New and Selected Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

After twenty-seven years as a publishing poet, Irving Feldman now has an extensive selection of his literary endeavors in print, which invites an overall critical appraisal of his work to date. The present collection, containing samples from all his previous books, presents a goodly proportion of his total output. Contrary to one’s expectations that the author or his editors would have judiciously expunged some of the poems for which Feldman has been adversely criticized in the past, the present collection contains an uneven quality, stemming no doubt from the author’s insistence on his own critical faculty over that of others. However, a prefatory note does indicate that many of the poems differ from their earlier printed versions.

In New and Selected Poems, reprints of earlier works predominate, comprising almost ninety percent of the total. The book is arranged in chronological order, each section clearly indicating the book from which the poems were selected: thirteen are from Works and Days (1961), fifteen from The Pripet Marshes (1965), fifteen from Magic Papers (1970), twenty from Lost Originals (1972), and twenty-one from Leaping Clear (1976); there are also eleven new poems. A very distinctive development is evident from the very early poems to the later ones, but not among the later volumes in which the poet finally settled upon his own individual style.

In his early poetry, Feldman wrote in a more controlled style than most modern poets. These works show a heavy reliance on rhyme; virtually all the poems from Works and Days and several from The Pripet Marshes have a definite rhyme scheme, usually the rhyming of alternate lines, although the rhymes are often what is referred to as slant rhyme (or “poor rhymes,” if the critic is of a more traditional bent). For example, it seems that Feldman is trying to suggest rhymes in the following end words from his poem “A Poet”: papers-favors; word-hard; literature-Nature; eloquence-indifference; situation-lexicon; valise-properties. Some of these stretch the imagination very far indeed—especially words as papers-favors and situation-lexicon, but as the rest of the poem clearly indicates alternating rhyme scheme with more obvious rhymes it is apparent that these are intended as at least a suggestion of like sounds. That Feldman apparently felt these experiments were less than successful is obvious in the fact that he soon dropped the practice, although he continued with his playful use of words and their sounds throughout his later poetry.

While the presence of so much rhyme in these early poems indicates a more traditional approach to poetry, the rhythms do not. The length of poetic lines do maintain a degree of uniformity, but they are definitely closer to free verse with their mingling of various poetic feet and lengths of lines. Usually, however, the lines of a given poem scan as being within three or four feet of one another.

Several of the early poems are slight variations of the sonnet form. For example, “Non-Being” follows the Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme, while the poetic lines vary from hexameters to nine-foot lines with many variants from the basic iambic foot. This poem illustrates one of the weaknesses of Feldman’s early rhyming experiments: rhymed verse should be combined with more regularity of lines and those lines should be shorter than many of his are. The English poets of the sixteenth century learned, or illustrated in their works, that lines longer than pentameter tend to split into two, as the following lines from “Non-Being” show: “And all about him rock—with heavy greyness as of a sigh./And yet Prometheus saw at once the sardonic humor of the place.”

Feldman’s other experiments with a quasisonnet form are more successful. “Melancholy” is closer to the traditional line length, with lines varying between trimeter and tetrameter. The rhyme scheme follows the Italian sonnet form. In addition, the poem is not overly ambitious in its poetic statement, being an evocative lyric description of a rainy day along the Seine and the poet’s melancholic reverie.

Among these early poems, some of Feldman’s poetic statements are striking, as in his poem of “The Duelists,” in which he deals with the masked duelist and questions the “. . . surface of no depth,/Depth without surface,” concluding with the concept that a “little mask” can contain a “world of blackness.” In other poems, occasional striking images leap from the page, as his description of twilight in the city in “Apocalypse”: “A broken sun goes down in squalls.” But such flights of fancy are rare.

Feldman’s sense of humor is also more timorous in this selection from his first book, except in individual comic poems as “Assimilation,” which goes for the cheap laugh in such lines as:

“Haha,” I say, “boy, that’s rich!”“Shhh,” says Bennie, “He owns half of Miami Bich.”But I figure I’ll unload ’cause the market looks too bullish.But Barney whispers, “Don’t do nothing fullish!”

Sometimes the humor is more successful, as in “Flood,” a dramatic monologue spoken by one of Noah’s neighbors commenting on the rain and Noah’s preparations for...

(The entire section is 2251 words.)