William Meredith Meredith, William (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Meredith 1919–

American poet, playwright, editor, critic, and translator.

In his verse Meredith favors a natural, colloquial style. His poems often deal with nature and the joys of the commonplace. Robert Frost is an acknowledged influence.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 13, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5: American Poets since World War II.)

Mary Shiras

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beyond his characteristically smooth iambic rhythms and measured stanzas, usually in rhyme, the range of Mr. Meredith's verse forms [in The Open Sea] includes some imitations of the Haiku and modern adaptations of ballads and sonnets; his cultivated conversation lapses easily and frequently into good everyday speech. His talent tends toward controlled, disciplined poetry which is neither austere nor excessively mannered. Traces of Blake, Yeats, of Auden and Robert Frost show that Mr. Meredith keeps good company, but his output is so thin and spare that one intuitively places him among all the other reasonably competent anonymities….

As one reads these poems, it is the figure of content that touches and re-touches the sensibilities: there are no extremes and very few intense feelings of any kind; no places are brutalized by machines or tyrants; no one is wretched or fascinating or contemptible. The world, unlike the dreadful ones we usually hear about, is on the whole a quiet, pleasant place; it needs no veils of romance to allure its inhabitants, and its secrets are not so awful that we need view them through a darkened glass. Mr. Meredith speaks carefully and never hurriedly; his tone is mild. (p. 438)

At the end of the volume, the reader is assured that the mild tone does not hide a quavering heart; the self-control is easy and habitual; the discipline comes naturally. Mr. Meredith's choice of pleasant...

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Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Meredith's declension of order and delight as versions of the good … is the generating trope of his own poetry, its idiopathy or primary affection.

In his four books of poems, even in his translations of Apollinaire, a curious restraint, a self-congratulatory withholding that is partly evasive and sly, partly loving and solicitous, testify, like so many essays in emphasis, to the war between delight and order, and yet to the necessity of divising them in each other: if order is not found in delight, the world falls apart; if delight is not taken in order, the self withers. Success, for Meredith, is provisional—he does not ask more. (p. 372)

Meredith's first book [Love Letter from an Impossible Land] certainly stands under the sign of every kind of authority: military, educational, institutional and, as an expression of them all, the formal authority of closed verse forms: strict songs, sonnets, bookish roundels worn as so many masks. If such verse has "an accent of its own," it is the accent of a young poet … for whom the very notion of an accent was concrescent: his success is in mastering the accent of others, so that only at odd moments, turning abrupt corners, do we hear a voice that will be, so indisputably, the poet's own…. But for the most part, these earliest poems have other echoes, or rather echo others, often with beautiful ease, but all the more evidently borrowings. Yeats is a constant aspiration … and Matthew Arnold a several-times invoked preceptor; the kind of phrasing Arnold developed in "Dover Beach" is splendidly engaged in the title poem…. The experience of war, the actual displacement of the poet's person to the Aleutians, provoke a mode of discourse in which the mind's response to behavior threatens order and bids, in desperation, for delight…. In the long title poem, in "June: Dutch Harbor" and in the astonishing "Notes for an Elegy" … Meredith wrote what stand among the best poems of service in the Second World War, odes to duty that constitute a lamentable genre but a real distinction. Buttressed, as I have said, with Auden and Arnold, alienated by, say, Kodiak Island from the complacencies the word "Princeton" may be taken to represent, this Navy flyer discovered an equilibrium sufficiently endangered to be poignant, yet sufficiently realized in experience to be possessed…. (pp. 373-75)

Meredith's second book, Ships and Other Figures … is a beating to quarters after the risks of such battle pieces. Even the tactical exercises carried over—"Battlewagon," "Transport," "Carrier" and "Middle Flight"—from the earlier experience of war are by now tamed, as another title put it, "against excess of sea or sun or reason." Various traditions are assayed: wedding song, dedicatory verses (one in a copy of Yeats' poems), an Ubi Sunt, an Envoi, even an "Homeric Simile" whose elaboration still affords a glimpse of the self inside…. (p. 375)

But in most of its poems, this smug little book is a retreat to modes of learning and convention…. If in this collection, then, the poet has occasion to juice up his tone, to rehearse the sequestering pleasures of order perceived as a submission to the old conventions by which we cope with or understand our experience, producing such anthology-pieces as "A Boon" and "Perhaps the Best Time" with their bright and barbered lines, yet the impression given by the twenty-nine brief poems taken generally is one of constraint...

