The Feel of Rock
Since the late 1940’s, Reed Whittemore’s poetry has catalogued and satirized both the disorder characteristic of suburban American society and the manner in which its members, especially the poet himself, ignore or accommodate it.
Irony is Whittemore’s major technique for expressing his disbelief in the order or perfection that suburban man tries to impose on his life and its setting. In his earliest collection, An American Takes a Walk (1956), Whittemore, referring to the self-satisfied American sensibility that is at home in its surroundings, rhetorically asks, “How in that Eden could Adam/ Really be lost?” (“An American Takes a Walk”). Motion-picture characters provide Whittemore with an image for the threat to survival posed by smugness and lethargic hedonism; when these characters are called to action, they simply go on “Drinking their gin and bitters” (“A Day with the Foreign Legion”).
The ironic corollaries to this lethargy are the suffering which unravels one’s happiness and the rebellion whereby one tries to escape the illusion of order. The ritualized order of “Marriage is designed to route . . . pain . . . through the female to the male and then to the children and the dog” (“The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House”). The suburban father in “Bad Daddy,” depressed, it seems, by the restrictions of suburban life, visits his irascibility on his children. The poet in “The Girl in the Next Room” has “insomnia,” and remarks that the head of the suburban household, suffering his daily round of work, has little to look forward to but “bed” and “an orange Nembutol tablet.” The passion for stability, indeed, leads one to vertigo—the sense that stability itself is an illusion (“A Porch Chair”). “Suffering,” Whittemore concludes, “is middle class,” and in the context of this perception he asks, “Why does one have to be messy, corrupt and old?” (“The Desk”). He says further in “The Seven Days” that, were he to create man, he would create an unhappy and sloppy version of him, which “would sleep poorly at night as he got older/ . . . misquote things, drink too much,/ Rage at women at breakfast, lose keys. . . .”
Though memory may be a partial antidote to suffering, it is also a source of it, for what one loves and remembers crumbles, even from memory itself. Unhappiness becomes the rule, and finally forces a man to “Despair” in “the kingdom of the 10% joy the 15% satisfaction the 20% love” (“The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House”), where “The waking is always . . ./ To sickness and loneliness and loss and emptiness” (“Rocks”).
Civilized man in a suburban setting may end up negotiating a compromise with disorder, but he sometimes rebels against the forms of order in which the compromise takes place. As the suffering which he experiences in the confinement of custom is enervating, so the rebellion he enacts is useless. Rebellious memory itself may refuse to “be tamed, chafed, defined” (“The Past, the Future, the Present”), but it can neither recoup a life restricted by its choices nor save it from its pain. “Honest” people may have “a duty to blaspheme” (“Wordsworth and the Woman”), but they remain disgruntled and stuck in their customary agendas. The children who rebel, running away from their middle-class lives, return “broke and broken to suffer properly in the home” (“The Mother’s Breast and the Father’s House”). The ironic best that can be said for the rebellious sensibility is that it refuses to grow up (“The Farmhouse”).
Rebellion, to be sure, is an agent of the disorder which permeates a person’s soul. Thus, Whittemore cancels the distinction between the disorder which afflicts man from without and the disorder which defines him from within. As for exterior disorder, it surrounds one: not only is “The oven . . . sticky with grease,” and not only do “the bulbs blacken,/ The...
(The entire section is 1,275 words.)