The Cheer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Occasions prompt many of the poems in this book; all the poems in it are meditative and expertly crafted, which fact probably accounts for why it took so long to publish. William Meredith is a kind of master chef of what used to be called “cooked” poetry, and although his cuisine is simple, it is—it would seem from the praise of his peers—a gourmet’s delight.

Meredith’s recurrent themes are nature, the past, death, and relationships, and in all these the major feature is polarity.

Winter is stillness, but there is movement in it in “Winter on the River.” The progress of a day provides the occasion for and the structure of the poem, as light arrives violently, animals move about, a ship breaks the ice on the river, and the poet’s initial view of the road he sees changes. Man partitions himself from the stars, but they shine through anyway in “Country Stars,” and in “At the Confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado” the remains of a plane crash are a sign of man’s smallness and of nature’s power over him. Nature, indeed, is not what man makes of it, as he calls Zeus a swan and constellations animals (“Poem”). Conversely, the poet uses nature to identify opposing human moods in “The Season’s Difference,” where winter means to brood and summer to play. If in “For Two Lovers in the Year 2075 in the Canadian Woods,” man and nature, the present and future, merge; nature conflicts with man in “Ideogram” in that the poet must grapple with its elusive delicacy.

The past is the theme of many of the occasions which frame Meredith’s poems. In “Two Masks Unearthed in Bulgaria,” the stasis of the ancient artifact contrasts with the passage of its “clay and gold” into art, just as the faces which used to wear the masks have passed into death in one direction and into a mirrorlike shape in the other. The geological past provides the buildings in which art is housed and that develop and administer the political principles on which our society is founded. “A Firescreen at Mount Vernon” gives Meredith an occasion to imagine the vitality of our forebears, and in “A Mild-Spoken Citizen. . .,” he suggests to the president that he take a moral lesson from the past and change his ways. As in “Memoirs,” readers may not remember the past accurately, but this change in it may itself point to the past’s clear message that change is basic to life, and that a moral change for the better in the present might rest on retrospection and this truth.

Death is a radical aspect of the past which is hard to forget. The contrast in “Give and Take” is between the ritual of gift-giving at Christmas and the loss of those who can no longer receive gifts. The death of famous writers is another occasion which moves Meredith to measure contrasts. Robert Lowell’s poems were the dark news that his listeners asked “his blessing” for bringing to them. Ernest Hemingway shoots himself, and John Berryman jumps off a bridge, and Meredith looks for the art in these acts to give a moral balance to them. He does not find the myth, though, in Sylvia Plath’s suicide, so he disapproves of it. “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs” accepts Berryman’s poems but pulls back from his “recidivism,” and “John and Anne” views him as a childish adult and Anne Frank as an adult child in the face of death because, instead of choosing death as Berryman did, she mourned for those who were slaughtered. Also, Meredith presents a complex paradox in which the poet Percy Shelley is joyous as he dies, because he is experiencing a critical moment of living itself, and Edward Trelawny, in merely dreaming that moment, mimics death but also keeps Shelley alive by remembering the moment as though it were still in progress.

Death, apart from the context of the past, also concerns Meredith. In “Dying Away,” death becomes a kind of grotesque melodrama because Freudian morality has made everyone a hero simply because he dies. Aside from the unusual heroism, though, of the victim who deprives his torturer-killer of pleasure by keeping his pain to himself (“The Revenant”), the heroism in death—such as it is—may be due to the fact that no one can “imagine” his own death. There is, in short, little the living can know about death. This—since one cannot understand what desire and death have to do with each other—may make one feel guilty about being alive. Certainly, nothing can be known about the choices...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)