Viereck, Peter (Poetry Criticism)
Peter Viereck 1916–
American poet, critic, historian, dramatist, and essayist
Peter Viereck's poetic career was shaped by his struggle to define a new direction for poetry following the modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He has been heralded for his effort to create a poetry of ideas while reviving traditional formalism. An eminent historian as well as a poet, Viereck has received numerous awards for his works of poetry and historical nonfiction, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1949.
Peter Viereck was born August 5, 1916, in New York City, to Margaret Hein and George Sylvester Viereck. His father was born in Germany to a literary family whom the elder Viereck once described as "breeding books like rabbits." A poet himself, as well a journalist and a freelance writer, George Viereck raised his own children in the same tradition of literary, philosophical, and political discourse. Peter Viereck graduated from the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York City and then entered Harvard College, where he won the Garrison Prize Medal for poetry. His younger brother, George S. Viereck, Jr., also attended Harvard, and the two of them co-founded the Harvard Guardian, a magazine devoted to the social sciences. In 1937, Viereck received a B.S. degree summa cum laude from Harvard. From 1937-38, he studied at Christ Church, Oxford, and then returned to Harvard for graduate study in history. He won the Bowdoin Prize Medal for an essay on romanticism, and he received an M.A. in 1939 and a Ph.D. in 1942.
Drafted in 1943, Viereck served with the Psychological Warfare Branch of the U.S. Army, analyzing German propaganda, including anti-American pieces written by Ezra Pound. In 1944, his younger brother was killed in combat at Anzio, Italy. After the war, Viereck taught history at the U.S. Army University in Florence. There he married Anya de Markov, the daughter of Russian emigrants, in June, 1945. He returned to teach history and German literature at Harvard from 1946-47. He taught at Smith College for a year and became associate professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in 1948. He was made a professor in 1955 and has held the William R. Kenan chair of history at Mount Holyoke since 1979.
"Teaching is his profession," Mary Henault wrote of Viereck, "and poetry is his life." Called a "campus poet" by critics such as George Green and grouped with other academic poets such as Richard Wilbur, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell, Viereck's writing is distinguished by the thematic continuities between his poetry and his prose. His essays about history and society, published in books such as Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler (1941) and Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt (1949), emphasize the importance of traditional values. In critical essays such as "My Kind of Poetry," Viereck advocated what he called "a revolt against revolt," arguing that traditional values and traditional forms should reclaim a central role in modern poetics. Calling this new aesthetic "Manhattan classicism," he rejected free verse "on principle" and returned to the conventional meters and rhyme schemes that had been rejected by earlier twentieth century poets. He also strongly resisted the modernist tendency to distinguish between ethics and aesthetics, insisting that social responsibility was at the heart of poetic beauty. He took his most famous moral stand on aesthetics when Ezra Pound was granted the Bollingen Prize in 1949. Harshly criticizing Pound's alliance with fascism, Viereck attacked the prize committee for claiming that "artistic form can be considered apart from content."
"What do they know of poetry who only poetry know?" Viereck once asked. His own verse embodies political, philosophical, and ethical themes. His first volume of poetry, Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948 (1948) won the Pulitzer Prize. It includes poems such as "Kilroy" a mock-epic drawn from his experiences during World War II, and "Vale from Carthage," an elegy to the memory of his younger brother, who died in the conflict. Many reviewers considered Strike through the Mask!: New Lyrical Poems (1950) a disappointment, despite successful individual poems such as "Small Perfect Manhattan." Here Viereck called for a classical poetry that remains engaged with the needs of the modern world. In The First Morning: New Poems (1952) and in The Persimmon Tree: New Pastoral and Lyrical Poems (1956) Viereck combined lyrical verse with satirical works that display his sharp, acid wit. The Tree Witch: A Poem and a Play (First of All a Poem) (1961) is poetry presented as a drama. The force of nature and spontaneity is represented by a dryad, and she is opposed by a chorus of modern women, called Guardian Aunts, who represent modern technological materialism. Many critics doubt that a piece so heavy with disputation could ever have been performed successfully. Much of the poetry in New and Selected Poems, 1932-1967 (1967) is taken from Terror and Decorum, and this volume has been frequently praised for a careful arrangement that emphasize themes rather than chronology. Viereck's most conceptually ambitious work is Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987 (1987). This theological epic in eighteen lyrical cycles explores the themes of sin and redemption through the voices of three characters: God the Father, God the Son, and a modern everyman whom Viereck calls "You." In his final collection, Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems 1995-1938 (1995) Viereck arranged the poems in reverse chronological order. This volume includes "Dionysus in Old Age," a retelling of the story of Persephone, and satires such as "Now That Holocaust and Crucifixion Are Coffee-Table Books."
Most critics agree that Viereck took courageous risks in his poetry. His bold experiments in poetic form are almost universally admired, as is his fearless engagement with the great themes of Western literature. Most critics, however, are uncertain about the success of Viereck's poetic risks. He is most frequently faulted for overburdening his poetry with philosophy, theology, and ethics. M.L. Rosenthal urged readers "to forgive Viereck's endless slogans, the precious credos, the saucy banalities about poetry and this harsh world…" for the sake of a few strong poems. Ernest Kroll writes that Viereck "frequently takes his reader on a wild ride from which he alone, the poet, returns." For some critics, the weight of ideas crushed Viereck's personal poetic voice. Paul Goodman complains that "he seems to have no personal language," and Kimon Friar expresses the same doubt, arguing that Viereck "writes with a dashing competence…but rarely do I find a consistent cadence of his own." Hayden Carruth praises his individual voice and "the rather nervous movement" of diction and ideas in his poetry, but he admits that "Viereck's poems are painfully hard to read." There are some critics, however, who argue that Viereck's political and philosophical convictions sustain his poetry. Josephine Jacobsen praises him for his "cosmic sense"—an ability to express universal themes that lead "straight into a sense of the infinite depth of the small and the large." Phoebe Pettingell delights in both the formal and the conceptual challenges that Viereck poses his readers. She particularly admires his identification of art with morality: "Viereck insists that art is an exercise in empathy, the greatest good we as humans can know and practice."
Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948 1948
Strike through the Mask!: New Lyrical Poems 1950
The First Morning: New Poems 1952
The Persimmon Tree: New Pastoral and Lyrical Poems 1956
The Tree Witch: A Poem and a Play (First of All a Poem) 1961
New and Selected Poems, 1932-1967 1967
Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987 1987
Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems 1995-1938 1995
Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler (history) 1941; revised edition published as Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, 1961
Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt (essays) 1949 second edition published as Conservatism Revisited and the New Conservatism: What Went Wrong?, 1962
"My Kind of Poetry" (critical essay) 1950; published in Mid-Century American Poets, ed. John Ciardi
Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals: Babbit, Jr. Versus the Rediscovery of Values (history) 1953
Dream and Responsibility: Four Test Cases of the Tension between Poetry and Society (critical essays) 1953
Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill (history) 1956
The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans: Reflections on the Distinction between Conserving and Conforming (essays) 1956
Inner Liberty: The Stubborn Grit in the Machine (essays) 1957
Conservatism from Burke and John Adams till 1982: A History and an Anthology (history, anthology) 1982
Opcomp: A Modern Medieval Miracle Play (drama) 1993
"Strict Form in Poetry: Would Jacob Wrestle a Flabby Angel?" (critical essay) 1978; published in Critical Inquiry
Selden Rodman (review date 1948)
SOURCE: "Against Barracks and Classroom," The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 41, October 9, 1948, pp. 29-30.
[In the following review of Terror and Decorum, Rodman praises Viereck's first collection of poetry for being "so rich in experimental vigor."]
In ten years of reviewing verse. I have gone overboard, as they say, for only two first books—Shapiro's. "Person, Place and Thing" and Lowell's "Lord Weary's Castle"—as I intend to go for this one, (Terror and Decorum) and I can't think of a better way of beginning than by measuring it against the other two. The excitement of Shapiro's book was in its summing-up of the social revolt of a whole decade that had been (if we except Auden, in England) without a spokesman in poetry; with his personal blend of violence and elegant wit, Shapiro delivered the coup de grace to the Lost Generation (expatriate and metaphysical wings); yet in a sense he belonged to the exclusive circle which he exercised. But Lowell was a poet's poet from the start, and much too involved in the obscure theology or demonology of his New England soul to strike a common chord, but he achieved a profound poetic originality by clothing his contemporary nonconformism in the robes of a noble tradition.
Peter Viereck is harder to classify than Shapiro or Lowell. His style is much less "finished." He has written no single poem that is as impressive as the best of the other two. He writes poems and parts of poems bristling with undigested raw material or awkwardness of which the other poets are incapable. Yet his book as a whole is so rich in experimental vigor, so full of new poetic attitudes toward civilization and its discontents, so fresh and earthy in its re-animation of the American spirit, that it seems to offer endless possibilities of development—both for Viereck himself, and for other young poets who are certain to take the cue.
What makes him different seems so small a thing:
His knack of shaping joy from pain by rime.
He whittles joy so sharp it is a spear
And jabs it deep between the ribs of time.
Even his sickness blesses: singers wear
Neurosis like new roses when they sing.
