Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Hayden Carruth Offers Homage to Archibald MacLeish

Hayden Carruth

Hayden Carruth (1921–2008) was a very accomplished poet who published not only poetry, but also literary criticism, essays, and a novel. In the Winter 1977 (Volume 53, Issue 1) of The Virginia Quarterly Review, Carruth offered a "Homage to A. MacLeish." In the part of the homage on MacLeish's epic poem, Conquistador, Carruth composes a paragraph that I have broken into six pieces for ease of reading:
What to say of Conquistador, that splendid poem? . . .

One can hardly imagine a more compelling theme for our time, the conquest of Mexico, the confrontation between Cortés and Montezuma, those great men, incorporating everything we have come to feel about the European take-over of America, our pride and its voidance, our helplessness and self-reproach in the face of historical process. And the writing fits the theme; they are welded, they cling together.

Still the poem is flawed. One can see how . . . MacLeish was tempted by the chronicle of Bernal Diaz, the only account of the Spanish expedition possessing contemporary authenticity: there it was, all laid out, the plan and plot of the poem. But in the end MacLeish was hampered by Bernal, who became in the poem only a testy old warrior recalling the exploits of his youth, a tedious narrator.

There is too much description in the poem, not enough drama. I remember reading once a far inferior poem on the same topic in which the poet had chosen Maria for narrator, the remarkable young Indian woman whom Cortés picked up on the coast to serve him as bedmate, guide, and interpreter during the march inland to Tenochtitlán. In her splendid and terrible whoredom - imagine it, her treachery in bed with god - she assumed all our predicaments, moral and psychological, and gave the poem, potentially at least, a genuine dramatic structure.

So I wish MacLeish, in some similar fashion, had been more willing to fictionalize, to mythologize; for isn't that what epic is all about - myth? And do not doubt me, MacLeish was writing the American epic. That is what he had in mind. Epic needs fiction, however, needs myth, and usually a good dose of it, not just history. Does anyone, for example, believe the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon was really that important in the siege of Troy?

Still and all, Conquistador is what we have, it is our best epic, . . . it is coherent, complete, and strongly conceived, and it contains many, many magnificent passages. It merits a good deal more attention than it has been given lately.
Again, I am mining the insights of others to forge my own, for I need to form my image of the man, MacLeish.

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