Meredith, William 1919–
Meredith is an American formal poet and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[William Meredith] is the kind of poet who stands looking at the ocean where the atomic submarine Thresher went down, meditating, speculating, grieving intelligently. Things of this nature hurt him into poetry, but not poetry of great intensity. Instead, it seems muffled and distant, a kind of thin, organized, slightly academic murmur. One keeps listening for Meredith's voice, and is baffled at its being, although one is surer and surer it is there, so consistently elusive. It is not at all to be found in those poems imitative of, say, Frost, such as "An Old Field Mowed for Appearances' Sake," but rather in pieces like "For His Father" and, oddly, in the wonderful translations from Apollinaire, which seem, although faithful enough as translations, really more Meredith's than Apollinaire's. It is better to hear "My glass is filled with a wine that trembles like flame" than to hear, in Meredith's poem to Apollinaire, "The day is colorless like Swiss characters in a novel," which presupposes that the reader agrees that Swiss characters in a novel (what novel?) are colorless, that everyone knows they are (I, one shyly thinks, didn't know they are, and keeps one's mouth shut about it), and thereby enters into collusion with a certain ingroup variety of bookish snobbery that is probably Meredith's one outstanding weakness as a writer. But at his best he is a charming poet, cultivated, calm, quietly original, expansive and reflective, moving over wide areas slowly, lightly, mildly and often very memorably.
James Dickey, "William Meredith" (1965), 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. 197-98.
The sparse, undeclamatory quietness of William Meredith's poetry may keep it from getting the attention it should have, but this will not concern the poet, for all these poems [Earth Walk: New and Selected Poems] have been brought to a point where they seem like the inevitable, furniture of a solid and warmly-inhabited old house. They are beautifully worked, distinct objects, the language at once exciting and unobtrusive—what keeps them together is a tone wistful and ironic, which gives them the air of events as inevitable to the reader as to the poet.
The Antioch Review (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXX, No. 1, 1970, p. 134.
It is when Meredith is most devious [in Earth Walk] that he is indeed best: sermons, uplifts, sententious dallyings with mortality are not only plainspoken, they are outspoken, and they do not serve to advantage the subtle art, the resilient devices Meredith has accommodated with such determined mildness. They are here, though, the moralizing and the temperance and the terrible monosyllables—love and guilt and time and heart, sending their spondaic juices through the verse….
Though he is anything but naive, Meredith has a great gift for innocence, for the recovery of terror and joy which reside in the usual. And it is from the usual that he rises to his moments of the genuinely vatic, not preaching but prophecy, inviting the mediation of the ordinary in its original sense, the sense of participating in an order, so that the poem is an ordination. Meredith is a poet who would single out experience only provisionally, only to remark the more readily on its affinities with other experiences rather than on its ecstatic isolations.
Richard Howard, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1971, pp. 82-3.
Of the thirty-three poems originally published in Love Letter from an Impossible Land, William Meredith has chosen only six for inclusion in Earth Walk, rightly discarding the portentous and eclectic rhetoric of much of the early volume, with its recurrent hints of indebtedness to Auden and Spender. Even those few poems that he has retained have been purged of a few touches of artificality of diction—thus, "Against whose vault is no thing tall" in "Airman's Virtue" has been altered to "Against whose vault nothing is tall." The germ of Meredith's creative development lay rather in a poem like "Ten-Day Leave," reprinted in the new volume, with its simple language, its directness of statement, and its theme of familial rootedness. The road that led away from Auden and Spender led toward Frost….
Like Frost, Meredith portrays a natural landscape of fields and woods, the clearing where "a whippoorwill calls in the dark," the hill where the poet has "planted spruce and red pine." But Meredith's poetry also incorporates the contemporary city where a man's wallet is snatched from him on a stairway by a boy who, running away, "turns a brown face briefly/phrased like a question." And whereas, in Frost, the landscape of farm and countryside has significance as part of an ethical drama, in which man pits his strength and courage against inimical nature, in Meredith the props of the natural scene stand for a deeply intuited consciousness of an identity between our physical selves and the earth we inhabit and are made of. If Meredith's poetry has a signature, it is the tree, which appears over and over again as a literal object in a scene, an emblem, a self, rooted in earth and growing outward to air and sun.
The poet of Earth Walk chooses to place himself squarely in reality, conveying to us a sense of the mind's rootedness in a body against whose weight we struggle to raise up decent lives.
Marie Borroff, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1971, pp. 284-85.