This, Viereck's description of the fourth "stage of craftsmanship," could not be improved on as a description of his own particular qualities. No other poet but Cummings, the only contemporary Viereck remotely resembles or from whom he has borrowed anything conspicuous, is so haunted by the nightmare of writing a cliche—or undertakes such acrobaties, typographical, grammatical, and learnedly academic, to avoid one. An important difference, however, is that while Viereck's gyrations lead him to almost as many shocking successes—.
—he is never trying to bait anyone and hence is never deliberately elusive. Indeed one of the qualities that makes Terror and Decorum more of a break with the Eliotdominated past than any recent book is this very passion to communicate. It is on every page. It is in the sometimes fantastically pedantic notes. It is in the pages of "acknowledgments" (who but Viereck has ever listed his magazine articles along with his previous books!). It is in the ponderous conception of a prehistoric horse explaining in stanza after stanza of complicated ballad-meter how he lost his four toes; or the Idaho potato boasting this one comes off, brilliantly why it envies the stars. It is in the unabashed titles ("You All Are Static: I Alone Am Moving." "Hard Times Redeemed by Soft Discarded Values," "Why Can't I Live Forever?," "Don't Look Now But Mary is Everybody," "Graves Are Made to Waltz On." "Crass Times Redeemed by Dignity of Souls") above all it is in the was poems and the poems about the poet in America.
These two themes, naturally enough, are Viereck's major ones. He has been toughened, or sharpened if you like, by the two conflicts: trying to be a poet while being a soldier the was a GI in the African and Italian campaigns), trying to be a poet while making a living as a teacher of history at Harvard and Smith. The soldiering has contributed to his verse as a whole its racy colloquialism and its sense of identity with ordinary people. Academic training has given him a working knowledge of the styles of a half dozen literatures and a familiarity with cross-references in symbolism almost Joycean in scope. But it is the fight against these two conformisms—of the barracks and of the classroom—that makes the poetry.
Out of extreme complexity, simplicity. From sophistication beyond cleverness, innocence. In Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Hopkins, the later Yeats, perhaps in all of the greatest poetry, it is the "formula" toward which Viereck, more than any contemporary poet, seems to be moving. "Vale from Carthage," along with Shapiro's "Elegy for a Dead Soldier," the most impressive poem of World War II, begins ponderously with Viereck at the grave of a Roman thinking of an American friend shot dead at Rome who was sure he'd see Times Square again, but ends:
Roman, you'll see your Forum Square no more;
What's left but this to say of any war?
New York says to America (in a dialogue that could be, and in parts is, as corny as an immigration poster):
Your forests now are fences, and of late
You talk less of "frontiers" and more of real estate.
Viereck says to Crane (in a ballad that is refreshingly irreverent—and penetrating):
And in "Well Said, Old Mole," a poem that probably reflects Viereck's philosophy and his disarming directness as well as any, the complexities are cut away altogether:
Against the outside Infinite, man weighs
The inwardness within one finite face
And finds all Space less heavy than a sigh …
We are alone and small, and heaven is high;
Quintillion worlds have burst and left no trace;
A murderous star aims straight at where we lie.
And we, all vulnerable and all distress,
Have no brief shield but love and loveliness.
Quick—let me touch your body as we die.
Richard Eberhart (review date 1948)
SOURCE: "A Conscious Poetry of Secular Breadth," New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1948, p. 5.
[In the following review of Terror and Decorum, Eberhart admires the "new complex of contemporary feelings" and the extent of the technical skills exhibited in Viereck's poetry.]
Peter Viereck is primarily a poet of ideas. The ideas that have been flying around in his head for the past eight years find resolution in sporadic order. There's the rub: much tumult, much prestidigitation, variety of trials and effort, considerable learning, and the result is an uneven book of poems (Terror and Decorum) containing a good number of excellently realized pieces.
He challenges the reader with a new complex of contemporary feelings, presented in a vigorous play of growing and shifting attitudes. He synthesizes his experience in his own way, leaning both on traditional usages and on experimentation. He does not go back to social protest. He does not continue the religious revival. He creates predominantly a secular breadth conscious of secular depth coming down from ancient times, from various cultures.
Peter Viereck is not grinding an axe. Voracious for experience, he accepts it by exfoliation of notions, diversely calculated. He looks from his China to his Peru with sprightliness of thought, artistic detachment allowing him to express his personality without fear either of enthusiasm or gaucherie.
As a new poet he is neither cynical nor melancholy. He is this—worldly, not other-worldly in the sense of one who attempts to penetrate hidden reaches of the soul. He is concerned with the problem of the formalizing of knowledge. We see the play of his mind shining from and glancing from invented shields of tempered form.
The "Author's Note on Marabouts and Planted Poets" specifies some of his preoccupations and illuminates his intentions. He states that "the poet imposes form upon nature, humanism upon the inhuman." Note the breadth of skills showing in poems like "Ballad of the Joliie Gleeman" and "Prooimion"; "Hard Times Redeemed / By Soft Discarded Values" and "Crass Times Redeemed / By Dignity of Souls"; or "Poet," "Well Said, Old Mole" and "Vale From Carthage."
The war as he knew it is reworked without his becoming mired in it, disinterestedly. He sees a wry decorum in a "Child of the Sixtieth Century" and evokes a submerged terror in "Dolce Ossessione." Light verse is permitted, as in "To a Sinister Potato" and "What a Pretty Net."
The following is partial quotation from "Vale From Carthage"
Paul Goodman (review date 1949)
SOURCE: "Tall Ideas Dancing," Poetry, Vol. 73, No. 5, February, 1949, pp. 289-91.
[In the following review of Terror and Decorum, Goodman faults Viereck for stopping short of self-exploration and for finding satisfaction in a "disheartening" superficiality.]
The most moving of these poems—to my sensibility almost the only moving one—"A Walk on Snow," has the following theme: the possibility of a meaning appears in experience, "a rite, an atavism…Myth"; the poet "drunk with self-belief" tries to control it and wrest a factual answer; then
At once the gate slammed shut, the circle snapped,
The sky was usual and broad and silent.
So Wordsworth, in the Ode, came to the line, "And fade into the light of common day." But the difference between this poet and Wordsworth is crucial: Viereck apparently does not believe in the meaning, does not remember it, thus he derogates it, calls the sense of it an illusion, "Magic—like art—is hoax redeemed by awe"; he thinks that his daily cleverness is true; but Wordsworth knew that this is precisely neurotic and defensive, one of the "shades of the prison-house." Here and everywhere in this volume Viereck outsmarts himself and thinks this is his strength, but it is his weakness and defense against feeling. Perhaps then it would be better for him to devote himself to small particular themes, rather than always to be fabricating great myths.
Peter Viereck assigns himself a curious role: to be a witness to the possibility of poetry:
My life is darkness. Yet I live to tell
How shimmering, how gaily freedom prowls
In flesh that guards its consciousness of souls.
(Note that the gay freedom is a prowling animal and that the free flesh is defensively engaged.) He is not the poet but he has kept open within himself a little window through which he can observe flow by something meaningful and feelingful. He does observe it and believes it is very dramatic, warranting such an horrendous title as Terror and Decorum for these cold studies; he calls witness to it; he does everything but give in to it and be a poet.
In the same poem ("Crass Times Redeemed by Dignity of Souls") he says:
May yet when slick with poise I overreach.
When that high ripening slowness I impeach,
Awe of that music jolt me home contrite.
It is pathetic that a poet should ever face in himself the feeling of being slick with poise; he is no doubt referring to slick language, New Yorker style, and smart-alecks well ahead of the game, Partisan Review style; but a poet, one would think, would be subdued to his own words and ways. Indeed, it is hard to read these verses seriously because, though Viereck has many lively talents, he seems to have no personal language. (I don't mean private language, of course, but simply one's heart-words.) Again, how does he come to count on the "ripening slowness"; does not reality rather take one by surprise? And will it be "high"? I doubt that one has the breathing space to make judgments of either high or low. Oh, and will awe of music "jolt"? I have known music to melt my hardness to tears; one is "jolted" if nevertheless one intends to cling to oneself, and then the chance of love is a means of punishment.
Why should we cling to ourselves—are the rewards of our "slick poise" so satisfactory? No, obviously one is afraid…. In a poem for St. Francis, Viereck asks,
Why on earth does he have to take the part of the crocodile? I think Francis would say that the dear crocodile (truly dear) can well take care of himself. Then on the other hand he envisions that, under a spell of love, "the irreconcilable crocodile…crawls to your shrine / Nuzzling his grotesque, tender, harmful nozzle / Harmlessly at your startled ankles." What, would it be love to want the crocodile to be not a crocodile?
So there are characteristic poems ("For an Assyrian Frieze," "Prince Tank," etc.) describing unbridled violence. But the poet's indignation loses its savagery in a feeble masochism; and the underlying self-hatred in turn loses its force in intellectual self-deprecation. I am moved to mention these brutal commonplaces, rather than to pass by the poems in silence, solely because Viereck shares this ambivalent attitude with other war-poets, and it leads them one and all to a superficiality so disheartening that one can hardly drag one's feet around after reading them: they regard the war as a kind of boyish adventure! Viereck, indeed, with his myth-making propensity, goes to the ultimate (I suppose): he praises "Kilroy" because he was physically present in lots of places, and presumably in that way took part; and this, to Viereck, was no different from—Ulysses.
