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New Meanings in Recent American Poetry

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

The common objection to poetry is not distaste (as is so often assumed) but distrust. It is a distrust of the unpredictably and often uncomfortably revealed truth, the fear of sudden clairvoyance which breaks through intellectual pretense and defensive apathy. There is, of course, the ever ready supply of emollient verse, soothing and serviceable. But beyond the comforting unguents and anodynes are the irremediable pains, the stripped exposures, the times when the bandages are torn off. This, as Muriel Rukeyser says, is the “moment of proof.” It is this from which the distrusters turn—from

. . . the straight look, poem.

The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot, The prolonged love after the look is dead, The yellow joy after the song of the sun, Aftermath proof, extended radiance.

The distrusters, those who protect themselves against poetry, have a secondary line of defense. Poetry (they concede) is what used to be written, a radiance which cannot reach beyond yesterday, a still small voice silenced by the mechanistic turmoil of the hour. Poetry—so runs the current elegiae note—is in the doldrums, cannot face the demands of contemporary life, is baffled, confesses its own defeat, is dead.

This, with its show of grief for the lately deceased, is a popular funeral sermon. But it is as false as it is premature. Far from being moribund, poetry in America has never been more alive than it is at this moment. It is not, perhaps, as vociferous as it has been, nor as industrious in unearthing new material, nor as confident and concerted. It is, nevertheless, alive—and vital with new meanings. There has been a long period of stock-taking and self-appraisal, a protracted lull during which criticism tended to inhibit creation. But the poetic renaissance which extended from 1912 to 1920 seems to be preparing (after a decade of slow gestation) for a new birth. Even the dissenters are willing to grant the evidence of labor pains.

Although the leading figures of the 1912-1920 renaissance were differentiated in taste and scattered by geography, they somehow (often in spite of themselves) caused a movement. Frost, Robinson, Sandburg, Lindsay, Masters, Millay, Wy-lie, Aiken, the Benets—the list is a flexible one—never were members of a particular school; they issued no manifestoes and wrote to fit no program. Yet they were united by certain aims. They explored strange cultural terrain, celebrated the native scene, glorified the commonplace. They used a vocabulary founded on a recognizable (if enriched) colloquial speech, and a language that was as definite as it was direct. Their metaphors were logical, their associations quickly comprehensible if not familiar. Theirs was a poetry of uplifted observation, of heightened awareness, but its essence was an ordered—even orderly—naturalness.

Such romantic realism was bound to swing too far in its determined direction. When it could go no farther, the pendulum inevitably began to swing to the other extreme. Acknowledging the example if not the leadership of Pound, a group of writers challenged the conclusions as well as the taste and technique of their immediate predecessors. The 1920’s saw the growing influence of Eliot, the rising star of Archibald MacLeish, the emergence of Hart Crane and Horace Gregory, the typographical heresies of E. E. Cum-mings, the advent of the Nashville “Fugitives” and the separately developed careers of John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Merrill Moore. To speak of all these writers as a “group” may be misleading. With the exception of the “Fugitives,” who were the natural answer to the “Imagists,” they were no more actually affiliated than Frost and Lindsay. But they, too, were united by a temper and an attitude, allied in action that was also a reaction. Instead of charting indigenous backgrounds they explored book-bound yet unfamiliar territory; instead of sharply drawn images they offered dissolving pictures; instead of logical metaphors they luxuriated in free association and esoteric symbols. For common knowledge they offered suggestive if sometimes private allegories, and for common speech a wide and startling erudition. The once-despised “poetic diction” returned to favor, presaging a curiously twisted classicism—a classicism opposed to the preceding naturalism. This tendency split in two directions: one extreme became anti-realistic, precise and drily pedantic; the other gyrated between the superrational and the surrealistic.

