Reed Whittemore has published fewer poems than many of his contemporaries have done, and most of them have been written in an ironic vein. His targets are the pretentious—both romantic and bureaucratic, both individual and institutional—against which he sets his own balanced, moderate point of view. The poems imply that the realism at their center is all the modern world has to offer in the way of belief.
At times, Whittemore runs the risk of being merely a writer of light verse, a maker of clever rhymed jokes, but in his best work he combines the sensible note of comedy with a seriousness of theme. This combination, along with his subtle command of form and sound in verse, make him a poet of consequence.
Heroes and Heroines
Whittemore’s first book, Heroes and Heroines, consists primarily of poems about literature and literary figures. It is an amusing book that explores, through a series of comic poems, the idea of heroism in portraits of Don Quixote, Lord Jim, Hester Prynne, Lady Ashley, Gulliver, and many other characters from books. The poems display Whittemore’s fondness for traditional verse forms—particularly the sonnet—his wit, and his interest in the theme of heroism; yet it is a book of very limited range that only hints at his potential as a poet.
An American Takes a Walk
In Whittemore’s second book, An American Takes a Walk, that potential is clearly displayed as he develops the comic tone that becomes the trademark of his work. That tone can be seen in his often reprinted poem “Lines (Composed upon Reading an Announcement by Civil Defense Authorities Recommending that I Build a Bombshelter in My Backyard).” The poem begins with a description of the dugout that the speaker and his friends had built as children and that he identifies with some vague notion of heroic fantasy, “some brave kind of decay.” Now he is being asked to dig another hole “under the new and terrible rules of romance.” “But I’ll not, no, not do it, not go back,” the poem proclaims; he knows that this time, if he conforms to the government’s wishes, he will not be able to return to “the grown-up’s house” as he had done as a child. This time the seeming child’s play is play in earnest, a deadly absurdity. As Nemerov has pointed out, Whittemore’s poetry is filled with images of entrapment and burial, and this poem can be read as more than a satirical thrust at Civil Defense. It contains the poet’s rejection of safety and security as a kind of living death and seems to long for some world where daring and risk have meaning.
The problem, however, Whittemore’s work implies, is that a heroism that risks all often leads to nothing. One of his funniest poems, “A Day with the Foreign Legion,” makes a number of tough statements about the failure of heroic action, or its meaninglessness. The poem is based on a beau geste version of the Foreign Legion as it appears in motion pictures, where, when everything seems darkest, the characters make speeches that “serve as the turning point”:
After which the Arabs seem doped and perfectly helpless,Water springs up from the ground, the horses come back,Plenty of food is discovered in some old cave,And reinforcements arrive led by the girlFrom Canada.
That is what usually happens, but in this instance it is too hot; there is no magical ending and the audience is bitterly disappointed. The poem asks who is to blame—the film, the projector, “the man in the booth, who hastened away, as soon as the feature was over”? The poem answers, in a series of purposely confusing repetitions, that none of them is to blame, or all of them are, or possibly the culture is to blame. “It was the time, the time and the place, and how could one blame them?” The poem seems to be saying that in this time (modern) and this place (the United States) the world of romance and happy endings is finished.
The title poem, “An American Takes a Walk,” mocks the idea of a tragic or sacred vision existing in the United States or American literature. When the American of the poem comes across a wood reminiscent of Dante’s world of hell, it is a pleasant wood, hell in a “motherly habit.”
How in that Arden could humanFrailty be but glossed?How in that Eden could AdamBe really, wholly lost?
The emphasis on innocence and on success in the United States, according to Whittemore, leads the American writer to adopt the demands of his culture. In “The Line of an American Poet,” the poet writes for the market, following the supply-and-demand economy. He produces works, “Uniform, safe and pure,” becoming another American success story.
Whittemore once described poetry “as a thing of the mind,” saying that he “tends to judge it . . ....
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