Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 14)
Weiss, Theodore 1916–
Weiss is an American poet, critic, and editor. In opposition to the current popularity of the loose confessional style of poetry, Weiss has primarily written long, carefully constructed narrative poems. He is most noted for his "Gunsight," a narrative poem described by some critics as the best long poem since William Carlos Williams's "Paterson." (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Weiss's long poems should alert us] to the narrowness of range of many of the short poems of our time. Weiss's own shorter poems (very few of them under thirty lines) have always presented an uncommon combination of dense texture and subtle, sometimes elusive, substance. The texture of these poems often turns out to be the substance, and the time-bound experience of reading his poems is, more than with most poets, the apprehension of a meaning which can rarely be ordered into structural, spatial schemas after it has impressed itself on the reader. The poems are of a supremely articulate emotional and perceptual progress.
Technically, Weiss's work began in The Catch as a manipulation of...
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[Views & Spectacles] should serve to introduce new English readers to an urbane, spikily intelligent writer for whom the making of poetry is a delighted idiosyncratic conversation shaped around parentheses, hesitations and qualifications, breaking out at intervals into sheer affirmation. Often seeming a little awkward (even wilfully mannered) at first reading, these are poems which demand careful attention until their voice is assimilated and the necessary balance of mind achieved in one's response. Not that they are obscure but, both in their syntax and in a habit of shooting off at ruminative tangents from what appears to be a direct narrative line, they are surprising and often refreshingly...
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Theodore Weiss' poetry is among the most demanding (which is not necessarily to say obscure) currently being written, not because it is erudite, far-ranging, uncompromising, and oblique, as it certainly is, but by virtue of the poet's modus operandi of reconciling fragments through the fashioning of multi-faceted wholes. His rich thematic diversity, various but specific characterization (for his work abounds in real people), and accelerated interplay between objects and notions, all combine to keep the reader in an intensely mobile state, as befits a poetry of the "demeanors of the mind."
Although I propose to indicate a number of Weiss' recurrent motifs, one, fragmentation, must be mentioned...
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Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 3)
Weiss, Theodore 1916–
Weiss, an American poet and critic, is best known for his long narrative poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Theodore Weiss's new book [Outlanders], for which we have waited far too long, is well worth waiting for. Weiss is a writer who works his language hard, and he knows exactly how to cultivate it for what it can give him. The opposite of poets like Lee Anderson and Charles Olson, who build for years a kind of complicated and contrived deadness into their poems, Weiss arrives at a clear, intense, vivid verbal life through the most laborious analytical processes, and it is apparent that he could not have achieved the extraordinary intensity of these poems by any other means than this approach. One has the feeling that Mr. Weiss has lived with each phrase for a long time, testing it in all sorts of ways, like a man edging cautiously out over thin ice, trying each footstep carefully before putting his full weight on it, until, in the center of the lake (for this simile must pertain to poetry rather than to fact), he can not only dance on the ice but on the water itself when the ice melts. Many of his passages seem to me to be nothing more or less than visionary, with the vision-seeing that only the poet's truest and most personal language can attain, with "the world / lit up as by a golden school." And yet you never lose the sense of Weiss's presence, either: the poems never seem to be the products of anything but a knowable and very human mind. The mind is an exceedingly complex one which operates by building small, deeply observed details ("the wood / in its own dark / middle lost") into difficult and rewarding structures: poems which never give all they have to give on any one reading but withhold, withhold, always retaining something essential of themselves, something to bring the reader back and reward him again. The poems have both the immediacy one wishes for and the power of engaging the remoter, more abstract regions of thought; they have both the concreteness of things, objects, and whole ranges of meaning which the things inform, until the world does, indeed, turn into a "golden school." It is in the vicinity of such a school, after hours, that I like to think of Weiss and his intelligent daemon sitting down together to have a beer, and of the daemon idly throwing onto the tabletop the great keys to Mr. Weiss's splendid imagination which together they have designed and made over the last twenty years.
James Dickey, 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. 144-45.
