The Magazine

Metre Reader

America’s coming-of-age in poetic form.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

One distinguishing characteristic of the younger poets is a tendency to rely upon personal experience. Although Auden and other moderns can be quite personal, the focus found in the poems by the younger Kasischke and Arnold, for instance, is different in degree. Some of this was initiated by the modernists’ first offspring, the poets of Randall Jarrell’s generation and those somewhat younger: Robert Lowell, who is not included in this anthology; John Berryman, who is included; W. D. Snodgrass, who is not; Sylvia Plath, who is. It should be added that Auden played a significant role in Jarrell’s thinking, as Jarrell’s essay on Auden, “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry,” makes clear. But a perspective which, at first, was mostly unique to Jarrell has become general, and, if anything, focused at an even closer range, making Jarrell a pivotal figure for what has followed. 

Jarrell’s poem “Protocols,” which is about Birkenau, is placed in the consciousness of a child: They had water in a pipe—like rain, but hot, the child tells us. Then, in a voice from the dream-like state in which the child has been for part of the time, we are told, The water there is deeper than the world / And I was tired and fell in in my sleep / And the water drank me. That is what I think. 

The poem ends by fusing two levels of consciousness (dreamlike and sentient) in order to state one fact: 

And that is how you die. And that is
     how you die. 

The alternation between italics and roman type is just the sort of physical tinkering modernists like Pound and Eliot, or H. D. and cummings, would employ. But in Jarrell’s poem, the scale of drama—the Holocaust—has been condensed to a child’s helplessness. That shift reflects an increased reliance upon a personal perspective for a poem’s authority. One reason poets writing after World War II have given experience an increased emphasis has been their increased doubt about the reliability of reason, language, the tradition, and
history. While the experiments have continued, therefore, some of the expectations have contracted. 

On the other hand, here is a poem that, despite the author’s displacement during World War II, is personal in focus yet farsighted in expectation: Lisel Mueller’s “In the Thriving
Season” begins,

Now as she catches fistfuls of sun

riding down dust and air to her crib,

my first child in her first spring 

stretches bare hands back to your darkness

The poem ends, Now in the thriving season of love / when the bud relents into flower / .  .  . / love grows by what it remembers of love. 

In a darker vein of family recollection, here is Anne Stevenson’s “Inheriting My Grandmother’s Nightmare”:

Consider the adhesiveness of things

     to the ghosts that prized them,

the “olden days” of birthday spoons

     and silver napkin rings.

And Belle Randall’s “A Child’s Garden of Gods,” part of which reads, 

The summer that my mother fell

Into the hole that was herself, 

We children sat like china dolls

Waiting mutely on a shelf

     For the horror to be done. .  .  . 

 

When autumn came, like birds on wire,

Tilting forward in our rows,

We waited for our father to

Rise from his oriental pose

     And save the fallen lady.

Belle Randall and the others are to be admired for the control they maintain over complex situations. Much of that control is the result of such modernist virtues as spareness in description and statement. Randall’s “china dolls” and “birds on wire” are good examples. 

The focus on children reminds one of Randall Jarrell again, in such poems as “Protocols,” “A Sick Child,” “Moving,” “The Lost Children,” and “Mother, Said the Child.” The concision Mueller, Stevenson, and Randall display suggests modern control, but their subject matter involves vulnerability. There is a degree of understatement here worthy of the moderns, but it comes with an emphasis on things personal.

Then there are more recent, and perhaps more distilled, versions of the personal. A. E. Stallings puts matters this way: To leave the city / Always takes a quarrel. .  .  . But if instead / Of turning back, we drive into the day, / We forget the things we didn’t say. Her poem “On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia” ends:

Call it Nature if you will,

Though everything that is is natural—

The lignite-bearing earth, the factory,

A darkness taller than the sky—

This out-of-doors that wins us our release

And temporary peace—

Not because it is pristine or pretty,

But because it has no pity or self-pity.

This last line exemplifies another way modernist objectivity persists in what otherwise are the mostly quieter and more personal realizations of those poets who have followed the modernists. 

The Open Door gives good representation to several generations of poets. It allows an insightful read of poetry’s barometric pressure over the last century, and it reminds us what a large role a small beginning (such as a little magazine) can play in a culture in which poetry may “make nothing happen,” but it makes sense.

Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee), is the author, most recently, of The Lover’s Guide to Trapping.