Richard Eberhart Eberhart, Richard (Vol. 3) - Essay

Eberhart, Richard (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eberhart, Richard 1904–

Eberhart is an American lyric poet and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Richard Eberhart has long been an enigma for critics, and doubtless will be so forever. To make things even harder for us, he has all but perfected a number of devices that he employs, cleverly and with increasing skill, to hide the fact that he is one of the most authentically gifted and instinctively poetic minds of our time…. Yet Eberhart is often irritating beyond belief; in this book [Great Praises] he has indulged himself increasingly in a mannerism which first began to be obtrusive in Undercliff: a gabby, jocularly pedantic dialect, largely of his own invention, packed with awkward and ponderously frivolous word play…. It is an irony with aspects of the fabulous that Eberhart's main preoccupation as a poet—the achievement of true "immediacy of perception"—is made literally impossible by the heap of ill-digested bookish language he uses to try to persuade you that he is, too, writing from the center of the place "where everything is seen in its purity."

James Dickey, "Richard Eberhart" (1958), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 78-9.

[While] Eberhart's work is still in progress, his promise has been fulfilled and the shape of his career thus far can be seen. He belongs to no popular movement; neither his virtues nor his faults are shared by his peers, and his peers are few. A stubborn individualist who has been true to his own gifts regardless of what contemporaries were writing or what others thought the times demanded, he early found a vein of ecstatic revelation whose felicities none other has approached….

The world … is not always a perpetual revelation, and Eberhart has sometimes failed through too much trying. Either he makes too conscious a reading of a Significance into a fact of nature, or he tries too hard to find what may not in fact be there. His faults are allegory and a kind of pawky abstract diction no one else would think of putting into poems. It is true that he has been all too prodigal of his talent and uncritical of its exercise;… he does not balk at rhyming "poetry" with "immortality" or at telling us that "Individuation is the way to the universal." Diction so studded with inkhorn terms has no discernible relation to any norms of spoken usage. Yet despite his lust for systems and his tendency to grab at large abstractions to supply them, Eberhart is essentially—like Montaigne—empirical, knowing in the end that his imagination must make its way without one…. [He] seems a bit reluctant to think of himself primarily in Christian terms. Natural piety indeed is his, a deep religious emotion that comes not from systematic doctrines or a theological conception of the world. It is rather a testimony of the senses. I think compassion is for Eberhart as natural as the other precious five….

No less than Williams, Eberhart is both a Romantic and a typically American poet. But no need for him to chuck out the sonnet or the classics. One of his finest poems is the sonnet "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" in which he takes a line from Keats and invokes Socrates while meditating on a murder in New Hampshire. Yet no one with an ear for tongues would take this, or any of Eberhart's other successes, to be in any lingo but American and his own. His characteristically impure diction runs … risks …, but when it works, the abstract language of judgment and qualification really qualifies and judges the simpler terms of presentation, the collision between them vibrant with surprises, "the profound caught in plain air."

In his forms Eberhart is partly improvisatory but not, as Williams demanded, absolutely so. His rhythm is an individual modification of traditional stress patterns, and his best work frequently makes a slantwise, offhand use of minimal forms. With a simple stanzaic pattern of quatrains or triplets, using off rhyme, interior rhyme, or no rhyme, Eberhart makes the shape of the feelings dominate the form of the poem, and the images break into consciousness from the nature of the things they embody. He takes over a simple hand-me-down and, tinkering with it, gets somehow something identifiably his own….

At "the best of his knowing," Eberhart touches primal simplicities, sombre truths, and possible joys. If we judge him by his best it seems likely that a score or more of his poems will prove indestructible. More than this we have no right to desire, yet in the vigor of maturity his imagination is still adding to their number and variety.

Daniel Hoffman, "Hunting a Master Image: The Poetry of Richard Eberhart," in Hollins Critic, October, 1964, pp. 1-12.

