COLLECTED POEMS, 1948-1984. By Derek Walcott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 516 pp. $25.
ON THE EDGE. Poems by Kenneth Koch. Viking/Elisabeth Sifton. 98 pp. $18.95; Penguin paperback, $8.95.
SELECTED POEMS, 1963-1983. By Charles Simic. George Braziller. 186 pp. $14.95; Paperback, $8.95.
THE SELECTED POETRY OF HAYDEN CARRUTH. Macmillan. 175 pp. $18.95; Paperback, $8.95.
SINCE the invention of print the challenge to poets has been the widening gulf between the poet's sensibility and the receptivity of readers. Now and then in English, as with Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Whitman and Frost, the poet has succeeded in resonating, in his lifetime, with a large body of readers who then decide that this is poetry and that anything that comes after it is not. So the new poet who follows the old must recreate the language for himself every time he begins. He must even recreate himself as a speaker.
Derek Walcott, of Saint Lucia and Trinidad, probably the best-known English-language poet to emerge from the Caribbean, has been writing since he was 18 in a mode that has changed surprisingly little in 36 years and in a language that takes its principal influence from the literature of the British Isles. His poetry sounds of the ocean, as you might expect from an islander, but as his rhythms wash out and wash in along the circling shores of the islands on which he imagines himself to stand, the reader feels circularly unattended, abandoned, unaccompanied, alone, as in the poems of Matthew Arnold. Seldom can there have been a comparable body of work of this scope which was so accomplished in terms of sound, so versatile in reaching out for information and allusion, so rich in music, and yet so often barren of ideas, so plangently lonely and lost, and (here Walcott is unlike Arnold) so lacking in intimacy.
At first the reader of Walcott's Collected Poems feels a little like a listener in Conrad, sitting on a teak deck at twilight to hear the endless unfolding of an ironic and imperial narrative. But it turns out to be a narrative without recognizable characters and limited in emotion, and the night wears on as the moon rises over silvery water and coasts across the sky and sets at last behind the trees, and all the while, interrupted now and then by the gasp of smoke from a dying cheroot, the voice goes on and on. "Once," the voice seems to be saying with a sigh, "there was an island." In this vast book, notably in the 4,000-line autobiographical poem, Another Life (1973), the monotony of Walcott's trade winds becomes nearly stifling and occasionally topples over into fustian; but in later volumes like Sea Grapes (1976) and The Star-apple Kingdom (1979) the poet seems to have distancelf from island life enough to bring perspective to the scene and more individuation to the voices he speaks in. The theme, however remains:
There were still shards of an ancient
in those shires of the island where
the cattle drank
their pools of shadow from an older
surviving from when the landscape
copied such subjects as
"Herefords at Sunset in the Valley
of the Wye."
Despite its imperial ironies, Walcott's is a British West Indies universe, make no mistake: his allusions are to Meredith, Hardy, Conrad, Doctor Johnson, Shakespeare, Defoe, far more often than to Malraux or Alejo Carpentier. His isolation grows stale until, in the late '70s he tires of it, chooses exile instead, and makes his move to the United States:
drizzle that falls now is American
stitching stars in the sand. My own
are changing as fast. I fear what the
the starry pattern they make -- --
the flag on the post office --
the quality of the dirt, the fealty
changing under my foot.
Isolation and exile will no doubt obsess Walcott as he continues varying his powerful theme. The oeuvre as a whole might suitably carry a title as Conradian as "Outcast of the Islands." In his own words:
. . . I have only one theme:
The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart --
the flight to a target whose aim we'll
vain search for one island that heals
with its harbour . . .
KENNETH KOCH's poetry has, for one reader, succeeded best when it was most entertaining, as in his two long Byronic poems Ko, or A Season on Earth (1959) and The Duplications (1957). On the Edge, itself made up of two long poems, does not entertain. The first, "Impressions of Africa," will not tell you much about the continent except for its hotels; and when it ventures out of doors it sounds like a travel diary both in banality and off-handedness:
The lion's muscles
Are amazing. The air
Is filled with lions' grace.
Viewed without any
Human component around,
The lion is sensational
Simply of and in himself.
Some lion. Some sensation. Nowadays Koch is writing poems in which nearly every appearance of poetry is to be avoided. On the Edge will be read, I fear, only by people whose curiosity about Koch's autobiography comes from their being mentioned in it; but that will make quite a crowd. His world is the Rialto of art openings, European travel, international affaires de coeur. This poem depends almost entirely on allusions of the sort that, in high school, seemed calculated to exclude outsiders, to make the non-belonger feel stupid, to make the reader ransack for a footnote:
Harry walks with me through the
show of roses.
