Forenote: This review essay was published in Voices, 171, 1960. It was written in 1959 while I was still a non-traditional undergraduate at the University of Connecticut which I attended after spending four years after high school in the U. S. Navy from 1952-1956, during which time I began to publish, beginning in 1953, in the literary quarterlies and “little magazines” of the period, including the poetry periodical Voices edited by Harold Vinal. Mr. Vinal had asked me to review some books, which I did, and he thought well enough of my criticism to ask me to do more of the same.
I had not planned to write criticism, but I decided that, if I were going to do so, I needed a system based on something other than mere opinion. Therefore, I wrote this piece explaining my viewpoint and method, and I have adhered to these principles throughout my career as a writer.
Visions and Revisions of American Poetry by Lewis Turco, Fayetteville AR: University of Arkansas Press,UArkansasPress 1986. ISBN 0-938626-50-7, trade paperback, $12.95. Recipient of the 1986 Melville Cane Award for criticism of the Poetry Society of America. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.
THE POET'S COURT
When a poet, upon publication of his work, is submitted thereby to a jury of his peers (and by "his peers" I mean poets both better and worse than he is), he is not, as a rule, adjudged guilty or not guilty of literary excellence as he might be were he on trial in a court of law. His reviews are usually mixed, at least to some degree. One reviewer will like him or dislike him more than another, even if the jury is unanimously in favor of, or condemns, his work. There is no official academy in this country, even if there are several unofficial ones.
Thus, in effect, his [or her] work is tried not once but many times in a system of multiple jeopardy. He is handed a set of dissimilar verdicts arrived at by any number of critical codes and told to go forth and either to live up to or live down the critical balance of reputation at which he has arrived in the public eye.
This being so, and the poet's position under such conditions being extremely precarious, the fairest thing a critic can do is to explain the standards by which he is judging. Since I have only recently  taken up the mechanism of reviewing and, perhaps owing to this fact have formulated opinions on some of the conscious things I attempt in my own writing, this seems a good time to explain them to you and to the authors whose work passes beneath this pen and eye.
Poetry is a series of "images" [I later called them “levels”], if we can conceive of such things as music, philosophy, idea, as well as retinal impressions, as images. On the first and least important level [sic], there is the visual image: how does the poem look on paper before you even read it? If this seems absurd or irrelevant, I beg the reader to think of how a Whitman poem looks in print as opposed to a poem by W. C. Williams. At first glance one can tell the difference, perhaps even catch some impression of the unlike psychological effects these poets will produce on closer reading.
Second, there is the "sound image" [“sonic level”]: what musical or sonoral pattern does the poet weave? This would include rhyme, rhythm, vocabulary, syntax, etc.
Third, there is the "sense image" [“sensory level”]. What mood does the poet evoke? What feelings, scenes and so forth?
Fourth, there is the "idea image" [“ideational level”]: meaning, philosophy, observation.
Fifth, there is the "total image" [“fusional level”]. What does the combination of ingredients equal?
There are poets, and there are others:
Upon reading Prof. Elder Olson's essay, "The Nature of the Poet" in A Casebook on Dylan Thomas (1961), edited by John Malcolm Brinnin, it occurs to me that Mr. Olson is wrong. Since he is a high priest of the Neo-Aristotelian School of Criticism, it is therefore distinctly possible that the Neo-Aristotelians are also wrong.
The essay does not particularly offend me until, On page 77 of the Casebook, Mr. Olson quotes a portion of, poem which he thinks "has gone unnoticed," and compares this with three lines which, it seems to him, are "pure trifling." It is plain to me that the trifling lines are very good writing indeed, and that the justly unnoticed ones could be considered good only by someone like Elder Olson, who writes just this kind of verse himself.