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The Atlantic Monthly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What readers miss in most contemporary poetry is the sense of an ending, a conclusion to thought, a culminating cadence that leaves them higher than they began. Meredith is one of the few poets writing today who can exalt, and he does so through wit.

"The cheer, / reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere. / Frankly, I'd like to make you smile," he announces in an envoi to [The Cheer,] a collection that contains all his short poetry of the last ten years…. Meredith believes in civilization, in society with all its corruptions…. So he celebrates the random orderings of society by speaking, paradoxically, of land, stone, trees, and, very often, rivers. He enters the paddock of society, the family, the state, without ever losing a sense of the feral realities outside it.

Poems in The Cheer, unlike those in many books of poetry, are addressed to people—poets, philosophers, presidents, and private citizens. Perhaps as a sign of humility, the book is heavily epigraphed by passages that prepare us to view the challenge of human fate as a game that can be smiled at, win or lose, because we can understand the rules. (p. 94)

Meredith's expression seems to take on the fixed smile of incantation, and it's a rare poem that does not leave the reader with his own smile of familiarity, a little miracle of transformation, like "a jewelled / seafarer bringing water to the parched plain." (pp. 94-5)

"Short Reviews: 'The Cheer'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1981, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 247, No. 2, February, 1981, pp. 94-5.

Paul Breslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The distinctive quality of William Meredith's "The Cheer" is its precision of statement, achieved for the most part without falling into aridity and abstraction. Mr. Meredith is refreshingly unafraid to think in poetry or to use the wide vocabulary and pliant syntax that many poets now deliberately avoid in favor of vatic pronouncement or egalitarian plainness. Consider, for instance, the opening of "Dying Away (Homage to Sigmund Freud)."… I am struck by the narrowness of the gap between the versified quotation from Freud and the continuation in Mr. Meredith's own voice. True, it is the poet who moves from the abstractness of "attitude" and "admiration" to the more particular hospitals, tombstones and trees; but surely the most arresting word in this passage is the abstract (and Freudian) "incestuous," which is endlessly suggestive in this context….

While few of these poems are remarkable for their depth of feeling, some have memorable imagery and music…. If, as Mr. Meredith says in his title poem, "the cheer is hidden in the right words," this is one of the more cheerful books I've read lately. (p. 14)

Paul Breslin, "Four Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1981, pp. 14, 31.∗

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frankly, I'd like [William Meredith] to make me smile but in [The Cheer] I find little to smile at; the cheer is well hidden. I find myself instantly disagreeing, I hope not too solemnly, with Mr. Meredith's claims…. I'm prepared to consent that one man's laughter is another man's poison but I'm amazed to learn that Meredith believes these poems, which deal with such weighty or crusty topics as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Frank, the Nixon administration, the foreign personalities of parents and the dubious condition of lovers in the year 2075, might make one smile. Not very broadly, is my thought, and with not so wry a twist as when reading the many waspish poems Meredith has already bequeathed us.

If I sum up this group as disappointing I'm no doubt being arrogant because the poet has not surpassed himself. Yet expectation is a diabolic master. If I compare these poems with those in Hazard, the Painter (1975), to go no further back, I find none so funny as, in their tart way, "Music, Part II," ["Wholesome," or "Rhode Island,"] … nor any poem so ingenious and discomfiting as "Nausea."… Perhaps the truth is that Meredith, whom I've long since placed among the caustic aristocrats of American verse, is in a mood of forgiveness and reconciliation at an hour when, to my eyes and ears, the world at large least deserves forgiveness and reconciliation.

As for those "right words" in which the Meredith cheer is hidden, few of his new poems feature the exacting diction which has heretofore been a signature. The qualifiers in, for instance, "Remembering Robert Lowell," are as false to that poet's voice as they are to Meredith's own…. This is lacy stuff indeed from the mind of the poet who gave us "The Wreck of the Thresher." It's decent of Meredith to try bucking us up but at this point his ability to do so is better predicated in the work he has previously signed and sealed. (pp. 149-50)

Vernon Young, "Poetry Chronicle: The Light Is Dark Enough," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 141-54.∗