On Robert Conquest's "Collected Poems"

SOME WRITERS LAY undisputed claim to a territory, geographical and otherwise, and thus discourage rivals from trespassing. Early 20th-century Alexandria, Egypt, belongs to Cavafy. Dublin, Ireland, of course, is Joyce’s; as Albany, New York, is William Kennedy’s. The coastal region of Liguria in Northwestern Italy is inarguably Eugenio Montale’s proprietary realm; its sea and sunlight are his. In his first collection, the commonsensically titled Poems (1955), Robert Conquest included “A Problem,” six eight-line stanzas opening with “Liguria tingles with peculiar light. / The sea and sky exchange their various blues.” What follows reads, at first, like a linguistically sophisticated travel brochure: sun, rocks, dry weeds, the sea. Then Conquest opens the aperture wider and launches his challenge to Montale: “And here / Man might, as well as anywhere, / Combine his landscapes and philosophies.” The next stanza and a half return to the painterly mode, followed by this:

          Where wood and sea and sky and hill
Give static broad simplicities, its course
          At once more complex and more simple
          Appears to thought as an example,
Like the complex, simple movement of great verse.

And there we have, in its oxymoronic purity, a poetic credo. Verse is “complex, simple,” which might be interpreted as antimodernist defiance — metrically sophisticated, rhymed, rationally comprehensible, with no wooing of incoherence. In short, poetry that nonpoets might enjoy as they once did Tennyson and Frost. Did Conquest have Montale in mind when writing “A Problem”? For all I know, he never heard of the Italian master. The point is that from the start Conquest was a confident cosmopolitan, as a historian ought to be. Among his recurrent themes are love and sex, science and poetry. The verse — Conquest’s preferred usage — in Collected Poems, edited by his widow Elizabeth Conquest, some 60 years of it, is vast and various in every sense. Conquest is that rare sort of poet who might take anything as his subject matter. Without being shrill or resorting to bumper sticker message-mongering, Conquest is a poet of the people, or at least of that portion who read poems for pleasure. In The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2004), he writes:

Literature exists for the ordinary educated man, and any literature that actively requires enormous training can be at best of only peripheral value. Moreover, such a mood in literature produces the specialist who only knows about literature. The man who only knows about literature does not know even about literature.

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