Steve's Reviews > Blue Juniata: A Life

Blue Juniata by Malcolm Cowley
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's review
Feb 16, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry

Malcolm Cowley is best known these days (if at all) as the chronicler of the Lost Generation, and editorial savior of William Faulkner. His book, Exiles Abroad, provides a good I-Was-There account of the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Pound. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I do remember only being so-so with it. It’s OK, but second tier stuff when compared to Hemingway’s mean but often beautiful Moveable Feast. However, it’s Cowley’s resurrection of Faulkner, in The Portable Faulkner, that fans of American Literature should be most thankful for. If Cowley was a average literary talent, he proved to be a first rate organizer, breaking down Faulkner’s world in such a way that someone new to that difficult but powerful writer, would find the doors to the seemingly impenetrable Yoknapatawpha County flung open.

So, it was with mixed feeling that I picked up Cowley’s Blue Juniata: A Life. I really wasn’t expecting much, but being a Lost Generation junkie, I had to at least give it a shot. I’m glad I did, because the poems were often pleasant surprises. Cowley arranged the collection to mirror his life and its various phases. Kind of like what he did for Faulkner. The results are mixed, but for the most part he pulls it off. For example, in the first section you are introduced to Cowley’s rural Pennsylvania roots. Coal mines and farms and a genuine American landscape are the subjects of most of these poems, and one can see in them why Cowley was the right man for Faulkner.

Interestingly, it’s in these early poems that I detected an original voice. But what follows in many of the following sections is a poet who is overwhelmed by the influence of T.S. Eliot, Pound, and others. But Eliot is the biggest influence. I couldn’t help but think as I read each poem, Prufrock, Sweeney, Baudelaire (via Eliot), and “Cats.” Still, that said, these are often good imitations.

Once you get past these sections, Cowley seems to re-discover his voice again, but in the ominous section titled “Dry Season.” In the intro to this section, Cowley says that life itself was catching up with him, and that as a result the creativity was starting to go. On the contrary, I think once removed from the crowded field of influences, Cowley starts to spread his wings again. One little nasty poem (and Cowley is not a nasty poet), perhaps signals this shift. Then again, just take it as is. I’m sure Hemingway did:


Safe is the man with blunderbuss
who stalks the hippopotamus
on Niger’s bank or scours the veldt
to rape the lion of its pelt;

but deep in peril who sits
at home to rack his lonely wits
and there do battle , grim and blind,
against the jackals of the mind.

I’m kind of reading that as a real F-You to Papa. But marrying up this poem to a specific year (and I’m thinking around the time of Green Hills of Africa, is difficult, since no date is provided. The reason being is that Cowley went back and reworked some of these poems so that they could fit into his larger scheme. Cowley does however provide introductions to each section, so in a broad way you kind of figure out where you’re at on the timeline. Two other poems worth checking out in this section, are “The Lost People” and the weird “Seven.” “Seven” reads like a collaboration between Eliot and Lovecraft . Bizarre fun. In my heart I’ve always felt that T.S. loved the trashy fun stuff.

One exception to the lace of dates, however, is the section titled “The Unsaved World.” These are political poems with dates and a subject – The Spanish Civil War. Political poetry, I think, usually sucks. The poet feels the need to respond, immediately, to some sort of outrage, which to my mind kind of cuts the poet off from the necessary simmering of language. These poems by Cowley however are pretty good. They feel fresh and are powerful. In particular, I really liked “The Last International,” “Tomorrow Morning,” and “The Time of Crossword Puzzles” (a translation?).

The collection’s final section, “The Old Man,” is a good one that is reflective and wise. I highly recommend “The Red Wagon” and “Log in the Current.” All in all a good collection that holds up well, despite the passing of years. There are a number (28!) of Cowley’s poems available online at the Poetry website (see below). Since Cowley reworked the poems in my edition, the poems may have changed a bit.
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