John Peck Essay - Critical Essays

Peck, John

Peck, John 1941–

Peck is an American poet in the Whitman-Emerson tradition.

[In John Peck's Shagbark, we] are invited to a vegetarian banquet: the images which are central to this poetry, which carry the burden of its most intimate meanings, are insistently vegetable. Grasses and underbrush and trees—time and again, trees—are the defining presences of a world that is not the less menacing for being, quite luxuriantly, arboreal and floral….

[But if] this is a poet who is firmly persuaded that vegetable metaphor tells truer than lapidary does, he takes small comfort from that, he comes to the conviction reluctantly, even grudgingly. Almost, it seems, he wishes that the lapidaries were in the right of it. Consistency, steadfastness—these qualities the moralist in him applauds, even as the artist in him sees them dissolve into pathos….

The vegetable world of squandered transformations does not, in Peck's vision, over-ride or by-pass the world of Good and Evil, as it sometimes seems to do for Stevens. On the contrary it compels us to acts of moral choice at every turn, even as it complicates those choices. And of course this is traditional. For the act of Original Sin was the plucking and eating of fruit from a tree, as Peck reminds us in a poem called "Apple," which as I read it could not have been more orthodox if it had been written by Edwin Muir, though it has a sardonic power that Muir could command only at his best.

It is very seldom that one can take stock of a first book of poems by proceeding at once to its meaning, to the vision which it articulates. Usually one has to talk of "promise," of a repertoire of stylistic resources not all of which are as yet at the young poet's command, of where and how he must extend his range if he is to progress, of directions that will be dangerous for him as well as others that will be profitable. With Peck this would be impertinent. His several styles are all firmly under control, and he switches from one to another with unflustered tact and decorum and according to no predetermined alignment of himself with this or that "school." The sensuous fullness of his presentations is what strikes first, perhaps, and the sinewy opulence of his writing accordingly recalls a kind of writing that was more often met with 25 years ago (I think of the best poems of Léonie Adams) that it is today when a sort of neo-Rousseauism has done so much damage to American writing. But this is to say only that here once again we have a poet addressing himself humbly and yet with assurance to honoring and extending the whole of the tradition he is heir to (Whitman as much as Frost, Pound as much as Stevens), and not to some idiosyncratically or perversely preferred strand within it.

Donald Davie, "A Vegetable World," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review; reprinted with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1972, pp. 92-4.

Since the surface luster of unabashedly well-made poems by a newcomer occasions immediate distrust in some quarters today, many readers may dismiss John Peck's first volume of poems, Shagbark, as weak-spined, after a first glimpse of the obvious control, the inobtrusively handsome glamors of technical firmness. No poet novice is likely to imitate Peck's style; perhaps not many will even notice him; he may loom a little outside their sights. This book first strikes a reader's ear with the overtones of antique familiarity—but reading further, any initial coziness, or easy chumminess, quickly fades…. The hand's memory of made things is indeed a most palpable nuance in Peck's style: rock-flakings, wood-parings, filings of iron, sifted, but still clinging to the close-meshed sieves of phrase and line; lines which have the hand-made, hand-turned quality.

In Peck's writing, at its best, the simple mechanics of nature, both animate and inanimate, disclose inexhaustible mysteries. His careful fidelity to the properties of objects in nature carries over into the close-knit mechanics of the poems, both shaggy and polished, intricate and rough-edged as bark. Grayish, curled, tart-smelling. Shagbark.

Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1973, pp. 269-70.

[The] forty-three poems [in John Peck's Shagbark] introduce a remarkably mature and accomplished writer. Peck's vision is distinctive and detailed, and he has the patience and control he needs to recall the tenuous glimpses given only to the corner of the eye. A natural object or a peculiarity of light which reveals itself fully and then disappears—such moments are rare in this life, and rarer still in poetry, but there are several of them here. Peck's technical range, too, is broad; he moves easily from various kinds of free verse to terza rima pentameters…. This is the best first book of poems to have come along in the last few years.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), p. lxi.