William Meredith’s interest in exploring ways to order human existence in the face of chaos was always his principal thematic concern, although the complexity of this thematic focus deepened over time. This subtle shift in Meredith’s thematic vision, according to Guy Rotella, had to do with “the degree of confidence he feels in any of the methods and results,” along with his understanding of “the threats to its successful completion and to the maintenance of its gains.” Meredith’s disciplined and at times austere approach to this dilemma can be deceptively straightforward. He was a sophisticated poet who with his precise and elegant voice found, frequently within small and otherwise unnoticed domestic and natural events, the sublime. His moral quest for personal, public, and artistic order, even while acknowledging humankind’s tendency toward disorder, was a steadfast source of amazement and poetic inspiration.
Love Letter from an Impossible Land
Published in 1944 as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Love Letter from an Impossible Land is one of Meredith’s apprentice works, a collection of poems (a few written while Meredith was still an undergraduate) that is highly imitative. This work displays a willing commitment to traditional form, meter, and rhyme. Meredith’s academic style mirrors the work of many poets, including Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, and W. H. Auden, as well as the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. Although these poems are products of war, they do not impugn its moral validity. Meredith views the many negative results of war—chaos, despair, and death—with a discriminating eye as he attempts to ascertain meaning and purpose in a world that appears to be self-destructing. Several poems here are predictable studies in form, the ultimate purpose appearing to be maintaining the form in question rather than permitting any organic expansion of theme. Others show a willingness to debate spiritual issues, a directness of thought (Meredith’s restraint and impersonal tone hinder this), and a use of colloquial diction.
Although many poems in this volume, especially those that adhere to a prescribed form, are not as successful as those that transcend traditional boundaries, this is not to say that all the poems that fall into the imitative category fail. Employing the form of a sonnet and an impersonal voice, “In Memoriam of Stratton Christensen” subtly inquires about the meaning of Stratton Christensen’s death. The speaker states, “Your death is a puzzler that will tease them on,” refusing to admit that the young airman’s loss of life can be totally understood.
By far the most successful poems in this collection are those that stray from academic formalism, employing a more immediate voice and striking imagery. “Love Letter from an Impossible Land,” “June: Dutch Harbor,” and “Notes for an Elegy” are poems that could have been written by an experienced hand. In these poems, Meredith allows a more mature voice to emerge. In “Notes for an Elegy,” the comforting tones usually supplied by an elegy vanish as the speaker attempts to comprehend another airman’s death, a death not met during battle. The speaker claims that death is “a fair price” for the power of flight, which he equates with freedom. After discussing the aviator’s death and the hope that God will “lift [him] gently,” the speaker concludes, “The morning came up foolish with pink clouds/ To say that God counts ours a cunning time,/ Our losses part of an old secret, somehow not loss.” Ambiguity persists (for example, in the words “cunning” and “secret”), as death retains an inscrutable aura. The airman’s death may not be as significant or easily explained as the speaker desires, yet he searches for signs that will counteract what appears to be a random and tragic event.
Ships and Other Figures
Written while Meredith was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Princeton University, his second volume, Ships and Other Figures, is another uneven collection of mostly benign, imitative poetry. The urgency displayed by several war poems in Love Letter from an Impossible Land has disappeared. The immediacy of death, which Meredith vividly confronts in his first collection, is muted in this book. Henry Taylor suggests that “one feels the absence of peril in these poems, the safety of academe.” Meredith’s fascination with fixed forms, order, and how order can reflect and contain what is created dominates these poems, hindering their immediacy and thematic development. Frequently the speaker’s voice is lost in the poet’s unflagging determination to perform within the confines of a particular form or in a cultivated flatness of voice that at times is bereft of passion or sincerity.
“Carrier,” one of Meredith’s war poems, succeeds in capturing some of the introspective urgency found in his earlier war poems. The carrier is personified as “huge and peacock vain,” a mother who watches “her sprung creatures” as they fly away and “disappear.” The airmen who fly from her deck must view her, on return from a mission, as a safe haven where they can recoup their energies for other missions. Nevertheless, the danger of battle is distant in the poem. The speaker states that there is “far-off dying” with which the personified ship and the crew must contend, but the poem ends without bringing the deadly uncertainty of battle to the reader.
