Janet Lewis Essay - Critical Essays


Janet Lewis’s poetic output was slight but distinguished. The ninety-four lyrics in her collected poems, many of them brief, show a remarkable stylistic evolution through her career of nearly seventy years and display three distinct stages: compact Imagism in the 1920’s, formal lyricism in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and, after a twenty-five-year hiatus, a free incantatory style in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. The first two stages paralleled the career of Yvor Winters, who began as a strict and respected Imagist and became in the 1930’s the leader of a self-styled “reactionary” return to traditional rhyme and accentual meter. Opinion is divided as to whether Lewis’s formalist turn was well advised—whether her middle poems moved toward sentimentality and dryness or whether she wrote rich and finely crafted work in the tradition of Thomas Hardy and earlier English verse. A reviewer of the volume for Poetry described Lewis’s poetic gift as “slight—I mean, both delicate and minor.” Her husband, poet-critic Winters, praised her as a “stylist of remarkable native gift” but regretted her penchant for “domestic sentiment, which sometimes goes all the way to sentimentality.”

Whatever the merits of these limiting remarks, Lewis was important as a verse stylist and as a participant in—and transcender of—modern literary quarrels regarding the use of traditional forms. Her first book of poems, perhaps one of the best collections in the strict Imagist mode, was published in 1922 in a series that included William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. Two books later, in 1946, she had evolved into her openly philosophical verse in traditional forms, and for it she won the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry. Her newer poems, a group begun when she was seventy-two years old, expanded her reputation and answered the complaints of sentimentality and dry formalism sometimes lodged against her work of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Lewis’s collected poems appeared at a time when fashion had caught up with her lifelong interests. The American Indian, the Sun Belt, and the lives of women had become, in the words of a Parnassus reviewer, “radical chic.” In her eighties, Lewis achieved long-postponed recognition for decades of lyrical vision and craftsmanship.

The Indians in the Woods

The lyrics in Lewis’s 1922 volume, The Indians in the Woods, average less than twelve lines and, with haiku-like compression, suggest the closeness between the lives of the Ojibwa Indians and the processes of nature, particularly the cycle of the harsh northern seasons. The poems are rigorously Imagistic, expunged of nearly all general statement or transition—each a sequence of evoked sensations and elemental feelings. Central to the sequence is the god whose return is celebrated in the spring; even without this underpinning of myth, however, the poems function individually as icons of time’s destructive passage, the promise of rebirth, and the muted joy of participation in natural process. The narrator is repeatedly identified as female, at times a wife, at times a grandmother, so that the poems are genuinely feministic, with a male god playing the role of mysterious natural Other. In most of the poems, the god could as well be a mortal lover, the seasons as well be figurative as literal, and the forest as well be suburban as primeval. The reversal of literary gender roles—particularly in 1922—is reason alone to reread these poems. If stripped of their bibliographic history, they might as readily be attributed to the 1970’s as to the 1920’s. Like William Carlos Williams’s poems in Spring and All (1922), which they antedate and resemble, the lyrics are spare and evocative; short lines play occasional run-ons against the expected pause at line’s end. What the Ojibwa poems lack in range, they make up for in polished intensity.

Imagism and traditionalism

Actually, though Imagism stands at the beginning of Lewis’s collected poems, it was not her first style. “The Freighters,” her earliest published poem, uses traditional accent and meter and describes trees along a bank as singing “with moving branches/ Songs of eternity.” This is the sort of generalization that Lewis, as an Imagist, excluded from the 1922 volume, but to which she would return in her post-Imagist work after 1930.

Between 1922 and 1927, the years of her convalescence, Lewis was evolving toward a softer, more traditional style without sacrificing the Imagistic virtues of sensation and compression. Some of her most memorable short poems are from this transitional period. Generally domestic in subject, the poems often use traditional lyric forms but have compact images in the...

(The entire section is 1967 words.)