Theodore Weiss Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 3) - Essay

Weiss, Theodore (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Weiss, Theodore 1916–

Weiss, an American poet and critic, is best known for his long narrative poems. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Theodore Weiss's new book [Outlanders], for which we have waited far too long, is well worth waiting for. Weiss is a writer who works his language hard, and he knows exactly how to cultivate it for what it can give him. The opposite of poets like Lee Anderson and Charles Olson, who build for years a kind of complicated and contrived deadness into their poems, Weiss arrives at a clear, intense, vivid verbal life through the most laborious analytical processes, and it is apparent that he could not have achieved the extraordinary intensity of these poems by any other means than this approach. One has the feeling that Mr. Weiss has lived with each phrase for a long time, testing it in all sorts of ways, like a man edging cautiously out over thin ice, trying each footstep carefully before putting his full weight on it, until, in the center of the lake (for this simile must pertain to poetry rather than to fact), he can not only dance on the ice but on the water itself when the ice melts. Many of his passages seem to me to be nothing more or less than visionary, with the vision-seeing that only the poet's truest and most personal language can attain, with "the world / lit up as by a golden school." And yet you never lose the sense of Weiss's presence, either: the poems never seem to be the products of anything but a knowable and very human mind. The mind is an exceedingly complex one which operates by building small, deeply observed details ("the wood / in its own dark / middle lost") into difficult and rewarding structures: poems which never give all they have to give on any one reading but withhold, withhold, always retaining something essential of themselves, something to bring the reader back and reward him again. The poems have both the immediacy one wishes for and the power of engaging the remoter, more abstract regions of thought; they have both the concreteness of things, objects, and whole ranges of meaning which the things inform, until the world does, indeed, turn into a "golden school." It is in the vicinity of such a school, after hours, that I like to think of Weiss and his intelligent daemon sitting down together to have a beer, and of the daemon idly throwing onto the tabletop the great keys to Mr. Weiss's splendid imagination which together they have designed and made over the last twenty years.

James Dickey, 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. 144-45.

[In his collection The Medium,] Mr. Weiss laments no lost Eden, speculates about no Heaven that is half-promise, half-threat. He does not flinch from looking at death either on the unimaginable scale of the concentration camp, or as seen in the burial of his children's pet crow. But his poems are singularly free from fear or guilt. Heaven, Eden, and all the absolutes philosophers have dreamed of are here around him in the place and company of which he is part; and in his words which are all uttered ultimately in wonder and praise. He is no solitary, but solidly part of a community of family and friends. Because he valued friendship so highly, Wittgenstein gave away his fortune so that none would befriend him only for his money; and he wanted his students to have, as he put it, the faces of friends. Mr. Weiss's book is full of comparable celebrations of friendships.

He does not waste much time on things and people he dislikes…. Amused or serious, Mr. Weiss charms without recourse to sorcery. His poems speak of a world that is whole, however beleaguered. He is never smug and there is nothing coy or sham in what he says. As befits one who has the capacity to wonder, he has courage and gaiety: so that one reads as quickly as possible his whole book with delight.

F. H. Griffin Taylor, in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South), Spring, 1969, pp. 315-16.

[Learned], witty, musical, copious and intense writing … is not necessarily unpopular; but Weiss has so juiced up each of these qualities at the expense, in most of his work, of a fable, a narrative or even a ritual in whose thrall the mind could submissively revel, that he has not "once or ever become the household word of the air." The direct or directive procedure is sacrificed to a complication of surface, an iridescence of the audible, to the point where any unity that is to be achieved, Weiss insists, will be the unity won—wrung—from a conflicting multitude….

[Theodore Weiss's] imagery, like [his] themes and his grammatical surface, is treated accordingly: the units of his verbal structure are intended and received as parts of a whole ("more than merely lyrical and happily fragmented"), redeemed from the despised fragmentary by pattern, oracular in origin and deriving from the moment of vision, the epiphanic flash of comprehension; everywhere apparent in the arrangement on the page (even when not highly ventilated, Weiss's lines are always designed) and in the effect on the ear, the method or better the madness inherent in Weiss's method—a rage for subsumption—is explicit in a middle-range poem, "Barracks Apt. 14," which offers a roomful of miscellanea—some pears in a basket, two house-plants, a faculty wife reading Aristotle "with difficulty" and a baby in the next room—under the imperative rubric "all must be used"….

