Meredith, William (Vol. 13)
Meredith, William 1919–
Meredith is an American poet, playwright, editor, critic, and translator. In his verse he eschews a highly literary and intellectual expression in favor of a more natural, colloquial poetic style. His poems often deal with nature and the joys of the commonplace. Robert Frost is an acknowledged influence on both the style and content of Meredith's poetry. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Moving gracefully with the years, William Meredith's poetry has modified its former formal elegance to a point where it can absorb casual conversation; observations of nature, human and otherwise; and meditations on art and society…. Hazard, The Painter moves gradually from [an] almost bathetic tone in the first poem to a tighter, still understated voice reminiscent of Philip Larkin's, though more optimistic, in the final poem…. Hazard is an intelligent, even charming book, full of liberal sense and sensibility. (p. 25)
Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 14, 1975.
John Malcolm Brinnin
Read poet for painter [in "Hazard, The Painter"], and the changes that can be rung on identity quickly present themselves. The delicate social conscience of the man Meredith gives us is convincing, but his credibility as an artist is not. His one obsessive subject is more of a poet's concept than a painter's pictorial "fact," and the pictures registered in his memory are sometimes uneasily close to those of a Norman Rockwell nudged by Social Realism. In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the "Dream Songs" of John Berryman. If such influences pave his way, they do so without getting in his way. Meredith's language is often as lean as Lowell's and as rhythmically adroit as Berryman's. His tone has the consistency of an achieved mode and, true to the temper of his hero, he is modestly colloquial even when imagination strains for release into the upper air of rhetoric. What has allowed Meredith to take his bearings from these other poets without being driven off his own course is perhaps his wider tolerance for human inadequacy and his ability to dramatize personal dilemma without seeming to exploit it. (p. 39)
John Malcolm Brinnin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 21, 1975.
So skillful in his mild modernism …, so various in his errant annotations is Meredith [in Hazard, the Painter] that we do not know, even at the end, what hit us—a caress of ground glass and very finely honed feathery blades, most likely, so that hits just aren't in it. Mortality and the dimming senses are the apparent pretext of these ruminations…. But the real subject is ressentiment, even anger, and the real object throughout is America the Imperial, these States in their warring "decline" viewed from a perspective which has only darkened since Emerson unbosomed himself to his journal, 1847…. Meredith doesn't want to be a prophet, only an artist, a messenger, an angel maybe. But the observation, the organic detail plucked out and brooded upon until it yields up its sense, its significance—that is Emersonian (the ground-juniper), and it is Meredithian too:
Near the big spruce, on the path that goes
to the compost heap, broken members
of a blue-jay have been assembled
as if to determine the cause of
a crash without survivors.
with Hazard, the cat does not observe
them. The cat will be disassembled
in his own time by underground technicians.
At this point Hazard's thought turns chicken.
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Since "Resemblances between the life and character of Hazard are not disclaimed but are much fewer than the author would like," we can take Hazard [of Hazard, the Painter] as Meredith's model of an admirable man as well as his opportunity to speak of himself in the third person—perhaps not such a surprising tactic in a poet so decorous and diffident, but a very surprising one in a poet who has spoken so beautifully for himself in his own person so often in the past.
In devising a persona through whom he will talk, Meredith places his voice at too far a remove from his experience (Hazard's experience is of course Meredith's, whether historically true or not); the voice becomes so elusive that Meredith is often in danger of vanishing from his own poetry…. [We] realize with acute discomfort that we're hearing Meredith talking about how Meredith talks about Hazard. Such convolution shows the seams of the art; the fiction evaporates and we're left with psychological history instead of poetry. What we finally hear is neither a whole characterization nor a whole poet, but a dispossessed consciousness shunting back and forth between the two.
Except for Hazard's equanimity in accepting age, it's hard to know why Meredith finds him admirable. (pp. 220-21)
Hazard seems out of touch with his own problems. His usual tactic, at Meredith's instigation, is to approach the boundary of a serious thought, perform a graceful manoeuvre of retreat (through wit or irony or grand sentiment or whatever), and withdraw—undefeated because unengaged. In fact, this is a remarkably unengaged book: though Meredith speaks in the final poem of Hazard's being "Gnawed by a vision of...
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The Wreck of the Thresher, published in 1964, was the book which 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 Wreck of the Thresher reveals unobtrusive mastery of craft traditionally conceived; it is not full of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, or other insistent evidences that the poet is comfortable in formal cages; but beneath the steady, honest lines with their sometimes unpredictable rhyme schemes, there is a sense of assurance that for Meredith, form is a method, not a barrier. In its range of subject, tone and mode, the book consistently offers the voice of a civilized man, a man with good but not flashy manners, engaged in encounters with matters of inexhaustible interest.
