MacLeish, Archibald 1892–
An American poet, playwright, editor, and political adviser, MacLeish has been continually involved in literature, art, government, and other facets of American cultural life. Often taking the political as his subject matter, MacLeish is, as James Southworth says, "not political in the party sense of the word, but in its larger connotation of the problem of man's relation to society." The scope of MacLeish's themes also encompasses nature, love, and reminiscences. MacLeish has won three Pulitzer Prizes. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Not only his journalistic but his poetic and especially his dramatic writings in the 1930's manifested the extroverted temperament which equipped MacLeish for the role of "communicator," or public spokesman. This was no new attribute: his poems of the 1920's and earlier could only have come from a man of this type, but in technique they resembled works of introspective writers, symbolists and impressionists, who were very different from MacLeish. In the 1940's he proved perhaps all too well extroverted, in the sense that his public duties left him less time for poetry…. If MacLeish can be said to have had a mission as distinguished from a vocation, it has been to integrate the role of poet with that of public man. (pp. 7-8)
The themes [of much of his early poetry] are amatory and visionary, mainly in the Aesthetic tradition: there is some superficial paganism, sometimes yoked with Christian symbols, and a great deal of hedonism and a rather Yeatsian preoccupation with an enchanted realm of dream. Antiscientific or at least antipragmatic sentiments, characteristically late-Victorian, come out in the dream poems "Jason" and "Realities." A time-worn motif of mutability, devouring Time, and Death the inexorable recurs abundantly. Yet, even with their intellectual representations, most of these poems seem to achieve more through music than through argument. Often the sound is more interesting than the sense. Imagery appears not be be handled deliberately or for the sake of symbolic possibilities, but to be mainly decorative. (p. 10)
After a few years' fascination with [Swinburnean] music, MacLeish reacted against it. It seems that his reaction was a vehement one: his later poetry has, if anything, avoided musicality and has often been downright unmusical. At any rate sense and argument reasserted themselves strongly; an intricate, even devious, rhetoric began to dominate. For a time the sonnet retained his favor, as in the title piece of the volume The Happy Marriage, and Other Poems (1924). That long poem (a sort of nontragical Modern Love) is made up partly of sonnets and partly of other regular forms, and the verbal effects produced with these are very skillful. (p. 11)
Between 1917 and 1924 MacLeish's style acquired the features of its maturity—conscious symbolism; witty, almost metaphysical strategies of argument; compressed and intense implications—all of these owing much, though quite certainly not everything, to Eliot's example. MacLeish was usually able to resist the Eliot rhythms. His cadences were to have great diversity and to echo many predecessors. His voice, moreover, did not have much in common with the self-conscious orotundity of Eliot's middle period (it had something in common with the Prufrockian tones), and he seldom undertook vocal productions such as dramatic monologues. Indeed, a lasting mark of MacLeish's work has been the weakness of the persona. At times the diction is remote from speech; at other times it may be close to speech but bare of individuality, diffuse, as though spoken by a chorus. For this reason, despite his partial debt to Eliot, MacLeish belongs not only outside of the Browning-Tennyson traditions of monologue but also outside of the American schools which have stemmed from those…. MacLeish's poetry, for the most part, is not introspective, and this is why indeed no persona is wanted. According to its own purposes, its diminution of the persona is a strength: by this means it turns the reader away from the endless labyrinths of subjective illusion and irony, the "echoing vault" of the poetic self, and invites him to contemplate the phenomenal world. It does not vocalize that self: it can and often does fabricate a kind of disembodied speech, or speech whose origin need not be known. It aspires to be, and sometimes becomes, a poetry of spectacle—not always, but especially when, as in the near masterpiece "Einstein" (1926), it is wholly under the control of an intellectual concept. Then the images arrange themselves as objective counterparts of the progress of an idea—Eliot's "objective correlative" intellectualized.
