Barry Spacks is a conservative poet who is also vivacious, likeable, and skilled. He inclines to strict meters and ostentatious rhyme-schemes, which he handles with a deftness reminiscent of Wilbur, or, at bitterer moments, of Snodgrass…. Most of Spacks's best poems are essentially epigrams; he also has the rarer gift of writing good nonsense on serious subjects (The World as a Vision of the Unity in Flesh, Homage to Henry James). His character portraits—the "shoe clerk's bride", a whole taxonomy of students and professors—are two dimensional, but often so precisely observed as to induce delighted recognition. His painterly eye for landscape is also exact. On the other hand, when he tries to express emotion, or, worse, existential pondering, directly, he often becomes vague and maudlin: "if he'd take one step he'd come into / her love, that waits for him, a summer field."
Spacks's practice thus bears out the anti-Romantic credo expressed in his title poem: the poet does best to diminish his view of himself, and concentrate on pure technique, in order to pass from unorganized inspiration ("the company of children") to some higher analogue. The program is reminiscent of an earlier poetic generation overshadowed by New Critical formalism; and I often feel that Spacks's good poems could as easily have been written fifteen years ago as now. This is a little depressing, since the poet's own time is overflowing with innovations and schools, while the mode he hearkens back to seemed so cagy and restricting that most of its best practitioners have since abandoned it, or else lapsed into relative silence. But The Company of Children is itself a most undepressing book, and perhaps should not be weighed in such ponderous cultural-historical terms. (pp. 282-83)
Alan Williamson, "Beginners and Renewers," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXV, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 281-85.∗
[Barry Spacks's] poems are about things the readers of this journal are themselves familiar with: students, jury duty, washing windows, books, poetry. Not only are the poems about these things, they are faithful to them. Spacks rarely tries to force the natural range of his subjects into uncomfortable reaches toward soul or essence. So these poems confirm the validity of Spacks's common but difficult life.
There is a good deal of structure to the poems, but instead of lending the poems an artificial quality the structure gives the poems additional grace. They are refreshing in times when much young American poetry delights in secret principles of organization, mysterious "deep images," confusion of line length and the abolishment of meaningful stanzaic patterning. One could say that Mr. Spacks is a gentleman; he will never leave the reader uncomfortable or embarrassed or clutching for orientation. He is consistent, solid, and responsible.
Nevertheless, the impression which Mr. Spacks has and makes of the world, that of a quaint and dusty, if sometimes chaotic, workshop, suggests perhaps a casualness too specialized for some of the profoundly awful events of modern life. In places he sounds like Frost; he has Frost's soundness and optimism—but not much of his other sides. One's initial response is that Spacks needs to deepen, perhaps to have something happen to him that pulls at the tightness of his vision. At times...
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Barry Spacks's Teaching the Penguins to Fly is a … sophisticated and professional book, at least in the superficial senses of the words…. [Here one finds] the tender clutter, the good beer and coffee quotidian of anybody's life, no further shaped nor understood.
Far too often Spacks has no subject…. But this most valuable and difficult poetry requires a special emotional and intellectual comprehension, and Spacks rarely achieves it. (pp. 379-80)
Although he usually writes in none, Spacks sometimes uses one of several forms, and sometimes well. In "Comparing X-Rays" the iambic rhythms are the plodding, dull movements, imagined by people who have not read Momaday, Elizabeth Daryush, Frost, Cunningham, Stevens, Tate, Ransom, and Winters, to be inherent in a twentieth-century accentual-syllabic line; and the fourth line falls apart in an uninteresting way, perhaps in the struggle for rhyme…. (p. 380)
Most of the best poems occur in the final section of the book. These are often simultaneously curious and unpretentious poems, written in what at least approaches real prosody—often in the new unrhymed four-stress podic line ("Foolfish"). Several of these poems successfully personify animals, plants, or abstractions….
These poems skirt the danger of excessive allusiveness or, alternatively, irrelevant circumstance—a common problem in modern art which causes it to age...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
James Finn Cotter
[Barry Spacks] shows more religious spirit in his title poem, "Imagining a Unicorn," than in acres of [William] Everson. The poem depicts the Cloister tapestries in its separate scenes, the climax coming with the Unicorn in Captivity panel…. Spacks transforms a familiar art work into a personal poem, weaving words into scenery, mixing medieval and modern sensibilities. His style in other poems combines conversational slang with an academically precise syntax and tone…. I enjoyed "Seeing Pablo Neruda," a poem about spotting the poet at Harvard Square—or was it Octavio Paz? Spacks will never be sure and his poetry mimics his insecurity. He writes humorously about having a street named after him, nastily about litterbugs, and emotionally about his dead mother and a student killed in a gliding accident. We learn a lot about the poet from his writing, and the news is intelligent and good. (p. 117)
James Finn Cotter, "Familiar Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. I, Spring, 1979, pp. 109-22.∗
Barry Spacks is not one of those writers one hears about at the literary watering holes, though he is the author of two novels and, now, a fourth book of poems, Imagining a Unicorn. His method of handling a poem is generally to tame it to a traditional form, to rhyme, to statement, to petite jokes and multiple ironies…. [A poem such as "I Will"] might as easily have been written by Wilbur, Nemerov, or Ciardi…. If we are too prone to write off such decorous virtues as symmetry, wit, sensibility, it may be that our sense of an actual life is abused by such paper-scratching.
Yet we have need of court jesters as well as priests and we do ourselves a disservice to junk humor and intelligence, craft and music. If we still derive, as I argue, pleasure from memorable sounding words (the testament of history is still comfortably on the side of the angels of verse), then Spacks is often as good as those I have lumped him with. Sometimes better. I know of few more beautiful poems of desperation than his "Who Then Is Crazy" (in Teaching The Penguins To Fly). Spacks is, sui generis, a poet of the cityscape, of manner and style…. He is feisty, too, as stylists usually are. But Spacks is also capable of a wild and sudden glare directly into the heart of things and he is talented enough to make the art serve his seeing. "The Pale Ones," for example, is a fine poem about "basic creatures" we dream back to us. My favorite poem in this book pits what Spacks, as artist, represents against a student committed to passion and his own way, a student killed hang-gliding…. [It is a] loving elegy…. If, in Spacks, we get less of the Jamesian "full fact" than we desire, if we do not get heaven itself, he provides us with some splendid waystations for which we should give a proper thanks. (p. 32)
Dave Smith, "Dancing through Life among Others: Some Recent Poetry from Younger American Poets," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Dave Smith), Vol. 8, No. 3, May-June, 1979, pp. 29-33.∗