Robert (Schaeffer) Phillips Essay - Critical Essays

Phillips, Robert (Schaeffer)


Robert (Schaeffer) Phillips 1938–

American poet, short story writer, critic, and editor.

Phillips has written three volumes of poetry: Inner Weather (1966), The Pregnant Man (1978), and Running on Empty (1981). Critics consider his poetry witty and inventive and laud Phillips for his masterful wordplay. Although writing poetry is a favorite interest, Phillips also wrote the short story collection The Land of Lost Content (1970) and the critical study The Confessional Poets (1973). In addition to his writing, Phillips has pursued a full-time career in advertising. He has also been a contributing editor to the Paris Review and The Ontario Review and a book review editor for Modern Poetry Studies.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8.)

William Van O'Connor

I think from here on one might chance it that Robert Phillips is going to have a place among the young poets. His Inner Weather is a thoughtful book. Much of the writing is very skillful….

If one could read the poem ["Weird Sister"] through, one could see that not only are there Shakespearean echoes here, Keatsian echoes, and echoes from Coleridge because we're dealing with what Graves calls the white goddess. What struck me in going through the poem was the way in which Mr. Phillips had modified the Yeatsian idiom. I suppose, if there is one influence here that seems to me to be at least conscious, it would be from Yeats. (p. 44)

Another thing that struck me in reading Mr. Phillips was how the post World War II generation has assimilated its literary heritage. It looks at Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, but from a new position. The poets who were writing in the thirties and early forties didn't turn and look over their shoulders at the work of Eliot or Dylan Thomas. These poets following World War II do just that. They take the writing seminar for granted; they like to do poems about pictures, particularly zany pictures, and melodramas. They can go back and pick up verse form such as Haiku. They look on the world as beaten from the oppressions of World War II. They are in a sense down to rock bottom in a way that poets in the 1920's and 30's were not. The bomb as we say may have something to do with it.


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Andrew Curry

[Inner Weather]—designed "… to smash a witch who could not / fly …"—is more curious than interesting. The quote is from "The Weird Sister" which opens this series of poems authored by one of the most consistent of the young poets. Phillips is 30ish; but in "Rosedale Afternoon" he is as death and insanity. The poems appear to have been written between 1958–1965, constituting, perhaps, Phillips' "early work." Phillips knows the craft well—perhaps too well. His sense of humor is apparent and tastefully used.

The image of flying is Phillips' explicit focus here. He defines poetry as "flight, rising on its strength." But the majority of these poems never pulled me into that promised flight. I never flew and when I wanted to structure, tradition, technical devices … simply prevented me from doing so. Perhaps it is true that one concentrates on a poem's externals when he doesn't know what else to say. Fortunately, Phillips is his own best critical reviewer—

           Sleight of hand must be outgrown.
           Mere magic cannot stay the mind.
           The boy becomes a man of shop-worn tricks
           in a world with no trap door.

Andrew Curry, in a review of "Inner Weather," in Small Press Review (© 1968 by Dustbooks), Vol. I, No. 4, December, 1968, p. 71.

Robert Emmet Long

[The Land of Lost Content] comprises fifteen related stories about present or former inhabitants of Public Landing, an Eastern Shore community some 100 miles below the Mason-Dixon line and apparently based on Phillips's boyhood home in Sussex County, Delaware. A prologue called "The Happy Highway" introduces us to the area: the dreary stretches of flat, sandy fields and chicken farms; the crumbling colonial estates along the highway that have been converted into neon-lighted "fudge palaces"; the revival camp on the outskirts of town; the Baptist Church with its spire surmounted by an angel, lavishly illuminated at night; the fertilizer plant of "Mr. Sam," a local tycoon vigilant in keeping new industry out and wages down; the Bijou theater, with its balcony divided down the middle by a plywood wall—one half for white patrons, the other for blacks. It also appears that Public Landing has a scandalously high rate of alcoholism. Bleak as this community is (H. L. Mencken would have loved and applauded Phillips's depiction of the aridities of the New South), it is only a foretaste of the barren lives of its citizens.

Take, for example, Mr. Sam's widow ("A Lady of Fashion"), whose pathetic attempts to retain her youth end in painful self-recognition. Take Fulton Oldfield ("The Angel of the Church"), whose dignity conceals an inner sordidness, or the wife in "The Death of a Good Man," whose illusions about her husband are cruelly dispelled at his funeral. Other characters are outright grotesques—Nathan Fooks in "Obsession," Nora Lee in "The Lost Child." Phillips's characters grapple with destinies that are too much for them. He looks on with detachment, at times even with mocking amusement. One wonders which side of Phillips will prevail in the novel about Public Landing that he has completed but not yet published—the observer or the satirist. (pp. 42-3)

Robert Emmet Long, in a review of "The Land of Lost Content," in Saturday Review (© 1971 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIV, No. 18, May 1, 1971, pp. 42-3.

L. S. Dembo

As a description of a general tendency in post World War Two American poetry, the term "confessional" is probably useful enough. Robert Lowell casually applied it to his own work in a Paris Review interview several years ago and M. L. Rosenthal succeeded in giving it currency in The New Poets (1967). Now [in The Confessional Poets] Mr. Phillips has come along with a whole book on the subject, seeking to establish the emergence of a "movement" or "school" or, at the very least, a "mode." Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, and possibly Anne Sexton are the cofounders … and John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Sylvia Plath are among the chief practitioners. Mr. Phillips summarizes their work thus:

It is highly subjective.
It is an expression of personality, not an escape from it.
It is therapeutic and/or purgative.
Its emotional content is personal rather than impersonal.
It is most often narrative.
It portrays unbalanced, afflicted, or alienated protagonists.

