FIRST, a puzzle. The four blocks of words below are excerpts from books recently brought out by major publishers. For reasons of space (and to support my later contention) the four excerpts have been reconstituted into ordinary, justified prose. In order of their probable sales, the poets and their books are: Rod McKuen, Suspension Bridge; Alice Walker, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful; Philip Schultz, Deep Within the Ravine,; Gerald Stern, Paradise Poems. Some helpful hints: McKuen, whom the poetry establishment treats as a nonperson, is, since Ogden Nash's death, the most popular (i.e., best-selling) poet in America. Walker has had a best seller of her own, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. Schultz received good critical notices for his first collection, Like Wings, and this second book bears a blurb from Norman Mailer declaring Schultz to be "a hell of a poet, one of the very best of his generation, full of slashing language. . . " Stern, whose fifth book this is, teaches at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, the nation's primary training facility for creative writing. The puzzle is simple: match the writer with the bit of poem he or she has written. (Answers below.)
(1) "Joe, I read your advert on the (latrine) wall at Morro Bay. I didn't write the number down for I had nothing I could give to one so desperate and needing. But I thought you ought to know that all of us who deal in words are only writing advertisements for ourselves."
(2) "To be warm, to be dry, to be writing poems again (after months of distraction and emptiness!), to love and be loved in absentia is joy enough for me. On these blustery mornings in a city that could be wet from my kisses I need nothing else. And then again, I need it all."
(3) "Returning may be a step forward, but now the question is how much we can bear to question. Change, I think, happens almost always too late. Yes, I still miss the way you washed your hands before undressing & how your green eyes darkened with desire. I remember what was promised. That once I believed I could die of love. That, like fate & youth & weather, it continued forever."
(4) "I look up through the branches dreaming of fate. My old enemy the blue sky is above me. My old enemy the hawk is moving slowly through the string of white clouds. One day I will wake up at dawn and philosophize about my state as I get ready. I will put on my heavy shirt and think of the long and bitter day ahead."
Readers with allergic sensitivity to bathos, banality, and gush will not be surprised to find such qualities in the work of Rod McKuen, whose commercial success has earned him an obloquy denied to most other poets, who, if notably bad, are politely ignored. But the point of the puzzle is how little there is to distinguish between McKuen's glop and that of his compeers. Of course, it would be possible to find in each poet unmistakably characteristic poses, as when Walker inveighs against her enemy the Wasichu, or white man, killer of buffalo, "murderous and lazy." Or Schultz when he gets to kvetching about the terms of Existence ("yes, he thinks, pain is existence & he is bounded in light, stuck deep within pain's ravine, his mind is infected"); Stern, when he is fussing in the garden ("Today I'm sticking a shovel in the ground and digging up the little green patch between the hosta and the fringe bleeding heart. I am going to plant bee balm there and a few little pansies till the roots take and the leaves spread out in both directions").
(Answer: the excerpts are presented in the same order in which the poets are named.)
Yet beneath these ostensible differences the four are in essential agreement both as to the craft of poetry and the service a poet may render his or her audience. Their craft is easily summed up, and its simplicity has made of poetry what Whitman dreamed of, the most democratic of the arts:
Take any piece of prose you like
and snap it into lines of verse
like this, using the end of the line
as a kind of comma. You can create
a further sense of shapeliness
by grouping the snapped prose in stanzas, so.
As to the purpose such snapped prose may serve its readers, the poets agree that it is to provide them an idealized persona (the poet's) for use as a psychological role-model, a style of thinking suited precisely to one's gender, class, and temperament. To achieve this the poet must take care to be sincere, likable, and (so that the reader feels that the poet needs his readerly attention) a little lonely.
What such a conception of poetry omits from its view is: (1) that poetry should differ from prose by virtue of meter, rhyme, and other formal requirements; (2) that the language be somehow heightened, different in kind from that of daily speech and newspaper prose; and (3) that it should be self- transcending rather than self-revealing, universal in its tendency rather than personal and parochial. Many good poets, even today, would concur with the latter two traditional prescriptions, and a few with the first, but the common ruck of writing school apparatchiks still live in fear of the curse that Modernism pronounced against our poetic ancestors. A convenient fear, since most of them, if they ventured on deeper waters, would surely come a-cropper, as McKuen does, when he aspires to what he thinks of as the grand manner. Consider the conclusion of the eighth of nine "sonnets" (rhymed, but in irregular, mostly 4-foot meters) that are given a place of honor at the end of his collection:
I always thought a river should
Be like a lifeline in a way.
