Thursday, December 19, 2013

Charles W. Pratt: poetry

Here's a review of an interesting collection you may not know about:

Charles W. Pratt, From the Box Marked Some Are Missing: New and Selected Poems. Brookline NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010. (

The opening poems, and many subsequent ones, in Charles Pratt’s new and selected poems reprise the voice, topics, and arguably the point of view of Robert Frost. “In the Woods” echoes parts of “The Wood-Pile,” “Learning to Prune” and “Spray and Pray” obliquely echo “After Apple-Picking” and “Good-Bye and Keep Cold,” and “Stones” reverberates with many of the poems in A Boy’s Will. Perhaps most startlingly, “May 15,” a much more recent poem, touches upon several of Frost’s early lyric poems and revisits one of his central themes, the question of whether the universe is an act of deliberation:

The time has come to revise
Line by line by line
The rough draft of my field
Till down the green grass lies
Obedient to design
And the lovely scruffy tufts
Of flowers, they too, must yield.

            But it would be a mistake to think of Pratt as merely a minor ephebe of a great poet. His poems come out of experience as well as imagination, out of actual farm work (in his case, an orchard) as well as out of reading Frost, George Herbert, and other poets important to him. He seized upon Frost not just as a congenial voice but as a body of experience comparable to his own efforts to support himself as an apple-grower in New Hampshire. He has grown through Frost, and has not let himself be stunted by influence. Many of his best poems—such as “O Say Can You See”—resemble the work of no one else:

Tonight the whole neighborhood gathered for the first night game
In the history of Thomas Tree stadium, brothers and sisters,
Parents, grandparents; hands over hearts we sang
“The Star-Spangled banner,” faltering only in places
Then played nine innings of laughter and arguments
With an umpire whose allegiance was transparently not to truth
But to beautiful symmetry, a tie game to the end.

These loose-limbed but graceful long lines are not his only resource. He produces an almost perfect sonnet (although it’s really only twelve lines) in “Band Concert in Regent’s Park” with its wonderful evocation of the Titanic concluding with “Why should we try to keep the ship afloat / Except for the pleasure of hearing the final note?” And in “Whatever it Was” he displays an enviable ear for the terser sort of free verse:

How she moved, moved, moved behind the counter,
Wiping it over and over
“To keep myself awake,” she said.

Pratt’s resources are not only prosodic, however. Poems like “Refuting Berkeley” display an ability to bring to bear the history of ideas on the present moment. Here the voice of the intellect crosscuts the voice of personal sentiment as the speaker observes his freshly born child, then muses on Johnson’s clumsy but dramatic refutation of Berkeley’s idealism. Although the poem ends with a self-effacement that precludes it from seeming showy, it illustrates Pratt’s cultural resources, which he handles effectively and in a different way from Frost, Yeats, Herbert, and other predecessors. Thoughtful beyond the abilities of many of his contemporaries, frankly indebted to some giants of the past, Pratt continues the great conversation of poetry in ways we as readers should honor and trust.

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