[In his collection The Medium,] Mr. Weiss laments no lost Eden, speculates about no Heaven that is half-promise, half-threat. He does not flinch from looking at death either on the unimaginable scale of the concentration camp, or as seen in the burial of his children's pet crow. But his poems are singularly free from fear or guilt. Heaven, Eden, and all the absolutes philosophers have dreamed of are here around him in the place and company of which he is part; and in his words which are all uttered ultimately in wonder and praise. He is no solitary, but solidly part of a community of family and friends. Because he valued friendship so highly, Wittgenstein gave away his fortune so that none would befriend him only for his money; and he wanted his students to have, as he put it, the faces of friends. Mr. Weiss's book is full of comparable celebrations of friendships.
He does not waste much time on things and people he dislikes…. Amused or serious, Mr. Weiss charms without recourse to sorcery. His poems speak of a world that is whole, however beleaguered. He is never smug and there is nothing coy or sham in what he says. As befits one who has the capacity to wonder, he has courage and gaiety: so that one reads as quickly as possible his whole book with delight.
F. H. Griffin Taylor, in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South), Spring, 1969, pp. 315-16.
[Learned], witty, musical, copious and intense writing … is not necessarily unpopular; but Weiss has so juiced up each of these qualities at the expense, in most of his work, of a fable, a narrative or even a ritual in whose thrall the mind could submissively revel, that he has not "once or ever become the household word of the air." The direct or directive procedure is sacrificed to a complication of surface, an iridescence of the audible, to the point where any unity that is to be achieved, Weiss insists, will be the unity won—wrung—from a conflicting multitude….
[Theodore Weiss's] imagery, like [his] themes and his grammatical surface, is treated accordingly: the units of his verbal structure are intended and received as parts of a whole ("more than merely lyrical and happily fragmented"), redeemed from the despised fragmentary by pattern, oracular in origin and deriving from the moment of vision, the epiphanic flash of comprehension; everywhere apparent in the arrangement on the page (even when not highly ventilated, Weiss's lines are always designed) and in the effect on the ear, the method or better the madness inherent in Weiss's method—a rage for subsumption—is explicit in a middle-range poem, "Barracks Apt. 14," which offers a roomful of miscellanea—some pears in a basket, two house-plants, a faculty wife reading Aristotle "with difficulty" and a baby in the next room—under the imperative rubric "all must be used"….
Theodore Weiss will not indulge his reader with the complacencies of an easy iambic line, the pleasures of recognition, the privileges of condescension. His means invariably mirror a meaning which is scrolled, complicated, demanding…. It is the case: his music will confound you, and the sense his senses make of it often [eludes]. As I trace it, the central course of that meaning is the shape or structure of selfhood when it is without the armor of consciousness, when identity is invaded by a momentary and instantaneous recognition of being, a disastrous revelation … that comes often to this poet from nature, but also—and more damagingly—from a confrontation with the past, from the endurance of love, and from the Stoic's old problem of living, as Gilbert Murray put it, without despair and without grave, or at least without gross, illusion. And always the recognition comes, once the defences are down, from an invading consciousness of multiplicity….
In 1962 … Weiss produced the major work toward which … his predictive and even his predatory energies [were] fusing—unpropped by myth, naked of literature if not of rhetoric, Gunsight is a long poem which records, or rather dramatizes, enacts, even endures the sensations and memories of a wounded soldier undergoing surgery. In the narrator's framing speech, Weiss offers an explicit version of the Stoicism he has been rowing toward in so many Ulyssean pieces, the philosophy which eschews illusion and despair in the face of the problem of living and dying, and of illusion itself, with which this poem is chiefly concerned:
Some things—the crag, the granite sea, the slug,
this mouth that grinds incessantly in you—
cannot be turned into the human. All
that we can do is try, while we are men,
to meet them humanly …
The result is a long, beautifully joined narrative (a linear movement, at once ongoing and terminal, hovering yet heaving ahead, utilizing all of Weiss's arts of enjambment to keep the language moving down the page as well as the lines marching across it)….
In the poetry of Theodore Weiss, there is then a regard for the reality that will not be reduced, the reality which is a human imagination of the inhuman; reading these anatomies of identity, "touching words, to push me out of me," as Caliban crucially says for Weiss, we understand Bacon's beautiful conditional sentence in a declarative mode: poetry could indeed give some show of satisfaction to the mind, wherein the nature of things doth seem to deny it.
Richard Howard, "Theodore Weiss: 'No Shore Beyond Our Own'," in Perspective, Spring, 1969, pp. 41-65.
