BETWEEN the publication in 1915 of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, and ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ by John Ashbery in 1975, there was an extraordinary flowering of poetry in America, so much so that soon after the Second World War if one talked of poetry written in the English language, one mainly talked about American poetry. By the mid-1950s, apart from Eliot and Pound, several other American poets — Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore — were regarded as major figures, and the 1960s saw a dazzling parade of younger poets: John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Richard Wilbur, W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Duncan. There was the group which presented itself as the Beat Poets, prominent among them Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso; and there was the group labelled the Confessional Poets, principally Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
That dazzling parade from the 60s did an encore march-past in my brain recently when I received a book titled Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath by Julia Gordon-Bramer, a critical work that interprets the poems in Plath’s posthumous book, Ariel, in terms of a pre-established system based on symbols associated with tarot cards, alchemy, mythology and astrology, together with ideas connected with what Plath was intellectually engaged in when she wrote the poems, and how she responded to the political and artistic events of the time. It is an interesting, painstakingly researched, reading of the poems, relating them to a surprising spiritual source, which might persuade some of Plath’s devotees to look at the poems in a new light.
In order to better appreciate Gordon-Bramer’s analysis, before reading her book I re-read Ariel, which I’d last read several decades ago and, at that time, considered it an impressive collection. Time, alas, puts its mark on all monuments, on some of which time lets loose its merciless elements of erosion and scatters them in the desert of forgetfulness like Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. First published in 1965, two years after Plath had committed suicide, the poems in Ariel, especially those like ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, which, with their raw rendering of the poet’s personal crisis, sounded like the cry of a soul in distress, made a powerful impact with their public projection of private pain — hence the term ‘Confessional poetry’. One’s knowledge of the poet’s tragic autobiography almost coerced one to be overwhelmed by the poetry; and those of us who knew her conflated our sympathy for our friend with an awed admiration for her poems. Half a century later, however, re-reading the poems in the calmer context of no longer being prejudiced by what had recently happened in the poet’s life, one takes an objective view of the poems’ literary worth.
My conclusion on doing so was that I was no longer impressed; indeed, the personal cry struck me as obsessive self-indulgence: of course, it is perfectly natural for a suffering human being to scream but such a direct public broadcast of one’s interior pain does not make poetry. There are examples of poets communicating deeply, who experienced suffering without overtly alluding to it, and the result is very fine, sometimes great, poetry — of which notable modern examples include Gerard Manley Hopkins’s so-called “terrible sonnets” and Eliot’s The Waste Land, which conceals Eliot’s personal sexual problem (which one infers from what one knows of his life) behind the imagery of a spiritually threatened civilisation that awaits redemption, making the poem a perfect example of Eliot’s objective correlative theory whereby the poet does not appear to talk about what he desperately needs to talk about. A few of the poems in Plath’s Ariel do have a suggestive density of ideas that takes them beyond the personal subject matter, most notably ‘Tulips’, in which the imagery of a body lying in a hospital resonates with ontological insights; but most do not.
Struck by my general disappointment with re-reading Ariel, I re-considered the work of the other poets who had won prominence in the 1960s. There is not much to Williams who’s stuck with his red wheelbarrow while his ambitious long poem, ‘Paterson’, is no longer interesting; cummings is forgettable apart from his unforgettable lower-case pretension; Frost was put in his place by Ezra Pound saying in 1918, “Frost sinks of his own weight”; among the major names, Stevens is the only poet who has survived the test of time, if remembered only for half a dozen lovely poems (though anyone who has the patience to read his long poem, ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’, will find the effort more than a devotional exercise to a worthy idol). But though the odd line in Kunitz or Moore still enchants, all the other poets have wilted. Even Lowell, whose 1959 book, Life Studies, was important in giving a significant new direction to younger poets, has very few poems that still thrill the imagination. Of course, some poets are immortal because of one or two poems — besides ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, what do people know of Samuel Taylor Coleridge? But many a poet is like the hibiscus flower, in beautiful bloom one day, dead in the dust the next.
Then there are those who come back from the dead. Well, that’s a bit exaggerated! Let’s say there are some reputations that fall into cryonic hibernation and are brought back to life when the epi-demic of neglect and forgetfulness has passed. One of the American poets whose books I looked at again was Theodore Roethke (pronounced “Rhett-key”) who died aged 55 a few months after Plath in 1963. I had never doubted his major status and not having re-read him for some years, my high estimation of him was based largely on the retrospective pleasure that performs its charming dance in one’s memory from time to time when we remember past happiness. Now re-reading him more than confirmed that former high regard: some of the poems in his last book, ‘The Far Field’, are the work of an extraordinary imagination and constitute poetry of a wondrous metaphysical depth. One would have to go back to Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ to find poetry of comparable beauty.
