The name of Edgar Bowers is rarely included in the firmament of top 20th-century American poets. Yet Bowers, PhD ’53, received the prestigious Bollingen Prize in 1989, which puts him squarely in the constellation of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden and Robert Frost. He had a distinguished if small coterie of fans in his lifetime—and still does, three years after his death, judging from a Bowers conference and exhibition held last spring at UCLA, home of his archives.
Why the obscurity? For one thing, his output was small in an era favoring rampant productivity. (His Collected Poems is 168 pages.) Though sociable, he neither strove for celebrity nor flattered his peers. “He wrote, as many great poets always have, without hope of commercial success or even recognition,” says San Francisco poet Suzanne Doyle, MA ’77. “He wrote because it was the way he lived most fully.” Bowers himself used to say that a poet is only a poet when writing a poem.
There are other reasons. His poems—“austere, quiet, indestructible as an Alp,” in the words of former U.S. poet laureate Anthony Hecht—are often allusive and difficult. Joshua Mehigan, a New York poet and teacher, says Bowers was “a hopeless square, a subtle-minded rationalist” who “showed clear hints of a complex personal ideology in a time of nebulous or simplistic relativism.”
Los Angeles poet Leslie Monsour points out another whammy. Bowers taught at UC-Santa Barbara for more than 30 years and spent his final decade in San Francisco, in a nation whose literary world remains decidedly skewed to the East Coast. “Had Robert Frost remained in his home state of California instead of establishing himself as a New England poet, who knows what would have become of his work?”
Bowers’s personal habits were as unassuming as his life. He threw away many of his books, along with marginalia revealing his thinking and tastes. And he was careless with his papers. His literary executor, Joshua Odell, recalls an occasion when Bowers was cooking a favorite dish, linguine in a white wine and clam sauce, from a recipe out of a fireman’s cookbook.
“I can still remember my amazement when Edgar asked me to pull the cookbook off the shelf as he was busy slicing the green peppers and singing ‘Figaro.’ Carefully filed away in the cookbook was a beautiful typed letter from Robert Lowell praising ‘Autumn Shade,’ congratulating him on the publication of The Astronomers, and inviting him to dinner in Boston.”
Odell later recounted the incident to a mutual friend, who tipped him off: “Check out Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It has a letter from Yvor Winters from way back!” Both letters, rescued from their respective cookbooks, were displayed under glass in the ucla exhibit. (An online version continues at www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/special/scweb/bowers.htm.)
“You are quite different from anyone in your generation,” the preeminent poet Lowell had written in his 1964 letter. “What’s best, quite unique I think, and quite enviable to another poet is the clear fineness of the blank verse,” he said. “I hardly see how one could ask for more . . . a long and high tradition of technique and contemplation speaks, and speaks with surprising certainty.” And from the formidable poet and critic Winters in 1956: “It’s a very impressive book,” he wrote of The Form of Loss. “I hope a few people are impressed.”
A few people have been. In 1999, critic Harold Bloom called him “one of the best living American poets these last forty years.”
Bowers’s upbringing was modest. He was born in Rome, Ga., in 1924, and spent a peripatetic childhood throughout the South. The family eventually returned to Georgia. On 90 acres near Stone Mountain, they raised and sold azaleas, camellias, daphnes and—a first in that part of the South—rhododendrons. The setting figures in such poems as “The Mountain Cemetery.”
The rhododendrons suffer with the bees
Whose struggles loose ripe petals to the earth,
The heaviest burden it shall ever bear.
World War II was a crucible for Bowers, interrupting his studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, weeks shy of his 19th birthday. He attended Army basic training and nearly became a chaplain’s assistant because he could play the piano. In training for counterintelligence, he studied French at Princeton for several months. The friendships he formed there proved some of the most significant of his life.
As the war deepened, however, Bowers’s academic idyll was interrupted; he was sent abroad as a French interpreter. He traveled through France and Germany, where the Allies had been “bombing to rubble cities with textbook names,” in his words. His unit moved from one fine German home to another, displacing owners to conduct counterintelligence activities. For 10 months, he was posted at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
The war and its ethical concerns underpin Bowers’s poems, typically in haunting references and asides. “In Defense of Poetry,” for example, alludes to Polish writer Janusz Korczak. When the Germans ordered him to assemble the 200 destitute children in his famous orphanage, he refused to exempt himself and led the children through the ghetto to the train that would take them all to Treblinka. In the poem, Bowers recalls seeing actor Frederick March playing Mr. Hyde, which tormented him as a child, even at school among his teachers:
I heard the voice that mocked them. ‘There is no
Language,’ it whispered, ‘no A on tests, no trust
To keep you from the presence of my face.
Parents and children die, anguish will be
Greater than its hard sum and no familiar
Voices deliver you from Mr. Hyde,
However Dr. Jekyll seem secure.’
The scene shifts itself to adulthood, among colleagues who “drive Camrys, drink good wines, play Shostakovich/Or TV news before they go to bed . . . .”
But when my mind remembers, unamused
It pictures Korczak going with his children
Through Warsaw to the too substantial train.
After the war, Bowers came to Stanford to study with Winters, whose In Defense of Reason (1947) inspired him. Bowers ambushed the elder poet-critic in a hallway; Winters accepted him into his class without seeing a single poem and with nothing to recommend him except his “desire and quaint opinions.” After listening indulgently, Winters conceded simply, “All right. You look intelligent.”
In a 1984 address, Bowers described his classroom experience with Winters. “The poem itself began to take on the characteristics of the class. Our demands of each other; our intolerance of the ‘good enough’; our insistence on better argument, better meter, better speech, better unnamables; our resistances to erasure and our defenses of the poem as it already was; our cooperation with the poem’s seeming readiness to change—all these produced, at last, the voice of the poem in its own right . . . its own demand that it be alive and just. Come on, learn good habits, it would say, so you won’t regret me by the time Arthur [Winters] reads me or whoever reads me. Stay awake, erase me, look for me, find me.”
Bowers died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in February 2000. His posthumous reputation shows early signs of a slow but steady rise. He has been anthologized more frequently in recent years, and his poems are beginning to surface more regularly on the Internet. More importantly, some prominent members of the literary establishment rank him highly.
“He’s not a Billy Collins—and he never will be,” says Los Angeles poet Kevin Durkin, curator for the recent exhibition. “He is a choice, favorite poet among connoisseurs. A ‘poet’s poet’ is such a cliché, and he’s not merely that. I think, though, that he does appeal to a knowledgeable reader.”
Some lines Bowers wrote for his fallen comrades in World War II might serve as his own epitaph:
Like none before, never to be again,
And see in them a cause for the belief
That nature loves too well the soul it makes
Willingly to let it pass away forever.Bowers may bypass the usual purgatory that awaits poetic reputations after death. It’s too soon to tell. But the affable poet, who rarely gave readings, might have been amused at the rumblings of a posthumous fame.
CYNTHIA HAVEN is a Northern California writer and editor.