When a poet has made his mark, sharp and distinctive, on the language of poetry (whether that mark is felt immediately as influence upon his contemporaries or not), he can be said to have succeeded in his craft, to have excelled in his art. Of the younger poets in America who have come into their own or begun their progress since World War II, few have made that mark. There are, of course, Richard Wilbur and Robert Lowell, both of whom are of the first order, and there are those shaggy poets, the Beats, who made themselves heard collectively if seldom singly. And there are some younger poets, testing their abilities and finding their strengths, avoiding both the dull drone of the academy or the hysterical howl of the streets of night. Among these young poets is George Garrett, best known perhaps for his novels and short stories, who is a poet of true distinction with a voice clearly and originally his own.
The poems, collected so far in his three books and appearing in journals, were written during and, without being topical and thus temporally restricted, speak for the last twenty years, from 1947 to the present. Garrett is a poet of the cold war years, striving in his verse to understand and accommodate the lost world of heroism and faith, the traditional realm of poetry, to this age of anxiety, shattered hopes, and leering fears. His poetry records a personal journey through the army and a time in Rome, his years in school and after, the growth of his love into a family, and his own growing recognition of his frailty and his mortality in a world in which everything tastes of death and where every skull grins a lewd secret. It is a dark journey, an Augustinian journey through life, fraught with doubts and terrors, lighted by love and a real faith in God and His awesome and awful grandeur, and in the human spirit with its failings and its real achievements.
Garrett’s personal odyssey is but a part of his poetry, the mainstream with connecting smaller streams of amazing variety. He has written witty poems of genuine eighteenth century satirical brilliance (“Three from the Academy,” “Four Characters in Search of a New Dunciad”); he has evoked the moods and essences of real places (“Fall Landscapes, New England,” “In North Carolina,” “Crows at Paestum,” “Old Slavemarket: St. Augustine, Fla.”); he has written poems which approach real people with telling insight (“Congreve,” “Matthew Arnold,” “Caedmon,” “Swift”); and he has re-created larger figures from a real and mythic past (“Tiresias,” “Eve,” “Abraham’s Knife,” “Salome”). This variety is evidence of the vitality of the poems, and that vitality, along with Garrett’s technical skill, gives the poems, for all their variety, a real unity of vision and manner.
George Garrett’s poems, first of all, have a clearly recognizable sound, an uncommon virtue among his contemporaries. They achieve a working fusion between the heightened diction of poetic meditation and the fresh and exciting immediacy of colloquial speech—a living voice, a real meeting of thought and word. His rhythms are subtle and widely varied, at times musically regular and at others wildly free beyond ordinary scansion. His images are vivid and functional, seldom drawn for their own sake, always working in their context. But his metaphors are perhaps the most distinctive quality of the texture of his verse; they arise cleanly and crisply from a context of theme. He does not, as is so often...
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