Peck, John (Frederick)
PECK, John (Frederick)
Nationality: American. Born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 13 January 1941. Education: Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, A.B. 1962; Stanford University, California, Ph.D. in English 1973; C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich, diploma in analytical psychology 1992. Family: Married Ellen Margaret McKee in 1963 (divorced 1981); one daughter. Career: Instructor in English, 1968–70, and visiting lecturer, 1972–75, Princeton University, New Jersey; assistant professor, 1977–79, and professor of English, 1980–82, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts; visiting professor of English, University of Zurich, 1985–92, and Skidmore College, Saratoga, New York, 1995–97. Awards: American Academy award, 1975; American Academy in Rome fellowship, 1978; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981; Delmore Schwartz award, New York University, 1995; Ingram Merrill fellow, 1995. Address: 647 Stickney Brook Road, Brattleboro, Vermont 05301–9635, U.S.A.
Shagbark. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1972.
The Broken Blockhouse Wall. Boston, Godine, 1978; Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.
Argura. Manchester, Carcanet, 1993.
Selva Morale. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.
M and Other Poems. Evanston, Illinois, TriQuarterly Books, 1996.
Collected Shorter Poems, 1966–1996. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.
Literary Terms and Criticism: A Student's Guide. London, Macmillan, 1984.
How to Study a Poet. London, Macmillan, 1988.
The Poems and Translations of Hi-Lö. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991;Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, Sheep Meadow Press, 1993.
How to Study a Novel. London, Macmillan, 1995.
Editor, with Sharon Libera, Mr. Jefferson's Horses, by Sarah Youngblood. South Hadley, Massachusetts, Mt. Holyoke College, 1985.
Editor, Middlemarch, by George Eliot. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.*
Critical Studies: In Trying to Explain by Donald Davie, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1979, Manchester, Carcanet, 1980; by James Powell, in Occident (Berkeley, California), 1980; "Coordinate Forces in 'The Leader of the People'" by James C. Work, in Western American Literature (Logan, Utah), 16(4), February 1982.* * *
John Peck's Shagbark has rightly been called the most brilliant first book of poetry since Wallace Stevens's Harmonium. Difficult and encoded, it is yet recognizable at once as original and ambitious, and its forty-three poems are inscribed in a language as various as it is precise. The originality is, in part, a result of its insistently revealed ancestry, tracings that make up the heartwood of this autobiography whose main metaphor is the organic growth of a tree. If Peck's first father has been Ezra Pound—the subject of his doctoral thesis and modernist perfector or of the hieratic moment, which Peck will flamboyantly inherit and make his own—other forebears are Browning, Hardy, H.D., Yeats, and Blake. Peck's erudition is enormous, as is the range of his reference. Painters—Cole, van Gogh, Kollwitz—the anatomist Vesalius, and philosophers such as Leibniz and Kierkegaard are passionately addressed and reimagined. Like Liebniz, the poet searches for unity in diversity; like Kierkegaard, he invents against the pull of dread and terror. I would guess that the great Polish teacher and poet Czeslaw Milosz is present here too, for Peck shares and practices his interest in the way things begin and then endure and change through time. In Peck's most beautiful and ambitious poem, "March Elegies," the centerpiece of his second volume, The Broken Blockhouse Wall, he writes the following:
Circling, a man may
retell the story
Lived by another because neither
Is in that way free.
The expressed tension between past and present, between father and son, and the passing on of fictions describe Peck's whole poetic succinctly and refer, too, to the duty, felt with chivalric ardor, of being true to a chosen other. A poet becomes himself through mimesis and breaking free.
Peck's strategies for creating a self are manifest in the structure of Shagbark. The first section is nearly claustrophobic, for the poet is alone in nature, beset by dreams, inventing routes of escape from solitude. An imagery of doors, sills, and thresholds underlines the desire for growth and new entrances. Human presences are distant or dreamed. In the second section poems are addressed to relatives, teachers, and friends, and their stories are listened to and retold. In "Reliquary" the poet listens to a Polish exile who has landed in his Pennsylvania hometown "trace / The history of those things he wished to share, / Tokens obscure with other time and place." The expanded awareness of time and place leads Peck to those moments of breakthrough that are at once groves or circles of light, psychic transition from one state to another, and, synonymously, the origins of poetry itself. In a Browningesque monologue, "The Factor Remembers His Lady," we find the following:
And when I asked her what plan
She would follow were she to lose her way, then
She said her father once learned from his father
An oath in runes for entry into the core
Of their old wood; and learned the path leading there
And learned the look of that hid place, forever.
Peck's tracings backward have a Jungian thrust, and his poems move ambitiously toward the re-creation of both a personal and a racial unconscious.
The greatest adventure of the book is undertaken in the poems in the third section. Each of these incontestably superb poems is based on the art or account of another artist, and the geography covered extends from the English village of "Ringers" to the Holland of Vesalius to ancient China—a Poundian destination—where two hand scrolls are minutely observed. The poet enters the scrolls and, like the spectators of old, adds his own scrupulously rendered reactions and thoughts to them. Coming to the end of Chang Tse-tuan's famous scroll of the Festival at the River, he ruminates on what is "picturable / but not pictured." These studies prepare him not only for his role as poet but also as a human being continuously willing himself to grow by the highest moral and aesthetic standards. Finally, in the fourth section, like Ulysses returning home to Ithaca, Peck breaks through into a present that has been there throughout the journey but is only at this point representable. He meets, as if for the first time, the Penelope whose "sweater on the couch" now seems rich and an object allowable in his poems. A modern epic has been achieved. A poet has come into being.
In The Broken Blockhouse Wall Peck returns to the obdurate landscapes of his Pennsylvania childhood and the imagery of rock, mine, river, barge, and freight. Again the clear and the blurred, the hard and the yielding, and wind and land underwrite the dialectic Peck finds everywhere. In his return there is also a new freedom to ride out the drift of analogies, a riding that describes his odd genius. In "March Elegies" Peck relives moments from family history and dazzles the reader with language that moves from the "beshatted drawers" of a Civil War immigrant to the high dreams of mythological heroes. A perfect example of Peck's method—his humor, his fascination with the energy and power of poetry, and his delight in curiosity and chance—is transparent in "Letting Up." It begins with reflections and an ordinary walk through his neighborhood and moves him back to a moment in the Civil War:
When the gray infantry broke through at Shiloh
They found campfires, skillets over them cooking,
Sunday breakfasts laid out, and swirls of steam still
Coming off coffee.
Communion that seems an end, fleeting, factive,
Must begin somewhere. They stopped, ate and drank,
Through tents and read letters from girls. And they
were Lost to the advance.
—Joan Hutton Landis