Peter Viereck 1916–
American poet, critic, historian, dramatist, and essayist
Peter Viereck's poetic career was shaped by his struggle to define a new direction for poetry following the modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He has been heralded for his effort to create a poetry of ideas while reviving traditional formalism. An eminent historian as well as a poet, Viereck has received numerous awards for his works of poetry and historical nonfiction, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1949.
Peter Viereck was born August 5, 1916, in New York City, to Margaret Hein and George Sylvester Viereck. His father was born in Germany to a literary family whom the elder Viereck once described as "breeding books like rabbits." A poet himself, as well a journalist and a freelance writer, George Viereck raised his own children in the same tradition of literary, philosophical, and political discourse. Peter Viereck graduated from the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York City and then entered Harvard College, where he won the Garrison Prize Medal for poetry. His younger brother, George S. Viereck, Jr., also attended Harvard, and the two of them co-founded the Harvard Guardian, a magazine devoted to the social sciences. In 1937, Viereck received a B.S. degree summa cum laude from Harvard. From 1937-38, he studied at Christ Church, Oxford, and then returned to Harvard for graduate study in history. He won the Bowdoin Prize Medal for an essay on romanticism, and he received an M.A. in 1939 and a Ph.D. in 1942.
Drafted in 1943, Viereck served with the Psychological Warfare Branch of the U.S. Army, analyzing German propaganda, including anti-American pieces written by Ezra Pound. In 1944, his younger brother was killed in combat at Anzio, Italy. After the war, Viereck taught history at the U.S. Army University in Florence. There he married Anya de Markov, the daughter of Russian emigrants, in June, 1945. He returned to teach history and German literature at Harvard from 1946-47. He taught at Smith College for a year and became associate professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in 1948. He was made a professor in 1955 and has held the William R. Kenan chair of history at Mount Holyoke since 1979.
"Teaching is his profession," Mary Henault wrote of Viereck, "and poetry is his life." Called a "campus poet" by critics such as George Green and grouped with other academic poets such as Richard Wilbur, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell, Viereck's writing is distinguished by the thematic continuities between his poetry and his prose. His essays about history and society, published in books such as Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler (1941) and Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt against Revolt (1949), emphasize the importance of traditional values. In critical essays such as "My Kind of Poetry," Viereck advocated what he called "a revolt against revolt," arguing that traditional values and traditional forms should reclaim a central role in modern poetics. Calling this new aesthetic "Manhattan classicism," he rejected free verse "on principle" and returned to the conventional meters and rhyme schemes that had been rejected by earlier twentieth century poets. He also strongly resisted the modernist tendency to distinguish between ethics and aesthetics, insisting that social responsibility was at the heart of poetic beauty. He took his most famous moral stand on aesthetics when Ezra Pound was granted the Bollingen Prize in 1949. Harshly criticizing Pound's alliance with fascism, Viereck attacked the prize committee for claiming that "artistic form can be considered apart from content."
"What do they know of poetry who only poetry know?" Viereck once asked. His own verse embodies political, philosophical, and ethical themes. His first volume of poetry, Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940-1948 (1948) won the Pulitzer Prize. It includes poems such as "Kilroy" a mock-epic drawn from his experiences during World War II, and "Vale from Carthage," an elegy to the memory of his younger brother, who died in the conflict. Many reviewers considered Strike through the Mask!: New Lyrical Poems (1950) a disappointment, despite successful individual poems such as "Small Perfect Manhattan." Here Viereck called for a classical poetry that remains engaged with the needs of the modern world. In The First Morning: New Poems (1952) and in The Persimmon Tree: New Pastoral and Lyrical Poems (1956) Viereck combined lyrical verse with satirical works that display his sharp, acid wit. The Tree Witch: A Poem and a Play (First of All a Poem) (1961) is poetry presented as a drama. The force of nature and spontaneity is represented by a dryad, and she is opposed by a chorus of modern women, called Guardian Aunts, who represent modern technological materialism. Many critics doubt that a piece so heavy with disputation could ever have been performed successfully. Much of the poetry in New and Selected Poems, 1932-1967 (1967) is taken from Terror and Decorum, and this volume has been frequently praised for a careful arrangement that emphasize themes rather than chronology. Viereck's most conceptually ambitious work is Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987 (1987). This theological epic in eighteen lyrical cycles explores the themes of sin and redemption through the voices of three characters: God the Father, God the Son, and a modern everyman whom Viereck calls "You." In his final collection, Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems 1995-1938 (1995) Viereck arranged the poems in reverse chronological order. This volume includes "Dionysus in Old Age," a retelling of the story of Persephone, and satires such as "Now That Holocaust and Crucifixion Are Coffee-Table Books."
Most critics agree that Viereck took courageous risks in his poetry. His bold experiments in poetic form are almost universally admired, as is his fearless engagement with the great themes of Western literature. Most critics, however, are uncertain about the success of Viereck's poetic risks. He is most frequently faulted for overburdening his poetry with philosophy, theology, and ethics. M.L. Rosenthal urged readers "to forgive Viereck's endless slogans, the precious credos, the saucy banalities about poetry and this harsh world…" for the sake of a few strong poems. Ernest Kroll writes that Viereck "frequently takes his reader on a wild ride from which he alone, the poet, returns." For some critics, the weight of ideas crushed Viereck's personal poetic voice. Paul Goodman complains that "he seems to have no personal language," and Kimon Friar expresses the same doubt, arguing that Viereck "writes with a dashing competence…but rarely do I find a consistent cadence of his own." Hayden Carruth praises his individual voice and "the rather nervous movement" of diction and ideas in his poetry, but he admits that "Viereck's poems are painfully hard to read." There are some critics, however, who argue that Viereck's political and philosophical convictions sustain his poetry. Josephine Jacobsen praises him for his "cosmic sense"—an ability to express universal themes that lead "straight into a sense of the infinite depth of the small and the large." Phoebe Pettingell delights in both the formal and the conceptual challenges that Viereck poses his readers. She particularly admires his identification of art with morality: "Viereck insists that art is an exercise in empathy, the greatest good we as humans can know and practice."