It is hard for me to notice the virtues in these poems. Viereck has epigram, he can conclude his thought with force and point—this means he has intelligence habitually exercised, and that such learning as he has is systematic, and such words as he has he can control; but how is one to evaluate an epigram that is false? It seems to me that by this means he closes his thinking and, to say it uncharitably, satisfies himself, protecting himself. The error of his propositions is not that they are not all the way to truth but that they shut off, by their form and feeling, any further motion…. Again he has self-observation—this means that he has made a salutary turn, will not be a literary gangster, etc.; but in heaven's name, Peter, less awe and decorum, but come on! come on!
J. H. Johnston (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: A review of Terror and Decorum, The Commonweal, Vol. L, No. 17, August 5, 1949, p. 418.
[In the following review of Terror and Decorum, Johnston connects Viereck's first volume of poetry with his study of history and concludes that he is an author "perhaps a little too full" of theories.]
"Excursions of the visceral and irrational into the prose realm of politics and economics," writes Peter Viereck in this, (Terror and Decorum Poems 1940-1948) his first volume of collected poetry, "are either silly or sinister." That such excursions may not only be sinister, but catastrophic as well, is the message of Viereck's rather breezy analysis of the origins of Nazism, published in 1941 under the title Metapolítics: From the Romantics to Hitler.
In the present volume of poetry the theme of opposition between the "visceral and irrational" and the disciplines of sanity and control is more concisely, though no less breezily stated, and receives a more general application to human life and to poetry.
These basic oppositions, of course, are traceable to the old clash between romanticism and classicism. In Metapolitics Viereck, arguing for the theory that romanticism reached its "purest expression in those territories freest from Roman colonization" (i.e., Germany), remarks that romanticism is to be seen mainly "as a cultural and political reaction against the Roman-French-Mediterranean spirit of clarity, rationalism, form, and universal standards." Romanticism came out of the wild Saxon north as an energy of expansion and destruction, a principle of terror; classicism is the heritage of western civilization, the heritage of reason, law, control, order, and decorum. "Civilization's task," writes Viereck in Metapolitics, "is not a question of destroying but of harnessing the eternal romantic element." In other words, the spiritual and emotional energy of romanticism (love) must be guided by a principle of rational control (law).
In Terror and Decorum it is the poet, as a modern counterpart of the Promethean "culture-hero," who emerges as legislator, and who imposes civilization on savagery, just as he imposes form on matter. The "eternal romantic element" is identified by Viereck with the "tuneless mutiny of Matter;" hence the poet, in his struggle with the inherited, illegal expansiveness of romanticism, is really engaged in a larger struggle with the recalcitrance of matter. Poetic metaphor, in this encounter, is compared with the ritual of incantation; it tames "each thunderous force of nature by knowing its secret unnamable Name and saying it in the ritual of rhythm." Thus terror is tamed by knowledge and by poetry; thus "love and law, by pattern reconciled, must rhyme." The whole process, however, may "work" (culturally) without being "true" (literally), and the poet himself may be completely hidden behind his works, far from the gaze or knowledge of mankind. Nevertheless his pattern, "like the equally non-existent universals of Plato, may be daily moulding our meaningless existence into meaning."
For those who take poetry seriously, the spectacle of the poet subsisting on his own meaninglessness may not be altogether re-assuring; likewise, the theory that poetry creates its own meaning is not quite consistent with theories about value, reason, control, law, and decorum—all of which presuppose at least an external, if not an absolute, criterion—and all of which Peter Viereck holds to, as a professional humanist, against the "visceral and irrational."
Viereck has something of an insight into the tensions of poetry, into the struggles of the formative spirit, and into the spiritual area of romanticism; but he has mounted too shrilly and too athletically the stilts of "romanticismclassicism," and has taken this opposition, not so much as something from which one could learn, but as an article of faith and a source of poetry. It may well be that the hour of romanticism has struck and that a new order of form and control is rising; and it may be that these are signs of a recurring conflict of elements in the human soul. But such statements remain, somehow, on the side of literary history and psychology; and the poetry that would deal with them as basic remains limited to the fashions of "enlightened" criticism, feeding on theories and formulations rather than dealing with the substance of reality itself.
The poet as "legislator," moreover—except in the case of a long-established literary and cultural tradition—is an idea that is essentially romantic, for culture is a labor of reason more than a labor of art. If poetry, in the ritual of naming the unnamable, does not find it necessary to distinguish between "it-was" and "it is false," then the poet is a sorry legislator, and we must have recourse to philo-sophy, in which naming the unnamable is more than a ritual. It is doubtful, at this time, whether the humanistic faith in "universal standards" is the philosophy that we can most honestly have recourse to.
Many of the poems in Terror and Decorum do not seem related in any specific way to the theme of the book; and many of these are either boisterous, or abstruse, or macabre. The tone generally is one of sophisticated humor (suited, perhaps, to the pages of the various magazines in which Viereck's poetry has appeared) which occasionally takes a sardonic or a petulant turn, after the manner of an astringent Omar Khayyam. But in half-a-dozen poems (and especially in the "Author's Note on Marabouts and Planted Poets") Viereck states his theme well enough and seriously enough to be considered as a talent and as a man—perhaps a little too full—of theories.
Robert Fitzgerald (essay date 1949)
SOURCE: "Patter, Distraction, and Poetry," New Republic, Vol. 121, No. 6, August 8, 1949, p. 17.
[In the following review, Fitzgerald calls most of Viereck's poetry "patter" and doubts that there is much in Terror and Decorum that readers will study or reread for pleasure.]
The Pulitzer Prize for 1948 was awarded to Peter Viereck, whose Terror and Decorum is a novelty among first books of poems. The poet seems to have been prepared for fame: he has forestalled his bibliographers by including a two-page list of all his poems, with their original titles and the periodicals wherein they appeared or were reprinted, and a page entitled "Prose by Peter Viereck" listing his articles and book reviews. The fact that one article was in French and one in Italian hints at his linguistic attainments, and his travels are attested by the place names that accompany many poems—Stonehenge, Carthage, Athos, Assisi, the Borghese Gardens…. There is a liveliness about all this.
The poems are lively, too, and a few of them sustain a neat, coarse clarity and a satiric turn of fancy that is not disagreeable. "For Two Girls Setting Out in Life," "To a Sinister Potato" and one or two of his "Theological Cradle Songs" strike me as complete and rollicking compositions. The appearance of these qualities, and the appeal they seem to have, are evidences of a shift long under way from visionary concentration in poetry—from the high styles of Yeats or Crane or Tate or Thomas—to a drier and airier attitude, a more epigrammatic vein. William Empson's less diamondlike later poems are examples; Karl Shapiro's postwar lyrics are others; John Betjeman's are minor masterpieces, and Auden was at it long ago.
In Viereck's case, however, the shift is so indiscriminate that on the whole it looks more like a relapse. Auden has been saying, usefully but a little carelessly, that poetry is not a religion but a game; now Viereck describes it as "a hoax redeemed by awe." Perhaps this is open and above-board but it is not relevant to most of the examples offered, which are redeemed, if at all, by Viereck's wit—and his wit is frequently dreary. He has a warm, breezy, familiar way of being acutely embarrassing, as when he calls, in a poem to Hart Crane, "Hey, Hart, don't jump." In something called "The Big Graveyard" the reader is treated to five stanzas of riddling metaphors on The Cosmic Womb and, finally, to this flashing stroke:
The living noon whose tulip gapes with peace—….
But soon: the tomb whose two lips gape.
Thus is language made to yield her every nuance. The book also contains a brief prose insertion in which Viereck discusses the poet as "culture-hero" with a glibness that puts the reader at ease: here, at least, is no such formidable figure—just a man who knows all about it. The favorable reception of this patter may be significant, but I judge it to be momentary, for Viereck has as yet written very little to which one could wish to return often or with serious interest.
M. L. Rosenthal (review date 1950)
SOURCE: "Poet in Spite of Himself," New Republic, Vol. 122, No. 17, April 24, 1950, pp. 30-31.
[In the following review of Strike through the Mask!, Rosenthal claims that he endured Viereck's "saucy banalities" in this volume for the sake of six or seven rich, suggestive poems, including "Small Perfect Manhattan " and "My Gentlest Song.]
Those Terrifying Whimsies of Peter Viereck! Granted, as another, greater poet has told us, that a person of genius has to do something. Still, just look at the sort of thing he sees fit to print:
"None of that!" shouted the Ohio River. "No more roses and nightingales permitted to any poet who drinks our waters, yours or mine. Those creaking nightingales of the Rheumatic movement! Longfellow reads like a pretty short fellow nowadays. Better a live extravert than a dead lyre."
Yet we must bear with him. The man may be garrulous. He may write books about revisiting conservatism and finding it good. He may be an esthete right out of the nineties who really thinks he's doing something brandnew. He may moralize about Beauty and The Machine and at times sound like Vachel Lindsay. And, often, he may even rather fancy himself as a tree. (There is more passionate timber in his books than in Pound's, though the lumber is less learned.) Nevertheless he is, to quote him out of context and inaccurately, a "gen-u-ine poet."
