Viereck, Peter (Robert Edwin)
VIERECK, Peter (Robert Edwin)
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 5 August 1916. Education: Horace Mann School for Boys, New York; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.S. (summa cum laude) 1937 (Phi Beta Kappa), M.A. 1939, Ph.D. 1942; Christ Church, Oxford (Henry Fellow), 1937–38. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1943–45, and instructor in history, U.S. Army University, Florence, Italy, 1945. Family: Married 1) Anya de Markov in 1945 (divorced 1970), one son and one daughter; 2) Betty Martin Falkenberg in 1972. Career: Teaching assistant, 1941–42, instructor in German, and tutor in history and literature, 1946–47, Harvard University; assistant professor of history, 1947–48, and visiting professor of Russian history, 1948–49, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. Associate professor, 1948–55, professor of history, 1955–65, Alumnae Foundation Chair of interpretive studies, 1965–79, and since 1979 William R. Kenan, Jr., chair of history, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Visiting lecturer in American Culture, Oxford University, 1953; Whittall Lecturer in poetry, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1954, 1963, 1979; Fulbright Lecturer, University of Florence, 1955; Elliston Lecturer, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1956; visiting professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1957, 1964, and City College of New York, 1964; State Department Cultural Exchange Lecturer in the U.S.S.R., 1961; visiting research scholar, 20th Century Fund, U.S.S.R., 1962–63; visiting scholar, American Academy in Rome, 1949–50, 1977–78, and Rockefeller Studies Center, Bellagio, 1977. Poetry Workshop director, New York Writers Conference, 1965–67. Awards: Eunice Tietjens prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1948; Guggenheim fellowship, 1948; Pulitzer prize, 1949; Rockefeller grant, 1958; Horace Mann School award, 1958; Twentieth Century Fund scholarship, 1962; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1969; Sadin prize (New York Quarterly), 1977; Columbia University Translation Center prize, 1978; Artists Foundation fellowship, 1978; New England Golden Rose award, 1981; Varouja prize, 1983; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellow in poetry, 1985. L.H.D.: Olivet College, Michigan, 1959. Address: 12 Silver Street, South Hadley, Massachusetts 01075, U.S.A.
Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940–1948. New York, Scribner, 1948.
Strike through the Mask! New Lyrical Poems. New York, Scribner, 1950.
The First Morning: New Poems. New York, Scribner, 1952.
The Persimmon Tree: New Pastoral and Lyric Poems. New York, Scribner, 1956.
New and Selected Poems 1932–1967. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1967.
Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles 1967–1987. New York, Norton, 1987.
Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems, 1995–1938. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
The Tree Witch (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961). Published as The Tree Witch: A Poem and a Play (First of All a Poem), New York, Scribner, 1961.
Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler. New York, Knopf, 1941; revised edition, as Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, New York, Putnam, 1961; revised edition, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Conservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Revolt, 1815–1949. New York, Scribner, 1949; London, Lehmann, 1950.
Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals: Babbitt Jr. vs. the Rediscovery of Values. Boston, Beacon Press, 1953; revised edition, New York, Putnam, 1965.
Dream and Responsibility: Four Test Cases of the Tension Between Poetry and Society. Washington, D.C., University Press of Washington, 1953.
The Unadjusted Man: A New Hero for Americans: Reflections on the Distinction Between Conforming and Conserving. Boston, Beacon Press, 1956; revised edition, New York, Putnam, 1962.
Inner Liberty: The Stubborn Grit in the Machine (lecture). Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Pendle Hill Pamphlets, 1957.
Conservatism Revisited and the New Conservatism: What Went Wrong? New York, Macmillan, 1962; revised edition, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.*
Critical Studies: Peter Viereck by Marie Henault, New York, Twayne, 1969; "The 'God Is Like Kilroy' Passage in Peter Viereck's 'Kilroy'" by Peter P. Clarke, in Notes on Contemporary Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 14(4), September 1984.* * *
A poet is some one who skims ever weightier
Stones ever farther on water.
Tides and Continuities (1995), from which the lines above are taken, attests to the increasing ambition, range, technical expertise, and overall achievement of Peter Viereck's verse. Because Viereck's later works, whether originals or revisions, draw heavily from his earlier poetry, much of it in out-of-print volumes, it is crucial to assess his entire writing career.
