It comes as something of a surprise to be reminded that Peter Viereck won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1949, the same year that Ezra Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress, touching off a firestorm of debate. Pound, whose radio broadcasts for Mussolini Viereck actually monitored while serving with the Army, continues to be regarded as a leading modernist poet, whereas Viereck is recalled, if at all, for his political writings, most notably a history of conservatism from John Adams to Churchill.
One of the major influences in Viereck's life was his father, a minor poet in the Wagnerian romantic tradition, but also the leading apologist in the United States for Germany during both World Wars (he was imprisoned as a Nazi propagandist in the 1940s). In reaction, Viereck developed a special brand of conservatism, which he called "a revolt against revolt," a "third way" between the extremes of conformity and bohemian indulgence, and which is the basis of his aesthetics as well as his politics.
His latest work, a 20-year effort, is a philosophical epic starring the classic Christ-Dionysus-Osiris configuration, representing the tragicomic spirit of the human imagination. The poem is cast as a drama, complete with stage directions, by which we are spun through a series of concentric "cycles," the path of a man's struggle for liberation from God's creation of him as a "human toy." Three essential voices intersect: those of a father God and his son, which are the imagined "inner voices" of the human "you" of today.
The structure is ambitiously complex. There are 18 cycles of performance, with various prologues, epilogues and self-proclaimed "transitions." Some of the cycles are "replayed" for added dimension, while epigrams are tucked in wherever room can be found, to sustain the structure. The poem is, in short, a contraption, a whirligig, a Rube Goldberg device of flying parts and arms, one cosmic juggle.
The poem itself is not difficult, although it does make its demands. There is some daring in rhythm and rhyme: "Beach; I, spying as sea bird; when the scions/ Of lungfish duel with God, they'll need a god's alliance." The "archer in the marrow" of the title is fate, some force in our genetic disposition that targets us for higher forms. The cycles end, the curtain (according to the stage directions) descends, leaving a "goatfoot Jesus on the village green" bending his cross into a "crossbow." An illusion of progress and synthesis has taken place, though we may have hoped for a more conclusive vision.
The poem is followed by a long theoretical essay, footnotes that the author is careful to state were supplied at the publisher's request, and a glossary that typically includes entries such as, for Venus, "Roman name for the Greek Aphrodite." Who, one wonders, did Viereck or his publisher think his audience was going to be?
It was a serious tactical mistake to append the essay. The poem is then seen as an example, part of an argument, rather than something to be savored and trusted for its own sake. Viereck attempts to survey modern poetry, thereby implicitly arguing for his own place in it. He predicts a "new form-movement" that will last 50 years, at which point a "free verse revolt" will again "excruciate the forgetters." Why he has to predict or predicate a "movement" is unclear, when what the reader of poetry today wants is artists of individual reward--a Keats or a Dickinson or a Plath--not whether he or she is formalist or avant-garde. Moreover, Viereck had already announced that "the spirit of revolt is over" in 1947, and was promptly surpassed and forgotten by the vitality of the resurgence of the new American poetry of the 1950s and 1960s. There is no reason to believe he is more right now. His own poetry doesn't presage or warrant it.
The best parts sound like songs from Caliban: "Some toys can swim. Where to? Glubglub and down./ 'All flows'--too fast all flows, all cheeks tilt down." Compared with those of formalist masters X. J. Kennedy or James Merrill, Viereck's lines seem overburdened with futile tricks. How does one avoid the embarrassing pitch to the colloquial of "You've come a long way,/ Ape baby," or the appearance of the goddess Persephone, daughter of "Cereal" (after the Greek Ceres), as a "corn flake"? Viereck's poetry can be praised for its vitality, satiric intent, rhythmic variety within its chosen confines, and occasional boldness of rhyme--but never consistently. He is a poet with a great sense of responsibility, but without the grace of language to enact it effectively.
As an epic, "Archer in the Marrow" is too quaint. As drama, it remains closet drama. The lyric, the only hope by which it appears to live, remains stifled. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this poem is a psychological factor: that even in this culminating work, Viereck's major concern is an attempt to regain identity from a father.
A major poet, even if long-delayed and distracted by other responsibilities? No. A versifier and apologist who sets us thinking about poetry? Yes, indeed.