Archer in the Marrow

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A revolution--or at least an insurrection--is under way in contemporary American poetry, and one of its principal documents is Peter Viereck’s ARCHER IN THE MARROW. Viereck, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and historian, has been at work on this book for twenty years. It comes equipped with a manifesto in the guise of an appendix: “Form in Poetry: Would Jacob Wrestle with a Flabby Angel?” Viereck argues that poetry requires meter and rhyme--"not merely form but strict form"--to ground its “word messages” in biological reality. Only formal verse, he suggests, is genuinely “free and natural,” incarnating the rhythms of breath and heartbeat and pulse.

Viereck puts these principles into practice in ARCHER IN THE MARROW. This ambitious poem is a kind of verse drama -- not a stageable play but a drama of consciousness. In an introductory section, Viereck spells out the issues at stake: “whether to make a Cross or a liberating arrow from the wood of the knowledge tree, and whether to see man as a thing, determined totally by things, or as self-surpassing.” These choices are debated by three speakers: “you” (representative of modern mankind, male and female), the father God, a brutal and cynical figure reminiscent of William Blake’s Nobodaddy, and his son, here seen as an excessively spiritual and thus incomplete man whose “lost half” is Dionysus; father and son are explicitly identified as “projections” of the human mind. Balanced against these male specters is woman in her archetypal roles.

Viereck’s answer to PARADISE LOST owes much to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose vision of self-surpassing man is wedded here to a late-twentieth century evolutionary view of the distant origins of human life. Rejecting all claims for the supernatural, the transcendent (inevitably, he says, they lead to terror in the name of some higher good), Viereck nevertheless wants to reject reductive materialism as well. His measured affirmation of the “archer in the marrow” must finally be taken on faith--in what?