Those of us in London drawn to poetry in our teens first knew Roethke from his 1948 book, The Lost Son, and Other Poems, which contains what at first look like beautiful little nature poems taking their imagery from Roethke’s native Michigan and from the greenhouse plants cultivated by his father. A closer reading transforms the vivid, detailed nature imagery into metaphysical insights: e.g. ‘Weed Puller’ describing what the weed puller does — digging, yanking the mess of nature — becomes a metaphor for the human challenge to create a neatly ordered world that finds him down among the weeds, “Crawling on all fours, / Alive, in a slippery grave”, while the world blooming with flowers and “Whole fields lovely and inviolate” remains a dream of paradise.
Another poem, ‘Orchids’, appears first to be only a delightful picture of orchids until the imagery releases the idea of the struggle for existence. All the poems in The Lost Son have lovely lines or memorable phrases, some, like ‘My Papa’s Waltz’, are so perfectly formed one can’t resist reading them aloud. The book concludes with a section of four longer poems, each one an absolute delight. The poet celebrates his presence in the midst of nature, as in the poem ‘A Field of Light’ where he finds his “heart lifted up with the great grasses”, where he is one with the weeds and the nesting birds and even with “a bee shaking drops from a rain-soaked honeysuckle”: it is a wholly illuminated world with the poet’s self a flame flickering in that field of light.
There are more metaphysically charged nature poems in Roethke’s next two collections, Praise to the End and The Waking, full of lines that arrest the imagination with their brilliance, for e.g., “A fish jumps, shaking out flakes of moonlight”. Many readers will be familiar with the title poem of ‘The Waking’, for it is one of the two famous villanelles of the 20th century (the other being Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’).
By 1958, Roethke’s work had acquired a large enough following for publishers in New York and London to launch a large volume of his selected and new poems, Words For The Wind, a book that became a favourite with many of us in our early twenties then. Some of the new poems were so fine, we quoted them to one another — the hilariously amusing ones like ‘Dinky’ and ‘The Serpent’, or in the sequence of love poems, the unforgettable opening lines of ‘I Knew a Woman’: “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, / When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them”.
In some poems, Roethke can be spiritually intense behind a light playfulness, as in ‘The Other’ in which the simple opening, “What is she, while I live?”, develops into the complex notion of the lover surrendering his identity to the beloved when he seems to whisper the mysterious line, “Desire hides from desire” — which, incidentally, brings back the voice of Ahmad Shamloo reading in his native Farsi and reciting what I heard as “Yah, arzoo, arzoo”, which was translated as “Ah, desire, desire!”, a coincidence indicative of how human thought transcends time and space, those tormenting illusions from which we are desperate to escape to some realm of spiritual ecstasy, for here are two voices, Roethke in America, Shamloo in Iran, both, perhaps unknowingly, expressing a Sufi thought. In another poem, ‘The Pure Fury’, Roethke states the thought more explicitly with the line, “Dream of a woman, and a dream of death”, suggesting that the two are interchangeable, for death is the dissolution of the self that occurs in the union with the beloved.
Two longer poems, ‘The Dying Man’, composed on the death of W. B. Yeats, and ‘Meditations of an Old Woman’ elaborate on the familiar theme of life and death with some fresh, striking images, though an occasional intrusive abstract statement, like “the immense immeasurable emptiness of things”, gives a wilted brown edge to that freshness. It’s hard for poets immersed in ontological subject matter not to talk about eternity, as if their being on earth was merely a crawling shadow of their erect self in the Milky Way. But I quibble. Roethke largely avoids that danger, rescuing himself with his gift for inventive phrasing, like “Today I eat my usual diet of shadows”, that puts him on a par with Charles Baudelaire.
Whereas Roethke’s early poems are rooted in the earthy, humid world of his father’s greenhouse plants, their detailed imagery — each little leaf or petal or a pollinating bee’s shivering wing reflecting a throbbing light — capturing the child’s wonder at the profusion of growth, making the poet’s recollection of that microcosmic world appear as a symbolic stage for the drama of his own being, a soul just awakening amidst dappled light, his late poems, collected in the posthumous The Far Field (1964), take their imagery from the wider, and vaster, wilderness of the American Northwest, and transform the wonderstruck child of the greenhouse poems to a meditative visionary among the rivers, mountains and the ocean in the Northwest.