Sometimes these extremities met in one person. The work of E. E. Cummings, for example, is a psychoanalyst’s field-day of self-contradictions. Cummings is not merely a poet, he is a kaleidoscope of poetic tendencies. No poet of our times has succeeded so variously in being tough and tender, overrefined and rowdy, engagingly candid and purposefully obscure. He has matured in cynicism—”Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal” is the most savage attack on prettified poetry I have ever read. Yet the adolescent in Cummings has never relinquished the spun-sugar and rose-water stickiness of “Thy fingers make early flowers of all things; thy hair mostly the hours love; thy moist eyes are at kisses playing,” et cetera. One moment he is (even in his forties) the lad with the delicate air sentimentalizing over the exquisite— “Since feeling is first,” “Somewhere I have never traveled,” “0 thou to whom the musical white spring offers her lily inextinguishable”—the next moment he is the ornery little boy happily scribbling down the simple obscenities in “No Thanks” and in less available elsewheres. Technically, Cummings is equally paradoxical. He is (in spite of his teasing typographical eccentricities) a conventional lyric poet whose lines must be a swiftly communicated pleasure to all except a few bigots, and (in “Item,” for example) he is an inverted imagist dangling one ellipsis after another before the bewildered reader. Wavering in an uncertainty of values, embarrassed by his wealth of eroticism, wit, natural charm, wholesale disgust, preciosity, directed satire, and angry aimlessness, Cummings’s work presents a lavish (or confusing) disorganization, a refusal (or failure) to integrate.


Magnify this picture, split it up into a hundred or more poets, accent and underscore it with youth, and you have an approximation of the state of poetry in America at the present. Though they struggle to find and maintain their individuality, the new poets cannot help but be influenced by their immediate “ancestors.” The conflict results in a paradox of tendencies, of dual allegiances to convention and revolt, of the wish to conform to approved standards and the hope of perpetuating an experiment. The question of technique, always a perplexing one for the unestablished writer, is complicated by the advisability or necessity of “taking a position,” facing accumulative current problems and universal “issues.” Is the poet to live in action or work in some hermetically sealed ivory tower? Must he accept a disordered world and attempt to reduce it to order? Or, unable to escape the seemingly senseless nightmare of these times, should he (holding the mirror up to anarchy) try to reflect the chaos of the period and the meaninglessness of his days? If the poet is, as claimed, the true recorder of history, how is he to know (let alone record) the truth in an epoch where propaganda is an international art and the fact has become more fantastic than any phantasmagoria?

It will be no wonder, then, if the literary historian of the future will find this to have been a period of desperate experiment, disintegrated movements, and violent contradictions. The split presaged by the conflicting New England and Middle Western temperaments—the disciplined intellectuality of Robert Frost and the uncontrolled gusto of Vachel Lindsay, for example—has been emphasized and extended by the younger writers in the more-than-ever bewildered search for temporary (if no longer eternal) values.

Tradition still exerts a powerful spell; even youth is not always rebellious. Many of the new writers would agree with Frank Lloyd Wright, who said that the nation with no tradition was rootless and had no past, but that the nation which had only its traditions had no future. Some of the more articulate of the youngest poets have made a compromise between the dictates of the past and the energetic demands of the present. A feeling for accepted form and a regard for novelty, a blend of firmness and flexibility in thought and design is evident in the work of, say, John Ciardi, the latest winner of Michigan’s Avery Hopwood major Prize for Poetry in 1939, whose just published “Homeward to America” makes an auspicious debut; Lloyd Frankenberg, whose “The Red Kite,” another first volume, is a welter, of shapely concepts and undisciplined rhetoric, but whose lines are often fresh and infectious; Winfield Townley Scott, whose “Biography for Traman” struggles clear of its indebtedness (to Conrad Aiken and E. A. Robinson among others) and reveals a critically keen individuality; T. C. Wilson, who has not yet issued a volume of his half-acrid, half-sensuous experiments; and such regional poets as Louise McNeill, author of “Gauley Mountain,” which celebrates the primitives of West Virginia, Robert P. T. Coffin, who exploits the half-legendary farmers and seafarers of Maine, Jesse Stuart (“Man with a Bull Tongue Plow”) and James Still (“Hounds on the Mountain”), who speak vigorously for Kentucky, and Kenneth W. Porter (“The High Plains”), who glorifies jayhawking Kansas. Following an older tradition somewhat more closely are three young women who have not yet received full recognition: Marya Zaturenska, an unusually sensitive lyric poet who has never had her due from the critics although she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two years ago; May Sarton, who, at twenty-six, is the author of two volumes of poetry as well as an extraordinarily sensitive novel based on a phrase from Emily Dickinson (“The Single Hound”); and Sara Henderson Hay, whose second volume, “This, My Letter,” somehow combines metaphysics with whimsicality, fixed observation with errant conceits, and an ardent belief in immortality with irreligious and nonchalant fatalism. Both Miss Sarton and Miss Hay appear to be at the crossroads; they seem uncertain whether to follow the brilliant soliloquies of Elinor Wylie or the more subdued (and far more subtle) meditations of Leonie Adams.