For the sake, then, of a few untypical poems in this volume (Strike Through the Mask!) and in Terror and Decorum, his Pulitzer Prize winner of 1948, we shall have to forgive Viereck's endless slogans, the precious credos, the saucy banalities about poetry and this harsh world, etc., etc. These sorties are at any rate witty enough, and they do somehow serve to free him morally for the occasional luxury of doing the real thing. In the earlier book, they released him for such poems as the truly humane "Kilroy," the idealistic "Poet," the naïvely savage "From Ancient Fangs." Strike Through the Mask! is a less bitter collection. Outwardly bristling with even more intellectual defenses and diversionary tomfooleries, it holds within it a purer, more concentrated core of "genuine" verse.
Six or seven poems make up this core. Of these, only one, "Small Perfect Manhattan," can be called intellectually argumentative. What it "argues" for, as the title may suggest, is a new geographical association for the classic values, Europe and Africa having lost touch with the old idealism and the tradition of living song. Elsewhere Viereck has both admired and patronized Hart Crane; here, as in "Serenade," he comes very close to him in style and spirit:
Among these poems, too, we find "My Gentlest Song"—Viereck's one "tree-poem" which does not absolutely shriek its indignant message at us. The sense is surer, goes deeper here, than in many other more striking pieces. This love song of a pine tree to a rose—the utterly absurd "beautiful hunger" of the protecting pine for the "bright brief putrefying weed"—evokes the very essence of romantic pathos, all the more because it is never mechanically symbolic. A certain heaviness, a melancholy almost without objective meaning and yet intensely human, pervades this poem and the other "pure" poems in the book—particularly "Counter Serenade," "Obsessed by Her Beauty" and "Twilight of the Outward Life."
Viereck's whimsies and debating can be sold too short, of course. There is the joy of good satire in something like the Lindsayan chant, in his Americana section, about
Clambakes, clambakes on cranberry bogs:
Cans piled up to the moon.
He is generally amusing, or exciting, or in any case interesting, even when taste and originality desert him. And his range is wide, from sentimental trivia and comic ballads to the macabre irony of "To My Playmate" or the painful effort, in "Some Lines in Three Parts," to dramatize in images the "mangy miracle" of artistic creation. Yet even in this last poem the most moving lines are the ones which assert—with Yeats, one of Viereck's most apparent masters—the tragic paradox of the human condition so poignantly felt by the best poets of the late nineteenth century:
David Daiches (review date 1951)
SOURCE: "Some Recent Poetry," Yale Review, Vol. 40, No. 2, Winter, 1951, pp. 353-354.
[In the following review, Daiches finds Strike through the Mask! disappointing in comparison to Terror and Decorum, but praises Viereck for his continued struggle to realize his poetic vision.]
If Strike Through the Mask! is a trifle disappointing, it is only because Viereck's first volume was so good. There is nothing here quite so good as the best in Terror and Decorum, yet in such poems as "Ennui" and the third part of "Some Lines in Three Parts," for example, we have the same cunning clarity of style and classical sense of form that so refreshed us in the earlier poems. Mr. Viereck affects what one might call a desperate clarity, a wild matter-of-factness which at its best can be employed for more subtle effects than those achieved by the more obvious kinds of obscurity. He bodies forth a situation in blunt and economical language, then, as it were, tilts it somewhat askew, to give it a new meaning and a new dimension. The tilting is done almost entirely by structural devices, by the sequence in which the simple-seeming statements are arranged. His prosodie unit is the single line of verse, which he can handle with real deftness, but he is developing a tendency to employ a number of end-stopped lines in succession, each ending with a period: this produces a curiously jerky effect which almost spoils more than one poem, notably the otherwise admirable "A Hospital named 'Hotel Universe."'
Viereck is also developing mannerisms, imitating himself a bit, which is, I suppose, a tendency to be found in the second volumes of most interesting poets. (The first part of "The Slacker Need Not Apologize" reads a little like a parody of some of the things in his first book.) There are dangers in that terrible innocence of eye which yields Mr. Viereck so many of his subjects and best poetic effects; but of course everything is dangerous when you are writing poetry, and this approach certainly yields more vitality than most, especially these days when the poetic air is thick with unassimilated conventions. Mr. Viereck is an enfant terrible in the same sense that the child who found out about the emperior's new clothes was an enfant terrible, and his two problems are, first, to maintain the proper balance between his infancy (that is, genuine innocence or freshness of vision) and his terribleness, and, secondly, to avoid becoming either professionally innocent or professionally terrible. I think he will come through, because he is a poet in his bones and because such mannerisms as he has have been acquired as a result of perhaps too strenuously fought battles against mannerisms. Thus even his less good poems are blows in the fight for poetry, evidences of a desire to make the poem out of its proper materials (the authentic vision) rather than to assemble ready-made parts in accordance with the blueprints supplied by the manufacturing critics. He may be marking time just now, but he is all right.
Howard Nemerov (review date 1953)
SOURCE: "Macleish and Viereck," Partisan Review, Vol. XX, No. 1, January-February 1953, pp. 115-120.
[In the following excerpt from a review, Nemerov describes The First Morning as an uneven mixture of "witty and ingenious poems " with a large quantity of mediocre work.]
The poet's responsibility to society…a matter much debated. In the phrase itself there is implicit some prospective metaphor of the poet as criminal, vainly trying to discharge his debt by means of his poems while all the time, really, it is something else that "society" wants. What? This has not been made clear, but seems to have confusedly to do with, on the one hand, messages of life and hope; with, on the other, moral earnestness and a severe, traditional look at current events. Archibald MacLeish takes in many places a severe view—with virtue, with this Republic, with poetry itself, things were formerly different, are now much degenerated, but the poet by his images may redeem the time, "Turn round into the actual air" and "Invent the age! Invent the metaphor!" Peter Viereck brings, so it is held by some, messages of life and hope; "perhaps…the promised man who is going to lead modern poetry out of the wasteland" (statement by Van Wyck Brooks, but what wasteland?), he wears his rue with a difference.
Both these poets, the one long established and latterly neglected, the other young and spectacularly successful almost from his first appearance a few years ago, are much given to debating, in poems and elsewhere, the theme of the poet's responsibility to society, and both have been quite downright on this subject; there is some temptation, which I hope I shall avoid, to treat them as the same poet Before and After. This temptation would lead conveniently away from the poetry and into a discussion on the implicit premise that the poetry didn't in fact matter and with the implicit conclusion that poet Before and poet After were of the same caliber, something I do not believe. What would matter, in such a discussion? Attitude (positive), ease and rapidity of "communication," political awareness, the quality of being contemporary (as today's newspaper is more contemporary than yesterday's newspaper). Above all, perhaps, the ability to take a revolutionary tone while moving steadily backward, the triumph of strategic withdrawal. Both these poets, perhaps in the largest part of their production, seem deliberately to invite a discourse in those terms, a discourse which, except for a feeble protest at one point, I do not feel drawn to give, preferring for the most part instead simply to record something of my impression of the poetry…
The poetry of Peter Viereck is often both pleasant and accomplished; light in tone, you might say, but never lacking in that suggestion of more serious stuff beneath the surface, a suggestion which no poet these days will do well to do without; there are also mythology and quotations from literature in foreign languages. Here is an example.
It is difficult, in our excitement, to know what we admire most, or first, about this poem—the skillful regularity of the meter? the way in which the syntactical and metrical units exactly coincide, one phrase to one line, to produce the lilting effect so characteristic of this poet's work? the alliterations and assonances (line 10)? the highly compressed allusions to literature and mythology (lines 1, 11, and 12)? the irony (title)? the nature imagery (lines 2, 4, 5, etc.)? the awareness of the contemporary scene (lines 3, 6, 9, 15)? or perhaps it is the morality (passim)? Anyhow, all these features work together to produce, in their intricate weavings and delicate tonal combinations, this poem. This poem is by no means the best in The First Morning, any more than it is the worst; probably the worst—allowing for the fact that I can't read German and have had to omit the consideration of three poems in that tongue—is one called "Love Song of Prufrock Junior," the first in a series called "1912-1952, Full Cycle."
Must all successful rebels grow
From toreador to Sacred Cow?
What cults he slew, his cult begot.
"In my beginning," said his Scot,
"My end"; and aging eagles know
That 1912 was long ago.
Today the women come and go
Talking of T. S. Eliot.
The word goes round the English Departments that this is the equal of "The Lost Leader," and perhaps it is—though Professor Limpkin has acutely suggested that its allusive qualities (it is almost entirely built of cryptic references to Western Culture) may make it somewhat tiresome to the average undergraduate.
The best poems in this volume—including, on one opinion, "To be Sung," "Again, Again," "The Planted Skull," "Homecoming" and "Saga"—are quite good poems, perhaps a little light in weight. That they are great poems, that they constitute in any sense a revolution in the art (a return to this or revival of that), that they are particularly new or original or fresh, I submit that I doubt.
