Peter Viereck Viereck, Peter (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Viereck, Peter (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Viereck, Peter 1916–

Viereck is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, novelist, critic, and essayist. His poetry is conservative in form, witty, intelligent, and analytical. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Viereck is a humanist who believes that poetry must communicate and that it must celebrate the emotional life, the life of meaning rather than gesture. He writes for the intelligent common reader, in the traditional forms he is intent on preserving. He writes with wit, spirit, conviction and a great understanding of history and modern Western culture—a culture whose increasing dehumanization and vulgarization he finds pernicious. His poetry ranges widely but is basically one of ideas, ideas often fleshed in fresh and surprising ways. Nevertheless, there are poems in [New and Selected Poems: 1932–1967] which, for me, never get off the ground. I believe the trouble lies partly in the use of metaphors that are turgid and come thick and fast, and partly in the versification, which employs severely regular meters and end-stopped lines in conjunction with very close, frequent rhyme and alliteration. Not that any of these devices are unintentional … [but] deliberate or not, it sometimes works against him, especially in intellectually complex poems, which seem to need a larger, more flexible, basic unit than the single line. Since then, however, Mr. Viereck has written some poems of far greater suppleness, including some in blank verse, a form he handles admirably. ("Frutta" and "A Walk on Moss"….) Here the images flow as naturally as waves, and the poems move by stanza rather than line. And then there is the last, previously uncollected, sequence, "Five Walks on the Edge," which seems to me the best thing Mr. Viereck has done. Technically, it is a brilliant and varied tour de force, but it is really the fluent lyricism which makes it the wonderful work it is.

Lisel Mueller, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1968, pp. 66-7.

It isn't easy … to mistake a poem by Peter Viereck. Impulse in the saddle, with unbounded energy raring to take on any subject, is the outstanding impression one gets from his work. Playing the role of Poet as Broncobuster (of Pegasus, of course), he frequently takes his reader for a wild ride from which he alone, the poet, returns. And when the reader does manage to hang on, he is apt to find himself soaring from the plain of reasonable discourse into a realm of Higher Jugglery, somewhat like Marc Chagall's world of identified flying objects.

There is fortunately, however, another Viereck, the memorable one, who can and does rein his mount in tightly after the wilder rides. This happens often enough to make the present collection [New and Selected Poems], old and new poems spanning a thirty-year period, worth the time of anyone concerned with the question: who are our memorable poets?

Ernest Kroll, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer, 1969, p. 204.

On a first reading, Peter Viereck's poetry seems to have great variety. This apparent diversity, however, is not characteristic. For, as he once said, to him "A key word is 'obsessive'"; and in his first book of verse this word and its derivatives appear at least five times. The phrase "obsessive crystals" from "A Walk on Snow" in Terror and Decorum describes his consistency in theme, idea, technique, and subject matter. An important obsessive crystal is "Manhattan classicism," a term Viereck coined to name the type of poetry which he thought he and other poets of his generation were writing….

[Four] requirements [of "Manhattan classicism"] in form and content—"traditional forms and metrics," clarity, ethical responsibility, and lyrical passion—Viereck summed up in 1966 in the phrase "strict wildness": it means "spontaneous absent-mindedness accompanied by the strictest, most conscious discipline of craftsmanship."…

In Viereck's poetry "form" means, first of all, conventional stanzas, rhyme, and meter. "Free verse I write not at all," he said in 1949, "on principle"…. (pp. 33-4)

Viereck frequently writes long poems—perhaps because they more easily convey ideas. In 1950 he thought that, in his "typical poem," "lyrical emotions and philosophical ideas are equally present and are fused into unity by expressing the ideas in sensuous metaphors." "Mine," he continued, "is a poetry of ideas."… His first volume of verse won praise for its fertility of idea; but much of its content was an intellectual "classicism" from which he has moved away. In much of his work since then his best poetry is romantically sensuous; in spirit, style, and idea his poetry is like that of Yeats and also like that of the modern American romantic poet Hart Crane. (p. 35)

