- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

POETS OF THE CIVIL WAR

Edited by J.D. McClatchy

The Library of America, $20, 240 pages

THEODORE ROETHKE

Edited by Edward Hirsch

The Library of America, $20, 192 pages

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS

J. D. McClatchy, the editor of this addition to The Library of America’s American Poets Project, reminds us that “over 620,000 soldiers died during those four years, nearly as many as in all of America’s other wars combined.” Those who saw Ken Burns’ version of the war on PBS easily recall the carnage of Shiloh and Antietam, the horrors of Southern and Northern prisoners-of-war camps, the destruction of Atlanta.

Now we have a collection of poems through which we can view one of the most devastating chapters in our nation’s history, a time whose effects we still bear. Most of the poems, “anthems and elegies, rallying cries and defenses” are, as the editor readily admits, “second-rate.” Nevertheless, although many of the poems are of little literary merit, there should be no doubt but that they are of historical importance. This volume, therefore, should attract a large audience of readers who are Civil War buffs and those curious about the development of American poetry.

Mr. McClatchy, the editor of The Yale Review and of the first publication in the American Poets Project, “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” provides a thoughtful introduction to the period. He discusses literary styles (or lack thereof), and comments on some of the 33 poets he selected. More biographical information would have been useful, but its absence is understandable given so many poets and several long poems.

Some of the poets will be unfamiliar to all but students of American poetry. Others, including Herman Melville, Bret Harte, and Ambrose Bierce, are known for their fiction, even though each knew his way about a poem. There is a group of poets, including Whittier, Longfellow and Emerson, whose names will ring a bell from high school, or earlier. Then there is Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, two titans of 19th century American poetry.

The Dickinson poems included here are not her finest, although the following stanza is better than many poems of this collection:

It feels a shame to be Alive—

When Men so brave—are

dead—

One envies the Distinguished

Dust—

Permitted—such a Head

Compare these lines to ones William Gilmore Simms wrote to open “Ode—Do Ye Quail:”

Do ye quail but to hear,

Carolinians,

The first foot-tramp of

Tyranny’s minions?

Have ye buckled on armor,

and brandished the spear,

But to shrink with the

trumpet’s first peal on the ear?

The greatest poem in the volume, and one of the best ever written, is Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” his elegy for the assassinated president: “And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,/ I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”

Mr. McClatchy is informative on Whitman’s volunteer work during the war, but Whitman’s “The Wound-Dresser” directly involves the reader: “I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,/ Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive.” The immediacy of war is captured by all 33 poets, but the poems by Dickinson and Whitman shine in this fine anthology. This is a book that belongs in all our libraries.

Another new release in the American Poets Project is “Theodore Roethke.” Re-reading Roethke’s poems was bittersweet experience for me because although some of his poems are not as good as I remembered, others still have the power to surprise. His best poems capture the cadences of human and non-human life, though too often Roethke weakened poems by adding a moral or an epiphany.

Edward Hirsch, an important poet and critic himself, identifies Roethke as “a mid-twentieth-century American poet who self-consciously inherited and extended the romantic tradition of Yeats, Stevens and Crane, and belongs to that visionary company.”

Perhaps this is why Roethke’s reputation has suffered. Once a leading poet, few of the newer literary histories of American poetry do more than point out that he taught poets like James Wright, and that his influence can be seen in the work of Sylvia Plath. Roethke’s own work seems to have been forgotten.

Because of his family’s business — they owned “a 25-acre greenhouse” in Michigan, Roethke was immersed in the natural world. Mr. Hirsch tells us that Roethke “dwelled in the midst of rocks and plants, weeds and moss, flowers of all kinds (his father specialized in orchids and roses).” Consider the titles of just a few poems: “Root Cellar”, “Weed Puller,” “Orchids”, and “Child on Top of a Greenhouse.”

One of Roethke’s most famous poems, “My Papa’s Waltz”, deserves to appear in full.

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy

dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy

We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a

buckle.

You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by

dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.

Here is a dramatic evocation of an important event in the poet’s youth. Violence and pleasure combine to reveal the speaker’s love and fear of his father.

Readers should also pay attention to “Elegy for Jane,” a poem for a student thrown from a horse: “I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils; / And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile.” How good is a “pickerel smile?” The opening lines of “The Waking” might be familiar: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go.”

I envy readers who have not yet experienced Theodore Roethke. Edward Hirsch has gathered a solid body of Roethke’s work, including some of his poems for children, and selections from the poet’s notebooks. I urge readers to get to know this poet. What better way to survive rainy Spring days.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide