When Edgar Bowers published his Collected Poems in 1997, literary critic Harold Bloom called him “one of the best living American poets these past forty years.”
Although Bowers received the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry, as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships, and though his work was admired and praised by such writers as Yvor Winters, Donald Justice, Richard Howard, Thomas Gunn, and Ted Hughes, he was largely unknown among readers of contemporary poetry. His modest productivity and, according to poet Leon Driskell, compact and rigorous formalism may account for his neglect in a time when confessionalism and poetic informalism were popular.
Life and Career
Bowers was born in 1924 in Rome, Georgia, the son of Grace and William E. Bowers. Although he spent his childhood in various parts of the state, he lived in Decatur during his high school years and graduated from Boys High School in 1941. Bowers earned his B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Stanford University in California, where he studied under the critic and poet Yvor Winters. His education at Stanford was interrupted by service in World War II (1941-45), however, and his experiences in Germany during the war and in the months following are said to have had a significant impact on him.
After returning to America and finishing his degree, Bowers taught at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Harpur College (now the State University of New York at Binghamton) before settling in at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1958, where he spent the remainder of his teaching career as a faculty member in the English department. He was named professor of English in 1967. He retired from teaching in 1991 and moved to San Francisco, where he lived the rest of his life. Bowers’s first book of poems was The Form of Loss (1956), followed by The Astronomers (1965), Living Together: New and Selected Poems (1973), For Louis Pasteur (1989), and Collected Poems (1997).
Bowers’s experience in World War II apparently marked for him the dividing point between the cruel horrors of the modern world and the more humane, less forbidding past, an idea he explored fully in his long poem “John,” which introduces Collected Poems. Bowers’s poems can be described as inward, private meditations on life. He returns repeatedly through his career to a small number of subjects: love, art (especially music), childhood, and World War II. He often draws images from science, especially astronomy, and from nature. His Georgia roots play only a small part in his poetry, though in a few poems he addresses them at length, as in “Elegy: Walking the Line” and “The Mountain Cemetery.” But Bowers does not write regional poetry. His landscape is his own self-consciousness, reveries and meditations on his life, people he has known, places traveled, and deeds accomplished.
Pervasive in Bowers’s work is loss—of the past, of friends, of values, of humanity. He explores this topic in a number of ways and settings. In “Elegy: Walking the Line,” from his 1989 collection For Louis Pasteur, he remembers walking the line of the family property with his father, a nurseryman whose plantings the poem vividly describes. With the exception of his mother, all the family members he names in the poem (reminiscent of poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snow-Bound”) are dead, lost to the past. Their memories, he writes, are “presences like muses, prompting me / In my small study, all listening to the sea, / All of one mind, the true posterity.” In “Ice Ages” he notes the extreme changes brought about by geologic time, which cast all human concerns into a paltry insignificance:
Another poem, “In Defense of Poetry,” focuses more narrowly on changes in the sensibilities of a younger generation, contrasting their superficial lives of material affluence (they “Drive Camrys, drink good wines, play Shostakovich / Or TV news before they go to bed”) against life’s darker realities, such as the German Holocaust.
One of Bowers’s longest poems, “Autumn Shade,” from his second collection, The Astronomers, may be his best, though in some ways it is not wholly representative of his work. “Autumn Shade” is a sequence of ten brief lyrics that meditate, from the poet’s perspective as he lies awake at night, on the meaning and direction of his life. Bowers contrasts his own deeds with those of such mythic heroes as Odysseus and Hercules and contrasts his own aspirations with the realities that have determined and confined his life. Although he understands to an extent the people and the events that have helped make him the person he is, he is uncertain what it all means:
Self-consciously aware of his mortal transience, this fearful uncertainty is the burden of his self-awareness.
Bowers was gay, but his poetry does not call direct attention to the fact. Many of his poems are about love and often seem concerned with individuals from his life; but without knowledge of his sexual preference, readers would be as likely to identify these figures as women as men. Moreover, the concise, carefully worded lines of his poetry tend to conceal references to sexuality. Reading more deeply, one notes how Bowers avoids referring to gender. Some poems reflect more openly on issues of sexuality, such as the late poem “John,” with its references to New Orleans, Louisiana, bathhouses, and a friend’s death from (presumably) AIDS. Bowers’s poetry does not hide his sexuality, but it is, as in all things, circumspect.
Style and Form
The complexity of Bowers’s poems lies in their stylistic concision. When his language grows abstract, his poems increase in difficulty. His occasional tendency to allude to people and events from his own experience without identifying them creates in the reader a sense of detachment, as if, rather than opening himself up, he is holding the reader at a distance, allowing the reader to observe his meditations and thoughts without really sharing them. Most of his poems are relatively short. In his first volume, The Form of Loss, he wrote as a strict formalist, using rhymed lines divided into orderly four- and five-line stanzas. In later volumes he writes in a more open-ended blank-verse style, and he varies the lengths of his poems as well. The emotional tone of his poems grows increasingly less formal, even relaxed, though never lacking in an inward intensity. In his best poems, whether brief lyrics such as “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” longer narrative meditations such as “Elegy: Walking the Line,” or lyric sequences such as “Autumn Shade,” he is an unappreciated master of formalist poetry in its most eloquent mode.