Robin Skelton Daniel Hoffman - Essay

Daniel Hoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Through] changes of venue and circumstance Mr. Skelton's verse retains its characteristic diction, stance, and rhythm. His normative mode works through short lines in strongly stressed dimeters or trimeters, conventional syntax, whether rhymed or no, and a vatic stance. (pp. 339-40)

These poems [in his retrospective Selected Poems] abound with such words as leaf, star, rock, love, breath, beast, death, the vocabulary of Celtic bards, of Yeats and Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins rather than the ironic, self-deprecatory domesticities of The (London) Movement and The Group. It is not surprising that Robin Skelton made anthologies of Irish verse and emigrated to British Columbia.

This Romantic amplitude of feeling and commitment to inherited meters is evident, too, in his ballads. I much prefer the Blakeian quatrains of A Ballad of Johnnie Question and A Ballad of Despair to the longer ballads in part three of the book. These swiftly grow monotonous, all in fourteeners broken into duple stanzas of eight lines, and based, not on the great ballads of old oral tradition, with their swift alternations between narrative and refrain, but on the tedious and circumstantial broadsides of the last century. (p. 340)

Other poems in other modes of Skelton's are admirable. Begging the Dialect beautifully dramatizes the tension between the transcience of common speech, collected by a linguist in "crumpled villages", and the hoped-for permanence of verse, of language: "What is that? And that? And that? What did/your father call it? What his father? What?"… Two of the last poems are among the most memorable poems of the Second World War I have read. Both dramatize prisoners of war—in Remembering Esquimalt, a Canadian held by the Japanese; in The Reliquary, a German Skelton met in Africa, whose father and the poet's father had also fought on opposing sides of the same battle a generation before. In these poems sharp emotion is intensified by restraint. (pp. 340-41)

Daniel Hoffman, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1969.