Friday, May 17, 2013

`What Lewd, Naked and Revolting Shape is This?'

The copy of A Little Treasury of American Poetry I borrowed from the library was tied with a dirty white ribbon and bow, like a gift from a shabby-genteel friend. That’s almost the way I think of its editor, Oscar Williams (1900-1964), a forgettable poet but memorable anthologist. I bought my copy in paperback almost fifty years ago. It and others edited by Williams (A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, Immortal Poems of the English Language) served as my Introduction to Poetry. The library copy is signed by its former owner, the literary critic and scholar Frederick J. Hoffman, and dated July 9, 1948, the year of its publication. The cover has detached from the binding and been repaired with white medical tape. In his introduction, Williams intones a familiar lament: 

“For poetry should be the expression of the whole people, not a private matter. Unfortunately, the American public, like some other modern publics, does not care for, nor understand serious poetry. Moreover, the special audience for poetry even among, let us say, those who have gone through college, is incredibly small.” 

One wishes to raise his hand and ask: “And why shouldn’t it be?” Williams’ selection reflects the triumph of Modernism. He includes Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (heavily annotated by someone in pencil) and Canto I, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Hart Crane’s The Bridge. A century after Modernism first stirred, and putting aside for the moment their literary worth, these poems remain heavy going, even (perhaps especially) for “those who have gone through college.” Such work could never be as broadly popular as that written in the nineteenth century by Bryant, Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes, who, in Williams’ judgment, “produced only watered-down versions of English verse,” that was “by serious standards…second-rate.” 

Williams divides his anthology into three sections: “American Indian Poetry” (eleven pages), “The Chief Poets from Colonial Times to the Present Day” (719 pages, from Anne Bradstreet to Delmore Schwartz) and “Poetry of the Forties” (113 pages). Immodestly, Williams includes eight of his own poems in the second section and five by his wife, Gene Derwood, in the third. One sample from Williams’ “The Seesaw” will suffice: 

“Divine seesaw! Ply thy twin ways of higher!
The valley of the grave upholds the stars.” 

On second thought, this, from “Shopping for Meat in Winter,” is too good not to share: 

“What lewd, naked and revolting shape is this?
A frozen oxtail in the butcher’s shop
Long and lifeless upon the huge block of wood
On which the ogre’s axe begins chop chop.” 

I wish I could remember my reaction to this stuff back in 1965. Did I read it straight or suspect parody? Probably the former. I was na├»ve and unschooled, and very much in thrall to what Flannery O’Connor called litachur. Even if a poem was pretentious and boring, I wouldn’t have admitted it for fear of sounding dim and unsophisticated. Williams the anthologist offered me the start of an education. In particular I was taken by E.A. Robinson, Louise Bogan and W.H. Auden, as well as a poem by Karl Shapiro, “Scyros,” that I still like but don’t claim to fully understand. Williams did all that any decent teacher can do. He opened the book and pointed at the page.


George said...

In Randall Jarrell's notice of A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, collected in Poetry and the Age, there occurs the parenthesis

"(Also, the book has the merit of containing a considerably larger selection of Oscar Williams's poems than I have ever seen in any other anthology. There are nine of his poems--and five of Hardy's. It takes a lot of courage to like your own poetry almost twice as well as Hardy's.)"

Chuck Kelly said...

"Shopping for Meat in Winter" sounds like something Percy Dovetonsils may have read to his television audience as he sipped a Martini.

Michael Redmond said...

Thanks for this, I, too, devoured both Williams' anthologies late '60s and recently ordered endearingly battered second-hand copies through Amazon. I've never run across some of the poems I fell in love with anywhere else & have been enjoying some trips down Memory Lane.