- A Reply to the Headlines by Martin Robbins, and: More Collected Poems by Hugh MacDiarmid, and: Tree Meditation and Others by Alan Stephens (review)
- Western American Literature
- University of Nebraska Press
- Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1971
- pp. 151-153
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Reviews A Reply to the Headlines. By Martin Robbins. (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1970. 70 pages, $5.00.) More Collected Poems. By Hugh MacDiarmid. (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1970. 108 pages, $6.00.) Tree Meditation and Others. By Alan Stephens. (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1970. 53 pages, $5.00.) The trouble with Martin Robins’ A Reply to the Headlines is that the ostensible poems in it are couched in the same kind of language that news papers use. Robbins' language lacks density of imagery and phonetic texture, that devoted and skillful deployment of diction which gives us the overtoneresonance we expect and get from good poetry. I open the book at random: An old master’s hand Shows his search beyond Life’s flesh and time’s curve T o find a source of light, Space and its illusions Beyond the moment. That’s the first stanza of “Beyond These Walls Are Endless Rooms”, and it shows the characteristically thin spinning out of platitudes Robbins offers the reader. It also partakes of another of the book’s weaknesses: its deriva tiveness. Poems of course are, among other things, records of experience; but way over half the poems in this book are records of other records of experience: TV, newspapers, radio, films, other people’s poetry, painting and sculpture (nine of these), and phonograph records. And there is a lot about “frigidaires”, motorcycles, telephones, and that sort of thing. Sometimes the “headlines” being replied to seem from the thirties or forties (e.g., Robbins’ quaint talk about the “feds”, and the apparently straight mention of a “hat brim down like Bogey”.) A Reply to the Headlines, if it’s poetry at all, is instant poetry and as such doesn’t fare too well when judged as “memorable speech”, Auden’s fine definition of poetry. 152 Western American Literature Most of the Poems in Hugh MacDiarmid’s More Collected Poems are MacDiarmid at his worst. And like many of our good poets who are especial ly prolific (I am thinking particularly of Dickinson, Cummings, and Williams), Scotland’s great twentieth-century poet can be pretty bad. One sometimes gets the impression that the poet feels that because he has done so much good work he can now just throw out to his readers whatever first drafts he happens to pop onto the page. The result here is many embarrassing pieces of abstract prose deployed on the page in lines with irregular right hand margins—their only resemblance to poetry. E.g., what is probably the book’s nadir, from “Plaited Like the Generations of Men” : The spiritual evolution from vile humanity T o authentic manhood and onward To participation in self-universal Is on operation which bases itself On a full realization of the transiency Of spatial and temporal conditions, and long-windedly on to mention of “an ultimate capacity/For transforming the substance of these intuitions/From speculative belief to realized experi ence.” One wonders whether the necessary job of embodying such meanings in image, metaphor, and action, i.e., the poet’s duties, seemed too much for MacDiarmid, or what? Again, the feeling that the poet thinks he can get away with offhand or sloppy performances. And of course he can, if he has previously given us enough to balance up our misgivings about his intentions; but in More Collected Poems there is simply too much of this kind of dull ness. The literary king of Scotland has no clothes on, but instead of walk ing lean like Yeats after a similar doffing of the robes, MacDiarmid walks obese. When he waxes less pretentious, MacDiarmid can still be the master, in straight modem English or in his Scots dialect. A delightfully perfect in stance of the former is the twelve-line comic lyric narrative, “Jeannie MacQueen ” ; and what I believe to be his best Scots dialect poem of the present volume is “Up to my Eyes in Debt”, which is full of a great deal of humility which skirts self-pity by means of humor. Coming from such refreshing poems the reader winces when MacDiarmid, a lattter-day Protagoras, tries to con vince us (and maybe himself...