The return of poet Peter Viereck. His epic, 20 years in the making, recapitulates modern themes
Archer in the Marrow, The Applewood Cycles, 1967-1987, by Peter Viereck. New York: W.W. Norton. 260 pp. $14.95, cloth; $6.95, paper. Like a stumbling bee on a deep spring afternoon, the reader of Peter Viereck's ``Archer in the Marrow'' returns somewhat stunned by the profusion and richness of the poetic plunder. Some facts may help.
Peter Viereck teaches Russian history at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. He is also a poet. If his name is unfamiliar, it may be because he had a falling out with the literary establishment in 1950 over what he perceived to be a split between form and ethics reflected in the choice of Ezra Pound for the Bollingen Prize in poetry.
Viereck had himself just (in 1948) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The article he published in Commentary was widely read. He argued that because the anti-Semitism of Pound's Italian radio broadcasts during the war was reflected in his poetry, Pound should not be awarded a literary prize. Pound was in fact charged with treason - his broadcasts had also attacked the United States and especially President Roosevelt; he was acquited by reason of insanity. Again, most American poets identified with what they saw as a hounded poet.
Viereck tells this old story in the appendix to his new book-length poem, ``Archer in the Marrow.'' But the appendix is really about how poetic form is rooted in biological rhythms. Viereck is no moralist. Along with his political and racial beliefs, Pound also propagated some artistic beliefs about form. In his essay, Viereck settles scores not only with those who separate ethics and form but those who separate literary form from the time-forms of breathing and the pounding of the heart. He believes that by getting rid of the traditional line based on the iambic (taTUM) foot, poets have alienated their art from the two-step beat of the heart.
Viereck develops the argument at length and concludes: ``Just as rooted lawful liberty is equally betrayed by reactionary authoritarianism and by its consequence, radical anarchy, so aesthetic form is equally betrayed by the anarchic formlessness of the barbaric yawpers and by the dead formalism of the elegant wincers.'' Viereck's prose is rich with allusion. In this sentence we pass from an image out of Edmund Burke and William Butler Yeats (the rooted tree) which is fused with the radical tree of American liberty (this image can be unpacked in light of Viereck's experience with the Poundlings), and pass over to the aesthetic side of the analogy with paraphrases of Pound on Whitman and what I take as Viereck's own dismissive feelings about academic poets (``elegant wincers'').
Viereck's poetry is like his prose, only more tightly organized. ``Archer in the Marrow'' is a cycle of 18 parts that include a great range of literary forms. The title refers to the medieval legend about the wood of the apple tree in Eden being the wood used to make the cross for Jesus. The ``archer'' is Viereck's image of another use of the wood: to make an arrow, the symbol of human ``selfsurpassing.'' Viereck believes each of us has to make a choice between fashioning another cross or an arrow.
Formally, the poem is a dialogue between ``father'' and ``son'' that takes place in the head of ``you.'' The dialogue is an opera of humanist speculation that fuses religious and historical themes in the way of the unauthorized Gospel of Philip, of the Italian Platonist Pico della Mirandola, of Nietzsche.
The cycles are related dialectically; it will take years for critics to unpack the meanings of the poem; it took Viereck 20 years to write it.
Viereck is a manic phrasemaker, an inveterate punster, a gnostic image-smith. None of these charges are made lightly. He calls Aphrodite ``the mussed-up goddess''; he writes of ``a consternation of tiptoe herons.'' He likes religious paradoxes like, ``a fool with crown of thorn made a crown of all thorn,'' and ``the one nailed carpenter made all nails vain.''
He has invented a form of rhyming he calls crisscross. It eschews the end of the line for the beginning of the line, Celtic fashion. The form has an ethical side. As he says in the dialogue: ```What makes two rival god-lies true for us?'/ Crisscross.''
At best, ``Archer in the Marrow'' has a Goethean precision; at worst an American ingenuous crudity (not often). There are extended passages of great beauty. Reading a passage on the moon, one thinks of Hart Crane (American ingenuous crudity at its best). There are extended ballads in quatrains and some superb triple meters devoted to the cave paintings of Dordogne. Cycle Thirteen is subtitled ``Auschwitz'' (each cycle is elaborately titled and annotated and epigraphed) and recalls some horrific moments from the film ``Shoah''; yet it somehow consoles.
The variety is astonishing and yet compact in its relationship to the overall organization of cycles and replays. Both exorcism and charm, ``Archer in the Marrow'' delivers the ``aesthetic shock'' of true art. In Ananda Coomaraswamy's words, the reader is like the good horse, for whom the touch of the whip has meaning. He says that ``... the realization of that meaning, in which nothing of the physical sensation survives, is still a part of the shock.'' The completeness of Viereck's art - the ethical dimension of the shock - guarantees that we will be ``realizing'' the meaning of ``Archer in the Marrow'' for a long time to come.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.