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Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems

Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems

by William Meredith

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Winner, 1997 National Book Award for Poetry

A contemporary of Berryman, Bishop, and Lowell, William Meredith shared neither the bohemian excesses of the Beats nor the exhibitionist excesses of the "confessional" poets. Rather, he was known as a poet whose unadorned, formal verse marked him as a singular voice. Effort at Speech, the definitive collection of


Winner, 1997 National Book Award for Poetry

A contemporary of Berryman, Bishop, and Lowell, William Meredith shared neither the bohemian excesses of the Beats nor the exhibitionist excesses of the "confessional" poets. Rather, he was known as a poet whose unadorned, formal verse marked him as a singular voice. Effort at Speech, the definitive collection of Meredith's life work, contains poems chosen by the author from throughout his career, as well as several new works and an essay by Michael Collier placing Meredith in his times.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"For the past 45 years [Meredith] has looked generously and hard at our common human world. . . . William Meredith's work suggests that we can recognize the hardest truths about ourselves and still live in the world." —New York Times Book Review

"When you finish this book by Meredith, you have a strong sense of the man who wrote it, of a life well-lived." —Poetry

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This trove of old and new Meredith is a medic's kit for the tired at heart. The earlier poemsstarting with selections from Love Letter from an Impossible Land, his 1944 first book that took the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, and continuing up through The Wreck of the Thresher (1964)are as subtle as aspirin. So easily digestible in their precise meter and perfectly tuned end-rhyme, their power goes virtually unnoticed until the reader lifts his eyes from the page to find himself moved, affected. In work inspired by the poet's service at sea during WWII, devastation comes on the hushed waves of sonnets: "This is a stuff that cannot come to rest/ For it owns ties to heaven and to the ground;/ While there are achings in the lodestone flesh/ Still will the quick move out and the dead move down." The poems in the book's latter half (1970-1987) find formalism surrendering some ground to free verse as Meredith attempts to salve not the sharp pains of war but the blunted ache of aging"But the clock goes off, If you have a dog/ It wags, if you get up now you'll be less/ Late"and the absence of such fallen comrades as Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and John Berryman. (June)
Adam Kirsch
A chronicle of a maturing intelligence as it attempts to come to terms with its life and times. -- Adam Kirsch, The Boston Phoenix

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Effort at Speech

New and Selected Poems

By William Meredith

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 1997 William Meredith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-5071-3


From Love Letter from an Impossible Land (1944)

    A Kodiak Poem

    Precipitous is the shape and stance of the spruce
    Pressed against the mountains in gestures of height,
    Pleasing to Poussin the white, repetitious peaks.

    Fonder mountains surely curl around your homeland,
    Fondle the home farms with a warmer green;
    Follow these hills for cold only, or for fool's gold.

    Easy winds sweep lengthwise along the known places,
    Essay brittle windows and are turned away;
    Eskimo houses had seal-gut windows that the east wind drummed.

    A fish people now, once fur hunters and fierce,
    Fire-needing, they buried their dead with faggots,
    And when a man went to their hell, he froze.

    Remembering the lands before but much more real,
    Look where aloft, you cannot say how except rarely,
    The raven, rich in allusion, rides alone.

    In Memoriam Stratton Christensen

    Laughing young man and fiercest against sham,
    Then you have stayed at sea, at feckless sea,
    With a single angry curiosity
    Savoring fear and faith and speckled foam?
    A salt end to what was sweet begun:
    Twenty-four years and your integrity
    And already a certain number touched like me
    With a humor and a hardness from the sun.

    Without laughter we have spent your wit
    In an unwitnessed fight at sea, perhaps not won,
    And whether wisely we will never know;
    But like Milton's friend's, to them that hear of it,
    Your death is a puzzler that will tease them on
    Reckless out on the thin, important floe.

    Navy Field

    Limped out of the hot sky a hurt plane,
    Held off, held off, whirring pretty pigeon,
    Hit then and scuttled to a crooked stop.
    The stranger pilot who emerged — this was the seashore,
    War came suddenly here — talked to the still mechanics
    Who nodded gravely. Flak had done it, he said,
    From an enemy ship attacked.
    They wheeled it with love
    Into the dark hangar's mouth and tended it.
    Coffee and cake for the pilot then who sat alone
    In the restaurant, reading the numbered sheets
    That tell about weather.
    After, toward dusk,
    Mended the stranger plane went back to the sky.
    His curly-headed picture, and mother's and medal's pictures
    Were all we knew of him after he rose again,
    Those few electric jewels against the moth and whining sky

    Myself, Rousseau, a Few Others

    From the boy's identification
    The playground difference functions,
    And hesitancy here
    Marks surely as tow hair
    Or unnatural height from glands,
    Sets the peculiar bonds.

