James Schevill Essay - Critical Essays

Schevill, James

Schevill, James 1920–

Schevill is an American poet, dramatist, and biographer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Rather than try to encompass the magnitude of [the horror of the Stalingrad battle] in its historical proportions, James Schevill in The Stalingrad Elegies attempts to portray the final consciousness of some of the fated soldiers, to catch whatever humanity was left to them to die with. By refusing to seek an understanding of modern war, or defining how it was different to die in that time and that place, Schevill has evoked the inscrutability of twentieth-century violence and left the taste of its continued menace in our mouths. But the power of the book exists mainly as a reminder of something that has truly happened, a reminder of a nightmare from which we cannot escape by waking into a changed and improved reality.

The individual poems are weaker than the book as a whole, for the characters are dwarfed by their doom. (Could anyone's imagination have made it otherwise?) And Schevill's language, though never soft, does not have the intensity that its subject requires. (p. 62)

I am thankful … that Schevill has written this book, for I believe that the spread of chaos, the violence we have almost grown accustomed to, requires the poet's careful reporting as well as his powers of expression. An event need not merely be an excuse for a poem; like the Bible, a poem should be a way of bearing witness to unfathomable happenings. This, I think, is what Schevill has boldly attempted to do, and with sufficient success to encourage other poets in writing the "inner" history of our time. (p. 63)

Robert Pack, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 14, 1964.

Reading James Schevill's The Stalingrad Elegies, as poignant and reportorial as he manages to make them, I cannot quite escape the feeling of reading secondhand. I do not need to be told that these poems are based on something; I need only be told that they are based on the recently revealed documents of the German Nazi army trapped in Stalingrad.

Not that a vicarious experience is useless to a poet; he is a reader like all the rest of us. But to be of much use that experience has to catch fire, to undergo a transmutation in the reader's mind that bridges the gap between actor and spectator, if the spectator is adequately to describe the action. Nothing, I grant, should take fire more quickly than experiences such as these must have been, even in the reading about them. Empathy should have been a matter of course. But, for me, the events and meanings in these poems seem remote, far away from actuality, watered down with the expected, horribly real but heavy clichés of war. The fresh, ugly horrendous note of the firsthand is lacking. Not everyone can do what Stephen Crane did with a few soldiers' tales and newspaper articles.

Nonetheless, aside from the usual banalities of romance, which seem to grow more banal when the guns begin to pop (as banal here as a "Dear John" letter), there is an occasional arresting moment in this account. For instance, in "The Astronomer," these lines begin to vibrate with something eerily authentic:

    I think in light-years, but live these days in seconds.
    Around us everything grows white in the snow,
    Even the blood from wounds is curiously pale,
    Grey, winter lilies shooting from the frozen steppe.

Unfortunately, before its close, the poem becomes dissipated, mildly then wildly prosaic. It seems that Mr. Schevill, the moment he considers women, becomes mawkish and long-winded. When he stays away from sex, obviously his bête noir, and writes instead of other things, as in "He Is Not Here in Stalingrad," a poem to a minister father about the absence of God, he becomes a strongly controlled, forceful poet, and I can respect him. (p. 147-48)

George Scarbrough, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1965 by The University of the South), Winter, 1965.

Schevill's eclecticism,… good and bad, drives him, "writing by the seat of [his] pants", in and out among the breathing statuary of sullen America. Thus he runs through all sorts of forms, [in Release] dotes on horrors and oddities (a "jovial mortician", an elephant seal), and adopts personae (Huck Finn "at ninety", an exterminator, Dag Hammarskjold, a tree addressing the director Antonioni), all with uneven success but with an infectious sort of polymorphous empathy. For what gives Schevill's moralisms bite, and what makes his depredations on America okay by me, is his seemingly limitless good will, as well as his apparent willingness to try anything once. The occasional flatulence of his verse is harder to forgive, but perhaps he'll work that out in the future. (p. 273)

Peter Schjeldahl, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1971.

There are too many poems in this new collection of James Schevill's for the emotional impact indicated by the title [Violence and Glory, Poems: 1962–1968]; with all its virtues, the book would be a great deal better for having two-thirds, or even half, of its present pages. Mr. Schevill's forte is description—not that flaccid description which attempts merely to reproduce in verse, but the description, in depth, of possibilities, which lights up and analyzes aspects and inferences. He is a sensitive, intelligent, and perceptive poet, but he is not a good critic of his own work, and many poems are included which give the sort of observant, reasonable description and comment for which prose would have served as well or better.

His story-poems are in general his best …, [especially those] in which his temperamentally meditative approach is focused by a physical discipline.

Mr. Schevill's intelligence is an appealing one, never sleight-of-hand smug, or shoddy; he is after answers, at least those of poetry, and doesn't try to use mock-ups of answers. (p. 166)

The book has to stand on its total impact, and that impact has been deflected. But there are enough good poems here to make carping sound ungrateful. (p. 167)

Josephine Jacobsen, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1971.

I've always thought of James Schevill as one of our most original poetic voices, and The Buddhist Car … doesn't cause me to change my opinion. But it doesn't advance it any either, because I don't think the poems in this volume are quite up to the standard of Schevill's earlier collection, Violence and Glory. Nonetheless, The Buddhist Car is a lively and imaginative book of verse. The title poem presents us with one of Schevill's marvelous transformations: an exiled Buddhist dies in the U.S. and is reincarnated as a car. Nice start. A union of the inscrutable oriental soul and the very scrutable Detroit-American body. This may be the first poem I've ever read written from the point of view of a car!… Schevill's keen attention to the names of things is evident there. (How much can we learn about American history by studying the names of our cars: Pontiac through Electra!) He savors the "antique" English. Later in the poem as the car enters a small town called Lovelock, it comments that "The Americans even name an isolated town / After their pounding problems of the heart." The names of places can give us a sense of those places: it is as simple a matter as that, and very much in the American grain. (pp. 92-3)

The mundane and the marvelous rub shoulders … through much of Schevill's poetry. His metier is the "light-serious" poem, a kind of flippant profundity. When it is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad, well it just evokes a chuckle or two. (p. 93)

Fred Moramarco, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Winter, 1974.

Schevill calls his poems [in The Buddhist Car and Other Characters] "dramatic monologues"—a person who is not the poet speaks in the first person singular and describes himself, what he does, how he does it. There is an attempt to match language to character, primarily through word choice and the use of slang. Certainly there is a need for a poet with a talent for the interior (or dramatic) monologue, who has the gift of putting himself in other people's skins; several other contemporary poets are developing this genre and following in the footsteps of Browning, E. A. Robinson, and Roethke's Meditations of an Old Woman. However, I think Schevill's opposition between drama—or action—and lyricism is falsely conceived. Lyricism is by no means opposed to action, nor is it necessarily private. Schevill's poems have no more theatricalness than other poems read aloud by poets, and often they have less. (Laurence Lieberman is far more a poet of action than Schevill.) The problem with calling these poems "dramatic" is that the dramatic artist or playwright knows where exposition is appropriate and where not; he can create a sense of dramatic inevitability, which is just what these poems lack. Although Schevill tries to adapt language to character, he never evokes the character. The first person narrator defines himself, what he does, and how he lives, in a most unrealistic manner, from the beginning of the poem to the end; there is constant exposition and self-conscious, didactic direct statement…. As psychology this is very unconvincing; the monologues are maddeningly outside the minds of the characters. (p. 168)

John R. Carpenter, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1974.