Baron Wormser’s poetry offers a deeply sympathetic look at what it means to be human. His distinctive voice, intelligent observations of the particulars of existence, and sense of humor blend with superior technical skill to reveal the strange complexities that underlie people’s actions. Addressing a broad range of topics in his poetry, Wormser brings a heightened awareness of life’s predicaments by tackling its large truths, revealing what humans share as they live.
Wormser’s poetry seems to represent a departure for American poetry. His intellectualism clearly reveals a multifaceted vision of the world; however, for him, intellect is not distant and cool, rather it is a passion, a mode of apprehending reality. His technical skill formalizes these glimpses of humanity. Wormser is an American poet with a sensibility that elevates his subject matter into a larger context. His imagination blends an eye for the obvious with intellectual perceptions about culture and civilization to create extraordinary insights into why people are the way they are. In this sense, Wormser’s sensibility is quite distinguishable from that of his contemporaries and more akin to that of poets of Central and Eastern Europe such as Zagajewski, Miosz, or Jaan Kaplinski.
Considered as a whole, Wormser’s work epitomizes the idea of poetry as aspiring toward the status of a spiritual gift. It is a poetry of exuberance, alive with the wonder of being, and filled with a deep knowledge of the world. Beauty manifests itself in the daily drama enacted by the individual, replete with obvious experience and natural emotion. This celebration of the commonality of life’s rich pageant reveals the essentially religious nature of Wormser’s poetry. It is poetry that teaches the reader about human existence by articulating its source—the soul.
The White Words
In The White Words, the tension and irony created as the sublime rubs constantly against the everyday demonstrate the supreme beauty of life. It is people that act out this drama. “Passing Significance,” taking place in the sitting room of an inn, brings travelers together, each involved in his own interior world. Some read, some write, the innkeeper’s wife worries about who is going to pay, a baby cries, a woman quietly sings, and a clerk rustles a newspaper. Even a dog sighs. The chief assessor, however, barges into the room, stamping snow off his boots, and decides immediately that there is “no one of importance here.” Such is not the case. The poem informs the reader that each of these people in the sitting room is significant, and that a special state of mind must inhere within an individual for him or her to understand this simple yet complex fact of life. Fittingly, the poem ends with an epigrammatic lesson: “To study other people/ You must be free and easy and remember nothing.”
Wormser’s poetry is a poetry of nuance; it sees through the obviousness of how people live. This quality is well exemplified in “Of Small Towns.” Here the poet describes the mundane lives of the citizens of a small town, elevating them by revealing the nature of their humanity. In doing so, he dignifies not only the purpose of their lives but also the purpose of their town, showing how it ennobles the lives of its people. Ultimately, the town is its people, and vice versa.
What is distinctive about Wormser’s poetry is this ability to exalt human experience, employing both the intellect and the imagination. While the heart and soul of New England gently seep into almost every one of Wormser’s poems, his insights transcend place. For example, in “Cord of Birch,” a typically New England problem becomes a quest. After cutting some birch, the narrator decides to ask around the neighborhood about how well birch burns. After seeking out and listening to various contradictory opinions, he wanders home, pouting and disgruntled about his pile of wood. Eventually, it is winter that frees him of his worries. He burns the birch because he has no choice: Need lends him wisdom. Wormser accomplishes this progression from the exterior to the interior, from summer to winter, through the use of tightly controlled rhyming couplets.
In “Letter from New England,” an odd moment during a midwinter funeral and a comment by the narrator’s daughter inspire a realization of what an image can conjure, of what it means for an individual even to be aware of an image. “Beech Trees,” a meditation on human nature, not only addresses the fact that stingy beech leaves refuse to fall even in the dead of winter but also uses the image of their dangling on a sapling in January to initiate a rumination about the lingering as well as the ending of things—a rumination that concludes with the revelatory notion that people and leaves are not all that different.
Wormser’s poetry is more than regional. Throughout The White Words, his wide-ranging intellect is brought to bear on political, social, philosophical, historical, and literary themes. Such themes emerge from specific contexts. In “Some Recollections Concerning the Exiled Revolutionary, Leon Trotsky,” the poet sees Trotsky and even imagines his voice. Through the man’s thinking, he elaborates on the essence of politics, providing a glimpse of what it means to be exiled and to be a revolutionary.
A poem such as “Report on the Victorians” displays Wormser’s extensive knowledge of history and social mores. In a sharp narrative flow, anchored by a well-choreographed rhyme scheme, Wormser investigates the sensibility of Victorianism. For him, what is essential is how Victorians saw, felt, and responded to their times. Their manners, their prejudices, and their hopes and dreams interest him. In their customs and intellectual sensibilities, Wormser perceives an inherent archetype within humanity that is composed of a duality, in this case fiendishness and hope, each element of which is found within the other. This archetype is an indelible part of human nature that connects all eras.
Wormser also tackles the philosophical. His formal and intellectual approach to a subject, which is very European, separates him from most of his contemporaries. The finely woven sonnet titled “Hegel and Co.” is an example of Wormser’s gift for shaping substantive material and filtering it through his imaginative lens so that the reader freshly perceives Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s awareness of his intellectual climate. Wormser seeks to re-create within the reader’s mind the internal workings of the philosopher. Similarly, “Henry James,” which ues a formal stanza, ponders the novelist’s milieu.
Wormser is very much a poet of the human environment. Setting and circumstance provide him with particular images that in turn allow him to probe the emotional domain. “Piano Lessons” is the quintessential example of how Wormser uses quotidian human activity to elicit a profound sympathy for and a deep understanding of the human predicament. Here the pathos of a young boy who cannot play the piano and of his teacher who cannot escape her lonely situation manifests itself in the last couplet, when, as the boy recalls, teacher and student “walked into the room where the piano stood/ For all that we wanted to do yet never would.”
With his second volume, Good Trembling, Wormser extends this sympathy for being human by fusing it with a larger cultural relevance. His brief statement “Words to the Reader” implicitly conveys a deepening concern for human conduct. His poems become paradigms of sharing, and they reveal the meaning in people’s lives by allowing them to sympathize with one another. Poetry functions to lead its readers to understanding about being human.
The narrow settings of place and time within each poem of this volume widen into the larger realm of history and culture. Wormser uses the concrete in order to contemplate these broad forces that continually sweep over individuals’ lives. This type of sensibility, the ability to see the universal in the particular, reveals Wormser’s brilliant capacity to capture the essence of human existence. Again, such a sensibility seems more European than American. Thus, “Shards,” for example, moves beyond a description of the remnants of an old homestead to become a reflection on what drives people to act the way they do.
Wormser envisions the sweep of history as a landscape shaped by the conduct of individuals. “By-Products,” taking place in a stale, eerily lit Legion Hall, exposes the outcome of United States foreign policy through a legless Vietnam veteran’s words and behavior. When the veteran Stan vocalizes his feelings, the force of history becomes a personal drama, not an abstraction.
In such poems as “Tutorial on the Metaphysics of Foreign...
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