MacLeish in the 1920's increasingly took pains with the formal structure of his poetry. Only through form could the swelling rhetoric be channeled. After the 1924 volume, the sonnet was neglected for a while, but it was not discarded even in Streets in the Moon (1926), where free verse of a highly regulated type alternates with blank verse and stanzaic patterns. Blank verse, with a few rhyming lyric passages, was used also for his symbolistic poem The Pot of Earth (1925) and his closet drama Nobodaddy (1926). (pp. 11-13)
The idea that human feelings meet nothing like themselves, no sympathetic responses, in nature, and that nature governs the life of the body as if the desires of the mind did not occur, is present in The Pot of Earth. But the theme of this poem is the bitterness and pity of those desires so subjected to the Gardener's indifference. Here is the case of the toad beneath the harrow. The poem was published three years after The Waste Land of Eliot. The two works are of roughly the same length. They have much similarity, in technique and symbolism alike. In certain notable ways they are dissimilar. The Waste Land is a first-person monologue to which are subordinated various genre adaptations. The Pot of Earth is mainly a third-person narrative, though with some first-person stream-of-consciousness effects. Stylistically The Waste Land is by far the more experimental and radical. Both poems, however, draw upon Sir James Frazer's work The Golden Bough for vegetation symbolism which, mythologically and ceremonially, represents the death and resurrection of a fertility god (e.g., Adonis) as a type of the seasonal decay and revival of nature. Both also, in applying this symbolism within a modern context of life, emphasize not the victory of life over death but the reverse of this. On the other hand, they again differ most significantly in what they apply such symbolism to. The Waste Land, exploring a gnostic and "spiritualized" sense of death and rebirth, uses a special myth (the Grail legend) concerning an arrest of fertility, whose equivalent in the poem is the male protagonist's state of emotional aridity and despair. The Pot of Earth applies the vegetation symbolism to its female protagonist's organic functions: the biological cycle takes place in her, as if in a plant springing up, flowering, being fertilized, bearing fruit, and dying. Or, more exactly, the girl or woman herself can be regarded as such a "pot of earth," or Garden of Adonis described by Frazer in the passage which MacLeish prefixed to his poem as a general epigraph. For, like those shallow-rooted plants forced into brief and hectic life under the Syrian sun, only to wither and to be thrown into the sea as symbols of the god bewailed by his sectaries, she leads a transient existence, devoid of any lasting meaning except the biological one. The resurrection of the fertility god means new life for nature, not for the individual. At the conclusion of The Pot of Earth, the woman has borne a child and has died; a chestnut tree is in flower; but she rots in the earth. Here the Adonis myth becomes the vehicle for a realization of the inextricability of life and death. MacLeish's second epigraph to the poem (later transferred to part I) is the "god kissing carrion" passage from Hamlet; and part III is called "The Carrion Spring." In Hamlet "carrion" is the prince's coarse designation for Ophelia: evidently the woman in The Pot of Earth has a sacrificial role like that to which the Ophelia personage is doomed in The Waste Land. But she has been sacrificed by the indifference of nature, not the brutality of man.
The 1925 text of The Pot of Earth, several pages longer than the text printed in Poems, 1924–1933 (1933) and thereafter, adopts the Waste Land technique of making the past and present interpenetrate, so that the modern woman's life cycle is depicted in timeless fusion with that of a primitive world: its incidents are abruptly juxtaposed to details from the Adonis ritual. But the three principal passages in which this effect is created have been omitted from the later printings, leaving the poem free of the startling "intertemporal" counterpoint typical of Eliot, and with a contemporary texture purely. Yet, beneath this, continual allusions to the Adonis ritual remain to suggest a theme of unending recurrence. Perhaps recapitulation, rather than recurrence, is the universalizing motif in The Pot of Earth …: this woman is eternal woman, and eternal woman typifies reproductive nature, whose dream is her life. She, like the Garden of Adonis in antiquity, blossoms as an emblem, a signature, of some omnipresent and all-involving archetype of cyclical life and death. Her anonymity is as profound as that of Tiresias, the Waste Land persona; but whereas he is obscured by Eliot's pretentious legerdemain with literary cross references, she has a constant, though shadowy, identity.