Subtlety is the hallmark of those who first practiced their elusive but precise nuances with John Crowe Ransom. Among those “neo-Fugitives,” now Southern only by remote control, are George Marion O’Donnell and Randall Jarrell, whose coruscations appear with particular effect in The Kenyon Review. Still sufficiently young to be ranked among the younger pioneers, Allen Tate surpasses his fellows in his efforts to create a poetry which is classical without being escapist, patrician and at the same time passionate. Tate, once a violent agrarian, has become a determined moralist or, as Howard Baker (himself a poet) insists, a moralizing determinist. “The basis of Tate’s work,” says Baker, “seems to be the essential religious belief in the innate evil of man. . . . Any conception of ‘evolution’ or ‘progress’ makes sense only when we realize that every new step involves us in new complexities and new dangers as well as in new benefits, and that our personal evils can seize upon us more subtly than ever before and can foster a wider range of evil consequences. Tate, as a determinist, says that the evil which any particular man does may be forced upon him by the society in which he lives.” Whether or not this is the basis of Tate’s work—and his best poetry often refutes it—it is a “meaning” whose validity should not be underestimated. This meaning has been promulgated, or implied, in so much contemporary writing that it has roused an indignant opposition; it has been challenged explicitly and at length. But its pervasive logic is confirmed even by those who lean toward the unreconstructed Left. A longing for faith—or, according to the skeptical, for a defense mechanism—the dream of a haven for the intellectually bewildered and spiritually dispossessed, is back of the writing which variously (and falsely) has been termed proletarian, Marxist, humanitarian, and materialistic. Actually the new converts and the old faithful are disciples of a semi-political, semi-religious renaissance, whose conduct is incalculable but whose hope is in human fortitude, in the innate dignity rather than the innate evil of man. In poetry the leading figures of a new order based on a universal moral sense begin with Carl Sandburg and Archibald MacLeish (stemming in turn from Whitman’s vast inclusiveness) and embrace the younger Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Maas, James Agee, Elizabeth Bishop, Oscar Williams, Robert Fitzgerald, Joy Davidman, John Wheelwright, Ruth Lech-litner, and other warring contributors to New Masses and Partisan Review.

Not all of these subscribe to a belief in a New Jerusalem which will be broadly religious and international. Instead of “the brotherhood of man” (that pathetically rejected slogan), some, like Muriel Rukeyser, put their faith in the individual, not in man as hero, but in man as a “source of power,” At twenty-six Miss Rukeyser is the author of three progressively complex and significant volumes: the emotionally propelled “Theory of Flight,” the graphically probing “U.S.I,” and the appraising if deeply disturbing “A Turning Wind.” Miss Rukeyser’s symbols are sometimes overburdened with more than they can bear; her language shifts abruptly from slow elegiac lengths to curt staccatos; her changes in tempo and tense are often confusing. But there can be no doubt about the strength of her convictions or the power of her communication. Her integrity is perceived, her intensity is felt, even before it is understood. The “meaning” may sometimes be obscured, but it is not really hidden or far to seek. In the introductory note to “A Turning Wind” Miss Rukeyser speaks for more than herself when she declares: “Now, in our time, many of the sources of power are obscured again, or vulgarized and locked out. They are our inheritance, part of our common property. . . , Using as material studies in symbolism, studies in individual lives, and the experience to which I have been open, I have hoped to indicate some of the valid sources of power which have come down to us.”


