Ishmael Among the Scriveners

The heroic age of modern poetry has been over for some time. The learned reactionaries who shaped it for two generations have all been dead for many years: Eliot (1965) and Pound (1972), Valéry (1945) and Claudel (1955), Ungaretti (1970) and Montale (1981). Diverse in style and technique, the great modernists were all ambitious in straining at the limits of expression, in finding the principles that underlie formal conventions, in bringing to bear the weight of humane learning upon the inhuman conditions of the 20th century. The poets who have followed, even when they are good, have had neither the erudition nor the ambition to take up their challenge.

There is, however, one outstanding exception to this generalization, Peter Russell. Born in Bristol in 1920, Russell served in the British army in Europe and in the Indian army in the East. He has lived virtually everywhere—Malaya, Berlin, Venice, Tehran, and British Columbia, and at one time or another has studied much of what is worth studying. He can translate from Latin and write in Serbo-Croatian, and the range of his allusions is almost as broad (although by no means as bewildering) as that of Ezra Pound. Russell's connection with Pound goes deeper than style, since it was Peter Russell who worked for years to secure Pound's release from St. Elizabeth's. (Why is it that exile and madness are the two destinies most frequently-enjoyed by American poets?)


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