It seems to me that Mr. Olson condemns and lauds [Dylan] Thomas just as Thomas ought to be condemned and lauded, but he does this and that to that and this: he loves the bad and loathes the good. I find very little to argue within the line of his reasoning. He seems very discerning and intelligent. But finally, all I can say is that logic will do no one any good unless he [or she] also has taste, and the flavor of Mr. Olson's pronouncements leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Unfortunately, while the foundations of logic are fairly stable, taste changes. There is no possibility that some metrician someday will invent a sliding rule which will predict in advance a change in the taste buds of readers. Which means, of course, that each of us must continue to pick out idols and worship them for our own reasons. Therefore, since I have always felt that Thomas is a good poet and Olson is a bad one, I resent the latter's invading my personal Tahiti like a boat full of Illinois missionaries to convert the noble instinct to the Neo-Aristotelian dogma. I resent, particularly, Prof. Olson's seizing the excuse to preach, in the last half of his essay, when he has the right only to say that, after all, these are his own reasons for liking what he likes. When he begins to lay down the Golden Rule for Literary Criticism, I begin looking at him with an eye as to how well his shrunken head would look on the wall of my thatched hut.
But, to get down to specifics: when there is one undefined abstract word in a logical argument, like a frayed strand in a good net, the fish one is trying to catch may get away. In Mr. Olson's case' the word is value. He says, "We value the arts in terms of their effects on us." On the surface, all seems well. But later on he "Says, "We measure performance against what it seems impossible anyone should have done; against what only the fine artist could have done; against what most artists could do, what most people could do, what anyone could have done, what only a fool would have done." He forgot to add, however, that we as individuals value various things in varying degrees; he forgot to mention the most important standard: personal bias, which has nothing to do with logic, and a lot to do with the id. In other terms, ultimately we measure performance against what we ourselves cannot do, would love or loathe to accomplish.
Now, maybe Mr. Olson means it when he says that he thinks,
— Tell his street on its back he stopped the sun
And the craters of his eyes grow springshoots and fire
When all the keys shot from the locks, and rang. —
is pure trifling, and that
— There must, be praised, some certainty,
If not of loving. well, then not,
And that is true after perpetual defeat. —
is "the shape and stamp of despair." Personally, I value the rhythms, sonority, images and visceral common sense of the first quotation, and care very little for the pallid philosophizing of the second.
Mr. Olson and I may rationally evaluate a poem by the same reasoning, but the things, we value are not the same; they are a matter of taste. Perhaps his taste is good, and mine is bad. Perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps, it doesn't make any difference to anyone else. Perhaps, if we wish, we should give our reasons for liking particular poems and then, instead of proselytizing, let others make up their own minds.
Carol Hall in Portrait of Your Niece (1959) is a virtuoso performer in the American manner: a master of technique and control if not always of emotional honesty, as the first poem in her book quickly proves. "When I Was a Child, I Bought the Beach" is set up in four quintets turning on two rhymes, the first three rhyming abbaa and the fourth, babab. In the first three stanzas, she sets up her theme and the tone of her poem, a reminiscence of childhood, and carefully plants the truism, "Children are hard to understand." Then, in the last stanza, she wants to let us know that she is going to do something different from and with what has gone before, so she changes the rime pattern.
But she is going to make her job as tough on herself as she can — she is going to use five lines that have been used in the first 3/4 of the poem, namely, lines 2, 4, 8, 9 and 12. How will she say anything different? Of course, she has to change something. Therefore, to set us up for the punch line, she changes an innocuous word, "was" in line 9 to "all" in line 19, thereby giving herself precedent for changing a more important word in line 12, "hard", which becomes, in the final line, "Children are slow to understand," (my italics).
This is the kind of crossword-puzzle approach to writing that a poet ought to grow out of. In any event, in this case the game wasn't really worth the candle.
Although her structures are always planned mathematically, she is also mathematically loose in her scansion, giving the impression of spontaneity without granting her verse the liberty one senses it would like to have. For example, "Country Without Rain," in blank verse: "This is a country without willing rain/ The shrunken seeds start from our ground like mice,/Soiling the foot that treads them."
However, Ms. Hall can handle a theme, even a commonplace one like that in "Portrait of Your Niece," the title poem, almost brilliantly. She knows language and how to handle it. She has memorized all the rules, knows when and how to apply them; in this case they are slant rime, change-of of rhythm, calculated surprise (which thrills the would-be critic in each of us). Carol Hall writes "the well-made poem."
It seems she can work with almost any set of premises she needs to create a given effect, provided the effect desired is not an unusual one. That is to say, she has a better ear than that of a mere imitator. She is able, for instance, to hear Dylan Thomas in her head, then write a poem like "The Funeral-Baked Meats," skirting Thomas so well that, while we know he is there, we hesitate to say so.