Now it is doubtless not nice to speak slightingly of a volume containing, say, half a dozen witty and ingenious poems which have given me pleasure, and I do not so speak merely because this volume contains also a relatively large amount of mediocre verse, fallen epigrams and jotted-down opinions, as well as a relatively staggering amount of simple blank space. But I feel (and feel I may as well express the feeling) a resistance to the pretension involved in the terms on which this verse is supposed to be taken—as "the present hope of poetry" (Robert Frost), "real magic" (Van Wyck Brooks), "conscientious skill … that makes much contemporary poetry look like the shabbiest free association" (David Daiches), "a break with the Eliot-dominated past" (Selden Rodman), "The modernist revolt has ended …" (Anthony Harrigan). These citations are from the dust-jacket of The First Morning, and though I have not quoted them in full the distinctive thing about them, as about so many favorable opinions of this poet, is visibly that it seems nearly impossible to praise Mr. Viereck except by way of taking a swipe at someone else; the ax-grinders seem to find him handy; uplifting Mr. Viereck seems to be the equal and opposite reaction generated by people standing on Mr. Eliot's head and jumping up and down. This suggests a certain expedient quality to the exaltation. When Mr. Harrigan, whom I quoted above, described Peter Viereck as "the principal standard-bearer of the tradition of humanistic democracy in this country," the battle-lines are drawn, one may or may not shudder for humanistic democracy, but in any event the poetry has been left to one side—as perhaps it should be, for I do not believe it will stand the strain of the program that is being erected for it. It is probably not good for the poet to become the standard-bearer of any party, the thing gets out of control—from being standard-bearer he becomes standard, and people wave him about wildly. I think the results begin to show in The First Morning, particularly in the number of pages given over to small versified remarks, parodies (even one of the poet himself, which does not appear to show any great self-knowledge) and pompously humorless jokes about poetry and criticism—the more or less affable informalities, the inflated marginalia, of the arbiter-elect. It is probably not good for the poet to become a myth, any myth but his own, surely; there is the danger of becoming at last, as Mr. Viereck in another connection points out, merely "a Maerchen dreamed by the deep, cool clams." Let the clams keep cool, they're not out of this wasteland yet.
Kimon Friar (essay date 1953)
SOURCE: "Verses and Poems," New Republic, Vol. 128, February 9, 1953, pp. 20-21.
[In the following review of The First Morning, Friar argues that Viereck has a great deal of technical skill but no poetic voice of his own.]
Even if Santayana did write Peter Viereck from Rome: "Oh, then you are a great man," neither the poet nor his publisher should have allowed such a statement to chance gathering a film of dust on what is, after all, a dust jacket. And what can impish Robert Frost be up to with: "Peter Viereck … is the present hope of poetry"—on the same dusty jacket? Indeed, I doubt that Viereck is essentially a poet at all. He writes with a dashing competence in a wide variety of verse forms, meters and modes, but rarely do I find a consistent cadence of his own; these are the old tunes refurbished and slicked up, but lacking that peculiar crack in the voice which can belong to one poet only. Perhaps the admirerers who find in Viereck a "new voice" refer not to his cadences but to his diction and general attitude, in which I find, however, together with much vitality and freshness, overmuch gauchery ("I'll honor gaucheness anywhere I find it"), cleverness, lack of taste ("Last night my stamen / Could hear her pistil sigh"), breeziness, charades, and posturing ("Will no one watch me? Look!, I'll dance on thread / Or hold my breath for cameras till I burst."). The effect is at times that of a tennis player in full rythmical swing blissfully unaware that his shorts are slipping. Alertness, agility, intelligence, brusqueness are not the beating heart of poetry where a thought may be wooed but not flaunted, where a lyric may be seduced but not raped. In Stanzas in Love with Life and August, Again, Again and Algiers in Wartime Viereck gives us pleasing verse but not moving poetry.
Kenneth Rexroth (review date 1953)
SOURCE: "A Publicist in Poetry," The New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1953, p. 22.
[In the following review, Rexroth faults the poetry in The First Morning for not concentrating on a consistent poetic goal.]
Peter Viereck is well aware of the separation of the poet from society. He proposes to do something about it. Many people think he is the wave of the future in American poetry. He says:
DANTE: We were God's poets.
BURNS: We were the people's poets.
MALLARME: We were poets' poets.
TODAY (preening himself): Ah, but we are critics' poets.
Certainly true, but diagnosis is not enough. It does not matter that Mr. Viereck has allowed his career as a publicist and polemicist to leak over into his poetry. That is all for the best. Although he has many of Byron's virtues he suffers from most of Byron's faults, and some others in addition. Some of these poems (in The First Morning) are very moving but with few exceptions they all jump the track somewhere in their course. This is their most serious blemish—instability and failure of consistent aim. Mr. Viereck's chase may have a beast in view but too often he gets distracted and takes off after mice when he has set out after bears and lions. This instability of style results in plain lack of taste, poetical malapropisms.
Until he can keep his critical fire concentrated, until he can preserve an over-all consistent tone, Mr. Viereck is not going to write the "Dunciad" or "Masque of Judgment" of our day. There is more to it than letting fly with both fists simultaneously at Mike Gold and T. S. Eliot. However, nobody else is even trying to do anything like this, and it certainly needs doing. Furthermore, his less ambitious and programmatic poems are clear, communicable, deeply concerned and very moving—which can be said of only three or four poets of Mr. Viereck's generation.
Ira N. Hayward (essay date 1955)
SOURCE: "The Tall Ideas Dancing: Peter Viereck, or the Poet as Citizen," The Western Humanities Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer, 1955, pp. 249-60.
[In the following essay, Hayward examines Viereck's insistence on making ethical judgments about poetry and considers his commitment to writing poetry that maintains a vital, active relationship to both politics and culture.]
Peter Viereck is becoming an increasingly powerful voice for a thoroughgoing re-appraisal of the trends that dominated poetry, literary criticism, and political thought between the two world wars. Like the symposium Critics and Criticism, edited by R. S. Crane,1 Viereck's three books of poems, his numerous magazine articles, and his recent volume of satiric prose present a basic challenge to the New Poetry and to the New Criticism which it stimulated. The challenge is long overdue. A too-easy victory over the shallow philistinism and pedantic academicism of the 'nineties and the years before World War I seems to have betrayed the literary modernists into an equally easy over-confidence in opinions which should have been held tentatively if at all, but instead have hardened into dogmas ranging from the dubious to the absurd.
Viereck is a stout controversialist, more adept, as he told an audience at the 1948 writers' conference in Logan, Utah, at pouring oil on troubled fires than on troubled waters. He has advanced during the past eight years from an attitude of skeptical questioning to an open attack on what he calls the "hermetic formalism" of the New Criticism and the "cross-word-puzzle" obscurity of the New Poetry.
In the Atlantic for July, 1947, under the title "Poets Versus Readers," he wrote optimistically that with the work of younger men like Auden, Spender, Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas, "Poetry has returned from the dazzling and esoteric to its traditional concern with the mystery of mortality…. There is a fruitfully obsessive search for the path from our dinginess and glibness to regeneration. This is the path that leads from Eliot's Wasteland to Ash Wednesday." As a result, "with the return to form and clarity, there can now be a disarmament conference between reader and poet."
At the end of the essay he qualifies his optimism by citing as an "example of how the poet-versus-reader feud of the 1920's can still re-erupt today … Robert Graves's preface to his new book of poems: 'I write poems for poets…. For people in general I write prose…. To write poems for other than poets is wasteful.'" Viereck's rejoinder to this point of view is prophetic of the position he has taken since with increasing vigor:
The award to Ezra Pound in 1949 of the Bollingen Prize for the best American poetry of 1948 caused Viereck to abandon his optimism and to recognize that the ivory tower aestheticism of the 1920's was still firmly entrenched behind a solid wall of critical opinion. In an essay, "My Kind of Poetry," appearing at the time in the Saturday Review of Literature and later reprinted as his introduction to the selections from his poems in John Ciardi's anthology, Mid-century American Poets, he wrote:
… my poetry is equally interested in shaking off the vague sentimentalities of the pre-Eliot romanticism and the hermetic ingenuities of the post-Eliot version of Neo-Classicism. The latter contains (1) no fun and (2) no humanness, two "vulgar" qualities that are the lifeblood of art. What was new and imaginative in the master becomes a slot-machine stereotype in the disciples who thereby create a new and more insidious type of Babbitt: the highbrow Babbitt-baiting Babbitt.
Besides presenting a lucid analysis of Viereck's own position, the essay is thus a frontal attack on a literary move ment which has aged "into a cocktail party clique, a mutual admiration pact, a pressure group upon college English Departments and Little Magazines…. Today the New Criticism, already a very old criticism, has become a bar to further esthetic progress, producing nimble imitative pedants and enslaving our metrics with its own twentieth-century clichés."
Of his own revolt against the trend he writes:
It's not enough to say a poet must belong to none of the arty coteries. It's essential that he actively sin against their rituals. My own sin is twofold. (1) I've content—something to say about the profane world they scorn—and not only form; this makes me an "impure" poet. (2) I try to communicate to the qualified layman also, instead of only to fellow poets and critics; this makes me a philistine.
