American Poetry—1927 — a Miscellany. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company. $2.50.
The Women at Point Sur. By Robinson Jeffers. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.
Branches of Adam. By John Gould Fletcher. London: Faber and Gwyer. 6 s. net.
The Testaments of Francois Villon. Translated by John Heron Lepper. New York: Boni and Liveright. $3.00.
FOR some ten or fifteen years the vigor and freshness, the experimental audacity—in the main marked by, frankness and honesty—of what was called, rather clumsily, the new poetry, awakened in America an astonishingly widespread interest in verse. Even the open-minded critic of classical training held his breath in a spirit of hesitant expectancy. The violence of Vachel Lindsay’s poetic tones drew a gaping public’s attention until the beauty and originality of his richer poems became recognized as significant. Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” with its sardonic insight brought a new influence into American thinking. Amy Lowell’s brilliant adventures into new poetic forms and methods contrasted with the quiet power of Robert Frost’s conversational tones. Carl Sandburg first amused, then startled, then astonished into admiration the American public. And the critics followed by the public slowly awoke to the truth that for a long time Edwin A. Robinson with cryptic directness and ironic humor had been drawing his material so ruthlessly from life that he, too, represented a part of this vital new movement.
A host of younger writers, including Edna St. Vincent Millay with her tantalizingly near-great “Renascence,” made more dazzlingly varied and promising what was rightly felt to be a new era in American poetry:—an era marked by a richer poetry than had been produced before by any poets except Poe and Whitman: those two poets, strange as the blending might appear, stood as the chief god-fathers to the new birth of American verse. And John Masefield, who had first drawn wide-spread attention to a more realistic note in English poetry with the publication » in 1911 of “The Everlasting Mercy,” prophesied that America was on the eve of producing its Shakespeare.
Then—if my eyes are not at fault—there came a slackening of the creative impulse, fewer and less original new poets have arisen, the younger poets have developed less vitally than the promise given and the older poets have been less impressive or at best have repeated in other themes their earlier successes.
There have been distinguished achievements in that period. William Ellery. Leonard’s “Two Lives”, for example, and Robinson’s “Tristram” and Miss Millay’s “The King’s Henchman.” But these are reactions from and outside of the very tendencies of which I speak. John Burroughs, I remember, claimed for Walt Whitman that he began the movement that drew poetry from life rather than from literature. That was certainly the spirit of American poetry for the past decade or so, until recently. But Miss Millay’s drama uses very poignantly a theme that has been done over and over again before; and beautiful as “Tristram” is, i cannot feel that Mr. Robinson has improved upon the story as earlier told in verse.
But meantime there is Robinson Jeffers. “Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems” bellowed with Mr. Jeffers’ power; “The Women at Point Sur” confirms it. The poets and the critics have united in acclaiming it. But if “Tristram” and “The King’s Henchman” indicate a reaction from the “new realism” in poetry, Mr. Jeffers would seem to be that realism’s logical destruction in the fires of its own excesses. For Mr. Jeffers, humanity is a seething mass of orgastic frenzy. “The Women at Point Sur” tells a story as complicated as any novel; a story that, for a reader with a stomach strong enough, has sustained interest and vigor. No one can question the mastery of sweeping lines, the strength of the phrasing, of the author of the poem. But to my sense it reeks with the stench of a decadent art. Incest, perversion, sex-mad humanity have been put to literary uses before but never in quite the spirit of this work. “Mad, bad” Francois Villon was frank enough in his uses of sex themes—not of the cleanest or most natural always— but his attitude was healthy and normal. In the recent edition of his complete poems, “The Testaments of Francois Villon, Translated by John Heron Lepper” English readers have perhaps their best opportunity for judging the whole man. Mr. Lepper’s burly phrasing may be compared with the excellent translations of John Payne and the over-literary renderings of Rossetti, Swinburne, Symons, and Pound, which are included in the new edition, as well as Payne’s excellent essay on Villon. Villon was not altogether the jolly beggar we think of; the gibbet and the grave are mentioned oftener in his verse than the saucy episodes that give him a salacious fame. But his flesh was alive; he loved a good meal, a good wine, and women who were not too good. Death for him was a vile scamp who would cut short the merry dance of life. With Mr. Jeffers men are the vile and the superfluous part of creation. His hope for mankind is annihilation. Fletcher in his “Branches of Adam” views the physical nature and functions of sex as frankly as Walt Whitman did. In his attitude there is more of the contemporary spirit than the revulsion of Jeffers or the amused sly enjoyment of Villon. Extracts from Fletcher’s poem printed in “American Poetry—1927” give a fair impression of the whole poem as already published in England. It recreates poetically the Bible story with the new vision of science and poetry. Its long slow lines have a stark strength and its theme and the daring treatment are interesting.
The fifteen other authors whose work appears in “American Poetry—1927” range from young Nathalia Crane to Robert Frost, and one surveying the “Miscellany” as representative of current tendencies might come to the conclusion, that here was a competent group of craftsmen competently writing verse in manners already familiar. The collection of a hundred and forty-seven poems contains little that is mediocre and nothing that is commonplace. What it most lacks is poetry of arresting beauty. Vachel Lindsay, Alfred Kreymborg, and William Rose Benet have not rivaled here the work by which they won recognition. Jean Starr Untermeyer, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay are represented by poems that fulfill expectations born of their earlier work. Robert Frost and Conrad Aiken have contributed several poems of the distinctive touch that gives to their work its rare individuality. Carl Sandburg has six poems that are wholly in the Sandburg tradition—like it or not, Mr. Sandburg has created one. Two of them especially pleased me. Of the new inclusions in the “Miscellany,” Leonie Adams, Nathalia Crane, and Archibald Macleish, it is enough to say they do not seem out of place in the company in which they are found. All in all “American Poetry—1927” is a notable and enjoyable miscellany. It does not arouse again the fine fervor of expectation of new and greater things that the air was full of ten years ago.