David Wagoner Wagoner, David (Vol. 5) - Essay

Wagoner, David (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wagoner, David 1926–

Wagoner is an American poet, editor, and novelist endowed with a "lyrical ear and an alert but disciplined imagination." Themes of innocence and corruption, of the individual trapped in a violent society, recur in his tragicomic novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Though his eight books, as I mean to show, have nourished and renewed one another, the poems gaining precisely the humanity and texture of reality we look for in the novel, and the novels acquiring that "abandon, wild calculation and seriousness" which James Dickey locates in Wagoner's poetry; though the four volumes of poetry alternating with four novels since 1953 have garnered a lot of cross-pollinating praise, it is surely because they insist so securely on being poems and novels that most of us have still to discover this writer's contribution to our literature. That is just it: Wagoner will not come out from behind his literature, and thereby protects himself from becoming another casualty of Success….

The first of Wagoner's books of poetry, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, was published in 1953 and dedicated to Roethke, who remains a pervasive force in all this poet's work—even the novels. What Wagoner gets from Roethke is a preoccupation with the movement from external to created reality, the sense that we awaken in a world possessed and informed by something in our dream, so characteristic of the older poet. (p. 534)

The slant rhymes and assorted rhythms [of the first book] keep us from collecting the material presented into a charm, an incantation. There is no self here to "breathe what I am"—just as, in the poems about selves, there is so little breakthrough to vision ("the eye turns feebler, year by year"); the partitioning of the beautiful lyrics from the bruised lives brings Wagoner to a strange alienation, a sense that Being itself, even while he watches, is being withheld from him, or rather, not from him, but that he is not yet himself entirely there, in the sense of selfhood that Keats intended when he wrote, "that which is creative must create itself"—for by the end of Dry Sun, Dry Wind, Wagoner has not yet created himself, but only the estranged world of "familiars" in which he will henceforth operate by an alienation-effect whose apparent suspension of energy, of process, turns every known thing Other. (p. 537)

The year after Dry Sun, Dry Wind …, Wagoner published his first novel, The Man in the Middle and in 1955 his second, Money Money Money; and it was not until 1958, five years after Dry Sun, Dry Wind, that he had sufficiently released himself from the indenture to plausible surfaces, to accident and "the ravelled edge of everything" which we think of as the impulse of fiction, or at least its expedient, to produce his second collection of poems, A Place to Stand. The intuition of futility in most biography, the awareness that we are impotent in the clutch of what happens to us, finds, in Wagoner's first three novels, a more appropriate rehearsal than in his early poems, which are committed—it is, of course, the lyric responsiblity—to an order of knowledge and a hierarchy of Being. The Man in the Middle takes for its exergue a sentence from Donne which may stand over all of Wagoner's prose enterprises: "This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute. I am surprised with a sodaine change, and alteration to worse, and can impute it to no cause, nor call it by any name." Wagoner's hero in each instance is a creature from outside the community life—invalid, obsessed, even idiotic—who knows what he takes for his own mind and wants to be left alone with that knowledge, not to enjoy it perhaps ("it was harder to invent life by yourself") but to nurse it along, to "favor" it, in the sense of something felt to be vulnerable; but chance puts him in the world's way, and the ensuing adventures must lead to disaster along with a surrender of the separateness cherished by "the man in the middle," crushed by the social and erotic forces he is called upon to mediate even as he unleashes them. (p. 538)

[In] the overflowing poems of [The Nesting Ground, the] third book, Wagoner has found a modulation, a cadence grateful to the range of his own voice. He has also learned to exploit the determinations already encysted in our speech (as when he refers to "drivers driven by themselves…. The far-afield, the breakers of new ground/who cartwheel out of sight, end over end": here the condensation which makes death an exploration as well as an impasse in "breakers of new ground" and the doom of "end over end" have a rightness beyond mere invention, a finality due to something discovered in the idiom itself). Further, he shows a flickering grace with slant rhymes, as if to remind the discourse—so relaxed at times as to be beneath the tension of the lyre—that he is still touching the strings…. [It] is only justice to say that Wagoner's music has consumed its instruments. His mastery of his own means liberates him for a kind of observation, an acknowledgment of the given world,… which he had previously been obliged, as by some lack in himself, some failure of nerve, to siphon off into the novels. (p. 544)

The very thing one felt to be absent in Wagoner's early poems, or to be partitioned off without much mercy for the terrain thus distributed, has now—by a curious apprehension of opposites or at least oppositions, in his own and in an outer nature—been resolved into a presence, and what is more, a presence within a scene. (p. 545)

