In the Introduction to his classic anthology of Fugitive verse, William Pratt writes: “Modern American poetry abounds in individualism, but two groups of poets have affected its course profoundly.”  He is referring, of course, to the Imagists and the Fugitives.  Nearly a century after the Imagists first gathered in London in 1909, I wonder what current movements in poetry will seem to have been decisive to a critic writing 100 years from now.  I suspect that the rediscovery of formal verse by American poets at the end of the 20th century will rank high on the list.  As poet-critic David Middleton has pointed out, “for well over three thousand years—from before Homer until the end of the nineteenth century—almost all poets in the western tradition composed in measured verse.”  In the long view, the free-verse revolution of the 20th century may prove more an aberration than a permanent development.  If this is true, then Catharine Savage Brosman’s poetry is likely to stand the test of time.

It may be that poetry is neither an expression of emotion, as Wordsworth thought, nor an escape from emotion, as Eliot would have it, but a channeling of emotion.  To accomplish that task, all the resources of language must be available.  For this reason, the term “expansive” poetry is surely more accurate than the constricted designation “Neoformalist.”  In her most recent volume of verse, The Muscled Truce, Brosman wears a variety of masks and speaks in a range of voices unavailable to those who equate poetry with personal therapy.

The first section of 13 poems (“A Distant Shore”) is a series of monologues spoken by a spectrum of mythological, historical, and imaginary characters—including King Minos, Lord Byron, the Nazi-turned-Ally Ernst Hanfstaengl, and a prisoner of war from Vietnam.  Although these poems are written in formal verse, Brosman uses such devices as enjambment and caesura to make her lines sound conversational without being in the least bit prosaic.  Like Robert Frost, Brosman knows that the human voice has a rhythm independent of meaning.  (On occasion, as in “King Minos Speaks,” the effect is similar to that of a modern “imitation” of classical verse.)  Moreover, Brosman’s narrative power is such that she can repeatedly create dramatic tension in a poem running fewer than two pages.

Far from seeing art as invariably redemptive, Brosman realizes that artistic creation is a devil’s pact bred from suffering.  (As an epigraph for her entire volume, she has selected Camus’ observation that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”)  In one particularly haunting poem, “Up Island,” she writes of a man who subjects his family to prolonged abuse when his wife refuses to give him a divorce to marry a more recent love.  The tale is told by the man’s adult daughter—a painter.  She concludes by writing:

     . . . Neuroses are a gift; they’ve let


me paint.  I’m going to do the river next,

unleashed along its stony bed, the way

my mother wept.  One day I’ll paint the moors,

the bracken thick and wet, the heather dark,

a lonely woman moaning to the wind.

In the second section of the book, “A Muscled Truce,” Brosman abandons personae to write from an observational perspective about a gallery of individuals who use a particular vocation or hobby to define their approach to life.  (I am reminded of John Crowe Ransom’s discussion of “work forms” and “play forms” in his seminal essay “Forms and Citizens.”)  Also gone is the conversational voice, replaced by an elegant but functional iambic tetrameter.  Although the beat and the rhyme call attention to themselves, the form is made flexible by the syntax of each poem.  You can hear the naturalness of the spoken sentence.

Although none of the speakers is identified as a poet, “The Swimmer” gives us a trope for poetry in the phrase that also serves as the volume’s title: “He finishes his laps; / his limbs are free and loose— / to move the world, perhaps, / by such a muscled truce.”  Like the swimmer, the poet moves through a fluid element—one that embodies the Hereclitian paradox of fixity and flux.  Although intuitive logic would dictate that one go under, it is possible not only to stay afloat but to glide forward through the proper balance of energy and grace.  To do so is finally a life-sustaining act, as the alternative is to sink beneath the watery floor.

In the third and final section of the book, we hear what sounds like the voice of the poet herself.  Whether or not these poems are literally autobiographical, the speaker is not obviously someone other than Brosman.  In a sense, the use of personae in the first section and third-person observation in the second earns Brosman the privilege of personal reflection in what she calls “A Cosmic Comedy.”  As befits the allusion to Dante, religion plays a key role in this part of the volume.  In “Painting, Anonymous, circa 1700,” Brosman follows the example of Auden and makes a classic painting the text for her poem.  After describing a flawlessly executed rendering of the Crucifixion, she writes:

     . . . The painter’s eye

has failed him, though, perhaps from guilt or awe:

the sacred face is blurred, the cloth awry—


as if, a spectator himself, he stood

in tears and helpless in the crowd that poured

their imprecations on the holy rood

and on the broken body of the Lord.

In effect, the artist becomes a hypothetical spectator, whose very impotence makes him a surrogate for us all.

An even more striking vision can be found in the longest poem in the volume, “In the Virgin Islands.”  In the third of four sections, the speaker comes across the gardener who works for the woman she is visiting.  At first, she takes this unkempt figure for John the Baptist.  But then she remembers the morning of the Resurrection, when Mary Magdalene,

distraught, supposed she saw the gardener,

a simple man of no pretensions, standing there alone;

and then she recognized her friend, and ran

to tell the others, who assumed that she was mad

with grief—announcing Eden reconciled

and green, the perishable body radiant, the earth reborn.

What is initially taken for mistaken identity reveals a more profound resemblance that is at the very heart of the Gospel.

Whatever good the modernist aberration may have accomplished, it drove away the popular audience for poetry.  Far too often, serious artistic purpose became synonymous with obscurity of meaning and an assault on conventional meter.  While this may have been a necessary reaction against the bombast and sentimentality of high Victorian verse, the early modernists eventually turned poetry into a coterie art, not unlike opera and ballet.  Fortunately, the expansionist poets of our own era are proving once again that verse need not patronize us to be understood nor titillate us to be enjoyed.  Robert Frost once compared writing free verse to playing tennis without a net.  Not only does Catharine Savage Brosman play with a net: Her serves and volleys are a wonder to behold.


[The Muscled Truce, by Catharine Savage Brosman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 64 pp., $22.95]