David Wagoner Wagoner, David (Vol. 15) - Essay


(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 CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

David Wagoner's poems have a self-assured rhetorical ease. He is an outstanding craftsman, a master of free verse. In Wagoner's [Sleeping in the Woods] there is a fresh and original sense of stanza, line length and sentence structure. Yet his style is neither opaque nor obtrusive. There is a beautiful precision to the poet's language, especially in his descriptions of motion….

Notes on Current Books: 'Sleeping in the Woods'," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976), by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 1 (Winter, 1976), p. 24.

X. J. Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[All] the while he has been steadily writing poetry, Wagoner has been publishing novels—eight of them, from The Man in the Middle (1954) through Tracker (1975). Having read only two, I can't expound on their relations with the poetry, but suspect that Wagoner's two vineyards have fertilized each other.

To be sure, the poems are beautifully clear: not merely comprehensible, but clear in the sense that their contents are quickly visible. Stepping into a Wagoner poem, you enter a well-lit room, or a glade; you see it vividly, and often you know at once who or what inhabits it…. [It] is not only in setting a scene (and peopling it) that Wagoner is skilled; nor in exploring the tensions of a dramatic situation; nor in seeing from more than one point of view. All those are skills we expect of a good novelist, and Wagoner possesses them. More important, however, he knows when to bring himself into a poem, naturally and without reticence, and when to keep out. Writing novels, after all, must instruct one in modesty and in tact. For novelists can't sit around letting the flux of the world filter through their sensibilities, the way poets can, or think they can, without boring everybody. The novelist has a situation to involve us in. And I find Wagoner's poems more involving than most people's: few of them fail to make you wish to finish reading them, once you begin.

In fact, Wagoner is so readable a poet that, coming to him after, say, an evening with Pound's later Cantos, one practically has a twinge of Puritan guilt, and feels shamelessly entertained—refreshed instead of exhausted. His poems have never invited much annotation, haven't offered thesis-writers much to explicate. Presumably, he would rather have readers. I gather that he doesn't mind being...

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James K. Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wagoner has lived most of his adult life in the Pacific Northwest, often in touch with American Indians. He accepts, embraces his world. "Stayling Alive," which gave the title to Wagoner's 1966 collection, brilliantly exposes that world. "Sleeping in the Woods," the title poem of the volume under review, goes on from "Staying Alive" and shows us Wagoner achieving his peculiar harmony with the natural world. (p. 357)

Wagoner mourns the shrinking wilderness world; two of his poems are about the ravages of the Weyerhauser Company. He has found harmony with the natural world, has gutted his last rainbow. (p. 358)

James K. Robinson, "Sassenachs, Palefaces, and a Redskin: Graves, Auden, MacLeish, Hollander, Wagoner, and Others" (copyright 1978 by James K. Robinson), in The Southern Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, April, 1978, pp. 348-58.∗

James Finn Cotter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Wagoner finds the material for [Who Shall Be the Sun?] in the songs, myths and legends of the American Indian. The title poem retells the Plateau Indian story about the attempt of Raven, Hawk, and Coyote to be the sun. Where they fail, Snake succeeds by dreaming. It is a parable of Wagoner's own success with this folklore. He has not written translations but condensed versions that avoid stereotyped language…. One of the persistent themes is death, involving the disappearance of the First People into plants and animals. All things are alive and men find life by losing themselves…. The voice is Wagoner's own, personal, familiar, concerned. He has achieved a remarkable fusion of nature, legend, and psyche in these poems. (pp. 118-19)

James Finn Cotter, "Familiar Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 109-22.∗

Hayden Carruth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Wagoner's Who Shall Be the Sun? contains both direct retellings of American Indian legends and his own lyrics based on attitudes, understandings, and experiences of the Northwestern tribes. Most white literature on Indian themes is suspect; much is specious; but Wagoner's poems, I believe, are true, and certainly they are compelling. He is a fine poet to begin with, whose work over the past two decades has probably not been given its due, and he is close, I think very close, to Indian sensibility. He knows enough to write in his own language, English, and in his own convention of prosody, contemporary American, yet the feeling in his work, like the substance, has been distinctly learned. More, it has been earned, and the effort of that is a power in its own fruition. Here is one stanza, taken from the middle of a song:

            My spirit, when it first came,
            Made a hole in my mind,
            And I fell down, dreaming
            What I must do and be
            Through the long fire of my life.

This is not only the literalness of shamanistic mysticism but also its true feeling; yet conveyed somehow—to think out how would take years—in words and images that seem not strange to us, that seem in fact closely allied to our own, the world's, experience. In many of his Indian poems, Wagoner touches at once the form of Indian, and the content of universal, awareness. It is a remarkable achievement. (p. 89)

Hayden Carruth, "Impetus and Invention," in Harper's (copyright © 1979 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the May, 1979 issue by special permission), Vol. 258, No. 1548, May, 1979, pp. 88-90.∗

Donald Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Wagoner poem takes] us on a pleasurable journey through attractive scenery, and when the journey has ended we realize that we have gone nowhere, discovered nothing, retained only the light pleasure of remembered landscape. (p. 34)

I do not think that the discovery [in a Wagoner poem] compares with Columbus's. Yet [the poetry in In Broken Country makes] a small artifact, not expressive of anything profound, as delightful to touch and to hold as a particular carved stone. It is not, I think, the dazzled eye and the inspirited hand; it is a lucky moment of making.

What I most often need and want as a reader is this lucky moment. If there are hours when we are capable of reading genius, when we need it and are adequate to it, there are also hours when we take pleasure and instruction from lesser work….

Much of the discussion of poetry, over the last 20 or 25 years, has assumed that only intensity is tolerable. This opinion has a number of unfortunate corollaries: if poetry is only moments of the greatest intensity, it follows that poetry cannot argue a point (we will allow prose to do the arguing) or tell a long story (we will allow prose to tell long stories) or be conversational or amusing like witty speech (we will leave that to prose). Fifteen or 20 years ago, it followed that poetry could embody only extreme states of emotion—and then the poets killed themselves.

By such standards, David Wagoner is no poet. I suggest we chuck the standards instead of chucking David Wagoner. His poems are actually readable. (p. 35)

[Wagoner writes] prosy and ruminative poems … "of the second intensity," which is the level on which we live much of our lives. (p. 36)

Donald Hall, "Books and the Arts: 'In Broken Country'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 20, November 24, 1979, pp. 34-6.

Leonard Neufeldt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since 1953 David Wagoner has produced more than the earnest of a large and durable reputation that crosses regional and national boundaries and major alignments in theory, taste, and prejudice: eleven volumes of wide ranging and scrupulously crafted poetry, not to mention his many other books. He is, simply, one of the most accomplished poets currently at work in and with America. In Broken Country addresses subjects, calls forth voices and self projections, and cultivates modes that strike us as new even though they have flickered here and there in past work as a promise to the future. His range and mastery of subjects, voices, and modes, his ability to work with ease in any of the modes (narrative,...

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