Louis Untermeyer, ed. (18851977). Modern American Poetry. 1919.
"AMERICA'S poetic renascence" is no longer a phrase; it is a fact. The last few decades have witnessed a sudden and amazing growth in the volume as well as in the quality of the work of our poets. A new spirit, energetic, alert, penetrative, seems to have stirred these states, and a countryful of writers has responded to it. No longer confined to one or two literary centers, the impulse to create is everywhere; there is scarcely a remote corner which has not produced its laureate.
It must be made plain, however, that not even the most ardent admirers of modern American poetry believe that the new poets are the only poets that we have produced, or that they are necessarily greater than the old. What they do believe is this: that the modern poets are different and must be granted their own points of difference. Times change and tastes change with them. The old-fashioned mythological verses and the excellent but too often merely moralizing poems of the immediate past could not be written to-day. Walt Whitman, with his emphasis on the beauty that lurks in familiar things and his insistence on the "divine average," was the greatest of the moderns who showed the grandeur of simplicity, the rich poetry of everyday. "The cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue," he wrote; he declared that "a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars," and that the common "running blackberry is fit to adorn the parlors of heaven."
Many, though not all of the poets that have succeeded Whitman have found a fresh, living and vigorous poetry in a world of honest and sometimes harsh reality. They respond to the spirit of their times. The singer to-day writes about things unknown to the poet of yesterday. Not only has his view been changed, his vision has widened. He can employ any incident, any subject, instead of being restricted to legendary, classical or traditionally "poetic" themes. In learning to distinguish real beauty from mere prettiness, he is expressing the deepest aspects of life and, in so doing, he is recording not, as has been charged, "more truth than poetry" but more truth and poetry.
An editorial in the conservative New York Times, which has been none too hospitable to innovators, declared a few months ago, "The so-called society-verse, the didactic rhyme, the musical love-poem that pleased mainly because, in language and sentiment, it was so remote from everyday, prosaic experience, has lost in popularitysuperseded, apparently, by a poetry that delights in searching for stronger beauty and in portraying rugged realities."
With the choice of more familiar subjects there has come a further simplification:the use of a simpler and less stilted language. The rare or rhetorical words have been practically discarded in favor of words that are part of our daily vocabulary; actual speech instead of ornate literary phrasing has become the medium of the modern poet. The "peradventures," "forsooths," "alackadays" and "O thous" have gone. His language, that used to be borrowed almost exclusively from literature, comes now almost entirely out of life. And as his speech has grown less elaborate, so have the forms that embody it. The intricate versification has given way to lines that reflect and suggest the tones of direct talk, even of ordinary conversation. The result of this has been a great gain both in sincerity and intensity; for it has enabled the poet of to-day to put greater emphasis on his emotion than on the shell that covers ithe dwells with richer detail on the matter than the manner.
These changes can be easily seen and studied in the work of most of our recent and particularly our contemporary makers of verse. Notice, for instance, in the direct but fully-flavored blank verse of Robert Frost, how the words are so chosen and arranged that the speaker is almost heard on the printed page. Observe how, beneath these native sounds, we hear the accents of his people walking the New England farms and hillsides. Listen to Vachel Lindsay and catch with him the buoyant and even burly music of camp-meetings, negro "revivals" and religious gatherings. Read him aloud, and hear how his words roll with the solemnity of a great prayer or snap, crackle, wink and dance with all the humorous rhythms of a piece of "rag-time." Note how, in the work of E. L. Masters, the author explores the borderland between poetry and prose. Or listen to the quiet but deeply-moving singing of James Oppenheim, music of a biblical quality, like mystical modern psalms. Hear how, without rhyme or a strict rhythm, Carl Sandburg makes little melodies that are sheer music and how, by combining vision with the simplest talk (even with slang), he achieves magic. Examine the delicate verbal designs in the almost carved lines of Emily Dickinson, "H. D.," Adelaide Crapsey.
And, on the other hand, turn to those who, by adapting and sharpening old forms, are no less original. Notice how Edwin Arlington Robinson uses the strictest rhymes and most conventional metres and, by the use of a subtle intellect and even subtler sympathy, makes them more "modern" than the freest free-verse. Examine the homely and mystical verses of Anna Hempstead Branch. Read the outspoken lyrics of Sara Teasdale and see how frank and straightforward these lines are, how different from either the tinkling or over-sentimental love-songs that passed for genuine emotion. Observe how breezy, spirited and full of the tang of native sounds and scenes are the songs of Richard Hovey, Bliss Carman, James Whitcomb Riley, H. H. Knibbs, the two Benéts and a half a dozen others.
Study the highly decorative poetry of Amy Lowell; see how she has responded to Oriental and French influences and how she has incorporated them in her work with a touch entirely her own. Witness how, even in the light verses of Paul Laurence Dunbar and T. A. Daly, there is dignity as well as humor; how in their use of dialect, they have emphasized, paradoxical as it may seem, an American qualityparticularly the fusion of native and foreign tongues and temperaments. Even our deprecated "comic newspaper poetry" has taken on something of a native character; nothing is more remarkable than the rising standards in our satirical and frankly humorous verse.
I will not go into greater detail concerning the growth of an American spirit in our literature nor point out how, in many of the poems in the present collection, the authors have responded to indigenous forces deeper than their backgrounds. I will, however, call attention in passing to the fact that, young as this nation is compared to her transatlantic cousins, she is already being supplied with the stuff of legends, ballads and even epics. The modern singer, discarding imported myths, has turned to celebrate his own folk-tales. It is therefore particularly interesting to observe how the figure of Lincoln has been treated by the best of our living poets. I have accordingly included seven poems by seven writers, each differing in manner, technique and angle of vision (see nos. 8, 42, 44, 83, 91, 95, and 113).
For the rest, I leave the casual reader as well as the student to discover the awakened vigor and energy in this, the most poetic period in native literature. Realizing that this brief gathering is not so much a summary as an introduction, still it is hoped that, in spite of its obvious limitations, this collection will draw the reader on to a closer consideration of the poets here includedeven, possibly, to those omitted. The purpose of such an anthology must always be to arouse an interest rather than to satisfy a curiosity. And if it brings its owners nearer the source, it will have fulfilled its prime function. Such, at least, is the hope and aim of the present editor.