Monday, November 16, 2020

'The Minor Sages Went Up in Smoke'

While looking up something about the poet-critic J.V. Cunningham, I happened on a brief review of his collection The Judge Is Fury written by Robert Hillyer (1895-1961) and published in the June 28, 1947 issue of The Saturday Review. It’s worth quoting in full: 

“This book should not be dismissed briefly, for it is important. The poems excel in a field that today other poets—except Frost, on occasion—have left untended: the epigram. The verse is hard and classic. The wry analysis of emotion, the Platonic humor, are akin to Santayana; the deftness of the cool and clipped syllables brings Landor to mind. My only complaint is that Mr. Cunningham introduces identical rhymes as lavishly as a French poet. He is too fine an artist to have done this unintentionally, but the effect in English still sounds weak in my ear. Mr. Cunningham’s book will probably not attract a large modern audience, but he should have the satisfaction of knowing that he is carving —even if not always with perfection—in stone, while so many of his contemporaries are still dabbling in the sticky dough left from the Romantic popovers.”


That’s my idea of how to write a capsule review. I wish more reviews were so pithy, with hardly a wasted word. Everything is focused on the book, not on the author of the review. Too many reviews are autobiographies sprinkled with token references to the work at hand. The Landor reference is right on the money, though I’m not certain I understand the Santayana comparison. The final sentence is amusing and true.


Hillyer is a forgotten footnote. He served as an ambulance driver in World War I with his Harvard friend John Dos Passos. His Collected Verse (1933) won the Pulitzer Prize. He taught at Harvard for twenty-six years and was a friend of Robert Frost. If remembered at all, it’s for the Ezra Pound Affair. In the June 11 and 18, 1949 issues of The Saturday Review of Literature, he published two lengthy articles – “Treason’s Strange Fruit: The Case of Ezra Pound and the Bollingen Prize” and “Poetry's New Priesthood.” While under indictment for treason and hospitalized in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital, the anti-Semite and Fascist sympathizer had been awarded the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress for The Pisan Cantos. This is the poet who, while broadcasting for Radio Rome in 1943, with the Holocaust well underway, declared: “I think it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yids.” Pound is an early specimen of a type common today: the artist who feels entitled, because he is an artist, to spout off about any subject, especially one he knows nothing about it.


In his articles, Hillyer dismissed Pound’s book as a “vehicle of contempt for America” and as a mockery of “our Christian war dead.” His objections were both moral and aesthetic. He wrote that if the Cantos were judged a worthy poetic achievement, then “everything we have known of poetry in the English language from Chaucer to Frost is not poetic achievement.” No snobs are so violently snobbish as poets and their enablers. Hillyer and his defenders were derided as middlebrows and philistines. It would be nice to honor Hillyer as a worthy poet, but his gift was middling and creaky. Here is his “Letters,” which packs an old-fashioned sting:


“O that our living literature could be

Our sustenance, not archaeology! . . .

My scholar shall be brilliantly forbidden

to dig old garbage from a kitchen midden . . .

Far better Alexandria in flames

Than buried beneath unimportant names;

And even Sappho, glory that was Greece’s,

Lives best, I blasphemously think, in pieces.

That Chinese Emperor who burned the books

Succumbed to madness shrewder than it looks;

The minor poets and the minor sages

Went up in smoke. The great shine down the ages.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

'Popovers' – thanks for the new word, Patrick.
In England we call them Yorkshire puddings. 'Romantic Yorkshire puddings' definitely wouldn't work...