Brewster Ghiselin 1903–
American poet, editor, and essayist.
Ghiselin is a formal poet whose work is known for its pantheism. The central images in his poetry are of nature and animals; his concern is to understand humanity's relationship to the universe.
The poems in his earliest collection, Against the Circle, present a series of lyrical images which some critics found to be lacking in substance. But later poems, especially those in Country of the Minotaur are notable for their powerful evocation of humanity confronting nature. His most critically acclaimed pieces are included in Windrose: Poems 1929–1979.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Brewster Ghiselin is a young poet of considerable talent. He is an experimenter in slant rhyme, in untraditional form, in freer rhythms, and for the most part his technique is disciplined and expert. Only occasionally do his poems [in "Against the Circle"] seem mannered, and more an exercise in sound effect than the expression of a deeply felt poetic impulse. Sometimes in his effort to create a startling or original impression he twists words out of their ordinary usage—"We do not hear the ancient darkness thicking," for example—or "the cat, heavying with harsher fur"—certainly awkward and obviously contrived artificialities….
But these are extreme instances. He is capable of accurate, unaffected imagery and observation….
And he can write with dignity and profundity of man's eternal search for a symbolic New World….
The best in this book is a poetic achievement of no mean quality; the weaknesses I am sure Mr. Ghiselin will master or outgrow. For all his experimenting, he is at heart a traditionalist—and of the high tradition of fine and enduring poetry.
Sara Henderson Hay, "Three Techniques: 'Against the Circle'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1946 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 12, March 23, 1946, p. 11.
Mr. Ghiselin is a painter. too, and this is perhaps a clue to both his weakness and his strength as a poet. He has a sensitive eye, and most of the poems in ["Against the Circle"] are careful observations of sensuous detail expressed with precision and taste. For he has a sensitive ear as well, and he has encouraged it with an evident study of prosody. He lacks, however, the passionate conviction that makes competent poetry meaningful. One reads through page after page of gracefully expressed images, continually awaiting a resolution of image into some sort of pattern. It does not come….
In fairness it should be added that the author may be understanding his talent and working here within its limitations. A reading of the two or three failures in the book, the more ambitious poems, such as "The Vision of Adam," where the end is never gained and the small virtues lost, makes one think so. And to know the limits of one's talents is so rare a grace in American literature it should not be underestimated. But though Mr. Ghiselin may be an Imagist with a technique and taste most of the Imagists lacked, or even Mallarmé without Mallarmé's intellectual ends, his poetry is hardly the poetry that is needed now. Poetry is indeed, needed badly, but poetry that is more than music, with bone as well as flesh.
Claude Fredericks, "Poems by Brewster Ghiselin," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1946, p. 37.
[Country of the Minotaur is] priceless. For here Ghiselin's art has ripened, and he has become one of our most important living poets.
Mr. Ghiselin's two previous collections, Against the Circle (1946) and The Nets (1955) seemed to me to offer too many poems whose parts were so polished that it was difficult to grasp the whole. The effect was that of Byzantine mosaics seen close, an effect of brilliant yet disparate atomies rather than of anatomy. Yet in Country of the Minotaur the opposite is true. The parts are still burnished, but the confluence of a tidal rhythm, an audacious language, and important themes distances poems, so that one sees their integrity and strength, as Yeats saw the integrity and strength of the lofty mosaics at Ravenna.
I said the poems were 'distanced.' But I do not mean they are remote. Indeed, they are close in the way that the lives of saints or heroes are close to us. But they are distant in the way that saints and heroes are distant. I have tried to figure out how this can be so, and I think it is because Brewster Ghiselin's new poems, unlike John Berryman's or Robert Lowell's, do not strangle in journalism. Another way of putting it is to say that Ghiselin is one of the few poets today whose faith rests in universals. Because his quandaries are eternal they remain pure, for they remain unresolved. Because his passions are conceived as parallels of the passions of vast energies, like sea and land, they remain at peace; most at peace when most violent.
Passion and peace define the boundaries of these poems, and the field within the boundaries is that Nature which modern science has made both more heartless and more mysteriously beautiful than the Nature Wordsworth knew. It is a Nature that can only be understood as a broad order which barely superintends random movement and flux. Except for St. Jean Perse, I can think of no one who is so magnificently at home in this nomadic drift-land. And in some ways Ghiselin is the better poet, for he varies his focus, and Perse does not. (pp. 77-8)
Radcliffe Squires, "Reviews: 'Country of the Minotaur'," in Concerning Poetry (copyright © 1970, Western Washington University), Vol. 111, No. 2, Fall, 1970, pp. 77-80.
The tone of Country of the Minotaur is serious, at times almost grave, although not solemn; and if the poems lack the superficial brilliance and sophisticated mannerisms that have become almost a cultural commodity, they are impressively solid, compassionate, and beautifully sustained.
