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I have been thinking about what constitutes, or might constitute, popular
poetry. While working on an encyclopedia of nineteenth-century British
writers, it struck me with some force that what we, at the beginning of
the twenty-first century, mean by popular is, in most respects,
quite different from what the Victorians meant. Our terms of reference
have changed since the days of the Victorians, and what we consider to be
of importance most has changed. Despite the public clamor that greeted
each new installment of a Dickens novel, he was not so much the
Victorians' J. K. Rowling (to name, almost at random, a popular writer
whose latest work is greeted today with a similar clamor, at least in the
media and among a loyal readership base) as their Steven Spielberg;
Tennyson, not so much their Seamus Heaney or their Billy Collins as
their…well, I was about to say George & Ira Gershwin in one, or
Rodgers and Hart, but that would raise other (unrelated) issues concerning
what I think (and what I know and don't know) about contemporary pop
music; name your favorite contemporary singer-songwriter, someone you
consider an icon of our age. In any case, the conclusion one can draw is
not that the meaning of popular has changed, so much as that the
art forms and genres that are most popular--I mean universally
popular--have altered, along with our priorities and perceptions, so that
many today might argue (and many do) that television, film, and the
compact disc have supplanted the book as the prime media of mass culture,
and that poetry is at best a marginal art, the domain of earnest academics
on the one hand and of impromptu slammers on the other.
I touch on this subject because it also occurs to
me that, in another time--say, the time of Tennyson--F. D. Reeve might
well have been a truly popular poet, one whose star, under the right
conditions, might have shone as brightly as Tennyson's. Ask the
"average" poetry reader who he or she likes best, and if the
answer isn't the aforementioned Heaney or Collins, odds are it might be
one of any number of poets who work in a minor confessional vein, whose
verse becomes a kind of psychotherapy intended to assuage or exploit
familial anger and calm or exploit domestic angst, whose highest ambition
is to explain the poem's I. There are, of course, different routes
to this destination: Some poets are seduced by the fascination of what's
difficult, coding their private meanings in poems that essentially serve
as cryptograms. Others--self-unacknowledged members of what in crime and
mystery fiction is called "the hum-drum school" (an appellation
that works just as well for poetry)--take the most direct route to
"accessibility" by holding steadfastly to plain speaking, making
a poetry that can seem more routine than any piece of journalistic prose.
Reeve attempts to steer a course between these two approaches as an
advocate and practitioner of "Adequate Poetry," which, if one
can go by the publisher's publicity sheet, purports to engage "not
personal malaise but life's difficulties and challenges." Frankly,
this definition itself strikes me as inadequate; but it's something to
To put it another way, Reeve attempts to lead us
back--and possibly forward--to a poetry that appeals to a common heritage
and to common concerns beyond the poem's I and the poet's personal
preoccupations. His poems have a curious timelessness; they seem to exist
both in and outside of historical time. They are awash in myth, in just
the way that, say, Tennyson's "Ulysses" is awash in classical
myth, naturally and unselfconsciously. Reading the poems in the two books
under consideration here, I had the sense that I had read them before--not
because they are derivative, but precisely because they tap into a common
mythic heritage. Orpheus and Euridice, Ajax and Achilles, Dido and Aeneas,
Paolo and Francesca, the heroes and heroines of Shakespeare's magical
romances, become proxies for us and our loves: They glide through these
books almost silently but not without notice, guided by the poet's light,
imaginative touch rather than the scholar's dry precision.
Still perhaps best known as a scholar and
translator of Russian literature, Reeve gained early notice when he
accompanied the elderly Robert Frost to Russia in 1962, serving as the
great American poet's personal interpreter. The result of that startling
and improbable journey was, on Reeve's part, a minor classic, Robert
Frost in Russia, an account of that unusual episode in Frost's life
and a glimpse into the intersection of art and politics during the cold
war. (The book was reissued, with a new introduction, by Zephyr in 2001.)
