Theodore Weiss Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 8) - Essay

Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Weiss, Theodore 1916–

An American poet and critic, Weiss has taken the position that poetry has surrendered "immense sectors of the world to prose." He has tried to regain some of this lost ground by incorporating elements of the epic, Homeric poetry that he admires into his own poems. In this respect his poetry has run counter to the personal, confessional poetry that has been lately in vogue in America and England. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

When I opened [The World Before Us],… I found myself on the first page, as it were, eating Proust's madeleine: I was cast back on waves of sensuous language to the exact feeling of literature in our youth a quarter-century ago. In Weiss's early poems I seemed to hear at once every bell of a distant peal. Not just Valéry or Pound or Joyce or Rilke or Ford or Stevens but the entire tintinnabulation, our epoch's first literary renaissance, jumbled timbres both great and obscure, the linguistic intoxication of an age. Not that we young ones merely imitated our seniors, though imitation in some sense was important to us. We were poor scholars, by and large, lazy readers, and half the time didn't know what our predecessors had been talking about; besides, we wanted to be ourselves. But how we reveled in their reputations, their power won through words! It was the triumph of language, or so we thought. We set out to equal them, and what we wrote, the good or the bad, could not have been in greater contrast to the studiously plain, careless, unambitious writing of young poets today. It had its dangers, that old wild dream of style…. But it had its pleasures too; raptures, ecstasies, as we kept calling them, only half in irony; and I can think of no better poet than Weiss with whom to celebrate our nostalgia….

War-battered, we needed love. Denatured, we needed ways to restore a pre-Freudian mystery to sex. Don't think we did not write in urgency simply because we chose set themes. But notice the language [of the early poetry]. Imitative, of course…. But there is plenty of Weiss in it too, especially the way he uses language, uses it with purpose and for all it is worth, every craftsmanly element, every device, vocabulary, grammar, rhythm, tone, all the nuances of association and echo, with the result that his poem has a quality of tension which rises through its imitativeness and nearly through its substantial meaning. And this quality of language, this tension and tensility, is to my mind what characterizes the best poetry by young poets of that period, whatever our writing may have lacked in perceptual directness and experiential relevance, just as it is the quality I find so evidently and regrettably absent from the poetry of today's young writers, who may have ample other merits and whose unfortunate disdain for the craft of poetic articulation has a certain historical justice. (p. 25)

His book, The World Before Us, naturally places the emphasis … not on origins but on destinations, and is a splendid selection for this purpose, though Weiss's longest poem, Gunsight, which is one of his best, is not included. Other shorter narrative and dramatic poems, like "Wunschzettel" and "Caliban Remembers," show his storytelling skills equally well perhaps, and the rest of the poems, lyrical, reflective, erotic, show a remarkable diversity of themes within a remarkable consistency of texture. The inner part of this consistency comes from the poet's characteristic turn of mind, which is dialectical, the simplest questions being posed in terms of conflict, so that often quotation marks are used to distinguish abstract points of view even where no speaking persons are present. The outer part of the consistency comes, of course, from language. Weiss has evolved in a straight line from his early poems…. He soon sloughed off the imitative elements … and turned from set themes to more personal frames of reference and firmer concepts of expressiveness; yet still with the same winding syntax, precise diction and rhythmic tension. A poem by Weiss is indelibly his own. Indeed I often cannot understand the separate components of his idiosyncratic prosody, such as his hyphenated line endings or absolutely capricious interior line breaks; yet where I question such matters in the work of other poets, here I cannot, because they are so firmly and unalterably fixed in their totally individualized parent structures. They are the essential parts of a poem by Weiss, whose prosodic reasoning, even intuition, may be obscure, but whose end product, the poem in its wholeness, is not.

The shape of Weiss's poetry on the page, its coiling, spiraling movement up and down, corresponds to the way his language winds ever back on itself in the search for more precise discriminations of feeling, moral and aesthetic judgment and descriptive rightness. It is civilized poetry, in both the ordinary meaning of polish and refinement and in the higher meaning of eagerness to discover, reaffirm, and transfigure its own primitivism. It does not appeal to everyone. Impatient readers, who are willing to overlook the moral consequence of the moment when a feeling passes from one state to another, find it finicky or pedantic. But it is nothing of the kind, and I am sure its appeal is not limited to the poet's contemporaries. On the contrary, young people will prize this work, perhaps more than we do, because like all poetry which is both intrinsically sound and somewhat at variance with the immediate cultural and social needs of the day, this poetry is prophetic. It cannot help being prophetic. It bears one required phase of the cycle of human sensibility, from whose turning civilization is generated. If it is on the downturn now, it will come up again. (pp. 25-6)

Thus a fine and modest book may have a role greater than its appearance across a cultural gap. (p. 26)

Hayden Carruth, "The Cycle of Sensibility," in The Nation (copyright 1971 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 4, 1971, pp. 25-6.

The poetry of Theodore Weiss achieves its effect by not reaching for an effect: it offers relief from heightened language, and reassurance by not straining credulity. The sensation is that of entering a world freed from sensationalism. Readers who explore this world often develop a taste for its flavor, its shady tang.