Unconsciously, or intuitively, the poets have always sought these valid “sources of power.” Today attempts are being made to tap the source with a greater degree of consciousness and an amazing variety of techniques. Some of the new poets have hypnotized themselves with space and time, with a yearning for the unknown beyond the horizon. Some, like Muriel Rukeyser, have made an abstract pattern in which the lives of actual people are interwoven—artists, physicists, musicians, labor organizers—men as symbols. Some have explored the range and diversity of the local scene and have implanted a homespun mysticism upon a set of American myths. There are new frontiers in Reuel Den-ney’s “The Connecticut River,” with its bold fusion of a traditional speech and experimental style. They unroll themselves through sky-writing, tickertape, and advertising slogans in Kenneth Fearing’s “Dead Reckoning,” which, proceeding from Whitman and Sandburg, achieves an unprecedented metropolitan idiom and holds explosive violence in a kind of fascinated suspense. They are implicit in John Ciardi’s “Homeward to America,” with its blend of personal nostalgia and social distress. They distinguish Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is a brilliant exposition of the natural poet and sensitive critic, and which, according to his fellow-poet Dudley Fitts, “achieves the equilibrium between the thing said and way of saying that is the mark of the finest poetry.”

Others have tried to tap the source of power by means of magic—the magic of disassociated images, the spell of pellucid or sonorous words, the charm of incantation. The actual world has betrayed us, they argue; the logic of reality has brought only war, daily terror, inescapable doom. America fascinates and horrifies them; their gods are the expatriates and escapists, Ezra Pound and Hart Crane and, latterly, Arthur Rimbaud, who abjured poetry at nineteen. Hart Crane’s influence may be found in the most unexpected places and the most divergent poets. Crane’s attempt to create a new rhetoric (anachronistically romantic) that would “synthesize the world of chaos” can be traced all the way from Allen Tate through Ben Belitt and John Berry-man to John Malcolm Brinnin, who won one of the Hop-wood Prizes for Poetry in 1939.

The extreme of this method—poetry by pure incantation —leads inevitably to surrealism. Exasperated by the mischievous mind, distracted by outraged nerves, the divided soul turns to the subconscious. The best of poetry is a kind of magic—so runs the theory—therefore the best of magic lies in the mindless, nerveless play of the imagination. The surrealists put the subconscious to work. Forgetting that the act of art is an act of choice and refusal, shape and discipline, they attempt to give an “unthinking meaning” to formlessness, a power to irresponsibility. The result is a combination of psychoanalytic phenomena, automatic writing, and aimless montage. It is especially interesting in the work of Charles Henri Ford, Harold Rosenberg, and Sherry Man-gan, perhaps most in the latter’s “Etudes for the Eleventh Finger” published in “New Directions: 1939.”

Opposed to this tendency are the disciples of plain statement and “straight” writing. This accent on almost naked clarity and an apparently unadorned speech has had a new emphasis in the last decade; its leaders are John Dos Passos in prose and William Carlos Williams in prose and verse. In an introduction to the new Modern Library edition of “Three Soldiers” Dos Passos writes: “I think there is such a thing as straight writing. . . . Every type of work has its own vigor inherent in it. The mind of a generation is its speech. A writer makes aspects of that speech enduring by putting them in print. He whittles at the words and phrases of today and makes of them forms to set the mind of tomorrow’s generation.”

Williams’s influence is already being seen in the growing revulsion to false elegance, fake sonority, and precious imagery. Although Williams began as an Imagist, he has steadily worked toward a clipped speech, a speech that would express the material of an epoch as well as the mind of a generation. He employs the “straight” and forthright word in place of the elaborate and allusive phrase; he uses a texture which is common yet uniquely woven; his stuff is stubbornly contemporary and autoethonous, “in the American grain.” Williams’s “Complete Collected Poems” reveals him as a craftsman-creator who has found a rich and yet homely way of expressing his reactions, who has perfected a highly original control of common things, an “aesthetic of domesticity,” and who, even in his tenth volume, is still experimenting, still growing.

None of the younger men has worked in the American grain more swiftly and vigorously than Kenneth Patchen. His “First Will and Testament” is like no book that has been published in these states. Technically it is a labyrinth of lightly acknowledged and quickly repudiated derivations; it uses the effect of the Imagists, the objectivists, and the surrealists with ease and complete nonchalance; it is bitter and tender, sadistic and sentimental, unbearably noisy and incredibly delicate. The tone fluctuates, rises into ecstasy and falls into obscene muttering, but it never dies into dullness; it is carried on wave after wave of surging gusto. At first the effect seems to be one of incoherence and discontinuity, but a form, if not a pattern, emerges. The eruptive poems are charged with layer upon layer of suggestion, and the pages gather a cumulative tension that affects the breath even more than the pulse. Not since the first appearance of Robinson Jeffers has there been so fierce a rush of words— words in action—as the furious welter in Patchen’s second book.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that Patchen’s poetry is all frenzy and indignation. In the midst of nightmare pages there are lyrics of extraordinary sensibility; the ugliness of the horror poems gives way to the tenderness of “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” “In Memory of Kathleen,” and the exquisite “Fall of the Evening Star.” The hard-boiled chronicler of casual murder can compose such traditional yet strange cadences as:

Dear dying fall of wings as birds

Complain against the gathering dark . . .

