Md. poet takes ironic view of our society

November 11, 1990|By MICHAEL COLLIER

The Past, The Future, The Present:

Poems Selected and New.

Reed Whittemore.

University of Arkansas.

175 pages. $29.95. In this book, we see how Maryland's poet laureate and former poetry consultant to the Library of Congress takes account of his more than four decades of poetry writing. From Reed Whittemore's nine previous collections of poetry, including two earlier selected poems ("Poems New and Selected," 1963 and "The Feel of Rock: Poems of Three Decades," 1982), he has fashioned a modest though strongly representative volume of 90 poems. What the present volume shows clearly is the integrity of vision and imagination that informs even his earliest work and that has made him, along with poets like Alan Dugan and Howard Nemerov, one of America's most insightful and stinging social critics.

In the poem "Cultural Conference," Mr. Whittemore lampoons the pretensions of intellectuals, artists and academics with a caricature that is humorous and ironic: "The author, critic and cultural messenger/Comes to the cultural conference with snap-on tie,/Two shirts and a briefcase; and in between drinks/Holds forth for a week on the state of the state/Of letters . . ."

If his intellectuals and artists are bemused, out of it and ineffectual, the middle class, which he sees as a kind of educated proletariat, is bogged down in sentimentality and complacency. "My Nation's Hero" reveals Mr. Whittemore's middle-class paradigm "in his study, armed and ready,/With all his gear about him, logos, lotions,/Sad in the wind and wet,/ Waiting at his window, wistful, watching/The pelting of his culture,/The leaves' elegiac drooping/And a house cat rampant in the rhubarb."

Whereas Mr. Whittemore's intellectuals expend energy uselessly, the common citizen is trapped by a feeling of powerlessness and meaninglessness. Mr. Whittemore blames the culture, its lethargy and entropy, but he is also critical of the pale self-absorption of its citizens. "A Fascinating Poet's Diary" begins, "I am keeping this diary because I am fascinating./My impacted wisdom teeth are fascinating./My diet, my sex life, my career, these also are fascinating." The glib wit and irony of such an attitude is not meant to negate the self or the individual but to show how we, and especially poets -- those keepers of the culture -- have trivialized the self, squandered and sensationalized it.

Although many readers will admire and enjoy Mr. Whittemore's social criticism, especially the intelligence and imagination

that powers it as well as its sophisticated use of poetic forms, literary allusion and parody, perhaps what readers will find most profound and enduring in the work are its moments of beautiful lyrical release.

Because Mr. Whittemore is a heavily ironic poet, his lyricism often gets transmuted by irony's self-consciousness. But when it escapes this, the results are such stunning and enduring poems as "On the Suicide of a Friend," "Still Life," "Dead-Walk," "When Father Left in the Morning," "Mother's Past" and "The Feel of Rock." These already rank as some of the finest poems of the last half of the 20th century.

It is difficult to sum up a literary career as long and as various as Reed Whittemore's. His own attempt to select representative poems reveals an innate reticence and self-effacement. In a society such as ours, where these unassuming qualities go unheralded, it only follows that a poet with such virtues will receive scant attention. Reed Whittemore's poetry -- all of it -- carries vital truths about our culture's joys and ills, and we should read "The Past, The Future, The Present" not only for our pleasure and entertainment but for our well-being.

Mr. Collier is a poet living in New Haven, Conn.

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