Words for the Wind 

By Theodore Roethke

Original Publisher: Doubleday  
Current Publisher: Out of Print but available in 
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. 

Theodore Roethke also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1965 for The Far Field. 

Scott Challener writes:

Feeling by Thinking

I first read The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1966) in one gulp one July afternoon in New Lebanon, New York, by a pair of east-facing windows. Poems that have an impact, that remain within us and change us, whether we are their makers or their readers—and more often than not our experience of them is so intimate that the difference becomes a shadow—make their own pasts, their own kind of memories. Since Roethke’s were an early love, they will always be a part of me. Yet re-reading them I often become disappointed or frustrated by those that sound too much like other poets. It seems that Roethke took to heart Eliot’s notion that “the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously”—but not the qualification that follows: “Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged.” Eliot (nicknamed “Tiresome Tom”) and Yeats (a.k.a. “old Willie”) especially are never far from Roethke’s thoughts in his notebooks and letters. His last published piece of prose, “Tirade Turning,” published posthumously under his pseudonym Winterset Rothberg, ends in poetic confession:

I, the loneliest semi-wretch alive, a stricken minor soul,
Weep to you now;
But I’ve an eye to your leaping forth and your fresh ways of wonder;
And I see myself beating back and forth like stale water in a battered pail;
Are not you my final friends, the fair cousins I loathe and love?
That man hammering I adore, though his noise reach the very walls of my inner self;
Behold, I’m a heart set free, for I have taken my hatred and eaten it,
The last acrid sac of my rat-like fury;
I have succumbed, like all fanatics, to my imagined victims;
I embrace what I perceive!
Brothers and sisters, dance ye,
Dance ye all!

At his most manic, most egotistical, Roethke could imagine that he had out-done his final friends, out Yeats-ed Yeats, written a better sequence than Four Quartets. He could also admit, in one notebook entry:

Essay: I Hate Eliot
1st sentence. Why?
Because I love him too much—

By all accounts Roethke was a wreck; a passionate, vituperative crank; a verb-crazy word-drunk wonder-drunk mad poet who could ask “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” then promptly exclaim, “The day’s on fire!” He could be mean, vindictive, green-eyed, and monstrous; he could be tender, gentle, loving, and kind. His mind could be on fire; it could smolder; it could be a rubble of cold ash, and at times it overwhelmed him and made him hard to be around and hard on himself. He ends a letter to Louise Bogan, in 1939, “Do write me, Louise. I’m sort of veering about, inside.” (He then characteristically decided to lessen the desperation with a postscript.)

In his notebooks Roethke wrote that he believed that the struggle with language was wonderful, that human communication was sacred, that good poems were holy things, that words themselves were alive, and that all living things—every living thing, from snail to gnu—was holy and could be called upon and dwelt on lovingly; and he taught what he believed. He defined poetry as an “act of mischief,” an approach toward the divine, a comprehensive human act, and wrote more about energy than anything else: the energy of friends and students, of the classroom, of life, of poems: “Energy is the soul of poetry. Explosive, active language.”

No book of Roethke’s better demonstrates this explosiveness than The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), in which Roethke recreates and revives old verb and noun forms, combines unexpected or unlikely words, slips between simple present and simple past, makes transitive verbs act intransitively and vice versa, and enlivens prepositions by removing their objects, verbs by removing their subjects, sentences by removing conjunctions, articles, and grammatical correctness altogether. These strategies in Roethke’s hands make for wild, muscular poems—the language is as alive and fresh and rollicking today as it was in 1948.

The love of the natural world on stage in The Lost Son suggests a spiritual but defensive loneliness, a kind of childlike suspiciousness and wonder. Religious observation of the miniscule, the details of details, provides the generating force and pulse of nearly every poem. Equally significant are the leaps in imagination—beyond the visible—that such a way of seeing provides. Listen to the beginning of the title poem:

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron;
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

The verbs of the first line, “At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry,” place the speaker in the past and the dead in the present. In some sense, the dead cry the rest of the way through the poem. Most of the imagery here, as throughout the book, is generated and filtered through the artificial caul of the greenhouse, its womb-like machinery, its steaming pipes and pots, pits and boilers, gauges and burlap. (The Roethke flower business in Saginaw at one point could advertise itself as “The largest and most complete floral establishment in Michigan”; in one letter, Roethke remembers growing up under “a quarter of a million feet” of glass.) Roethke works through the confusions outside the greenhouse—the suffering of children in newspapers, drunkards, prostitutes, poverty—by returning to its transparent echo chamber. And yet the greenhouse is also a motherless space, an incubator and an incubus.  As “My Papa’s Waltz” declares, the father, that “hump of a man” whom the speaker admires and loves, fears and condescends to, is a dizzying presence in the book: the greenhouse is his primary habitat and workshop.

