Janet Lewis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1967

Janet Lewis’s poetic output was slight but distinguished. The ninety-four lyrics in her collected poems, many of them brief, show a remarkable stylistic evolution through her career of nearly seventy years and display three distinct stages: compact Imagism in the 1920’s, formal lyricism in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and, after a twenty-five-year hiatus, a free incantatory style in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. The first two stages paralleled the career of Yvor Winters, who began as a strict and respected Imagist and became in the 1930’s the leader of a self-styled “reactionary” return to traditional rhyme and accentual meter. Opinion is divided as to whether Lewis’s formalist turn was well advised—whether her middle poems moved toward sentimentality and dryness or whether she wrote rich and finely crafted work in the tradition of Thomas Hardy and earlier English verse. A reviewer of the volume for Poetry described Lewis’s poetic gift as “slight—I mean, both delicate and minor.” Her husband, poet-critic Winters, praised her as a “stylist of remarkable native gift” but regretted her penchant for “domestic sentiment, which sometimes goes all the way to sentimentality.”

Whatever the merits of these limiting remarks, Lewis was important as a verse stylist and as a participant in—and transcender of—modern literary quarrels regarding the use of traditional forms. Her first book of poems, perhaps one of the best collections in the strict Imagist mode, was published in 1922 in a series that included William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. Two books later, in 1946, she had evolved into her openly philosophical verse in traditional forms, and for it she won the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry. Her newer poems, a group begun when she was seventy-two years old, expanded her reputation and answered the complaints of sentimentality and dry formalism sometimes lodged against her work of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Lewis’s collected poems appeared at a time when fashion had caught up with her lifelong interests. The American Indian, the Sun Belt, and the lives of women had become, in the words of a Parnassus reviewer, “radical chic.” In her eighties, Lewis achieved long-postponed recognition for decades of lyrical vision and craftsmanship.

The Indians in the Woods

The lyrics in Lewis’s 1922 volume, The Indians in the Woods, average less than twelve lines and, with haiku-like compression, suggest the closeness between the lives of the Ojibwa Indians and the processes of nature, particularly the cycle of the harsh northern seasons. The poems are rigorously Imagistic, expunged of nearly all general statement or transition—each a sequence of evoked sensations and elemental feelings. Central to the sequence is the god whose return is celebrated in the spring; even without this underpinning of myth, however, the poems function individually as icons of time’s destructive passage, the promise of rebirth, and the muted joy of participation in natural process. The narrator is repeatedly identified as female, at times a wife, at times a grandmother, so that the poems are genuinely feministic, with a male god playing the role of mysterious natural Other. In most of the poems, the god could as well be a mortal lover, the seasons as well be figurative as literal, and the forest as well be suburban as primeval. The reversal of literary gender roles—particularly in 1922—is reason alone to reread these poems. If stripped of their bibliographic history, they might as readily be attributed to the 1970’s as to the 1920’s. Like William Carlos Williams’s poems in Spring and All (1922), which they antedate and resemble, the lyrics are spare and evocative; short lines play occasional run-ons against the expected pause at line’s end. What the Ojibwa poems lack in range, they make up for in polished intensity.

Imagism and traditionalism

Actually, though Imagism stands at the beginning of Lewis’s collected poems, it was not her first style. “The Freighters,” her earliest published poem, uses traditional accent and meter and describes trees along a bank as singing “with moving branches/ Songs of eternity.” This is the sort of generalization that Lewis, as an Imagist, excluded from the 1922 volume, but to which she would return in her post-Imagist work after 1930.

Between 1922 and 1927, the years of her convalescence, Lewis was evolving toward a softer, more traditional style without sacrificing the Imagistic virtues of sensation and compression. Some of her most memorable short poems are from this transitional period. Generally domestic in subject, the poems often use traditional lyric forms but have compact images in the foreground. Some, like the title poem to her second book, “The Wheel in Midsummer,” are stylistically similar to the Ojibwa poems.

Among the best works from Lewis’s convalescent period are “The Reader,” “Girl Help,” and “Remembered Morning,” which chart the direction in which her art was to evolve. “The Reader” is a delicately descriptive poem about a reader lost in a book, as the sun, the fire, and the leaves clamor ineffectually to recall him to sensory reality—all this shown with Imagistic directness. Then a newborn “creature”—presumably a moth—is at the screen door, “heaving damp heavy wings.” Lewis’s readers are left with the nascent symbol, no explanation. Less cryptic but equally delicate is “Girl Help,” a three-quatrain rhyming poem in which a servant is shown to pause and smell lilacs scented with promise. “Remembered Morning” succeeds with perhaps an even less promising subject, the remembrance of a happy summer’s day in childhood. Yet Lewis’s spare, evocative description rescues the poem from its conventional versification and a line such as “O happy early stir!” Less successful experiments with traditional verse include “Love Poem,” “The Candle Flame,” “The Manger,” and “The Tennis Players,” which fall into the mannerisms of early twentieth century magazine verse.