"Fireweeds," listed as the seventh of Weiss's poetry volumes, from a beginning in the early 1950's, gathers his quiet poems from a range of recent literary magazines—his Acknowledgments page is a chart of the scene…. (p. 8)

I say "quiet poems." Theodore Weiss does not depart just a bit from high-impact wording. He consistently departs a lot. He lounges into a poem, often with phrases like "Imagine that time …" or "And so there are…." He is steadfastly relaxed in wording. The reader lives on a taste for casualness and accuracy rather than for intensity.

"The Storeroom" exemplifies this style. It is a long poem—17 pages—and it gathers itself slowly and openly. The reader follows Penelope as she goes over objects and thoughts, waiting for Odysseus's return. Reinforcing the reader's gradual involvement, the parts of the poem—the sentences themselves—unwind, act out the message, while mentioning it: "At first the shapes seem satisfied/to keep the dark. But glimmers of them gather-/ing in huddled companies, next one/by one they press toward her…."

And these things, these elements of the poem, these accumulating touches that become the total experience, unfold by unspectacular constructions. Often, and typically, the sentences link forward by appositives, by gradual refining of the assertions that the poems consist of. It is as if Theodore Weiss picks up some topic and then examines it deftly and relentlessly till he has brought out more aspects than other people would have noticed. Then at the end of the poem he is satisfied just to wait: the journey of discovery is enough; the reader is to abide and know, but not to be nudged by the author. (pp. 8, 10)

Weiss's poems stretch the attention through their multiple appositives and successive adjustments, and through interruptions that delay the expected closure. These suspenseful entries leading into calm new experiences often give a poem a surreal effect, a holding off of the ordinary world. But suspense resolves itself, and by close reading one discovers clear resolutions. The upshot is that the poem satisfies even the matter-of-fact reader, but only after flights over some dreamlike terrain.

But the audience otherwise natural for these poems encounters a complexity. Despite their low-key language and ultimate consistency—their straightforward quality—the poems homogenize into themselves a host of literary allusions. This literary aura complicates the appeal of the plain style: a reader must like accuracy and directness, but also be ready for myths and legends, and even for references to the vocabulary of literary criticism. (p. 10)

William Stafford, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 2, 1977.

The miniaturist … finds its counterpart in Theodore Weiss, or at least in an attitude echoed throughout Fireweeds…. His St. Atomy is its spokesman, in a poem called A Slow Burn:

          Although I am a very little
          known and even less respected saint,
          I have my uses. Unlike those who pant
          for the instant bliss, consummate
          glory, of an all-consuming blaze, I am
          content with less, a steady smolder.
          Let the godly say who lasts longer,
          who's the one grows soonest cold.

Elsewhere Weiss celebrates the poetry tuned to the minor scale: "not a mad beeline/to the honey but laying out the slow,/pedestrian cobbles block by block,/then footing it uphill." Such insistent modesty risks turning coy or, worse, pharisaical. But more to the point, in Weiss's case the caution is unnecessary—and therefore annoying—since he is a fine, substantial poet. The reader familiar with Weiss's previous work will find nothing unexpected here. The tone is familiar, with its slightly professorial, gently self-deprecating accents of a man who meets "the monster deep/inside with a paper shield, a vision/that's bifocal, and a year's supply/of ballpoint ink." Weiss composes these poems as if they were letters to acquaintances who share his values and culture, but whom he does not know well enough to write with any urgent intimacy. Poems like The Library Revisited, News from Avignon, or A Charm Against the Toothache are warmly humorous and intelligent, but do tend to grow discursive. Even as several poems could have been pruned from this long book, so too any single poem could have been sharpened or braced—say, by Hollander's flair for wit and paradox, or Wilbur's elegant schemes and grids.

In his critical study of Shakespeare, The Breath of Clowns and Kings (1971), Weiss admires that poet's prodigious learning and canny economy. Not surprisingly, these are prominent qualities of Weiss's own nostalgic and domestic poems, which ring changes on a few themes and situations, especially the ways in which marriage completes its couple, and the relationship memory establishes with the past…. And this book's jewel and its touchstone is its longest poem, The Storeroom, a sixteen-part lyric retelling of The Odyssey's last books. The figure of Odysseus, with his frank curiosity and ironic heroism, has always attracted Weiss, but the speaker in this poem is Penelope, at the moment she visits the cool, dark room in which her absent husband's gear is stored. And that storeroom is, of course, memory's own. The poem employs a kind of stylized archaism, not of diction (as Pound might have done it) but of a syntax which diffuses its accounts and suspends its resolutions, resulting in a language half-dream, half-chant, appropriate to the woman's projective invocation of her husband…. But the poem is no conventional romance; or else it is precisely that. In its generic perspective, the poem poses time as a story in which we read our parts, accomplish our plots. The final section is an eloquent summary of that confidence:

      But still she takes her time as he knows how
      to do, for time is what they have together,
      have apart, proved most accomplished in.
      Both understand like stars tales of such deeds—
      the lightning and its thunder, laggarding—
      require time, time to be heard, be felt.
      Had they not learned it at the first
      from one another, earth's own seasoned dance,
      the measured pace of things completing
          from their good time together,
      the great tide washing over them, yet lovely-
      slow, as honey, pouring from a vase?
                                            (pp. 45-7)

J. D. McClatchy, in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1977.