The Collected Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first sentence of Reynolds Price’s preface to The Collected Poems, although it is written in prose, alerts readers to the lyricism of what is to follow. This sentence reads, “I was twelve years old when I began to encounter poems more demanding than the jingles of childhood and the nonsense lyrics of popular songs.” The rhythm, elegance, and eloquence of this sentence recur throughout the more than three hundred poems collected in this extensive volume.

Although most of the poems presented here are narrative, wholly in keeping with Price’s conviction that the preeminent purpose of poetry is to tell stories, there is not a poem in the collection that lacks the lyricism that has long distinguished Price’s writing in both prose and poetry. Price understands fully the cadences of the English language, consistently demonstrating that he is keenly sensitive to sound as the quintessential controlling element in whatever he is writing.

In his preface, Price acknowledges his debt to various poets, naming specifically Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, A. E. Housman, John Milton, George Herbert, John Donne, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Rimbaud, W. H. Auden, and Robert Lowell. He acknowledges his debt to Anglo-Saxon poetry with its kennings, alliteration, and enjambment, although in his version of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” he makes little attempt to replicate the poetic devices of the original, preferring to work toward capturing the motive force, the enduring underlying sea-rhythm of the poem, in which readers will find just one kenning.

Price’s study of Milton’s poetry began during his freshman year as a student at Duke University, intensified during his sophomore year, and has continued unabated. Price, who essentially teaches creative writing, has always insisted on teaching one Milton course every year since 1958, when he first began his long teaching career at Duke University, where he is currently James B. Duke Professor of English.

Dedicated readers of Price’s work will already be familiar with about three-quarters of the poems in this volume. All of the poems from Price’s three previous collections, Vital Provisions (1982), The Laws of Ice (1986), and The Use of Fire (1990), are reproduced here. The final portion of the book, however, is devoted to the author’s more recent work under the title The Unaccountable Worth of the World. This composite collection is valuable for the insights it provides, conveniently and in one place, into Price’s development as a poet over the thirty-six years of writing that the collection encompasses.

The poems cover a broad range of emotions, insights, enthusiasms, romances, fears, disappointments, and losses. Many of the poems after 1984 reflect on the author’s life as a paraplegic following his near-fatal spinal surgery. Among the most poignant of these poems are those like the sensual “Twenty- one Years,” in which Price writes of a budding love affair:

We faced the choice of using the rest
Of our new lulled ease in joining our selves
In a trial knot of mutual skin—
Our excellent hides that were each then fine
As rawhide gets.

Price then goes on to discuss how two lovers discover each other’s bodies and sensual possibilities, “New-found knots as brilliant as any/ Known to an Eagle Scout,” but adds reflectively, “Till I was effectively sheered off smooth/ Below the waist.”

This poem, which might have been bitter, is instead appreciative. It speaks of the changes, the deepening in the relationship, that his paraplegia spurred. Like many of the poems that allude to Price’s illness, this is a poem in which the author acknowledges compensatory benefits, in which something positive is found in situations that to many would appear overwhelmingly negative.

When he writes of his paraplegia, Price does so matter-of- factly, treating it as the reality that it is rather than as the burden he must bear. In this respect, Price’s poetry is both brave and insightful, as was A Whole New Life (1994), the biographical book that recounted, in striking yet usually dispassionate detail, his illness and its aftermath.

Serious readers of Price’s poetry will find considerable amounts of useful information about many of the events and situations that informed the later poems in A Whole New Life. They will also find, in his autobiography Clear Pictures: First Loves, First Guides (1989), details of events that inform many of the other poems in this collection. A notable example is “A Heaven for Elizabeth Rodwell, My Mother,” a remarkable poem of some...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)