Louis Coxe Essay - Critical Essays


With a sensibility distinctly out of step with his postwar contemporaries, one that draws more directly from the defining lights of Louis Coxe’s college years a generation earlier—most notably, Robinson and Frost—Coxe regarded poetry as an opportunity to confront a chaotic universe in which any creator-God was irrelevant and to demand from that universe some evidence of functioning absolutes. Coxe interrogated the hard realities of greed, power, lust, and, supremely, violence. The best of Coxe’s characters—whether carefully realized personages drawn from history or the poet himself speaking in voiceover—come to understand that given the reality of the savage universe, heroism comes from maintaining a private morality and asserting that actions matter and that chaos cannot be the last word. Coxe’s careful attention to form, consistent metrics, and patterned sounds reflects that conservative search to affirm order. His poems disdain poetic ornamentation and lyrical excess, idiosyncratic prosody, and loose structuring; instead they are always direct and tightly designed.

The Sea Faring, and Other Poems

For Coxe, American postwar poetry was either precious and effeminate or chest-thumping xenophobic patriotic gushing. Poetry summoned into existence by a world war conceived and executed on such a global scale demanded a cosmic sensibility, a gravitas, an aggressively masculine response, and a keen and defiant intellectual questioning. Coxe drew on his years of service in the South Pacific assigned to a patrol boat, a small, lightweight battle cruiser designed to challenge destroyers through its quick maneuverability. Such a deployment placed Coxe squarely in the midst of conflict—his poems record not merely the mundane life on board but also those horrific moments of maximum engagement when inevitably questions arise concerning how mayhem becomes a necessary element of any sailor’s spiritual development.

Unlike Coxe’s later signature verse, the long narrative, the poems in this collection are lyrical and meditative. In the volume’s defining achievement, the lengthy title poem, Coxe re-creates life on board ship through vignettes that record the anxieties, the discipline, the backbreaking routine, and the sense of impending doom. The poem closes with the poet consigning himself to existence on a perilous and uncertain ocean, Coxe’s metaphor for the existential universe that tests the fortitude of those who must, like sailors in battle, stand ultimately alone, willing to engage those formidable terrors. His poems struggle to affirm hope in the form of letters from home, conversations in the mess hall, the abiding awe...

(The entire section is 1094 words.)