William Meredith Meredith, William - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

William Meredith 1919-

(Full name William Morris Meredith) American poet, critic, dramatist, and editor.

Respected for his mastery of poetic forms, including the villanelle, sestina, ballad, and sonnet, Meredith writes controlled, well-crafted poems that incorporate his observations on such topics as nature, death, love, art, daily life, and the chaotic aspects of modern existence. His unobtrusive rhyme schemes and metrical patterns evoke a sense of serenity, gentle humor, and quiet contemplation.

Biographical Information

Meredith was born on January 9, 1919, in New York City and raised in Darien, Connecticut. He attended Princeton University, receiving his degree in 1940; after graduation, he became a reporter for the New York Times. Encouraged by the poets Allen Tate and Muriel Rukeyser, Meredith began to write poetry. He served as Navy pilot during World War II, stationed first in the Aleutians and then in the Hawaiian Islands. The verse he wrote during these years was published in his first collection, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, in 1944. After the war, he became an instructor at Princeton from 1946 to 1950. He accepted a position as associate professor of English at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, but in 1952 he was called back to duty as a pilot in the Korean War. In his two years of service, he was awarded two Air Medals. Since 1955 he has held a teaching position at Connecticut College, becoming a full professor in 1964. From 1964 through 1989 he was chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, currently serving the academy as a chancellor emeritus. In 1988 Meredith received a Pulitzer Prize for his collection, Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems. He received the 1980 International Vaptsarov Prize in Poetry, and in 1989 was awarded a senior fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.

Major Works

Meredith's first collection, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, was chosen by Archibald MacLeish to be published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In many of his early poems, Meredith employs imagery and themes drawn from his experiences as a naval aviator during World War II and the Korean conflict. While also reflecting this background, his next three volumes, Ships and Other Figures, The Open Sea and Other Poems, and The Wreck of the Thresher and Other Poems, evince his thematic interest in nature, art, and family life. In Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems, Hazard, the Painter, and The Cheer, Meredith adopted a more colloquial and conversational tone in his observations on nature and personal experience. His 1987 collection, Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems, contains pieces from Meredith's seven previous volumes of poetry along with eleven new poems, providing an overview of the poet's career. Among the new poems in the volume, several recall events Meredith witnessed in his travels. The title poem of this collection concerns the poet's heart surgery and convalescence, and “Talking Back (To W. H. Auden)” and “The American Living-Room: A Tract” reflect his continuing attention to art and ordinary life.

Critical Reception

Meredith is often classified with contemporary poets such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke. He is praised for his use of formality and restraint, and some reviewers assert that his poems are academic and meditative. His use of forms such as the villanelle, sestina, and the sonnet provoke debate amongst commentators as to the relevance and power of his work. His poems utilizing imagery from his experience as a Navy pilot in World War II are considered his most resonant and honest verse. Yet critics acknowledge that Meredith's poetry has matured throughout the years, and his contribution to twentieth-century American poetry has been influential and significant.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Love Letter from an Impossible Land 1944

Ships and Other Figures 1948

The Open Sea and Other Poems 1958

The Wreck of the Thresher and Other Poems 1964

Winter Verse 1964

Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems 1970

Harzard, The Painter 1975

The Cheer 1980

Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems 1987

Effort at Speech 1997

Reasons for Poetry, and The Reason for Criticism (lectures) 1982

Poems Are Hard to Read (criticism) 1991

Richard M. Ludwig (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Muted Lyrics of William Meredith,” in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Autumn, 1963, pp. 73-85.

[In the following essay, Ludwig offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Meredith's poetry.]

In his third and most recent volume of verse, William Meredith devotes a deft villanelle called “Trees in a Grove” to “five things put in mind by sycamores.” First, he thinks of “a sad bald-headed man / In a pepper-and-salt tweed suit who knew the trees.” In the second verse, he recalls

I was seven the summer that I first got hold
Of the white pied spicy word of sycamore,
The age when children will incant new names.
That night I dreamt I was a flying man
And could escape the backyard of our suburb
By saying sycamore, rise through the trees.

It may be pushing the dream too far to say that Meredith has turned it into reality, but to anyone reading his collected poems, particularly in chronological order, the thought may well occur. For it is clear that the war years spent as a Navy pilot left him with images and memories that have helped him escape his suburb and have permeated his poetry for almost two decades: the open sea, the authority of clouds, starlight, the sky as only a pilot can know it, the Aleutians, the carrier, the battlewagon, and the ubiquitous trees.

Meredith called his first collection of verse Love Letter from an Impossible Land. The last ten poems of this 1944 volume are quite naturally war poems. But unlike the war poetry of Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro—or even John Ciardi, who shared some of Meredith's reactions to flying—these are seldom bitter with the injustice of war. The familiar G. I. faces are not here, nor is the language harsh, not even colloquial. Instead Meredith observes from above, as it were, or as we would expect of a pilot. His poems are landscapes, of the mind as well as of the Aleutians, and as landscapes they turn on the visual image, outward to the “unsettled mountains” of this impossible land, to “streams of snow dancing in the moon at the summits” and “the wind creaking like a green floe,” inward to the mind of the airman-poet, “rootless and needing a quick home.” Like the young boy of seven, the airman still marvels at the power of flight. But the pleasures now are ambiguous as he flies “just above the always-griping sea / That bitches at the bitter rock the mountains throw to it.” The remoteness of these islands, their solemn beauty, their “chill and stillness” have dampened his spirits, and yet he can acknowledge “they shake and change and finally enchant.” Nowhere does their presence register so deeply as in the opening lines of his poem on a naval base in the Aleutians, “June: Dutch Harbor”:

In June, which is still June here, but once removed
From other Junes, chill beardless high-voiced cousin season,
The turf slides grow to an emerald green.
There between the white-and-black of the snow and ash,
Between the weak blue of the rare sky
Or the milkwhite languid gestures of the fog,
And the all-the-time wicked terminal sea,
There, there, like patches of green neon,
See it is June with the turf slides.

