American novelists no longer write about America. That, at least, was the judgment of many foreign writers who attended the recent PEN Conference. It would be hard to make the same complaint about our poets. In fact, it is hard to escape the feeling that a good many American poets are engaged in an exploration, a rediscovery of the terra cognita of American history.

These four volumes cover at least three regions of the U.S.: New England, the South, and the Midwest. Norman Williams appears to be the best traveler. His verses take him to Vermont, Kansas, Virginia, and indeed, all the way to Spain and Portugal, but his most striking pieces are Midwestern, as “The Genius of Small-Town America”:

Each spring another crop of debt is sown.

And, though agencies attach the land.

Outbuildings, crops and unborn young, still

The beak-nosed men walk head-up and proud.

Convinced, against all evidence, that what

They’ve planted, built or reared is theirs.

And that, come the plague or Democrats,

They will die as they have lived, that is

In their good time, just when and how they choose.

If Williams takes an unromantic view of the prairie states, he can still find a kind of beauty in its twilight, “when the scent of alfalfa mingles with / the odor of cows and casseroles.” This first book is an extraordinary accomplishment for a young New England lawyer who has sounded, as Anthony Hecht observes, “a uniquely American note.”

Brendan Galvin is another Yankee poet. Winter Oysters, his fourth book, has been out since 1983, but it is not too late to do justice to the freshness and vigor of Galvin’s landscapes. It is one of the very few volumes of recent verse I find myself returning to, now and then, for refreshment—like a well-loved cabin in the north woods. The title poem captures something I had thought would always elude the versifier’s art—the experience of eating oysters you have gathered in the winter:

. . . This
is how we like them, not
summer-thin and weepy tourist
fare, but hale as innkeepers,
their liquor clear, fat with
plankton that thrives under a
glaze drifting just below green
water, and without any lemon
sundrip or condiment but a
dash of bourbon to punctuate
each salty imperative.

At their worst, Galvin’s poems occasionally descend to the picturesque, the merely descriptive (I am reminded a little of John Clare), but he has a way of leaping from these needlepoint details up to panoramic glimpses. Going from a description of a mockingbird’s song, he proceeds to observe:

This business of getting
the world right
isn’t for dilettantes;
when the voices fill you,
you must say nothing wrong,
but follow them back
through the day, going phrase
by phrase over hills. . . .

—lines which say more about poets than mockingbirds.

With all the good things to say about Galvin’s verse, I cannot help wishing he would turn from his short unmetrical lines to rhythmical forms that had more of the quality we expect from lyric verse. His rhetorical phrasing is almost flawless, but the human heart beats to the simple cadences of the drum, and in all the rhythmical systems known in the world, there is none that is not based on a simple alternation of strong and weak. Still, Galvin’s lines seem to work, and there is not much point complaining to a man who has done us a kindness.

The same criticism applies even more to John Knoepfle, whose lines strike at least one reader as stiffer and less responsive than Galvin’s—something like an inexpensive fly rod. Knoepfle still manages to write ambitiously about the Illinois countryside and succeeds in conveying a mythic sense of the past: British troops, Kickapoo Indians, Lincoln, Father Marquette—all make their appearance in his lyric “saga” of the Sangamon River.

Frederick Turner’s science fiction epic is the most ambitious exploration in verse that has been seen in years. Turner cannot be praised too highly for this attempt to restore the breadth and scope of epic, and it was a stroke of genius to liberate his story from the ordinary by setting it not in the past but in the future. There is enough action and drama for an adventure novel, and the occasional passages of philosophical reflection are worth reading as essays on the problems of contemporary America.

The New World‘s vices spring directly from its virtues. Science fiction gives Turner the freedom to reintroduce heroism and magic, but it also frees him from the duty to confront our common experience. Really successful epic poems like the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and even the Lusiads all celebrate a nation’s heroic past. They are more than stories, more than histories; great epic is almost always a religious attempt to express the character and destiny of a people. The material must be traditional, because it must be perceived as true. None of this works when you are making it up as you go along.

Turner’s vision of the future has something in common with Percy’s Love in the Ruins. Both portray a Balkanized America of fundamentalist reactionaries against urban decadents. For Turner, however, the heroes are a warrior caste of libertarian humanists engaged in a war against the Christians. If Professor Turner stays long enough at UT—Dallas, he might discover that the moral majority is not quite what he imagines it to be, but he might have to leave campus for that.

Frederick Turner’s experiment is all the more significant because he has recently been calling for a restoration of formal rhythm. In an important essay in Poetry, he and a neurologist coauthor argued that rhythmical poetry was able to integrate the two halves of the brain in a way that neither prose nor free verse could. Some parts of The New World are written in something approaching blank verse; the rest, alas, is “based on an enjambed long line divided by a caesura, as is appropriate for epic poetry.” Turner cites Sir Gawaine, the Iliad, and the Aeneid as parallels, but neither Vergil nor Homer invented their verse forms, and it is doubtful that their audience had as much trouble hearing the rhythm as I did with:

These are the Mad Counties of
Vaniah which have vowed
to carry the Gospel of Christ by
the force of their arms
and the fire of their
knighthood to all unbelievers
and heretics.

The second line is the only one, I should guess, that strikes a reader the first time; with the others you have to know how many beats are supposed to be there and then go back and fit it in. Turner’s lines, at their worst, are almost as slovenly as Lattimore’s translations of Homer, which struck one reviewer as a fly trying to get out of a bottle.

Still, there’s no point in complaining. What small hope we have for the future of American verse is bound up with a handful of younger poets like Turner and Fred Chappell. Chappell’s Castle Tzingal is the exception proving the rule, since unlike the rest of Chappell’s output, it is not about North Carolina or even America. It is, like The New World, a narrative fantasy—a fairy tale of decadence and deceit. A homunculus begins and ends the tale, a creature that “had no childhood except an ignorance of politics and gossip.” He is set to spy on the hapless queen “stolen away to be the wife of an iron and fruitless man . . . a petty Mahomet” in a world that “hates the good.” It is, Chappell concludes, “a story as dark and tangled as the shoal of stormcloud mangled.”

Castle Tzingal has been described as an allegory on the triumph of poetry over the nightmare of human evil, but the poems collected in Source are a testament to that power. One small example, “Here”:

Burdened with diadem, the
Queen Anne’s lace overhangs the ditch.
The lace is full of eyes, cold eyes
That draw a cold sky into their spheres.
The ditch twinkles now the rain has stopped.
And the ground begins to puff and suck
With little holes. A man could live down here forever.
Where his blood is.

The volume ends with a sequence that includes poems on the end of the world, the Crucifixion, and “Forever Mountain,” a prayer for his late father that plays delicately on the biblical associations of North Carolina mountains:

I see my father has gone to climb
Easily the Pisgah Slope, taking the time
He’s got a world of . . .
He is alone, except what voices out of time
Come to his head like bees to the bee-tree crown.
The voices of former life as indistinct as heat.

On principle, I don’t believe in talking, much less writing, about what a poem is supposed to mean, as if only the poet were as smart as I am. And of Fred, the narrator of Midquest, is the last man on earth I’d make an exception for.


[The Source, by Fred Chappell (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) $6.95]

[Winter Oysters, by Brendan Calvin; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press]

[Poems From the Sangamon, by John Knoepfle (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press) $8.95]

[The New World: An Epic Poem, by Frederick Turner; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press]

[The Unlovely Child, by Norman Williams; New York: Alfred A. Knopf]