Views & Spectacles
The subtitle of this eighth book of poetry by Theodore Weiss is slightly misleading, since the collection has few new poems, being predominantly a reprinting of poems which appeared in five of his earlier collections: Outlanders (1960), The Medium (1965), The Last Day and the First (1968), The World Before Us: Poems, 1950-1970 (1970), and Fireweeds (1976). Of the poems in the present volume, only six are new, and they only take up the last twelve pages of the book. The collection consists mainly of shorter poems (the seventy-five-page book contains forty poems, and the longest poem in the book, “The Aerialist,” is only ten stanzas in length); Weiss is a master of the short poem. The selection from the earlier volumes has been judicious; as might be expected, the older poems, having been pruned from a larger crop, are more successful as a group than the newer ones.
Besides being a poet, Weiss is also a professor of English and creative writing, and as such has shown a scholar’s concern over the low status of poetry in our time. He has especially taken issue with the strictures of the highly personal and confessional trend which we have inherited from the Romantic poets, stating that poetry “can and must renew its older, larger interests in people and a world past the poet’s self-preoccupation.” In the past he has turned to incorporating elements of Homeric epic in his narrative poetry in his attempt to regain poetry’s lost freedom. Little of this is evident in the present collection, and Weiss freely draws upon personal experiences of himself, his wife Renee, and his cat Hoppy; in fact, he speaks of them and of his personal friends and acquaintances as one would in a personal letter to a friend, assuming the reader is familiar with them and needs no introduction. A favorite device is to take a seemingly casual and personal experience and gently probe it until he uncovers a relevant commentary on the human situation.
As is usual with most poets, many of Weiss’s poems deal with the poet’s task of writing, as is exemplified in his Preface. The Preface is actually a poem explaining something of Weiss’s ideas in working on his poetry. He begins in a fashion common for him: an epigraph relates that Sonja Henie, the Olympic skating champion who later went on to star in Hollywood, has just married. The poem itself then begins by recounting an experience with a young poet who sought Weiss’s advice on one of his poems about his personal attitude toward weeds. Epigraph and poem come together when the poet states that Sonja Henie tries once more after many attempts, and in the “wheatfield/of failures” the weeds (poems) will ultimately come through:
’The poem’s not right. I know,though I worked at it again and again,I didn’t get those old weeds through,I’m not satisfied, but I’m not donewith it yet.’
The title poem of the book also gives an insight into Weiss’s views on poetry. “Views & Spectacles” puns on the word spectacles as something seen as well as eyeglasses. The glasses are those “isms” which obscure reality through the misuse of language. He asks for Greek glasses so he can see the grandeurs of the past before they had been worked over by the analyses and interpretations of subsequent ages. These “isms” tell us what is in and what is out at given times. The poet finally pleads, “I don’t want/my nose everlastingly squashed/up against the candy windows/of the world”; he prefers instead “at once to see/and, seeing, be.” This desired straightforward quality of seeing through to the simplicity of things could be a commentary on Weiss’s own poetic technique. There is a low-keyed casualness to most of his poems, an almost conversational style. Many of the poems are like familiar essays on the news of the day, as if the poet were struck by an item in the newspaper or by a simple experience of the day. Only a few of his poems have any type of obscurity that requires close or careful analysis.
Another poem alluding to the artist’s job is “The Fire at Alexandria.” In this work, the poet laments not only the lost works of such great authors as Sophocles and Homer, but he especially commiserates with “those/magnificent authors, kept in scholarly rows,/whose names we have no passing record of.” Perhaps something of the sentiments of the overlooked modern poet seeps through in this poem. Weiss’s “cheerfulness” about the burning of the library at Alexandria was criticized, and he used...
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