I have lingered over these early poems not to suggest that they are the best of his work, although “Love Letter” and “Notes for an Elegy” belong in a collected Meredith, but to note that the stance he took as early as 1944 has proven to be right and natural for a man of his talents. These talents have been praised by fellow poets for many years. May Swenson felt that “he can occupy the sonnet so subtly that we hardly notice its familiar outline.” James Merrill applauded the “intimate and urbane” tone in “poems that are elevated without arrogance or sacrifice to the sound of speech and delicate without fussiness.” George Garrett admired the way in which Meredith joined toughness with the formal grace of the lyric. Dudley Fitts praised his “percipient force, [his] technical skill.” What all these critics agree on is Meredith's absolute control of form, his confidence in his own taste, his wisdom in never pushing his talents to make poems out of objets trouvés or to generate false enthusiasms. In a dedicatory poem to an early mentor, Donald A. Stauffer, Meredith speaks of this scholar-critic's “indiscriminate delight / There in the sweet and obvious side of right.” If I read him clearly (and I shall be the first to admit this poem's ambiguities could easily boomerang), Meredith himself is content to be on “the sweet and obvious side of right.” From “Love Letter” to his most recently published poem, “Five Accounts of a Monogamous Man” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer, 1963), he has refused to shout, to strain, to experiment. The confines of traditional language and form are for him not obstacle but challenge. He attacks the beatnik poets who never learned discipline: “I read an impatient man / Who howls against his time, / Not angry enough to scan / Not fond enough to rhyme.” He chides Léonie Adams because “she stuffs a poem full of special words, the way one does an orange encrusted with cloves.” He praises Dan Hoffman for his “lucidity, which amounts to a careful and successful attention to the poem's rational exposition, … achieved at no expense to the intellectual or imaginative force. The diction and imagery are strong, oblique, and individual, but do not occasion any of the obscurity which we have come to allow as...

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Richard Howard (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Meredith: ‘All of a Piece and Clever and at Some Level, True’,” in Alone with America: the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Thames and London, 1965, pp. 318-26.

[In the following essay, Howard praises the restraint and tone of Meredith's early verse.]

“Art by its very nature asserts at least two kinds of good—order and delight.” So William Meredith, in his introduction to a selection from Shelley, a poet who interests this decorous American for his patience with established verse forms, being “otherwise impatient of everything established.” Meredith's declension of order and delight as versions of the good, a paring...

(The entire section is 3226 words.)

John Malcolm Brinnin (review date 21 September 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Poet on the Painter,” in New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1975, p. 39.

[In the following essay, Brinnin provides a positive assessment of Hazard, The Painter.]

Unlike most collections of poems, this one has a named hero and an overt subject. The hero is an aging liberal, a painter called Hazard; the subject is Hazard's attempt somehow to maintain himself as one who “participates in the divinity of the world.” But we meet him at a bad time, when his hopes are dashed, his guard down. While the newly victorious Nixon gang is putting it together and the kid next door with her Rolling Stones on stereo is getting it together, Hazard is...

(The entire section is 958 words.)

Neva Herrington (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Language of the Tribe: William Meredith's Poetry,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Herrington categorizes Meredith's verse as meditative poetry.]

To know what is possible,
and to do that.


From his first book, Love Letters from an Impossible Land—Archibald MacLeish's 1944 choice for the Yale Younger Poets Series—to The Cheer (1980), the poetry of William Meredith has been characterized by a recognizable presence. The voice you hear is that of a poet in doubt neither about the human place in the universe nor about his privilege as a...

(The entire section is 23791 words.)

Edward Hirsch with William Meredith (interview date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with William Meredith, in Poems are Hard to Read, The University of Michigan Press, 1991, pp. 215-38.

[In the following interview, originally published in Paris Review in 1985, Meredith discusses his creative process, his opinions of other contemporary poets, and influences on his work.]

[Hirsch]: You've said that you average about six poems per year. Why so few?

[Meredith]: Why so many? Ask any reviewer. I remember a particularly wicked review of Edna St. Vincent Millay whose new poems weren't as good as they should have been: “This Millay seems to have gone out of her way to write another book of poems.” You're...

(The entire section is 8202 words.)

Henry Taylor (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Charge of Morale in a Morbid Time,” in Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 171-89.

[In the following essay, Taylor surveys the defining qualities of Meredith's poetry.]

The Wreck of the Thresher, published in 1964, was the book that most firmly established the nature and strength of William Meredith's poetry. It seems now to have been the culmination of a development in certain directions from which the poet has since swerved, though not unrewardingly. The poems in it reveal unobtrusive mastery of craft traditionally conceived; there are not many sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, or other...

(The entire section is 6463 words.)

Michael Collier (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems by William Meredith, Triquarterly Books, 1997, pp. xiii-xvi.

[In the following essay, Collier determines the major influences on Meredith's work.]

What separates William Meredith from other poets of his generation, such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Howard Nemerov, and James Merrill, is his belief that “poetry and experience should have an exact ratio.” For him this ratio speaks to the seriousness of the lyric. In a Spring 1985 Paris Review interview he says, “I wait until the poems seem addressed not to ‘Occupant’ but to ‘William Meredith.’ And it doesn't happen a lot.” John Crowe...

(The entire section is 1641 words.)