Babette Deutsch Essay - Critical Essays

Deutsch, Babette


Deutsch, Babette 1895–

Deutsch is an American poet, critic, novelist, and children's book author. She has also translated Russian, German, and French verse, sometimes working with Avrahm Yarmolensky, her husband. Although some critics find Deutsch's intellectual poetry lacking in emotion, her work is generally well received. She is also a respected critic, well known for her study of modern poetry, Poetry in Our Time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

There are so many of the younger poets whose chief delight it is to tramp in the mud of realism and then leave a gritty trail across the emotions that it is with something approaching a sense of relief that one turns to the author of Banners. Miss Deutsch's muse is close enough to earth for a touch of common humanity, but she does not mire her sandals in all the puddles. As a consequence there is a fresh vigor in her imagery, and a quickness of vision which carries her past some of the pitfalls of expression. What one finds lacking however in many of [the poems in Banners] is an appreciation of the positive values of repression. Miss Deutsch embroiders too heavily upon her pattern, thrusting in new figures, until the fabric is hidden in the profusion. By succumbing to this occasional temptation to overelaborate she lessens the dramatic effects which are the fruits of determined pruning. Her poems reveal a subtle sense of the contrasts which lie in crowds, and the contradictions between the revers of modern life and the verities of nature. Pessimism is in the roots of many of them, but pessimism without bitterness. Their philosophy is significantly mirrored by the recurrence of the adjective "alien" to designate those who have died.

"Notes on New Books: 'Banners'," in The Dial (copyright, 1919, by The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission of J. S. Watson, Jr. and Scofield Thayer), Vol. 67, August 9, 1919, p. 120.

Marcia Nardi

Honey Out of the Rock is far too self-conscious in expression to contain much of the rich warm emotional essence its title would suggest. The predominating feature of the book is its coldness. And not in the sense that many people mis-apply the term to so-called intellectual verse. Of skilfully painted snow or steel, may be born a fiery aesthetic ardor.

Miss Deutsch's poetry, however, is neither difficult nor obscure, and her words are connotatively sensuous and emotional. But they are merely words….

The whole volume, in brief, contains in its pages little that seems uniquely and genuinely Miss Deutsch; and that little is represented by an occasional line here and there instead of by any two or three entire poems, so that what one gathers of her personality is like the fitful fragrance a chance wind brings, rather than that we breathe in from a flower we may actually clutch and pluck. One is forced, therefore, to stress the imitative quality of her work, to lament the stubborn tugging at one's memory always for certain lines by someone else….

Marcia Nardi, "Honey Out of the Rock," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1925 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 45, No. 578, December 30, 1925, p. 170.

Louis Kronenberger

"In Such a Night" is worked out so carefully, so skilfully, that it seems a pity the book should reach no higher level than it does. Here is an inviting theme, a clever method, a firmly-directed prose….

But Miss Deutsch has unfortunately failed to do the two things most important to her story: she hasn't made the housewarming really alive, and she hasn't made it significant…. People live for minutes, the house lives for minutes, then they settle back into an appearance of reality which is a matter of the surface only.

And what significance have these people? They survey one another, they survey themselves, but without freshness, without penetration, without uniqueness; you are willing to admit that what they do is plausible and understandable, but not that it is stimulating to the mind, or responsive to the emotions, or compensating to your sense of humor. If they were pointed out to you, you might recognize them; but you could never recognize them by yourself. They do not hold your interest….

All these criticisms are made with better books in mind, books that count; for in view of its intelligence, its artistic integrity, its frequent skill, Miss Deutsch's novel at least deserves to be judged by high standards. It certainly stands outside the class of popular, meretricious novels whose realism is a foreplanned compromise and whose reach is well within their author's grasp. This book attempts something which the discriminating reader would find worth his attention. It comes close, perhaps, to succeeding, but in the sense of "a little more, and yet what worlds away!" It is the intention which one applauds in Miss Deutsch's book, not the result.

Louis Kronenberger, "People and a House," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1927 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 3, No. 49, July 2, 1927, p. 947.

Miss Deutsch has [in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral] collected poems that are "occasional" in the best sense, combining in equal parts observation, insight, and an affectionate tolerance, and her subjects range from artists and men of letters to landscapes and animals in the zoo. She has skillfully varied her form to meet the varied demands of her material. A mature and balanced performance.

"Briefly Noted: 'Animal, Vegetable, Mineral'," in The New Yorker (© 1954 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXX, No. 17, June 12, 1954, p. 120.