The discoveries of The Lost Son paid the dividends of all the books between it and The Far Field (1964), edited by Roethke’s wife and published posthumously, which was awarded a second National Book Award; the first was for Words for the Wind (1958). In The Far Field, especially in the first section, “North American Sequence,” Roethke again broke new ground. As in The Lost Son, the use of sequence allowed Roethke to relinquish the “I” that is so involved in its own dramas, that gets in its own way. But in “North American Sequence” the language doesn’t cry out or explode: it reverberates with energy of a different kind and order. I think this is because Roethke found stillness—what he calls in “The Rose” “the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” Out of that stillness surge other, quieter, rhythms, in which he could pursue the “long journey out of the self,” the self that “dreams of journeys repeatedly,” that contemplates, in the title poem, lying “naked in sand,”

In the stilted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar

This is a poignant moment, especially given how much Roethke’s mind troubled him. Roethke publicly and privately resisted (and on more than one occasion pretended to detest) bookishness—though he could and would stay up all night reading, and was bookish enough to seriously question whether Reinhold Niebuhr could “love a worm” and quote Kierkegaard as fluently as Mother Goose: “We must have the courage to think a thought whole.” He routinely found early drafts of poems chockablock with what he called the “thinky-thinky”—material so idea-driven that it had to be reordered, reshaped, or cut. “I have only a few ideas,” he noted, “and some of them are almost dead from overwork.”

In his notebooks Roethke defines maturity as the moment when a poet goes from being “concerned with personal mortality” to being concerned with “whether the language dies.” In “North American Sequence” Roethke jumps the ditch: all of his worry about sounding bookish, about the thinky-thinky, about Tradition—what he once called in a letter to Ralph J. Mills, Jr. “the Pound-Eliot cult and the Yeats cult”—disappears. When he discovered a living language to think and linger in, when thinking became the central drama, the ancestors’ immortality asserted itself thrillingly. Listen:

And I think of roses, roses,
White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,
And my father standing astride the cement benches,
Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out of myself.

The next stanza of “The Rose” asks: “What need for heaven, then, / With that man, and those roses?” We’re back in the greenhouses, but these are not the greenhouses of The Lost Son, which Roethke remembered as “heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something truly beautiful…a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about, and struggled to keep alive…” In “The Rose” Roethke, whirling high and secure above the flowers, belongs not to a universe that dramatizes a child’s struggle to keep a world alive, but one which enacts the letting go of that struggle; he comes, as he writes later, “upon the true ease” of himself.

In the last stanza of “The Kitty-Cat Bird,” a nonsense poem in I Am! Says the Lamb, Roethke advises, “be sure that whatever you are is you.” In “North American Sequence” I feel Roethke at his surest. This authority comes not from knowing, but from the grand permission not to have to know, not to have to be sure. In these poems he doesn’t think only “by feeling” (as he writes in “The Waking”): he feels by thinking. He discovers the courage to think the thoughts whole, and so, to do the amazing thing, to become the happy poet who woke the happy words, the poet of love and praise he so passionately thought he always was.

Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • John Ciardi for I Marry You
  • e.e. cummings for Poems
  • Archibald MacLeish for J.B.
  • Howard Nemerov for Mirrors and Windows
  • Theodore Roethke for Collected Poems
  • Karl Shapiro for Poems for a Jew
  • May Swenson for A Cage of Spines
  • William Carlos Williams for Paterson, Book IV

Poetry Judges that Year: Babette Deutsch, Daniel G. Hoffman, John Holmes,
Randall Jarrrell, Robert Penn Warren

The Year in Literature:

  • Selected Poems 1928-1958 by Stanley Kunitz won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Richard Eberhart was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was born in Saginaw, MI.
  • Roethke spent much of his childhood in the greenhouse that his father and uncle owned. The subject matter and imagery of his poetry was profoundly influenced by his experiences in the greenhouse.

