Reviewed: James Agee: Selected Poems. Edited by Andrew Hudgins. American Poets Project: The Library of America, $20.
The next time you visit a bookstore, please look through the poetry selection. Likely it is full of the dead—T.S. Eliot, Goethe, Chaucer, Virgil. But if the bookstore is any good, it will also offer scores of collections and chapbooks by people who are still alive. If you have the time, take a moment and read the biographies on the backs of these books. This woman is a graduate student somewhere, that guy teaches creative writing somewhere else, and this third poet won some award of which nobody except the recipient has ever heard. They are all poets, they are all publishing, they likely all review and give public readings (and visit websites such as this) and, almost certainly, all of them will be utterly forgotten when they die. It is one of the painful recognitions that a true consideration of poetry forces upon the mind; most poets, no matter how great their love of poetry and how much they ache to write well, never matter to the people who live after them.
This reflection is ineluctable in considering the American Poets Project’s new collection of James Agee’s poetry, edited by Andrew Hudgins. Agee is, at least, remembered; his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family remain respected and in print. Yet Agee—as Hudgins emphasizes in his useful introduction—had a serious and lifelong interest in poetry. He isn’t, and he won’t be, remembered as a poet, largely because his poetry simply does not match the accomplishment of his prose. Yet the collection is fascinating in a way that greatness never is: we see in some of Agee’s poems the recognition that his work isn’t good enough. This is not to suggest that it is uniformly bad poetry, but that it never reaches the heights that Agee believed verse should attain: “language worthy of the kind of king kings seldom are, or ever were.”
We should not imagine him simply as a morose self-disillusioned failure. He was, in the most serious sense, self-critical as an artist. He writes openly of “this thunderous benumbing doubt”—something likely both artistic and religious—yet he took the most important step any artist can take when confronted with such contemplations: he made it his material. Although he is being humorous in the following stanza, it expresses much of the artistic attitude that permeates his verse:
For my main trouble, as I can foresee
Already, is, and will be, even more,
That though I’d like this verse attempt to be
Expressive of both prophets and the law
(Maine’s accent rhymes it) why, I lack the key
Even to unlock wit’s and poetry’s door.
Or briefly, though the impulse is O.K.,
I haven’t, really, a damned thing to say.
It would be entirely wrong to assume that this joking stanza is a complete assessment of his work. Yet in this tension between the desire to write verse “expressive of both prophets and the law” and not having “a damned thing to say,” Agee reveals something of his creative priorities. What he expresses is not self-contempt so much as a passionate conviction that art matters, and that his contributions are not equal to the potential of the form. It is a startlingly mature view. He is less a man in despair than one of “those who know the high estate of art, and who defend it.”
Agee is paradoxical; he is often at his best when he is openly exploring the influence of another writer. His own wide reading led him to experiment with numerous poetical voices. Hudgins rightly notes “the variety of his work, and then the variety inside each genre.” As a poet, Agee never hides his influences. It would waste time to track them all here; yet it is pertinent to observe how well he can match the tone of those whose work he is emulating, or whose influence he feels. His occasionally maligned “John Carter” offers a charming, Don Juan-influenced mock-epic; it is not as good as Byron, but what is? It remains, nonetheless, amusing and well done.
For my intention’s to diversify
My subject matter and my manner too:
I’ll use all styles from Lardner to blank verse if I
Can make the grade, which should please you and you
And even you, in turn. And my own ‘erse, if I
Fail, I shall duly kill, and up to you
I leave that wager, choice, and member also:
Lots like to “take the literary pulse,” so.
Now that demands another parenthetic
Remark or two; I’ll cut it fairly short.
If that last stanza seem a bit splenetic,
It’s just because it makes me fairly snort
To see the anemic, phthisic and emetic
Verdicts doled out in Literary Court.
There’s too much sugary simpering civility:
When a book’s rotten, roar it down as guilty!
This lacks Byron’s freshness, but possesses some of Byron’s enthusiasm. More importantly, it leaves absolutely no doubt as to whose spirit is being channeled. But Agee was capable of other evocations, and other moods. One can imagine Donne admiring lines such as
Lovers, make your kisses light,
Weak, your embrace;
Keep passion cool and slight,
A mask, your face:
Else (take heed) the sweet flesh slips
Down from the dull
Dead bones, and lovers’ lips
Kiss but a skull.
This tonal variety is without question the most impressive element of Agee’s poetry. It would be difficult to denominate one type of verse as “typical” Agee; he tries everything. His religious poems are serious, thoughtful meditations, and deserve to be better known than they are. Yet he will then turn and dabble in humorous wordplay, apparently delighting in the frivolity of his approach:
Bassoes grunt, tenors whinny, altoes moo, sopranoes snarl;
And even if they didn’t, there is Song.
The uterine strings, the bollicky brass, the woodwinds’
Are Bloated Song, and equally long and wrong.
He experiments with dialect poetry, with little success. His love poems are often tender and moving, if slight. His political poems are curiously dull and crushed by their earnestness. He was strong with the sonnet. But none of these forms predominates. And that is what makes his range so fascinating to contemplate. It is an open question whether this formal variety reveals the intrepid questing of an adventurous mind, or a dissatisfied poet’s search for a form or style he might be able to master. The answer may well be that it reveals both.
This collection conclusively demonstrates Agee’s skill with the sonnet and his ability to write moving religious verse. Unfortunately, it also reveals an uncomfortable fact about his poetry; on page after page, there is simply no fire. Although many of these verses are dutifully rhymed and metrically intelligent, the collection suffers badly from Agee’s inability to galvanize readers with a sharp phrase, or to startle with a great line. One finds oneself reading, but searching in vain for a pulse, an electrical jolt, a sense of life. Please consider the following poem:
The whistlers slick and chortlers
The free the smart of song:
The deft on wing in the wild white day
Throng muttering shrugged and asleep nor stray
The green boughs deep among:
Safe from the shadowing high ways
The latest wing is home:
The eagerest wing that was abroad
Is idle now and the wing outlawed:
The happiest throat is dumb:
Beneath the proud-armed buzzard
The air slopes damp and blind:
And hunched in tenting cumbrous wing
He sleeps that leaned in a deathward ring
His downright hand behind:
Does this poem move you in any way? Does it express for you something that needed to be expressed? Can you, without looking back, remember any line? For my part, the answer to all three questions is “no.” And this poem is not unique in these respects; for all of the impressive verse in Agee’s collection, there are dozens of poems one simply cannot recall, even immediately after completing them. Far too often Agee’s poems fail to spur the reader into recognition, admiration, assent, or dissent. It is, without doubt, Agee’s greatest flaw—quite simply, many of his poems have no poetry in them.
That, ultimately, is what makes Agee’s poetry both engaging and frustrating. In much of his verse one detects a serious literary sensibility: he has taste, broad interests, a distinctive perspective, and a real understanding of his predecessors. But in far too many places these elements fail to cohere into work of importance. One suspects that the poems were personally meaningful for Agee to have written, yet remains unconvinced that he found a means of transmuting personal significance into accessible artistic relevance.
There is, however, something intriguing about these poems. It is perhaps best understood as an American wistfulness. His poems are unpersuasive when they exult; they are more effective when engaged in quietly grappling with the frustrations of life. His lovers part; his soldiers die—“none knew, few tried to guess, just why”; his faith hurts. It is in this muted sense of life as a troubled experience that he perhaps best attains his own voice. It is a voice that finds real difficulty in celebrating human existence unreservedly, but he is compelling in his assertion that there are few things in human existence that deserve to be unreservedly celebrated.