by Kirk Woodward
[Once again, my friend Kirk Woodward is contributing a thoughtful and interesting article to my blog. Kirk’s something of a litterateur and, especially when it comes to poets and poetry, far more knowledgeable than I am. So I’m delighted that he’s contributed a piece on four esteemed writers—poets, short story writers, and essayist—who are more recognized by other writers than general readers. Not only are these four authors “worthy” of our attention, but Kirk’s provided some cogent and useful discussion of their skills and focuses.]
Although precise numbers aren’t available, there’s no question that several hundred thousand books are published each year, either privately or by commercial publishers. No one could possibly read even a fraction of that many books, and even assuming, using the Pareto rule, that only 20% of them are even worth reading, that’s still a huge number. One result is that a lot of excellent writing must be ignored or forgotten. The most any of us can do about that is to send up a flare, so to speak, when we discover or rediscover a book or an author of value.
In this article I want to send up four flares, for four authors who deserve to be read. The first, Marianne Moore, is by no means obscure, but I’m not sure about the size of her readership these days. The other three – Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, and Howard Nemerov – in my opinion deserve more attention than they get today.
MARIANNE MOORE (1887-1972)
I often read something because I like the writer’s tone, without understanding at the moment any of what she or he is saying. I was happy to see that the poet W. H. Auden (1907-73) had the same experience when he first read the poetry of Marianne Moore, as he recounts in his brilliant book of criticism The Dyer’s Hand (1962):
When I first read [D. H.] Lawrence’s poetry, I didn’t like it much, but I had no difficulty in understanding it. But when in 1935, I first tried to read Marianne Moore’s poems, I simply could not make head or tail of them. To begin with, I could not “hear” the verse . . . a syllabic verse, like Miss Moore’s, in which accents and feet are ignored and only the number of syllables count, is very difficult for an English ear to grasp. . . . This, for a long time, I found very difficult. Then, I found her process of thinking very hard to follow.
What was she like, this poet who baffled one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century? She was a native of Missouri who lived in Brooklyn most of her life. She was a Presbyterian; she was a Republican; she was a librarian. She never married, and she lived with her mother until the latter died in 1947.
She was also in her later years a resident of Greenwich Village, and she was an avid baseball fan, first the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Yankees – she had in her study a baseball signed by Mickey Mantle. She was well known for her unusual attire, including capes and, most famously, three-cornered hats.
She also edited the poetry magazine The Dial, and was a strong supporter of the poets Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound – she visited Pound regularly when he was incarcerated after World War II for his support of Fascism, although she herself was a vigorous opponent of Fascism and of Pound’s anti-Semitism.
Miss Moore – as almost everyone called her – is on examination a complex figure. Her poetry is affirmative but it can move fast, and often requires attention and patience. There are several interesting avenues available for a reader who wants to find her or his way into her poetry. One, which Auden chose, is her interest in animals. Fish, birds, the nautilus, the dragon, the chameleon, the jellyfish, the arctic goat, the crow – it’s a poet’s bestiary. Moore is difficult to quote, because her sentences often spill quite deliberately from one stanza to the next, but one can count on her to observe closely. She describes baby mocking-birds:
Standing in the shade till they have dressed
their thickly-filamented, pale
coats, they spread tail
and wings, showing one by one,
white stripe lengthwise on the
tail and crosswise
underneath the wing, and the
is closed again.
Animals in her poems are enjoyable in themselves and often stand as well for moral qualities; the poem just quoted (“Bird-Witted”) ends with the picture of the mother bird fiercely driving off
with bayonet beak and
cruel wings, the
ly creeping cat.
Another possible entry point into her poetry is her frequent use of quotations from other writers. She received criticism for this; her answer, in an interview with Donald Hall in The Paris Review (1961), was:
I was just trying to be honorable and not to steal things. I’ve always felt that if a thing had been said in the best way, how can you say it better? If I wanted to say something and somebody had said it ideally, then I’d take it but give the person credit for it. [She has heavily footnoted the collection A Marianne Moore Reader.] That’s all there is to it. If you are charmed by an author, I think it’s a very strange and invalid imagination that doesn’t long to share it. Someone else should read it, don’t you think?
She is hardly alone in that opinion; among those who share it are T. S. Eliot (c.f. “The Wasteland”), the later songs of Bob Dylan, and rap music.
Still another entry point into her poetry is her strong opinions on character. Her poetry, as I suggested above, is moral. She is an acute observer of human behavior, and not reluctant to express her opinions on it. On marriage:
I wonder what Adam and Eve
think of it by this time
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,” . . .