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Promises: Poems, 1954-1956

Robert Penn Warren 

Original Publisher: Random House Books
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Kiki Petrosino writes:

The poetry of Robert Penn Warren isn’t routinely studied or discussed in contemporary poetry circles, and after spending time with his Collected Poems, I think I know why. These are ponderous poems. The kind that refuse to conclude, politely, at the end of a page. The kind whose intricate syntax demands multiple readings, and whose insistence on mixing elevated and colloquial language keeps the reader endlessly pirouetting just to keep up with the poet’s own turns.  Cards on the table? You’ve got to be light and fast on your feet to appreciate this work as it deserves.  Think: climbing to the moon on a rope ladder spun entirely from spiders’ webs.

The pieces themselves are dastardly unfashionable. Warren’s a master of the dramatic poem, a form that emphasizes the occasion of poetic utterance over the character of the poet. This is highly at odds with our own moment, which often privileges the politics of authorial voice/identity and tends to look askance at overt narrative. As demanding as the experience of reading Warren is, however, there’s something marvelous about immersing yourself in this other mode. In Warren’s poems, it’s clear that the world—in all its glory, sin, and jaggedness—has inspired him to write. Properly documenting those specific moments of collision—the impact of world against imagination—is his primary project. Warren’s is poetry of insistent vision, of eyesight. As he notes in “Court-Martial”:

The horseman does not look back.
Blank-eyed, he continues his track,
Riding toward me there,
Through the darkening air.

The world is real.  It is there.  

To read Promises: Poems 1954-1956 (the volume for which he won the National Book Award) is to trace the lineaments of a long-sunk galleon through the lens of an underwater camera. Here is the whole wrecked treasure box of the 20th century: the problematic legacies of civil and foreign wars; the rise of the luminous fragment; the increasing distance between mechanized and agrarian modes of living; the cadences of “high” and “low” poetic speech. Warren’s eye is so encompassing, his engagement with “the knot of History” so intense, that the book practically creates its own strange terrain as it proceeds. This is both pleasing and challenging. As in: how are we supposed to metabolize a collection with titles ranging from the lyrical/sublime (“Walk by Moonlight in Small Town”) to the scary/zany (“Go It, Granny—Go It, Hog!”)?  

Well, you might trace a path through the thickets of images that Warren conjures in Promises. This is a poet capable of constructing evocative atmospheric images at a heartbeat’s pace, thanks to his penchant for striking words against each other like flints. This procedure makes possible endless variations: “beast-black,” “gleam-height,” and “moon-rinse” are just three examples of how Warren describes the interplay of light and dark in a landscape. Something about this method of image-making should feel familiar to readers and writers of contemporary poetry. Warren’s a virtuoso of the associative leap, a maestro of the DIY school of idiosyncratic utterance. When the English language fails to provide words for certain kinds of darkness, Warren draws from his own lexicon of spliced terms. This maneuver does two important things: it expands the reader’s definition of darkness, while preserving the mystery contained in the moment of lyric utterance.  Here’s an example from “Dogwood”:

            But not before you had seen it, sudden at path-turn,
White-floating in darkness, the dogwood, white bloom in dark air.
Like an ice-break, broke joy; then you felt a strange wrath burn
To strike it, and strike, had a stick been handy in the dark there.

Granted: Warren’s not performing any fancy tricks here. The overt meanings of words like “path-turn,” “white-floating,” and “ice-break” are accessible to us in this stanza because the words are built from simpler terms we already know. The magic exists in the fact that we’re being immersed in Warren’s personal shorthand, that we’ve come with him into the woods to stand at the “path-turn” and watch the dogwood tree come into view. That Warren splices nouns with verbs in each of these three instances lends an exciting, kinetic quality to the scene. We are seeing and moving along with Warren: “Like an ice-break, broke joy.” And indeed, there is some joy to be felt in this.

In short, Promises is a magnetic collection that shows us what can happen when a poet is minutely, joyfully attentive to subject. Indeed, Warren teaches that issues of what can be just as crucial as whom. The world offers both mystery and consolation to the enquiring poet, and telling that story—in all its heartbrokenness and difficulty—is vital work for the poetry of our time. As Warren observes in “The Necessity for Belief”:

The sun is red, and the sky does not scream.
The sun is red, and the sky does not scream.

There is much that is scarcely to be believed.

The moon is in the sky, and there is no weeping.
The moon is in the sky, and there is no weeping.

Much is told that is scarcely to be believed.

