William Everson Everson, William (Vol. 5) - Essay

Everson, William (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Everson, William 1912– (Formerly Brother Antoninus)

An American poet formerly associated with the San Francisco Renaissance, Everson was until recently a Dominican monk. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The work of Brother Antoninus begins, first of all, with a very emphatic content, characterized by him as follows: "A poem, like a dream, is a 'whole' to the extent that it registers the mystery of the psychic complex which produced it." The Hazards of Holiness is a collection of specific tests, of "scalps torn dripping from the skulls of interior adversaries," which last way of speaking will not outrage those who are willing to admit that a "Dark Night of the Soul" may exist for a man who attempts to find himself in relation to God. Again as Brother Antoninus says, "These are the terrible wrestlings his verse begins to register; and this is the harrowing ambiguity, so fraught with terror and mystery and meaning, that cross-riddles this demon-haunted realm."

Such a way of speaking will have, of course, an immediate impact, and it will either be one of respect and sympathy for the man who has so endured, to speak, or it will be perhaps a questioning of such an invention of agony in a world so substantially tormented. Either response will here depend on the reader's own relation to the literal facts dealt with, the faith in God which is the issue. But, in either case, there can be without such question a simple response to the ways the words are working. (pp. 42-3)

I cannot avoid nor deny the force of [his] language, despite my own characterization of it as often melodramatic, that is, an enlargement of occasion purely willed. What the poems effect is a language, itself a formality, a distinct way of engaging feeling, a testing of tones of response and recognition. They speak in one voice because their occasion—despite the variation of subject—is always the same, the search for substantial faith. (pp. 43-4)

Robert Creeley, "'Think what's got away …'," in Poetry (© 1963 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1963, pp. 42-4.

The Rose of Solitude concerns itself with the reverberations of a single event: the speaker of the poem, a religious, goes to bed with a pleasant woman who, thinking it over afterwards, declines to repeat the experience. Out of this germ, which might have been quieted by the confessional, come 125 pages of overheated verse, and a lengthy prose preface which may represent the fullest statement of a narcissist theology yet made in our time.

The book's faults lie in its disproportion and in its irresponsibility. Antoninus assumes an identity of microcosm and macrocosm: the human sufferer is not only a type of Christ, he is Christ. Moreover, the human sin is excused by suffering, since only when he is confronted by sin and suffering is God in a position to grant forgiveness. The concept of the felix culpa has seldom been more strained than here, or more psychologized; eventually the doctrine is perverted into a general congratulation to Antoninus for having been good enough to suffer so much.

The language of the book is, like its substance, overblown. Antoninus makes a simple equation between suffering and unintelligibility: the greater the pain, the more tortured the syntax. In pursuit of this relationship he arrives at distortions which can best be called grotesque. (p. 693)

William Dickey, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1968 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXX, No. 4, Winter, 1967–68.

It isn't only the insistence on the urgency of the poet's self that sets Antoninus's work apart from other poetry of the last twenty years. There have been other poets who have tried to scrape away as many layers of the skin. Antoninus, in a period when the poetic idiom has become dry and understated, has an almost seventeenth century richness of language and expression. He has a closer affinity to Vaughn, Crashaw, Alabaster—the Christopher Smart of A Song to David—than he does to the insistent objectivity of Robert Creeley or Denise Levertov, or to the complex allusiveness of Charles Olson or Robert Duncan. I don't think he was influenced by the metaphysical poets—he was from the beginning a Jeffers' disciple—but the feeling in the poetry is of a man, like the earlier poets, who has been driven by the torment of his life to the most intense poetry he can find language to express.

Antoninus's language is so intense, so vivid, that the poems can almost be read in clusters of words and phrases—"Far trumpets of succinctness," "a treading of feet on the stairs of redness," "I think moons of kept measure," "I felt the new wind, south/Grope her tonguing mouth on the wall," "The wind breaking its knees on this hurdle, the house," "Birds beak for her!" "In the high peal of rivering lips," "The low freighters at sea/Take in their sides the nuzzling dolphins that are their death." He has a brilliant sense of alliteration. From In The Fictive Wish,

           Watcher by water,
           Walker alone by the wave-worn shore
           In water woven.