Weiss's most recent short poems [in The World Before Us] have advanced to a more acute rawboned gauntness of style than any earlier work, approaching stridency in some passages. The new poems resume Weiss's faith in the undiminished efficacy of today's language as a medium for poetry, a faith first voiced in the youthful poem "The Hook," the brilliant exemplar of his early style which introduces The World Before Us, this meaty selection—ample in bulk as well as substance—from four previous volumes, plus a complete book-length sequence of new short poems….
Weiss's longest poems are usually his most impressive and memorable works. They form a continuing cycle, from book to book, and in them a reader may chart the mile-stones of Weiss's extraordinary search for a more viable poetic language…. The genesis of all language—in the ear of the pre-literate child and, by extrapolation, in the ear of primitive man, the racial vestiges echoing in the modern voice—is in the naming of things. At the pure beginnings, the need to enchant (yes, a chanting!) the ear with beautiful names was indissolubly linked to the need to control things with words. The religious and esthetic functions of language evolved concurrently with the physical, all collaborating in survival. Through language, self-preservation extended effortlessly and naturally from the hunt and the kill to the inner dream life. Weiss's poems, especially the long interior monologues … reenact this drama for us, as the poet participates with intense sympathetic involvement in the mental life of adventurers in language, following them through each stage of the love affair: from first infatuation with the sound and feel of words, through the deaths of language as it becomes cut off from its origins in natural process and man's dream life is divorced from his daily life of action, to those high, rare marriages of language and mission—the true calling—which comes as a beatitude of fulfillment to the lucky few who fight their way back from exile (language abused banishes us from its country) to find the true heartland of the self in human love.
Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1971, pp. 90-1.
Reading through Theodore Weiss's generous selection of his poems since 1950, The World Before Us, it seems to me that the reputation his poetry has acquired for "difficulty" is not so much the result of an attempt to come to terms with it as a half-hearted excuse for avoiding that attempt; for while this collection shows that Weiss's poetry merits far more attention than it has received, it also shows that its neglect could not be due to its difficulty. Rather, whatever lack of attention his poems have suffered is best explained by the very quality that makes them so valuable—a wholly individual set of intentions developed with singular integrity.
John Koethe, in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1972, p. 49.
Theodore Weiss's volume, The World Before Us: Poems 1950–70, contains seventy-eight poems and is two hundred and eighty-seven pages long. From that surface observation and a little arithmetic it should be clear that Weiss favors the long poem, and it should be no surprise that many of these poems are narratives in open forms. Weiss is a good poet, and he is at his best in this volume when he takes "openness" (both as a way of life and as a way of making poetry) as his subject. The chief poetic influence on his writing is William Carlos Williams, and certainly Weiss has done more credit to that influence than have many who've come under it.
John T. Irwin, in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 169-71.
Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 8)
Weiss, Theodore 1916–
An American poet and critic, Weiss has taken the position that poetry has surrendered "immense sectors of the world to prose." He has tried to regain some of this lost ground by incorporating elements of the epic, Homeric poetry that he admires into his own poems. In this respect his poetry has run counter to the personal, confessional poetry that has been lately in vogue in America and England. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
When I opened [The World Before Us],… I found myself on the first page, as it were, eating Proust's madeleine: I was cast back on waves of sensuous language to the exact feeling of literature in our youth a quarter-century ago. In Weiss's early poems I seemed to hear at once every bell of a distant peal. Not just Valéry or Pound or Joyce or Rilke or Ford or Stevens but the entire tintinnabulation, our epoch's first literary renaissance, jumbled timbres both great and obscure, the linguistic intoxication of an age. Not that we young ones merely imitated our seniors, though imitation in some sense was important to us. We were poor scholars, by and large, lazy readers, and half the time didn't know what our predecessors had been talking about; besides, we wanted to be ourselves. But how we reveled in their reputations, their power won through words! It was the triumph of language, or so we thought. We set out to equal them, and what we wrote, the good or the bad, could not have been in greater contrast to the studiously plain, careless, unambitious writing of young poets today. It had its dangers, that old wild dream of style…. But it had its pleasures too; raptures, ecstasies, as we kept calling them, only half in irony; and I can think of no better poet than Weiss with whom to celebrate our nostalgia….