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.
There never was a war that was
not inward; I must
fight till I have conquered in myself what
causes war, but I would not believe it.
I inwardly did nothing.
O Iscariotlike crime!
Beauty is everlasting
And dust is for a time.
(“In Distrust of Merits”)
And one can always approach Miss Moore by reading her correspondence with the Ford Motor Company, which in 1955 invited her to help it name a new model of car. Among her suggestions were:
Chaparral (later used for a sports car, but whether at her suggestion or not, I don’t know)
Ford’s ultimate choice for a name, the Edsel, was not her suggestion, although she thought it most appropriate. However, look what happened. They surely would have been no worse off with “Utopian Turtletop.”
I first encountered Miss Moore’s poetry in The New Yorker, which published many of her poems, including a late one I clipped in 1969 called “Like a Wave at the Curl” about two kittens fighting, which illustrates many of the points I have noted here:
. . . ears laid back, both tails lashing –
a cynic might have said, “Sir Francis
Bacon defined it:
‘Foreign war is like the heat of exercise;
civil war, like the heat of a fever.’”
Not at all. The expert would say,
“Rather hard on the fur.”
PHILIP RAHV (1908-1973)
I picked up a copy of a book called Literature and the Sixth Sense (1970) at a book sale a year or so ago, thinking that it sounded interesting but knowing nothing about its author. Philip Rahv was born Fevel Greenberg in the Ukraine. While he was a child his family emigrated to the United States. He was co-founder and editor of the noted journal The Partisan Review (no longer published), and an outstanding literary critic, important enough to be mentioned alongside, say, Edmund Wilson – although there are significant differences between Rahv and the excitable Wilson.
Rahv was, crucially and importantly, a Marxist. It may be hard for us today to appreciate the impact that statement would have had in our county in, particularly, the 1930’s, when the intellectual world was swamped by conflict between various strains of Communist doctrine – and there were many of them, reflecting almost religious divisions. Were you a Stalinist or a Trotskyite? Were you merely a supporter of the Soviet Union – which meant a supporter of whatever Stalin decreed at the moment – or were you actually a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA)?
Rahv was a member of the CPUSA when he co-founded the magazine The Partisan Review in 1933. At that point he supported the “party line;” but in particular he also believed that Marxism ought to make possible a new kind of literature that would embrace both artistic values and the “struggle of the proletariat.” Stalin, however, was not interested in new forms of art, and Rahv couldn’t help noticing that the “official” artistic products of the Soviet Union were dreary – in Rahv’s words, “stuffing the creativity of the Left into the sack of political orthodoxy.”
Rahv’s hopes for new forms of writing were contrary to Party doctrine: “If at present proletarian writing in this country is in the last stages of dissolution, it is largely because it is under political orders to commit suicide.” In an essay in 1939, Rahv recognized that literature written purely for political purposes was doomed to mediocrity: “The kind of casuistry which may easily pass for truth within the pseudo-context of a political speech or editorial, will be exposed in all its emptiness once it is injected into the real context of a living experience, such as the art of fiction strives to represent.”
At the same time Rahv was struggling with this revelation, the so-called Moscow Trials (1936-1938) took place, in which Stalin carried out the systematic elimination of associates he thought might possibly rival or threaten him. The obviously phony trials and the executions split Communist Party opinion. Rahv, already disenchanted, quit the party, and in 1937 reconstituted The Partisan Review as a literary journal of independent thought. Quitting the CPUSA, however, did not mean he renounced Marxism as a doctrine; he continued to stress its importance in his writing, although by no means exclusively.
To me the history I have just recounted is interesting for one reason in particular: whatever his beliefs, Rahv never took his eye off the facts of the literature in front of him – he rigorously examined the nature of the writing he criticized, and reported it fairly and thoroughly. How easy it must be for a critic or a reviewer to engage in special pleading on behalf of ideas favored by the writer! Rahv avoids that. He looks at books clearly, in detail, and reports them fairly. He digs away at their contexts, and examines them from multiple angles. He himself says:
From the standpoint of critical method it is impermissible to replace a concrete literary analysis with arguments derived from some general theory of the real. For it is plainly a case of the critic not being able to afford metaphysical commitments if he is to apply himself without preconceived ideas to the works of art that constitute his material. The art-object is from first to last the one certain datum at his disposal; and in succumbing to metaphysical leanings – either of the spiritualist or materialist variety – he runs the risk of freezing his insights in some kind of ideational schema the relevance of which to the task in hand is hardly more than speculative. The act of critical evaluation is best performed in a state of ideal aloofness from abstract systems. Its practitioner is not concerned with making up his mind about the ultimate character of reality but with observing and measuring its actual proportions and combinations within a given form.