Hayden Carruth

Anyone who wants to study the difficulties of writing descriptive poetry should not neglect the work of Babette Deutsch, which deserves a more systematic discussion than I can give it here. Briefly and in the first place, metaphor is all; there is nothing else to carry the poem along…. In the second place, since this is so, the metaphor must be contrived with the utmost care and must never be allowed to outlive itself; it must expire at the precise moment when it fulfills its capacities. (p. 116)

Suppose you succeed perfectly and luck gives you just the right metaphorical progression over your landscape, what good is it? It says little, may be even doltish. And so why bother? (p. 117)

Miss Deutsch has ventured courageously on a kind of writing that is difficult and very rarely accomplished well…. It isn't surprising that [Coming of Age: New and Selected Poems] contains some failures, but it contains some successes too, notable specimens that will bring pleasure to any reader of poetry. (p. 118)

Hayden Carruth, "Three Poets," in Poetry (© 1959 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. 95, No. 2, November, 1959, pp. 116-21.∗

George Garrett

The voice that sings through the poetry of Babette Deutsch is that of someone the reader would like to know and should. Her "Collected Poems 1919–1962" moves into a different, more interesting dimension, exhibits a wholeness almost unequaled in contemporary poetry. This book is the harvest of half a century of continuous creativity, and it is one which dazzles the reader with its virtuosity and at the same time defies him to remark any lessening of the essential vigor and energy of the artist. This is the voice not just of a poet, but of an artist…. And her voice is never just the voice of the intellectual, though as a matter of fact she moves with grace and agility among unruly ideas. And it is never just the voice of a sensitive critic, the critic whose "Poetry in Our Time" is the critique of modern verse and poetry. Nor is it only the voice of a superb technician whose "A Poetry Handbook" has been hailed by poets everywhere. It is the voice of a complete human being. Sophisticated in the laudatory sense, free and easy among many languages, cultures, and disciplines, she has yet been blessed with a child's unceasing capacity for wonder, an untarnished innocence, a quick sense of deep feeling. It is because of all these things that she is one of the very few modern poets, living or dead, who is able to move a reader to the edge of tears…. In many of these poems she takes a tough, unsentimental look at the evils of a bad world, but back to back with these poems are others which celebrate the goodness of creation. Celebration, joy, wonder, and a profound sense of compassion are characteristic; so much so that the reader must be cautioned lest he conclude that these virtues are in any way typical. They are not. (pp. 327-28)

Babette Deutsch's poems are exemplary in the classical sense, representing what any artist aspires to most—from the long struggle with the craft so hard to learn a sense of grace, from the inner and outer sufferings of a bad century the strength and pride to suffer and rejoice. (p. 329)

George Garrett, "The Naked Voice," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1964, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 40, No. 2 (Spring, 1964), pp. 326-29.

George Scarbrough

Babette Deutsch has always impressed me as being a fine painter in words, capable of arresting an image in the mind's eye. Not that she is devoid of ideas. On the contrary. But that, with minor exceptions (as in "Three Views of Mount Rainier," which is a bit nonsensical and childish with its image of the snowy mountain as a giant ice cream for God), she is able to confront the mind with a dimensional, chromatic picture that is an idea in itself, or better still, that evokes a series of ideas in pretty much the same way that a Japanese landscape unfolds its possibilities….

Her Collected Poems, 1919–1962, covers, from the standpoint of years, the better part of a lifetime, and extends...

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Oliver Evans

While [Miss Deutsch's] work naturally reflects the changing traditions with which she has been familiar, her best poems have never been merely modish: like Miss Moore, she has succeeded in avoiding the excesses of poetic fashion—the jewelled irrelevancies: Imagism, the elaborate riddles of the Neo-Metaphysicals, the shrill didacticism of the late thirties and early forties. Nor is she often guilty of the besetting sin of women poets: the tendency toward sentimentality and the too narrowly personal.

If anything, her work is not sufficiently personal; many of her poems have an oddly anonymous quality, as if, instead of having been written by a man or a woman, they had composed themselves out...

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Nancy K. Mackenzie

"Poetry in Our Time" is more chronology than criticism—sometimes one paragraph per poet, sometimes pages. Miss Deutsch writes of the influence of the Imagists and the effect of war and science on poetry. The best critics' books are those in which the finest lines in them belong to the poets, and to say that this is true of hers is a compliment to Miss Deutsch.

Nancy K. Mackenzie, "End Papers: 'Poetry in Our Time'," in The New York Times (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 9, 1966, p. 25.∗

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Robert B. Shaw

To call a poet "professional" nowadays usually means that he is being mildly dull, writing the same poem many times over in a mildly competent way. But the term can also be applied approvingly to a poet whose technical skills do ready service to a questing imagination. Babette Deutsch's Collected Poems, the work of four decades, shows her to be without a doubt professional—most often, I'm happy to say, in the happier sense of the word. (p. 277)

In her best poems Miss Deutsch takes the stance of an inspired appreciator. She takes us on a museum tour and brings art to life…. These poems are carefully evocative of the style of whatever old master happens to be the subject. The poem to Cage...

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