Eberhart explores the possibilities of a personal lyricism enclosing a broad spectrum of human experience and boldly testing the forms and language for articulating what imagination gives and intuition seizes. Dispensing for the most part with the device of the persona or fictional speaker so profitably employed by Eliot, Pound, and Stevens, and lacking any inclination to commit [himself] to systematic frameworks of ideas or to build private mythologies to support the imaginative interpretation of experience, [Eberhart] … openly engage[s] the material of [his] work in fresh, dramatic, and often original ways. (p. 5)

Eberhart's poems set themselves in a curiously singular relationship to established canons of modern poetic practice, which they seldom heed. These poems treat philosophic themes abstractly; their method is frequently deductive rather than inductive …; they rely much of the time on inspiration, in the poet's own words, "burst into life spontaneously," during a period in which critical opinion emphasizes careful craftsmanship, the poem as a discovered but also a made object; as a final impertinence they are apt to level undisguised moral judgments while still fighting shy of dogma and firmly insisting on the ultimate mysteriousness of existence, the impenetrable heart of reality. (p. 7)

In fact "mortality," "mentality," and "men's actions" [the three types of awareness defined in his early book-length poem A Bravery of Earth] may be said to become Eberhart's chief themes throughout his career…. [For] Eberhart the poet's primary obligation is to voice the truth disclosed by a specific experience with all the force of the revelation itself, and so it is a note of immediacy or urgency that his poetry most often, if not always, strikes. (p. 13)

Man's fallen condition, his inner disunity,… certainly furnishes the poet with a basis for his ambivalent role with regard to his intuitions and for the tension which so often obtains between them…. What he trusts is the intuition or perception which comes from the poetic imagination and the sudden unique truth it extends. Such intuitions occasionally conflict with one another, but that is because they emerge from the opposing forces operating in man's divided state…. The relativism of Eberhart therefore consists in a submission to the dictates of each imaginative experience as it takes hold of him without concern for its close agreement with other experiences or with any preexisting structure of ideas: in Wallace Stevens' words, "The poem is the cry of its occasion." Consequently, while poems might seem to challenge each other in attitude, such apparent inconsistencies should not obscure the poet's larger purpose, which is his endeavor through "vision felt as absolute when experienced" to attain to what deep if partial truths, what glimpses and approximations of a transcendent and, from a limited human position, unfathomable unity, he can. (p. 18)

Eberhart's best known works as a moralist are, rightfully, his war poems, surely among the finest and most outspoken pieces of that variety in American literature…. Eberhart chooses the transcendent, objective role of the prophet or seer-poet who envisages the conflict in terms of moral absolutes and of all humanity. War looked at from this position is a cosmic event drawing into play the larger forces of good and evil in the universe and exhibiting to men—should they notice it—their basic imperfection, their underlying savage desire for complete destruction. The adoption of a vatic mask might seem to the skeptical reader an easy way to handle the problematic matter of warfare in poetry, but I think this interpretation would be wrong. No voice is more difficult to raise and to sustain authentically in a poem than the prophetic one, which requires great skill and imagination for its realization. (pp. 31-2)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in his Richard Eberhart (American Writers Pamphlet No. 55; © 1966, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1966.

Reviewing Thirty One Sonnets brings to mind Pound's strictures against the Georgian poets. The verses are flaccid, flowery, vague, blurry, inexplicit. They have a Shakespearian rhyme pattern, but lack the roughness and vivification that might have been incorporated in a wiser imitation of Shakespeare. They are the work of a sonneteer, rather than a writer of sonnets….

Grace Schulman, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah; The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1968, p. 76.

One of the astonishing things about [Eberhart] is his consistent and unbelievable unevenness. Nobody of comparable reputation has written half as many bad poems, nor has, it would seem, so little capacity for strict self-criticism. Every Eberhart book forces the reader to choose up sides between its duds and its marvels….

My own taste makes me flip through and forget those poems I find too sweetly musical or sentimental, too forcedly transcendental. Instead of those leapings of the will toward the empyrean, I read and re-read the tough Eberhart poems that honestly confront actuality and somehow, by a power they embody but do not define, succeed in wresting from experience an intimation of sublimity….

