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Chester Kallman

Chester Kallman Essay - Critical Essays

Kallman, Chester

Kallman, Chester 1921–

An American-born poet now living in Austria, Kallman has also done opera libretti in collaboration with W. H. Auden.

Mr. Kallman has previously published two volumes of poetry, Storm at Castelfranco (1956) and Absent and Present (1963). These, most unjustly, received almost no attention, and this neglect I should like to rectify….

[In his new book, The Sense of Occasion,] Mr. Kallman has managed to resist … temptations, firstly, thanks to his sense of humor that never deserts him, even in the most tense moments, and, secondly, thanks to his command of linguistic technique, both metrical and rhetorical….

The final section [of The Sense of Occasion], The African Ambassador, is a very remarkable achievement indeed. To begin with, it is a technical tour de force…. Secondly, Mr. Kallman has succeeded in what is one of the most difficult of all tasks, namely, in inventing a myth, or rather, perhaps, a metaphor, that does not remain private to the author but is accessible to all…. I have no hesitation in saying that, in my opinion, The African Ambassador is one of the most original and significant poems written in the past twenty years.

W. H. Auden, "Chester Kallman: A Voice of Importance," in Harper's (copyright © 1972, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the March, 1972 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of W. H. Auden), March, 1972, pp. 92-3.

These new poems [The Sense of Occasion] by Chester Kallman seem to me even better than those in his two earlier books, Storm at Castelfranco … and Absent and Present…. In the years since the publication of the latter, Mr. Kallman's supremely classical sense and resonance have been increasingly tempered by his persuasive personal voice. Like all wise poets, he knows so much that he can afford to leave unsaid more than most of his colleagues knew to begin with…. Mr. Kallman takes life and letters seriously enough to make a joke, be maliciously funny, and cry without being boring or maudlin.

Chester Kallman's poems will probably never command an indiscriminate following; in fact, his poems never command at all, but rather incite, amuse, tickle, encircle, wound, and, above all, harmonize. Some will say these poems are out of date, for verses that do not tell their age are out of fashion, as not strictly of the moment. But unlike checks that must be cashed upon receipt, this is currency good for all occasions and worth more than the paper it is printed on. Mr. Kallman is a coiner, in the highest sense, an adept at that artistic counterfeit which is more valuable than the gold standard of the present. The medals from his mint are stamped not with the image of the time but with personality and personal knowledge which shine through and are enforced by a precision little practised nowadays. Chester Kallman's sense of occasion and his art are both practised and inspired.

Michael Mesic, in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1972, pp. 47-9.

Uncommon is the word for Chester Kallman—uncommonly attractive and uncommonly odd. Probably no other poet of Chester Kallman's generation, the generation of "the nineteen-twenties-born," the generation which, as he mordantly remarks, "had no name," seems so singular, so dryly or vividly himself. And yet, for all that, no other poet, I think, seems, here and there, so quaint, so much the poor proverbial drunk endlessly searching for his wallet under the streetlamp although he lost it up the alley. Storm at Castelfranco and Absent & Present and The Sense of Occasion—certainly the three collections of his poems are arresting performances. And certainly a number of the poems grow better from book to book, poems full of nipping lines, of "wry and borrowed ambiguities," of contraries and conceits.

Yet often with Kallman just when a fancy's having its head it becomes gnarled, just when the whimsey sparkles or stirs it turns crabbed. Here is a poet who knows most of what there is to know about meter and form (the mesmeric iambs of "Missing the Sea," the exquisite syllabic variants of "The African Ambassador"). And here is a poet who knows most of what there is to know about rhetoric (the bravura style of "Testament of the Royal Nirvana"—it is a small-scale virtuosity, but virtuosity nonetheless). Yet here, alas, is a poet who, now and again, appears to know nothing—or to know everything and forget everything—about tone…. Chester Kallman can be astonishingly inapt….

In the three collections of his poems, he looks back, I think, to the age of Dryden and Etherege and Pope, to the shimmering stanza and the ceremonious quip; and then looks ahead to modernist or expressionist practice, to the jagged and the idiomatic: the dark side of Graves, the light side of Auden, the Theodore Roethke of The Lost Son or Praise to the End, and Marianne Moore. It is the meeting between these highly idiosyncratic styles, or the lack of it, that accounts, I suppose, for the medley of masks and moods, the great charm and eccentricity of his work.

He is a didactic poet, a romantic poet, and a comic poet….

His real glory, however—where he's most himself, or at least most securely himself—is, I feel, when he becomes more or less obsessed with more or less operatic themes, romantic infidelity and romantic fidelity: Il est beau de mourir en s' aimant—the most operatic theme of all. It is here that his lively or luxuriant imagination, with its natural inclination toward the indiscreet, departs from the classical restraint or the coterie preciosity which can—sorely, at times—so blinker his style. The terrifically hard-bitten "The Middle of the Night: The Hands," fierce in its particulars, pitiless in feeling, has a rhythmically brilliant, almost staccato lilt, its lines and images full of an abrupt intensity and a pressing refrain….

The tour de force of his latest collection, The Sense of Occasion, the extraordinary sequence of poems called "The African Ambassador," is, I believe, romantic, too—though with a good deal more gravity, more range; its theme less the difficulties of a statesman than the difficulties of la condition humaine, the difficulty of being human at all…. What Kallman has done, what Berryman and Yeats have also done in altogether different works, is to create a public persona for his private demons, a wickedly imagined and mysteriously ironic figure of state….

Robert Mazzocco, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), June 15, 1972, pp. 31-2.