One of the more engrossing poems in this collection (which is revised and retitled in Partial Accounts) is “Homeric Simile.” The pitch of an air battle is likened to the developmental section of a composition for string quartet. The poem begins with a bomber on a night mission. The threat of “the hostile terrain” below the aircraft is real; the people manning the bomber sense the possibility of death as the navigator leads them to the target. What seems to be a logically staged event becomes chaotic, and the artificial order shatters. Fire and smoke appear below; tracers and searchlights rise to meet the aircraft; friends in other airplanes are killed. Yet the momentary confusion of battle gives way to a musical performance in which “the calm intelligent strings do their duty.” The battle is compared to a group of instruments working toward a clear, unified end. The dissonance the instruments have encountered during developmental sections of the composition ultimately concludes in triadic harmony “after uncertain passage.” Order eventually returns to the airmen’s and the musicians’ worlds. Meredith’s urge to find order and meaning, even in the face of chaos and death, supersedes, and in some way legitimizes, the horrors of a war.
The Open Sea, and Other Poems
Ten years passed before Meredith’s third volume of poetry was published. In many respects The Open Sea, and Other Poems can be viewed as his first mature collection. Meredith’s penchant for order survives, yet he adds another dimension by questioning the conditions of order and meaning. The poems here are intellectually superior to and more sophisticated than his previous work. The volume contains poems that still adhere to fixed forms and display technical and artistic skill; however, Meredith also displays a willingness to experiment with these forms. Richard Howard writes, “This third book insists on the autonomy of art, and with it of form.” “The Open Sea” (a sestina), “Sonnet on Rare Animals,” and “The Illiterate” (a Petrarchan sonnet) display Meredith’s graceful concern with form but do not overshadow or stifle his artistic desire to express thoughts about possession and loss. “The Chinese Banyan,” set in iambic trimeter, evinces a newfound willingness to go beyond mere acceptance of a prescribed order. His tone is at times playful and deceptively commonplace, as in “Bachelor” and “Thoughts on One’s Head (IN PLASTER, WITH A BRONZE WASH).” When he demonstrates the most control over his lines, as in “Rus in Urbe,” the preciseness of the language impinges on the subject matter of the poem. The carefully pruned garden can produce fruit, which implies that well-measured lines might offer meaning rather than contrived artifice. Occasionally Meredith falters, as in “In Memory of Donald A. Stauffer,” and his poems begin to sound like work found in his second volume. Even a poem such as “To a Western Bard Still a Whoop and a Holler Away from English Poetry,” which is a sincere yet misguided attempt in quatrains to express Meredith’s dissatisfaction with the experimentation of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, falls flat.
The beautiful sestina “Notre Dame de Chartres” is an excellent example of how a more mature Meredith limns humankind’s attempt to order chaos through art and find a hint of salvation and meaning within that order. Meredith’s tone is relaxed as he explores the urge to order. When the faithful find the “Sancta Camisa” (holy shirt) after fire has destroyed the first church and town, they raise a far greater church, “the vast basilica,” which will house the shirt in royal fashion. Yet it is “faith that burned/ Bright and erroneous” that creates the architectural marvel. The inclusion of the word “erroneous” suggests that the manifestation of order, in this case the cathedral, arises from a loving faith that somehow is tainted and perhaps even false. Yet the final stanza suggests that despite the speaker’s obvious reservations, he finds some validity in the order created by “the blessed shirt,” which “spoke to the stone that slept in the groin of France.”
The Wreck of the Thresher, and Other Poems
The publication of The Wreck of the Thresher, and Other Poems in 1964 marked Meredith’s entry into the ranks of important contemporary poets. Gone is the occasionally overbearing concern with fixed form and the infringement of institutional authority. The poems found here are more personal (although never confessional) and less academic, using a voice that is sometimes reminiscent of the better poems in Love Letter from an Impossible Land. Meredith’s friendships with both Robert Frost and John Berryman, which developed between the publication of The Open Sea, and Other Poems and this volume, are evident in his use of colloquial language, his narrative technique, and his wry humor. Frost’s influence is perhaps best illustrated in “Roots,” in which Mrs. Lemmington reflects on her past, her mortality, and her ultimate return to the earth. Her fascination with roots as inversions of branches and leaves is a metaphorical and biological fusion of the historical past and future with the present. As with Frost, the tree (as well as the sea in Meredith’s case) becomes a contemplative symbol.
Again, Meredith is concerned...
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