For Viereck "Manhattan classicism," or the "baroque synthesis," was a term under which he subsumed the characteristics of his revolt against revolt. It meant coming to terms with contemporary life, using urban materials—the heart, spirit, and mind of urban man as well as (early) actual urban landmarks and machines. It meant also "clarity," explicit and meaningful statements about "intellectual and moral values implied by the content." And, finally, it meant "exacting forms," "traditional metrics," and, within these, "romantic wildness of music and lyrical passion …"…. In Viereck's verse this "romantic classicism" means themes such as the supreme importance of man and love, beauty, and poetry in the face of the "mystery of mortality." (p. 37)

Viereck retains a touch of [his] early comic manner—one transmuted with a delight in the indecorous—in his mature, serious poetry….

Restoring "fun" and "human-ness" to poetry is to Viereck one of his central poetic functions, and in his best poems the tone is often still jocose but with a serious intention. (p. 40)

Like many twentieth-century men who fiercely refuse the panacea of any "friend in the sky" and who also share what has been called the modern world's "amazement at the silence of God," Viereck remains bound to earth and humanity. But … Viereck does not negate; he affirms vigorously, sadly, and joyously "that life cannot be altered for the better either by retreat from humanity or by superimposing on man the authority of any institution, stately or godly." (p. 41)

With his fondness for a variety of forms, his wealth of ideas, and his ability to cull quotations from other writers, Viereck would be better at putting together a commonplace book than trying to write one around a single theme. For in prose the problem of form is one that he has not solved. Both Metapolitics and Conservatism Revisited lacked it to some extent; Shame and Glory lacks it completely…. [All] attempts to evaluate the book involve Viereck's prose style. Hortatory, exclamatory, imperative, subjunctival, rhetorical, bombastic, pun- and fun-loving, it is characteristically crammed with coinages, paradoxical linkings, and other devices. (pp. 93-4)

As a poet Viereck is justly praised for his "audio-imagination," but he has little ear for sound in prose. It is heavy, Germanic, reminiscent of Carlyle or Nietzsche. (p. 103)

In estimating Viereck's … prose works, one must, first, concede that he is important to American intellectual life, even though he is not an original thinker or a writer of organized books. Students of political science, writers of intellectual history, historians of contemporary times, and journalists cite his works, object to his opinions, honor his concepts, and acknowledge him as a leading new conservative. Writing easily and seldom rewriting, Viereck has, of course, no faultless book. Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill, the text of which he worked over carefully, shows his possible prose economy. But it is his poetry, not his prose, which he constantly revises and rearranges. He writes prose out of a sense of duty, an impulse to "do good." No more than a breeze can Peter Viereck "sit" and choose not to act. In his prose books many turbulent ideas are poured out with energy and exuberance. On occasion he makes careful discriminations, expositions, and definitions. (p. 124)

As a stimulant to thought and intellectual self-examination, Viereck has been read and reread for his humane and wise overview of life.

Viereck's place in American literature, however, is established by his poetry, not his prose. The forms, attitudes, subjects, and themes … result in many excellent poems that stand in today's literature along with the best work of his contemporaries: Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, and Theodore Roethke. Speaking trees and tree-girls are uniquely Viereck. He is also notable for metaphor, phrase and line arrangements, as well as for unexpected juxtapositions. (p. 126)

His diction is varied but not precious; his syntax is straightforward and conversational; he seldom reverts to inversion. The simplicity of the diction and syntax in some of his recent verse is, indeed, its success….

This punctiliousness of diction, careful line arrangement, and exact images are what one remembers about his poems…. Most importantly, Viereck's development in poetry has been away from a stress on ideas, simile, metaphor, and content for their own sake toward a pure rhythmical lyricism. In 1959 he said that he often had "the rhythm earlier than the words…." Nonetheless, his early verse tended to be, though versatile, conventional in rhythm. Since the mid-1950's, rhythmical patterns have increasingly conveyed the meaning in his best work. (p. 127)

Marie Henault, in her Peter Viereck (copyright 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1969.