In a prefatory statement to his 1987 collection of poetry, The Poems of Lincoln Kirstein, Lincoln Kirstein says he wanted to be an artist, but he felt he lacked the requisite talent to succeed. Of his poetry writing he said, “I liked to write verse; this was always play with no pretension. . . . Failing as dramatist and screenwriter, light verse served instead, with its game enhanced by rhythm, rhyme, and meter.” Later, in his memoir Mosaic: Memoirs (1994), he elaborated, “I never had any focused aim to become a ’poet.’ I liked to write light verse and later, in the army I produced bunch of rhymes, the result of a pastime filling gaps in duty” as a driver and translator for the U.S. Army.
Kirstein favored the long line in his poetry, simple rhetorical devices and standard features such as iambics and couplets for his rhymes. He wrote to tell stories about a particular slice of life, describing the scene with visual and emotional accuracy from several points of view—his own as poet-speaker, that of his peers, and those from the world at large.
Kirstein named his models in verse writing as Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rudyard Kipling, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. In Rhymes of a Pfc, he is particularly indebted to Kipling, whom he saw as the most competent and poetically versatile spokesperson of World War I. Kirstein employs irony in some of his poetry, but typically he relies on a Romantic interest, almost Wordsworthian emphasis, on the uniqueness of individuals and the beauty of nature. Rhymes of a Pfc enabled Kirstein to manage the diversity of people and situations in wartime. Kirstein’s poetry presents marked and striking skill in literary portraiture. The poems have specificity and particularity, proving Kirstein was an experienced observer of human nature.
The poems in Low Ceiling, Kirstein’s first collection, dedicated to his friend Muriel Draper, also provide an opportunity to reflect on the different roles people play in their normal lives. The poems about his father’s early career as a salesperson resonate with compassion for the man who travels to a new town every day and has no real permanence or opportunity to reflect on his present or future opportunities. “Best Man’s Song” is the story of a man looking on a pair of lovers with the eyes of experience. He sees the young “actor” without his makeup and stage identity able to attract a woman to marry him, and the speaker seems both worried and wistful, as though the actor has done something he is not ready to do.
The book also houses several longer poems, including “Lieder for Hitler,” dedicated to British poet Stephen Spender; “Chamber of Horrors”; and “Change of Heart.” The first is a sequence of five poems that concludes, “The spirit of Evil is loose in the land” and describes in the sequence how Adolf Hitler seemed to have taken Europe by surprise in his rise to power. “Chamber of Horrors” is presented as a mock trial of murderers detailing their premeditated acts of violence to each other. The last poem of the book, “Change of Heart,” describes an “Actor” or a man’s quest for place and fame in the world of “Muchness in Richness” and how, in the end, he is alone and discarded by those who would praise him once as he “adored delusion” and deluded himself that those around him really cared about him.
These early poems show Kirstein’s awareness of the evocative power of words. He uses words to offer pictures of daily life with its successes, failures, and ordinariness. The speaker of many of these poems can be summed up in the character Kirstein creates for “Ghost Pasture,” “a bright somnambulist . . . Outlawed, a guest disinherited, Rootless, a wanderer . . . bidden here . . . to dream.”
Rhymes of a Pfc
Rhymes of a Pfc was first published in 1964 as a collection of sixty-five poems. The second edition of 1967 featured eighty-five poems, and the third separately published edition contained ninety-five poems in 1980. The third printing is the version included in the 1987 Poems of Lincoln Kirstein, with its explanatory notes identifying terms, places, people, and literary styles he used. It is evident Kipling influenced these poems in form and style as well as in content choices. From Kipling, Kirstein learned what to write about in a war, while from Hardy...
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