Blessedly, although Rahv is not a “popular” writer, he is also pleasurable to read, unlike so many with an academic background. He is no “ivory tower” figure, either; he was not only a magazine editor, and a professor (he taught at Brandeis University); he was also a major figure in the New York literary scene – a friend, for example, of Delmore Schwartz, who will be considered in the next section of this article.
It’s not my purpose in this article to summarize his insights; for one thing, there are far too many. My intention is to point readers to his work. Rahv is equally insightful on Nineteenth-Century American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) and contemporaries like Ernest Hemmingway (1899-1961) and Norman Mailer (1923-2007). Here are a few examples taken from Literature and the Sixth Sense, to give a taste of his writing, and to illustrate the qualities in Rahv’s work that I have been describing, in particular his fairness and his fidelity to what he sees as the facts about his subjects:
ON AMERICAN WRITERS:
Viewed historically, American writers appear to group themselves around two polar types. Paleface and redskin [sic] I should like to call the two, and despite occasional efforts at reconciliation no love is lost between the two.
Consider the immense contrast between the drawing-room fictions of Henry James and the open-air poems of Walt Whitman. Compare Melville’s decades of loneliness, his tragic failure, with Mark Twain’s boisterous career and dubious success. At one pole there is the literature of the lowlife world of the frontier and of the big cities; at the other the thin, solemn, semiclerical culture of Boston and Concord. The fact is that the creative mind in America is fragmented and one-sided. For the process of polarization has produced a dichotomy between experience and consciousness – a disassociation between energy and sensibility, between conduct and theories of conduct, between life conceived as an opportunity and life conceived as a discipline.
ON CHARACTERS IN KAFKA AND TOLSTOY:
Incapable of distinguishing themselves either for good or evil, neither [Ivan] Ilyich [Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1886] nor K. [Kafka’s The Trial, 1925] are sinners in the accepted sense. Nevertheless the inquisitorial art of their authors burns them at the stake as heretics. And their heresy consists simply of their typicality.
ON FREUD’S IDEAS ABOUT ARTISTS:
Freud has much to tell us about the inner mechanism of creative projection, also about the relation between a writer’s biography and his work, the relation between that work and fantasy-life in all its forms, and about the recurrence in mythology and tradition of themes and symbols by which writers are preoccupied. Freud admits, however, that his theory can do nothing, as he once put it, “to elucidate the nature of the artistic gift nor can it explain the means by which the artist works – artistic technique.” We would do well to distinguish between what the Freudian teaching does and does not contribute to our understanding of art. If in this teaching the artistic endowment as such is regarded as not subject to analysis, then speculations about the artist as a neurotic type are scarcely as profitable as they seem to many people who delight in expatiating on this theme.
ON CRITICISM AND T. S. ELIOT:
It is true, of course, that of late  Eliot has been steering close to fascism in his general attitude to the problems of our time. But that by no means signifies that his poetry, existing and potential, is automatically suffused with the fascist spirit. Every work of art no matter how sure we are of its origin, must be examined anew. There is always the possibility of creative contradictions, on which the dialectic feeds. The danger lies in the excess of confidence with which we tend to identify the apparent ideas of a work with the work as written, its intention with its actual meaning, and finally its individual quality with the quality of the creator’s complete works.
ON THE CURRENT STATE OF LITERATURE (1964):
We are living at a time when anything goes, when much of our theater is given over to a debased kind of Freudianism, when in the name of literature and art, no less, the right to pornographic writing is affirmed, strategically omitting to mention the cold cash which is its huge reward, as if it were almost a new kind of civil liberty; when people who should know better are proclaiming a moral idiot like Jean Genet to be a great novelist, a worthy successor to Joyce and Proust and Mann and Kafka and Lawrence and Faulkner, while other people are so frightened of being called square that they are willing to accept this unlikely estimate.
And. . . I do not think that highbrowism as such is the answer. It is not an end in itself.
DELMORE SCHWARTZ (1913-1966)
I tend to think that I know all there is about nearly everything, and this belief can get me into trouble. For example, I believed until I began to write this piece that the short story writer and poet Delmore Schwartz is today all but unknown. That belief is at best an exaggeration.