And he doesn't hesitate to extend the flash of phrase into a poem's inner tensions. He uses a long, wavering line at points that near the stillness of a moment of contemplation…. But at moments of deepening intensity the line tightens to an abrupt, insistent rhythmic unit…. None of this has the flat speech rhythm that sets the dominant tone of most contemporary poetry. Duncan has his own kind of rhetorical verbosity, and Ginsberg has some of the rhythm of the synagogue chant, but the modern poet has usually been less emotional—his own responses kept at an objective distance from the poem. Antoninus has none of this restraint—the phrase, the phrase rhythm, function as a direct expression of his emotions. Part of the felt affinity with the earlier group of metaphysical poets is this emotional extravagance, this sense of poetic hyperbole…. [In] "The Song The Body Dreamed In The Spirit's Mad Behest,"… [the] image and the language could almost have come from [Donne.] (pp. 97-9)

It's true that of all the contemporary poets Antoninus is the only one with some kind of persona—his identification with his holy order—that he can put between himself and his work, and it could be that this has given him the situation he needed to open his emotional stance. When he took his vows in 1951, after more than a dozen years of publication as William Everson, he had, as Brother Antoninus, a reach of expression opened to him that had been inhibited while he was still writing as William Everson. Nothing in his secular poetry has the grinding fervor of his religious writing. But is the poet William Everson? Is the poet Brother Antoninus? The two persons of Antoninus have never fully merged—even now that he has left the order and married, and the complex currents of his poetry express this continuing duality. Not confusion—I don't think there is any confusion of his separate identities in Antoninus, only a deep consciousness of their differences. But the emphasis of the poetry has moved—since 1951, when he was thirty-nine—from the preoccupations with the self to the more specific emotions of his religious self. Everson is still present in Antoninus, as the man who is Antoninus was a presence in the poems of Everson. (p. 100)

It is possible to be unmoved by the religiosity of the later work, and to pass over the Jeffers'-like cadences of the first poems, but this period of his life was one of deep personal unhappiness, and the humanness of his loss is directly, and strongly, moving. So much seems to be slipping through his hands, and one moment of loss slides uncertain and confused into only another moment of loss. Artistically they become some of his most fully formed poems. The images of his earlier work—earth, the sea, the smells of weeds, the distances of hills and fields—have spread and extended through the lengthened lyric impulse of his dominating unhappiness. Since the poems come near his moment of crisis their resolutions are temporary—their sense of imminent despair tangled and heavy through their loping lines. In The Fictive Wish, from Oregon, 1946, has perhaps the most fully realized flowering of beauty, since it centers on one of his points of almost complete resolution. The Blowing Of The Seed, from Sebastopol, California, in 1946, is agonizing in its pained cutting of his body in its sudden despair. "There Will Be Harvest," from Berkeley the next year, in the collection The Springing Of The Blade, is dominated with the weight of his life's details, and its involvement with the crisis of his physical love.

In The Fictive Wish is a sustained lyric outburst, its syntax and form left ambiguous, but its emotional clarities brilliantly sustained. From its opening lines the difficulties of understanding are obvious, but the poem's great beauty also begins to unfold with its first hesitant breath. (pp. 100-01)

The poetry that emerged from his years in the Dominican Order increasingly shared the violent physicality of the metaphysical poets—the acerbation of celibacy on a body that is unable to deny its desire for fulfillment. In his book The Rose Of Solitude the violence of desire and its turmoil becomes the central problem of the poem—and the desire expressed in the poem is open and explicit, forced in on him by the real embrace of a woman. (p. 103)

The guarded tone of most modern poetry does give the impression of a cautious withdrawal from a social environment so hostile that anything except a kind of guarded mistrust seems too naive as an emotional response. Whatever anyone has believed in as a kind of center for himself or the society has turned out to be mostly useless. This doesn't mean that other poets haven't been involved with the implications of sexuality, haven't brooded over the failure of what Antoninus would call Man and Woman to resolve their differences—it only means that they've decided to let less of themselves be measured against the force of this confrontation. Antoninus refuses to step out of the way, just as he has refused to deny any of the physical implications of his mature work. (pp. 104-05)

Even when the imagery is most strained, the language most driven, these moments in the later work only more deeply etch the complex portrait of himself that the poetry gives us. (p. 106)

Samuel Charters, "Brother Antoninus," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1971 by Samuel Charters), Oyez, 1971, pp. 97-106.

[After] a long silence, William Everson offers his readers a collection of poems: Man-Fate, The Swan Song of Brother Antoninus. These poems are, as he tells us, "a love poem sequence." They explore the implications of his break with monastic life and his new union with Susanna and her infant son. This volume is comprised, he says, "of troubled verse." Indeed. But the trouble does not lie with the subject matter, as Everson fears. Most contemporary readers are sophisticated enough to accept with equanimity the transition of a monk to the lay marital status. My quarrel with Everson arises from his squandering of an enormous talent in gusts of undisciplined verse. The long introductory poem, "Tendril in the Mesh" with its heavy thump of alliteration, affected diction, and baroque metaphors reads like a bad translation of some fourteenth century Northumbrian verse….

After such a buffeting of bathos I probably over-reacted in joy to the quietly lovely "Ebb at Evening." However, this poem and "Man-Fate" seem to me to be eminently successful works of art. Here Everson is master of his craft. The agony that pulses just beneath the surface of his work establishes a rhythm that is dangerous, threatening, but controlled. Poems such as these and "The Black Hills" demonstrate that Everson remains an artist with reserves of power he has yet to tap. (pp. 124-25)

Claire Hahn, in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 9, 1975.