The Long and the Short of Robinson
Mason, David, The Hudson Review
The Long and the Short of Robinson
May we who are alive be slow
To tell what we shall never know.
-E. A. Robinson, "Exit"
THE BEST POETS ARE OFTEN ECCENTRICS of one sort or another. They have to get used to being misunderstood. So it has been with Edwin Arlington Robinson, who died in 1935, one of die most popular and laurelled authors of his time after decades of obscurity, now fallen to semi-obscurity again. He began self-publishing at a bad time for American poetry, the 1890s, living to see the renaissance associated with Modernism and the rise of new periodicals like Poetry, established in 1912. Yet Robinson remained on the margins of fashion, closer in manner to Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost than to the ornamentation of William Vaughan Moody, on the one hand, or the mandarin style of T. S. Eliot on the other.
While Robinson has never left the anthologies-not the good ones, anyway-he remains a poet in need of periodic resuscitation, usually by poet-critics of particular discernment. Recent selections of his work by Donald Hall and Robert Mezey have been welcomed and, in the latter case, allowed by irresponsible publishers to go out of print. Robert Faggen's fair selection for Penguin remains available, and now we have an Everyman pocket edition by Scott Donaldson, who performs another service in his thorough new biography of the poet.1 The fact that this first-rate literary biography appears under a university imprint is further evidence, if any were needed, that commercial publishers have lost their bearings. But at least the book exists and is getting some attention. Robinson deserves it.
Donaldson's many books include biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Cheever, as well as poets Archibald MacLeish and Winfield Townley Scott. The new book displays a particular affinity for poetry-and the way poems survive through small acts of generosity. His introduction tells us that W. S. Merwin recently demonstrated such devotion by reciting "Reuben Bright" from memory at a Paris bookstore, prompted when he faltered briefly by another poet in the room. Donaldson uses the occasion to move beyond that one great sonnet to the elusive subject of voice:
Great writers must find their distinctive voice, and you can hear Robinson in "Reuben Bright" (1897). He uses simple rhetoric, the emotion compressed in spare language. As the poet Winfield Townley Scott observed in his notebooks, there are basically two kinds of poetry. One is represented by Hart Crane's line "The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise," the other by Robinson's "And he was all alone there when he died." One is a magic gesture of language, the other "a commentary on human life so concentrated as to give off considerable pressure." The greatest poets combine the two, Scott believed: Shakespeare often, Robinson himself now and then.
I have rarely encountered a more useful critical observation, illuminating not only the level of Robinson's contribution, but also two effective poetic modes.
Robinson was one of the first modern American poets. When we read him merely as a social realist with a penchant for the lower depths we miss a more challenging quality in his voice, a sportive freedom of association almost between the lines. Notice, for example, the verbal play typical of Wallace Stevens, born a decade after Robinson in 1879. This is "To the Roaring Wind," the final poem of Harmonium (1923):
What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Now look at Robinson's equally goofy and delightful poem "Two Men" from 1897:
I suppose one could dissertate about the two cultural strands of Greek and Hebrew, or go on about Robinson's obsession with lives that would barely inhabit other poets' footnotes, but it's the quality of play I want most to stress here, the delight in saying the syllables and the anarchy of laughter in that final line. …