A mixed bunch, these American poets
Fifty Years of American Poetry: Anniversary Volume for the Academy of American Poets. Introduction by Robert Penn Warren. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 260 pp. $27.50.
Not every American poet worth his salt has a poem in this handsome volume, only those who have been honored as chancellors, fellows, or award winners by the Academy of American Poets.Founded in 1934 by Marie Bullock, the academy has since honored 134 poets in that way, including about 30 women poets.
Besides the Great Depression, the '30s, we recall, saw the rise of modern literary criticism and the teaching of lyric poetry in the classroom. Along with that came a new subject in the curriculum, American literature. But Mrs. Bullock, fresh from France, where she had been brought up, missed the literary element at her New York socials, and she set out to fill the void. As she writes in her modest preface, ''Poets had not taken their place in the American way of life.''
Generous and active as the academy has been, no one could argue that it has substantially changed the role of the poet in American society. Still, this book commemorates 50 years of activity on behalf of poets by people like Mrs. Bullock (and like you and me, as well - contributions however small have always been gratefully received).
The book is beautiful without being pretentious. Six wood engravings by the busy Barry Moser have wisely been restricted to the front matter; they would have disturbed the fine balance of white space and excellent printing that characterizes the design of the pages that follow.
Despite the beautiful printing job and the honor of appearing in the volume, then, it appears that, if one may hazard a generality about so diverse a class of objects, these poems bear witness not so much to the Idea of American Poetry as to the capacity of the poets to resist the temptation to think of themselves as poets.
Paradoxically, the greater the success of the academy, the greater the likelihood that America's poets will become self-conscious, insufferable, and - finally - simply bad.
But wait! Many of the poets honored here have remained, by all accounts, obscure. Here I discovered John Baladan, whom I shall remember for his willingness to tell us about the guard at the Binh Thuy Bridge in lines of sober iambs: the ancient measure and the Vietnam war! The poem, which is so good it should be included in the new Oxford Book of War Poetry, never gets fussy, but just tells us what happened and how it felt when the American sentry took aim at a village woman kneeling on a narrow junk far below him.
The heaviest cost of being obscure is the no-doubt unbearable temptation to shout, to draw attention not to what you are doing but to the fact that you are doing it. William Meredith begins his poem (we get only one) with: ''What it must be like to be an angel,'' and I turn the page. And then Marvin Bell begins his with an equally repulsive, ''This year/ I'm raising the emotional ante . . . '' so I flee again.
A mixed bunch, these American poets. Angels and emotional blackmail on the one hand, and, on the other, the exquisite gaucherie of Josephine Miles: ''When you swim in the surf off Sea Rocks, and your family/ Sits in the sand/ Eating potato salad . . . .'' Hooray for potato salad! Hooray for America! Hooray for ''Fifty Years of American Poetry''!
And let us hope that, despite the continuing prosperity of the academy, American poets and readers continue to exercise due skepticism. The future of American poetry depends on it.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.
THE GUARD AT THE BINH THUY BRIDGE
JOHN BALADAN, From ''Fifty Years of American Poetry''
How still he stands as mists begin to move,
as morning, curling, billows creep across
his cooplike, concrete sentry perched mid-bridge
over mid-muddy river. Stares at bush green banks
which bristle rifles, mortars, men - perhaps.
No convoys shake the timbers. No sound
but water slapping boat sides, bank sides, pilings.
He's slung his carbine barrel down to keep
the boring dry, and two banana-clips instead of one
are taped to make, now, forty rounds instead
of twenty. Droplets bead from stock to sight;
they bulb, then strike his boot. He scrapes his heel,
and sees no box bombs floating towards his bridge.
Anchored in red morning mist a narrow junk
rocks its weight. A woman kneels on deck
staring at lapping water. Wets her face.
Idly the thick Rach Binh Thuy slides by.
He aims. At her. Then drops his aim. Idly.