    The earliest comparing
    Disclosed the need for choosing,
    Where the rest played and fought;
    Even the collective sport
    Became only imitation
    Of others' spontaneous action.

    Choosing is the full-grown gland
    Yet to tell it to most were unkind
    (Like the off-color joke
    Told to a hunchback),
    Provoking a desire
    For what they cannot share.

    This is the daily luxury
    Which alone can rouse us early
    And kisses us off to work;
    And to this at night
    We return with promises
    Until the last choice passes.

    A Metaphysical Sonnet

    More concert than the quick have, have the dead
    Whose centripetal journeys are as one,
    While we yearn to the several quarters of the sun,
    And the moon besides, and the stars, are in our heads.

    And how do we follow whither we are led?
    Not like the dead, whom gravity alone
    Moves as a unit, heart and hand and tongue,
    But partially, now this, now that ahead:
    Against the thing not willed, the act is done,
    Against the thing undone, the words are said.

    This is a stuff that cannot come to rest
    For it owns ties to heaven and to the ground;
    While there are achings in the lodestone flesh
    Still will the quick move out and the dead move down.

    Winter Song

    Of course across the winter wood
    Love comes through the branches;
    Cold converts from soft to hard
    And ache and chirp the birches.

    But still the sky comes on and still
    The water smiles regardless
    As it holds arrested in the well
    Like a rich woman, childless.

    Winter love is love at sight
    With no thing carried over,
    Each in the white sufficient light
    Has looked upon the other;

    And who would wish the wood to Spring?
    Summer spoil the season!
    Love in the winter wood has stung
    And stiffens like a poison.

    Quartet in F Major

    Great Beethoven, you trouble me this watchful night
    singing again again how sweet it is
    this freedom, how wild it is this fight,
    singing how cunning are these enemies.

    Like a white northland, icy-white and flying
    are the aspirations that scrape these chill strings,
    and are not tune nor harmony nor a wild sighing,
    but strings only that hope, having known singing.

    Taut strings, by whom were you taught this wisdom
    that returns on itself with such insistence
    and urges love and singing for a kingdom?
    I have heard the single answer of the instruments:
    Beethoven, Beethoven only among ghosts
    instructs the four strings, haunts my night-strange post.

    Notes for an Elegy

    The alternative to flying is cowardice,
    And what is said against it excuses, excuses;
    Its want was always heavy in those men's bodies
    Who foresaw it in some detail; and failing that,
    The rest were shown through its skyey heats and eases
    In sleep, awoke uncertain whether their waking cry
    Had been falling fear only, or love and falling fear.
    When the sudden way was shown, its possibility
    In terms of the familiar at last shown,
    (How absurdly simple the principle after all!)
    Any tyrant should have sensed it was controversial:
    Instrument of freedom; rights, not Wrights;
    Danger should never be given out publicly.
    The men could easily have been disposed of,
    They and their fragile vehicle. Then the sky
    Would perhaps have darkened, earth shaken, nothing more.
    In practice the martyrdom has been quiet, statistical,
    A fair price. This is what airmen believe.

    The transition to battle was smooth from here.
    Who resents one bond resents another,
    And who has unshouldered earth-restraining hand
    Is not likely to hear out more reasonable tyrannies.

    The woods where he died were dark even at sunup,
    Oak and long-needle pine that had come together
    Earlier, and waited for the event at the field's edge.
    At sunset when the sky behind was gay
    One had seen the lugubrious shapes of the trees,
    Bronze and terrible, but had never known the reason,
    Never thought they were waiting for someone in particular.
    They took him at night, when they were at their darkest.

    How they at last convinced him is not known:
    The crafty engine would not fall for their softness,
    (Oh, where were you then, six hundred cunning horses?)
    In the end it had tom hungrily through the brush
    To lie alone in the desired clearing. Nor the wings;
    (And you, with your wide silver margin of safety?)
    They were for the field, surely, where they so often
    Had eased their load to ground. No, the invitation
    Must have been sent to the aviator in person:
    Perhaps a sly suggestion of carelessness,
    A whispered invitation perhaps to death.

    He was not badly disfigured compared to some,
    But even a little stream of blood where death is
    Will whimper across a forest floor,
    Run through that whole forest shouting.

