Wolfe and Other Poems is an extraordinarily good collection of poems, clearly written by a veteran writer. The underlying credo of the collection is very aptly summed up in the opening poem called, appropriately, 'Credo':
Step out under the stars on a dark night
Or open Rilke, Frost, or Dickinson.
Like that, all poems (mine too) should invite
Small breaths, quick nods, and ninety at the bone.
That last line is surely wonderful, surely anti-modern and anti-postmodern as it invites us into a coherent narrative, and there is also surely a sense of irony too about the 'ninety at the bone', since Williams is himself nearly 90 years old! This collection, then, could be seen to be an example of that late flowering of true poetry which sometimes accompanies masters of the art, most famously, Yeats.
The collection is actually quite brief and in two parts: there are 21 short lyric poems followed by 1 long narrative poem, Wolfe, which is a 'Western' re-telling of the Beowulf story. In a way they are quite separate things, and so in reviewing this collection I would like to consider them separately.
So far as the 21 lyrics are concerned, we have a master poet at work. At least 8 of the poems are sonnets, a definitive form in which to display skill, and here we see someone wrestling with his landscape, his heritage and history, and his feelings, and from all these particulars great and universal themes emerge. For example, The Canal, 1942 says, in its understated way, and as soldiers march past, 'how water that had just been green was red' - the disturbance of the water a prolepsis of the blood to come. Or, The Oak That Stayed, in which finally, the poet asks:
Soon now, dear friend, I thought, you're down for good.
I almost think it thought the same of me.
That the Credo poem cites Frost as an influence should be very clear from these two lines; but I think Williams, whilst influenced, as has his own unique voice. And this leads on to the truly ambitious part of his collection, the narrative poem, Wolfe.
I certainly would say, 'Buy this book; it's excellent poetry', but I almost must say that the Wolfe poem leaves me with more mixed feelings. It is in one sense a triumph, for what do we want a narrative poem primarily to do? Well, we want it to engage us and keep us reading on; so, I found myself wanting to read it. And as far as a homage to the original Beowulf poem is concerned, it is extremely good. The narrative flows, there are some wonderful lines of pure poetry in it:
To ride out when the moon sat round
And dark on the far rim and sound
A sadness he could not explain,
As if pity and guilt had lain
Unknown through the long interval
Since the last moon had hung that full
Of melancholy, even fear.
And the transposition for Beowulf from Anglo-Saxon times to the American Wild West is extremely well done - I almost think a film could be made of it. So what is my problem with it?
The problem is a technical one. Williams has chosen his form to represent as closely as possible the original Anglo-Saxon. But he has substituted rhyming for alliteration, and opted for a tetrameter line, occasionally broken up with hexameters. Strangely, moments of brilliance occur often at these interfaces, these cross-over points:
Even him, and for just a breath
He felt a touch of pity at that great thing's death.
That's marvellous, but the trouble is, a long poem in iambic tetrameter, and rhyming tetrameter at that, invariably leads us to less than optimal sense, because it becomes more driven by rhyme. The fact is that the rhyming couplet form is really difficult to tell a compelling narrative in, and the best examples - like Crabbe's Peter Grimes for example - tended to use the pentameter line; in other words, the more extended line, which opens up far more syntactical and semantic possibilities. Of course, combine a tetrameter with a succeeding hexameter as in the example I quoted above, then you effectively have two pentameter lines. So because Williams is such a fine poet, he came to realise this - perhaps subconsciously - as he wrote the poem; for the incidence of hexameters increases as we progress.
But here's another thing: one needs to buy the collection anyway just so that one can have one's own debate with Williams' poetry, for it is a mark of how good it is that I am wrestling with my thoughts on its technical aspects now! So I invite all readers of The Society of Classical Poets to get their copies: there’s a lifetime’s wisdom and insight contained in Williams’ poetry, there are some truly beautiful lines and images, and finally there is also much that can be gleaned technically in the writing of poetry. If you love Frost, I think you will love this.