There seems to be a philosophical difference between The Pot of Earth and The Waste Land in the ways they pose their protagonists against the world. Eliot's poem is very much in a "psychological" tradition; that is, starting from an Idealist's assumption that the individual point of view is of paramount importance because it uniquely focuses knowledge of externals, The Waste Land attains form by offering a view from a single point, or through a single narrow peephole. It recalls Bergsonian and stream-of-consciousness fiction. MacLeish's poem seems to start from a Realist's assumption that there is nothing special in point of view as such; that the law of things is common to all. It depicts a typical relation of the natural to the human, indeed choosing to examine the fate of someone quite average. Whatever the resemblance of MacLeish's techniques to those of subjectivists and symbolists, his fond was otherwise. His poem, like Eliot's, uses Aesthetic and symbolist procedures to assist naturalistic statement, but his is closer to a philosophical naturalism which assumes the total subjection of man to time and chance.
There was much of the eighteenth-century rationalist in the MacLeish of the 1920's and in his political character later; much, also, of the scientific observer of life. He had made an almost complete break with his antiscientific and aesthetical beginnings as a poet. He now accepted the scientists' description of reality—only boggling at its falsification of experience. The external world he confronted was the one described by the astronomers, by the biologists, and above all by the mathematical physicists of his own day. Whereas Eliot and Pound and Yeats were ancients, MacLeish was a modern. One may believe that Einstein's space-time-energy continuum receives, in the work of MacLeish, its most important poetic treatment to date—a treatment not through casual allusion for contemporary color, but through exact intellectual integration with the subject matter of felt life. A thematic carry-over takes place from The Pot of Earth to later poems—the conflict between personal hopes and natural law, developed first, perhaps a little less pessimistically, in Nobodaddy. (pp. 16-18)
The central paradox of "Ars Poetica" [from Streets in the Moon] is that it makes sense only when the reader accepts its sense as a function of form. It then survives as the aesthetic object it approves—with the proviso that the approval must be held as an utterance in vacuo, a silence…. The real subject of "Ars Poetica" is itself, by a sort of narcissism of the written word as "pure poetry"; this poem exhibits aestheticism circling round, as it were, and returning like the equator upon the round earth. The result contrives a stasis indeed, free or nearly free of time's rotation…. "Ars Poetica," somewhat Yeatsian like various other short poems in the volume, looks also Keatsian: the whole poem speaks with a voice which, like that of the Grecian urn when it equates beauty and truth, belongs to a realm of ideality and is relevant only to that. Such a realm, proper to poetry, conflicts with nature; MacLeish's long poem "Einstein" reviews the naturalistic conception that man, at least, cannot quite escape the prison of his time-bound flesh. That, too, is a Keatsian thought.
"Einstein" in theme recalls Nobodaddy; the resemblance proves useful in the unraveling of its complexities. Not only is the subject difficult (like most subjects) unless one already understands it, but the rhetoric lumbers in obscurity. Nevertheless the poem operates compellingly upon the emotions, and it ought to be one of the best known philosophical poems of the period. The Einstein of the title is modern intellectual man, scientist, represented microcosmically as a sort of Leopold Bloom, atomic and entire (ein Stein, perhaps—a stone, or at least a pebble!), who has inherited the problem and the mission of MacLeish's Cain, the mission of rationality. The Einsteinian universe is rationality triumphant, as indeed it is the triumph of the modern spirit. The poem (a narrative showing the process of "going back," by reason, to a condition which seems to repeal Adam's alienation from nature and to reunite his posterity with the primal creator—i.e., in effect deifying man) reveals the way back by recapitulating the way forward, from any infancy to full consciousness. (pp. 21-2)
Those critics are surely wrong who see "Einstein" as antiscientific; rather, the poem, like Nobodaddy, affirms the necessary destiny of man to subdue everything to his knowledge—everything but the stubborn, atavistic ape within, which must refuse to yield. The anecdotal poem "The Tea Party" says all that need be said about man's sense of his primitivism; "Einstein" says something further, that the animal residuum is man's very life. The tragic fate awaiting this life has already been revealed in The Pot of Earth. "Einstein" is not tragic; it is not even precisely critical. It is an intellectual celebration of an intellectual triumph, attended by a voice bidding the triumphator remember that he is dust. (p. 23)
The gloom pervading The Hamlet of A. MacLeish is left behind in the next collection, New Found Land: Fourteen Poems (1930). Here the over-all tone is one of acceptance—not the unreflecting acceptance urged but resisted in the closing part of the earlier poem, but something urbanely detached. There is a return to the meditativeness of an even earlier period, in poems about memory and time; along with this there is an advance toward a new theme of affirmation, for which a tone of optimism comes into being. (pp. 26-7)
The hallmark of [Conquistador (1932)], unfortunately, is an unrelieved sense of enormous confusion. In the memory of the speaker, the successive episodes are crowded with detail; and an effect of "nonlinear" construction is heightened by the frequent use of parataxis. That is, the language depends a good deal on coordinated statements, whether or not with conjunctions. That this device was intentional is evident from the special use of the colon as a divider; it is made to separate phrases of all kinds. The elements which are thus compounded stand in any order: logic seems not to be in question, since free association controls largely.
