Zaturenska, Marya (Vol. 6)
Zaturenska, Marya 1902–
Marya Zaturenska is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Russian-born American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Reading Marya Zaturenska's Collected Poems has been a genuine pleasure which I would gladly share with as many readers as possible. The difficulty is that she is a literary poet, and the conventions she invokes have for some time been out of favor, and the poets themselves are no longer read. Aside from the influence of a few Italian and English Renaissance poets, the most significant body of poetry behind her work is that of the English decadence, especially that of Swinburne and the Rossettis. Certainly there is nothing wrong in being a literary poet—that is, a poet who derives much of his strength from literary commonplaces—for Sidney, Campion, and Herrick are such poets; for that matter, so are Yeats and Pound. The difficulty with Miss Zaturenska's work is that although her antecedents are chiefly second-rate, she is a writer of great talent. Except for a few poems by Christina Rossetti, Miss Zaturenska is considerably better than her elders.
This is not to say that she is in any sense an imitator; rather, she is writing in ways which were considered conventional and usable as late as the 1920s. It should be clear by now that both Pound and Stevens, in some ways Stevens especially, were strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and other decadents; and if one wishes a full view of the twentieth-century poets, a knowledge of the earlier literature is indispensable. Even if Miss Zaturenska's book were not worthwhile in its own right it would still be valuable as a casebook for ideas and manners current in the tens and twenties (her first poems appeared in Poetry in 1920).
The celebrated split between art and life in the second half of the nineteenth century produced an art which was often deliberately artificial, an art best exemplified in the Pre-Raphaelite "stunners," women whose blank gaze appeared to look into eternity. They were clearly products of the artist's solitary imagination, though of course they were based on actual women. They appear in many of Pound's sketches and often, I think, take the forms of Stevens' vague and disembodied ladies. They became quickly a literary commonplace. By the early part of this century Ford Madox Ford wrote that men often chose wives simply because they looked like Rossettis. The stunners were, however, never quite real enough to be alive.
One is often put off by the persistence in Miss Zaturenska's poems of such literary stereotypes as crystalline air and maidens with dishevelled hair. But she understands the conventions perfectly and, moreover, understands that literary conventions are attended by feelings. (pp. 577-78)
Kenneth Fields, in The Southern Review (copyright 1969, by the Lousiana State University), Vol. V, No. 2, Spring, 1969.
Marya Zaturenska's writing is of a kind easier to categorize than to evaluate. She is, in the most traditional sense, a lyric poet, one for whom the melody of words disposed in standard patterns of rhyme and meter is a dominant concern. She seems nearly incapable of writing a line that is not musical. The music, too, can be broadly categorized. It is of the court, not of the country: delicate, dignified, subtle in composition and effect. It draws its inspiration not from the simplicities of popular speech or song but from the sophisticated harmonies of Shakespeare's songs, or the lyrics of Keats, Tennyson, and the Pre-Raphaelites. (One remembers that Miss Zaturenska has published a well-regarded biography of Christina Rossetti.) We have become so conditioned to regard the use of natural speech rhythms as a virtue in poetry that such elaborate musicality comes as a shock. Whether, the shock having passed, it then becomes a pleasure depends upon how tolerant we are of stylistic anachronism. I suppose I am more tolerant than most of bygone fashions; several readings of these poems [The Hidden Waterfall] have afforded me repeated satisfaction. (p. 100)
Each of Miss Zaturenska's poems goes about its business gracefully and efficiently. Even while appreciating their manifest virtues, one cannot read an entire volume of them without being visited by doubts. The old question, whether it is better to write an impeccable minor poem or a flawed great one, presents itself with special force. Another question is raised by the very expertise with which Miss Zaturenska manipulates sound in her verse. At times, in reading her, one is moved to recall Eliot's caution that "the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from the meaning."… Some of the poems in The Hidden Waterfall rely overmuch on sound effects and beguiling images whose referents are not easily defined…. Finally (just to cram into one paragraph all one's negative remarks) these late poems may be taken as indicating a lack of venturousness extending through Miss Zaturenska's whole career. Her style has not altered importantly since her first book appeared in 1934. Such consistency may be a virtue, but it is not a trait which characterizes the lifework of our greatest poets, who master one technique only to advance to another more demanding. (pp. 101-02)
The most striking pieces are those in which a note of valediction contends with an equally powerful one of celebration. In poems like Prospero's Soliloquy, Bird and the Muse, The Young Dancers, and Spellbound, aging and loss are acknowledged while the continuance of beauty's manifestations, in art and in love, is affirmed. The wisdom of love or art is the perception offered in the last lines of Spellbound—that change and permanence are happily and mysteriously interwoven…. (p. 102)
Robert B. Shaw, "Courtly Music," in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), May, 1975, pp. 100-02.