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Criticism on Letter to a Comrade

Stephen Vincent Benét
Excerpt from his Foreword to Letter to a Comrade

Here is what an intelligent, sensitive, and vivid mind thinks about itself and the things of the modern world.  It will be obvious enough, to anyone who reads Letter to a Comrade, that the heroes of the Twenties are not Miss Davidman's heroes nor their demons her demons.  What may not be so obvious is the fact--important to any young writer--that she has a very considerable command of technique and an individuality that can express itself successfully in a variety of forms.  There are echoes here, as there are in almost any first book, and there are a few practice pieces.  They occur, as they are bound to occur, because the poet learns his craft by exercising it.  But there is also genuine power--and that's rather harder to come by.

. . . .

Miss Davidman can see, with accuracy and freshness, the thing in front of her eyes,

the desert towns, the blown trees edging the prairie
meant to break the wind, and the abandoned filling stations
and the places where jack rabbits jump out of the night,

the wet, fine street that "shines like a salmon's back," the fertile country,

Divided between the buckwheat and the wheat
milky with breathing cattle. . . .

 She can also comment upon the thing seen with fire and imagination.  And, in such poems as "Spartacus 1938" she can write with an emotion none the less powerful for being contained.

 I have chosen above from her work in the freer forms.  But she can be equally sharp and telling in the older ones, as in "Submarine," "Snow in Madrid," and the effective and moving "Prayer against Indifference" . . .

 . . .

 If I have stressed Miss Davidman's social and contemporary poems, it is not because they are the only poems in the book.  But a good many social and contemporary poems succeed in being merely social and contemporary.  They have admirable intentions but no execution.  But Miss Davidman is able to say things so they stick in the mind.  And in "Twentieth-Century Americanism"--to mention a single poem--she has done a very interesting thing.  She has given the point of view of the city-bred toward America--the America that does not come from the grass-roots but from the long blocks of apartments under the electric light.  And she does it so you will remember it, though, as you will notice, she does not do it with entire approval.

From Stephen Vincent Benét, foreword, Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, Yale Series of Younger Poets. 37.  ed. Stephen Vincent Benét (New Haven: Yale UP, 1938) 7-8.

Ruth Lechlitner
Excerpts from "A New City-Born Poet"

 Like the growing number among her contemporaries, Miss Davidman is a poet of strong social awareness, with a lively interest in the American scene.   She is city-born and bred, but she tries to see this country as a whole; the farms, the forests, the seaboards.  An intense spirit of nationalism, sometimes blindly patriotic, sometimes devotedly critical, has become a tradition in American poetry.  We have had poets who looked sourly upon the "cultural sterility" about them and fled to the ivory tower or to Europe.  We have had the romantic regionalists; and the oratorical chest-thumpers saluting America for her pioneer achievements.  And now we have a group of younger writers with a defensively dominant I-like-America theme song, vesting their hope in the possible social achievements of the future.

 Miss Davidman's title-poem is fairly representative of what the younger generation thinks.  She says, in brief, that America is a big and beautiful land of "breasted and milky earth" where most of the people are hungry; America, an abundant land where the corn goes to waste and the apples rot, is held together chiefly by the tourist trade "the women of the farmers spread empty beds with clean linen for strangers."  But, just as the young trees come back to land devastated by fires, there will be a resurrection from "the bones of destruction." . . . It may be said that Miss Davidman's figures and images drawn from city life are more convincing than her notations of rural scenes, which are apt to resemble representations in photographs and newsreels.

 . . .

It is unfortunate that Joy Davidman's work inevitably invites comparison with that of Muriel Rukeyser, another social poet whose first book appeared in the Yale Series of Younger Poets.  Unfortunate because, though "Letter to a Comrade" is a more competent volume in some respects than Miss Rukeyser's "Theory of Flight," the poems in it most influenced by, or most like those of the latter, are the least successful. . . . The longer works of both poets is marred by large chunks of emotional writing that groan and sweat under a burden of super-charged physical or sensual imagery.  There is a non-selective mal-fusion of figures and details that, like undergrowth vines in a swamp, choke each other before they ever reach the light.

 . . . .