If the influence of St.-J. Perse dominates the larger framework of the poem, affecting the shape of its "grand sweep," still another influence, that of the Ezra Pound of the Cantos, often prevails at close quarters. The arbitrary juxtaposition of "significant" details is Poundian. So, too, is one ingredient of MacLeish's subject matter, the use of Book XI of the Odyssey in the "Prologue," where Bernál Díaz is given a role like that of the Homeric Tiresias, summoned from the dead along with fellow ghosts to speak to the living…. Though more in key with the biblical rhapsodies of Perse than with the social grumblings of Pound, Conquistador lacks optimism. For one thing it is based on one of the bloodiest and most barbarous exploits in history, one which destroys the empire it conquers and which ends in a retreat. Furthermore it is set forth by a spokesman for the dead and disillusioned, himself aware, in his very book, that death hangs over him. At the last he longs for the impossible resurrection of youthful hope…. In general this poem, far from acclaiming the origin of the New World as the harbinger of American civilization, is negative as well as confessional. Díaz, like MacLeish's Hamlet, is a wastelander, and what he longs for is a lost innocence that in fact was never real at all: certainly it did not dwell in the Aztec priestly slaughterhouse or in the hearts of the Spanish butchers either. In the poem it only tantalizes like a gilded dream of El Dorado. (pp. 29-30)
The short volume Public Speech: Poems (1936) is strong in social implication, like MacLeish's plays in the same decade; but for part of its length it is different in manner from the usual "public" poetry…. [The] adjective public is not synonymous with national or with political or with cultural in a social scientist's sense; it connotes all that is common, all that touches everyman. Those of MacLeish's poems that treat of the individual in society, or of society in history, do seem public in a more "communal" sense than is possible to a lyric commemoration of love; but this subject, too, can be so treated that its private values become general meanings. Moreover, the first poem in the volume, "Pole Star," celebrates social love, the observance of charity for all, as a guiding principle in an age of misdirections; almost the whole collection is about human bonds of feeling. What public meant to MacLeish at this juncture seems to have been dual: in one aspect it came close to our present slack sense of relevant; in another it rather implied impersonal in something like Eliot's sense, that is, marked by avoidance of self-absorption. In "The Woman on the Stair," personal subject matter becomes archetypal.
