Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841
Occasions prompt many of the poems in this book; all the poems in it are meditative and expertly crafted, which fact probably accounts for why it took so long to publish. William Meredith is a kind of master chef of what used to be called “cooked” poetry, and although his...
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Occasions prompt many of the poems in this book; all the poems in it are meditative and expertly crafted, which fact probably accounts for why it took so long to publish. William Meredith is a kind of master chef of what used to be called “cooked” poetry, and although his cuisine is simple, it is—it would seem from the praise of his peers—a gourmet’s delight.
Meredith’s recurrent themes are nature, the past, death, and relationships, and in all these the major feature is polarity.
Winter is stillness, but there is movement in it in “Winter on the River.” The progress of a day provides the occasion for and the structure of the poem, as light arrives violently, animals move about, a ship breaks the ice on the river, and the poet’s initial view of the road he sees changes. Man partitions himself from the stars, but they shine through anyway in “Country Stars,” and in “At the Confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado” the remains of a plane crash are a sign of man’s smallness and of nature’s power over him. Nature, indeed, is not what man makes of it, as he calls Zeus a swan and constellations animals (“Poem”). Conversely, the poet uses nature to identify opposing human moods in “The Season’s Difference,” where winter means to brood and summer to play. If in “For Two Lovers in the Year 2075 in the Canadian Woods,” man and nature, the present and future, merge; nature conflicts with man in “Ideogram” in that the poet must grapple with its elusive delicacy.
The past is the theme of many of the occasions which frame Meredith’s poems. In “Two Masks Unearthed in Bulgaria,” the stasis of the ancient artifact contrasts with the passage of its “clay and gold” into art, just as the faces which used to wear the masks have passed into death in one direction and into a mirrorlike shape in the other. The geological past provides the buildings in which art is housed and that develop and administer the political principles on which our society is founded. “A Firescreen at Mount Vernon” gives Meredith an occasion to imagine the vitality of our forebears, and in “A Mild-Spoken Citizen. . .,” he suggests to the president that he take a moral lesson from the past and change his ways. As in “Memoirs,” readers may not remember the past accurately, but this change in it may itself point to the past’s clear message that change is basic to life, and that a moral change for the better in the present might rest on retrospection and this truth.
Death is a radical aspect of the past which is hard to forget. The contrast in “Give and Take” is between the ritual of gift-giving at Christmas and the loss of those who can no longer receive gifts. The death of famous writers is another occasion which moves Meredith to measure contrasts. Robert Lowell’s poems were the dark news that his listeners asked “his blessing” for bringing to them. Ernest Hemingway shoots himself, and John Berryman jumps off a bridge, and Meredith looks for the art in these acts to give a moral balance to them. He does not find the myth, though, in Sylvia Plath’s suicide, so he disapproves of it. “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs” accepts Berryman’s poems but pulls back from his “recidivism,” and “John and Anne” views him as a childish adult and Anne Frank as an adult child in the face of death because, instead of choosing death as Berryman did, she mourned for those who were slaughtered. Also, Meredith presents a complex paradox in which the poet Percy Shelley is joyous as he dies, because he is experiencing a critical moment of living itself, and Edward Trelawny, in merely dreaming that moment, mimics death but also keeps Shelley alive by remembering the moment as though it were still in progress.
Death, apart from the context of the past, also concerns Meredith. In “Dying Away,” death becomes a kind of grotesque melodrama because Freudian morality has made everyone a hero simply because he dies. Aside from the unusual heroism, though, of the victim who deprives his torturer-killer of pleasure by keeping his pain to himself (“The Revenant”), the heroism in death—such as it is—may be due to the fact that no one can “imagine” his own death. There is, in short, little the living can know about death. This—since one cannot understand what desire and death have to do with each other—may make one feel guilty about being alive. Certainly, nothing can be known about the choices people make in the face of death (“Not Both”). All one can know is that dying is the failure of the appetite for life, and that the paradoxical “aim of life” is death.
In death as in nature, Meredith looks at contrasts and ironies, especially knowing and not knowing. This dualism appears in his treatment of relationships, too. The lovers in “Accidents of Birth” start as atoms and end as a random meeting of mutual needs. The relationship between children and their parents features contradictions: not only do children themselves scorn the “helplessness” of other children, but also their parents treat them as though they were unreal at their stage of life. They call it happy, a time in which others are trusted, and they see their children as a “metaphor” of their own past. The child’s voice in “Parents” is at odds with parents because they lie “about darkness,” made their children without asking, and die before they explain how it all happened. Meredith shows his own mother as someone who knows something important but inaccessible to him (“My Mother’s Life”).