Reeve is also the author of several novels and three previous books of
poems, including The Blue Cat (FSG, 1972). Now, with his two most
recent collections, Reeve in his seventies stakes his claim not as a
popular poet for our age, perhaps, but as one who should command our
Published in quick succession, The Moon and
Other Failures and The Urban Stampede and Other Poems can be
read as twin halves of a continuous whole. Each book contains two dozen or
so lyric poems which, though classically concise in their form and
expression, nonetheless are expansive in their imaginative sweep and moral
implications. The remainder of each book (more than half of The Urban
Stampede, just under half of The Moon and Other Failures) is
occupied by a longish narrative poem, about which I shall say more in due
What first strikes the reader is the constancy
and consistency of the world Reeve evokes in--and invokes through--his
poems. His primary images are taken from astronomy and seafaring. Reeve's
astronomy may be derived from the modern astrophysics that has revealed
the existence of Magellanic clouds and black holes--both directly referred
to in The Moon and Other Failures--or from the classical, mythic
concept of the heavens that conceives the Moon as involved in human fate
and encompasses the Pleiades as the seven Muses. So too the pervasive
sense of time and its passage is measured both by the movements of the
stars and planets and by the rhythms of the sea and the passage of
wind-driven ships across oceans. "Today as clouds gather and a
northeaster breaks, / the eye of time seems suddenly at hand," he
writes in "Vermont Sonnets." And in "Coasting" he
asserts that "the light that speeds around in empty space / extracts
the future from the past."
This latter poem, incidentally, not only pays
homage to Tennyson but also, in the third stanza, echoes the Yeats of
"Byzantium" and "Sailing to Byzantium": "If soul
is form and gives a body life, / reality is a gathering of ghosts,"
Reeve writes, and then, "We circle the stars to find our secret play,
/ and the dying mackerel believe the gong / off Permaquid tolls for them /
on the cold gray-green sea." In this poem and in others, Reeve
explores what Yeats called "the artifice of eternity."
With the geography of Reeve's poems so populous
with stars, lakes, rivers, seas, it is hardly surprising that, at its
heart, his work is a meditation on the nature of time itself. These poems
don't chronicle the passage of time as much as they return again and again
to the very notion of time, an awareness of what is and how it
contrasts with what was, the paradoxical immediacy of memory
contrasted with the strangeness of the present; the sense that the past is
more real than the present. In "Catching Up," he declares that
"at the end of the past, time now notwithstanding, / the future
threatens"; on the next page, in "The Village Graveyard,"
contemplating a row of tombstones, he notes that "Time like a kindly
god / reserves some open spaces in each row / for the living dead."
Without ascribing any theological similarities to the two poets, it does
not take much of a leap to see an affinity with the Eliot of "Burnt
Norton," for whom "Time present and time future / What might
have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always
Their strong, repeated images, and their
awareness of time passing give Reeve's verse its quietly haunting quality.
Equally notable, however, is these poems' formal structure, the pattern of
regular stanzas within each poem, whether constructed of three, four,
five, or six lines. He works within these forms with a sense of ease,
never seeming hemmed-in by the stanza form he has chosen or that has
chosen him. (This is quite evident, for instance, in the "The Moon
and Other Failures" and in "The Old World.") In those poems
in which he rhymes, his rhymes almost always are simple; he eschews the
verbal pyrotechnics that preoccupy many younger and more aggressive poets.
Likewise, his poems' titles often are deceptively flat and unassertive,
almost conventional and generic: "Voices," "Twilight,"
and "Vermont Sonnets" (in The Moon and Other Failures),
"Still Life," "April" (in The Urban Stampede)--titles
that give little indication of the substance and force of poems they shyly
announce. (To what extent this might be a conscious, artful decision is a
subject for consideration elsewhere. Should a poem's title be as direct
and literal as possible or, rather, through being fanciful, in the way of
an Ashbery title, say, seemingly have little to do with the poem's
apparent subject but lead us only through indirection?)
In The Urban Stampede, the poem "The
Old World," which begins, "When I was young the earth was a hard
blue globe / with multi-colored countries and British pinks," brings
to mind Bishop's question "Are they assigned, or can the countries
pick their colors?" in "The Map." But although Reeve's poem
might be read as a counterpart to Bishop's, the cartography he studies is
that of time rather than of place, as is evident the final stanza:
my long-lived hours recombine the past.
All time is
fiction: in the seas men drown.
How can I prove my
or there's a
library where this world will last?
poem functions too as a twin to the title poem of The Moon and Other
Failures, which begins
stones of Paris smell of books
from bibles lighting up the Middle Ages
to romantic tales
of unrequited love.
Every Sunday my
grandfather winds his clocks
and checks the past
for any uncut pages.
I must emphasize that these are not generic "grandfather" poems.
Rather, they are, again, meditations on the nature of memory. Although
memory is not quite sufficient, and not reliable, it is the necessary
element that makes us human--enabling us, almost, to make sense of what
happens in our lives. Much is lost in time, Reeve says again and again;
but without memory, we ourselves are lost.