Theodore Weiss will not indulge his reader with the complacencies of an easy iambic line, the pleasures of recognition, the privileges of condescension. His means invariably mirror a meaning which is scrolled, complicated, demanding…. It is the case: his music will confound you, and the sense his senses make of it often [eludes]. As I trace it, the central course of that meaning is the shape or structure of selfhood when it is without the armor of consciousness, when identity is invaded by a momentary and instantaneous recognition of being, a disastrous revelation … that comes often to this poet from nature, but also—and more damagingly—from a confrontation with the past, from the endurance of love, and from the Stoic's old problem of living, as Gilbert Murray put it, without despair and without grave, or at least without gross, illusion. And always the recognition comes, once the defences are down, from an invading consciousness of multiplicity….

In 1962 … Weiss produced the major work toward which … his predictive and even his predatory energies [were] fusing—unpropped by myth, naked of literature if not of rhetoric, Gunsight is a long poem which records, or rather dramatizes, enacts, even endures the sensations and memories of a wounded soldier undergoing surgery. In the narrator's framing speech, Weiss offers an explicit version of the Stoicism he has been rowing toward in so many Ulyssean pieces, the philosophy which eschews illusion and despair in the face of the problem of living and dying, and of illusion itself, with which this poem is chiefly concerned:

       Some things—the crag, the granite sea, the slug,
       this mouth that grinds incessantly in you—
       cannot be turned into the human. All
       that we can do is try, while we are men,
       to meet them humanly …

The result is a long, beautifully joined narrative (a linear movement, at once ongoing and terminal, hovering yet heaving ahead, utilizing all of Weiss's arts of enjambment to keep the language moving down the page as well as the lines marching across it)….

In the poetry of Theodore Weiss, there is then a regard for the reality that will not be reduced, the reality which is a human imagination of the inhuman; reading these anatomies of identity, "touching words, to push me out of me," as Caliban crucially says for Weiss, we understand Bacon's beautiful conditional sentence in a declarative mode: poetry could indeed give some show of satisfaction to the mind, wherein the nature of things doth seem to deny it.

Richard Howard, "Theodore Weiss: 'No Shore Beyond Our Own'," in Perspective, Spring, 1969, pp. 41-65.

Weiss's most recent short poems [in The World Before Us] have advanced to a more acute rawboned gauntness of style than any earlier work, approaching stridency in some passages. The new poems resume Weiss's faith in the undiminished efficacy of today's language as a medium for poetry, a faith first voiced in the youthful poem "The Hook," the brilliant exemplar of his early style which introduces The World Before Us, this meaty selection—ample in bulk as well as substance—from four previous volumes, plus a complete book-length sequence of new short poems….

Weiss's longest poems are usually his most impressive and memorable works. They form a continuing cycle, from book to book, and in them a reader may chart the mile-stones of Weiss's extraordinary search for a more viable poetic language…. The genesis of all language—in the ear of the pre-literate child and, by extrapolation, in the ear of primitive man, the racial vestiges echoing in the modern voice—is in the naming of things. At the pure beginnings, the need to enchant (yes, a chanting!) the ear with beautiful names was indissolubly linked to the need to control things with words. The religious and esthetic functions of language evolved concurrently with the physical, all collaborating in survival. Through language, self-preservation extended effortlessly and naturally from the hunt and the kill to the inner dream life. Weiss's poems, especially the long interior monologues … reenact this drama for us, as the poet participates with intense sympathetic involvement in the mental life of adventurers in language, following them through each stage of the love affair: from first infatuation with the sound and feel of words, through the deaths of language as it becomes cut off from its origins in natural process and man's dream life is divorced from his daily life of action, to those high, rare marriages of language and mission—the true calling—which comes as a beatitude of fulfillment to the lucky few who fight their way back from exile (language abused banishes us from its country) to find the true heartland of the self in human love.

Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1971, pp. 90-1.

Reading through Theodore Weiss's generous selection of his poems since 1950, The World Before Us, it seems to me that the reputation his poetry has acquired for "difficulty" is not so much the result of an attempt to come to terms with it as a half-hearted excuse for avoiding that attempt; for while this collection shows that Weiss's poetry merits far more attention than it has received, it also shows that its neglect could not be due to its difficulty. Rather, whatever lack of attention his poems have suffered is best explained by the very quality that makes them so valuable—a wholly individual set of intentions developed with singular integrity.

John Koethe, in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1972, p. 49.

Theodore Weiss's volume, The World Before Us: Poems 1950–70, contains seventy-eight poems and is two hundred and eighty-seven pages long. From that surface observation and a little arithmetic it should be clear that Weiss favors the long poem, and it should be no surprise that many of these poems are narratives in open forms. Weiss is a good poet, and he is at his best in this volume when he takes "openness" (both as a way of life and as a way of making poetry) as his subject. The chief poetic influence on his writing is William Carlos Williams, and certainly Weiss has done more credit to that influence than have many who've come under it.

John T. Irwin, in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 169-71.