonely and harshly difficult undertaking. If there is to be, finally, no appeal to a securing system, of whatever order or need, then measure and judgment have only the fact of one's life as context, and that situation would define the specifically human. This, I feel, is John Logan's undertaking, and the poems record, densely, compactly, the progress of both art and life in a remarkably explicit communion. From the very first poem his "we" is the factuala company of friends, and the "I" of his writing is unabashedly -- Americanly , one wants to say -- the real John Logan of his own perception and experience. He shambles, dances, feels and falls and he is able, and if one occasionally grows impatient with his sometimes sentimentalizing affections, one would hardly chide him for their being here -- because he is here, and that is the humanly endearing point.
In fact, no one of these poets can be more eloquently present than he, and that is a very large valur in these times of proliferating masquerade. There is a lovely poem included here which, when I first heard him read it, brought the proverbial tears to my eyes -- it was so nakedly present in its feeling. It's a poem found late in the book, a poem of a little over seven pages so it cannot be fairly represented. However, here is some suggestion of its power: And you -- you danced with me, sometimes led sometimes followed. I knew what loving meant and for the first time pointed myself toward your woman's heart -- tried to touch it with my groping, masculine hand as I felt you grip me and ungrip me with your closing and opening body . . . The great, bright, mooon shaped crab creature rests, having just crawled up on the shore. Land leans away from the sea. A giant cloud, changing shape, leaves the sky black or blue or gray. The crimson crowned, great eyed king is dead, but long live his shriveled child! Every troubled, dreaming young man lets go the girl in his hand. And the tired parents of each of us turn over to sleep at last. ("New Poem")
If Logan echoes the great, tender hopes of the old-time High Modern and can recall such weirdly provocative puns as "Germs Choice" while, incidentally, admonishing Hart Crane for committing suicide, then Gilbert Sorrentino's Selected Poems 1958-1980 (Black Sparrow, $20; paperback, $7.50) reads as a remarkable survival of that appetite all those masters had for language, for what one could make, literally, out of words. Sorrentino is the only writer of the present company whose authority extends equally to the novel (Mulligan Stew brought him international acclaim in 1978) and whose work as a critic (specifically, his unyielding support of the late Louis Zukofsky) was often a daily affair as well as a lifelong commitment.
The physical solidity of this book, the literal bulk, is a great complement to what Sorrentino has put into it -- said simply, a lot . Though I have known his work for years, I am fascinated to have so much of it in one ample collection, so that one may see the continuity of his invention, his delight in the toughness, the humor, of formal sesign, the playful echo of those he has loved and used, such as William Carlos Williams. He is here as he imagined all those years ago one might learn to be, and he is very good. Best therefore to let him have the last word with what is the last poem in his book -- "the latest," as Charles Olson would say: To wear those old moccasins with the backs Broken down and sockless as well was a fashion Germane to certain modes of departing. All now Dark as the grave and silent and the streets Though trafficked as always are not trafficked By them. The awesome nonechalance with which things Disappear. Not to be thought of as complaint But as a kind of knowledge that is incommunicable Because who cares? Who relentlessly peers At his own materials his impedimenta Blotters Paper flowers yearbooks photographs faces That were young a minute or two ago and Experience sits as it sits ten letters Useless but to get "the story" told to prove Again oh again and again that love although Insanely difficult is as they say It. A certain turn of the head the registration Of laughter and all of it always going away Going away as Who sits words skirling out Of him to seeled in a mode of departure Stepping out smartly toward the silence death. ("Bright Nightgown")