Of Poetry and Poets

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Of Poetry and Poets provides a strong sense of the beliefs and personality of one of America’s most important and enduring lyric poets, Richard Eberhart. The book gives little that is new but much that is important and makes accessible essays and addresses which sometimes appeared in out-of-the-way places. Eberhart’s writings about the art to which he has so passionately committed himself provide insights into poetry today through their observations on ideas and trends of the past several decades. For fifty years, Eberhart and his work have had an impact on American letters; his Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, and, more recently, his Collected Poems 1930-1976 won the 1977 National Book Award for Poetry. In his Preface, the poet regrets the editorial decision not to include his reviews and fugitive pieces. He regards those omitted pieces as a “careful index” to his feeling about various poets. Inclusion of those essays, even if it doubled the bulk and cost of the present volume, would have greatly enhanced the usefulness of the book.

In fact, the greatest weakness of Eberhart’s book arises from editorial negligence. The University of Illinois Press identifies no editor, nor does it undertake to provide any apparatus to make it possible for the reader to use Of Poetry and Poets without frequently consulting other works. No omission in itself does much harm, but the cumulative effect is annoying. Why, for instance, could a note not identify the book for which Eberhart won the Pulitzer and National Book Award prizes? Also, why could Eberhart’s reading at the Hopkins Center after winning the Pulitzer Prize not be dated fully?

James Dickey’s short Foreword amounts chiefly to an appreciation of Eberhart as person and as man of letters. Again, however, one finds little information, and the reader curious to know something more of Eberhart than that he loves poetry but is not gullible about it will be obliged to go elsewhere. For all its praise, the Foreword is strangely impersonal; it gives no specific information about Dickey’s relationship to the older writer, and sounds as if it might have been written by a graduate student who had never met Eberhart. Dickey singles out Eberhart’s ability to praise well, claiming that most criticism today is “averse to whatever the work in question might be,” while Eberhart deals with “various works he likes.” Yet Eberhart would be among the first to say that the critic cannot always avoid the judicial role—pointing out flaws and excesses in poetry.

Dickey, however, rightly identifies what is most important in Eberhart’s essays: “an imaginative sympathy and a personal concern.” He suggests, but does not develop, another even more important aspect of Eberhart’s contribution: his courage to deal with absolutes, or, as Dickey says, with ultimates. Dickey claims that he believes everything Eberhart “says as a critic, and as one of the finest poets, perhaps the very finest, of his time.” Such statements miss the point of how Eberhart deals with ultimates, or, at the very least, they imply that Eberhart treats ultimates in such a way as to allow the reader to discover (and agree with) ultimate answers. Everything about Eberhart’s work denies such a position. If anything, Eberhart blurs his answers by insisting upon open-mindedness. The dialectic of his essays is such that one must comprehend the opposing point of view in order to grasp Eberhart’s belief. In writing an essay called “Pure Poetry,” for example, he confesses that “due to ambivalence of mind,” he could as well write his essay on impure poetry. He writes that he proposes no dogmas, but is “open-minded, receptive to ideas”; hence his beliefs are “wide, secular,” not “hierarchical, closed ones.”

No one wishes to argue with open-mindedness or to deny that “openness” contributes much of the appeal to Eberhart’s work. Still, these personal and intellectual virtues sometimes make it hard to discern exactly what he does mean. Determined to provide a Both/And view of most topics, Eberhart occasionally provides what one might better call a Neither/Nor view. Although clearly an advocate of the theory of poetic inspiration, Eberhart gives almost equal time to the opposing view of poetry as arriving from cognition and craft.

The first part of Eberhart’s book treats the subject of Poetry; the second part treats Poets. Despite the balance (eleven essays in each part), the distinction is not always sharp. The third part of the book provides interviews...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)