James Agee: Selected Poems

As Andrew Hudgins notes in his introduction to Selected Poems, James Agee’s poetry spotlights a landscape in which "the public has become personal, and the poet accepts, because he has to, the burden of history, human nature, and the Christian mythos as his own." Indeed, a palpable tension permeates almost every page of Agee’s poetry: that of a man struggling to locate himself as both American and human, as both Christian and poet. In the first of a sequence of twenty-five poems, titled "Sonnets," Agee wrote:

So it begins. Adam is in his earth
Tempted, and fallen, and his doom made sure
Oh, in the very instant of his birth:
Whose deathly nature must all things endure.

One cannot help but notice the influence of a poem like Milton’s "Nativity Ode" on Agee, as here too the poet positioned himself outside of time in order to articulate man’s place within it. However, for all his Miltonic weight, Agee’s poetry bristles with a language that is equal parts high and American colloquial. He sought, as Frost sought before him, to find a place for American vernaculars in the iambic line.

As much as Agee accepted history, human nature, and Christianity as his own, he accepted that tackling these subjects in poetry requires more than just charity and tenderness of voice. A poet who aspired to encompass a multitude of modes and traditions, Agee’s refusal to censor the cynicism, joy, restlessness, and desolation of these voices allows his poetry to function as both public and personal.

This book review originally appeared in American Poets.