War-battered, we needed love. Denatured, we needed ways to restore a pre-Freudian mystery to sex. Don't think we did not write in urgency simply because we chose set themes. But notice the language [of the early poetry]. Imitative, of course…. But there is plenty of Weiss in it too, especially the way he uses language, uses it with purpose and for all it is worth, every craftsmanly element, every device, vocabulary, grammar, rhythm, tone, all the nuances of association and echo, with the result that his poem has a quality of tension which rises through its imitativeness and nearly through its substantial meaning. And this quality of language, this tension and tensility, is to my mind what characterizes the best poetry by young poets of that period, whatever our writing may have lacked in perceptual directness and experiential relevance, just as it is the quality I find so evidently and regrettably absent from the poetry of today's young writers, who may have ample other merits and whose unfortunate disdain for the craft of poetic articulation has a certain historical justice. (p. 25)
His book, The World Before Us, naturally places the emphasis … not on origins but on destinations, and is a splendid selection for this purpose, though Weiss's longest poem, Gunsight, which is one of his best, is not included. Other shorter narrative and dramatic poems, like "Wunschzettel" and "Caliban Remembers," show his storytelling skills equally well perhaps, and the rest of the poems, lyrical, reflective, erotic, show a remarkable diversity of themes within a remarkable consistency of texture. The inner part of this consistency comes from the poet's characteristic turn of mind, which is dialectical, the simplest questions being posed in terms of conflict, so that often quotation marks are used to distinguish abstract points of view even where no speaking persons are present. The outer part of the consistency comes, of course, from language. Weiss has evolved in a straight line from his early poems…. He soon sloughed off the imitative elements … and turned from set themes to more personal frames of reference and firmer concepts of expressiveness; yet still with the same winding syntax, precise diction and rhythmic tension. A poem by Weiss is indelibly his own. Indeed I often cannot understand the separate components of his idiosyncratic prosody, such as his hyphenated line endings or absolutely capricious interior line breaks; yet where I question such matters in the work of other poets, here I cannot, because they are so firmly and unalterably fixed in their totally individualized parent structures. They are the essential parts of a poem by Weiss, whose prosodic reasoning, even intuition, may be obscure, but whose end product, the poem in its wholeness, is not.
The shape of Weiss's poetry on the page, its coiling, spiraling movement up and down, corresponds to the way his language winds ever back on itself in the search for more precise discriminations of feeling, moral and aesthetic judgment and descriptive rightness. It is civilized poetry, in both the ordinary meaning of polish and refinement and in the higher meaning of eagerness to discover, reaffirm, and transfigure its own primitivism. It does not appeal to everyone. Impatient readers, who are willing to overlook the moral consequence of the moment when a feeling passes from one state to another, find it finicky or pedantic. But it is nothing of the kind, and I am sure its appeal is not limited to the poet's contemporaries. On the contrary, young people will prize this work, perhaps more than we do, because like all poetry which is both intrinsically sound and somewhat at variance with the immediate cultural and social needs of the day, this poetry is prophetic. It cannot help being prophetic. It bears one required phase of the cycle of human sensibility, from whose turning civilization is generated. If it is on the downturn now, it will come up again. (pp. 25-6)
Thus a fine and modest book may have a role greater than its appearance across a cultural gap. (p. 26)
Hayden Carruth, "The Cycle of Sensibility," in The Nation (copyright 1971 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 4, 1971, pp. 25-6.
The poetry of Theodore Weiss achieves its effect by not reaching for an effect: it offers relief from heightened language, and reassurance by not straining credulity. The sensation is that of entering a world freed from sensationalism. Readers who explore this world often develop a taste for its flavor, its shady tang.
"Fireweeds," listed as the seventh of Weiss's poetry volumes, from a beginning in the early 1950's, gathers his quiet poems from a range of recent literary magazines—his Acknowledgments page is a chart of the scene…. (p. 8)
I say "quiet poems." Theodore Weiss does not depart just a bit from high-impact wording. He consistently departs a lot. He lounges into a poem, often with phrases like "Imagine that time …" or "And so there are…." He is steadfastly relaxed in wording. The reader lives on a taste for casualness and accuracy rather than for intensity.
"The Storeroom" exemplifies this style. It is a long poem—17 pages—and it gathers itself slowly and openly. The reader follows Penelope as she goes over objects and thoughts, waiting for Odysseus's return. Reinforcing the reader's gradual involvement, the parts of the poem—the sentences themselves—unwind, act out the message, while mentioning it: "At first the shapes seem satisfied/to keep the dark. But glimmers of them gather-/ing in huddled companies, next one/by one they press toward her…."
