They dug a trench, and threw him in a grave
Shallow as youth; and poured the wine out
soaking the tunic and the dry air.
They covered him lightly, and left him there.
When music comes upon the airs of Spring,
Faith fevers the blood; counter to harmony,
The mind makes its rugged testaments.
Melancholy moves, preservative and predatory.
The light is a container of treachery,
The light is the preserver of the Parthenon.
The light is lost from that young eye.
Hearing music, I speak, lest he should die.
Carl Sandburg is often put forth as the Midwestern American poet par excellence, which annoys me to no end not just because I dislike Sandburg's work very much, but also because a lot about Sandburg's institutionalization says as much about why a great poet such as Richard Eberhart never gained the recognition he deserved. Eberhart wasn't content to write the folksy, middle- American sentiment that people properly expected from farm country. He insisted on breaking his bounds by writing about the big human themes with extraordinary craft and sensibility. Richard Eberhart died on Sunday, 12 June 2005 at the age of 101.
Eberhart was born 5 April 1904, in Austin, Minnesota on a modest estate called Burr Oaks (later on the name of one of his books). He was educated in the US (University of Minnesota, Dartmouth, Harvard) and England (St. John's College). He served as private tutor to the son of King Prajadhipok of Siam (Thailand) in the early 30s, and otherwise had a fairly adventurous youth, with stints as a sailor and gunnery instructor.
As for his poetry, I'll quote from one of my favorite critics. John Wain's assessment is:
His varied and energetic life comes through in his poetry, which is rugged, inquisitive and forceful; clumsy in patches, supremely felicitous in others.
—Anthology of Modern Poetry (Hutchinson, 1963)
I think I'm lucky to have been spared Eberhart's clumsy patches: I've read him almost exclusively in anthology and journal. I have found that he is one of the most affecting writers on the horrors of war. His best known poem is this one.
You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces
Are still silent. He looks on shock-pried faces.
History, even, does not know what is meant.
You would feel that after so many centuries
God would give man to repent; yet he can kill
As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
No farther advanced than in his ancient furies
Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?
Is God by definition indifferent, beyond us all?
Is the eternal truth man's fighting soul
Wherein the Beast ravens in its own avidity?
Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
But they are gone to early death, who late in school
Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.
—Richard Eberhart—"The Fury of Aerial Bombardment"
Eberhart was very generous in his criticism (that which I've read). Too generous at times, in my opinion, given his approval of the mess made by Ginsberg and the Beat poets. The AP article in which I read about Eberhart's death included a typical Eberhart quote:
Poems in a way are spells against death, They are milestones, to see where you were then from where you are now. To perpetuate your feelings, to establish them. If you have in any way touched the central heart of mankind's feelings, you'll survive.
And survive he did. 101 years is quite the achievement to be celebrated. Soon (July 29) we'll be celebrating the centenary of another great poet Stanley Kunitz. Kunitz's "Benediction" is one of my favorite poems to recite to my wife and sons. It's wonderful to see these poets live such complete lives, who have brought such feeling to the exploration of life's great themes.
I meant to link to "Benediction" but I can't find a respectable transcription of on-line. It deserves its own entry, so some other day I'll type it in for Quotīdiē. But I do want to mention that I found "A Young Greek, Killed in the Wars", "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment" and "Benediction" all in my favorite small poetry book, John Wain's Anthology of Modern Poetry (Hutchinson, 1963), ISBN 0090671317. It's out of print and not easy to find, even used (here are the listings on Amazon UK Marketplace). I bought it in 1988 at the University of Nigeria and it has been one of my most treasured books all this time. It's a superb collection, and if you can lay your hands on a copy, I suggest you do so.