Later in the same essay he writes, "Mine is a poetry of ideas. Above all, ideas connected with ethics or with the search for ethical values," and he quotes from his poem "Incantation at Assisi":
Listen, when the high bells ripple the half lights:
Ideas, ideas, the tall ideas dancing.
In his latest volume of verse2 Mr. Viereck takes another poetic fling both at the New Critics and at the willful obscurantists in poetry whom he has called "the Pound-Tate school of epigones." The section captioned "Irreverences," besides annoying those whom it is intended to annoy may displease others who believe that although the current "battle of the books" may be expected to rage for some time along the critical foothills of Parnassus, the sacred mount itself should, by mutual agreement, be accorded immunity as a No Man's Land in the skirmishing. Yet the genuine humor with which he hits off the poetical mannerisms not only of the new poets, American, British, and German, but of Browning, Hardy and even Viereck himself, entitles the section to a modest niche in the gallery of poems in dispraise of poets.
Convinced, as he wrote in an article "Pure Poetry, Impure Politics, and Ezra Pound," appearing in Commentary for April, 1951, that the New Critics have "Alexandrinized and Babbittized" the work of Pound and Eliot "not into a 'fascist' conspiracy as some Saturday Review of Literature writers absurdly implied, but into a supreme bore," he is here laying about him with the rapier of satiric wit, the bane of bores in all ages. It was a foregone conclusion that those whom he calls Pound's "disarmingly, really endearingly humorless" grandsons would not be amused by "Full Circle," the poem in which their current dilemma is deftly run through its vitals. Judging by their comments, they were least amused by the closing two-line parody of a couplet which, from having been too much admired as an epitome of the banalities of late Georgian culture, has come in the space of forty years to epitomize a no less deadly banality all its own:
Today the women come and go,
Talking of T. S. Eliot.
Viereck's absorption in ideas does not in any sense make him indifferent to technique. On the contrary, he is much concerned with it, and, as he himself writes, he composes his poems with definite theories of prosody in mind. Few modern poets show an equal mastery of varied verse forms. One of his major interests is in preserving the distinction between what he calls the "necessary obscurity" of most good poetry and obscurity for the sake of obfuscation. In "My Kind of Poetry" he quotes a paragraph from a review by Selden Rodman:
He is never trying to bait and hence is never deliberately elusive. Indeed one of the qualities that make Terror and Decorum more of a break with the Eliot-dominated past than any recent book is this very passion to communicate…. Out of extreme complexity, simplicity. From sophistication beyond cleverness, innocence. In Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Hopkins, the later Yeats, perhaps in all of the greatest poetry, it is the "formula" toward which Viereck, more than any contemporary poet, seems to be moving. (Viereck's italics.)
Mr. Viereck adds, "The above formula of a difficult simplicity, though unattainable for my.practice, is the truest summary of the ideal behind all my 'working principles.'" He has, indeed, stressed his "passion to communicate" at times almost to pedantry.
The distinction between this "difficult simplicity" and mere reader-baiting obscurity is easier to state in theory than to achieve in practice, as Viereck himself acknowledges, and it must be said in fairness that the new poet-critics whom he deplores have often insisted that the impulse back of the obscurity which he denounces as "willful" is the desire to give their poems that same richness of texture which is his own object.3 A lyric poem is, by definition, the expression of a concept deeply personal to the poet. How then can he be sure that the metaphor in which he couches this expression shall, in all its details, be intelligible to the reader?
It is ironic that some readers, finding Viereck's verse difficult, have bracketed him as himself merely another "obscure" new poet. This was shown amusingly when his poem, "Like A Sitting Breeze," reprinted in the latest volume with the subtitle "Farewell to l'art pour l'art," appeared in The American Scholar and forthwith became the focus of a long, wordy battle. The editor, Hiram Haydn, had written the author, "I'll be blamed if I know what it means," and had invited an exegesis which was published with the poem itself. The irony of the incident lay in the fact that the poem represents the author's "lonely duel" against the trend toward the personal and the obscure as an end in itself.
Finding a poem—even a very good poem—obscure, does not necessarily mean that the readers lack genuine poetic insight as Mr. Viereck seemed to imply in his rejoinder to critics of "Like a Sitting Breeze." Still less can it be argued, as Mr. Allen Tate tries to argue, that too long an immersion in what he calls "the Romantic sensibility," by making the reading of poetry a purely emotional experience, has obscured for modern readers the necessity of an intellectual approach, not only to the new poetry, but to the best poetry of other ages. Tate cites, for example as does Cleanth Brooks in an analysis of Donne's "Canonization"), the necessity of being aware that Donne's reference to dying in his "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" is a pun involving the knowledge that "in Middle English and down through the sixteenth century the verb die had as a secondary meaning, 'to perform the act of love.'" He concludes his essay on "Understanding Modern Poetry" by advising that "if we wish to understand Donne and Eliot, perhaps we had better begin, young, to read the classical languages, and a little later the philosophers."
Sound advice, surely, for any reading of great poetry past or present. But it will hardly help us with a poet who lards his verse with bits of Sanskrit or Chinese (or perhaps, like Mark Twain's pedantic amanuensis, with a word here and there of Amerindian) merely to parade a very private erudition. Or who, for no other discoverable purpose, drags in bits of anthropological data which form no necessary part of the mental equipment of even a fairly advanced student of the classics and the philosophers.
Donne's pun on dying was perfectly familiar—in other words not at all "obscure"—to the literate reader of his time. Pound's use of Chinese ideographs in several of his late cantos, like Eliot's use of Sanskrit in "The Wasteland" and of anthropological references in "The Cocktail Party" that might, as Viereck implies in a footnote to "Full Circle," have occurred more appropriately in The Golden Bough, are not quite the same thing. They could communicate to no one but the rare, highly specialized scholar of our time, as Eliot acknowledges by implication in his footnotes to "The Waste Land" and Pound in his "explication" appended to one of the cantos just mentioned. Even with these helps the poetic value of such esotericism is far from clear. Too much of this deliberate use of obscure, private allusions can reduce the deciphering of a poem to a process, as Viereck says, roughly like that of solving a double-crostic. The simile is not farfetched. John Crowe Ransom says of Wallace Stevens' "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," "The poem has a calculated complexity and its technical competence is so high that to study it, if you do that sort of thing, is to be happy."
As already noted, it was the Bollingen award to Ezra Pound that drew Viereck into an open attack on the poetry and the criticism which most strongly reflect the influence of Pound and his disciple Eliot. As Viereck explains in the exegesis of his poem "Like a Sitting Breeze," the "cruel crossroads" of his life came "when I had to force myself to take a stand on the issue of certain ethical implications of Mr. Pound's badly written new book, the Pisan Cantos."
His conclusion was that
… all human beings, including poets, who enjoy the privileges of a free society should try to make their duties … equal their privileges, in defiance of the pressures toward unfree conformity…. The free artist, like any other free citizen, has a moral responsibility against the evil of fascism and anti-semitic persecution…. "Like a Sitting Breeze" reflects the turning-point when I could no longer evade taking the stand of: ethics before "pure" art, freedom from totalitarianism before irresponsible ivory tower.
In his more recent Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals4 he points out that for years Alger Hiss and Ezra Pound "were the heroes of progressivism in politics and literature respectively" and asks, "What is the lesson when progressivism, after sincerely setting out to liberate literature and politics, ends by flirting with treason?" This issue, he adds, is one so central in today's thinking that
detached minds must insist on its being faced. They must insist on "vulgarly" and tactlessly rubbing the faces of American progressivism in Ezra Pound and Alger Hiss….
Pound and Hiss do not invalidate experimental avant garde. They do not invalidate liberalism…. What they do invalidate … is a hermetic, narcissistic progressivism, so self-absorbed in artistic or political progress that it neglects the inexorable moral framework into which all progress must fit.
It would be pointless here to review in detail the controversy growing out of the award of the Bollingen Prize to Pound's Pisan Cantos as the best poetry of 1948. This effort to glorify a literary performance which to many appeared as a deliberate justification of high treason finally reached the halls of Congress. The sensational charges of Robert Hillyer against the Fellows of the Library of Congress were adequately answered by their own subcommittee in a pamphlet "The Case Against the Saturday Review of Literature"—though without noticeably improving the case for the Pound award.
In their press release announcing the award, the jury said:
The Fellows are aware that objections may be made to awarding a prize to a man situated as is Mr Pound. In their view, however, the possibility of such objection did not alter the responsibility assumed by the Jury of Selection…. To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.
In this pronouncement the famous "dissociation of sensibility," which Eliot once deplored as having caused a deterioration of poetry since the seventeenth century, seems to have been elevated by Eliot and his disciples into an artistic credo bearing the official blessing of an agency of the state.
The Library of Congress is perhaps the most potent single cultural institution of the American Government. The Fellows of the Library, despite the nimble casuistries by which they attempted to minimize the fact, were speaking in the name of that institution. It seems never to have occurred to the majority of the group that the freedom which enabled them to award a prize "to a man situated as is Mr. Pound," in the name of an agency of the government he did his senile best to destroy, is in itself, to a truly "objective perception," the most precious of those values "on which any civilized society must rest." And their aplomb seemed equally undisturbed by the fact that the poem so honored was in purpose partly at least Pound's apologia for his treason.