Not always altogether good
But not so much the other way.
The Platt, she's not like Robin Hood,
What she brings in she takes away.
In lines like that McKuen almost becomes memorably bad, and that is better, in a way, than being mediocre.
There is also, throughout his poetry, a pastel mistiness of image. Fogs are dear to him as emblems of the state of reverie that is the source of his poetry, a state in which (and this may be the secret of his success) he and his reader are most closely akin. In a steamy mirror all men are twins. Had Rod McKuen been sent to one of the creative writing schools, his second lesson (after the sonnets had been beaten out of him) would have been to abjure his love of imprecision and ineffability for a sparrow's-eye view that concentrates on clear outlines and telling details -- and the writing school would have been wrong. Even when his verses are lame, McKuen's instincts are right -- or, at least, he shares them with some irreproachably serious poets (to one of whom, John Ashbery, McKuen, in a collegial spirit, dedicates a poem).
Indeed, the unequivocally best of this batch of poetry collections -- John Koethe's The Late Wisconsin Spring -- fits this bill precisely. "What I want in poetry," Koethe writes, "is a kind of abstract photography/ Of the nerves, but what I like in photography/ Is the poetry of literal pictures of the neighborhood." Koethe (pronounced Katy) gets what he wants in poem after poem, and if your first reaction was, like mine, an impatient surmise that the emperor was once again exposing himself in public, look again, for in fact he's dressed quite comme il faut after the manner of Wallace Stevens (but without the loud neckties of that gentleman's jackdaw vocabulary), with even a hint of Wordsworth in the fabric and the cut. This is good stuff, and its goodness depends not at all on solidarity with the poet's politics or life-style, neither of which could be inferred from his poems. Except that he had an unhappy childhood and still tends to glory (like McKuen) in wandering lonely as a cloud, the reader won't learn much about John Koethe. It's no way to win a popularity contest, but even so he has my vote as Most Likely to Succeed.
FINALLY, from England, a world away, a book- length poem by the redoubtable Geoffrey Hill. The Mystery of the Charity of Charles P,eguyLF consists of an even hundred quatrains of off-rhymed pentameter verse that asks but can't quite answer, the question put in the fourth quatrain, "Did P,eguy kill Jaur the assassin?" Readers whose memory of the news, and of French poetry, doesn't stretch back to 1914 and earlier will need more than the footnotes and two-page biographical sketch provided by Hill in order to fathom what the poem is talking about. Reading it cold the first time through, I came away with a sense that it was gorgeous poetry but that the title was all too apt. Then I did some homework so that P,eguy came into focus and returned to the poem enough better-informed that I could make sense of most of it, but to convey that sense and then to ponder the justice of Hill's account, as distinct from its panache, lies beyond the scope of this review, and perhaps of this reviewer.
Here in a nutshell (which I won't pretend to try and crack) is the situation that provokes Hill's concern. P,eguy belonged to the first generation of the French peasantry that got a crack at higher education. He became a Dreyfusard and a socialist of utopian tendencies, supported himself by running a bookstore near the Sorbonne, edited a much-respected and little-read magazine, and wrote poetry of an increasingly mystical bent, including a long verse drama, Le Myst Charit,e de Jeanne d'Arc, whence Hill's title.
The mystery in P,eguy's case is that the mystical poet should have been, as well, a literary warmonger, whose single most famous line is a paraphrase of a line from Horace that translates as: "Happy are those who die for the carnal earth," i.e. for la patrie. P,eguy's fulminations against the socialist leader Jaur,es, who did not share this sentiment, inspired one young idealist of the day to assassinate Jaur,es, and so P,eguy has the unusual distinction for a poet of being one of the proximate causes of World War I. Hill's question is, therefore, an interesting one: Are the opinions of poets exempt from the rules governing other kinds of discourse? It is no idle question. One need only read such a book as Alice Walker's to see that her publisher certainly thinks so, for when one repairs her poems into prose, much of what she has to say certainly has to be judged racist -- or at least as (I prefer the old-fashioned word) prejudiced. But as it is published as "poetry," we are not supposed to take exception. Hill never does render a verdict clear as history's: P,eguy was one of the first victims of the war he may have caused. Talk about poetic justice!