Writing recently in the New York Times Book Review, David Bromwich took as his subject new books by three well-respected American poets. Bromwich, a Princeton professor specializing in 19th-century literature, made short work of the selections using little more than 1,000 words to trivialize the efforts of all three poets.
Judging from the tone of the professor's prose, the poems weren't so much read (let alone wondered at) as examined. The matrix of academic preference and formal specifications through which the critic viewed each specimen created such definite expectations that the poems were simply tested, found lacking, and discarded.
I was left wondering: Just what is happening in contemporary poetry that is obviously so vital to its practitioners but causes many academic critics to see red? For an answer, I returned to one of Mr. Bromwich's selections - ''Summer Celestial,'' Stanley Plumly's fifth collection of poetry. In reading it I found a book that, despite some weak moments, contained honest, personal, emotionally charged, tonally subtle poetry.
In the Times critique, Mr. Plumly's poems were faulted for aiming at ''an incantatory eloquence too decorous to reveal its motive.'' My attention was snared by that word ''motive,'' and I realized that Bromwich was greatly disturbed by the motive behind all three of the poets' works. This itself may only indicate that there is a changing direction in the current work, one that does not fit the accepted critical models.
But considering the increasingly intimate focus of poetry, I think it is unavoidable and in fact appropriate for a reader to react to the driving force behind the production of a poet's work. Yet it is perhaps through patience and a willingness to risk a deeply subjective reaction to the poem that the best contemporary work reveals its power and its purpose.
Where do you detect this intangible ''motive'' in a poet's writing? Anyone who has ever studied poetry in an academic setting will quickly cross the linguistic bridge from ''motive'' to ''motif.'' It is within these patterns of imagery that poets have traditionally secreted away their actual ideas and intentions. But this literary cryptology produces fairly unsatisfactory results when applied to most contemporary writing. Too often a book seems to contain a haphazard constellation of images and metaphors; others weave too many designs to decipher. The recurring themes are less the product of predetermined conception and more a reflection of the poet's present experience and preoccupations. This perhaps reveals the new inclination in work since 1950: The emphasis has shifted from the structure of the poem inward to the voice of the writer. Poetry has become a personal and social response to the daily business of living, an act of exploring and ordering experiences and thoughts.
Having said this, it is not surprising that one of the most prevalent motifs in contemporary poetry is the poet, himself or herself. We've seen a preponderance of poems about the poet thinking aloud, the special perspective of the poet, the poet in the act of making life into poetry. The so-called ''confessional school'' pioneered by Robert Lowell popularized the personal chronicle, and several other poets this past decade have used that approach to produce works of startling intimacy. But this same style has been the excuse for some of the most self-indulgent verse ever to receive publication. This has fostered a more cynical view that poets have become one more breed of media star , their poems moved by the need for public exposure like some high-grade form of gossip.
Though Stanley Plumly's poems are indeed autobiographical, for the most part they do not feel ''confessional.'' They are restrained, well-crafted, with a pronounced musical sense and a strong dramatic thrust. The focus is less on the poet's personality and more definitely on believable characters and events. For many of our younger writers, the motive empowering their work is less apparent in the pattern of images than in the treatment of their subjects, the way their use of language connects the reader to the poem. In studying the last few books of Plumly's work, one can watch his mastery develop until what began as a purely personal event is rendered with the resonance and universality of metaphor.
''Out-Of-The-Body Travel'' was Mr. Plumly's last collection of poetry; published in 1977, it was a nominee for the National Book Critics' Circle Award. A more unified and in some ways a more powerful work than the new ''Summer Celestial,'' his book was a loosely structured narrative sequence that centered on his family's struggles in depression-era Ohio. He writes passionately about the small turnings that shape our lives: the demeaning quality of labor stripped of purpose; the mute pain men mistake for strength of character; the way parents' dreams shape those of their children. He brings his scenes to life with a sense of marvel, pity, bitterness, and ultimately love.
There seems to be two driving forces within the poet's writing: first, a need to clarify and preserve the moments of experience with spare, emotionally charged description. An example is the opening stanza from ''Two Poems,'' a glimpse of the workingman's family:
''Sometimes sixteen hours a day, back-breaking, belly-aching hours, dark at both ends, and at night the two of us sparring in the kitchen, you, blind drunk, shouting the walls down I'm a dead tree in this room Mornings you wept.''
A second force pulls in the opposite direction, out of rational focus and back into the half-light of dream and fantasy where the simple facts of daily life release their sublimated electricity. ''Horse in the Cage'' and the title poem of the collection display this need to see reality as more than material events. Though I believe his desire is to uncover the mysterious within the commonplace, several of these poems are too artfully clothed to be truly affecting in any more than a literary sense.
These same two forces are at work in ''Summer Celestial'' but, if anything, they are more balanced than in the earlier books. Few poems reach the feverish intensity of ''Out-Of-The-Body Travel,'' but there are fewer subjects lost to poetic obscurity. ''Summer Celestial'' radiates with a more benevolent vision. A passage from ''Virginia Beach'' reads: ''Sometimes when you love someone/ you think of pain - how to forgive/ what is almost past memory.'' The poet tries to counter grief with an acceptance, even an emersion into the natural world. Yet in his exquisite landscape sketches, boyhood flirtations with danger, and his dreamlike memories, the reader confronts the full range of emotional experience. But what is most satisfying here is the effortless blend of visual detail and imaginative vision into a form that subtly engages the reader's own poetic resources. Stanley Plumly's voice excites an appreciation for the richness of our language and for the occasions that require our fullest imaginations.
Taking a further step back, Mr. Plumly's work can be seen as part of a broader development among writers working today. A new American poetry is emerging that is at once personal and public. Steering clear of both the confessional intimacy and the more scholarly reserve, theirs is a movement back toward the source and legitimacy of poetic expression - the speech and experience of a people. Roethke, James Wright, and Richard Hugo are more their masters than Eliot, Auden, and Stevens. The strength of this poetry is measured in its ability to lift its readers past the level of intellectualization and to compel them to participate in the substance of its vision.