Laurence Lieberman Essay - Critical Essays

Lieberman, Laurence

Lieberman, Laurence 1935–

Lieberman is an American poet and literary critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

"The Osprey Suicides" is globe-hopping, frantic and protean, but it is also slow and domestic. Many of the poems convey the feeling of constant danger; man is soft flesh pitted against sharp coral, biting fish, against the smack of waves, the pull of undertow, the rip of lightening. But other poems come home to things comfortable and familial, as familiar as the twisted sheets of an unmade bed, or as warm and fetal as that bed filled with children and husband and wife….

It is in part three, "The Osprey Suicides," and more particularly the title poem itself, that Lieberman excels. He outlines America's peculiar state of despair, its ill-planned land development, its air pollution, its people's specialized professionalism.

His images become raw and vicious. His protests do not have anything to do with those ugly, touchstone words "ecology" and "conformity," but rather with poetry, with the exclusion of poetry from our lives, and the cheapening of our spiritual values.

The American is not a majestic eagle and never has been. He is a plucky osprey who dares too much always, even to the point of self-destruction. The osprey and the American have been driven a bit mad, their conduct is unnatural, their acts sometimes reprehensible.

But Lieberman can look at the scene, shake his head and, as it has been done so many times in our poetry, come up with an affirmative statement.

H. Leslie Wolfe, "Lieberman's New Poetry—Fresh Voice from Midwest," in The Daily Illini, May 17, 1973.

"Composition," wrote young Delacroix in a letter to a friend, "gives wisdom and steadiness to a terrain shaken and set on fire by volcanoes. There lies the integration that alone makes for greatness."

Composition, in a reading of the word that transcends even this dignity, is the embracing magnitude that endows Laurence Lieberman's second volume of poems [The Osprey Suicides] with total integrity. This must be recognized promptly, for the attribution to Lieberman of "Whitmanesque" length and breadth might dissipate from the start any thought of compositional integrity. If, in poems appropriate to the comparison, he is indebted, he has revised the apostolic creed with the very disciplines customarily shunned by those who rehearse it. Lieberman may be easy to read carelessly since, when he is most energetic, he seems to write breathlessly; from the appearance of his poems on the page—long, long strokes and short choppy ones; dots and dashes, peristaltic passages muscled with alliteration; indented short-step blocks like ziggurats; hyphenated gerunds and tandem modifiers ("flipper-flapping," "wind-whipped," "love-sucking") and so on—you might infer a freeform improvisation irresponsible to detail or coherence. So many blinding sequences in his submarine or up-in-the-air poems dispute the inference that I'm faced with an embarrassment of splendors to show off…. Any assistant professor will assure you that syntactical virtuosity is not the only wear. What is valuable to emphasize is the fantasy with which this poet invests knowledge.

Something further. Composition, I have stressed. Orchestration would be the more fitting term, to be applied beyond the single, devastating poem. We have only begun to read Lieberman when we applaud such episodes as phenomenal exercises. His book, containing a quantity of poems in unrelated styles, subscribes to a comprehensive metaphor, with consistent, undulating motifs: the creative struggle of the poet towards communion, undergoing seasons in hell, assuming protean shapes to elude the insistent agonies of self-consciousness, exploring the depths, scanning the ether, stalled in the halfway region of domestic hope and alienation, a place as weird in its way as the lobster cave of that appalling tour de force, "Lobsters in the Brain Coral." Take my program notes on trust, common reader, but if, usually, you "dip into" a book of poems, break the habit for Lieberman: read this "collection" as if listening to a concerto—from beginning to end….

Brave and inexhaustible voice—more often than of Whitman he reminds me of Hopkins, having, it is true, the same tendency to become hypnotised by his own homographs. This is my only reservation, a small one. Lieberman is a Heracles among American poets.

Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 729-31.