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:

  • Daniel Berrigan for Time Without Number
  • Philip Booth for Letter from a Distant Land
  • Edwin G. Burrows for The Arctic Tern
  • H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) for Selected Poems of H.D.
  • Richard Eberhart for Great Praises
  • Richmond Lattimore for Poems
  • Howard Moss for Swimmer in the Air
  • May Sarton for In Time Like Air
  • Eli Siegel for Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana
  • William Jay Smith for Poems: 1947-1957
  • Wallace Stevens for Opus Posthumous
  • James Wright for The Green Wall

Poetry Judges that Year: John Ciardi, William Meredith, Marianne Moore,
Adrienne Rich, Louis Untermeyer

The Year in Literature:

  • Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 by Robert Penn Warren also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Frost was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) was born in Guthrie, KY.
  • Warren is the only person to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry.
  • In 1986, when Congress voted to change the title from Consultant in Poetry to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Warren became the first Poet Laureate of the United States.
  • Wallace Stevens was a Finalist in 1958, three years after his death. Currently, only books by living authors may be considered for the National Book Award. 

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Things of This World

By Richard Wilbur

Original Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Patrick Rosal writes:

Things of This World is sort of classically Richard Wilbur, the vast majority of the poems in regular stanza and rhyme. The language is direct; the surfaces are clear. You “get them” pretty quickly. The title suggests he’s going to contemplate the things of this world, by which, I imagine, he means the immediate, local (though on a human scale very large), shared physical world—as opposed to the other world, which is metaphysical and, in Wilbur’s cosmology, often celestial.

In fact, he’s very interested in the heavenly. “Look up into the dome,” the first line of the opening poem, “Altitude,” enjoins. And quickly, in the very next poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” we find the spectral and the mundane in the same space, a view of a clothesline:

            Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.

Perhaps his most anthologized poem is also in this book, “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” an effervescent meditation on two contrasting fountains in Rome, one a metaphor for our splendid, ill-fitted, earthly selves, “happy in all that ragged, loose / Collapse of water, its effortless descent,” and the other, “the main jet” at St. Peter’s:

Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill

With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself…

It’s easy to love the free trickle of short-i assonance and the mellifluous consonance of l’s rolling throughout the poem’s long sentences and compound syntax, all of it hammered into relief by the occasional internal rhyme. The poem is delightful, well-made, and worth going back to. And there are many good poems in the book, not quite with the same energetic music, but good poems nonetheless. “After the Last Bulletin,” for example, is a testament to the way in which we used to relate to the news, how we could disappear from it at night, that the headlines were good for a whole day, that they became a part of the streets as we slept, the newspaper blown into alleys and blinding the eyes of statues, finally swept up until the next day’s edition arrived.

Admittedly, I’m interested in a political reading of Wilbur, though by no means is he ever didactic in the book. The collection’s most overtly political poem is “Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act,” which never quite makes a good argument against the infamous “anti-communist” legislation in its title. The highlight of the poem, however, is the second stanza, where Wilbur fashions a moving depiction of war:

I am not speaking of rose windows
Shattered by bomb-shock; the leads tousled; the glass-grains broadcast;
If the rose be living at all
A gay gravel shall be pollen of churches.

A soldier in World War II, Wilbur does not draw much from his experience in the European theater in Things of This World (though he does so in his collection, The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems); there is, ironically, an unintentional confession in the opening lines of the stanza (“I am not speaking of…”). Maybe selfishly, in this generation of American war, I crave the poetry of a soldier, a fierce witness, the poetic capacity for deep feeling (I believe Randall Jarrell had some criticism of Wilbur in this regard). I think Wilbur is at his best when his poems stand against the myth of deathlessness, which is a chronic and fairly widespread condition of the American psyche. The poems “Beasts” and “Looking into History” are good examinations of our mortal lives (as are his excellent translations of Baudelaire, Jammes, and de Thaun).

Admittedly, I’ve got some gripes with Wilbur (or maybe my gripe is more with the limited vision of his time). I can’t let him off the hook for disrespecting both Asians and New Jersey in the same poem! (This Filipino was born and raised in the gorgeous, grimy Garden State). In “Digging for China,” the speaker is told by a “somebody” that “‘Far enough down is China…Dig deep enough and you might see the sky…it’s nothing like New Jersey.’” It’s a place, the somebody says, where everything is “different.” The speaker grabs a trowel and “sweat[s] like a coolie all that morning” trying to dig down to the other side of the earth. Unsuccessful, he stands up out if his ditch and is disoriented. It doesn’t help the poem that Wilbur seems to bite from Elizabeth Bishop in the closing line: “All that I saw was China, China, China.”

