Any Body's Song

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In his three previous books of well received and widely anthologized poems, Joseph Langland explored themes of sacrifice and death, penitence and renewal, rooted in his boyhood experiences close to nature on a farm in the Upper Midwest. In his newest book, Langland has added the cosmopolitan influences of his adult life to the rural observations of his youth, presenting a classic odyssey from childhood experiences to maturing understanding and acceptance of the implications behind those experiences. Langland’s respect for the natural world, including man, is warmly sincere and without sentimentality; his images of nature exhibit grief without cynicism, dismay without despair. Langland celebrates life.

His previous book, The Wheel of Summer, won the Melville Cane Award; it and The Green Town were nominated for a National Book Award. Langland has also published The Sacrifice Poems. Any Body’s Song is one of five selections for the National Poetry Series.

The fifty-eight poems comprising Any Body’s Song, basically traditional in craftsmanship, readily yield to formalist interpretation and contain no deliberate obscurities, but this does not denote lack of sophistication or a failure by Langland to have achieved what he labels the “contemporary voice.” Despite a dissenting critic’s accusation of “an archaic ring” because of “deliberately poetic rhythms and rhymes” and “clichéd” nature imagery, Langland is widely considered to have transmuted successfully the essence of natural form into creatively organized stanza, form, and meter. Langland writes, “I hear the cry, ’Be natural!’ . . . Without [form] all reproductive things die out. The absence of form is un-natural. . . . Art depends upon life.”

Langland’s “contemporary voice” blends formal and colloquial language “to yoke the ordinary speech and idiom of my youth to rhetoric and elegance.” The result is direct appeal gained from clarity of communication, a quality shared with such poets as Robert Francis, also of Amherst, and the venerated Robert Frost. The “contemporary voice” is intended to be heard, quite literally. “Everyone should hear a few poems said in the absolute darkness. That forces one really to hear the language,” writes Langland, for whom song is a recurring metaphor for poetry. Joseph Garrison has praised Langland’s “closures that close thoroughly . . . accomplished and articulate prosody. . . . We learn to listen to voices, flutes, pianos, larks, ourselves.” For Langland, even the cessation of a line is sound; he observes, “And the line? It is like a bell. It needs to be rung, but it need not be rung regularly; an occasional sounding will often do, and do well.”

A critic once observed that well-developed figurative sense enables Langland to achieve the “contemporary voice” while using traditional themes and style. In pursuit of this figurative sense, Langland seeks what he terms “the crucial memorable phrase,” successfully rendering phrases memorable even out of context: “the gnomes of old desires;” “the stony frieze of the ages;” “the strange authority of darkness.” Langland’s motivation is rooted in conviction that ephemera, long-remembered, coalesce over a lifespan to reveal “the ordinary truth.” He has described himself as a “haruspicator,” searching the entrails of life for clues to the future, and finding there, in the sacrifices of his childhood barnyard, the confirmation of life’s persistent re-creation despite the cessation of a particular form.

These “initiating experiences” convinced Langland that in acceptance of the cyclic process lay the possibility for understanding how the heart, mind, and body of man could be attuned to the infinite. Recollected in the tranquillity of a growing emotional maturity, the ephemera of Langland’s memories, like Robert Frost’s goal for a poem, “begin in beauty and end in wisdom”—or at least, with Langland, in an “Intimation of the Ordinary Truth.” The critic who decried Langland’s clichéd use of nature’s beauty must then also confront John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Langland feels an obligation that each poem convey an emotional truth to the responsive reader; “Not to any reader; a responsive one. . . . The truth of the poems is tried, in large part, by their success with a good reader,” he writes in...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)