Brewster Ghiselin

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Jerome Mazzaro

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Windrose: Poems 1929–1979 provides readers with the poems that Brewster Ghiselin cares most to be remembered by. Selections from Against the Circle (1946), The Nets (1955), and Country of the Minotaur (1970) reveal what another generation would call "pure" poetry…. Pure poetry avoids both "ideas" which tend to date and "morality" which in each generation takes on different meanings. In the final sections of Country of the Minotaur and the poems since, Ghiselin's interests become more ideological, as a lifelong love of the outdoors leads to overt attacks on man's despoiling nature ("Tact", "Nocturne: Laguna Beach," "Let There Be Light," "And There Was Light") and America's involvement in Vietnam ("This Is Vietnam"). But the bulk of the accomplishment is early and technical and lies in direct and implicit sympathies…. [Ghiselin is] a poet who can make words "startling," "unexpected," and "evocative." If readers want to appreciate fully the volume's accomplishments, they must, therefore, mute prevailing attitudes. They must distance themselves from Longinus's making greatness in art directly proportional to ideas and John Crowe Ransom's demand in "Poets Without Laurels" (1935) that artists be engaged in public interests. Instead, they must bear in mind that, like modernist poetry, pure poetry tends to lie "outside the poet's personality" in an "emotive imagination" and "innocency of vision" that uses rhythm, sound, color, and form for what, in "The Symbolism of Poetry" (1900), W. B. Yeats calls "emotional symbols."

Much as in Yeats's pure poetry, values in Ghiselin's writing are conveyed through repetitions of and variations on image and myth. Early images of experience as a deadly desert snake, for example, give way—as Ghiselin's fear of experience lessens—to the evils of technology ("Rattler, Alert," "Rattlesnake," "Crotalus Rex," "Wheels"). More usual are biblical and classical allusions, and because of Ghiselin's interest in man's place in nature, chthonic myths involving Adam, Aphrodite/Anadyomene, and Pasiphaë predominate…. Ultimately, as Ghiselin says in "Answering a Letter to a Young Poet," he chooses "change"—both "earth and ocean, furies of a man," reasserting in poems like "Poiema" and "Credo" his allegiances to pure poetry. But just as pure poetry gains value from repetition and variation, it also gains meaning from the grotesque and what Freud describes as the actions of the uncanny. Often the grotesque aids in releasing repressed memories and tripping recollections that gain entry into Plato's World-Spirit. Like the Greeks, Yeats knew to wed his beauty to "a bandy-legged smith" and insist that behind all his work lay the urgency of a "rough beast" slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born." Ghiselin's efforts to duplicate Yeats's achievement by dreaming comparable "monsters" in the minotaur, the chimera, and shark do not succeed in matching Yeats's impact, proving anew that beauty without the grotesque tends toward abstraction…. There are notable achievements in all of Ghiselin's volumes, and even in his less successful poems, readers will find sections and lines memorable for their skillful uses of rhythm and sound. (pp. 468-69)

Jerome Mazzaro, "Stylists Tireless As the Spider," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1981), Vol. XX, No. 4, Fall, 1981, pp. 468-72.∗

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