—and so forth…. He then devotes a chapter to each poet in which, as he says, he serves as a reader's guide.

All in all, it is a tedious business, and it is so precisely because Mr. Phillips never gets beyond the kind of general description to which the term "confessional" is limited. His explications usually being little...

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Joyce Carol Oates

[In The Pregnant Man, Robert Phillips is] idiosyncratic, rather wildly inventive … speaking with a wry, sad humor of the sort of pregnancy a man must endure…. In "The Married Man," "The Cultivated Man" …, "The Invisible Man," and "Hand Poem" Phillips presents a compelling alternative vision to Rich's oppressive "male god"; feminists should read The Pregnant Man if for no other reason than to see, to be forced to see, that "feminine" sensitivity (and, indeed, suffering) is hardly the exclusive lot of women. In a fantasy, "The Skin Game," the poet acquires a wet-suit to protect him … and in "The Stone Crab: A Love Poem," he establishes a rather frightful identity with a creature whose giant claw is broken from him to be eaten (the crab itself is thrown back into the sea so that he can grow another claw). How many losses can he endure?, Phillips inquires.

The first section of The Pregnant Man is called "Body Icons," and is prefaced by a statement by Dylan Thomas: "All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells, or senses." Phillips's poems on various body organs or bodily predicaments—poems on the skin, on the heart, on the head, the penis, the hand, the foot, and on the recurring metaphor of male pregnancy—are wittily accomplished, and might be misread as satirical verse just as Steinberg's art is often misread as cartoon art. Elsewhere in the volume Phillips is more conventionally "serious": his poems on Picasso, Giacometti, Burchfield …, Carson McCullers, Delmore Schwartz, and Shirley Jackson are simply very good poems. The Pregnant Man seems a slimmer volume than it really is, perhaps because one wishes it longer. (pp. 27-8)

Joyce Carol Oates, in a review of "The Pregnant Man," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 24, December 9, 1978, pp. 27-8.

Jerome Mazzaro

Most readers will be delighted by the surface wit of The Pregnant Man. Robert Phillips is a very entertaining poet and a master of the double-take. Not only are words given double duty in terms of puns, but line breaks do double duty, images and statements recur, and poems have two movements or become new looks at subjects treated first by painters or other writers. Even the epiphanies of this attempt at "male consciousness raising/razing" force new looks. One immediate reaction is laughter in that perceptions that are momentarily disappointing still prove pleasurable…. A second result is a search for resolution and transcendence in the wisdom that comes of dual perspective. Divided into three stages, the...

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Alan Williamson

Robert Phillips's poetry has the surface virtues of clarity, verbal gamesmanship, descriptive grace. But the substance of the theme-and-variations poems that make up most of The Pregnant Man too often reminds me of the exercises given out in slightly trendy or "experimental" writing workshops. Take a myth, give it a more cynical—or more psychoanalytic—moral than it usually has, then write it up in slang, mentioning diaphragms, Forest Hills, and Truman Capote. Take a dead metaphor involving a part of the body … and literalize it…. Phillips's relentless reliance on cliché in these poems will doubtless strike some readers as purposeful, a rueful commentary on the inescapable banality of our true feelings....

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James Finn Cotter

If the measure of a poet is, as Keats thought, the ability to give up self and become other beings, then Robert Phillips is as close to being a poet as anyone writing today. Not birds and clouds, but giraffes and crabs are the subject of his metamorphoses, and his quest is more classical than romantic. In his third collection of poems, Running on Empty, Phillips explores the sensations of being the other (even the child once oneself) by dramatizing the experience of both losing a sense of the ego and filling the void. The title poem describes the process by a perfect allegory: a teen-ager's defiant ability to drive with the fuel gauge reading empty and below, "riding on nothing but fumes."


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G. E. Murray

Running on Empty takes a significantly different direction from that set forth in earlier work, notably The Pregnant Man. There Phillips displayed an appetite for literary decorum. Erudite, polished, technically accomplished, those poems seemed not as fine as the craftsmanship that formed them. Happily, this new work, taken in its breadth, achieves a greater emotional consistency by relinquishing some of composition's ornament.

It also should be noted that Phillips' new title is derived from pop composer Jackson Browne's upbeat California country-rock anthem. It should be further clarified that Phillips' patient causes strike no relationship to Browne's pulsating lyrics, and indeed are...

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David Sanders

My single dominant first reaction to Robert Phillips' Running on Empty … was "I like this man." The personality behind the voice makes the impression here, not the poet's way of dealing with ideas or exploring new techniques.

In fact, I would not be surprised to hear certain critics rather unfairly refer to this book as Running on Emptyheaded for its lack of intellectual content. Phillips' is the kind of poetry which may be at once the delight of readers and the bane of critics. Intellectual it does not attempt to be. More important to Phillips are his personal reactions to such things as the seasons, flowers, small animals, childhood, aging, and numerous contemporaries. He is...

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