The two long poems that are the centerpieces of The
Moon and The Urban Stampede stand in contrast to the compact
lyrics I have been discussing. They are conceived (and have been
performed) as chamber oratorios. The subject of each is drawn from
classical myth, with a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.
As it does elsewhere in The Moon and Other
Failures, the sea figures prominently too--as presiding image, symbol,
and character--in Alcyone, Reeve's adaptation of the eleventh book
of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which takes up more than half of this
book. He calls his version “a modern oratorio for songs, musicians and narrator."
For many modern readers, the myth of Alcyone and
Ceyx may be even more distant and unfamiliar than the legend of Lemminkäinen
in Tuonela. In Reeve's retelling, it is set aboard "a fishing vessel
fraught with human passion." Here, Hylas's rape of Alcyone has more
than a touch of lurid melodrama. As Hylas advances upon his sister in law,
we find ourselves not in the world of Homer's rosy-fingered dawn but in a
bodice ripper's purple-prosy pages. Hylas is the archetypical brute
villain. He does not leer, but he literally "lours": "His
eyes attack in hungry anger, / his hands crawl crab-like through salt air,
/ while, like a shark's, his body twists / and whips behind his barred
white teeth." And, "Gathering himself to mount, / he drives
closer, harder, madder, seizes / her wrists with his rough, reddened
hands…" Surely more than one writer of a Harlequin romance must
have used the line "His manliness / towered in its triumph," as
Reeve does here.
Because of its more wistful tone, and because of
the more evident universality of its subject--a reworking of the more
familiar myth of Orpheus and Euridice--to my mind the "The Urban
Stampede" is a less problematic, more consistently satisfying and
compelling poem. In place of the classical Underworld, Reeve sets the myth
in a London pub called the Urban Stampede. His Orpheus is Mack, "a
handsome young man, a great singer and guitarist" who goes to the
Urban Stampede to search for his wife, Mary May, who earlier had become
"seriously deranged from illness" and had disappeared, turning
up at the bar "Lost and lonely…unaware that the illness has made
Setting the scene, Reeve allows the Chorus to
indulge in a bit of Muldoonery as it intones:
in the Urban Stampede
we've got everything you need
for a perfect evening out:
If you ain't got much money
you can still treat your honey
to a glass of Lauderdale stout
or recite her some Hamlet
while we fry you an omelette
and figure the charges out.
the rhyme and meter and diction here are more James Simmons than Paul
Muldoon, but they are appropriate to the atmosphere Reeve wants to create.
And there is more to this poem than jokiness, more than the
alcohol-fuelled chatter of late-night sessions at the pub, as when Mary
wind from the West blows warm
across meadowsweet, briar rose
and the osprey circling the cove
where white boats come and go.
and commentary is provided by the Born Observer, who declares that
"the music made / their story into living song," and by the
Chorus, which endorses this view, shouting, "Three cheers for music,
the key to mysteries!"
As in the original myth, however, the lovers
cannot be reunited: "In the confusion as the swinging doors swung
wide / Mack lost her hand and quickly called her name." But
"She, not hearing, made no move but waited / where she was for his
next step ahead; / and he, forgetting where she was and why, turned to
check." And that, of course, is the fatal moment. Mary May is
swallowed up in the chaos of the Urban Stampede, and Mack can only mourn
his irrevocable loss, finding consolation in the thought that
"Surely she dreams of the sounds of music / as green leaves assert
the life of a tree. Wherever she is she must be in heavenly light."
I would be remiss if, in closing, I didn't return
to the shorter poems and single out "The Grand Illusion" (in The
Urban Stampede), which in my personal mental anthology of painting
poems is likely to rank alongside Auden's "Musée des Beaux
Arts" and Derek Mahon's "Courtyards in Delft." The painting
is Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus; the final of the six stanzas
bird is untouched; the broken bread is blessed
but uneaten. The waiter's doubt throws the three together.
So masterful is the perspective that you can't guess
what's really there-a cloth-covered table, food,
and figures? or a holy traveller's weather?
or, love found, long loss at last made good?
the visual becomes verbal and, in the process, spiritual.
In his late poetic flowering, Reeve has unearthed
a gift that allows him to be bookish and literary, and unapologetically
so--and yet write in a voice that manages to sound entirely uncontrived
and unselfconscious. Like Yeats, he recognizes that poems are pure
artifice but must not seem artificial. He writes a poetry that allows us
to romanticize the moon and that yet just as surely acknowledges that
stars die, and worlds--and we--die with them. At once timely and timeless,
these are two books not to be judged by their unprepossessing covers.