View from Parnassus
POETS' OPINIONS OF OTHER POETS are often unintelligible to anybody except a poet. But Minor Poet Randall Jarrell is also a witty critic who can sometimes be more eloquent in prose than he is in verse. In the opening address at the National Poetry Festival in Washington (the first in U.S. history), Jarrell surveyed American poetry and the poets of this century and delivered himself of some tart judgments. Excerpts:
Robert Frost: "When you know Frost's poems you know surprisingly well what the world seemed to one man . . . to have this whole range of being treated with so much humanity and sadness and composure, with such plain truth; to see that a man can still include, connect, and make humanly understandable . . . so much—this is one of the freshest and oldest joys.''
Vachel Lindsay: He had "the innocent, desperate eccentricity of the artist in a world which had no room for, no patience with, artists . . . Nowadays when a poet with one privately printed book can have his next three years taken care of by a Guggenheim ... it is hard to remember how precariously hand to mouth his existence was."
T. S. Eliot: "The attitude of an age toward its Lord Byron—in this case a sort of combination of Lord Byron and Dr. Johnson—is always . . . different from the attitude of the future. Won't the future say to us ... did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen he was one of the most subjective and demonic poets who ever lived? Take The Waste Land, which Eliot would have written about the Garden of Eden but which your age thought its own realistic photograph. After the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below that deluge of exegesis, explication, source-writing, scholarship and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived . . . plainly human, full of human anguish."
Wallace Stevens: "In an age when almost everybody sold man and the world short, he never did, but acted as if joy were 'a word of our own,' as if nothing excellent were alien to us."
Marianne Moore: "Some of her poems have the lacy mathematical extravagance of a snowflake." But some ''have the manner of ladies who learned a little before birth not to mention money, who neither point nor touch, who scrupulously abstain from the mixed, live vulgarity of life."
E. E. Cummings: "His misuse of parts of speech ... his systematic relation of words that grammar and syntax don't permit us to relate — all this makes him a magical bootlegger and moonshiner of language."
William Carlos Williams: "The materials of Williams' unsuccessful poems have as much reality as the brick one stumbles over on the sidewalk; but how little has been done with them . . . But sometimes in these poems the nature of the edge of the American city—the weeds, clouds and children in vacant lots . . . exist for good."
John Crowe Ransom: "One of the most elegant and individual war correspondents who ever existed of our world's old war between power and love . . . Generations of the future will be reading his poems page by page with Wyatt, Campion, Marvell and Mother Goose."
Archibald MacLeish: His "delicate lyric gift" resulted in smoothly beautiful and simple early poems. But he soon "began to make overpowering demands upon this limited and specific talent . . . much of MacLeish's later work is the public speech of an authoritative public figure who is controlling the responses of a mass audience ... It is almost more conscious of the impressiveness of what it says than of what it says."
Theodore Roethke: "Many poets are sometimes childish; Roethke, uniquely, is sometimes babyish, though he is a powerful Donatello baby who has love affairs, and whose marsh-like Unconscious is continually celebrating its marriage with the whole wet dark underside of things."
Robert Lowell: "A poet of great originality and power who has, extraordinarily, developed instead of repeating himself. His poems have a wonderful largeness and grandeur, exist on a scale that is unique today. You feel before reading any new poem of his the uneasy expectation of perhaps encountering a masterpiece."
On Romantic Women Poets: "Elinor Wylie was the most crystalline . . . Edna St. Vincent Millay the most powerful and most popular. One thinks with awe and longing of this real and extraordinary popularity of hers: if only there were some poet—Frost, Stevens, Eliot—whom people still read in canoes!"