Edgar Bowers is a name frequently invoked in connection with the New Formalist movement, although Bowers is no new New Formalist—he has been writing his lapidary poems since the 1950’s, when formalism was generally accepted and Ivor Winters was king. The hallmarks of Bowers’s style were evident from his first work, and they include restraint, control, precision, balance, and an epigrammatic spareness. A classical sensibility is suggested throughout his work by allusion and echo. The tone is often dry and clever; the speaker approaches his vast experience from a certain meditative distance. There is no excess or ornament to the language: Each word contributes to the effect of the poem. This characteristic exactness is the virtue of Bowers’s poetry and, for some readers, its flaw. His Collected Poems is a series of polished gems representing the distillation of nearly half a century of poetry writing. If it provides few surprises, it is nevertheless rewarding reading, both on the initial and on the return trip.
Bowers’s work has been recognized and celebrated for nearly a half century, and he is still writing. Born in 1924 in Georgia, Bowers left school to serve in the Counter Intelligence Corps in World War II. His experiences in Berchtesgaden, Germany, provided him with material for poems early and late. After the war, he finished his undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina, then earned his Ph.D. at Stanford. He taught at major universities, including Duke University and the University of California, until his retirement in 1991. He has received the most prestigious awards in literature, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. He receives high praise from Harold Bloom: “[Bowers’s] Collected Poems now testifies to his authentic eminence: in vital form, in accuracy of perception and sensation, in a vision at once original yet profoundly representative of the American imagination at its most eloquent maturity.” His work might more accurately be said to reflect the best of a specific direction of American poetry, that of the narrative meditation. Randall Jarrell, Harte Crane, and others have made memorable contributions to this kind of poetry, which uses historical and/or personal narrative to open philosophical or religious questions. Bowers’s work is more defined by form than either Jarrell’s or Crane’s.
Bowers’s Collected Poems is arranged in reverse chronological order, beginning with new, uncollected work and proceeding back with selections from his earlier books For Louis Pasteur (1989), Living Together (1973), The Astronomers (1965), and The Form of Loss(1956). The collection is modest. This is not a great blockbuster of a book, and the selections have been made with care. It appears that Bowers was as meticulous in putting together his Collected Poems as he was in writing the poetry. The result is an attractive collection that is a pleasure to read. There is not a clear development or change in the work from beginning to end, although Thom Gunn claims that Bowers’s work starts with “youthful stoicism” that yields to “increasing acceptance of the physical world, indeed not breaking with its stoic past, but occasionally extending to a positive joy.” Glimpses of joy are rare; glints of humor are far more frequent, both at the beginning and at the end of the collection. The poet’s eye is constantly arranging, judging, and rearranging. Stoicism is as evident in the late poems as in the early ones: The earlier poems tend to be about stoicism, describing stoic characters, whereas the late ones demonstrate stoicism in their resignation. The last poems may be a little less formally tight than the first ones, but the themes and poetic devices, the images and metaphors, are similar. One could not unbind the book and then reassemble the pages by some sort of principle.
Bowers’s themes do not change, but their recurrence does not become dull, because each poem has some particularly effective image or metaphor or an original slant of vision. The unconscious and the conscious world, scenes from World War II (scenes that become more specific and more concretely real in the later poems), experiences that underscore the meaning of relationships, personal losses, sketches of places with all their invisible bonds—these are his topics. Classical presences shadow contemporary life. The allusions are not facile. Comments or gestures have echoes from the past and reverberate into the future. The world of these poems is not always easy to enter, but it is worth entering. If it is necessary for many...
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