Robert Pack Essay - Critical Essays

Pack, Robert


Pack, Robert 1929–

Pack is an American poet, critic, editor, journalist, and author of children's books. Themes of time and mortality are important throughout his work, and frequently are found clothed in imagery of the natural world and the family. Pack skillfully uses symbol and repetition to create poetry that is tightly controlled, intense, and often formal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

X. J. Kennedy

Pack knows the value of formal discipline and the art of drawing a character. In his range, anything is possible from a villanelle to an extended meditation in wide, Whitmanic, image-loaded lines ("The Last Will and Testament of Art Evergreen"). Another of his best is "Your Wound," which begins, "Your wound, like a stuck eye, why have you opened it?"—a poem with a definite cadence, but no pre-existing form that I can discover….

Pack is less moralist or social critic than visionary incantor. His own form of protest, however, may be his vein of sinister humor, which comes through beautifully in "Burning the Laboratory," about a madman's plot for a little apocalypse.

At times, Pack hasn't discovered words simple enough to resolve his poems' inner complexities. Lines raise problems we don't feel challenged to solve:

      A son's parched mouse's springing tidal squeal
      Rides to a howling whale's vast sea decline.

That reads like Dylan Thomas on a bender. Pack can't resist sound effects. Bees jabber, crickets make foot-screeps. (Foot-screeps strikes me as accurate, jabber doesn't.) But when his reckless gambles succeed, the result can be wonderful. (p. 379)

X. J. Kennedy, in The Nation (copyright 1970 The Nation Associates), March 30, 1970.

Jascha Kessler

Robert Pack's sixth volume of poems ["Nothing but Light"] continues in the line taken through the last decade: He is a householding poet, occupying the thoughtful middle way, domesticated, civil, intelligent and curious about the plain, diurnal world in which we live, and should live.

There are many who think otherwise, caught up in the fantastic realms our stony, or metallic, society creates: smoke whirling in the complex winds tearing over our cities. But Pack has settled down in the semirural where the seasons, their animals, their plants and human creatures have their times and proper modes of being.

He asks questions of life and death, and meditates not answers so much as possible responses of the grown man to the common matters of family, past and present, friends and lovers. His forms are longish, open and running sentences, variously musical in an agreeable way, and exact in diction and phrasing.

He has grown steadily over the years, and my use of the term householding is meant as praise for his sure and accomplished management of thought, feeling, language and closed and open formal structures. He can be read easily and with great pleasure.

Jascha Kessler, "Poetry of a Semirural Householder," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1973, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), January 21, 1973, p. 47.

Arthur Oberg

In Nothing but Light, [Pack] continues to move amid dark and light, loss and praise. But what I see in this book that is new is an extension of Pack's lyrical-elegiac talent to the kind of quiet, careful attention that marks poems of William Carlos Williams like "The Descent" and "To Daphne and Virginia." Earlier, I would have put Pack in the line of very different, older American poets. But in poems from Nothing but Light like "My Daughter," "The Mountain Ash Tree," and "Now Full of Silences," I see the continuing of a tradition which would include W. C. Williams, and particularly the Williams of the poems I mentioned.

What I never seem able to forget in the poems from this new book of Robert Pack is that sense of the delight and pain of being alive, of having to hold on, of using poetry as that means of creating places and spaces (and, again, I think of Williams) for love. But even in the midst of trying to create a greater ease, of moving toward nothing but light, Pack returns to an older Pack, and for me a very essential Pack. It is not a backsliding or a regression, but rather a simultaneous, co-existent sense of something darker and other, perhaps the dark which poets like W. S. Merwin and Mark Strand know and encounter when they, too, move toward light. But the dialectic in Pack never resolves the contraries as much as it tries to keep some of the Puritan tension of guilt and unease that has always marked his work.

Nothing but Light again establishes Pack as one of the best domestic, undomesticated poets we have around; over the years, his finest domestic pieces—poems of sons and fathers and daughters and mothers and wives—place him with poets as different as Robert Creeley and Tony Connor, and thereby indicate an existence for this major, important mode on both sides of the Atlantic. (pp. 89-90)

Arthur Oberg, in Shenandoah (copyright 1973 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1973.

Vernon Young

In [Nothing but Light], the prevailing condition, intensifying to the last outcry, is an affirmed love of and faith in the near-at-hand, pierced by doubt or an engulfing hopelessness, the poet holding off despair tenaciously and always resolving it within the poem by a triumphant modulation of his initial metaphor. ("The Mountain Ash Tree" is a splendid example.) Indeed, were he not so constructively adept in the arts of poetic nuance and recovery, he would be subjectively unbearable to read; he is too vulnerable by far. His identification with the creatures he loves, those of the home, the garden or the wild, is passionate and jealously guarded; the thought of their extermination is the haunted premise of his poems. ("We love only that which we know will die," wrote Spengler.) Pack's empathy with birds, beasts, and flowers is an increasingly familiar and welcome element in the poetry of Americans. As he says, himself, of another faculty: "It is a trick of gathering oneself / into what one believes / And stepping forth." But not a simple trick! Over against James Dickey's impressive conjuring of the predator world, Pack has an equally intuitive gift for sensing the less spectacular lives of the hummingbird, the field mouse, and the pack rat. The latter, serving as subject for a quizzical and informed poem, may well be an intended pun, for although the rodent is described as an emblem of the symbiotic life which man has forsaken or abused, he could at the same time be taken as a rueful self-reflection of the poet: "moderate / Music maker with moderate powers, thumping / the drum of frightened ground …" Poem by poem, Pack is deceptively a child of the peaceable kingdom, yet to read his closing lines in this book with his opening lines in the memory is to recognize how much of the tragic sense he has overtaken within the span of 68 pages…. Pack is a poet of startling perceptions and uncomfortable reminders. (pp. 164-66)

Vernon Young, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Harold Bloom

Robert Pack's Keeping Watch … has the quiet wisdom, sanity and good workmanship we rightly expect from him. Maxims in Limbo compares poorly to the Stevens of Like Decorations, which it invokes, but every other poem in the book is movingly closer to home. Nothing but Light, Pack's previous book, was better, but even this latest volume continues to show Pack's strength as an almost unique celebrant of married love and fatherhood, subjects by no means favorable to the poems of our climate. (p. 23)

Harold Bloom, in The New Republic reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.

G. E. Murray

Robert Pack's Keeping Watch reveals not only the presence of a gifted writer but a gifted man, steadfast and insightful. With this, his seventh book, Pack finally and fully unearths his truest resources in family and homestead, while channelling the currents of his warm and level voice into episodes as large as song. He has in the past spent the blood of many poems searching the nature of his bloodline, particularly the troublesome spectre of his father. But in his last book, Nothing But Light (1974), there was evidence of a swing in perspective from the poet-as-son to the poet-as-father. And with Keeping Watch, the movement is reinforced and elaborated…. This is the tough stuff of which Pack is...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Richard Jackson

The direction of Robert Pack's Keeping Watch is a dialectic expansion outwards in which the poet's will appropriates the power of nature. In "A Spin Around the House," the opening poem, Pack describes how he rises from a table and, "starting to whirl, / nowhere to go," he "swirls" out to a "familiar pine / in its real place," and stops:

Everything spins
in its chosen space—I will it so,
a star's held silence
pallors my cinnamon lips, and my arms,
each elbow galaxy,
circle it all in. What shall I do with it?

The crucial...

(The entire section is 496 words.)