Miss Davidman's best work, individual in impact, is in her shorter poems--the direct, hard-hitting lyrics.  Memorable for their simplicity and clean inevitability are "Snow in Madrid" and "In Praise of Fascists."  But perhaps the most significant poem in the book . . . is the excellent "Prayer Against Indifference."  Here the poet's use of a compact, formal pattern compels discipline and economy of expression.  Further, it expresses most explicitly the spirit and outlook of the new generation--a generation that is above disillusion, scorns escape, places value in the courageous facing of reality, the strength to acknowledge and to fight a universal danger.

From Ruth Lechlitner, "A New City-Born Poet," rev. of Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, New York Herald Tribune Books 25 Dec. 1938: 2.

Muriel Rukeyser
Excerpt from "Group of Poets"

The Yale Series of Younger Poets issues the first book by Joy Davidman, "Letter to a Comrade."  Joy Davidman is pushing through to the essential treatment of values we all wish to read about; the clumsiness of many of these poems has more strength and promise in it than the slickness and ingenuity of many other books, and when the poems do come through, they arrive with the delicacy and fitness of "The Lately Dead," "Necrophile," "Snow in Madrid," [sic] "Prayer Against Indifference."  Conscious and writing hard, this poet expresses more direction than any other in this group [Rukeyser was reviewing works by five poets]; often the physical sense is clogged by language, bad language that makes wrong climactic lines like "dribbling through the fat hourglass" intrude on a spare, hard poem like "Waltzing Mouse," and gaffes like "If we could set our teeth in the hide of America/clasp her fat hills to our faces and be nourished by them" again and again in sticky images.  But if these faults can be fined out, a perceptive talent emerges.   The book, as first book, carried its own weight, and "Snow in Madrid" is bound to be reprinted often, with its biting ending:

 Men before perishing
See with unwounded eye
For once a gentle thing
Fall from the sky

From Muriel Rukeyser, "Group of Poets," rev. of Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, The New Republic 8 March 1939: 144-46.

Dorothy Ulrich
Excerpts from "Joy Davidman's Poems"

It is surprising, in view of much current verse, how little Miss Davidman's explicit political creed interferes with the imaginative dimensions of her work.  A few of the verses are strained and self-conscious, but a poetic integrity governs most of them.

 . . . .

Miss Davidman's greatest facility is in disciplined verse--occasionally marred by false rhymes--but it may be that she promises most in the freer forms which, harsh and strained though they sometimes seem, are effectively harmonized with the material.  Stricter craftsmanship, especially in the longer verse, and a more frugal selection would have done greater justice to the superior poems of this book, which is distinguished, on the whole, for its plasticity of technique, clarity of image, affirmative strength and flexibility of thought.

From Dorothy Ulrich, "Joy Davidman's Poems," rev. of Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, The New York Times Book Review 6 Aug. 1939: 4.

Oscar Williams
Excerpts from "With Enclosures"

 Her [Davidman's] first book is a big one--more than 80 pages heavily packed with rhymed and unrhymed verse and a great deal of promise.  Its vigor and profusion are admirable, but nevertheless I feel disappointed; I had expected a better book. 

. . . . 

The promise for the future of Miss Davidman as a poet lies in the affirmative state of her subconscious as portrayed in two fashionable but undistinguished poems, Prayer against Barrenness and Prayer against Indifference.   These reveal the necessary inward desire for "poetic" progress, so that "surely I shall feel words thicken upon my tongue"--a very healthy sign if combined with intense discipline.  But Miss Davidman has not yet learned to work.  And politics, I might say at this point, is distracting to work.  A poet's politics must come out of his poetry, and too much of Miss Davidman's poetry comes out of her politics.  Poets are leaders and not camp followers.  A preconceived notion, the unconscious drive to conform to a set series of ideas must necessarily hang a cloud in the doorway of what is at best a delicate vision.

. . . . 

. . . If I have judged this book on standards other than usually applied to first books, it is that the time is late, the archives are cluttered with rubbish and stammering minds, and that performance, not promise, is now expected from the young.

From Oscar Williams, " With Enclosures," rev. of Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, Poetry, April-Sept. 1939: 33-35. 