And these things, these elements of the poem, these accumulating touches that become the total experience, unfold by unspectacular constructions. Often, and typically, the sentences link forward by appositives, by gradual refining of the assertions that the poems consist of. It is as if Theodore Weiss picks up some topic and then examines it deftly and relentlessly till he has brought out more aspects than other people would have noticed. Then at the end of the poem he is satisfied just to wait: the journey of discovery is enough; the reader is to abide and know, but not to be nudged by the author. (pp. 8, 10)
Weiss's poems stretch the attention through their multiple appositives and successive adjustments, and through interruptions that delay the expected closure. These suspenseful entries leading into calm new experiences often give a poem a surreal effect, a holding off of the ordinary world. But suspense resolves itself, and by close reading one discovers clear resolutions. The upshot is that the poem satisfies even the matter-of-fact reader, but only after flights over some dreamlike terrain.
But the audience otherwise natural for these poems encounters a complexity. Despite their low-key language and ultimate consistency—their straightforward quality—the poems homogenize into themselves a host of literary allusions. This literary aura complicates the appeal of the plain style: a reader must like accuracy and directness, but also be ready for myths and legends, and even for references to the vocabulary of literary criticism. (p. 10)
William Stafford, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 2, 1977.
The miniaturist … finds its counterpart in Theodore Weiss, or at least in an attitude echoed throughout Fireweeds…. His St. Atomy is its spokesman, in a poem called A Slow Burn:
Although I am a very little
known and even less respected saint,
I have my uses. Unlike those who pant
for the instant bliss, consummate
glory, of an all-consuming blaze, I am
content with less, a steady smolder.
Let the godly say who lasts longer,
who's the one grows soonest cold.
Elsewhere Weiss celebrates the poetry tuned to the minor scale: "not a mad beeline/to the honey but laying out the slow,/pedestrian cobbles block by block,/then footing it uphill." Such insistent modesty risks turning coy or, worse, pharisaical. But more to the point, in Weiss's case the caution is unnecessary—and therefore annoying—since he is a fine, substantial poet. The reader familiar with Weiss's previous work will find nothing unexpected here. The tone is familiar, with its slightly professorial, gently self-deprecating accents of a man who meets "the monster deep/inside with a paper shield, a vision/that's bifocal, and a year's supply/of ballpoint ink." Weiss composes these poems as if they were letters to acquaintances who share his values and culture, but whom he does not know well enough to write with any urgent intimacy. Poems like The Library Revisited, News from Avignon, or A Charm Against the Toothache are warmly humorous and intelligent, but do tend to grow discursive. Even as several poems could have been pruned from this long book, so too any single poem could have been sharpened or braced—say, by Hollander's flair for wit and paradox, or Wilbur's elegant schemes and grids.
In his critical study of Shakespeare, The Breath of Clowns and Kings (1971), Weiss admires that poet's prodigious learning and canny economy. Not surprisingly, these are prominent qualities of Weiss's own nostalgic and domestic poems, which ring changes on a few themes and situations, especially the ways in which marriage completes its couple, and the relationship memory establishes with the past…. And this book's jewel and its touchstone is its longest poem, The Storeroom, a sixteen-part lyric retelling of The Odyssey's last books. The figure of Odysseus, with his frank curiosity and ironic heroism, has always attracted Weiss, but the speaker in this poem is Penelope, at the moment she visits the cool, dark room in which her absent husband's gear is stored. And that storeroom is, of course, memory's own. The poem employs a kind of stylized archaism, not of diction (as Pound might have done it) but of a syntax which diffuses its accounts and suspends its resolutions, resulting in a language half-dream, half-chant, appropriate to the woman's projective invocation of her husband…. But the poem is no conventional romance; or else it is precisely that. In its generic perspective, the poem poses time as a story in which we read our parts, accomplish our plots. The final section is an eloquent summary of that confidence:
But still she takes her time as he knows how
to do, for time is what they have together,
have apart, proved most accomplished in.
Both understand like stars tales of such deeds—
the lightning and its thunder, laggarding—
require time, time to be heard, be felt.
Had they not learned it at the first
from one another, earth's own seasoned dance,
the measured pace of things completing
from their good time together,
the great tide washing over them, yet lovely-
slow, as honey, pouring from a vase?
J. D. McClatchy, in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1977.