"The Woman on the Stair" is really about the psychology of love. The Eros who rules here is the god of maturity; it would be instructive to set beside this another group of lyrics, also a sequence and also a chronicle of love's progress, but focusing on youthful love—Joyce's Chamber Music. There the intensities of feeling wear romantic disguises which in turn undergo transformations into fabrics of symbol. Here, viewed alike from the masculine and the feminine sides, are the great intensities—need, selfishness, shame, jealousy, fickleness, boredom—and time's deadly gift, detachment, all of them functions of a pragmatism that often governs human relations in the mask of the romantic spirit. This sobering vision culminates in the remarkable closing poem, "The Release," a meditation on past time as stasis. What "The Woman on the Stair" projects as a "cinema" sequence, a passional affair involving two people only, becomes in projection a far-reaching commentary on behavior and motivation. (pp. 32-4)
[Land of the Free—U.S.A. (1938)] is hard to judge as poetry because, as published, it was tied to a series of eighty-eight contemporary photographs in order that (according to a note by MacLeish) it might illustrate them. The photographs were already collected before the poem was written. (pp. 34-5)
America Was Promises  is indisputably the most eloquent of the "public" poems. It contrives an absolute alliance between theme and voice; actually the theme helps to flesh the voice so that it surmounts its usual anonymity and acquires the solidity of a persona. Who the persona is, is unclear, but what he is, is obvious, a prophet but contemporary, a liberator but traditionalist, a revolutionary but sage…. In its intellectual ambiguity America Was Promises had much in common with the philosophy of the national administration at that period. So seen, of course, the poem is milder than the rhetoric of its conclusion: it is simply urging people to remain loyal to New Deal doctrines at home and American policy abroad. Really it is much better as a poem than as a message: for once, MacLeish's adaptation of St.-J. Perse's geographic evocations seems precisely right. (pp. 35-6)
[Actfive and Other Poems (1948)] is fully postwar, and it contains the perceptions of a man who had worked within government and who now had a far more exact idea of the gulf between political dreams and reality. It is the book of his second renaissance. A number of the poems, quite apart from the title piece, are of immense interest technically. (p. 36)
The title piece, "Actfive," was the most significant poem by MacLeish since the publication of his Hamlet. It does what a major work by a developing poet has to do: it clarifies the meaning of his previous major works in relation to one another, and it subjects to new form the world which his art is trying now to deal with. This poem relates to The Pot of Earth, to "Einstein," and to The Hamlet of A. MacLeish; and though quite intelligible independently of those, it gains depth and complexity by the relation…. "Actfive" continues, in a manner of speaking, the actions of that nightmarish poem [Hamlet], advancing them beyond the circle of a single protagonist's mind and showing that they involve all men. (p. 37)
Part III, "The Shape of Flesh and Bone," identifies the sought hero at last; it is flesh and bone, unidealized, existential man, instinctive, physical, able to define the meaning of his universe to himself—man the transitory but in spirit indomitable…. The closing lines reaffirm the unutterable loneliness of man in his universe of death, but, like "Einstein," leave him with his inviolate creaturehood. It is ironic that "Actfive" should so circuitously return to the point insisted upon in "Einstein"; for it steers by the opposite pole, assuming that man's lordly reason, far from having subdued nature to its understanding, has been dethroned utterly. Equally, the animal self here, which can still "endure and love," is all that preserves man from destruction; whereas in "Einstein" it is the only thing that debars him from godhead. (p. 38)
Clearly the leading theme of Songs for Eve, the whole book, is man's ordering function; the collection is closer to "Einstein" and the other space-time poems of Streets in the Moon than are the works in between. Here much is made of the origin of the human soul within space-time, particularly in "Reply to Mr. Wordsworth," where the proposition that the soul "cometh from afar" is refuted by an appeal to Einsteinian physics and—paradoxically—to the felt life of the emotions. The poems "Infiltration of the Universe," "The Wood Dove at Sandy Spring," "The Wave," "Captivity of the Fly," and "The Genius" are emblematic, and they happen also to compose a miniature bestiary. The volume pays tribute impartially to matters of intellect and of feeling; these compressed parables divide between them.
The Wild Old Wicked Man (1968) explores the whole scale of MacLeish's concerns, still optimistically. Old age and youth, time, domesticity, contemporary manners, love, death—these predominate. Introspection is not over-worked, but two of the most arresting poems in the volume are "Autobiography," on childhood vision, and "Tyrant of Syracuse," on the subliminal self…. [The elegy to Edwin Muir] quotes "The Linden Branch," applying to a green memory the graceful conceit of the green bough as a musical staff with leaves for notes. Yeats furnished the title of the volume; and the title poem, placed at the end, closes on the theme of
… the old man's triumph, to pursue
impossibility—and take it, too,
which is a signature for MacLeish's poetry, restating the theme of Adam victorious, fallen upwards into a stasis of art and eternity. (pp. 40-1)
Herakles and J. B. show Janus faces of the human struggle to neutralize the blind sentence of death passed upon mankind. Their two scales of poetry, exemplifying MacLeish's maturest talents, correspond to extremes of lyricism and tragic realism in speech. (p. 45)
Grover Smith, in his Archibald MacLeish, #99 in the University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers (© copyright 1971 by the University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1971.