A nervous daring informs Viereck's characteristic verse, especially in his first books. The more ambitious later work regrettably sacrifices some of this excitement and does not always create a language or unifying tone appropriate to its ambition, a problem apparent in the 1987 Archer in the Marrow and its coda, "Crossbow," published in Tides and Continuities. Occasionally the cleverness of the early poems overreaches itself. For example, strained sound effects inadvertently trivialize the image of Nazi evil "hiking in shorts through tyranny's Tyrols" ("Crass Times Redeemed by Dignity of Souls"). But Viereck's gambles generally succeed, and his sound patterns can create the illusion of a new etymology: "… Aeneas on the boat from Troy /Before harps cooled the arson into art" ("Lot's Wife"). This bravado works best in his epic treatment in "Kilroy" and in "To a Sinister Potato," where echoes of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" heighten the bizarre grandeur of the parody: "O vast earth-apple, waiting to be fried. /Of all life's starers the most many-eyed. /What furtive purpose hatched you long ago /In Indiana or in Idaho?" The zest animating these poems, from Terror and Decorum, not only legitimates his frequent comic rhymes or his bastardized Spenserian language, as in "Ballad of the Jollie Gleeman," but also supports the tender, frightening "Six Theological Cradle Songs," which use nursery jingles and childhood games to dramatize the terror implicit in mortality. Sometimes, as in an elegy for Hart Crane, Viereck concentrates his frenzy to achieve powerful gnomic wit: "… and he found /New York was the clerks his daddy hired /Plus gin plus sea; then Hart felt tired. /Drank both and drowned" ("Look, Hart, That Horse You Ride Is Wood").
The later volumes provide less outrageous fun as they attempt a variety of ambitious themes. The straightforward comic verse may falter, as in "Full Circle," a series of parodies of new critics and modern poets, including Viereck himself. But he develops impressive poems with unusual personae. "To My Isis" wittily conveys Viereck's range, from "Whatever simmers … birch or trout" to "… Mud I also mimic: Let salivating warthogs gambol by. /Preening their bristles. All gross masks I'll try. /But hairy spiders. These I can't stomach." His most striking impersonations, wisely retained in Tides and Continuities, are of trees. An oak threatens a willow: "Your chance of passing next week's Woodlore Test /Is—bear it oakly—not the best. /You know the price! The beaver foreman claims /He needs just one more trunk to mend his dams." ("The Slacker Need Not Apologize"). A stage direction states, "Beavers in over-alls drag away storm-felled oak." (Viereck's frequent subtitles and end notes and his epigraphs suggest a nervous editor, eager to help but unwilling to compromise the integrity of the text by altering it.) The willow ultimately survives: "Mere echo (—strummer?), mad (—or wild with truth?) /But contours of the winds lured far too far. /I'm left behind when even God flies south /(If 'God' means all climate I ignore)." The dashes, question marks, and parentheses heighten the struggling uncertainty implicit in the dialectic of the poem. Here, or in a debate between Goethe and Crane in "Decorum and Terror," Viereck dramatizes viewpoints both limited and belligerent that fuse into a compassionate, accepting overview. His teasingly show-off rhymes—"Courtiers prance/Otto Kahn's" or "Barrack/Weimaric/Pyrrhic/wreck"—make both speakers less than Olympian and prepare for the final triumphant rhyme of "Viereck," which asserts both the poet's mastery of his poem and the fusion of classical decorum and romantic terror that are its antagonists.
Viereck's vegetation poems delicately convey both imagined states of nonhuman consciousness and their human analogues. "The Slacker Apologizes," for example, makes credible the boast of a "crass young weed":
Last night my stamen
Could hear her pistil sigh...
My pollen's shy
Deep nuzzling tells her: weeds must love or die.
