Eberhart, Richard 1904–
Eberhart, an American poet and playwright, is best known for his antiwar poems. His intense religious and moral convictions inform all his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
Richard Eberhart, from the beginning of his career, has often displayed that intense insight into reality which characterizes the poet whose gift is close to Blakean vision. This sort of insight works most frequently from a base of sharply apprehended reality, to rise toward levels where the fact at once dissolves and condenses into meaning. Eberhart's poem "The Groundhog" illustrates this power of transformation and transcendence very clearly indeed; and many of the poems of his early and middle period, including the extraordinary "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment," advance step by step from the observed fact to the resolving universal intimation.
And Eberhart, an assiduous writer, has been steadily engaged in experiments with form, over the years. He has been experimental within form—that is, he has worked inside poetry's conventional rules, modifying them within boundaries, instead of denying all formal precedent (as is the habit of many modern writers). This latter procedure can end only in monotony, since so many effects are passed over—effects truly fitted for the condensation of language and the production of "memorable speech." Eberhart's work has never become repetitive, although, of course, certain of his experiments, in the nature of things, have been less interesting than others. In ["Am I My Neighbor's Keeper?"] he has experimented with the sonnet form. (p. 143)
Eberhart has written "Am I My Neighbor's Keeper?" in a species of "sprung rhythm." And he has varied the number of stresses in the lines, as well as keeping the syllable...
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I think I'd know "Am I My Neighbor's Keeper?" as an Eberhart poem even if Richard Eberhart hadn't signed it. Words like "veils," "unanswerable," and "the profound" are Eberhart's hallmark; and syntax like "but no great harm" is unmistakably his. Such language may, in itself, appear to veil what's finally profound in Eberhart's work; but the great originality of this present poem lies, dramatically, in how it lifts those veils of traditional language which surround the profound irrationality of its "inexplicable essence." The New Criticism has predisposed us to carefully inductive poems, rationally structured toward carefully limited conclusions. But like Eberhart's fine "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment," this new poem moves by deduction, and risks within itself a drama of deducing the specifically human relevance of its introductory abstractions. Innocently rational in form and first assertion as this poem is, it deduces and unveils (within its language) an irrational shadow which commits its poet to guilt. (p. 147)
In spite of its literate references, this is far from being an "academic" poem written, I suspect, as much on Eberhart's amateur pulse as with his intellectual courage. To ask, as Eberhart does, if he is his neighbor's keeper, is to extend Cain's blooded question toward answers of innocence or guilt beyond mere mindful brotherhood. Given the guilt implicit in any reference to Cain, there's something painfully ironic in adding to that reference an assertion derived in all innocence from Keats. But the problem of the poem is, as Stevens might say, how "to live in the world but outside of existing conceptions of it"; and Eberhart's variant paraphrases, individually and in juxtaposition, imply old moral concepts. Eberhart's veiled references, then, function to introduce moral possibilities which—his poem will discover—can't by any tradition be rationally resolved. Cain's question is ultimately a question of one's pulse, not of one's rational judgment; so does the poem's answer to that question become emotionally equivalent to the drama it describes and re-enacts. (pp. 147-48)
[It is] important to this poem's success that Eberhart finally grounds it in place and event. As it is, he compresses the narrative to his sense of its essence, perhaps to the point where certain dramatic facts are left out…. I read Eberhart as answering his title-question with an acceptance of responsibility that involves the potential of guilt. (p. 148)
Eberhart's strange juxtaposition of his title-question and his assertive first line ["The poetry of tragedy is never dead,"] makes the poem difficult to discuss; the question and assertion seem, in retrospect, inextricably interrelated. I'm inclined to think that Eberhart expects his reader, moved into his first line, already to have answered the title-question with a glib affirmative. If this is so, then the reader is early trapped in imagining himself a kind of moral hero, worthy in his own right of Eberhart's implication that the "poetry of...
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Richard Eberhart owns ["Am I My Neighbor's Keeper?"]; it is marked with his odd and endearing brands. Or you might say it has wounds: many of his poems are like ads for hiring the handicapped…. ["Am I My Neighbor's Keeper?"] comes staggering up from a poor, slapdash beginning, and then parades in triumph, in acrobatic strength, as—caught in plain air—the profound corpse proclaims its tragic enigma: I am.
The echoes in the first stanza have an insidious appeal: if the reader veers to Keats in the first line—"The poetry of earth is never dead"—and to Longfellow in a more sidling way in line four—"mournful numbers … things are not what they seem"—then these responses hover in the mind disquietingly. The echoes insist; but a writer is sly—he knows you know and then goes on to use your simplicity. This wavering is an early issue in this poem—how to account for, defend, or indict the jangle of echoes presented almost to the point of parody, this sudden draft on Bartlett's Familiar Quotations…. One of the consistencies is that the echoes retain or increase their ominousness or portentousness; the first displacement in a quotation—not "poetry" of earth, but "tragedy" of earth—establishes the direction of displacement. Another consistency in the use of these echoes is that a rigor in reasoning is steadily implied—"If it were not so…." The result of these elements—the serious turn and the formidable use of the passages—is that the reader of this stanza feels obliged to pay serious attention to some kind of case being asserted in terms of quickly mobilized allusions.
Does the reader willingly take up this job in this stanza? Can he confidently weave a positive course amid the richnesses and partial connections?… [As] you are poised for commitment to a poem, either you receive inducements, hints of future pay-off, enticing concurrences in what you glimpse, or—and this is my experience with this poem—you receive signals which say, "Poor investment, cut your losses, stay free from maddening alliances." The contentions offered as truths and as consequences of truths do not immediately entice me…. [The] jauntiness catches the attention, and high spirits command some allegiance; but this engaging quality is more than canceled by grandiosity in phrases like "principles so deep." So, to tell the truth …, the first stanza ends without much momentum for me; and only a habit of leaning forward when I read carried me into the second stanza. (pp. 153-54)
The second stanza, however, made me late for dinner: good influences begin to dominate. What is it that calls us to commitment on such occasions? For me it was not any of the more elaborate realizations I now have the urge to expound, but it was a general sense of development in the main ingredients of the poem…. Is it in the phrasing that inducement comes? I believe not, or at least not primarily. This phrasing begins to catch up resonance with the rest of the poem, and with a rich, vibrating word I had read at the beginning—"Eberhart." Little gongs begin to sound all the way back to some occasion in college when I stood, neglecting my lessons, snatching a look at an early poem by this writer: aerial bombardments begin to come at me again through this plain air.
The poem has begun to breathe…. Still, all is not smooth in acceptance: "lair" at the end of the line sets my teeth on edge—such a reached-for word, so odd. I experience a wave of...
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Yeats remarked … that his grand intent was "to hold in a single thought reality and justice." That project—reconciling man's tropism toward the light with his experience of a world that seems, as often as not, designed to thwart it—is, of course, a perennial concern of poets. Few have been more preoccupied with the task than Richard Eberhart, who is perhaps the most distinguished survivor of a tradition that remained potent well into this century but that has been partially eclipsed by the nihilist tendencies of the day, the tradition of religious romanticism whose greatest modern exemplars are Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, and Roethke. If Eberhart sometimes strikes readers as an anomalous figure, it may...
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