Reed Whittemore Essay - Whittemore, (Edward) Reed

Whittemore, (Edward) Reed

Whittemore, (Edward) Reed 1919–

Whittemore, a gifted American poet and essayist, is concerned with middle-class values and aspirations and topical issues. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Whittemore] is as wittily cultural as they come, he has read more than any young man anybody knows, has been all kinds of places, yet shuffles along in an old pair of tennis shoes and khaki pants, with his hands in his pockets, saying to every head-down, hustling graduate student he meets, "Shucks, fellow, don't take all this so seriously. Learn, as I was born to know, that all literature, all life, is secretly funny."…

Whittemore has plenty of whatever it takes to get you to "reassess the world around you," and is not much interested in the other thing, that makes you like, or hate in any significant way, anything you know, or think you know. The Subjects of the world stand around you, during your reading of Whittemore's poems, revealed in their inconsequentially ridiculous, very recognizable, and humorously contemptible attitudes, and never in their most deeply characteristic and unknown gestures, in unmanageable love. I suppose this is to say that Whittemore is essentially a satirist—yet even as I write I am not sure of that "essentially." But it is true that almost all the poems [in An American Takes a Walk] are full of very telling satiric invention and observation, Americanized Auden, and "wonderful fun" (as in "Paul Revere's Ride," which is just that). For Whittemore is himself the perfect Furioso poet. Certainly I never saw anything published in that genuinely lamented magazine half so good of its kind as the best of these poems. Yet … what is it, exactly, in terms of the immovable values of real poetry, to be or to have been "the perfect Furioso poet"? To have been wittily uncommitted to anything save a few vague humanistic principles that have no issue except to mock, condescendingly and as from a great distance, inhumanly cool with the scintillant remove of knowledgeable superiority, a few of the things we are all against: War, the City, the Army, Science Divorced from Man?… Strength of feeling, it is true, uncritical and breathless with unsanction, comes in a few times, but, save in one or two wonderful exceptions, the effect is that of a jar, and we tend to look up guiltily, saying, "What is wrong with Whittemore here, anyway?" Yet we are saying this of the poet who wrote, "And the laced-in hazards of the covert hills," and, for anybody's terror and helpless acquiescence, "Caught in an offshore breeze / A butterfly will turn / Too late to fight the air …". Truly hearing the way that "fight" works, no one could argue the effectiveness of this passage. Yet it is more than effective. If the theory of the "objective correlative" takes any value from examples, it ought to stand deep in the theorist's mind through this one, bearing with it all the latent terror of the natural world. The image realized here is part of that world, and finally that of man, gained, in an unforeseen and indispensable way, through Whittemore's words. Of the two (or more) poets in Whittemore, I should like most to see the one who wrote those lines emerge.

James Dickey, "Reed Whittemore" (1956), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 49-52.

In so many of Reed Whittemore's poems, the ear is flawless. His voice is perfectly pitched, immaculate, suave, urbane. There are no slips, no mistakes—if he trips, it is always accidentally-on-purpose, he comes up smiling, and we smile with him, not at him. He is one of our dwindling few tasteful and intelligent satirists, and we don't dare risk putting him off on some other track; but we do wish he would surprise us a bit more.

When the good poem starts to unwind, to uncoil, it serpentines cunningly, and as the poem rises to a perfect little loop at the finish, and sticks its little forked tongue out at me, I am genuinely tickled and stung. But there is always a moment just before the finish when I want to slash through the poem's sleek hide and expose the rough second skin, and this devilishness of mine lingers with me as an aftertaste when I finish reading the poem…. Whittemore's style, tone, manner, and range of targets had become too predictable. He has stuck to the same mode for so long, I had begun to associate only one type of poetry with him—the low guttural chuckle of a highbrow Ogden Nash. Perhaps the comparison is unfair; his sensibility is sophisticated, closer to Jules Pfeiffer's cartoons.

Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1968, pp. 267-68.

[In Poems, New & Selected,] Mr. Whittemore carries on his quarrel with himself and the world in a tone that is casual, witty, civilized, detached; he likes to deflect anger into irony; he is cool…. Mr. Whittemore has caught the note of sadness by now. It shows through more and more in the new poems, especially those which most deeply involve his feelings, poems about himself as a man and a poet in an environment not geared to either humanity or poetry. "The Seven Days," a long sequence, falls, I suppose, under the "public summation" category, and it is a beautiful and highly inventive combination of tongue-in-cheek brightness and the sadness that comes with understanding. Among the old poems there are many occasional ones: frankly funny ones, and those that are straight and serious, but remain lightweight, either because the specific subject doesn't really involve Mr. Whittemore, or because a more deeply affecting treatment would have meant greater lyrical intensity, something which is not, or at least was not, Mr. Whittemore's forte. His most remarkable characteristic surely is his mental and verbal nimbleness. In the new poems, however, he is both sharper and deeper. He is willing to drop the insistent tone of self-mockery; he does not mind being exasperated, unhappy, and just plain angry.

Lisel Mueller, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1968, pp. 67-8.

When not simply low-pitched light verse, Reed Whittemore's … poems [in Fifty Poems Fifty] are dry, wry, and wrinkled. One of them is called A Song of Wrinkles: a far more accurate and appropriate title for his book than Fifty Poems Fifty. The poem has all the outstanding Whittemore characteristics. It starts as though it were going to be a facetious bit of self-irony or a satirical squib against advertising. The kind of rhymes and half-rhymes it begins with support the impression, yet there is just enough serious edge to allow a quite forceful ending to develop. It is as though the voice began with a wobble, then discovered its true spin just in time to hit a Popean note of wit, put to a serious purpose, at the very end. Whittemore's desire to keep to an idiom that is absolutely natural and only minimally emotional and "poetic" is a bit self-defeating. Still, once one accepts the book as a collection of dry pods rattling in the wind, a certain wind-harp music starts up from it after all, as in some of the poems of Kenneth Burke or William Empson. No doubt a staunchly deliberate rejection of the whole romantic complex is implied in Whittemore's poetic reductionism.

M. L. Rosenthal, "Plastic Possibilities," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1971, pp. 102-03.