Babette Deutsch Robert B. Shaw - Essay

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 twitches and sputters its way over the page, ending "Surprise!/Surprise!" Miss Duetsch is extremely good at this sort of complementary mimicry—an ability linked to her well-known talent as a translator. A generous section of translations, by the way, provides this book with a fitting coda.

I like Miss Deutsch best when she is writing as a wry, informed cultural observer…. But in the absence of art or animals her eye often seems at a loss. I am depressed at the large number of landscape-and-seasonal poems that seem as stiff, glossy and two-dimensional as most New England post cards. I begin to wince at titles like Summer Solstice or An Autumn Poem. Here is where Miss Deutsch's vision fails her, where she substitutes a dutiful, deadly competence for the alive speech we know she can command. Such poems are excess baggage in an otherwise vivid and graceful collection.

But I don't wish to conclude on a negative note. Ballade for Braque is ample compensation for any number of commonplace landscapes. And there is a further characteristic of Miss Deutsch's work that balances nicely with her esthetic acuity. That is her sensitivity to human, as well as to artistic problems, witnessed to in such poems as Three Nuns Listening to Chopin, The Disenchanted, and Stranger Than the Worst. She evidences a moral equilibrium that allows her to face man's inhumanities while refusing the fashionable solace of despair…. (pp. 277-78)

Robert B. Shaw, "Two Old Pros: 'The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch'," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXV, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 277-80.∗