Nonetheless, the most surprising and, for me, the greatest reward for reading the collection is “The Mill,” which, if I’d come across the poem outside the book, I wouldn’t have guessed was written by Wilbur. As far as I know, it’s not a widely read or anthologized poem.

“The Mill” is a powerful and moving elegy, written in a very loose iambic pentameter, but with the glaring absence of Wilbur’s usual end rhyme. In the poem, the speaker’s friend, dying, manages to produce “the names of streets, the exact look / Of lilacs, 1903, in Cincinnati.” It’s a tender poem of address, unique for its intimacy in a poetry collection that is often detached (albeit skillfully so). Here, it’s clear this is a metaphor for the mind dying, a mill still turning though it’s abandoned and isolated (the speaker can’t seem to remember if the friend told him he came across it in Tennessee or Brazil). But we are never removed from the profound affection the speaker has for his friend. We aren’t distracted by a heaven of forms or abstractions. We are simply presented with grief and the ordinary speech that loves (and needs) to give that grief some natural form. This beautiful poem is praise for all such things that keep moving—even in their ruin. 

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections,Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Edgar Bowers for The Form of Loss
  • Leah B. Drake for This Tilting Dust
  • Charles E. Eaton for Greenhouse in the Garden
  • Kenneth Fearing for New and Selected Poems
  • Robert Fitzgerald for In the Rose of Time
  • Katherine Haskins for Villa Narcisse
  • Rolfe Humphries for Green Armor on Green Ground
  • Joseph Langland for The Green Town (published as part of the anthology Poets of Today, III)
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh for The Unicorn
  • W.S. Merwin for Green with Beasts
  • Marianne Moore for Like a Bulwark
  • Ezra Pound for Section: Rock Drill
  • Kenneth Rexroth for In Defense of the Earth
  • John Hall Wheelock for Poems Old and New

Poetry Judges that Year: Louise Bogan, Edward Davidson, Horace Gregory,
Louis Simpson, Yvor Winters

The Year in Literature:

  • Things of This World by Richard Wilbur also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • John Hall Wheelock was both a Finalist that year for his own collection and editor of Poets of Today, III, which included Finalist Joseph Langland’s collection, The Green Town.

Other Information:

  • Richard Wilbur (1921- ) was born in New York, NY.
  • Wilbur was only eight years old when he published his first poem in the children’s magazine John Martin’s Magazine.

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The Shield of Achilles

By W. H. Auden

Original Publisher: Random House
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

In his 1972 interview with the Paris Review, W.H. Auden stated, “The arts can do nothing. The social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al., had never lived. A poet, qua poet, has only one political duty, namely, in his own writing to set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted.”

Against this corruption, Auden sets the precise, searing lines of his tenth collection, The Shield of Achilles. The title refers to Homer’s original ekphrastic image of an engraved shield of war with two very different sides—on one a golden depiction of a peaceful and flourishing city governed by the justice of laws, on the other a chaotic scene in which two warring armies struggle for dominance. These poems by Auden, written in the aftermath of World War II, seek a balance between the opposing scenes Homer describes. Even when not directly engaging the war, the poems in this collection return to this notion of the connection between duality’s two sides, the sea change that turning makes.

Auden’s music, as ever, is sure and deft, and his rhymes accrue discreetly in the mind, on the ear. But his stunning tonal range—his bold shifts between humor, religious inquiry, plain speech, and intricate syntax—is at its height here. Within each poem he weaves a compelling, truly moving work from seemingly disparate strands of engagement, reaching forward and back in time and salting with street talk. This tracked movement of mind brings the reader deeply into the act of creation without losing sight of that made thing, the poem itself. While many contemporary poets have learned such swerves from Auden, the urgency of his turns tracks the waver and lunge of true transformation.

The Shield of Achilles is organized into three parts. The first section, “Bucolics,” uses a series of ecosystems to introduce themes of violence and creation—and the tender thread that binds the two together, even as they struggle apart. In “Streams,” Auden asks, “how could we love the absent one if you did not keep coming from a distance?”