Viereck wisely emphasized many individual lines and passages from his earlier volumes in Archer in the Marrow, a long poem of more than two hundred pages that dramatizes the desire to "self-surpass" through the help of woman ("God's image made human by Eve") and art ("Art wasn't art but lifeblood …"). A series of debates by man, God, and the son (the latter two are man's "imagined inner voices") provide the structure of the poem. Ultimately and triumphantly, the son fuses with Dionysius—"Look: goatfoot Jesus on the village green"—an image suggesting man's potential for liberation from the constraints of both traditional Christianity and modern science. Epigraphs from Nietzsche emphasize the many Nietzschean motifs in the poem; indeed, Archer in the Marrow attempts, among other laudable goals, to rescue Nietzsche from twentieth-century distortions. A wealth of similar echoes from artists as diverse as Sophocles and Duke Ellington suggests the range of Viereck's vision of the nature of man, from his "lungfish ancestor" to Adolf Eichmann.
On one level Archer in the Marrow seems a commonplace book compiled by an intelligence of a very high order. (The overall effect of Tides and Continuities is much the same, though made more painful by its many references to illness and hospital procedures). Viereck's verse, buttressed by the essay "Form in Poetry," elaborate notes, and a glossary of allusions, offers variations on three thousand years of attempts to define man. But at times the literary and philosophical excerpts threaten to overwhelm the poem, as they do Tides and Continuities, the quotations sometimes conveying powers of thought and imagery superior to Viereck's. His wit occasionally strains to develop themes that demand greater elevation of language: "Flesh being gene-scrawled for neither music nor justice, /Let's improvise them, no matter what the script, /Parching on Scylla /or drowning on Charybdis, /We're Proteus dodging blueprints of Procrustes." The individual lines may capture images of man's makeshift grandeur, but the rhymes seem forced and weaken the poem, and sometimes the conflicting voices, indicated by changes in typeface, suggest more a glib flyting than a philosophical clash: "A case of folie-à-deux?—'No, folie-à-Dieu' /No, folie-adieu."
The title of Tides and Continuities says it all. The first lengthy section of poems, "Mostly Hospital and Old Age," is Viereck's testament: "Begun in hospitals in my seventies. Their theme: old age and its coming to terms with the archetypal trio: Persephone, Dionysius, Pluto." These dramatizations of warring, occasionally reconciled forces within man allow Viereck to display the richness of his erudition and to embody the metrical theories that have always interested him. The volume seems to be his version of The Cantos, especially when the speaker sounds cantankerous, or of The Waste Land, an impression reinforced by the copious notes and the ambition of a work that moves from man's "landlocked landfish" beginnings to his control by the medical establishment. At times the verse convincingly conveys a quirky speaker's consciousness as it displays the art and wit acquired during a long life in an attempt to define and ward off, if not defeat, the enemy. Judged less charitably, the same verse seems more the poet's obsessive display of anger, learning, and metrical theories, as in these lines from "At My Hospital Window":
—Your exorcist-spells of slant-rhyme knickknacks
Are duds," death cackles. "To hide from my nox
(Since Thanatos' mother is night-goddess Nyx)
Is SACRILEGE. Here I come. Ready or—
Perhaps the strongest new poem in the volume is "Pluto Incognito," in which a janitor's voice fuses with Pluto's during a "tumor autopsy—dead brain cells are galvanized awake for an instant by the surgeon scalpel … the whole resultant Pluto monologue flashes by in that instant …" Admittedly, the poem has its share of flat lines ("The erotic being their most addictive narcotic") and strained wit ("Because her art-of-love out Ovids Ovid /I gave her anklets pluto-crats would covet …"), but at times the daring of Viereck's vision finds seemingly inevitable expression as the speaker attacks those "calling my royal dreams plebeian tumors," a witty rebuke of science and a powerful defense of art. Even more successfully outrageous is the following:
Brer Zeus yanked a girl from a migraine.
(None called Athena his tumor.)
Me too? Is the sharp kiss jabbing my brain
The girl I'm horny for?
The lines convey that fusion of learning and colloquialism, wit and psychological realism that represents Viereck at his best. His poetry continues to celebrate individual human consciousness amid the recurring patterns of birth, death, and birth that threaten its significance. Perhaps only the artist possesses the blend of courage and grace to make a difference:
Though life ails just a day faster than art allays,
Though age rots art before it can learn to sing true,
Sing anyhow. Continue.