In 1966,… Wagoner published Staying Alive, his fourth book of poems and, in the nature of things—a phrase, by the way, which bears a particular application to this preeminently Big Woods series, a preserve where the poet "sets loose, like birds / in a landscape, the old words"—his finest achievement to date…. The quest for some retrieved wholeness which will venture into that country of "love's divisions" is the burden of this book, and its motley wisdom can be summed up—though Wagoner resists the summary process; he likes the separate effort, the unparaphrasable enterprise: "springing again, as the birds will, to climb through wilder country before falling"—in the wry phrase "Staying Alive By Going to Pieces," with its suggestion of Osiris beneath the colloquial profanity. The very history of his art becomes something to oppose, and by opposing to extend, as in Wagoner's beautiful epithalamion, "Water Music for the Progress of Love in a Life-Raft Down the Sammamish Slough," the true Northwest Passage this explorer has been looking for so long. (pp. 548-49)

[There] is, finally, an acceptance in David Wagoner's poetry, an assenting invocation to the very fractured and fragmented existence he had once most feared as a kind of death; indeed, there is a sense in which death itself is reckoned the "missing all," as Emily Dickinson called it, in the totality of experience which this poet, at the end of his book, puts together in a kind of mad song, a Christopher Smart rhapsody called "Come Before His Countenance with a Joyful Leaping"…. (p. 550)

Richard Howard, "David Wagoner," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 533-51.

[The Road to Many a Wonder is] American Escapiana in which virtue and industry triumph while the mean and greedy get their just retribution against a genuine historical background…. [Mr. Wagoner] … does it all pretty well, but never well enough so we're not always aware that he's "doing it." This is very far indeed from the contemporary champion in its vein—Charles Portis's admirable, neversmug "True Grit." (p. 36)

Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974.

[With The Road to Many a Wonder] Mr. Wagoner has not attempted an especially large or weighty work …; still [this] is a consistently charming book, saved from banality or sentimentality by something ultimately uncompromising, intelligent, and hardheaded in the makeup of its heroes. Also, a number of secondary characters, most of them marked by laziness, cupidity, and a dangerous hunger for unearned rewards, are drawn with enough texture to give some depth and tension to the plot. Mr. Wagoner has drawn unabashedly on some of the more heartening impulses in American myth-making, and the book itself partakes of the same spirit of generosity and confidence that imparts energy and substance to the experience portrayed in it. (p. 19)

Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 29, 1974.

David Wagoner is a personable, gentle and soft-spoken artist whose reputation as a novelist is slowly beginning to equalize his formidable and well-deserved reputation as a poet….

Wagoner's new novel ["The Road to Many a Wonder"] is a total delight: a fresh, charming insight into Western America of the late 1850's that, in spite of its captivating hero and heroine, is a realistic, clear-eyed view of the rags to riches complex that dominated American character during and after the Pike's Peak Gold Rush of 1859….

To read this novel is to understand once again the hope and optimism that characterized so much of the American frontier; an optimism that over a century later, Wagoner has come to firmly believe in, although civilization has made deep scars on the landscape of the American Dream.

"The Road to Many A Wonder" pursues the themes that have fascinated Wagoner since his first excellent novel, "The Man in the Middle," was published in 1953. Simply put, Wagoner's basic theme involves an innocent person who becomes involved in a corrupt situation, finds himself trapped and eventually is either destroyed or badly wounded by the experience.

However, since "The Escape Artist" (1965), the last part of this formulae has begun to change, and the road to despair has branched off into a road of many wonders indeed. Further, in his last three novels, Wagoner has allowed his considerable poetic talents to gently introduce themselves into his always strong, flowing narrative prose. The result is not only first-rate story-telling, but story-telling enhanced with the holding power of poetic myth.

Jack Leahy, "David Wagoner: An Artist in Search of Wonders," in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 1974.

David Wagoner, in my opinion, is a novelist to read, a high opinion that I have held ever since reading The Man in the Middle…. He has a particular genius for portraying men in hysterical motion, and women too, as [The Road to Many a Wonder] shows. And here, as in his … Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?, the hysteria erupts in continuous laughter: This is a very funny book, further proof of Leslie Fiedler's adage that the best way to regard the mythic Great West is as a big joke. It is a book that you may place with assurance in the hands of children, though you may have to pry it loose in order to get in back. In such parlous times, such a book is a treasure, but Road to Many a Wonder is not merely entertainment; it is that kind of literature we call American.

In patent imitation in style and subject matter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Wagoner has taken another step and stuffed Huck's skin with Horatio Algerish Excelsior! resulting in Ike (Isaac) Bender, whose motto is "Bound to Rise." That his bread may do likewise, Ike sets out for the Pike's Peak goldfields with salterus in his pocket, but the yeast in Ike's particular dough is Millicent Slaughter….

