Poetry Porch: Poetics


Without Mythologies: New and Selected Poems and Translations by Henry Weinfield. Dos Madres Press, 2008. ISNB 9781933675268. NO PRICE LISTED (paper).

Reviewed by William Doreski

Without Mythologies is a generous selection from Henry Weinfield’s five previous books with a substantial group of new poems and a miscellany of translations. Weinfield’s poems adhere to the formal conventions of lyric poetry established in the early English Renaissance. End rhyme, always adroitly handled, a broad adherence to accentual-syllabic meter, and a generally sober tone (sometimes overlaying the kind of irony the New Critics adored) signal a reluctance to challenge the restraints under which poets labored before the era of Dada and Ezra Pound. Like Gray Burr, Richard Wilbur, Dana Gioia, and other stubborn adherents to metrical rhythms and the satisfying click of end-rhyme, Weinfield also honors the notion of the lyric poem as a kind of image-driven essay, complete with thesis and argument. While I agree with Helen Vendler’s observation that “To read lyric poems as if they were expository essay is a fundamental philosophical mistake,” much of the poetry written by contemporaries who adhere to an aesthetic of rationality and prescribed form requires us to read it as exercises in thesis and argument. These poets, like Weinfield, have rejected the looser associative poetics of the modern and postmodern lyric (as well as of Horace and Donne) to embrace a more orderly and coherent—if aesthetically and psychologically less adventuresome—structure. While this formal paradigm does not describe all of Weinfield’s poems—“Gradus ad Parnassum,” for instance, is a graceful and mystical act of symbolism—it does represent the bulk of his work.

       Regardless of its limitations, this expository structure serves Weinfield well, as we see in even a modest poem like “Ophelia”:

    The days became the nights
    And the nights became a dream

    Until a petal fell
    And floated in the stream.

    Above the tattered flesh
    The restless moon goes by.

    Because the soul has wings
    It shall not cease to fly.

The fall of the petal a human death (Ophelia drowning in a stream), the restless moon the embodiment of time, the soul redeemed by alation (a metaphor that places the soul in a perceptual landscape) remind us that our notions of spirit and eventual glory arise from our apprehension of the delicacies of the natural world. As neatly argued and elegantly written as a Herrick poem, “Ophelia” confirms rather than challenges the Elizabethan world view represented by Hamlet.

       This might strike some readers as a retreat from the contemporary world. But poems like “The Crisis in the Middle East,” “On the Destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan,” and some of the “Sonnets Elegiac and Satirical” demonstrate that when Weinfield addresses contemporary sociopolitical paradigms he wields a powerful rhetorical tool for applying timeless (if not quite universal) moral and ethical standards to a world shamefully in need of them. And in that light, all of his poems, even those derived from classical mythologies (the title of his book is a red herring) seem contemporary not only in their diction but in their grasp of the intertwining of aesthetic and moral necessities.

       “On the Destruction of the Buddhas…” opens with a nod to cliché, indicating the difficulty of adequately conveying the grandeur of these giant figures:

    In Bamiyan, Afghanistan
    The lovely Buddhas stood so high
    That almost reaching to the sky
    They overlooked the woes of man . . .

Centuries of abuse and bigotry failed to destroy them, but political and cultural circumstances deteriorated so drastically their destruction became logical:

    The people lived in poverty;
    Incessant war had bled them dry;
    And Soviet and American
    Money had done what money can
    To make their lives a misery.
    The ruling ideology
    Required a religious enemy . . .

Weinfield recognizes that the destruction of these monumental figures occurred not merely because the Taliban were mindless philistines but because the greater powers, including the US and the USSR, had failed the Afghani people. Even if, as the poem concludes, the Buddhas still stand in the mind’s eye, that is little consolation. The diction and muted rhetoric of this poem suggest the Auden of “September 1, 1939,” and if Weinfield lacks Auden’s power it is partly because he also lacks an immediately dramatic occasion. Auden muses upon a pivotal moment in history, consequences still unknown, while Weinfield mourns something already physically lost. The consolation his poem offers is as weak as Auden’s “We must love one another or die,” but the stoical tone serves him well. The poem moves easily, without transition, from historical reportage to elegy. It reminds us that elegy is the necessary minor key of contemporary life, and that it has been the dominate note of the moralizing lyric since the Classical Era. In this continuity lies the strength of this sub-genre as well as its continuing relevance.

       Weinfield is not concerned with reinventing poetry, devising new modes of perception, exploiting the seams in language, or challenging the relationship between the spoken and the written word. With mannerly grace and ease, his poetry explores the relationship between language and power—the characteristic theme of the great Greek and Roman poets—and concludes, reasonably and soberly, that “history’s a mess, / And power permeates the very pores / Of poetry—or penetrates, I guess” (“To My Student, Colette”). Weinfield is not what we generally call a poet’s poet—we would not read him to discover new ways of wielding the language—but rather he is a statesman’s poet, as Virgil was. He understands how morality and ethics are the fabric of civil life, how aesthetics illuminates that life, and consequently why art must be our conscience. The intelligence and power of his work are apparent to any reader, and his gentle didacticism reminds us that literature can still be a source of the common good.