A Model For Emulation Eight critics reflect on the work of Houston poet Vassar Miller BY JAMES HOGGARD HEART’S INVENTION: On The Poetry of Vassar Miller By Steven Ford Brown Houston: Ford Brown 174 pages, $11.95 VASSAR MILLER is one of the more provocative voices in contemporary American poetry. Since the 1960s, when she published three volumes in the highly regarded Wesleyan University Press series, she has had her share of passionate loyalists in her camp, among them Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov and Larry McMurtry. Still living in her native Houston, Miller is a writer stylistically and conceptually apart from many of her contemporaries; and the geography she has explored is that of herself more than her region. Too, there is often a sacramental element in her work; and it’s there that her rigorous attention to form has assumed a moral dimension. Patterned structure, we are reminded by reading Miller’s work, has traditionally been recognized as an intensifier of speech rather than decoration imposed on it. Many contemporary readers and critics, however, have not yet learned that. Although Miller’s reputation has been strong for close to 30 years, it has been regularly eclipsed by others, some of whom have since passed away from the flickering lights of attention. The quality and importance of her presence, however, become especially clear in Heart’s Invention, the first collection of essays devoted to her work. Gathering eight writers reflecfon major aspects of the Miller canon, editor-publisher Steven Ford Brown has done two important things. He formally establishes Miller as a poet worthy of sustained critical attention, and the essays he has gathered suggest promising directions for future reflection. A consistently lively critic, Paul Christensen, in his essay titled “Allowing For Such Talk,” identifies the curious James Hoggard, a poet and professor of literature, lives in Wichita Falls. blending of attachment and detachment that characterizes Miller’s work. In spite of some important champions, she has been “passed over by critics of national literature,” he says, “because of her regional tendencies. She has found herself in the middle of the main extremes of literary taste . . . neither broad in her grasp of politics and social issues nor local or literal in her sense of belonging.” Linking her thematically and stylistically with Emily Dickinson and hymnists like Charles Wesley, Christensen emphasizes the tension between Miller’s apparent isolation and her cosmopolitan sensibility. Other essayists here, like Thomas Whitbread, Kenneth MacLean and Sister Bernetta Quinn, point out connections that Miller’s work has with a variety of sources such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell. Miller’s changeable yet oddly consistent sense of focus gives her a voice that is individualistic at the same time that it is the heir of tradition. Rereading Miller’s earlier work, one may initially think of her as having had a long apprenticeship in which she tried out different lyrical voices. It becomes apparent, however, that even as a young poet she had not only thoroughly assimilated stylistic effects of her predecessors but had made those effects organically her own. Form and idea have been harmonious throughout her career. Her earlier work, then, seems more echoic than derivative; and Whitbread especially sees this as instructive: “Her conscious craft and artistry in hearing from, absorbing, and allowing herself in her independence to . . . rotate in electromagnetic affinity with other planetary poets provide a model for emulation.” In “Crying Out: Aloneness and Faith in the Poetry of Vassar Miller,” MacLean, like Quinn in “Vassar Miller’s Anatomy of Silence,” relates the sacramental element in Miller’s work to the insufficient attention the poet has received. For more than 100 years now, American literature has been predominantly secular in attitude. With the exception of several efforts by T.S. Eliot, little room has been available for directly religious concerns in the main halls of American poetry. Citing cultural overseers like Alexis de Tocqueville and Perry Miller, MacLean sees Vassar Miller’s example of separation as distinctly American. Linking her religious poetic thrust with George Herbert, John Donne, and Hopkins, MacLean notes the presence of atonal, plainsonglike elements that are distinctly mimetic of modern culture. Again, one hears both past and present in Miller’s voice. Amplifying that idea and applying it to her rigorous approach to forms, Whitbread adds a comparative twist to his discussion when he says the tone of Miller’s verse is less world-weary than Eliot’s but “her words are a bit more biting, more ferocious, more electric.” Repeatedly the essayists here cast light into shadow-thick corners. What appear are labyrinths of possibility; and in discussing her sophisticated sense of rhythm, Bruce Kellner calls her “a poet at ease with tradition in temples others have erected and in nomad’s tents she herself can raise.” That periodically bifurcated element often gives her work a gristlelike tension. There is little that is flaccid or calm in her lines. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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