    Him now unpersoned, warm, and quite informal,
    Dead as alive, raise softly sober interns;
    Lift gently, God, this wholly airborne one.
    Leads out all his life to this violent wood.
    Note that he had not fought one public battle,
    Met any fascist with his skill, but died
    As it were in bed, the waste conspicuous;
    This is a costly wreck and costly to happen on:
    Praise and humility sound through its siren shrieks,
    And dedication follows in car.

    The morning came up foolish with pink clouds
    To say that God counts ours a cunning time,
    Our losses part of an old secret, somehow no loss.

    June: Dutch Harbor
    To Charles Shain

    In June, which is still June here, but once removed
    From other Junes, chill beardless high-voiced cousin season,
    The turf slides grow to an emerald green.
    There between the white-and-black of the snow and ash,
    Between the weak blue of the rare sky
    Or the milkwhite languid gestures of the fog,
    And the all-the-time wicked terminal sea,
    There, there, like patches of green neon,
    See it is June with the turf slides.

    Where the snow streams crease the fields darkly
    The rite of flowers is observed, and because it is a new land
    There is no great regard to precedent:
    Violets the size of pansies, the huge anemone,
    Sea-wishing lupine that totters to the brink;
    Others are: wild geranium, flag, cranberry, a kind of buttercup.
    In the morning sandpipers stumble on the steel mats,
    Sparrows sing on the gun, faraway eagles are like eagles.
    On the map it says, The Entire Aleutian Chain Is a Bird Sanctuary,
    And below, Military Reservation: This Airspace To Be Flown Over
    Only by Authority of the Secretary of the Navy.

    Fly just above the always-griping sea
    That bitches at the bitter rock the mountains throw to it,
    Fly there with the permission — subject always to revoke —
    Of the proper authorities,
    Under the milkwhite weaving limbs of the fog,
    Past the hurriedly erected monuments to you,
    Past the black and past the very green.

    But for your car, jeweled and appointed all for no delight,
    But for the strips that scar the islands that you need,
    But for your business, you could make a myth.
    Though you are drawn by a thousand remarkable horses
    On fat silver wings with a factor of safety of four,
    And are sutured with steel below and behind and before,
    And can know with your fingers the slightest unbalance of forces,
    Your mission is smaller than Siegfried's, lighter than Tristan's,
    And there is about it a certain undignified haste.
    Even with flaps there is a safe minimum;
    Below that the bottom is likely to drop out.

    Some of the soldiers pressed flowers in June, indicating faith;
    The one who knew all about birds spun in that month.
    It is hard to keep your mind on war, with all that green.

    For Air Heroes

    I sing them spiraling in flame,
    Them gliding, all fuel spent,
    Checked by no opening silk plume:
    The dedicated and the dead,
    Themselves quite lost,
    Articulate at last;

    Sing them telling what they meant,
    No small repeated dream,
    As public and grandiose their want
    As their last lowering scene:
    Burning, dropping host,
    Articulate at last;

    And sing them making purchases
    Beyond our furthest means,
    Themselves the greatly valued pledges;
    Oh, let the contract somehow be redeemed!
    They speak for most,
    Articulate at last.

    Airman's Virtue
    After Herbert

    High plane for whom the winds incline,
    Who own but to your own recall,
    There is a flaw in your design
    For you must fall.

    High cloud whose proud and angry stuff
    Rose up in heat against earth's thrall,
    The nodding law has time enough
    To wait your fall.

    High sky, full of high shapes and vapors,
    Against whose vault nothing is tall,
    It is written that your torch and tapers
    Headlong shall fall.

    Only an outward-aching soul
    Can hold in high disdain these ties
    And fixing on a farther pole
    Will sheerly rise.

    Ten-Day Leave
    To my parents

    House that holds me, household that I hold dear,
    Woman and man at the doorway, come what will
    Hospitable, more than you know I enter here,
    In retreat, in laughter, in the need of your love still.

    More perhaps than you fancy, fancy finds
    This room with books and answers in the walls;
    I have continual reference to the lines
    I learned here early, later readings false.

    More than you dream, I wake from a special dream
    To nothing but remorse for miles around,
    And steady my bed at this unchanging scene
    When the changing dogs dispute a stranger town.

    Oh, identity is a traveling-piece with some,
    But here is what calls me, here what I call home.


Excerpted from Effort at Speech by William Meredith. Copyright © 1997 William Meredith. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William Morris Meredith, Jr. (January 9, 1919 – May 30, 2007) was an American poet and educator. He was Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1978 to 1980.

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