Expatriation among American literati is nothing new. It was during World War I that Henry James, irked at American foreign policy, declared himself a British subject, thereby anticipating by some twelve years the similar gesture of T. S. Eliot, most famous of the Fellows. Long before this, however, as Van Wyck Brooks has shown,5 numerous Americans, endowed with the wherewithal by material-minded American ancestors, turned their backs on American material-mindedness for the loftier culture of the Old World. The Fellows in their defense indignantly denied Hillyer's charge of expatriation. Yet one of them, Mr. Allen Tate, who is old enough to have voted in the presidential election of 1920, wrote in 1949, "I have voted in only one presidential election, that of 1940." By this acknowledged aloofness from national affairs during perhaps the most crucial years of American history, Mr. Tate seems to qualify for the hitherto undetermined classification of expatriate-in-residence.
The critical problem involved in the Pound award is also not new in American literary history. As early as 1826, in a lecture on poetry before the Athenaeum Society of New York, William Cullen Bryant referred to "some critics [who] have made poetry to consist solely in the exercise of the imagination." He continues
They distinguish poetry from pathos. They talk of pure poetry, and by this phrase they mean passages of mere imagery with the least possible infusion of human emotion. I do not know by what authority these gentlemen take the term poetry from the people and thus limit its meaning.
The issue was joined in terms nearer to the present debate during the 1840's in the conflicting ideas of Poe and Emerson. Poe never tired of ridiculing as "often the flattest prose the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists," and in one essay he placed Emerson among "a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever—the mystic of mysticism's sake." In his essay "The Poetic Principle," he attacks vigorously the "heresy of The Didactic" the idea that "every poem … should inculcate a moral." In a famous passage he defines "the poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty," and adds: "Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth."
Emerson's own idea of the relation of thought to form he states in "The Poet":
It is not metres but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.
Emerson's position, as Norman Foerster has shown,6 is in the basic tradition of American criticism through Lowell and Whitman to Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. It describes the tendency of American poetry from Edward Taylor to Robert Frost. Even Poe acknowledged that what gives "richness" to a work of art is "some undercurrent, however indefinite, of meaning." Robert Frost makes the point specific in the preface to his Collected Poems (1939):
…The object in writing poems is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, meters are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety…. And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound.
Much of the current controversy over the relationship of the content of a poem to its value as a work of art seems to arise from a tendency to confuse meaning with "message." This confusion appears in a recent review by John Ciardi of Archibald MacLeish's Collected Poems. Ciardi quotes with approval the conclusion of MacLeish's early "Ars Poetica": "A poem should not mean / But be." But he notes that "within a few years of this poem MacLeish had taken up his advocacy of poetry as Public Speech." He continues: "Should the poem 'mean' or 'be?' Should it arrive at perception or a message? Should it explore the enduring and ever-personal emotions of individual sensation and individual loss or should it accept the challenge of specific political assignments?" (Italics mine.)
If the problem were as simple as this, the task of the critic or of the general reader would be equally simple. Unfortunately, however, no such clear either-or dichotomy exists in poetry of any distinction. To assume that it does is sure to involve the critic in a basic confusion, as Mr. Ciardi's further analysis demonstrates. Selecting "an irreducible half-dozen" of MacLeish's lyrics which he thinks "must certainly endure as long as poetry is read" he adds that "none of these successes are 'message' poems. Rather they are all poems of the most intensely personal feeling whose central subject is the sense of the passage of one man's life under the shadow of a mindless eternity which moves on to the obliteration of the individual."
Now if Mr. Ciardi's analysis of the irreducible half-dozen MacLeish lyrics is sound, it would appear that their "meaning" is neither private nor new. It is in effect the meaning of Lucretius, of Omar and of hundreds of lesser poets; namely that the life of one man—and if one man, all men—is passed "under the shadow of a mindless eternity which moves on to the obliteration of the individual." It is neither newer nor more private than the meaning of the Twenty-third Psalm which, in contrast, conveys the sense of the passage of the life of one man—and again if one man, all men—under the shadow of a benign Omnipotence which moves on to the perfect felicity of the individual.
The meaning of a poem may present itself in either of three ways: (1) overtly or didactically as in Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life," (2) aphoristically, as in the poetic passages of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and in Emerson's "Ode" to W. H. Channing, and (3) covertly or by figurative indirection as in Oedipus Rex, The Divine Comedy, Hamlet, and The Waste Land. Needless to say, although memorable poetry of the first two types does exist, it is by the third method that the greatest poets of all time have most often conveyed their meanings—their "readings of earth." This appears to be what Emerson has in mind when he tells us that "the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and appraises us not of his wealth but of the common wealth." It also appears to be what Matthew Arnold means when he speaks of poetry as a "criticism of life."
One of the paradoxes of the new criticism is that while it insists on the one hand on the right of the poet to his private emotions, his private images, his private vocabulary—even his private typography—it devotes long chapters and entire volumes to explaining Pound, Eliot, and Joyce for the purpose of proving that their meanings are not private but universal. Granting then the soundness of Viereck's dictum "that a poem should both mean and be" the question of whether confused or even vicious ethical meanings may impair the value of a poem still remains. Robert Wooster Stallman puts in concretely in an essay, "The New Critics," published in his anthology Critiques and Essays in Criticism:
The poet-poem-reader relationship is again illustrated by the Problem of Belief: the question whether it is necessary for the reader to share the poet's beliefs in order to enjoy fully his poetry. The problem … is resolved by Eliot thus: "When the doctrine, theory, belief, or 'view of life' presented in a poem is one which the mind of the reader can accept as coherent, mature, and founded on the facts of experience, it interposes no obstacle to the reader's enjoyment…." With this interpretation, which Eliot makes in The Use of Poetry (1933), all later critics concur. The question of the specific merit of a poetic statement as truth or falsehood does not arise when the beliefs of the poet are ordered into an intrinsic whole.
This seems to have been essentially the position of the majority of the Bollingen Committee, who in making the 1948 award to the Pisan Cantos sidestepped the poem's ethical content. Karl Shapiro attacked this position in a letter to Partisan Review saying that he had voted against Pound "in the belief that the poet's political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standard as literary work." Mr. Shapiro added,
The jury that elected Pound was made up partly of Pound's contemporaries, those who had come under his influence as impresario and teacher … and those who had engaged in the literary struggle to dissociate art from social injunction. The presence of Mr. Eliot at the meetings gave these facts a reality which perhaps inhibited open discussion.
Viereck states his view in "Pure Poetry, Impure Politics, and Ezra Pound." With characteristic forthrightness he says of the Bollingen Committee, "Judging by their much debated press release, their sympathies were with the widely held belief—a belief I consider unhi'storicai and psychologically false …—that artistic form can be considered apart from its content and moral meaning." Of the Cantos specifically he concludes: "Pound's prizewinning poem was not intended as purely aesthetic. Its message politically was that Mussolini was martyred and World War II caused by Jews…. This is politics, not serious poetry, hence not exempt from ethical as well as aesthetic condemnation."
He challenges "the famous New Criticism's method of [treating] a poem by itself, like a self-created airtight-sealed object, outside cause and effect":
A reader's response to a poem is a total response, a Gestalt in which aesthetic as well as ethical, psychological, and historical factors are inseparably fused together. It is a self-deception to try to separate them and to discover some alchemistical quintessence of "pure" aesthetics, to be judged only by certified "pure" mandarins of criticism.
In The Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals he says of the probable influence of Pound on future American poetry:
Justice will be done: art outlasts politics. But only if truly art and not fashion, not coterie. In case Pound has truly made the artistic contribution his admirers believe he has made, then I hope the future will reward him by remembering only his poems and not his ephemeral rantings against "Jew York" and "President Rosenfelt."
Viereck makes his own prognosis of the future of American poetry. He deplores the fact that
The current battle of "obscurity" versus "clarity"… tends to divide poets into two extremes equally deadly to poetry. The first extreme, in the name of anti-philistinism, is for crossword puzzle poetry which … would kill poetry by scaring away its audience. The second extreme, in the name of communication, would demagogically popularize poetry, … until it is no longer poetry at all, but verse.
He pleads for "an act of creative faith in a new and third force in poetry, already emerging, equally remote from the muse's mincing sterilizers and backslapping salesmen."
Such a third force must prefer a difficult simplicity to an easy obscurity. It must return to the function of ethical responsibility and of communication of ideas and emotions…. The American poetry of the future like the classicism of the ancient past, will again see art as a groping search for the good, the true, the beautiful; all three as potentially harmonizing rather than conflicting.
Viereck's quarrel with the award to Pound went far beyond the question of American loyalty. To him the committee seemed to have condoned treason, not only against the land which had indicted Pound for treason but against humanity itself, conceived in terms of what he calls the Greek-Roman-Judeo-Christian standard of values. His viewpoint is broader than Shapiro's, who objected to Pound's being given the award not only on aesthetic grounds, as noted above, but for the "first and most crucial reason … that I am a Jew and cannot honor antisémites." If Pound's polemic had been directed against the Negro race or the Catholic faith, would Mr. Shapiro have been equally opposed?