There is little similarity between the latter poem and the one cross-page in her book, "Beach at Pasture." They might have been written by different poets. "Beach" is paler in texture, surprisingly so because of the large number of adjectives, which seem neither to harm nor help what little is said.
Two pages farther on, another voice: "Sons and Fathers: the Homecoming," in my opinion the best poem in the book. It is heaped with marvelous imagery: "When the slamming of the door shatters your faceless calm/Dendrites like trees make porches of the eyes.... " Here, Hall is more than just a fine technician. She has found something to say which forces her to transcend her consciousness of craft. She is capable of making a real poem. The line, "You must set me up now with a shop of goodies," is a masterful unraveling of the texture of image and sound that precedes it and paves the way for more of the same, until we come to a great final line: "(Is your face rayed with light like angry windows?)"
Miss [Ms.] Hall has a good range of wit and emotion, complexity and simplicity, but very seldom does she mix these elements, which is a failing. Many of her poems, such as "Office Memoranda," need ]leavening. Too often she begins a pattern and does not vary it. Even so short a thing as a poem may need dramatic relief, or at least an intensification or diminution of mood. The safest poets seldom attempt this, for it is too great a chance to take: the poem might fail; it's a prose device, let the novelist fool around with it if he wants to. He has the space. The possibility that a poem might attain stature through such means is too large a gamble.
As a general rule, Carol Hall avoids the literary cliché, the "academic sound," the tight little aphorism of "modern poetry," but in such poems as "Before My Kept Hands" she, too, at last gives in and writes the set piece.
I wish she would let herself go.
Jean Garrigue in A Water Walk by Villa D'Este (1959) is very facile. She knows everything there is to know about the construction of verse, has an eye, an ear and an active pen hand. She is, in other words, a good academic poet, but rather unexciting. I don't mean to slight her ability or her position in the contemporary scene, but to treat her work more fully would be to duplicate effort, for many of the comments I have made in the preceding treatment of Carol Hall's book may justly be applied to Miss Garrigue also.
I take in hand next Robert Huff's Colonel Johnson's Ride and Other Poems by Robert Huff, (1959). Mr. Huff does not particularly believe in visual image. Except for "Porcupines," which is startling because it imitates prose paragraphs and comes in the middle of the book, he sticks with quatrains, couplets, stanzas all set down matter-of-factly and pushed over to the left hand margin. Robert Huff's sound, however, is full. He often mixes, I hesitate to use the word, sweetness with toughness of language, as in "King Salmon":
A gravel deathbed for the king of fish.
Nuncle, the mad Kingfisher had you hooked
From birthrise, hauled and schooled, and heaved
From saltsea silver up brown rapids run
To rest your milt-white crown upon these stones.
Hear how the windy guts of gulls
Rejoice above your ghost beginning now.
They grow for so much Godspent majesty.
Similarly, Huff mixes the pastoral with the mechanical. Sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. We are not yet used to having machines and bombers described in lyrical fashion. His poems work best with mood and nature. This may be best illustrated by quoting the whole of "Although I Remember the Sound":
Although I remember the sound
The young snag made when I felled it,
It was not noise or music mattered then.
Briefly, the tree was silent on the ground.
Of what it was that mattered I recall
Simply, among the chips and dust
And keener near the center of the cut,
The sweet, new smell which rose after the fall.
This is his best subject, although he tries satire, moral objection to war and portraits with good success.
The idea image Huff creates is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. He will give us a scene and a mood, the characters, the plot, and then will not draw his conclusion. Rather, he will hint at it. We may or may not understand what he is talking about, depending on the degree of empathy between the reader and what went on early in the poem. I, for one, am uncertain how to react when, in "The Smoker," the poet describes a blind man blowing smoke rings with (perhaps) "his hearing aid turned off" so that he cannot hear the poet's conversation and later appears in his dreams, "A slow smile smoking, circled to the thighs / And screws both of his thumbs into my eyes / And will not stop to listen to my screams." In general, however, the total image of one of his poems is pleasing, if a bit too careful.
