Good Trembling has been eagerly awaited by those lovers of poetry who discovered Baron Wormser’s work through his first collection, The White Words, published in 1983. Readers of that volume knew that here was a poet who had allowed himself to develop an unusual mastery of craft. Clearly, Wormser loved the physical dimension of language and was ready to connect his work to the long tradition of English-language poetry in which sounds and rhythms are expressive tools. Those who thought that the mainstream conventions of poetry had suffered a cruel and unnecessary neglect since World War II could find a new hero in Wormser to set beside Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy, W. D. Snodgrass, and too few others. Although Wormser’s poems pleased for many reasons, his technical skill gave them a special distinction in an age of soundalike sloppiness.
Not only was Wormser’s skill apparent, but also his poetic voice was congenially adapted to it: He did not sound like a trickster or a show-off or a man from another century; rather, he sounded comfortably at home in his own time. His rhythms and rhymes released an articulate, graceful rhetoric. Wormser’s love of language created a poetry of exaltation even when he concerned himself with issues of ostensibly peripheral importance. When he addressed language itself, and, to a lesser extent, when he addressed philosophy, his poems simply glowed. Even his forays into free verse seemed jacketed into inevitable shapes. Indeed, The White Words, though not well received by poet-critics who ignore the fact that poetry has a history, set a high standard for Baron Wormser to live up to. Good Trembling, though something of a disappointment in this context, is a welcome and sturdy collection in which Wormser shows his continuing allegiance to craft. Given the nearly collapsed state of craft in contemporary American poetry, this book is one that many will admire and cherish.
In Good Trembling, Wormser works to tone down the hard edges of closed form and slide a bit closer to free verse. This tendency exists in The White Words, but now it seems accelerated—almost compulsive. Perhaps the poet has decided to find a larger audience; perhaps he genuinely feels the need to move away from the moorings that have served him so well—to take risks. Whatever the reasons, the results are uneven. Many poems have an awkward feel to them. It is as if a man used to wearing a uniform had forced himself to be uncomfortable in jeans and a baggy sweater.
The means which Wormser employs to detune his lines and rhymes are of technical interest. These include unexpectedly placed internal rhymes, and more end rhyme that is less than exact, less than schematically arranged, and cast in lines that are often less than regular in length.
Here is one kind of internal rhyming from “The American Intelligentsia”: “Some of the textbooks posture and darkly protest—/ But in America there has never been such a thing./ At best. ” For readers used to looking to line ends for rhyme, this device gives a feeling of firmness, of sonic glue, without ringing too obviously or predictably. Sticking “At best” at the end of a shortened second line would have quite a different effect. For readers who have lost consciousness of sound, Wormser’s hidden rhymes may be lost, too—or such readers may find him guilty of some kind of mysterious cheating. In any case, one can find Wormser’s practice here mildly disorienting—a kind of teasing that attracts and withdraws.
Sometimes his rhyming games are even more complex—subdued end rhymes and internal rhymes dancing under one another, as in this passage from “Without a Telescope”: “Tonight I bequeath to my planet an era of/ Gentle forebodings, the illusion of perspicuous thought,/ All the latitudes of doting, long-winded love.” The “forebodings/doting” rhyme, tucked inside the “of/love” rhyme, is hidden by positioning but springs by the pause following each term. The tension of competing emphases...
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