Brewster Ghiselin

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Dave Smith

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

Nothing is more pronounced or obvious in the poetry of Brewster Ghiselin than the formal poet. His character is that of a maker, one who can cease to write only after the stilled hush which falls over words placed in what seems their natural and final combinations. No one can read the fifty years of his poetry collected in Windrose and fail to see that he has been committed to high art and opposed to all the trivial occupations which so often pass as art. On the whole, Ghiselin is not in his book as himself, though his personality and his character inform the book; he is not a self-ridden contemporary. One feels that he approves of himself from the beginning and that his task is to discover, or create, his particular relationship with the world. Because he has been equal to that task his relationship is also profoundly ours. Because he is a formal poet he has patiently deployed words toward unalterables, as a sailor learns and trusts the maps of his voyages, and his world has been the very consciousness of man. That is why, I think, the figure of the traveler in space and time dominates Windrose. Indeed the book begins with a biblical and Homeric wanderer in "The Vision of Adam."…

This figure, as Ghiselin well knows, is most specifically the poet, the one charged with naming and experiencing first all that is. (p. 163)

Ghiselin has formed an archetypal guide-man and a controlling image for the long story of his half-century of poetry and it is the Adamic poet whose hovering shadow paradoxically sheds the light of symbolic form over everything inland of these pages. But we shall miss a greater point if we do not see that Adam is a man in the world like us, one asking the questions we ask more crudely, one who can define himself only as I am that I am in all this other. He is and he means. Surely this is what poetry is before whatever parts critical autopsy brings forth, what poetry must be.

Brewster Ghiselin is a virtuoso at ordering words. His style, and style is not precisely form, tends toward strongly stressed lines of variable length with a lavish texture of Anglo-Saxon characteristics of alliteration, assonance, rhymes internal and external, orchestration of sonics, and a nearly furious compulsion to verbals of motion. His shorter poems seem unusually delicate moments of stillness but one is constantly surprised to find in them continuous motion, subtle actions—in the way one is startled by tropical fish. He is a poet of controlled energy, of life's heartbeats. No one of his generation is more attentive to or more accurate about the natural world of animals, plants, elements, yet he does not limit the natural world to matter but includes myth, idea, and historical events in it. For him style is an evolution of efficiency, enough words and the right words, to make us see and know a thing…. When Ghiselin describes a shark, a rattlesnake, a diphthong or a train he seeks the most scrupulous definition of each in its contest and is a literalist. But as a formalist his gift is to transform his subjects into reflectors of man's possibility. The final freedom for man is to understand what traps him and to transcend entrapment by revealing expression, by the living freedom of words.

From beginning to end Ghiselin's poetry attends to that suspension of man between land and sea, time and eternity, place and exile, an imprisonment of antinomies from which a man redeems himself only...

(This entire section contains 917 words.)

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by choices that are expressions of civilization's values. He is not a humorous poet and is never frivolous, but a poet of frequent delight and surprise, a poet whose morality is forgiveness. There are in his book many credible raptures: his poems of love and women are sensual, elegant, Vermeer-like; his portraits of the ocean, the desert, the mountain are permanent as Hopkins's cliffs of the mind. He is a master at describing the ethereal beauty of space and its constant forms not as static phenomena but as forces. Not surprisingly, Ghiselin is a lyric poet for whom the tragic separation of man from eternal consolation is always evident, though one feels an equally everpresent joy in being alive makes him a most balanced man. His progress as poet has been a slow movement away from his earliest intense and muscular music toward a stripped image and line, toward a sufficiency of statement…. (pp. 163-65)

There is, of course, not really one Brewster Ghiselin in the five books he has collected in Windrose but many, for his poetry is—as I think poetry ought to be—the record of an assimilating and procreative intelligence whose changes are as subtle as the changing light on those stars, islands, flowers, birds, and people he has studied intently as a naturalist. If he has changed, there is an astonishing constancy of faith in poetry that might vivify and transform the world to beauty. In him, it has done that. Brewster Ghiselin, a poet whose writing began in the age of Eliot and has extended into our own age of poetic confusions, is a textbook example of what form truly is and of how poetry is never really less than the breath of all creation renewed as the hope of men. (p. 165)

Dave Smith, "The Poetry of Brewster Ghiselin," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1981, University of Utah), Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 162-65.


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