For example, the singer and songwriter Lou Reed (1942-2013) idolized Schwartz (“the greatest man I ever met”), who was one of his professors at Syracuse University, and wrote the song “My House” about him. Saul Bellow’s 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift is a fictionalized account of Schwartz’s relationship with Bellow and his influence on him, and is still widely read. James Atlas wrote a biography, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet,in`1977, and a new collection, Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Craig Morgan Teicher, is due to be published in April 2016.
One reason I thought Schwartz was unknown is that he is widely considered someone who “did not live up to his promise,” and perhaps therefore is not worth reading. This perception, assuming it exists, strikes me as manifestly unfair. Schwartz was one of the best writers of short stories; in particular his story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is often anthologized. And he was a superb poet. It is true that he was in some ways a “difficult” personality, that he battled alcoholism and mental illness, and that he died young and alone. These facts are sad but if we did not know them, we would not deduce them from the quality of his writing.
Here briefly are the biographical facts. He was born in Brooklyn, to a family of Jewish immigrants from Romania. His education was quite a tour of schools: he attended Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, and New York University, where he finally got his BA degree. Then he studied for a while at Harvard, where the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was one of his teachers, but he moved on without a graduate degree, marrying twice, editing both the Partisan Review and New Republic magazines, and teaching at several universities, including Kenyon, Princeton, and lastly, for four years, Syracuse.
He was celebrated (winning the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1959) and considered one of the nation’s best young writers; he was gregarious, knew everybody, and also drank too much; he was emotional, and increasingly mentally unstable, occasionally institutionalized, and finally lived by himself in the Columbia Hotel in New York City where he died, much too young, at the age of 52.
(Many of his papers were presumed lost; astonishingly, after several years they made their way to the writer and editor Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, when Macdonald’s son had a random conversation in a bar with a stranger who turned out to be the handyman who had emptied out Schwartz’s hotel room. Instructed to get rid of everything, he had saved several boxes of documents, figuring they might be worthwhile to someone.)
There are the short stories, at which as I said Schwartz was an acknowledged master. His best known is the frequently anthologized “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” in which he visualizes his parents’ relationship as if seen on a movie screen. (Films play a central role in his writing.) But story after story dazzles with brilliance and with clear and shrewd delineation of character.
And there are the poems. I am not the first to observe that Schwartz began to write them under the influence of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), as can be seen in his well-known (and also frequently anthologized) “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me,” about what Schwartz called “the withness of the body:”
The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place.
But – again not an original observation – he moves more and more into the world of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), whose exuberance and wideness of vision might possibly be seen as a good fit for Schwartz’s manic tendencies. Certainly some of Schwartz’s later poetry deals with big subjects, in particular nature and America itself, often in an ecstatic manner. One of my favorite poems by any writer is “The True Blue American,” which I can only barely keep from quoting in its entirety. It’s a poem about a boy choosing which dessert to buy – and it’s about us:
. . . Naturally when on an April Sunday in an ice cream parlor Jeremiah
Was requested to choose between a chocolate sundae and a banana split
He answered unhesitatingly, having no need to think of it
Being a true blue American, determined to continue as he began:
Rejecting the either-or of Kierkegaard, and many another European;
Refusing to accept alternatives, refusing to accept the choice of between;
Rejecting selection; denying dilemma; absolute affirmation; knowing
In his breast
The infinite and the gold
Of the endless frontier, the deathless West.
“Both! I will have them both!” declared this true-blue American. . .
I cannot recommend Schwartz’s poetry strongly enough for its creative perceptions of our world. It is dreadful that he paid, apparently, such a price for that perceptivity. But he was a writer, and he wrote. His second wife, Elizabeth Pollet, has published an edition of his notebooks (Portrait of Delmore, 1986), and from first to last they show a person taking in the world and working its material the way a potter works clay.
Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near[.]
(“The Beautiful American Word, Sure”)
HOWARD NEMEROV (1920-1991)
Howard Nemerov is the only one of the four writers cited in this article that I met. (I also met W. H. Auden, who grumped at me, but Auden doesn’t need any promotion.) He came to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where I was a student, for a reading in 1965, so I went to the library in advance (I was seldom this well prepared) and read some of his poems and essays. When I spoke with him after his presentation, I began by saying, “In your essay about the similarities between advertising and poetry. . .” “Good grief,” he said. “Are you telling me anybody reads that stuff?”
