Richard Gray: On "A Canticle to the Waterbirds"

Everson has favoured such devices as incremental repetition and a paratactic syntax. In his case, though, the poetry that results has a rugged quality to it, an austere intensity. None of his work has the flat speech rhythms that characterise so much contemporary verse. On the contrary, it fluctuates between a long, wavering line that can approach the stillness of a moment of contemplation, and a line that tightens together into an abrupt, insistent rhythmic unit. Whether recording the harsh landscapes of the West Coast and the "wild but earnest" forms of life that inhabit them, or rehearsing more immediately personal experiences of love, religious faith and doubt, his work is notable for a diction that ranges between the brutally simple and the lofty, imagery that can be at once primitive and apocalyptic, frequently incantatory rhythms and a general tone that recalls the work of Robinson Jeffers (a poem to whom Everson has professed an allegiance). "A Canticle to the Waterbirds" is exemplary, in many ways. It opens with an invocation to the birds, inviting them to "make a praise up to the Lord." The Lord they are asked to praise is no gentle Jesus, however, but the creator and overseer of a "mighty fastness", "indeterminate realms" of rock, sea, and sky. And the praise they are asked to give is not so much in the saying as the being. "You leave a silence" the poet declares, "And this for you suffices, who are not of the ceremonials of man". "Yours is of another order of being, and wholly it compels", he goes on, "/ But may you, birds, . . ./ . . ./ Yet . . .teach a man a necessary thing to know." For:

 

God has given you the imponderable grace to

be His verification,

Outside the mulled incertitude of our forensic choices;

That you, our lessers in the rich hegemony of Being,

May serve as testament to what a creature is,

And what creation owes.'

 

What Everson celebrates, in fact, is the capacity these creatures possess for living in the Now; they have none of the human taint of selfconsciousness, no compulsion to look before and after. They act with purity, simplicity, and instinctive courage, as part of the processes of creation. To live beyond evasions and inwardness: this is the lesson taught by the waterbirds. For that matter, it is the lesson taught by Everson's tough yet oracular poetry, which represents a sustained assault on the idea of a separate self - and which is insistently reminding us of "the strict conformity that creaturehood entails, ... the prime commitment all things share'.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Richard Gray: On "A Canticle to the Waterbirds" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Dorothy Parker Criticism Target William Everson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry of the Twentieth Century
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