Answering the Sirens’ Call: The Poetry of Robert Fitzgerald

Paul Kareem Tayyar, September 17, 2011

Answering the Sirens’ Call: The Poetry of Robert Fitzgerald

It would be difficult to convince an audience that a writer who—during his lifetime—was awarded The Bollingen Prize and served as Consultant in Poetry to The Library of Congress (a post later to be re-titled Poet Laureate), and whose translations of Homer and Virgil remain classroom staples has been undervalued by the reading public. And yet a case can be made that Robert Fitzgerald (1910-1985) has become just that: a writer equal to any his generation produced but whose original work has been largely forgotten by contemporary audiences. In many ways, Fitzgerald, like Nicholas Ray (Director of Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place) or Connee Boswell (a jazz singer of such extraordinary gifts that Ella Fitzgerald idolized her), is yet another rich talent whose legacy has, in the decades since his passing, seen itself fade into a fiercely undeserved near-anonymity. So let this column be a small attempt to send readers back to his poetry—best found in the career-spanning retrospective Spring Shade—and to celebrate the work of a man whose love for Greek Mythology found its way into his poetry as a kind of early example of literary Magic Realism. I think the best place to start, then, is with one of Fitzgerald’s most beautiful poems, the lyrical and ruminative “Song for September”, which opens,

Respect the dreams of old men, said the cricket,
Summer behind the song, the streams falling
Ledge to ledge in the mountains where clouds come. (ll.1-3)

To those familiar with Fitzgerald’s musical renderings of Homer’s peerless verses, we can read this trio of opening lines as a transcendentalist’s take on Virgil’s Eclogues. The poem’s nameless, mysterious narrator doubles as a spirit-conscience who is both chronicling an old folktale and teaching a succeeding generation the earthly qualities that should be valued above all else: charity and goodwill. The voice of the narrator and the voice of the speaking cricket whose words open the poem are, from the outset, almost inseparable, as if the voice of the artist is, like that of the cricket, a wholly natural phenomenon whose wisdom stems from an almost primordial purity.

As the poem continues, the subject of mortality—its terrors and its dignities—is explored with a transcendental poise that sets Fitzgerald apart from contemporaries like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and placed him more in line with the 19th century American Romantics. Indeed, Fitzgerald, like Whitman, Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau, understood that the new world was haunted, but that said haunting is as potentially beauteous and nourishing (“we walk in gardens among grasses / touching the garments of the wind that passes”) (ll.10-11) as it is lonely and stark (“time thins, leaving their will to wind and whispers”) (ll.6). This ethos might explain much of the reason Fitzgerald’s own poetry—as opposed to his peerless translations—have fallen out of favor: while his contemporaries were invested in the confessional mode as a way of grappling with the social and political terrors of the modern world, Fitzgerald’s poems were more interested in accessing a world that existed beyond the concerns of nationality, politics, and religion. He was a universalist in the best sense, as he used his poetry not as a mirror for his own society, but as a portal into the spirit-world of consciousness itself. And it is that sprawling, richly symbolic otherworld that has been the terrain of myth since man first put pen to paper—or paint to cave-wall—and it is there that Fitzgerald remained in his writing. This may be why, I suspect, his poems often seem less dated than those whose work was focused on more immediate concerns of time and place.

By the time, in the poem’s third verse, Fitzgerald writes,

The rain that speaks at night is the prayer’s answer.
What are dry phantoms to the old men
Lying at night alone? (ll.16-18)

the cricket has become an oracular, Tiresias-like figure, able to decipher the meaning of events and to read the fortunes of the blessed and damned with an accuracy and wisdom as breathtaking as it is lyrical. Just as Odysseus—the hero at the center of two of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished poetic translations—found in the Land of the Dead a humanity he thought he might have lost, so too do we find a blessing in our ability to commune with the dead, a communion possible because the old men, in their loneliness and mute solitude, act as symbolic mediums who provide us with an understanding of nature’s power and God’s will that we would otherwise not have access to. Such mystical abilities in the old are hauntingly, elegiacally expressed in the poem’s final lines:  “They are not here whose gestures we have known / Their hands in the dusk, their frail hair in the sun.” (ll.19-20)

To read a poem like “Song for September” alongside representative works from Lowell, for instance, or Plath, is a reminder that there was more occurring during the 20th centuries middle decades than Confessionalism. And while Fitzgerald did not produce as prolific and substantive a body of original work as many other major American poets, that is no reason to keep him out of the Poetic Canon: what work he did compose was uniformly excellent, on a par with the poems of his more famous contemporaries.

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