Actually Nemerov has been read by a good many people, illustrated by the fact that he was Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress – effectively, our poet laureate – not once (1963-64) but twice (also 1988-1990). He came from an artistically oriented family – his sister was the well known photographer Diane (Nemerov) Arbus (1923-1971).
It happens that I wrote an article about Nemerov in the Washington and Lee student newspaper (January 14, 1969) in advance of his second visit there. The piece is so influenced by the writing style of the drama critic Eric Bentley, about whom I have written elsewhere in this blog [“Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” 4 December 2013; “Eric Bentley On George Bernard Shaw,” 8 December 2015], that it almost amounts to parody. However, although I pretended in the article to know a great deal more than I did, some of it makes sense:
. . . after Nemorov’s reading here in 1965, he was criticized for his statement that “the structure of a poem resembles the structure of a joke,” and for making the audience laugh. The criticism comes no doubt from people who consider laughter a jolly sort of thing. Nemerov’s humor, however, springs from his sense of the sudden discovery of something which, if seen for itself, would cause desperation. His humorous subjects exist because the culture that invented them finds them important and comic.
The structures of a joke and a poem are similar because they both bring on a sudden awareness of an unrecognized piece of the world. Nemerov’s desperation grows from the realization that the world can only be experienced fully if taken by surprise.
His humor, as mentioned, often concerns public events in our culture. We know them and are tired of listing them: money, culture, ads, television, supermarkets, certain preachers. . . . Nemerov, however, does not confront this civilization as an enemy, but rather sees himself as a part of it, perhaps even a cause, and wonders what living in such a culture could do to him, or to anyone.
Some of Nemerov’s best known poems illustrate the point in my last paragraph, among them “Grace To Be Said at the Supermarket” and “A Primer of the Daily Round,” virtually an entire John Updike novel in sonnet form. A few poems from his book The Blue Swallows (I have an autographed copy!) may illustrate the first point I made, that poems often have the structure of a joke. (That idea really shouldn’t be a shock; the same can also be said, for example,of many of Jesus’s parables.) One of these poems, “Two Girls,” describes observing the two as they walk through the woods, giggling perhaps about boys:
Two girls, going forever out of sight,
Talking of lovers, maybe, and of love:
Not that blind life they’d be the mothers of.
The “punchline” at the end of the poem brings us up short, pointing unexpectedly toward the grave significance behind that lighthearted moment. And there’s no question Nemerov is actually funny in many poems, particularly about his own profession – he was a university professor for years:
Fame is the spur, he figured; given a Ford
Foundation Fellowship, he’d buy a Ford.
(“A Modern Poet”)
Publish or perish! What a frightful chance!
It troubled him through all his early days.
But now he has the system beat both ways;
He publishes and perishes at once.
(“A Full Professor”)
And one more illustration: when Nemerov spoke at W&L in 1969, he told us that he had had “writer’s block” for a bit, but seemed to have written himself out of it through a poem he was asked to write, which he called “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House,” about the painter Paul Klee (1879-1940), which contains the following stanza that has always moved me:
That there should be much goodness in the world,
Much kindness and intelligence, candor and charm,
And that it all goes down in the dust after a while,
This is a subject for the steadiest meditations
Of the heart and mind, as for the tears
That clarify the mind toward charity.
* * * *
Is there a common thread that connects these four writers and their varied works? If there is one, I believe it can be found in the distinction Bernard Shaw makes between what he calls the ideal and the real – between what we think we ought to believe and what is really so. . . between our illusions and the reality of the world we live in. . . between things as we want to see them and things as they really are. . . between the Truth or Truths we champion and the truth that is truth indeed. It appears that this dichotomy, which takes many forms, as important not only in literature, but in politics, in economics, in religion, and in many other fields of human endeavor. [Ed.: Kirk Woodward has discussed this Shavian notion previously; see his article "Eric Bentley – An Appreciation," 4 December 2012.]
If this is correct, then all four of these writers, in their individual ways, are on the side of truth against Truth. . . on the side of the actual as opposed to the desired or hoped for. Helping us to see the distinction may be one of the most important functions of art.
[Kirk said that it had originally been his intention to include one more author in this article: he planned to write about the poetry reviews of James Dickey (1923-1997). Dickey’s best known for his verse and for his novel Deliverance (1970), but he was also an outstanding reviewer. Kirk said he knows this because he used to own a copy of a collection of Dickey’s poetry reviews but has apparently misplaced it and he hasn’t found a replacement even on the web. Maybe he’ll favor us with an article for ROT about James Dickey in the future.]