Brad Leithauser 1953–
Hundreds of Fireflies (1982), Leithauser's first book of poems, has been very well received by critics. He is described as an important new poet whose work is amazingly polished and, unlike much contemporary poetry, life-affirming. Critics compare Leithauser with poets of distinction, including Robert Frost and Marianne Moore, among others.
Leithauser is concerned with craft and formal construction. He is an observer and precise recorder of tiny details, especially in nature. His poetry, critics observe, is fresh, humorous, and exuberant in an appealing way. Leithauser also has the gift, it is noted, for speaking plainly and for pointing to beauties and pleasures often overlooked.
Auden once said that the more conscious writers are of inner disorder the more value they place on tidiness in their work as a way of controlling their emotions. Perhaps it is inner chaos, even dread, that accounts for Brad Leithauser's fascination—almost obsession—with technique and with orderly, complicated structures. I suspect, though, that Leithauser is simply inventive by nature, playful, and in love with language.
His Hundreds of Fireflies … is a veritable anthology of verse forms, all manipulated with dexterity and verve. The effects are always calculated—every syllable counted and patted into place (a seven-line stanza, for example, with seven syllables per line), every complex rhyme scheme worked out to the last detail. Not surprisingly, too, for someone so conscious of weights and measures, he is given to gleeful wordplay…. And whether he is annotating a firefly's "arythmic light," a bat's "gimpy flight," or a bullfrog's "harsh gravelly notes," his verbal poise is always in evidence.
His muse, it is clear, is Marianne Moore, and a few of the poems, "Giant Tortoise," for example, do explicit homage…. He also shows his debt to Frost, trying his own version of "Birches" and offering a handful of those couplets that Frost was partial to, as in lines on a Venus' flytrap: "The humming fly is turned to carrion. / This vegetable's no vegetarian."
That last line, come to think of...
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The hallmark of "Hundreds of Fireflies" is meticulous examination of particulars. So uninsistent is Brad Leithauser's voice, one at first assumes that what is being offered is simply what meets the delighted eye. His poems depicting landscapes, habits and movements of creatures and "personalities" of celestial objects give pleasure and testify to the credo in the title poem:
to watch, and say nothing,
is what is best, is
what we needed.
But such a bearing scarcely prepares one for the urbane self-scrutiny of the long two-part poem "Two Summer Jobs." There the self-conscious, Harvard-bound youth of the early 1970's and the disaffected, ironic graduate at decade's end form a composite, with Mr. Leithauser's technical skills everywhere evident. The first part, "Tennis Instructor, 1971," unfolds through intricately rhymed 11-line stanzas; the poet uses the Rubaiyat stanza for "Law Clerk, 1979," and plays on it brilliantly.
Yet the best work comes at the end of the book. Poems like "Birches," "Duckweed," "Along Lake Michigan" and "The Ghost of a Ghost" transport the reader to realms of suggestiveness...
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Brad Leithauser's Hundreds of Fireflies brims with simple, sensuous poems that are, in a sense, eclogues and elegies…. [The] pastoral poet, a Virgil or Frost, typically gathers metaphors from the countryside to take with him back to the city. Thus Leithauser, perhaps alluding to Frost, writes a poem called "Birches" and another about a Michigan ghost town where, "Had I not been told / Where to pick out the vined / Roots of settlement, I might / Have seen no trace at all," calling up Frost's "Directive." Yet none of his master's wayward ambiguities or gnarled syntactical routing make their way into Leithauser. His poems rush like water down hill, luculently fresh, as in "Dead Elms by a River."…
Some of [Leithauser's] poems read like exercises in descriptive poetry and have less imaginative pressure than one expects in serious work, but unevenness of this sort often plagues first books. The good news is that Leithauser has a clear eye—an unclouded vision of the world…. He ruthlessly avoids the showy surrealism and unnatural (and unconvincing) metaphors that have given much of contemporary poetry a bad name. Still better, he has respect for what is called "craft"—the workmanship that saying things plainly requires of even the most exalted genius. I venture that Brad Leithauser will find poems closer to himself, and truer, as he grows. Meanwhile, Hundreds of Fireflies makes good reading. (p. 38)...
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Brad Leithauser seems to be at home anyplace. For several years I have been following his poetry with delight whenever it appears in magazines. His first book, Hundreds of Fireflies …, confirms my sense of pleasure. Among the often strident clamor of youthful poetic voices, Leithauser's stands out for its rare combination of exaltation and skillful control. Usually, he concentrates on small subjects, miniature perceptions….