R. P. Blackmur
Excerpt from "Nine Poets"

Of Miss Davidman's Letter to a Comrade there is less to say than of any of the books on our list.  She is more evenly a poet than any but the two we have not yet mentioned; she has respect for the language, for the traditions of poetry, and for her own intelligence; she is forthright and what is more important she is candid.  For the most part she writes with authority because she mostly limits herself either to what she knows or knows that she wants to know.  She resorts neither to dogmas nor to any of the devices for stilling the consciousness, and succumbs only to those blueprint symbols and spirit natural to a growing mind affected by the megalopolitan culture of this decade.  The spirit which conceives and the intellect which articulates the predominant element of protest in her poems are not entirely hers, not digested, not matured, but are a non-incorporated framework borrowed perhaps from the land of the New Masses where the best of these poems previously appeared.  She has, that is, permitted her sensibility to be violated by the ideas which have attracted her.  This is because the technique of her verse is not yet strong enough or plastic enough to cope alone with the material her sensibility has absorbed, and takes meanwhile any help it can get.  There is nothing surprising in this; the very forms of our education, and the very formlessness of our taste, seem fairly designed to set us in immaturity by preventing us, so to speak, from the maturity we had only to assent to to inherit.  Miss Davidman gives us as her greatest promise that she has within her the ability to make that assent.

 From R. P. Blackmur, "Nine Poets," rev. of Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, Partisan Review, Winter 1939: 112.

C. A. Millspaugh
Excerpt from "Among the New Books of Verse"

She [Davidman] has not yet arrived at an integration of spirit and sensibility and method; but the compulsive power of her feeling cannot but persuade one to foresee a quiet dignity of achievement, provided that she ignore the demands of popular communication which surely her social and economic interests and her recent extra-book publications impressively put upon her.  Though unordered and prolix in her title poem, though haphazard in her incidental pieces, Miss Davidman is obviously a person of very real ability, of serious dedicated intention, and of unquestionable sensitiveness.  She has yet to realize that intensity of feeling does not own automatic consequence of rhythmic tension, that conviction's exaltation has still the need of verbal equivalence, and that hortatory commands require more than that level of performance on which the topical has only the brief life of journalism.  Her problem is much like that of Muriel Rukeyser.  The danger of vitiating the strength of a native gift by undisciplined verbalism is a potent shadow.  One hopes that Miss Davidman will be able to discover the living portions of the past, to which she can turn as to a refreshing source, that she will not be misled by tentative contemporary experiments, the insights of which are inferior in quality to those of her own intuition.

From C. A. Millspaugh, "Among the New Books of Verse," rev. of Letter to a Comrade, by Joy Davidman, Kenyon Review 2 (1940): 363.

George Bradley
Excerpts from the Introduction to The Yale Younger Poets Anthology

 [Bradley's evaluation of Davidman is sparse, and his fullest comment about her work is contextualized is his concluding comments about Stephen Vincent Benét, the editor who transformed the Yale Series of Younger Poets into a prestigious contest.]

Of the ten poets Benét picked, almost all became successful writers. . . . Joy Davidman wrote novels, poetry, and film scripts; she has gained a measure of attention because of her marriage to C. S. Lewis, depicted in his memoir Surprised by Joy  and subsequently in the film Shadowlands.

 . . . .

The Yale volumes Benét chose reflect his own preference for poetry that is engaged in the hurly-burly of human affairs, but they also show the stamp of their impassioned and ominous times.  The thirties were a decade swept by political movements and shadowed by the gathering clouds of war, and much of that fever and sense of crisis made its way into these books.   [Muriel] Rukeyser and Davidman both espouse the political left; [Reuel] Denny [sic] and [Jeremy] Ingalls each show an acute awareness of imminent bloodshed; and [Margaret] Walker warns that cataclysm overseas will soon be mirrored by social upheaval at home.  Benét's Yale Younger Poets are energetic and opinionated, and some of their opinion is extreme; yet for all their many fierce ideas, the group forms a whole.  They have an integrity beyond that of editorial taste, a coherence imposed by overwhelming events.  Even so abstracted an intellect as Wallace Stevens acknowledged this imposition: 'In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of imagination.'  Benét's choices have been described as popular poets, and in a sense they are, but they might be better described as poets unavoidably conscious of a violent reality.

From George Bradley, introduction, The Yale Younger Poets Anthology, ed. George Bradley (New Haven: Yale UP, 1998) lii-liii.

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