It is to the art of poetry that Mr. MacLeish has given the best part of his mind and heart, and it is to the poetry that we must turn—and return—for a sense of his true accomplishment….
The writer who gave us the lengthy "Conquistador" and "Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller's City" and "America Was Promises" will always, perhaps, have a place in the cultural history of the 1930's, but it is not primarily as poetry that such works survive today.
Given Mr. MacLeish's taste for large mythic endeavors of this sort, it is not surprising to find the results occupying a good deal of space in his "New and Collected Poems, 1917–1976." But the real interest of the book lies elsewhere, I think—in the discovery (as it will be for many readers) or re-discovery (as it will be for some) that he is, and always has been, an engaging and often moving lyric poet, a poet of tender emotions and fastidious ethical yearnings, a very personal poet who has found in love, in friendship, in poetry and in nature, even in death, the subjects that inspired his purest and deepest writing.
This gift for a delicate and inward lyricism has by no means diminished with age. He had it in his 20's and 30's, and it is there, if anything even stronger, in the poems he has written in his 70's and 80's…. The elegiac note that is sounded in … so many of the later poems was there at the beginning, too—in the poem about his college years, "Baccalaureate," written 60 years ago, and in the memorials to his brother, a casualty of the First World War—but there is a clarity of language and feeling in the later poems that we do not find in the earlier ones. Age has brought, if not superior wisdom, a more concentrated perception.
Some of the most moving of the later poems are written as memorials to dear friends who were poets ("Mark Van Doren and the Brook," "Cummings"), others deal with death itself ("Conway Burying Ground") and with love, marriage and age in relation to death ("The Old Gray Couple," with its haunting last line: "We know that love, like light, grows dearer toward the/dark."). They are very much the poems of a survivor, and "Survivor" is the title of one of the most beautiful of them (beautiful, too, in its skill as well as its emotion). (p. 27)
Reading such poems, one has no doubt that it was in the lyric mode, with its inward examination of private experience, that Mr. MacLeish found his true vocation. The poems addressed to public issues are simply not in the same class, and not only those of the 1930's but the recent ones, too. The voice of civic rectitude in his verse is pious, stentorian, false—less so in the later poems, perhaps, but it is still a voice that is a poor surrogate for action or impotent rage. And the odd thing about Mr. MacLeish's career is that two of his most famous poems—"Ars poetica," written in the 20's, and "Invocation to the Social Muse," written in the 30's—are eloquent warnings against precisely this sort of tendentious sermonizing….
Archibald MacLeish is, then, a contradictory and paradoxical poet, and his "New and Collected Poems, 1917–1976" is a book, a big book, very much divided against itself. One would like to see some day a slenderer volume of short lyrics culled from this large book—a book made up of the poems of the "man alone"—for it looks very much as if it will be by those poems that this writer will live. (p. 28)
Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1976.
MacLeish is a gracious, civilized, humane and genuine poet who has never been able to dispel wholly the shadows of Pound and Eliot. His elegiac language is Eliot's; his language of history Pound's; his attitudes as a citizen and a humanist are opposite to theirs, but a poet's stance as poet is always a matter of language. (p. 22)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.
It saddens me to think that MacLeish, whom I know to be a gentle, decent man, should be disheartened or even disgruntled reading a young nobody denigrating his life work [New and Collected Poems, 1917–1976]. But uncritical veneration is disrespect. The only compliment one can pay a poet is to compare him to the greatest.
The problem with MacLeish's poems is that they are almost all quite good. Prompted by a quick intelligence and sensitivity, there are few poems or lines one can extract and dangle as damaging evidence. Always level-headed, unlike Eliot, Pound, Frost, or Yeats, there seems to be nothing in MacLeish's politics or aesthetics with which one can take strong issue. Most of his poems are well made. The index to my copy is littered with the check marks by which I record my moderate interest in a poem.