William Meredith displays attention to the formal shape of his poems. It is typical that two of his best should be Notre Dame de Chartres, a sestina, and Effort at Speech, a poem written in sapphics (!) about an attempted mugging. He is often compared with Richard Wilbur for imposing, with considerable grace, the most rigorous formal demands upon his verse. Such writing had a notable boom in the 'fifties, and following the usual sea-change in literary taste is viewed with suspicion now. But it seems unfair for Meredith or Wilbur to be held accountable for the refined disasters produced by their imitators. Meredith's best poems are elegant but not precious, ordered but not finicky, deeply thoughtful but not recondite. He has rendered so stringent a judgment in selecting from his previous poems that it is hard to find any one piece that is not worthy of its companions. The new poems [in Earth Walk], I think, form the volume's finest single section and show that Meredith is still making advances at an age when most writers are traveling in tried-and-true ruts. The book is handsomely varied in its subject matter, like an inviting old attic sea chest. Meredith writes about his fighter pilot days, about crows and fish vendors and Persian miniatures, about talking to Robert Frost and translating Apollinaire…. These poems express their love most tellingly as they embrace the aging, helpless, or outcast beings of the earth…. Time and again Meredith has discovered dignity where other men have ceased to look for it, and given it new life in his poems. I am happy for him that he has seen such things, and for us that he has written them down.
Robert B. Shaw, "Poets in Midstream," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1971, pp. 228-33.
Most of the poems of William Meredith are so balanced and modest and appealing, composed in so many uncomplicated and civilized ways, so much the sort of poetry appropriate to read on a lazy afternoon, perhaps even to read while listening to Dietrich sing "Lazy Afternoon," that an intemperate spirit might, at times, wonder—no doubt, frivolously—what would happen if Professor Meredith read nothing but Rimbaud or Mayakovsky or—heaven help us—Anaïs Nin? Would the climate in Connecticut change, would there be unruly declamations, moments of fine excess, would one go absolutely out of one's squash? It seems unlikely. William Meredith, a durable, though admittedly minor, poet, has always had a conservative sense of people and place. He offers two mottoes—"The Poet as Troublemaker" and "Iambic Feet Considered as Honorable Scars"—and only the most thoughtless of his readers would ever be hard put to know which of these mottoes was closest to the professor's heart.
In the New and Selected Poems [Earth Walk] we follow him moving gracefully over the years from the authority of the military life (the Second World War, "the bomb's luck, the gun's poise and chattering") to the authority of the university (for a while it seemed as if Professor Meredith would become the academic poet par excellence) to that, finally, of the suburban and reflective style of his most recent and most successful stage.
If he is really too disciplined and adjusted an individual, too genial, too much the hero of the buried life, harumping among the hydrangea bushes, he is, nevertheless, a poet who knows, deep to his fingertips, what the tiger or the nightingale always forgets, that the dispassionate, domestic, monogamous world has its dramas and sorrows, that rectitude itself can be an adventure, a moral adventure almost as Kierkegaard dreamed, that if "identity is a travelling-piece for some," for the poet, for this poet, "here is what calls me, here what I call home." That, within it, "there is no end to the/Deception of quiet things/And of quiet, every-day/People a lifetime brings"; that the common routine, in its diffident way, is a magical contrivance; that the common experience can be a fable, and "yet all of a piece and clever/And at some level, true."
Robert Mazzocco, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), June 15, 1972, pp. 32-3.
In Mr. Meredith's [collection entitled Earth Walk] (including selections from The Wreck of the Thresher) the subject matter at last begins to threaten the prosody all along the line; and the result is a clear, free style which generates excitement. "Roots", reminiscent of Frost at his best, is a conversation between the poet and a country woman, an "eclogue" in which the complexities of mortality are treated in a startling metaphorical matrix which is profoundly philosophical in its implications yet simple and unselfconscious. "Hydraulics" is a sequence of six poems in which the physical principles governing water are put to a variety of imaginative uses; and while in one or two instances the metaphors are ambitious, the poet does not jeopardize their serious intent with a stilted rhetoric. And in "Ten Accounts of a Monogamous Man" and the excellent "Winter Verse for His Sister" the tone becomes surprisingly confidential, the subject matter personal, without sacrificing too much of the aesthetic distance that has always been one of Mr. Meredith's virtues, even when he exercises it to excess.
Thomas H. Landess, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by the permission of the editor; © 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 147-50.