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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Edward Arlington Robinson

Edward Arlington Robinson was a widely read and respected poet during his lifetime--he won three Pulitzers--and we all know at least one of his poems, typically Miniver Cheevy or Richard Cory, but his reputation slipped badly after his death.  He seems to have been the victim of having a foot in two different worlds.  On the one hand, he is one of the first literary figures to move from 19th century sentimentalism to Modern themes of psychological despair and maudlin realism.  But, on the other hand, he wrote in rigid traditional forms, expertly one might add.  Thus, his subject matter was too bleak for the practitioners of structured poetry, but the forms he wrote in were too hide bound for the new generation of free form stylists.  But as the selections below show, he was a careful craftsman and his poems, while dark, are relieved by a sort of mordant ironic humor.  He deserves to be read, especially because he demonstrated that modern themes and concerns could be addressed in classical forms; it was not necessary to abandon rhyme & meter, it was merely convenient.
The Modernist From Maine
Ihave known and loved the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson for practically 50 years. When I was 14, his poems seemed agreeably gloomy to me. His subjects are good-for-nothings, nonstarters, weaklings. I liked how Robinson treated them -- archly, satirically, harshly, just as I thought they deserved. And his poems were easy to memorize, with their ineluctable meters and never-failing rhymes. Here's an example, ''Reuben Bright,'' from ''The Children of the Night,'' published in 1897, when Robinson was 27:
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
Robinson's places were gloomy too. Here's the fragment of a cityscape from his autobiographical ''Old Trails (Washington Square)'': ''And soon we found ourselves outside once more, / Where now the lamps along the Avenue / Bloomed white for miles above an iron floor.'' The lonesomeness of that last line finds its rural equivalent in ''The Dark Hills'':
Dark hills at evening in the west,
Where sunset hovers like a sound
Of golden horns that sang to rest
Old bones of warriors under ground,
Far now from all the bannered ways
Where flash the legions of the sun,
You fade -- as if the last of days
Were fading, and all wars were done.
The epitome of Robinson's gloom was the first of his published poems, ''Luke Havergal,'' a summons to suicide. I didn't see that while Robinson's subjects are gloomy, his poems are emphatically not. Writing of first meeting Ezra Pound, in London in 1913, Robert Frost recalled how Robinson was the first poet they talked about. ''I remember the pleasure with which Pound and I laughed over the fourth 'thought' in 'Miniver thought, and thought, and thought, / And thought about it.' ''That ''fourth made the intolerable touch of poetry. With the fourth the fun began.''
Robinson's mordant long stories in verse also had their appeal for me, telling of New England, of places I recognized. Like Sarah Orne Jewett before him, Robinson wrote of Maine, his native state. He spoke in a low American voice, and his stories were cast in a New England light. With great charm, he was doing in verse what a whole generation of American writers was doing in stories and novels, both before and just after World War I: ''lodging a piece of the continent in the world's imagination,'' to borrow E. M. Forster's phrase about ''Main Street,'' by Sinclair Lewis.
Robinson's early life, in Gardiner, Me. (the Tilbury Town of his poems), was remarkable for his dedication to the study and practice of poetry. He showed a special affinity for difficult forms -- rondeau, sestina, villanelle. In 1891, at the age of 21, he went to Harvard, and two years later, after the deaths of his father and mother, he left New England for New York City (the Town Down the River of his poems). Here his collection ''The Children of the Night'' was published, and from then on there was no turning back from poetry. An unusual portent of his success occurred in 1905, when ''The Children of the Night'' was reviewed by President Theodore Roosevelt. (Eight years late, but all the same!) Louise Bogan later called this book ''one of the hinges upon which American poetry was able to turn from the sentimentality of the 90's toward modern veracity and psychological truth.'' True, critical recognition came in 1916 for ''The Man Against the Sky,'' and in 1927 he was hailed by Mark Van Doren as the ''best of living American poets.'' Robinson went on to publish several more books after this. One was a best seller; three won the Pulitzer Prize.
Robinson died in 1935, after which his reputation took the usual post-mortem slide. Well, maybe not quite the usual slide. It was his later works that were no longer read, those volumes that in his lifetime had been so lavishly overpraised -- Arthurian romances in monotonous blank verse, ill suited to an age still struggling with ''Prufrock.'' However, in 1946 Yvor Winters wrote a most discerning book about him; Robinson's ''Collected Poems'' (1,498 pages!) remained in print until 1952; and for decades after that, important critical voices were loud with Robinson's praise. The modern consensus seemed to be that Edwin Arlington Robinson was a top-notch American poet. And yet. . . .
In his 1980 ''Lives of the Modern Poets,'' William H. Pritchard declared that Robinson is a poet whose ''stock does not stand very high at the moment and is not likely to rise.'' And when in 1988 PBS broadcast its American poets series, ''Voices and Visions,'' Robinson wasn't among the 13 poets chosen by Helen Vendler. Nor is he well represented in the standard teaching anthologies. In some he is not represented at all. A similar fate has befallen other grand American talents -- Marsden Hartley, for instance. It may be that Robinson was undervalued because he excelled in outmoded forms, especially in the Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet. His sonnets differ sharply from the traditional English ones. They are more concise, more purposeful, and constitute a defiant divide between English and American verse. Robinson collected them in ''Sonnets, 1889-1927.'' They ought to be collected again.
The new Modern Library edition of ''The Poetry of E. A. Robinson'' should help his reputation. Its editor, Robert Mezey, has made a good selection. He has also wisely appended the Frost article quoted above, and he gives a generous sampling of other poets' opinions. Like Robert Faggen, the editor of the Penguin ''Selected Poems'' of a couple of years ago, Mezey concentrates on the shorter works because, as he explains, ''I believe Robinson knew that the short poems were his great achievement, but he really had no choice in the matter: they did not come any more, he said.'' Mezey also quotes J. V. Cunningham: ''The professed poet must keep writing, 'scrivening to the end against his fate' for it is the justification of his life. So he wrote too much, and when written out he could not swear off.'' Mezey and his publisher have worked hard to promote and provide for some of Robinson's best work. But they omit a substantial portion of his stronger verse, making the book less inclusive than the title implies. Perhaps in future editions they might consider suppressing Mezey's notes in favor of more poetry.
One of Robinson's best-known poems is ''Eros Turannos,'' a tragic novel-in-little consisting of six stanzas of eight lines each. It goes straight to the heart and thrives there. His most uncanny poem is undoubtedly ''The Sheaves.'' For its mystery, might and majesty it deserves to be given in full, a suitable representative of this American master:
Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.
So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay --
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Ben Sonnenberg is the author of ''Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy.''

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