The second part, “In Sunshine and In Shade,” grounds the natural and social imagery of the first part in scenes of political unrest, bureaucratic blindness, and war, in days that wear grittily at their bearings, such as this one from the title poem:

The mass and majesty of this world, all

            That carries weight and always weighs the same,

Lay in the hands of others; they were small

            And could not hope for help and no help came.

Auden’s rhymes underscore the inevitability and tragedy of such suffering, while condemning the innocent bystander. In “Ode to Gaea,” this section’s closing poem, Auden explicitly invokes such a sea change:

And what […] is natural: it is the old
Grand style of gesture we watch as, heavy with cold,
                        The top-waters of all her
            Northern seas take their vernal plunge,

And suddenly her desolations, salt as blood,
prolix yet terse, are glamorously carpeted
                        with great swatches of plankton,
            Delicious spreads of nourishment

That flipping of the surface's austere and reflective beauty for the deep's teeming, messy richness is the central concern of this volume. The poems in this collection are insistently tied to their day, with references ranging from politics to literature to ephemera, but these tethers are often then shaken, or shrugged, as that dense, sodden mass of what feeds the days, and words, of this work blanches in unaccustomed light.

The third section, “Horae Canonicae,” is composed of a seven-part sequence, set on Good Friday, mirroring the seven-part natural sequence of the first section. Apocalyptic imagery stands in sharp relief to the meditative tone of the earlier sequence.

Auden famously refused the lure of technological innovations like television, preferring a solitary austerity that granted space for the scope of his creations and the unbroken attention they demand. In “Nones,” he describes this work as “...restoring / the order we try to destroy, the rhythm / we spoil out of spite.” In re-reading this collection, I wondered whether it would be possible, in our networked and often-distracted world, to create such a symphonic work today. Certainly this is a work that forces us to look hard at our own days, at the life we make.

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work.
(Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Elizabeth Bishop for Poems North & South
  • John Ciardi for As If
  • Isabella Gardner for Birthdays from the Ocean
  • Donald Hall for Exiles and Marriages
  • Randall Jarrell for Selected Poems
  • Adrienne Rich for The Diamond Cutters
  • William Carlos Williams for Journey to Love

Poetry Judges that Year: Cleanth Brooks, Richmond Lattimore, Robert Lowell,
Phyllis McGinley, Muriel Rukeyser

The Year in Literature:

  • PoemsNorth & South by Elizabeth Bishop won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Randall Jarrell was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • W. H. Auden (1907-1973) was born in York, England.
  • In a 1972 interview for The Paris Review, W. H. Auden said that as a child he wanted to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Most of his time, between the ages of six and twelve, was spent drafting plans for lead mines that he wanted to build on the moors of the Pennines in England.There came a day which later on, looking back, seems very important. I was planning my idea of the concentrating mill—you know, the platonic idea of what it should be. There were two kinds of machinery for separating the slime, one I thought more beautiful than the other, but the other one I knew to be more efficient. I felt myself faced with what I can only call a moral choice—it was my duty to take the second and more efficient one. Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written.

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The Collected Poems

By Wallace Stevens

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher:
Out of Print

Stevens first won the National Book Award in
Poetry in 1951 for The Auroras of Autumn. 

An appreciation of Stevens’ work may be found here. >

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • e.e. cummings for Poems, 1923-1954
  • Leonie Adams for Poems: A Selection
  • Louise Bogan for Collected Poems, 1923-1953
  • Robinson Jeffers for Hungerfield and Other Poems
  • Archibald MacLeish for Songs for Eve
  • Phyllis McGinley for The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley
  • Merrill Moore for The Verse Diary of a Psychiatrist
  • LeRoy Smith for A Character Invented
  • May Swenson for Another Animal (published as part of the anthology Poets of Today)
  • William Carlos Williams for The Desert Music and Other Poems
  • Marya Zaturenska for Selected Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Oscar Cargill, Richard Eberhart,
Dudley Fitts, Randall Jarrell, Christopher La Farge

The Year in Literature:

  • The Collected Poems by Wallace Stevens also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • May Swenson was a National Book Award Finalist for Another Animal, a collection which was published as part of the first volume of the anthology, Poets of Today, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. The anthology also includes a critical introduction by John Hall Wheelock and the collections Poems and Translations by Harry Duncan and Samurai and Serpent Poems by Murray Noss. The present-day guidelines for the National Book Award exclude anthologies from entry.

Other Information:

  • Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was born in Reading, PA.
  • Stevens received the National Book Award in Poetry just six months before his death on August 2, 1955.

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