Expansive Poetry & Music Online Page Two 
          Arthur Mortensen

All poems cited are from
Collected Poems by Edgar Bowers
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
and are the property of the estate of Edgar Bowers
and of Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher.
They may not be reproduced or rebroadcast
in any form without permission
of the author's estate or of Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher

He has out-soared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny, and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight....

                      Percy Bysshe Shelley

Nine-tenths of English poetic literature is the result either of vulgar careerism or of a poet trying to keep his hand in. Most poets are dead by their late twenties.

                            Robert Graves

Paging through a recent prizewinning book one couldn't help but notice the razzle-dazzle, the pop and snap of metaphorical fireworks.  One couldn't ignore either that there was virtually no linkage between one metaphor and the next, that the overall effect seemed to be to create impressive lines that failed to tie together in poems.   As for the lines, they were as arbitrary and false as a montage created from a magazine page cut into a thousand pieces and thrown into the air.  Turning the book over, the writer examined the blurbs, that publisher's and poet's toolset for getting on a bookstore's display cases.   "Though impishly extraordinary, not  one petty delight" said one.   "Intricately deconstructs the illusion of the modern" said another.  "Dances on a tightwire of trope with an apparently improvisatory balance bar" said another.  Thinking of how a villanelle might use parts of  those lines, the writer set the book back on its display shelf, resolved to avoid such prizewinners until the next visit to the store, and returned to his reason for being here, to find the collected poems of Edgar Bowers.
How shall a generation know its story
If it will know no other?  When, among
The scoffers at the Institute, Pasteur
Heard one deny the cause of child-birth fever,
Indignantly he drew upon the blackboard,
For all to see, the Streptococcus chain.
His mind was like Odysseus and Plato
Exploring a new cosmos in the old....
                                    from "For Louis Pasteur," Edgar Bowers (1990)

The old Signal Corps paratrooper had won a few prizes himself, including the extravagant Bollingen and several Guggenheim Fellowships, but he was rarely, if ever, the first or tenth poet on a must-read list among compatriots of the New Narrative or New Formalist generation.

Settled in his academic ways for over thirty years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Bowers was often regarded as a "50's Formalist," i.e., one of those who spun a web of poems that might have been completed a century before, intricate with reference to lost myths and the glory days of dead white males.

Childhood taught us illusion. When I saw
On Frederick March's hands the fierce black hair
And long sharp nails of Mr. Hyde, I ran
Screaming from the theater, his twisted face
Demonic behind me brighter than the day;
Then begged to stay up past bedtime, for fear
Boris Karloff wake me and, near despair,
I run to consolation through the dark....

                  from "Defense of Poetry," Edgar Bowers (1990)

The NY Times, in its obituary of February 7, 2000, was even more confused in its perceptions than the usual critic.  Describing his poetry as "prose," but in the next breath noting  that he wrote primarily in blank verse, they did manage to say that he had eschewed the free verse favored by many other  post-World War Two poets.

Dark rain, stone streets, and, on dim buildings, light
torpid and cold.  In the bar, the erudite

antagonist defines the risk, the quest.
But who and what is he?  The quiet man, dressed

in black, leaning on his chair, a cigarette
caught in his smile?  old unappeased regret?

the promised other?  or the friendly whore,
an image of my own death, solicitor

beckoning toward the hyperbolic kiss,
who takes my fear, my hope, my trust for bliss,

and leaves me lonelier on the lonely bed?

           from "Wanderings," part 2, Edgar Bowers (1973)

There is reference in Bowers, but nothing that a casual reader couldn't get:

...You are the irresponsible and damned,
Alone in the final cold athwart your prey.
Your passion eats his brain.  Compulsively,
The crime which is your reason eats away
Compassion, as they both have eaten you,
Till what you are is merely what you do.

           from "In the Last Circle," Edgar Bowers (1965)

He also wrote a large number of poems using rhyming stanzas, and not a few sonnets.  But they were neither in the forced rhyme manqué and irregular lines so popular among New Formalists nor were they effete reproductions of the Victorian Austin Dobson.
...so here I am at last, and you are there
The same as you have always been, the true,
The final and the necessary care.
All that I am and hope to be is you.

But why you are or why I am or why
I think to ask I will no longer guess.
The manifest dilemma that was I
Confronted you between its nothingness.

           from "A Song for Rising," Edgar Bowers (1965)

If he eschewed free verse, he had equally little interest in the faux Donne metaphorical fireworks that fascinated such immediate predecessors as Eliot, a number of his contemporaries and not a few since.

...Steven and Christian
Stirred in their sleep, exhausted.  Night wore by.
Though Plato's eyes were open, in a dream
Remembering the canyon, he foresaw
That, in the time to come, a man, encamped
For years beside a ruin once a city
Exposed to the indifference of the sun
And moon, inquiring of the breathless dust
That covers all things made of it, one day,
Among the ashes, bones, and sherds, will find
Preserved by an Egyptian air a memoir,
And, bringing it to the light, will read of us,
Dazzled by time and by what time provides.

              from "Chaco Canyon," Edgar Bowers (1990)

Bowers, in rhyming stanzas or in blank, had a startlingly calm voice, the play of sentence and phrase against metrical line sinuous, even elegant, and almost never forced.  But that calm, almost benign, voice rarely if ever spoke of war.  There are some who are troubled that a man who was in the 101st Airborne in the "good war"  never wrote about what he had seen between 1943 and 1945.   Though Bowers did appear on a History channel documentary about the 101st and its defense of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, it was only to describe his pride at having serving with a unit like that, and to note that one learned to sleep on the ground in sub-zero weather during that nightmarish siege, covered only by a thin coat.   (Much the same is true of his contemporary Richard Wilbur, which may suggest that the greatest fascination for war and what it's like lies among those who were never in one.)  There is no poem about the 101st's capture of Hitler's lair, Berchtesgaden, but there is this:
...The South's white cities, terrible
With sensuous calm and beauty, fall
Through darkness to their fragrant streets.
France's smooth armor seeps her blood.
The European plains repeat
Its ageless nights of ice and mud.

Despair shall rise.  The dragon's gore
From off the torn cathedral floor
Forces his mind's dark cavity:
His sleep has been his innocence,
And his malignant growth shall be
Monstered by lucid violence.

                        from "Aix-La-Chapelle, 1945," Edgar Bowers (1956)

As to that beguiling calm, which sweeps through Bowers's poems of love as much as his poems of despair, he left few clues as to where it came from except, perhaps, in his last book:

Lonely at night, I read the book of science.
It tells that what seems permanent will change
Slowly or by catastrophe, that warm
Savannahs kind to trusting birds and trees,
Grasses and beasts, will build a house of ice,
Ice leave behind its crevice, stone, and waste.
Such harshness you have taught me....

        from "Ice Ages," Edgar Bowers (1997)

Writing slowly and steadily through more than fifty years that included a long career in academia, Bowers produced a Collected Poems of barely 165 pages.  Enjoy each one; not many will disappoint or suggest something less than a master.   And there are few, if any, American poets in the last fifty years who have produced work of such tender and thoughtful elegance.

                                              Arthur Mortensen


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