Leithauser's ideas are effervescent with optimism. The most somber spectacle can still provoke his hopeful imagination to a vision of rebirth. A dead deer on the beach "Along Lake Michigan," for example, merely fills the poet and his companion with disbelief—death simply cannot exist in this place…. For Leithauser …, as for Shelley, death itself is a dream from which we awaken into the white radiance of eternity.
Perhaps the most impressive and developed part of Hundreds of Fireflies is a section entitled "Two Summer Jobs." These sustained narratives depict the unfolding portrait of the artist as a budding poet…. "Law Clerk, 1979" (Leithauser is now a lawyer) traces the subtle development of a mature poetic sensibility. The young man works his way through writer's block by staying late at the office, and while there, attempting parodies of famous poems—an interesting peek at how he acquired his easy grace with forms. A scene of the conventionally dressed law clerk...
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[Hundreds of Fireflies] is an overtly formal book…. It is marked by extreme control, personal reticence, and a calm, confident virtuosity that makes us think of Elizabeth Bishop or [Richard Wilbur]. And more remarkable than the style is the subject matter. Leithauser writes almost exclusively about the natural world—not the implacable Nature of Jeffers or Frost, but the benign, pastoral, optically infinite nature of the Dutch landscape painters. His poems are so detailed and unemphatically lucid that we cannot help but wonder where and how the poet weathered the experiences of the past decade….
We have been schooled to approach poetry in a certain way, taught to extract content, a message, and then to summarize and report. Leithauser's poems resist these tactics. His lines embody the perceptual experience, are that experience; they hug their content and will not give it up. The poems are not about anything. Their meaning consists of the progress of the eye across the texture of the page, the movement through beautifully patterned clauses. The formal underpinning is clearly not gratuitous. It is there because attentiveness of such high degree discloses order. Yielding to the exigencies of form we become tensed and alert. The eye slows down, starts to move on tiptoe. And when we come to the end of the poem there is closure, the obscure, half-unconscious appeasement of our appetite for balance and clarity. The...
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[Brad Leithauser] has learned from Marianne Moore a form of compressed emblem description, from Elizabeth Bishop an unassuming visual scanning, from Robert Frost a love of rural scenes, from A. R. Ammons a telling use of modesty of voice, and from James Merrill a worldly form of narrative verse. [In Hundreds of Fireflies these] lessons have been assimilated beyond pastiche, on the whole, and have been brought into a tone distinguished by its mildness. Mildness is in fact Leithauser's chief personal form of stylization. Mild poets are rare. There is a welcome lightness and sweetness in Leithauser recommending him to readers whose tastes bring them to Herbert and Schubert. And (another form of stylization) he likes, like Herbert, the compression of the proverb or the riddle…. [The eleven "Astronomical Riddles" in this volume, for example, bring] the unwieldy planets into the surprising stylization of brief self-description…. (pp. 41-2)
Leithauser's quick sympathy, his humor, and his love of an elusive playfulness appear in these trifles. He is not unaware of what such orderly compressions of phenomena leave out in their will-to-stylization: another of his short poems ["The Integers"], muses on the neatness of the procession of the integers vis-à-vis negative and irrational numbers and nonrepeating decimals…. A mind wishing to write such "Minims" (as Leithauser calls them) is of course in danger of forgetting the swamp in...
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Robert B. Shaw
Leithauser seems … the sort of poet who collects and assimilates, giving each inconspicuous detail its due without inflating it, piling up exact observations with a freshness and prodigality like nature's own. He is one who, in Yeats's phrase, has attained "right mastery of natural things." One is reminded of earlier inspired accumulators: of Moore, of Bishop, perhaps most of Wilbur. In these poets description can become almost microscopic; [in Hundreds of Fireflies] Leithauser emulates and even may outdo them at this…. (pp. 179-80)
The poet sees the lustrous surface of things but also penetrates it…. The awareness of a submerged darkness—[in "Duckweed"], and in "The Return to a Cabin," "The Ghost of a Ghost," and others—lends a needed gravity to Leithauser's writing. But it is not usually what he chooses to dwell upon. He is like Wilbur particularly in this, I think: the vision of the world remains, against odds scrupulously taken into account, an affirmative one. More than affirmative—celebratory. The poems communicate delight as much through their alertness of style as through their keenness of perception. There must be very few poets as young as Leithauser in such absolute command of their instrument. In particular his handling of rhyme, sometimes in extremely intricate patterns, is remarkable in avoiding distortion of diction or syntax.
It is difficult to single out titles for specific notice...
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