William Meredith’s Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry for 1987. The range of this collection reflects a rich diversity of experience—for example, dangerous naval aviation during World War II (the major source for Meredith’s first three volumes of poetry) and a subsequent career of genuine academic distinction (as professor at Connecticut College since 1955, consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress from 1978 to 1980, and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 1964). To read one of Meredith’s poems—almost any one of his poems—is to make contact with a spontaneous and generous humanity, an undeniable talent for poetic craftsmanship, and an unfailing ear for melodic lines. His typical poems are lyrical meditations (often rhymed) in which small human moments are somehow placed in the larger scheme of things.
In “Country Stars,” for example, a little, nearsighted girl living in the polluted atmosphere of a nearby chemical plant is redeemed by the pure presence of apple trees and the constellation of Ursa Major, presiding over the entire scene:
The nearsighted child has taken off her glassesand come downstairs to be kissed goodnight.She blows on a black windowpane until it’s white.Over the apple trees a great bear passesbut she puts her own construction on the night.Two cities, a chemical plant, and clotted carsbreathe our distrust of darkness on the air,clouding the pane between us and the stars.But have no fear, or only proper fear:the bright watchers are still there.
“Country Stars” is one of the later poems in this volume: Its apparently effortless grace and subtle moralizing in the manner of Robert Frost are all acquired virtues. If one scans the earlier poems, especially those drawn from the first three volumes, Love Letter from an Impossible Land (1944), Ships and Other Figures (1948), and The Open Sea and Other Poems (1958), one discovers verse that is beautifully crafted but occasionally cold, written in a style that is more mannered and derivative than that of the later poems. The more mature poems tend to be looser in form and more idiomatic in expression. By contrast, “A Kodiak Poem,” the very first poem in Partial Accounts, sounds more like Wallace Stevens than Meredith: “Precipitous is the shape and stance of the spruce/ Pressed against the mountains in gestures of height,/ Pleasing to Poussin the white, repetitious peaks.” In spite of the overly literary phrasing (“gestures of height”) and the allusion to the French painter (“pleasing to Poussin”), one must remember that these are the lines of a very young poet writing while far away from home in the Aleutian Islands during the last part of World War II. The music and the evocation of place are still stunning, however, and these are precisely the strengths that become the mainstays of the later work. Meredith turns the naval routines into poetry, and anyone who could do that would certainly not exhaust the poetic possibilities of civilian life, once the war had ended.
In those first three books, Meredith was still proving himself, and, like any young poet, he naturally tried his hand at a few sonnets. Only Meredith, perhaps, could compose a sonnet with the title “Ten-Day Leave,” and only Meredith would turn a bombing raid over Nazi Germany into a kind of existential metaphor for the uncertainties of day-to-day living:
Then, the four engines droning like a sorrow,Clear, sudden miracle: cloud breaks,Tatter of cloud passes, there ahead,Beside, above, friends in the desperate sky;And below burns like all fire the target town,........................................More than release from waiting or of bombs,Greater than all the Germanies of hate,Some...