This style did not come quickly to Meredith…. [In his first book, Love Letter from an Impossible Land, there] were a number of accomplished poems, including a few which spoke in the voice that would be so firmly Meredith's by the time The Wreck of the Thresher appeared twenty years later. Much of the book is apprentice work, but in the "impossible land" of the Aleutians, of the second World War, Meredith came to grips with strangenesses for which no borrowed voice could suffice. So the book falls into two parts, whose relation MacLeish describes as "the way in which the literary vehicle (for it is nothing else) of the Princeton undergraduate turns into the live idiom of a poet's speech reaching for poetry." What is there, one wonders, to like about "the literary vehicle of the Princeton undergraduate"? One possible answer is that the earlier poems show us a young poet diligently studying his craft. In the brief lyrics which acknowledge various masters, there is little room for the voice of Meredith, but there is in them a serious and intelligent setting-forth after the tools that will give the voice, when it speaks, the distinctiveness and force of the later poems. Craft matters to the young poet: of the thirty-three poems in Love Letter, eight are traditional sonnets, and seven others are near-sonnets of twelve to fourteen lines. If some of these are predictable or flat, or if others are too insistent upon their experimentation with formal expansion (as in the packed internal rhymes and slant end rhymes of "War Sonnet," for instance), practice has made nearly perfect by the time we come to "In Memoriam Stratton Christensen."… (pp. 1-2)
In "Notes for an Elegy," a longer poem whose ambition and achievement are larger than anything else in this book, Meredith sounds a note of modesty in the title, a note which he will sound again and again, even as his poems improve. This title, of course, means not to suggest that the poem is unfinished—it is quite brilliantly finished—but that in a time and place more distant from the war, it might have acquired more of the trappings of a formal elegy. Here, the first twenty-two lines, a meditation on flying and its relation to freedom, tyranny, and war, set the proper tone, verging toward an invocation to the muse. The death is that of an airman, but not one shot down in battle; for some mysterious reason, his plane has crashed in a wood. Having asked where the engine and the wings were at the crucial moment, the speaker concludes that
Must have been sent to the aviator in person:
Perhaps a sly suggestion of carelessness,
A whispered invitation perhaps to death,
The quietness of this passage, while it emphasizes the distance of the crash from any battle, belies the noisy violence of any plane's untimely coming down; it is as if the plane and its pilot had drifted silently to rest, like so many other things that fall in the forest when no one is there to hear them. This impression is confronted in the poem's remarkable conclusion, where the phrase "as it were in bed" lifts the tone out of solemnity toward something large enough to enclose great mystery…. (p. 3)
This ability to complicate tone by the subtle use of something close to humor has been important in much of Meredith's work, though it has been only recently that many of his serious poems have contained very wide streaks of humor. But fairly early, Meredith mastered an inclusiveness of tone which makes for greater strength than the owlish cultivation of high seriousness.
These qualities of strength and inclusiveness, however, are not much in evidence in Meredith's second book, Ships and Other Figures, which appeared in 1948, only four years after Love Letter. A note of acknowledgment states that "Most of these poems were written and all of them collected while the writer was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow of Princeton University," and one feels keenly the absence of peril in these poems, the safety of academe. Under the pressure of his credentials as a promising young poet, Meredith seems not to be the aviator inspired to struggle with his craft and its relation to puzzles of much magnitude; he seems instead to be a Wilson Fellow who would like to have enough poems for a book. Under such circumstances, he turns his hand to various exercises in tradition and occasion, and is sometimes successful with slight poems where, the pressure being momentarily off, he can indulge his excellent sense of play without fear of momentous failure. (p. 4)
This is not to suggest that, in his New and Selected Poems of 1970, Meredith saved from Ships and Other Figures all the wrong things; he saved the best six poems, but would not have tarnished his reputation by carrying forward a few more. The same could be said of his selection from The Open Sea (1958), a collection of nearly fifty poems, of considerable range and effectiveness. Here Meredith continues his exploration of difficult fixed forms, not merely in order to submit himself to complex rules, but also to see how some of these rules may be pushed around. Aside from the half-dozen or so sonnets which one might expect to find, there are also two sestinas and a dedicatory villanelle. The usefulness of these explorations is perhaps most apparent in the title poem, which fits the definition of none of the fixed forms mentioned above, but which clearly takes advantage of their existence…. (pp. 4-5)
The poem's debt to the formal repetitions of villanelle or...
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