October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated There are times when the overrated is obvious, and all one can do is wince. Anyone who sat through Maya Angelou’s inauguration drivel will understand what I mean. In their day the celebrity of a Carl Sandburg and an Allen Ginsberg covered over the slim poetic gift of each. It is plain that such poets, if they are remembered at all, will be footnotes in a history of social change, not of literature. The reputations of worthier poets ebb and flow with the restless tides of taste. A poet like Edna St. Vincent Millay was considered shocking in the 1920s and 50 years later was dismissed as sentimental. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died in 1882, he was the most popular and beloved poet in the Englishspeaking world. A century later he was mocked and unread.
What undid Longfellow was the arrival of the modernist poets in the 1920s. Ezra Pound (who was, by the way, Longfellow’s grandnephew) and T. S. Eliot were determined to rid the poetic landscape of Victorian mawkishness. They championed a fragmented, psychologizing, egobound lyric in skewered free verse, and their model held, right through the rest of the twentieth century. Nowadays, of course, the gassy Eliot, the twittering Marianne Moore, the threadbare William Carlos Williams all seem to have long outlasted their cultural sway. The worst of them, and by far the most overrated, was Ezra Pound. Of course, critical studies of his work continue to pour off the presses, and he has long since been enshrined in the academic establishment. His apologists, too, remain busy. Pound’s treasonous broadcasts from Italy during World War II, and later his insane ravings from the lunatic asylum (his fame spared him jail time), are waved aside: The man was flawed, the work endures. This kind of apology has been used before to justify True Artists, though few of them were as “flawed.” Did Richard Wagner ever write, as Pound did, in one of his published letters, “All the Jew part of the Bible is black evil”?
Even if one were to accept the (specious) argument that art is beyond morality, Pound’s work is fraudulent. He was a good critic, a learned and inventive reader, and a decisive influence on many poets far greater than he. (Yeats was one.) But his reputation rests on a few delicate effusions from his early books, all of them redolent of the sachet. Pound himself staked his claim to greatness on The Cantos , the epic poem he worked on for decades and left incomplete at his death. Though it has been endlessly parsed and praised, it remains a complete mess. Sure, there are flashes of lightning, but they only emphasize the surrounding darkness. It is incoherent rant. That Pound is still regarded with awe saddens me.
Underrated Theodore Roosevelt’s young son Kermit, on a visit home from Groton, told his father that he had been reading a new book of poems at school and was mightily impressed. So the President decided to read the book too. It was The Children of the Night , by one Edwin Arlington Robinson. Roosevelt too was impressed and read some poems aloud at a Cabinet meeting. He then wrote a review of the volume (just think how things have changed in the White House!), comparing the poet’s prosody to “the coloring of Turner.”
Robinson himself at that time was a desperate alcoholic, working as a time checker in the Manhattan subway system. He had grown up in Gardiner, Maine, and lived unhappily at home until he was nearly 30, except for two years as a special student at Harvard—a stay that sparked his literary ambitions. Back in the stark isolation of Gardiner, he turned his eye on his neighbors and began the series of poems set in “Tilbury Town” that years later secured his fame. He published his first book at his own expense, filling it with cold, precise poems, and then left Maine in bitterness and moved to New York City. Penniless and forlorn, he stayed in flophouses and drank. But he continued to write, and when his next book appeared, the poet Trumbull Stickney wrote of it: “The honesty and simplicity of his mind, the pathos and kindness of his heart, above all the humor with which his imagination is lighted up continually, have made me begin life over again and feel once more that poetry is part of it, nay the truth of it.”
President Roosevelt invited Robinson to dinner at the White House and, flouting civil service rules, offered him a sinecure at the New York Customs House with an annual salary of $2,000. The President told him to ignore his duties and concentrate on his poetry. Robinson drifted and drank and wrote masterpieces. “Eros Turannos,” “Mr. Flood’s Party,” “The Wandering Jew,” “Hillcrest,” two dozen poems that will last. He attracted admirers (and modest financial support), continued to publish, and won three Pulitzer Prizes. He labored away on book-length poems, but he was racked with depression. When inoperable cancer was discovered in 1935, he spent his final days correcting proofs of his last book in his hospital bed.
His work fell into obscurity and has remained more or less permanently out of fashion. His Collected Poems is out of print; anthology and textbook appearances are scant. The work of a greater poet whose themes were similar, Robert Frost, continually overshadows Robinson’s. But his work is a classic and should be a standard. His poems can be as spare and abstract as a Shaker chair, and Robinson’s tragic sense of life continues to chill and instruct. The face we see in his portraits —his joyless adulterers, solitary drunks, misers, frauds, and suicides—is our own.