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DIMENSION AND AUTHORITY / Rodney Jones Archaic Figure, by Amy Clampitt, Knopf. $8.95 paper. Lovesick, by Gerald Stern, Harper & Row. $9.95 paper. Flesh and Blood, by C. K. Williams, Farrar/Straus/Giroux. $12.95 cloth. The Sunset Maker, by Donald Justice, Atheneum. $8.95 paper. ANY ATTEMPT TO COMPARE POETS as accomplished as Amy Clampitt, Gerald Stern, C. K. Williams, and Donald Justice poses an ethical problem, for each has created work that demands a distinctive reading. It would be absurd to measure Justice, for instance, by Clampitt, or Stern by WilUams. Nor is there space here to link the poets by common historical affiliations. Certainly, Justice and Clampitt are heirs of Wallace Stevens, just as Stern and Williams are heirs of William Carlos Williams, but the Stevens modes that Justice and Clampitt employ are not the same, and Stern and Williams have learned different lessons from Dr. Williams. Nevertheless, I would like to approach these new books by discussing them within the framework of a common issue: how a poet of the first order achieves, in our time, a dimension sufficient to make poetry that will matter. Two recent essays, Donald Hall's "Poetry and Ambition" and Terence Des Pres' "Self/Landscape/Grid," have questioned the scope of contemporary poetry. Hall complains of a "modesty of ambition"; Des Pres laments the failure of poets to deal with large social issues such as nuclear proliferation. And whUe Hall is primarily concerned with the poet's responsibility to poetry, and Des Pres with the poet's responsibility to society, both specify a poetry that fails in conception more than in craft. For me, however, the more frightening indictment is that much of our poetry honors an imaginative and musical focus of such narrow range that the resultant poetry is, almost by default, minor. As a seventy-five year old Wallace Stevens said, "we can never have great poetry unless we believe that poetry serves great ends. We must recognize this from the beginning so that it will affect everything that we do. Our belief in the greatness of poetry is a vital part of its greatness, an implicit part of the belief of others in its greatness." And yet if we take Stevens' maxim seriously, then we must distinguish between the belief in poetry and the belief in the ends that poetry serves. The desire to create an original and compelling musical phrase, for instance, differs considerably from Milton's ambition to "justify God's ways to man." But if the latter strikes some 262 · The Missouri Review as more laudable, to others it will seem inconsistent with the temper of an age in which icons have been reduced to artifacts, and kings and queens to emblems of defunct monarchies. This is not to say that the icons have been completely overturned; one has only to read Seamus Heaney's "Station Island" or Derek Walcott's "The Spoiler's Return" to feel the power—in the old sense of "dominance," of speaking from the other side—that these artifacts contain. But the more common concerns of poems of the last thirty years have not been social, political, or religious so much as refinements of individual human consciousness, the major consequence, perhaps, of imagisme. Clampitt, Stern, WUUams, and Justice, while they are each interested in such refinements, go far beyond the history-and-abstractionpurged consciousness of so many of the heirs of imagisme. Though Williams, for example, seems to be a poet of the immediate moment, he elaborates, in that brief frame, a historical dimension which extends our notion of what a moment can contain, as in this ninth section of "La Petit Salvie": How ambiguous the triumphs of our time, the releasing of the intellect from myth and magic. We've gained much, we think, from having torn away corrupted modes of aggrandizement and giantism, those infected and infecting errors that so long held sway and so bloated our complacencies that we would willingly inflict even on our own flesh the crippling implications of our metaphysic. Clearly, this is poetry that aspires to breadth. The same might be said of Justice's "St. Michael's Cemetery, Charleston." One may depend on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 162-176
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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