[As] Ike has a Huckish ring to his metaphors and an Algerish hike to his trousers, so Millicent's is a familiar voice in American literature, with a schoolmarmish edge to her voice, apparently taken from a fabled "Miss Wilkerson" back home. But it recalls something of the quality of Katharine Hepburn in company with Humphrey Bogart as they chug down the Congo in the African Queen. Hepburn is the undisputed salvation of Bogart, and so Millicent with Ike, and though their journey is overland it follows the course of the Platte—a good enough Congo for their purposes. (p. 28)

This book, quite frankly, is a fairy tale of marvelous encounters filling golden roads leading out of Kansas to wonder, and the dialogue crackles with the rude wit that is the stuff of that indigenous American fairy tale, the folk tale, for like Huck himself Ike and Millicent Bender have traveled a long, long road indeed—like Sweet Betsy from Pike who crossed those big mountains with her lover. Always the master of a dialogue that matches his fast-paced plots, Wagoner here elevates exchange into the kind of transcendent patter a more sophisticated version of which made a Raymond Chandler famous, redolent of the drawl that makes Davy Crockett and Sam Spade brothers under the hard-boiled shell. That this drops like manna before the moving picture camera should go without saying, but I mention it so that when this happens you will have read it here first, and be sure to read the book first also, because it may not be better than the movie but I'm betting that it is, and don't forget you read that here first as well. (p. 29)

John Seelye, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by the New Republic, Inc.), July 20, 1974.

[Wagoner's] best achievements are among his poems, but a number of his earlier novels had flaws that were the result of serious effort…. [Now he] writes only successes. Here is the opening of The Road to Many a Wonder:

I'd probably have went Pikes-Peak-or-Busting without any extra help or discouragement, but what made it certain sure was my old man cussing our farm. We'd been scratching to hang on to it for five years, but I could tell there wasn't going to be no sixth when he stood there … and commenced laying his extra-special Sunday-miss-the-meeting curse on it.

Since that language is about as native to Wagoner as Bantu, it must have been hard to write, but as in all literary writing, when the effort goes into the language devoid from everything else, the mountains keep bringing forth mice as they labor…. There can't be many motives, and none of them good, for writing this way, words tossed around like cracked ping-pong balls, as though the only task were to sound like Huck, or Jamie McPheeters. It is no occupation for a grown person, and I'm sorry Wagoner chose to write it. (pp. 625-26)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1974–75.

David Wagoner has been the poet to look to for the "narrative poem." Sleeping in the Woods, his eighth volume of poetry, is not quite another collection in a continuing saga, although he remains one of the most readable poets around. Immediately, upon entering his poems, we are taken into his world. Intrigued, we drink the liquor of his story's weave, instantly interested. Although he is the author of numerous novels, his poetry has that one (out of many?) aspect that distinguishes poetry from prose: a sense of line. There is tension of syntax and diction in his work. In this book he leaves behind much of his narrative acumen, moving on to something new for him, something more contemplative, more difficult—an uneasiness that makes this book, if not my favorite Wagoner, perhaps his most important. In this deeper realm, he is once again novice, a word I use cautiously. Wagoner is a master technician. He knows how to write well, a novelty in much contemporary verse. It is as a departure that I recommend his new collection. (p. 26)

Daniel Halpern, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 29, 1975.

Though David Wagoner's new volume, Sleeping in the Woods, is not entirely successful, his honesty and his craftsmanship are splendidly apparent, and his (occasionally annoying) affectations are genuinely consistent with his interests. In many of these poems, the poet rather uncertainly compels our sympathy with his particular commitment, while leaving to luck our own commitment to that compulsion. Often, he carries it off with a flourish, for he has a pleasant skill…. But in some cases, even when the poem is quite well ordered, it is disappointingly inadequate to compel a sense of the significance to which it is committed. (pp. 123-24)

The significance that Wagoner sees in all things is a very demanding one, and these demands become the reader's expectations through the instrument of the poet's transparency. The scheme is fairly simple: nature exists to provide a lesson in organic form and its processes, in whose imitation and recreation poetry excels, surpassing painting and music with a delicate burst of inimitable complexity. Such poetry is compounded of the major aesthetic traditions, the classical and the romantic; and its arrogance in insisting that its sister arts are relatively toothless when it comes to defending oneself against the barbarian has not been recognized. For the advantage of poetry which Wagoner takes is that it can say something in its saying. (p. 124)

The best poems in this volume are of two kinds. Most numerous are those in which the truth of the moment appears (at the least) to give validity to the style, though the precise distinctions, and the points at which the validity impresses itself upon us, are never quite clear…. And then there are those in which, very clearly, the style compels our belief in the truth which the poet presents to us … in which our belief is the root, our believing the stem and the leaves, and the thing believed is the flower. The psalms are perhaps our noblest example of this process; and Wagoner's "Seven Songs for an Old Voice" belong in their general company…. (pp. 124-25)

J. E. Chamberlin, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975.