Poetry of Moral Issues
The Moral Circus, by Edwin Honig, Contemporary Poetry, Baltimore, 37pp., $3.00.
Harvard's Edwin Honig is one of many contemporary poets who are also full-time teachers at universities and colleges. As such he is in danger of being labeled and passed off as just another member of a group in whose work readers of poetry have come to expect generally good craftsmanship, an unusual precision of language, and disappointingly little in the way of content. In the most important respect, however, Honig breaks this pattern; his poems are indeed characterized by the precision of the scholar, but they try to be serious comments on matters of unusually basic importance. The title of his recently published volume, The Moral Circus, is indicative of this intention.
In these poems, Honig most often adopts a position of removal from the subject he is treating, so that even his description of a very personal incident in "Do You Love Me?" combines dispassion with its emotional impact: ". . . Her dying sigh denies/The quiet settling idly on/His polished shoe. One blunt toe/Gleams back a flawless eye at him/As he dangles from the sigh." The poet reports single acts or aspects of the circus: the morality or the moral are implicit in the way he sees them and transmits them to the reader. And it is at this point that Honig the poet becomes important.
It is fortunate, therefore, this his linguistic precision does not result in the sort of dryness or lifelessness which is often associated with the work of contemporary academic poets. This is no doubt partly because his facility with language and prosody allow him to fit the words and form of the individual poem to its subject in the light in which he sees it, where less gifted or skilled poets would find their expression cramped by a self-imposed strictness in form and diction. A comparison of two passages, one from "First Morning," and the other from "Corrida," shows this flexibility:
Nude and tall the morning sang
The clammy beach, the rustling foam;
Striped green and tan
The morning swam
The rustling air, the ravelling sand.
The silence of lover to lover, the world to be lost.
Government, race, and universe caught
On the lash of an eye, a flick of the wrist,
Before the tiny new opening rose of death.
There is an essential, stripped-down--quality to Honig's poetry; it is clean of superfluities, nothing is overstated. Thus, without feeling any emotionalism in the author, the reader is aroused and given the mood in a few, terse lines. The poet does not often stop even to arrange a setting, but cuts immediately to the important question at hand, the particular act in the moral circus.
The most important thing about Honig's skill as a poet is that it is unobtrustive. He cannot afford to let flights of technical proficiency distract his readers from the spectacles of the moral circus that he is showing them, and so he keeps himself the lens through which they observe. When he distorts it is to clarify or magnify the hidden part in which he feels the meaning lies, never to call direct attention to his own feelings or flaunt stylistic achievement. In this record of the greatest show on earth the poet breaks his reserve only to let a little wryness creep into certain turns of phrase, sudden words that seem to betray a tiny, noncommital wrinkle at the corner of the mouth. But this is an individuality which does not mar the observational clarity of the poems.
Honig's willingness to treat the carnival of humanity on a moral level and his remarkable wit and facility in doing so give his poems a strange quality that is at once disturbing, provocative, and entertaining. They are not more exercises with words and meanings, nor are they pedogogical recitals of moral truth. They are experience, and like all things true their connotations are deep, direct, and mysterious.