The title poem draws a leading analogy between the story of Minos and modern man, and sets the theme of the book…. Man is not, however, unredeemably monstrous, nor is the universe simply indifferent or malign. In the poems that follow, especially the extraordinary group devoted to birds and beast of prey, and to the great scavengers, Ghiselin suggests the enormous gap between man's pretensions and his ability to understand his limitations, the loss of awe and the sense of mortality as well as humility. (p. 294)
[The] quiet irony with which he characterizes our "triumph" over the natural world … never interferes with or weakens the grasp of salient detail. He is less concerned with insisting upon the uniqueness of his sensibility than with seeing and understanding human experience—his own experience, quite naturally, in the more personal poems—in a context larger than that of the self….
"We wrestle in the sea," he says; but we "look to the land," inescapably. And in the two long poems that form the center of his book, "The Wheel" and "Sea," Ghiselin makes of that tension poetry of rare quality. The...
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[Country of the Minotaur] contains poetry which at times approaches greatness. Sea and The Wheel … invite, and often sustain, comparison with Conrad Aiken. Both poets write from an experience, a vision, which seems to me, a European, essentially, inimitably, and superbly American. It is a poetry of modern, complex man's re-confrontation with virgin Nature; with the myth of Eden, and the parting of the ways of man from that in which we are conceived and from which we are born. Whitman and Melville are of this line, and Audubon, besides other American poets (like Richard Eberhardt) of Ghiselin's generation….
In America, the confrontation of the natural with the human wilderness has been and is more dramatic, tragic, and consciously experienced than elsewhere on earth, where history has interposed a richness, and a context, not found on the American continent. For us in Europe the tragedy is the destruction of civilization; in America, of virgin nature. In such a situation poets like Brewster Ghiselin give expression to a nostalgia of national proportions. (p. 288)
[Much in his work] invites comparison with that supreme poet of the marvels of the planet, St.-John Perse. In both poets there is the delight in the unimaginable strangeness of the animate world. If poetry begins in wonder, such poets—Aiken also—find for us marvels as no poets have done for centuries. The marvellous is ever before their eyes, in the "handful of ocean water clearer than glass", in the strange precisions, adaptations, and ingenuities of form and function…. Perse is of course the greater poet…. Yet Brewster Ghiselin also has the mastery of a majestic sweep by...
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One [book] I have read with marked satisfaction is Brewster Ghiselin's Country of the Minotaur. Ghiselin's meditative lyrics, many of which evoke the grandeur of the Pacific Coast, may remind us of Robinson Jeffers. Without the cranky misanthropy that mars so much of Jeffers's work, Ghiselin has a similar awe for nature's immensity and otherness. The beauty of the world can never be domesticated; yet it is Ghiselin's triumph to have placed man in the midst of nature, without smoothing down any of its roughness, and then to have shown man to be something more than an intruder in this world…. [In his writing Ghiselin] sounds depths which few other contemporary poets have reached. In the masterful poem...
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[Brewster Ghiselin] must have spent the greater number of his years in the American West and at first fortunately but in the long run with less profit had Robinson Jeffers as his master…. [The poems of Windrose: Poems 1929–1979] are devoid of people and of any place where a human memory might have lodged in a monument of its creation. The poet's patent admiration of Jeffers had his historical determinism taught him to Think Cosmic; he virtually excluded mankind in his scheme, devoted to a Wild West which can only become poetry because it is depopulated. He tends, like Jeffers, to reduce human history to a kind of unnecessary consciousness when contrasted with the eternal passage of the tides, the clouds,...
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Nothing is more pronounced or obvious in the poetry of Brewster Ghiselin than the formal poet. His character is that of a maker, one who can cease to write only after the stilled hush which falls over words placed in what seems their natural and final combinations. No one can read the fifty years of his poetry collected in Windrose and fail to see that he has been committed to high art and opposed to all the trivial occupations which so often pass as art. On the whole, Ghiselin is not in his book as himself, though his personality and his character inform the book; he is not a self-ridden contemporary. One feels that he approves of himself from the beginning and that his task is to discover, or create, his...
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Windrose: Poems 1929–1979 provides readers with the poems that Brewster Ghiselin cares most to be remembered by. Selections from Against the Circle (1946), The Nets (1955), and Country of the Minotaur (1970) reveal what another generation would call "pure" poetry…. Pure poetry avoids both "ideas" which tend to date and "morality" which in each generation takes on different meanings. In the final sections of Country of the Minotaur and the poems since, Ghiselin's interests become more ideological, as a lifelong love of the outdoors leads to overt attacks on man's despoiling nature ("Tact", "Nocturne: Laguna Beach," "Let There Be Light," "And There Was Light") and America's...
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