Barry Spacks Alan Williamson - Essay

Alan Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barry Spacks is a conservative poet who is also vivacious, likeable, and skilled. He inclines to strict meters and ostentatious rhyme-schemes, which he handles with a deftness reminiscent of Wilbur, or, at bitterer moments, of Snodgrass…. Most of Spacks's best poems are essentially epigrams; he also has the rarer gift of writing good nonsense on serious subjects (The World as a Vision of the Unity in Flesh, Homage to Henry James). His character portraits—the "shoe clerk's bride", a whole taxonomy of students and professors—are two dimensional, but often so precisely observed as to induce delighted recognition. His painterly eye for landscape is also exact. On the other hand, when he tries to express emotion, or, worse, existential pondering, directly, he often becomes vague and maudlin: "if he'd take one step he'd come into / her love, that waits for him, a summer field."

Spacks's practice thus bears out the anti-Romantic credo expressed in his title poem: the poet does best to diminish his view of himself, and concentrate on pure technique, in order to pass from unorganized inspiration ("the company of children") to some higher analogue. The program is reminiscent of an earlier poetic generation overshadowed by New Critical formalism; and I often feel that Spacks's good poems could as easily have been written fifteen years ago as now. This is a little depressing, since the poet's own time is overflowing with innovations and schools, while the mode he hearkens back to seemed so cagy and restricting that most of its best practitioners have since abandoned it, or else lapsed into relative silence. But The Company of Children is itself a most undepressing book, and perhaps should not be weighed in such ponderous cultural-historical terms. (pp. 282-83)

Alan Williamson, "Beginners and Renewers," in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXV, No. 4, January, 1970, pp. 281-85.∗