Viereck's position is on the high grounds that a poem which purposely becomes the vehicle of an indefensible ethic cannot be a great poem whatever else its merits. Convinced, as he says in a preview of his projected history of modern Europe, that under the combined impact of mil-itant nationalism and militant socialism the West since 1871 has undergone a devastating ethical revolution, he is horrified by the spectacle of a professedly civilized world reverting to a worse-than-savage brutality. He calls "Pound's joking reference to mass murder as 'fresh meat on the Russian steppes' the most callous single reference ever written by an American artist."
What appalls Mr. Viereck is not that the victims of Hitler's death camps were mainly Jews, but that tortured and torturers alike were all human beings. He is aware, in short, as every thoughful observer of the times must be, that at any moment we may face a situation when, in the words of an objective contemporary scientist, there will literally be "no place to hide." Such a time, he feels, is hardly propitious for an influential coterie of poets and critics to claim the privilege of hiding in an ivory tower of de-humanized aestheticism.
In his Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals he warns liberals and reactionaries alike:
The lesson of Pound and Hiss is not, as literary and political reactionaries may claim: "Stop being avant-garde, stop being liberal." … The lesson is "become genuine apostles of literary and political progress by watching the moral correlative of progress more sensitively in the future."
1 Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1952). See also Van Wyck Brooks, The Writer in America (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1953).
2The First Morning (New York: Scribner's, 1952).
3 See William Van O'Connor, Sense and Sensibility in Modern Poetry, Chapter 8, "The Imagistic Symbol" (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
4 (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1953).
5New England, Indian Summer (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1940).
6American Criticism, A study in Literary Theory from Poe to the Present (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1928.)
Hayden Carruth (review date 1957)
SOURCE: "Some New Poems by Peter Viereck," Poetry, Vol. 89, No. 5, February 1957, pp. 316-19.
[In the following review of The Persimmon Tree, Carruth considers the poetry in this volume an improvement over Viereck's earlier works but confesses that he finds Viereck's poems "painfully hard to read."]
Peter Viereck's new poems are very similar in tone and manner to the earlier poems which won him such great popularity, yet there is, I think, a difference. His book, The Persimmon Tree, is divided into a number of sections, and particularly in the one marked "Pastoral" the new poems offer a somewhat gentler flow, an easier tone of voice. To my mind this is an improvement, and I like some of these new poems very much. Viereck manages to bring to the meditative lyric, our supremely popular kind of poem, an individuality of voice and a rather nervous movement which make his poems genuinely distinct from the rest and superior to most of them. He is, of course, an accomplished writer, a clever writer, and his skill has a good deal to do with the success of his successful poems. I mean that his accomplishment lies partly in his ability to please us with purely verbal constructions, apart from their context of thought or feeling. But his virtuosity sometimes interferes with his poetry too. Distinctions of rhyme, I know, are ultimately a matter of taste, but to my ear the rhyme of "where sol lives" with "olives" in a poem which is otherwise quite serious and even graceful seems a grievous obtrusion. In other poems, the virtuosity is better placed. "Decorum and Terror," for instance, a tour de force in which Viereck uses, I am sure, every imaginable rhyme on his own surname, is a frank offering of doggerel, quite suitable to its subject (a conversation between Goethe and Hart Crane), and is the kind of cogent farce for which we can always be grateful in this comparatively dull time. In short, Viereck's new poems are strong and varied and on the whole good examples of what the poet can do at this stage of literary development.
That, at least, is what must be said before I can proceed to some of the other thoughts which occurred to me while I was reading these poems: it is the view which, although not necessarily orthodox in itself, nevertheless projects its meaning against our consciousness of orthodoxy. But I think that if one makes the effort to escape for the moment from our particular encampment and look back, as it were, from the surrounding hills, one's view becomes both more detached and more doubtful. In doing so, of course, one destroys the individuality of Viereck's poems, which become instead merely motions representative of our whole activity, and it is important to bear this in mind. But what does one see first of all? It is, I think, the congestion of our work. The truth is that Viereck's poems are painfully hard to read.
One does not understand immediately why this should be so. In mood and theme, Viereck's poems are not at all unfamiliar to us. His technique is the accustomed alogical and associative way of proceeding in which we have been well schooled. Moreover, in these poems the intellectual and emotional processes occur at a public though naturally high level of culture; we are not left behind, as we have been sometimes, in a poet's essentially private excursions. Yet something is wrong. We can attend easily, almost habitually, to these poems, we can admire them, but at the end, as often as not, we are left with a sense of weariness and dissatisfaction, as after an unnecessarily difficult labor. Here is the shortest poem in Viereck's book; it happens to be also the poem from which the book takes its title.
Not as we wish, accoutred regal,
Our soarers land but pent in cloud.
So must we take each molted eagle
Just as he comes or do without.
No radiance radiates. Its birth is
Dark-stained with lusts and blasphemies.
We sing them shiny if we please.
Or snuff them. Either way, unclean.
We dodge with outrage or derision
Truths that assault us squashily:
Each clowning, sweetish, harsh-cored vision
That shoots from the persimmon tree.
Brief bloom, we always wrong you; earth is
A drabber patch than need have been.
Here the poem, which I take to be a comment on the failure of the artistic imagination, progresses so heavily through its difficult changes that at the end it is pretty well wrung out, and so are we. From moulting eagle to metallic song to squashy fruit to flowering vision, with perhaps a dozen minor shifts, we go at a labored pace. I am not complaining about a mixed metaphor; that, after all, is the poet's business. I am complaining about a false density of metaphoric writing which has become virtually automatic and empty of any real urgency.
The symbolist movement in English poetry is a notably difficult thing to locate, probably because it envelops us and much of our tradition so mistily. But say experimentally that it was predicted by Blake, founded by Wordsworth, muddled by the Pre-Raphaelites, restored by the French, perfected by the generation of Eliot and Stevens, and upraised to a fragile and collapsing peak by Dylan Thomas. Where does this leave us now? And what has been the pull of this long experience in symbolism upon the permanent stuff of poetry, upon metaphor? Metaphor has, I think, warped closer and closer to symbol, as toward an unattainable perfection. Symbolism, a technique of thought and feeling, has naturally intervened with metaphor, a technique of writing. Metaphor has striven, in a manner of speaking, toward the state of being compact, autonomous, luminous, toward the state of being a symbol. But perhaps this movement has endured beyond its point of real meaning and tension, perhaps now the ultimate moment is behind us, perhaps this accounts for the loss of creative urgency. Metaphor is beginning to disintegrate, and its fragments fall and clatter in our poems. That is to say, the unity of feeling and technique is gone; we are perpetuating the technique because it is our endowment, already our burden, and because we do not know how to begin again. We become anxious, and in the poem we twist the line of metaphor so that it becomes forced, conspicuous, and exorbitant. This is what I mean by a poem that is hard to read.
George Green (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Four Campus Poets," Thought, Vol. XXXV, No. 137, June 1960, pp. 230-33.
[In the following excerpt from an essay, Green examines the political and moral elements in Viereck's poetry.]
… No one could accuse this history professor of neglecting the contest outside college gates. Indeed, it becomes impossible to consider Viereck's poetry without reference to his prose, where he has wished to protect humanistic conservatism primarily through literature and philosophy. His concern for politics has been secondary because he never escaped his fear of it descending into a Realpolitik of brutalization. We may admire the sincerity with which liberals of older generations spoke their victory cry: "I wear no man's livery!" But the progression of values for which Nietzsche hoped, taking humanity beyond good and evil, has descended instead into a morass where one finds only devaluation. "Without the idealistic framework of ethical restraints," Professor Viereck wrote in Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, "materialism can never achieve its material goals."
It is tempting though potentially disproportionate to dwell on Mr. Viereck in any debate which involves the public conscience of academics. For he has been so anxious to come to terms with this reality "too extreme for even the extremest adjectives of overstatement." Awareness of the demands of art and the need to comprehend contemporary facts establish a unique tension. "Toute forme créée, même par l'homme, est immortelle." Thus Viereck quotes Baudelaire as a preface for "Poet." We never forget this desire for independent form which seeks a modus vivendi with wider social loyalties. "What terror crowns the sweetness of all song?" It is natural that Viereck's career should pursue "terror" and "rage," yet the poet—sometimes without being totally aware—serves his era best when "coldest art" has blessed him, though it appeared hostile. In phrases which describe the impact of a poet, we note his judgment of the writer as someone who fights on his own section of the barricades. At the death of a true artist, inexact and flaccid language charges abroad:
Words that begged favor at his court in vain—
Lush adverbs, senile rhymes in tattered gowns—
(The entire section is 35576 words.)
Davidson, Eugene. "New Books in Review: Poets' Shelf." Yale Review 38 (1949): 723-27.
Considers the variety of Viereck's poetry and admires his craftsmanship.
Hall, James. "Ordered Withdrawals." The Virginia Quarterly Review 26, No. 3 (Summer, 1950): 464-69.
Praises Viereck's flexibility and technical skills in Strike through the Mask!.
Kroll, Ernest. A review of New and Selected Poems: 1932-1967. In Michigan Quarterly Review (Summer, 1969): 204.
Suggests that Viereck may be one of the memorable poets of...
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