(Yale)George Bradley is one of those otiose members of the American East Coast poetry coterie --- winner of grants from NEA, and the Academy of American Poets, and, as well, a former Yale Younger Poet (1986). He is a perfect fit into the teeny keyhole that is the American Poetry Establishment, and thus is the perfect snob to edit an anthology that spans the seventy-five or so years of the Yale Younger Poets tautology.
The main problem with YYP --- as it will hereinafter be called --- is that it has traditionally missed the boat, the huge and noisy boat that sails around and about, loaded with the true artists in the poetry world. Sylvia Plath applied, but was turned down. The Beats didn't have a chance --- except for the obscurantist Jack Gilbert. Most of the true geniuses of the 20s were ignored. Bradley says in his exhaustive and exhausting introduction to The Yale Younger Poets Anthology (100 pages out of 300!) that the YYP is "resilient and various" with America's poetry being "one of the nation's significant contributions to world culture." We doubt it. The absence here of Gertrude Stein, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell, Judson Jerome, Karl Shapiro, David Wagoner, Gary Snyder, Howard Nemerov, X. J. Kennedy, Sylvia Plath, Lew Welch, Pete Winslow, and hundred of minor masters is a potent condemnation in itself. It means that the judges of this very prestigious, well-funded and highly publicized vehicle were and are and probably always will be out-
to- lunch. Further, it tells us that real poets know what a vacuum it is there in Yale Poetry Cloud- Cuckoo- Land, and thus wouldn't bother to submit their works for judging.
Those who did make it (for example, Oscar Williams, John Hollander, and the very noisy John Ashbery) are well represented here, along with some now-forgotten and very grim poetasters like Reuel Denney, Edward Weismiller, and Louise Owen ("So, here, tied in that crooked line,/that is the North Wind,/trapped --- and mapped!")
This would suggest that it would be a waste of time to read this volume, but, out of almost a hundred poets and almost three hundred poems, there can be a few surprises, right? Like the very first poem in the book, from World War One:
Here on this stretcher now he coldly lies;
A burlap sack hiding his beaten head.
The idle hands seem heedless lumps of lead,
And the stiff fingers of abnormal size.
I almost stooped to brush away the flies,
Musing if yet she knew that he was dead.
It ain't Wilfred Owen, or Sigfried Sassoon, but at least it's an American poet, dealing honestly (as so few did) with the truth of WWI. And --- to be fair --- it isn't the only one that hits the mark: secreted hither and yon amongst the hollyhocks and paeans to Prometheus and Persephone are some jewels. The judges (including Stephen Vincent Benét, W. H. Auden, James Dickey and Jimmy Merrill) came and went, but a few of them stumbled into good if not great poetry. The high point --- at least for this critic --- came during the tutelage of Stanley Kunitz, with fine selections from Michael Casey, Robert Hass, Maura Stanton, and Michael Ryan (who calls himself the Man with a past which is not his...)
There are, in addition, others like Ted Olson's (1928) wonderful pre-Existential Existential summary:
A long time ago, I think,
God scribbled the universe
Across a random scrap of infinity;
Paused midway for lack of ink,
And, in the slovenly way of Divinity,
Let it go for better or worse.
Now and then
God picks it up again.
(Earth, I think, is a period
Or a semicolon's half, or the dot
On an i. Not that it matters.)
Pores for a minute or two at best
Over the dog-eared palimpsest,
And muses: "I wrote this, I know, but what
I meant it to be I've quote forgot.
I'll have to get rid of this rubbish soon.
It will make a bonfire some afternoon."
Or Joan Murray (1947) who died at the age of twenty-five, and left behind an exquisite mix of John Donne, e. e. cummings, and William Empson:
Sleep, little architect. It is your mother's wish
That you should lave your eyes and hang them up in dreams.
Into the lowest sea swims the great sperm fish.
If I should rock you, the whole world would rock within my arms.
Your father is a greater architect than even you.
His structure falls between high Venus and far Mars.
He rubs the magic of the old and then peers through
The blueprint where lies the night, the plan the stars.
You will place mountains too, when you are grown.
The grass will not be so insignificant, the stone so dead.
You will spiral up the mansions we have sown.
Drop your lids, little architect. Admit the bats of wisdom into your head.
§ § §
I have to point out that every time I fall into a collection like this, I think of Oscar Williams, who was the anthologist of choice when I was in college. He insisted on including page after page of his own poems in the anthology of "The World's Best Poems..." or "The Greatest Poems in the Universe..." which was a pain because he was a fairly stupid poet. Not content with that, he stuck in a few dozen poems from one Gene Derwood, who was equally stupid and who was, incidentally, Mrs. Oscar Williams.
With this suspect paternity in mind, we looked to see what George Bradley would do with George Bradley, Yale Younger Poet of 1986.
Well, he chose one of his poems, "E Pur Si Muove." It's apparently a tribute to Galileo Galilei, and praise for a general kicking against the pricks. (The phrase "E Pur Si Muove" was supposed to have been muttered by Galileo when he rose from his knees, after his renunciation. It means "And yet it moves." This, they tell us, refers to the universe.)
Bradley chose this poem as his best --- he's editor, after all --- but it's strictly intellectual onanism because
In other words, Good Poetry is only for those of us with a Hot Shot Classical (read Ivy League) Education --- and the hell with the rest of you.
- The title means nothing to those not versed in history, or in other languages, and
- By not mentioning the word "Galileo" in the course of the poem, the author is reaching out to those with intellectual pretensions like his own, those who can read it and say, "Why, I know who he's talking about! He's talking about Galileo!"
As poetry, "E Pur Si Muove" is not wonderful, not horrible; just another joining of words that will disappear in time. It begins,
Of course it had been madness even to bring it up,
Sheer madness, like the sighting of sea serpents
Or the discovery of strange lights in the sky...
That sort of intellectual noodling is nowhere close to the rejected Plath's
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breath or Achoo...--- Lolita Lark