Poetically, too, there’s a wider rhythmic variety in the late poems, as in the first of the six poems of ‘The Far Field’ that comprise the ‘North American Sequence’, ‘The Longing’, in which the first two parts with their shorter lines that sound like subdued, tentative expressions of the wandering soul that seems to hover over the land in search of its body, and then, in the third part, Roethke appropriates Walt Whitman’s long lines to declare with loud confidence his oneness with the land, as in “I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form; / I would be a stream, winding between great striated rocks in late summer”, until the lines narrow to just one word at the end of the poem, as if by uttering that one word, “Iroquois”, he has found the body for his wandering soul, and being absorbed into it, assumed his essential form.
Read that third part of ‘The Longing’ aloud, pause, and having thus tuned your voice, turn the page and then read aloud the next poem, ‘Meditation at Oyster River’, and you might well hear that in-describable music which is indeed that “imperishable quiet at the heart of form” that we call poetry. ‘Meditation at Oyster River’ has clarity of thought, beautiful phrasing, nature imagery of cinematic brilliance; and with the sudden interjection into that narrative of life pulsating between being and nothingness of metaphysically resonant lines like “The self persists like a dying star” and “The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit”, the poem conveys meaning that is experienced in a deep layer of one’s consciousness instead of being simply understood by one’s brain. Thus experienced, as with all great poetry, any talk about it, including some erudite critical analysis, is entirely redundant; better to lean back, close your eyes, and remain silent, for with great poetry language fuses into music that reverberates within the universal soul and brings to the human mind the solace of a revelatory vision.
The two poems that follow, ‘Journey to the Interior’ and ‘The Long Waters’, further explore the sinking of the self into “a rich desolation of wind and water”. Then comes ‘The Far Field’ that at first seems a simple nature poem, with its precisely observed imagery of the animal and vegetable wilderness in a language which is symbolically suggestive without losing its literal objectivity; but even as the images enter one’s consciousness, the poem’s surface meditative stillness begins to ripple with an undercurrent of meaning that draws the reader to a world beyond the physical: it’s a world in which the poet feels “weightless change, a moving forward / As of water quickening before a narrowing channel” where the self must be released from the body, for he has reached “A point outside the glittering current”.
In the final poem of the ‘North American Sequence’, ‘The Rose’, the poet comes to the shore where a river flows into the ocean, a world teeming with bird life: again, the nature description is superb, with both the silent and the raucous birds coming alive in a vivid imagery, but clearly the physical world is the eruption of memory within his mind, for the poet observes of his experience, “I sway outside myself / Into the darkening currents”. He must commence his voyage to the other shore, but his imagination is arrested by seeing a wild rose flowering in “the dark” and a memory floods his mind of the roses in his father’s greenhouses, so that in his final poems Roethke comes full circle to the world of his childhood that had inspired the poems in the early book, “The Lost Son”; only, the language in the later poems is richer, and though the memory of that primeval wonder persists in the symbol of the rose as all the heaven a person needs, that flaring brightness —“the whole of light” concentrated in the rose glowing in his mind — comes to him on the shore where he cannot retreat from the encroaching “darkening waves”.
It is the inner brightness, the precious core of our being, that lights up our final moment, the rose of the self, which gathers “to itself sound and silence”, that harmony of the universe heard by the soul as a divine quiet. Permeated by mystical thought, and while they direct the reader’s mind to a speculation of abstract knowledge, Roethke’s poems never abandon the living imagery, the concrete minutiae, of the physical world. It is this synthesis of the living and the imagined that creates what we hear as poetry. Consider these lines from ‘The Rose’:
“And a drop of rain water hangs at the tip of a leaf
Shifting in the wakening sunlight
Like the eye of a new-caught fish.”
A brilliant observation, with the surprise of the simile held till the final word, an image that needs no explanatory interpretation, for it conveys the fullness of experience; no great idea is stated, there is nothing to understand; but an enchanting loveliness is transmitted, and, left speechless, we hear that music, that surround sound of poetry in the quiet at the heart of form. Few writers make us hear such poetry; this is why when a poet’s language catches our ear with its singular music, as does Roethke’s, we refer to him as a “major voice”, while relegating his contemporaries, whose words once charmed us, to mere warblers of words.
ZULFIKAR GHOSE is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also penned many novels, including the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian. He is professor emeritus in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin.