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Mar252011

1977

Collected Poems, 1930-1976

By Richard Eberhart 

Original Publisher: Oxford University Press
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Kiki Petrosino writes: 

Last summer, I fell in with a company of Chinese poets.  We traveled and wrote together, shared meals, and told each other tall tales that grew even taller in translation.  Mostly, it was a dazzling, headlong plunge into the world of collaboration.  But sometimes, trying to mesh the poetic styles of such vastly different traditions was like using Coca-Cola to sweeten a cup of chrysanthemum tea.  Balance is everything.

My Chinese friends were all about form, seeing the poem as an aesthetic exercise arising from the poet’s passion for the natural world combined with his/her knowledge of the poetic conventions attached to each chosen image. We Americans, by contrast, were fascinated by process, by the idea that entirely fresh effects might be struck from everyday language. 

I wish that Richard Eberhart had been more present for me during my time in Asia—and not just because he once spent a year tutoring the son of the King of Siam. This is a poet whose rigorous attention to form is matched only by his innovative treatment of language.  Collected Poems, 1930-1976, for which Eberhart won the National Book Award, tracks over five decades of practice. A master formalist, Eberhart maintains a knowing dialogue with the traditional structures of English verse, and those who love sestinas, villanelles, ballads, and songs will find much to admire in this compendium. At the same time, Eberhart embarks on a uniquely American investigation of lyric utterance, and what he’s forged is a voice that sounds like no other.

Eberhart’s poetry begins from a place that would feel familiar to my Chinese colleagues.  He takes primary inspiration from nature, filling his verse with meditations on trees and hoot owls, streams and rose petals, forests and stars.  Observation leads the poet down paths of personal memory and philosophic discourse.  There is feeling here, openly expressed and served up with craft and intelligence.  Take, for example, this moment from “Looking Head On:”

We, who live so much within, look out
From ourselves, through the fires, 

But cannot see ourselves as others see us.
I look out.  I have been looking in
Through decades of the world’s history.
How dramatic to look at your own face

Hard as rock, fired in clay, as the sculptor
Sees it.  Which, then, is reality?

Throughout Collected Poems, we encounter Eberhart’s insistence on “looking out” upon reality, a stance that affords him a good view of where the human face falls short of its resemblance to nature, the ur-sculptor. Eberhart does a fair bit of his own sculpting when it comes to individual lines. And it’s here that my American colleagues would go off their rockers. Observe the rhythmical effects in this stanza from “Perception as a Guided Missile”:

The way by thaw is looking-glass of sleet,
If senses can see, but mostly prospect sweet.
Smooth, warm, I think it ravishing since found.
The voyage is contorted by hot rain
And hail: only can spit-spit back in vain;
Yet noon’s so sultry lovely, time can beat.
No path is rescued betwixt hard stars of frost,
Where to fall foul, and there the world’s lost,
On sharp cogs to you, and the space between impounds. 

The first three lines are (more or less) in iambic pentameter, and you could force yourself to read the rest of the stanza in that meter.  But just when the rain and hail “contort” our path, Eberhart introduces a pulse of spondees that do “spit-spit,” much like insistent drops of hail.  We return, momentarily, to a closer iambic pulse with the mention of “sultry” noon and the “beat” of time.  But “No path” and “hard stars” take us back to the world of “sharp cogs” that keep us from finding a smooth way through the stanza.  The assonant qualities of “sharp,” “hard,” “stars,” and “fall,” take our ears downward.  We do “fall foul,” in the space where perfect, iambic nature collides with the machinery of our lost world.  And Eberhart’s right: to occupy that space is to feel “impounded” there.   

Eberhart’s imagination is capable of animating a landscape in a way that recalls the procedures of the Romantic poets.  He searches for illumination in the rings of an oak tree and the froth of the ocean.  And often he finds it, as in these lines from one of his best-known poems, “The Groundhog”:

It has been three years, now.
There is no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece;
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.

It’s hard not to hear an echo of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” here.  The “whirling summer” and the cumulative repetition of and take us back to “the round ocean and the living air / and the blue sky” of Wordsworth’s imagining.  But make no mistake: Eberhart’s world is more fallen than Wordsworth’s, the distance between innocence and experience that much vaster.  Eberhart is searching for serenity in a world filled with violence and ruin.  To “think of China and of Greece,” to remember “Alexander in his tent,” is to summon images of war and destruction along with victory.  Montaigne and Saint Theresa represent the two extremes of human possibility, unreachable for most—ideal intellect and ideal spirit.  And though Eberhart acknowledges that the “impounding” conditions of modern life may keep us from fully illuminating our truths, the job of the poet is to sing, deftly, from “the space between.”

Kiki Petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCEGulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller) 
 

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Irving Feldman for Leaping Clear and Other Poems
  • Margaret Newlin for The Snow Falls Upward
  • Muriel Rukeyser for The Gates
  • David Wagoner for Collected Poems, 1956-1976

Poetry Judges that Year: Howard Nemerov, Gwendolyn Brooks, F.D. Reeve

The Year in Literature: Divine Comedies by James Merrill won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Richard Eberhart (1904-2005) was born in Austin, MN.
  • In 1931, Eberhart served as a private tutor to the son of King Prajadhipok of Siam.

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