Collected Poems, 1956-1976 Analysis
by David Wagoner

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Collected Poems, 1956-1976

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

David Wagoner’s collection is an update of selected poems of a decade ago, a kind of progress report. It does not contain poems from his first volume, published—as are most of his poems—by Indiana University Press; but it does have forty-two new poems. After a twenty-five-year academic career as Professor of English as the University of Washington and at DePauw and Penn State, and after a tour of duty in the Navy, David Wagoner brings a varied experience into this compendium of a life lived. His novels are adventure stories, folksy, and in his poetry he has as he says, “an affinity for the dramatic lyric, in tones ranging from the loud and satiric through the quiet and conversational.”

Wagoner is essentially a poet, although he has written eight novels. He no longer writes in the vein of his mentor and colleague, Theodore Roethke, perhaps having exorcised this spirit through an excellent editing of the notebooks. Nor does he emulate the Poetry Northwest writers, being farther above prose. He has established an idiom, a clear line of development that is varied in theme, eclectic in method. The idiom derives from a vision of man at ease in nature, at home, among friends.

A thread of continuity is provided by epigraphs—news items, notes, quotations, recollections, even directions. These furnish themes ranging from frivolous to profound. Wagoner’s metaphors are always original and exact; verses are based on a calculus problem, a profile form, a social note, and such quotations as “nobody can enlarge upon an odor,” or “Everyman, stand still.” Often the titles evoke the theme, as in a series of etiological myths retold as “How” poems or the “Song” sequences, which, if not the most successful pieces in the collection, are bold and experimental. Another series of poems extends the dedication to Patt; these are oblique love poems to a marriage that lasts, of an anniversary, a picnic, a gift wrapping, a gesture, or a series of observations of the beloved at ease with, say, a jealous parrot who quotes Yeats, or a refractory burro (“one arm around his neck, she whispers/ Into his unpromising, uncompromising ear . . .”). The persona of the poet, here and in all the character sketches, is the wondering, if often inept, observer.

An open, varied form combined with carefully cadenced lines best suits the poet’s strengths. The few poems with exactness of rhyme and meter, such as “The Boy of the House,” seem forced, copied, while those with accidental, internal, or repeated rhymes and varied stanzas best fit Wagoner’s themes. Wagoner is at his best in Dungeness Bay, in the rain forests, among the things he catalogues in nature, though often he neglects the image for the simple delight in a name: tern, whelk, coot, moon snail, limpet, maidenhair, coltsfoot. Some critics see these evocations as timeless and extended, the presentation of a macrocosm; yet such cataloging techniques are not as effective as the close and local scrutiny for which Wagoner is known, in which he pinpoints the patch of blue, the grain of sand, “eternity in an hour”—the presentation of a microcosm. An early poem which balances these two approaches is “The Death and Resurrection of the Birds”:

Falling asleep, the birds are fallingDown through the last light’s thatchwork farther than rain,Their grace notes dwindlingInto the downy pit where the first birdWaits to become them in the nest of the night.Silent and featherless,Now they are one dark bird in darkness.Beginning again, the birds are breakingUpward, new-fledged at daybreak, their clapping wingbeatsStriking the sides of the sun, the singing brilliantDust spun loose on the wind from the end to the beginning.

Wagoner’s occasional verse—to friend, teacher, Hemingway, a special day, “Note to a Literary Club”—is sometimes pedestrian, and often too limited or obligatory for his free-ranging spirit. But there is mischief in his rhapsodies, and he harangues often against established values and practices, even against his geometric concretionist friends who build double acrostics and jigsaw patterns. “Song to Accompany the Bearer of Bad News” is a three-way sketch that tears such a poem to tatters. Both indoor and outdoor fooling are apparent in “Plainsong for Everyone Who Was Killed Yesterday,” which comforts since nothing much happens, nothing is missed, everything goes on, the news, the weather, the lamentations, and “next week or next year/ Is soon enough to consider/ Those brief occasions you might rather/ Not have lost. . . .” Here is no existential anguish, though there is often regret for the diminutions of faith, of values; here no crabby confessional, though there is a self revealed within a larger context of joy.

One poem in particular reveals the poet’s method of offering the challenge to the reader to complete his meaning. It begins, “This is a Wonderful Poem,” and warns in the second line, “Come at it carefully, don’t trust it. . . .” After a series of tests it asks, “Now, what do you want to do about it?” Wagoner cares about readership, wants response, it seems, beyond the academic or the slick. He escapes the schools, remains independent, responds individually. Poets of surer status could go to school here among these dithyrambs, elegies, odes, ballads, and songs, among these owls, fields, and dreams.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Carleton Miscellany. XVI, Summer, 1976-1977, p. 184.

Poetry. CXXX, June, 1977, p. 162.