Thomas Merton, of course, is a major minor poet. It may be that he will eventually be held in even greater esteem. For this reason, then, let it simply be said that his Selected Poems (1959), are a valuable addition to any library. His language is direct, simple and beautiful. His themes, though hampered by the fact that he must of necessity limit their scope to the boundaries prescribed by the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church, owing to the fact that he is a Trappist monk, are far from trivial. He knows technique, but lets his ear and good taste guide him; his imagination is unfettered. His imagery is often classical in its appropriateness. One example should suffice:
At noon the sky goes off like a gun.
Guards, on the Penal Island,
Converging, madas murdered, in the swearing cane,
Arrest the four-footed wind.
But the chained and numbered men
Do not cease their labor:
Building a cage for the devouring sun.
At six o'clock exactly,
The sky explodes like a bomb,
And it is night.
Instantly, the guards
Hide in the jungle, build a boat
But the prisoners of the state
Do not cease their labor,
Collecting the asphalt fragments of the night.
William Everson, known also as Brother Antoninus, not only wrote the poems in The Crooked Lines of God (1959), but he also designed it, set the type and printed it. His long correspondence with Harry Duncan bore fruit in this collector's item. I personally do not care for the shape of the book, (it is wider than tall), but there's a reason for this: Brother Antoninus writes a very long line of verse.
Brother Antoninus at his peak is a powerful poet. Beneath the long, jagged lines there lies a heavy rhythm which might well be likened to the advance and retreat of the Pacific against a rough coast. Though this reader cannot at all times agree with what Brother Antoninus says, there is no denying his ability to say it. It is a great temptation for me to venture that there may be one truly great poem in The Crooked Lines of God, namely, "A Canticle to the Christ in the Holy Eucharist": "And the many days and nights that I lay as one barren, / As the barren doe lies on the laurel under the slope of Mount Tamalpais. / The fallow doe in the deep madrone, in the tall grove of the redwoods...." Certainly, at least, this is some of the very finest religious poetry of the last twenty years.
Mona Van Duyn in Valentines to the Wide World (1959) is first rate in those poems which utilize both the long line and a reflective voice, as in the title, poem, "Three Valentines to the Wide World." In this too-brief mention, I would like simply to say that the above poem, "Addendum to Any Day, Any Poem," "From Yellow Lake, An Interval", and particularly "Death by Aesthetics," are all very well written, moving in a cerebral way, and contain some masterful descriptive passages.
In going through Peter Miller's book, Sonata for Frog and Man (1959) I jotted down a few notes such as: flat language, but good images; nice handling of the extended metaphor, though not really striking. Concerning the poem, "Every Time, You Came," my reaction was: this is a very bad lyric. Strange, perhaps, that he is not as good with a form to bolster him as he is with free verse — that is to say, prose. Unexciting, pompous sometimes.
I won't fall into that trap in which many reviewers are caught when they are dealing with primarily "free-verse" poets, by saying that he lacks an ear. But he lacks something cohesive in his poems. It may be that he is a young man who published two books too quickly.
In the case of Weather House by Alonzo Gibbs (1959), worth lies in the light touch of beautiful description, i.e. from "Water":
Water with its mirror ways is never itself:
it is always the sky, the green seawall or the rock shelf;
it is the girl upon the cliff the full
bush, the pier or out-of-drawing hull;
at times at noon water is the sun.
and "Tenement Tomb":
The steeple cock tailed by the day-paled moon,
Antenna, courthouse dome score tit-tat-toe.
And on the ridge the red brick school for boys
Is seen over several sunlit walls.
Unfortunately, a book full of descriptive poetry, no matter how fine, does not wear well upon the reader who looks also for other things.
The Gazebos by Edwin Honig (1959) takes description several steps further. Coupled with a sometimes brilliant technique, he unites what is seen with what is felt and thought, and passes judgment upon the total vision rather than simply accepting it as beautiful. Take the first poem in the book, "Jawing of Genesis", as an example:
A shaggy sea-wet islet pauses tideless
Under two hawks hovering. A dim
Washed heaven blue surmounts the worldless
Morning, its weighty world-wide asking trimmed
Down to summer silence — Was paradise
Like this before the need arose for it,
Before God made the book that broke the silence?
Man-made, the book was God. At his arising
A thud of grim intelligence slammed shut
The summer silence. Up rose the wordy islet,
Awash with seas' first rocky stutterings.
One man, one hut: " an aleph-beth was started
With handy Adam to belie it, mouthing
How Eve most mothers summer's green abiding.