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A poet's life that's worth resurrecting

When Edwin Arlington Robinson died in 1935, critics and readers alike praised him. But with time's passage, much had been lost.

A Poet's Life

By Scott Donaldson

Columbia University Press.

553 pp. $34.95

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Reviewed by Patrick Kurp

Like many readers of a certain age, I first learned of Edwin Arlington Robinson not in the classroom, but by way of Simon and Garfunkel.

A solemnly earnest arrangement of his "greatest hit" from 1897, "Richard Cory," appeared on Sounds of Silence, the duo's 1966 album, and the melodrama of the final lines impressed my adolescent sensibility. It also left me with the unearned conviction that Robinson was a hack, a sort of O. Henry in verse. I was wrong about Robinson and O. Henry, and I was wrong about "Richard Cory."

In his loving reclamation of Robinson's literary reputation, Edward Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life, Scott Donaldson addresses Simon's rewrite of Robinson's poem:

The character of Richard Cory is sketched impressionistically in the poem. Robinson furnishes no concrete information about his occupation or family. When Paul Simon rewrote the poem for his 1960s song, he decided to give Robinson's shadowy character greater definition.

That's Donaldson's tactful way of saying Simon padded Robinson's poem to thicken the irony and heighten its palatability for a pop audience. Donaldson, who has written biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish and John Cheever, sets out to rescue Robinson from his detractors and his admirers alike.

At the time of his death in 1935, Robinson was the nation's preeminent poet. He and his contemporary, Robert Frost, are the only three-time recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Critics and readers adored him - a convergence soon to become, with the ascension of literary modernism and the academy, almost impossible.

Born in 1869, Robinson pioneered a verse free of archaisms, dismissive of Victorian pieties, and rooted in the lives of ordinary people. "Poetry is a language," he said, "that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said." Never aligned with a school or movement, very much an American loner, Robinson challenged the reigning genteel tradition in poetry as Theodore Dreiser, two years younger than Robinson, did in the novel. This is from Robinson's sonnet "Zola":

Because he puts the compromising chart

Of hell before your eyes, you are afraid;

Because he counts the price that you have paid

For innocence, and counts it from the start,

You loathe him.

Unlike such younger contemporaries as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Robinson remained faithful to traditional poetic forms. Few poets have written so many sonnets. His early poems are composed in rhyme and meter, and they remain his finest work. His later, longer and, frankly, drearier work relies on blank verse. He is among the last poets never to have written in free verse.

Editors and critics were slow to embrace Robinson's work. He showed little interest in nature, the darling of the Romantics and their descendants, and between 1894 and 1905 Robinson didn't sell a single poem to a magazine. A two-page review of The Children of the Night, written by, of all people, President Theodore Roosevelt, boosted Robinson's almost nonexistent career.

Born to a wealthy family in Maine, Robinson identified himself from childhood as a poet and seemed qualified to do little else except drink, though eventually he gave that up. In the sonnet "George Crabbe," Robinson composed a sort of epitaph for himself:

Whether or not we read him, we can feel

From time to time the vigor of his name

Against us like a finger for the shame

And emptiness of what our souls reveal

In books that are as altars where we kneel

To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.

Doubtless, unreconstructed Freudians will revel in Robinson's drinking, his bachelorhood, his gloominess, his visits to brothels, even his perennial constipation. Donaldson dutifully chronicles the poet's efforts to unseize his bowels, including his use of Swiss Kriss, his "elixir for life," much favored by Louis Armstrong.

Donaldson's research is prodigious. His prose is often graceless, but never less than serviceable. Donaldson's words, like his subject's, are always heartfelt: "This book derives from the conviction that Edward Arlington Robinson was a great American poet and an exceptionally fine human being. The story of his life deserves telling and has not been told."