I'm currently reading The Mountain Men
, being an omnibus of the first half of John Neihardt
's self-conscious epic of the westward expansion, A Cycle of the West
. As you might guess from the title, this is technically a sequence (of five poems), covering events from the first Ashley-Henry expedition to Wounded Knee. This is a program I have some sympathy for, so I regret to report it's not a success. It's not exactly bad
poetry -- but it doesn't really work.
Unlike most bad poets, Neihardt isn't deaf, or at least not to sound -- lines rarely clunk, though not as many sing as he seems to think. No one with enough control to break couplets across all chapter breaks and between most verse paragraphs is entirely deaf. But he is tone-deaf. An example would explain better. From the description of Mike Fink, the riverboatman of folklore:
They say his voice could glorify a song,
However loutish might the burden be;
And all the way from Pittsburgh to the sea
The Rabelaisian stories of the rogue
Ran wedded to the richness of his brogue.
And wheresoever boatmen came to drink,
There someone broached some escapade of Fink
That might well fill the goat-hoofed with delight;
For Mike, the pantagruelizing wight,
Was happy in the health of bone and brawn
And had the code of conscience of the faun
To guide him blithely down the easy way.
A questionable hero, one might say:
And so indeed, by any civil law.
And yet it's a remarkably civil description. We have here a massive disjoint between manner and matter. And it's like this all the way through. This is what I meant by a self-conscious epic. The Matter of The West can be turned to epic poetry -- see Michael Lind's The Alamo
, for one -- but not by elevating the diction. The way is by treating seriously the adventure yarns of larger-than-life heroes,* and let the epic come through as a matter of course.
Which brings me to the other major problem, which is that Neihardt isn't much of a yarn-spinner. In "The Song of the Three Friends," we travel 10 pages up the Missouri to near the Platte before we're introduced to the titular three, whereupon all forward motion stops for pages of descriptions (more than 50 lines are spent admiring Mike Fink's physique), after which we return to a sort of corporate POV for the expedition. No immediacy, wonky pacing, and, despite a talent for startling compressed images,** no verve.
Neither of these is an insurmountable flaw. Together, though, the going is almost as rough the wagon trail from Fort Laramie to the Salt Lake.
* Being careful, of course, not to slip into the voice of tall tales.
** Such as Iseult's reflection in "the contemplated cup of everlasting thirst." Not that she belongs in an Indian village in the Black Hills.