THE POETS considered here -- though different in age and school -- all raise, in one way or another, the question of rhetoric. By rhetoric, in poetry, we generally mean language that announces its intended emotional effect in advance: telling the reader, say, that depth is "nameless," a cave "mystic," a distance "immeasurable" -- examples taken from the first poem in Robert Penn Warren's new book, Rumor Verified (Random House, $9.95; paperback, $5.95). Creative-writing teachers invariably tell their students to avoid this sort of thing: to suggest the feeling, not to name it. But in a handful of great poets (W. B. Yeats, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell) and good ones (Allen Tate, Robinson Jeffers), the very honesty of the technique triumphs -- usually when underscored by a peculiar mastery of the hypnotic powers of rhythm and sound. Intellectual seriousness, structural coherence, are also important; the reader needs to trust the hand that is leading him on so imperiously.
Robert Penn Warren, at his best, possesses these qualities in abundance. In the whiplash of his long line, the most ordinary syntax becomes tense, muscular, searching. His ear is formidable, though given to strong effects rather than graceful ones. To quote again from the same poem ("Miditerranean Basin 1"), "the gull's high cry/Of mercilessly joyful veracity" may be a little abstract for contemporary taste, but how it makes one hear the sound, half caw, half keening! At the end of the poem, we find an instance of the metaphorical intelligence we might expect from the co-author, a generation back, of the classic textbook on the close reading of poetry. Two lovers are swimming back, by straight, from their secret beach: At arch-height of every stroke, at each fingertip, hangs One drop, and the drops -- one by one -- are About to fall, each a perfect universe defined By its single, minuscule, radiant, enshrined star. The star, as an image for the centrality, the repose found in love, goes back to Shakespeare, and farther. The wave, or the droplet of water, has at least as long a history as an image for the transitoriness of the flesh. Combined in this novel, arresting way, the images express a mixed judgment on the redemptive power of sexual love, in just the way that the younger Warren, the New Critic, would have prized.
Warren's best writing is so good than one is puzzled that he lets himself publish as much bad writing as he does. The badness is always of the same kind: abstraction slipping over into cliche ("the unhearable lonely wolf-howl of grief," "The mystery of love's redeeming smile"), rhetoric into melodrama. In the second part of "Mediterranean Basin," he describes the fall of Minoan Crete according to the volcanic eruption (Thira-Atlantis) hypothesis: And then think how, lost in the dimness of aeons, sea sloshed Like suds in a washing machine, land heaved, and sky At noon darkened, and darkness, not like any metaphor, fell, And in that black fog gulls screamed as the feathers of gull-wing From white flash to flame burst. That was the hour When rooftree or keystone of palaces fell, and Priest's grip drew backward curls of the king's son until Throat-softness was tightened. . . . Cecil B. De Mille would have done about the same thing with the content; and as to poetry -- "dimness of aeons"? "darkness, not like any metaphor"? that "washing machine"?
Rumor Verified's 94 pages constitute two years' work; so it's hard to escape the impression that Warren is writing, or publishing, too fast. He has the less reason to, because so many of his poems are really the same poem, a landscape meditation leading inescapably back to one of a few external questions: flux and permanence, fate and free will, existential dread. But at his best Warren is very good indeed; particularly to be recommended, besides "Mediterranean Basin 1," are "Millpond Lost," "Dawn," "Snow Out of Season," "Going West," and (chiefly for the ending) "Questions You Must Learn to Live Past."
Dave Smith, a younger poet extravagantly praised by Warren, shares his conception of literary power without quite sharing his schooled assurance in the making of verse. Smith relies heavily, often too heavily, on phrases like "the vein/ in the heart of the world"; "the deeps that wash up/ holy and unpredictable"; "the worm that night-long lies in the waiting hearts"; "the appalling livied truth that/love is." There is often something awkward and hasty about Smith's handling of form; to give one minor instance, he breaks a line, "killed and prayed/ over whatever flew, squatted, or swam" -- destroying the natural syntactic unit, and making "over" appear to go with both verbs, for the sake of a theatrical contrast ("killed and prayed") and a barely adequate pentameter.
Nevertheless, Smith is a poet of real and substantial gifts, especially in longer narrative forms. He has psychological subtlety; an eye for the exact, and not too obviously symbolic, detail; and a storyteller's instinct for gradual, fragmented, or revealingly distorted disclosures. In the best poems in Dream Flights (University of Illinois Press, $10; paperback, $4.95) these talents are combined with a maturity and restraint rarely found in Smith's last volume, Goshawk, Antelope. Consider this frontier funeral scene, from "The Traveling Photographer: Circa 1880": They were waiting, still in the usual way, He could not tell them from a thousand others scattered, cinders of a prairie fire. Father and mother centered, grandfather, sleeve pinned up, children like stairs, too many. Seat the smallest in the dirt, let them have legs crossed. Dead in the middle, in tiny coffin, the laced burden upright against the sod door. Stitching, fine red and green thread blossoms on its tiny nightgown. Every detail is right; one (the "children like stairs") is unforgettable. What is awkward here -- the verbless catalogue -- is entirely functional; it captures the photographer's terrible, dismissive weariness, and thereby makes all the more poignant the final revelation of fragile, useless human care. "The Traveling Photographer" is the best poem in the book, by far; but others that share its virtues include "Tide Pools," "Going Home: Ben's Church, Virginia," and "The Colors of Our Age: Pink and Black."
There seems to be an unfortunate fad these days of publishing two books at once; and Smith, following on Philip Levine and Richard Hugo, has given Dream Flights a somewhat thinner and more miscellaneous companion volume, Homage to Edgar Allan Poe (Louisiana State University Press, $12.95; paperback, $5.95). The title poem is particularly disappointing, claiming a kinship with Poe which proves to be mainly geographical. Smith can identify, in a loose, almost universal way, with Poe's sexual ambivalence; but he is far too hearty a temperament to have much understanding either of Poe's nerves or of his airy intellectual refinement.
The one interesting surprise in this book is that Smith has been trying to learn to write short, delicate lyrics -- many of them even rhymed. Some of these are exercises, barely worthy of print ("The Abused [Hansel and Gretel]"); others are graceful but very slight ("Bluejays," "Desks"); a few are excellent, like the "Portrait of a Lady" in her garden: And if, then, her brow in light sweat breaks to wear the mask that runs to mud along bone, let us lean close and watch and hear her stab as deep as ever through the hours. She was beautiful once and may be again.
This isn't enough to deserve a separate book; but, taken together with the best of Dream Flights, it is welcome evidence of a new discipline, concentration, and artistic maturity.
In including, David Ignatow under the heading of rhetoric, I am afraid I really meant preachiness. Whisper to the Earth (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $10.95; paperback, $6.95) is full of a kind of contemporary natural piety: "I am of the family of the universe, and with all of us together I do not fear being alone." Much of the book is prose-poetry, a genre which is a handful of cases has justified its existence, but which often, as here, is merely a more modest name for sermons, parables, and philosophizing. The lyrics in the book often have the same tone, and, in addition, are so stiff-kneed as poetry that one suspects a self-deprecating irony which never clearly emerges: And now I wish to pray and perform a ritual of my devotion to the sun. I will bow and sing beneath by breath, then perform the dance of farewell and my confidence in the sun's return.
(The echo here of Wallace Steevens' "Sunday Morning" does not help.) The book does include better things: a wry and touching "Requiem" for the poet's father; a number of less pious, more speculative and paradoxical prose pieces ("Growing Up," "This Body," "Now I Hear"). But nothing really rises to the level of distinction, as Ignatow's past work occasionally has.