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Bowers, Edgar

BOWERS, Edgar


Nationality: American. Born: Rome, Georgia, 2 March 1924. Education: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, B.A. 1947; Stanford University, California, M.A. 1949, Ph.D. 1953. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1943–46. Career: Instructor, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1952–55; assistant professor, Harpur College, Binghamton, New York, 1955–58; member of the English Department, 1958–91, and since 1991 professor emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara. Awards: Fulbright fellowship, 1950; Swallow Press New Poetry Series award, 1955; Guggenheim fellowship, 1958, 1969; Sewanee Review fellowship; Edward F. Jones Foundation fellowship; University of Carolina Institute of Creative Arts fellowship Merrill award, 1974; Brandeis University Creative Arts medal, 1978; Bollingen prize, 1989; Harriet Monroe prize, 1989; American Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1991. Address: 1201 Greenwich Street, Apartment 601, San Francisco, California 94109, U.S.A. Died.

Publications

Poetry

The Form of Loss. Denver, Shallow, 1956.

Five American Poets, with others, edited by Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn. London, Faber, 1963.

The Astronomers. Denver, Swallow, 1965.

Living Together: New and Selected Poems. Boston, Godine, 1973; Manchester, Carcanet, 1977.

Thirteen Views of Santa Barbara. Woodside, California, Occasional Works, 1987.

Walking the Line. Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1988.

Chaco Canyon. Los Angels, Symposium Press, 1988.

For Louis Pasteur. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1988.

How We Came from Paris to Blois. El Cerrito, California, Jacaranda, 1990.

Collected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1997.

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Bibliography: The Published Works of Edgar Bowers, 1948–1988 edited by Jeffrey Akard and Joshua Odell, Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1988.

Critical Studies: Forms Discovery by Yvor Winters, Denver, Swallow, 1967; Alone with American by Richard Howard, New York, Atheneum, 1969, London, Thames and Hudson, 1970, revised edition, Atheneum, 1980; "The Theme of Loss in the Earlier Poems of Catherine Davis and Edgar Bowers," in Southern Review 9 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), and "Contexts for 'Being,' 'Divinity,' and 'Self' in Valéry and Edgar Bowers," in Southern Review 13, both by Helen A. Trimpi; "The Early Poems of Edgar Bowers" by Douglas L. Peterson, in Centennial Review (East Lansing, Michigan), 42(1), Winter 1998; "The Marriage of Logic and Desire: Some Reflections on Form" by John Foy, in Parnassus, 23(1–2), 1998.

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The American poet Edgar Bowers has neither sought publicity nor achieved notoriety. He has not written in the modish confessional manner of some of his contemporaries but has simply written some of the great poems of the latter half of the twentieth century. Bowers's work deserves a slow and careful reading, for his poems are worth taking the time to understand.

Bowers's powerful treatment of the themes of deception and honesty, of shadow and lucidity, and of loss and form can be found in his earliest poems, but his depth and range have grown with no diminution of his prosodic mastery. A chief characteristic of his poems, as Yvor Winters pointed out, is that "sensory perception and its significance are simultaneous." This is especially true of "Autumn Shade," a sequence of ten poems that ends the 1965 collection The Astronomers. The sequence begins with a sense of destiny that amounts almost to predestination, something that appears in other poems as well:

   Now, toward his destined passion there, the strong,
   Vivid young man, reluctant, may return
   From suffering in his own experience
   To lie down in the darkness.

The young man wakes, he works, and he sleeps again, but the first poem ends with a chilling image: "The snake/Does as it must, and sinks into the cold." In another poem the young man lights a fire as the night grows cold:

                                Gently
   A dead soprano sings Mozart and Bach.
   I drink bourbon, then go to bed, and sleep
   In the Promethean heat of summer's essence.

This is pentameter so subtle in modulation that the casual reader may miss a good deal of its technical virtuosity. So much is packed into the subdued, suggestive style that one may overlook the complexity of life and of emotional response to sensations that is being presented. The young man is aware that the things "I have desired/Evade me, and the lucid majesty/That warmed the dull barbarian to life./So I lie here, left with self-consciousness." Within the sequence the young man's books, his old neighbor who drives through rain and snow, the recollection of Hercules and of his own father, and his view out the window of a Cherokee trail ("I see it, when I look up from the page") all indicate the reality of the external world. The density of reference suggests the presence of the past and the complexity of perception. The young man is trying in this dark night, during these seasons of the soul, to understand his own past and thus his present. His old neighbor's driving in snow prompts him to remember his own driving in war:

   Was this our wisdom, simply, in a chance
   In danger, to be mastered by a task,
   Like groping round a chair, through a door, to bed?

Not many poets in the language could have written these lines. The verbal precision evokes deep resonance of response. Bowers's firm control and stylistic brilliance permit him a potentially dangerous ending for the sequence. It would be trite after this night of darkness and cold to have the sunlight transform the room, and so even shadows become "substantial light." But like all masters, Bowers takes the potentially trite and makes it hugely moving. The man of the sequence survives: "I stay/Almost as I have been, intact, aware,/Alive, though proud and cautious, even afraid." The ending is indicative of one of Bowers's strengths as a man and as a poet—his refusal to be deceived, his almost desperate honesty.

The dramatic monologue "The Prince" is a major examination of what has been termed "German war guilt." In it familial relations serve as the vehicle for a poetic rendering of moral relations:

                   My son, who was the heir
   To every hope and trust, grew out of caring
   Into the form of loss as I had done,
   And then betrayed me who betrayed him first.

Likewise, in another fine poem, "From J. Haydn to Constanze Mozart (1791)," a verse letter expressing grief becomes a meditation on the rare fusion of mind and body, sense and reason, that Mozart's music embodies: "Aslant at his clavier, with careful ease,/To bring one last enigma to the norm,/Intelligence perfecting the mute keys." These poems, along with "Amor vincit omnia"—the greatest poem on the theme of the magi since Yeats's—"The Mountain Cemetery," and "The Astronomers of Mont Blanc," are part of the enduring body of work that distinguishes Bowers's books. In him we have a poet at once exact and exciting in his use of language. The word always fits the sense, and the sense never exceeds what language is capable of doing: "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent."

—James Korges

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