Kenneth Burke: Late Poems, 1968-1993

Burke, Kenneth.  Late Poems, 1968-1993.  Eds. Julie Whitaker and David Blakesley.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Miriam Clark, Auburn University
 
If Kenneth Burke’s poetic career was not the most distinguished of the twentieth century—a fact he sometimes bemoaned in his letters to more widely published and honored poets like William Carlos Williams and Howard Nemerov—it was among the longest (more than seventy five years, from 1915 to the early 1990s) and the most fully and playfully integrated with the larger intellectual concerns of the poet and his age.   The poems dance the attitudes, spin the terms, package in riddles and sighs the questions and arguments his essays treat at length.  They accompany the critical texts, improvise on them, offer descants and riffs that run—treble and bass—alongside them.    

Burke’s letters make clear that he worked doggedly on some of the poems, fine tuning them for months, even years to get them right metrically and to discover every trick the language could be made to perform in them.  But the poems themselves keep an improvisational style, never achieving the high polish, the cleverness, the closure of many mid-century American poems.  To read Burke’s poetry of the fifties, sixties, and seventies alongside Howard Nemerov’s makes this strikingly clear.  The two, who taught together at Bennington and who exchanged hundreds of letters between the late 1940s and Nemerov ’s death in 1991, often took up the same subjects, both small and large.  In November of 1954, for example, Burke sent Nemerov a “forward looking epic,” a little piece he called “Storm-Windows”:

Fall  - I put ‘m up.  Who’ll tak’m down?

Spring – I take ‘m down.  Who’ll put ‘m up?

A week later Nemerov responded, “Maybe we shd form a Union of Seasonal & Nature Poets.  I too have been writing storm window poetry lately, which I don’t send for your inspection largely because I seem to have misplaced it.”  Nemerov’s “Storm Windows,” published a year or two later, is now among his most widely anthologized poems.  It begins when the speaker notices a storm window abandoned on a lawn during a rainstorm.  He looks at the crushed grass underneath it, and then at the glass itself, finding in it a “swaying clarity,”

                                    which blindly echoes

            This lonely afternoon of memories

            And missed desires, while the wintry rain

            (Unspeakable, the distance in the mind!)

            Runs on the standing windows and away.  (CP 144)

Much as Burke admired, even occasionally envied, the intelligence and beauty of lines like these, and their comparative success in the marketplace, he wrote to his own tune--raucous, melancholy, mad--as the mood struck. 

Late Poems, 1968-1993, gathered and affectionately prefaced by Burke’s daughter-in-law Julie Whitaker and very helpfully introduced by David Blakesley, is a welcome resource for Burke scholars.  Like two other recent collections of Burke’s late writing—Henderson and Williams, Unending Conversations (SIU Press, 2001); and Rueckert and Bonadonna, On Human Nature:  A Gathering While Everything Flows 1967-1984 (California, 2005)—this volume reckons age and limit against the abundance of the world, the complexity of language and human experience, and the magnitude of the project itself.

But Late Poems has less to do with what age unravels and time leaves undone than with the comic and often poignant circumstances of old age, when loved companions depart for good, when senses fail (glasses misplaced, parlor conversation lost on deaf ears), and familiar landscapes become hard to manage.  Burke writes balefully, for example, about his plan to use a pitchfork as a walking stick to make his way down an icy hill to the mailbox.  The plan’s a bust, he notes, but language does not fail him.  “What a tautology,” he concludes, “a pleonasm”: 

  Age in the grip of Ice,

  worse than piling Ossa upon Pelion, it’s piling

  Pollution atop Ossification—so what do? 

In another, “Mind and Body—or Some Such,” he thinks back to his youthful ideal (Marxist in kind) in which intellectual labor is balanced by hard physical work, strength adding to strength until a man is “trim / as a trained fighter’s poundage just before a match.”  “But things ended damnably different,” he writes,

            him old, alone, doing his own shopping,

            cooking, dish-washing, you might even say

            his own house-cleaning, if things were not

            allowed to get so godam cluttered up and dirty

            and while doing his own typing 

The book begins, fittingly, at the start of this “next phase,” with Burke’s “Eye-Crossing—from Brooklyn to Manhattan (with Prose Introduction, Glosses, and After-Words).”   Set in a “fate-laden season,” the winter before Libbie Burke’s death in May of 1969, “Eye-Crossing” narrates Burke’s helpless anguish, his solitary, pensive walks in Brooklyn Heights, and his bleak contemplation of the inhospitable city and disheartening Cold War politics.  Weaving a long dialogue with Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, the great poets of Brooklyn Harbor, Burke’s poem situates his private sorrows in the story of a culture’s decline, signified by the filthy river and all along it the marks of America’s wasteful, technological “tendings.”

It makes a dark beginning for the book, striking a mood that sometimes lifts, sometimes lingers in the pages—and the decades—that follow.  But it’s Burke’s finest poetic moment, and by itself it makes the case for his importance as an American poet.   And it is, as David Blakesley argues in his introduction, a starting point, “imbued with the energy of the creative act.”  Over these last poems, the flowerishes, the quinquains, over the serious and the silly, the musical and the plain, Burke’s creative energy is clearly still at play, still a pleasure to encounter and explore.