Eberhart's artifices are, like Yeats's, in his own best poems. As he edges toward the latter side of middle age he has begun to look intently not only on what passes immediately before his eyes but backward over the inexorably vanished past. Memory is looming larger for this poet of hitherto immediate perceptions, and his retrospective poems specifically invoke Plato as a consolation for the ravages of time and the limits of mortality…. When this metaphysical vein of contemplation is occasioned by a particular experience and articulated in language as clear as the realization it embodies, Eberhart writes at his characteristic best, in love of life and fear of loss and hope of holding something against destruction….

Eberhart's most engaging quality is not the wisdom he so frequently seeks but the sense of wonder he can so successfully communicate, as much through his questions as in any answers to them….

When he presses too hard on his 8 mm. color film he nearly loses his "gigantic naturalism." But when the excitement in his poetry is both relaxed and controlled, as it often is, then what unexpected shots are preserved for his friends and astoundees!

Daniel Hoffman, "Afterword" (1969) to his essay, "Hunting a Master Image: The Poetry of Richard Eberhart" (1964), in The Sounder Few: Essays from the Hollins Critic, edited by R. H. W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 74-80.

[A] veteran American poet, Richard Eberhart, continues after forty years, two Selected Poems and one Collected Poems, to be the vigorous, idiosyncratic visionary his many admirers have come to cherish. As Kenneth Rexroth remarked, Eberhart always appeared to be a poet of the academies, perhaps because of his long teaching career, while his work has actually been the articulation of a quite independent intelligence and imagination, fascinated by physical nature and metaphysical speculation, by the contrariness of human behavior and the elusive traceries of the Divine. Stylistically, Eberhart has developed after his own fashion as well, early absorbing Hopkins, Donne, Blake and others, but always putting what he learned to his own uses. As a poet of inspiration, one who often relies on the moment of perception and its rapid dictation, he has taken risks which more polished poets would avoid, yet the uniqueness of his poetry resides in this visionary intensity that throws caution to the winds in order to seize the given insight.

Fields of Grace, his poems of the past four years, shows that Eberhart has lost none of his power and exuberance; his imagination ranges widely and with keen receptivity over the surfaces, declivities, the abrupt transitions between life and death in the natural world….

Man and his experience, conflict and contradiction, flow like a dialectical thematic stream through Eberhart's poetry. In a fairly large proportion of these new poems he is concerned with the inner motions of his thought itself, rather than with thinking prompted by something witnessed in the outer world or something experienced first and then made food for speculation. He arrives, in a few pieces of this sort, at what he once called "Psyche" poetry, a poetry of calm, religious meditation, of the grace and wisdom of mature acceptance….

Eberhart, like Yeats before him, prefers to put his imaginative and moral trust in the fragmentary, inconclusive and oppositional quality of experience as being more accurate and authentic—in spite of the liabilities—than the rigid, distorting framework of a settled view. If Yeats could announce that consciousness is conflict, Eberhart follows close behind….

Whether considering God, the soul, time's passing, suicide, the disappearing eagle, clouds, two lovers in a forest balanced against war and death, or the growth of nature which tries to appropriate what man makes, Eberhart exhibits the buoyant, forceful and erratic individuality that has been the signature of his poetry for decades, and with no weakening of the drive behind it. We discover again, as with each of his preceding books, that he has been "away in the fields of imagination,/Cropping that hay."

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Parnassus, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 215-19.

Richard Eberhart has always been a poet of the high air—eagles, mountains, 'the rocky springs beyond desire'—and the soaring continues in Fields of Grace. But the uplife has cheapened with the years…. The flappy rhetoric combines with some over-confidence … [and] the grandiose fumbling with diction, evident in his 1965 poems … persists here…. One poem, though, 'As if you had never been,' ranks with Eberhart's best.

John Carey, "Bodily Hardships," in London Magazine, August/September, 1973, p. 127.