We talk about Maxine. Elizabeth
Is dancy at my side, as she supposes
I like her. I am somewhat out of
With Jean I walk along and the place
We dance beside the Marne. I love
As a drowning man to a spar I hold
on to my desk. (F. Kafka)
As a memoir of temps perdus "On the Edge" cannot hold a candle to a score of poems in the late L.E. Sissman's worldly Hello, Darkness; nor can Koch's attempts to peek around the edges of reality match the work of his admiring friend John Ashbery, who deems Koch, according to the dustjacket, "one of our greatest poets." I only wish Koch, self-serious, elegant, solipsistic, degag,e, had continued to exercise his gift for satire, for clowning, for merriment. When he does so he is one of the funniest poets in America.
Is a poet better off isolated or exiled? Koch sometimes seems isolated among the tricks of the "New York School" of poets. Charles Simic stands in a different part of the forest, one of the foremost doyens of the "new surrealists," the school of the present tense, poets who owe as much to C,esar Vallejo as to William Carlos Williams, combining American simplicity with shreds of the European surrealist tradition. Simic, born in Yugoslavia in 1938, embodies the strength of the alone- in-the-world poets, nearly all male, who write poems hardly populated, hardly impassioned, mad for clarity, withdrawn, often slightly paranoid in their exclusion of characters and events.
Time slopes. We are failing head
At the speed of night. That milk
You left under the pillow, it's grinning.
A cup of herb tea with a bride's
Floating in it.
A plain black cotton dress
On a wire hanger
In a closet otherwise empty,
Its door ajar to the light.
These samples of Simic's work hint at his vision of poetry: a seeing eye that somehow penetrates surfaces:
There are windows
One can only see through
With eyes closed.
Simic's poetry does not do very much for or with the ear or with the senses beyond vision; nor does it reach out with very much compassion nor connect events into narrative. Most of the contemporary poets who do such things are, as it turns out, women. Many male poets nowadays seem to be writing themselves into a corner, into willed isolation, into a world beyond the vanishing point, into "another republic," to use words that Simic and Mark Strand once used to entitle an anthology. HAYDEN CARRUTH, born in 1921, comes out of an earlier generation of poets, those old enough to have served and suffered in World War II. Something in the sensibility of that wartorn generation preserved in male poetry some of the compassionate and familial traditional attitudes of women, the sort of thing that our best women poets -- May Swenson, Marge Piercy, Carolyn Kizer, Margaret Atwood, Mary Oliver, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Louise Gluck -- weave into their poetry as a matter of course: mercy, pity, peace and love. I cannot imagine any other of the poets under review writing such a line as "How gravely and sweetly the poor touch in the dark." That is pure Carruth. Or this:
And when it was given to me, a rude
gift to hurt me,
I was not hurt, but thankful and
pleased to possess something.
I worked with my shaping hands,
molding and caressing,
to make a beautiful stone, and it has
More in grace and love, my image,
my stone, my girl
Who makes me and shapes me as I
turn her form
In my hands; I am the partner of the
Carruth's work, as Galway Kinnell points out in an eloquent and heartfelt foreword, touches the reader by touching other people, characters, personae, sometimes in eclogues like Frost's, sometimes in poems about jazz, about work, about, in fact, the preoccupations of the poor, the excluded, the shut-out and shut-in. By reaching out to others the poet may remain in exile, but he heals his isolation and his voice rings true.
A poem like "Regarding Chainsaws" invites comparison with the Frost canon; poems like "The Bloomingdale Papers" give Carruth's voice a pathos as affecting as John Berryman's, though less affected. His love poems and his country poems convey a fleshly delight that any reader, professional or amateur, can respond to:
Like a broken telephone a cricket
without assertion in dead asters and
goldenrod; asters gone cloudy with
goldenrod burnt and blackened.
Carruth's poems have the ring of clarity because they have the generous ring of himself. I don't know much about Carruth's life except what his poems reveal, which is quite a lot; but his virtue, whether you regard it as a quality of character or of talent, is not to regard himself as a special case. His poetry does not isolate itself in one special angle of vision, it does not exile part of the sensibility, it tries to enlist the whole man, the whole of his existence, and thus it brings into play all his senses, all his intelligence, his madness and his sorrow. As King Laertes of the Phaeacians said to Odysseus after hearing the story off his wanderings:
You speak with art, but your intent
The Argive troubles, and your own
You told as a poet would, a man who
knows the world.