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Notes on Some Young Poets

Article excerpt

During the 1950s, Chicago Review became a forum for cultural criticism, with commentators like Bruno Bettelheim, Hannah Arendt, Kenneth Burke, Erik and Kai Erikson, Leslie Fiedler, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Leon Edel filling its pages. These contributions are too numerous - and each too lengthy - to include in this retrospective issue. We've instead chosen to index the way in which one topic of cultural debate at that time - the issue of conformity - inflected discussions of contemporary poetry. Essays like Morse Peckham's "Emancipating the Executives" and David Riesman's "The College Student in an Age of Organization" had addressed the business culture of Sloan Wilson's 1955 novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In the Autumn 1957 issue, Nelson Algren said in an interview, "There are all these myths, you know. Our society is full of them: the General Motors myth, the gray flannel suit myth. And the biggest myth of all is that of the gadget, gadgets everywhere, a collection of things: two Fords in the garage, a deep freeze in the basement, and an all-purpose wife in the kitchen." In the same issue, Paul Carroll, then the Guest Poetry Editor, wrote a brief essay, "Notes on Some Young Poets," which uses a similar metaphorical vocabulary. CARROLL recently reflected on this work:

I was a young poet forty years ago, when I wrote the "Notes," and I think I was trying to find a family of poets my own age, with whom I could talk, read their poems, and have fun together. All of the poets discussed, I am happy to say, became close friends from whom I learned a lot. Philip Booth's letter calling me to task for free and easy use of the term "gray flannel poet" struck me as on the money forty years ago; it still does. And he was absolutely right in pointing out that my review neglected to mention Jim Wright. That was rectified a few years later, in the early 1960s, when I was proud to publish his lyrics in Big Table and have Jim as a buddy.

I am looking at an old snapshot of Robert Desnos in his youth. Head propped on a morocco rug, eyes tightly shut, mouth agape, he looks like a death mask for Manolete. He is not sleeping. Hypnotized or drugged instead, perhaps he is spouting automatic verse.

Despite the tomfoolery and show, one cannot help admire the spunk of Desnos and the other young surrealists. At their best, they were embarked on a voyage of the spirit. So much recent American verse, on the other hand, seems soporific and enervated.

In fact, reading some of the recent Yale younger poets, the Lamont prize winners, and, say, an anthology like Mr. Richard G. Stern's tidy, judicious American Poets of the Fifties (Western Review, Spring 1957), one becomes spooked by the image of the young poet prematurely corseted with aldermen, thinning hair, tenure, and routine no-nonsense sex life. Cozy middle-aged verse. Absent are most of the expected vices and virtues of the young poet: no technical howlers; no tears for a lost garden of earthly delights; no ranting and raving against the established society; no bumptiously imperative subjective moods. Able, academic, anemic verse instead.

However, to dismiss this young gray-flannel poet as a quiet technician, a mere worker in filigree, would be, cautions Mr. Stern, foolish if not presumptuous.

One is hard-pressed to do otherwise.

Of these gray-flannel poets, Mr. W. S. Merwin seems most representative, as well as the best.(*) I had better say right now that I consider him a fine poet. Not since the young Auden has a beginner exhibited such intimacy with, respect for, and command of, his technique. What his work wants, on the other hand, is adventure. …