These days Wordsworth generally gets bad press because he grew prim and conventional as he aged. But in this anniversary year of his birth, we should honor his dazzling youthful achievement, which Seamus Heaney calls — in his introduction to a recent Folio Society edition of Wordsworth’s “Selected Poems” — the “largest and most securely founded in the canon of native English poetry since Milton.”
Wordsworth’s most ambitious work is his autobiographical epic, “The Prelude.” In this “Growth of a Poet’s Mind” he recalls his childhood and youth, including a sojourn in Paris during the hopeful, early days of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!” That heaven included a passionate love affair (and an illegitimate child), as we are reminded in Stephen Gill’s masterly and immensely readable “William Wordsworth: A Life,” now available in an amplified second edition.
In American poetry, our Wordsworth is Walt Whitman, whose “Leaves of Grass” upended 19th-century literary gentility with a barbaric yawp heard round the world: “I celebrate myself . . . I am large, I contain multitudes.” That young hotshot is sumptuously celebrated in “Poet of the Body: New York’s Walt Whitman,” a Grolier Club exhibition catalogue by Susan Jaffe Tane and Karen Karbiener based on Tane’s stunning collection of Whitmanian books, pictures, manuscripts and ephemera.
But what of the later Whitman, “the Good Gray Poet” of Camden, New Jersey? Starting in 1888, his fannish admirer Horace Traubel sought to memorialize as much as possible of the old man’s daily activities and conversation. As I know, the nine volumes of “With Walt Whitman in Camden” can be hard to assemble, so Brenda Wineapple’s selection, “Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America,” answers a real need. Still, her Whitman sampler unavoidably leaves out the biographical and contextual richness of Traubel’s original. As this American icon himself emphasized in one of the passages chosen by Wineapple, “I am not to be known as a piece of something, but as a totality.”
Of a quite different icon, T.S. Eliot once declared that Paul Valéry “will remain for posterity the representative poet . . . of the first half of the twentieth century — not Yeats, not Rilke, not anyone else.” True or not, the Frenchman isn’t much read in English, and one can only hope that Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody’s translations in “The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valéry” will help change that.
Simply stated, Valéry’s poems are hard to understand. As his voluminous notebooks show, he possessed a Leonardo da Vinci-like breadth of interests and one central obsession: How does the mind work? Not surprisingly, then, a major work such as “La Jeune Parque” (“The Young Fate”) attempts to reproduce the movement and play of consciousness. While its verbal texture is gorgeous, the tortured syntax renders any interpretation tentative at best. Still, Valéry did compose more accessible poems, notably the exquisite “La Dormeuse” (“The Sleeper”) and “Le Cimetière Marin” (“The Cemetery by the Sea”), which evokes “La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée” (“The sea, the ever-recommencing sea”) and climaxes with a Promethean statement of faith: “Le vent se lève . . . Il faut tenter de vivre!” or, in Brody’s English, “The wind is rising . . . We must try to live!”
Overall, though, Valéry may be most attractive as an essayist and prose writer. For proof, read the audacious opening paragraph of his story “Monsieur Teste,” which in Jackson Mathews’s long-standard translation begins, “Stupidity is not my strong point.”
It wasn’t Robert Conquest’s strong point either. Widely known for “The Great Terror,” a study of Stalin’s 1930s atrocities, this distinguished Sovietologist was equally distinguished as a poet. His “Collected Poems,” edited by his widow, Elizabeth Conquest, ranges from tender love lyrics to deft occasional verse to unquotable, obscene limericks. Wit and playfulness abound. In “This Be the Worse,” Conquest responds to “This Be the Verse,” his friend Philip Larkin’s once-shocking poem about what our mum and dad inadvertently do to us. Conquest proffers an extended defense of pornography and individual freedom in the coyly titled “Literature in Soho.” The litany-like “Whenever” critiques an age in which, among other deficiencies, education has become just “a means of inculcating fads.” Like Auden, Conquest can rework almost any experience into dexterous and thoughtful poetry.
Auden himself maintained that the one clear sign of a poetic vocation is a love for fiddling with language. No one was more a verbal Heifetz than Harry Mathews. In his “Collected Poems: 1946-2016,” this leading member of the French “Workshop of Potential Literature” — known as Oulipo — doesn’t just torture syntax, as did Valéry, he rips apart the words themselves. Take “Presto,” admittedly an extreme example. Each of the six lines of its six stanzas contains six words, and every line ends with one of the following six-letter words: “spares,” “traces,” “spread,” “denial” “arrest” and “poster.” What’s more, all the remaining words in the poem are anagrams generated from those six, except for the occasional insertion of the noun “Oulipo.” Thus “Presto” begins: “Sartre rasped, ‘Oulipo retops Aldine spares/ Repots Delian tropes, repads spared traces.’ ”
Is this actually poetry? Maybe, maybe not. But I, for one, find it totally awesome.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.