But I find only four asterisks—my mark for especial interest—and only one double asterisk, to remind myself of an indispensable poem. Nor, when I am reading or after I close the book, is there a particular voice, an unmistakable tone, a personality, ringing or echoing in my head. What MacLeish has said has seemed true, intelligent, rhythmic, not unoriginal, and yet I have not heard him, felt that trembling that makes a great artist seem better known to one than one's best friend. When one reads such lines as "Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye"; or "When I see birches bend from left to right"; or "At the first turning of the second stair"—instantly one is drawn into worlds whose clarity makes them somehow mysterious: One senses a peculiarly obsessive observer.
By contrast, three MacLeish openings—"Under an elm tree where the river reaches"; "From these night fields and waters do men raise"; "Who is the voyager in these leaves"—chosen moreorless at random, suggest a diligent poet, but no person—a desire to write a poem without the obsessive need to do so that will give it life.
I wish I could be more precise. With stories or expository prose one can explain effect on the basis of logical development of idea, image, plot, character. It is not difficult to understand why Miss Havisham continues to creak in our consciousness long after we've forgotten her fictional context. But a poem depends on a conjunction of sound and sense, a tug of syllables that keeps the rope of meaning taut. Subtract a suffix—"At the first turn of the second stair"—and the whole velocity and mystery of the line is lost—the sinuous-seeming sliding of the stair—though it is not easy to explain how the meaning has been changed.
Time and again, MacLeish has good ideas for poems, but the poems themselves flap their wings like penguins….
In "'Dover Beach'—A Note to That Poem," a vivifying metaphor, that generations resemble successive waves, is hobbled by an unmusical realization: "Let them go over us all I say with the thunder of/What's to be next in the world. It's we will be under it!" Time and again, one yearns for MacLeish to be less diligent, less complete, to remember that a poem is not just its words, but also the silences it creates, the hollows that suck us in.
Perhaps his ablest poem, for which he was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize, is Conquistador, a book-length recollection of Cortes's Mexican expeditions by one of his soldiers, Bernal Diaz. In his "preface," Diaz movingly declares his right to recall his experience and the thrill of remembering. His language, there and following, is sensuous and particular. If one lacks a sense of the characters, one feels the locales and the fatigue and exaltation of the troups. One is conscious that the poem is written well, that MacLeish has reined the Dantean terza rima into an obedient English verse form. One admires—and wonders: What is the point of the story, the reason for its telling? Pleasant as recollection may be, it is insufficient cause to tell a tale….
MacLeish's weakness as a poet may be his strength as a man: his level headedness, which saves him from having to invent and believe in an imaginary order to protect himself from actual disorder. No Michael, wrestling with meaning, MacLeish reacts and feels as much as, but no more than, every man. To change metaphors: He sinks his fishhook as deep as any fishhook and catches what we all catch—that death is serious, that time passes, etc.—but none of the marvelous monsters that greatness yanks from the deeps. His poems come from life but lack lives of their own.
That said, it is a pleasure to report that the best poems in this volume are the "New." By surviving, MacLeish has entered into unfamiliar poetic territory. His love is no longer conventional: Everyman dies at 65, and most poets sooner. Neither could the knowledge or tone of "The Old Gray Couple (2)" (my index's only double asterisk) be faked by a younger man. Eliot's "Gerontion" is a poseur by comparison….
Despite their competent composition, almost none of MacLeish's collected poems enlarged my insights. I found myself constantly (a bad sign) noticing the "good parts" in individual poems, wishing like anything that the parts would coalesce into an elevating whole. "The Old Gray Couple (2)" is not just a fine poem, but a promise, an occasion for hope. What a golden irony if art, which delights in ironies, should allow MacLeish posterity for work done after most men cease being productive.
May he live, laureate of senescence, forever.
Carll Tucker, "Intelligent Craftsmanship, but Where's the Damaging Evidence?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), November 29, 1976, p. 90.