After her marriage and move to California, Lewis’s style changed decisively, probably encouraged by her husband, who had recently made a sharp theoretical turn against “experimental” modern poetry and was already developing the position he would expound in his controversial critical books. Lewis’s poems between 1927 and 1944 were in a style that adapted traditional prosody and direct paraphrasable purpose to the needs of twentieth century life. Some are flawed, at least from the mainstream perspective, by archaisms, inversions, predictable rhymes, and hackneyed similes—dangers deliberately courted by a reformed Imagist who knew what she was doing. The best are effective as beautifully crafted antiques newly made, and that was clearly Lewis’s intention.

Among the best is “Time and Music,” a philosophical poem in octameter couplets that uses its very formality as an extension of its content: the suggestion that willed form is life; its absence, death. “Country Burial” works in a more emotional mode, describing vividly a funeral procession across a flowery field, then turning away from the numbing, discomforting vision of a heaven without the wetness and color of earth. In this, and in “Baby Goat”—a poem saved from preciousness by the visual exactness of Lewis’s descriptions—she contrasts the world of changing, doomed colors with the mysterious colorless world of Heaven, or unchanging form. This theme was implicit even in the “The Freighters” and the Ojibwa poems, but the best of the middle poems gain intellectual and moral density by making it explicit.

The 1930’s and 1940’s

In the poems written between 1930 and 1944, Lewis had clearly accepted the aim expressed in her husband’s criticism and adopted by a school of California poets: to fuse fully realized descriptive detail with expressed abstract meaning through exertion of the conscious will in traditional verse. “Lines with a Gift of Herbs,” “The Hanger at Sunnydale,” “In the Egyptian Museum,” and “Helen Grown Old” are successes in this effort, all reflecting on the contrast between particulars that change and universals that inhere through this change—the scent in dry herbs, the steel hanger of a lost dirigible, the jewelry of a dead civilization, and the mystery of Helen of Troy’s unmemorialized old age. Though the verse, again, is sometimes too dry, too mannered for some modern tastes, these poems do seem to work through the willed fusion of image and explicit moral called for by Winters’s theory. Nevertheless, despite the critical success of these poems, Lewis ceased writing poetry altogether between 1944 and 1971.

Poems Old and New, 1918-1978

Lewis’s collected volume Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 was received with almost universal praise, critics differing only about which poems to single out. In this book, Lewis collected her best poems in a wide range of styles, including the 1918 poem that won for her entrance into the Poetry Club at the University of Chicago. The most recent works in the volume, written after 1971, are a synthesis and extension of the styles that preceded them—returning to the free verse and American Indian subjects of her Imagistic period but exploring the powers of a complex, discursive long line. Without the Imagistic restrictions against abstract statement and paraphrasable content, Lewis displayed more freely her feeling for nature, her lyricism, and her sense of history.

When Lewis took up verse again, it was free verse without rhyme or with casual rhyme in the manner of Ezra Pound or William Butler Yeats, and her lines set up a biblical narrative cadence not as free as Walt Whitman’s but clearly in the same tradition. This was a clear break from the formalism of the middle years, though it was not a return to Imagism, for abstract statement and reasoning mix freely with description. Also, Lewis returned to the domestic and American Indian subjects of her pre-California lyrics. Here the interplay between the transient and the eternal received its most serene and poignant treatment in poems such as “For the Father of Sandro Gullota,” “The Anasazi Woman,” “The Ancient Ones: Betátakin,” “In a Convalescent Hospital,” and “Geometries.” Though Lewis maintained a recognizable voice through all her changes, in the later poems she seemed to draw the reader closer, sharing her empathy with a child dying of leukemia, with the mummy of an indigenous woman, with a ruins of pre-Navajo people moved by universals of water and beauty, with a once-vital woman dying alone, and with geometric shapes replicated eternally in nature. The later poems in her collected volume are not uniformly her best, but they are a triumphant summation, suggesting or incorporating the best of what came before.

The Dear Past, and Other Poems, 1919-1994

A collection that includes some early uncollected poems as well as those from late in Lewis’s life, The Dear Past, and Other Poems, 1919-1994 holds graceful meditations on the grievous passages of time, elegizing friends and family in subtly cadenced lyrics. These poems were not easily available to readers; none were included in her Poems Old and New, 1918-1978. A retrospective style dominates the volume, and most of its themes are elegiac. At the end of a sonnet titled “Garden Note: Los Altos, November,” Lewis strives to understand how, as time passes, her garden is “still the same,/ And not the same,” but her language, often supple and luminous, also recalls the sentimental hyperbole of old-fashioned poesy: “Fair names my garden has, and fairer fruit: Persimmon, loquat, and the pomegranate, Loved presences, fair memories, and fair fame.” The poems find her both wistful and stoic, as in the moving conclusion of “River,” in which memory itself becomes one of the imperatives of desire: “Remember for me the scent of sweet-grass/ In Ojibway baskets,/ Of meadow turf, alive with insects./ Remember for me.” Her multicultural pursuits are again evident here, from her lifelong interest in Asian and American Indian cultures, her memories of a childhood spent among the indigenous communities of upper Michigan and Canada, and her time in northern New Mexico when she investigated the remains of the Anasazi.

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