In this climate of life’s power and confusion, Meredith urges balance: “The thing we have to learn is how to walk light” (“Crossing Over”). He tells the reader that working for a long time to be first-rate at something makes some sense of staying alive (“Freezing”). One must, even as one dies, help sustain the life of others, which turns the tension between life and death into a moral balance.
Meredith’s taste for balance among polarities is clear in “Here and There,” which is about thinking and not thinking. The male thinker is in the north; the female singer he is thinking about is in the south. The hot art of feeling, the cold art of thinking: both make up the poem. The thinker is awake, the singer is asleep—that is, she is not thinking but exists in an idea about her inside the thinker. Art itself—beauty, in fact—is an ordering of random details such as “stars,” islands, buildings, and “those we love” (“Examples of Created Systems”).
As a modern meditative poet, Meredith is interested not only in the nature of life but also in the nature of seeing it and reflecting on it. The evidence of tension and opposites in life inclines his moral view to moderation, his epistemology and metaphysics to balance, and his style to both of these.
The voice in the poems is calm and reasonable, even elegantly folksy. Moderation leads to this tone, just as tension and the need to keep it in check lead to structures characterized by balance, such as the epigram—a summary statement with a moral edge, for example: “Tonight unlucky creatures will die, like so many / soldiers or parents, it is nobody’s fault” (“Winter on the River”); again, “. . . a solitude that reverts to the subject of death / whenever the conversation of live things lags” (“At the Confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado”).
Flights of fancy do not go well with Meredith’s realism and prudence. He takes his images from the occasions that prompt his poems, and he gives the reader an explanation of this method when in “Winter on the River” he writes, “A blue snake is lying perfectly still, / freezing to avoid attention—no, it is the barge road.” Meredith, that is to say, is a descriptive as well as a reflective poet. Moreover, he carefully modulates his rhythms to fit his meanings. In “Freezing,” for example, he writes: “When the shadow of the sparrowhawk passes over, / the small birds caught in the open, freeze.” In the first line, a ratio of eight (or nine) unstressed syllables to five (or four) stressed ones makes the rhythm tenuous and swift, reflecting the flight which the line is about. In the second line, the ratio is five stressed to four unstressed syllables, which makes the rhythm thick and slow, reflecting the word “freeze,” the meaning of which rules the line. In the same way the cadence—at least as far as it is defined by stressed and unstressed syllables (apart from the weights given it by vowels and consonants)—in “Keeping time to the bells which the same wind rocks” contrasts with the cadence of “thoughts he would haul in later from the lake / of time, feeling himself drawn clumsy. . .” which soon follows it. In “REM Sleep,” the back-to-back stressed syllables of the following reflect the image of accumulating silence: “. . . does the flesh muffle sound, / the tamped cells stifle their cries like rained-on soil?”
With all his stylistic care, however, Meredith’s work is irritating when he drops names and uses long titles and long epigraphs (some of the latter are longer than the poems with which they are coupled). Readers are treated to Meredith’s intimacy with the poets Robert Lowell and especially John Berryman. Anne Frank is referred to as “Anne,” and Meredith takes on a chummy tone when talking about Sigmund Freud. “Homage to Paul Mellon, I. M. Pei, Their Gallery, and Washington City,” “A Mild-Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House,” and “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs” are among the five titles which sit on the top of their poems like embarrassing relatives. The three epigraphs for “REM Sleep” take up more space than the poem and display—as most of his epigraphs do—Meredith’s learning more than they help the poem.
These small flaws are signs perhaps of a larger flaw: the tone or attitude Meredith favors in the face of the occasions and issues his poems are about. In being so balanced in view and civilized in manner, his poems are bland. One may see the justice in his account of things, but one is not moved by it. Of course, the “middle style” may appeal to mental aristocrats, but they hardly summarize the life everyone shares. It is almost as though Meredith’s style opposes what it says about words in the first—and title—poem of the book: “They would be the less words / for saying smile when they should say do.” The poems are sensitively prepared, but there is more distance than urgency in them, and this makes them more off-handed than they need be.