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The Crimson Bookshelf

MAINLAND, by Gilbert Seldes. New York. Charles Scribner's Sons. $3.00. 1936.


WITH paeans of praise from two such distinguished authorities as Stephen Vincent Benet and Archibald MacLeish, James Agee '32, president of the Advocate several years ago, has started forth on his poetic career with this slim volume of his verses. In this little book are presented a varied assortment of lyrics, several long poems, quite a collection of sonnets, and a curious "New Yorker"--like prose "Dedication."

Of all these the long poems are by far the best--in fact head and shoulders above the many sonnets telling of a doubting love, or the lyrics with their transient themes and shifting thought. For the poem "Ann Garner" really does show the "promise" attributed to Agee by Messrs. Benet and MacLeish. In it is a genuine and deep feeling for the story the poet is telling--the story of a lonely woman whose only child was dead at birth. Drawing on his own experience in the Cumberland Mountains, Agee makes a living thing of the feel of the earth, the surge of life awakening in the spring, the warm, rich rain, and the dismal despair of the hopeless winter.

All of these are the factors which make up the life of Ann Garner from the time when her interest in a worldly existence is blotted out by the loss of her child. In describing them Agee is at his best. The verse moves smoothly and well, with no interruption for the rather fine thought of the poem. Here, as in the other long poem, "Epithalamium," Agee's curiously transposed and unusually-used-adjectives do not take away from the lines their meaning. For, in what Mr. MacLeish's introduction describes as "a vocabulary at once personal to the poet and appropriate to the intention", Agee has formed the habit of expressing his individuality by seizing upon adjectives and forcing them to describe objects normally foreign them to describe objects normally foreign to their acquaintance, and that from a most unique place in the poetic line in question.

Certainly it is extremely desirable for Mr. Agee to use striking words rather than trite expressions, but it is very unfortunate that he has allowed this search for the unusual to interfere so greatly with the flow of thought in verse. It is largely the result of this fault that so many of his sonnets strike no note of response in the reader. It is sincerely to be hoped that Mr. Agee's future efforts will turn rather toward a development of the fine imagination and careful verse of "Ann Garner" than to this individualistic mania which threatens to injure this latest of America's "promising" poets.

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