Exaggerate the green blood in grass;

The music of leaves scraping space . . .

and these still quieter harmonies:

Then a star would nose the water, like a weary gull Which had flown a long way and come at last to rest.

and then the sudden bitter dissonance of:

Just so the soft girl goes into the bed of the dollar And love comes like sour to milk.

Another bold step in straight writing has been made by Merrill Moore, who has chosen—of all forms!—the sonnet as a medium for his experiments. Dr. Moore, still in his thirties, is the author of more sonnets than any six poets have ever written (the number is said to be forty thousand), and his fabulous reputation as a phenomenon has overshadowed the importance of his work. Of his three volumes, the latest is the most revealing. “M,” a title which severely indicates that this volume alone contains 1,000, is an uneven collection of fourteen-line soliloquies, fancies, case-histories, casual observations, and brilliant intuitions. But it is native to the core; its spirit is the modern man and its essence is spontaneity. Every page seems to be written impromptu, in full flight, bravura. From the standpoint of the “pure artist” this is a defect; Dr. Moore is undeniably an impure artist. But what he loses in purity he gains in speed, candor, and scope. His work as psychiatrist has opened huge areas unknown (or, if known, avoided) by the poetic craftsman; his constant use of the colloquial tongue and the disruptive rhythms of today has made him construct “free sonnets” from which the academic sonneteer would shrink in iambic horror. But there can be no question about the probity of Moore’s originality: his blend of flat statement and brooding suggestiveness; his love of the moment; his obsessive fear of time. Above all there is his careless and seemingly aimless style which, somehow, has revitalized (or at least reformed) a classical model with a casual and vividly American style. The very titles display it: “Shot Who? Jim Lane!” “Man Who Couldn’t Tell When It Was Going to Rain,” “Helen Told Me What Was in Her Head,” “Answers Are in the Back of the Book,” “Boy! And Can She Do It!” “Ringside, Gents!” “Falling Asleep at the Wheel While Driving at Night,” “The Gun Barrel Looked at Him with Love in Its Single Eyehole,” “And Please Turn Off That God-damned Radio,” and (a title to make Petrarch whirl about in his Euganean grave) “Because She Was Young and Pretty the Students Kidded the New Swiss Waitress at Their Eating House but She Took It with Grace and Good Humor.”


What, it has been asked, is the next step? Can the gamut of poetry be further enlarged? Can the implications, as well as the response, be extended?

There are several possibilities. Some of them have been attempted with sectarian self-consciousness and have been received with “modified raptures” even by the extremists of the advance guard. Some of them have been heard by millions and, not unnaturally, have been taken seriously by commercial sponsors who, far beyond the power of critics, can do more for creative art than all the antique patronizing Maecenases and Medicis.

The next step may be in the direction of radio, in poetry that is written exclusively for the ear and not at all for the eye. It is the method used first, and with great effectiveness, by Archibald MacLeish in “The Fall of the City” and “Air Raid,” followed by Norman Corwin in “They Fly through the Air with the Greatest of Ease,” by Ruth Lechlitner in “We Are the Rising Wing,” and by Alfred Kreymborg in “The Planets,” “The Four Apes,” and other verse plays for radio. Here are new potentialities for the poet. Since the actor is invisible and the stage setting non-existent, all the emphasis is on speech, on the sound and implications of the word. The word becomes the sole medium of correspondence. Independent of costume and gesture (and the actor’s personal glamor) the word calls imperatively upon the listener’s imagination. By this method the radio can achieve a degree (as well as an extent) of collaboration which the printed word can never obtain. The new medium will create new techniques—new speech-rhythms, union of folk-stuff and fantasy, groups and solos in verbal cantatas—and the poet will address responsive masses rather than isolated, and often reluctant, individuals too busy to sit down with a volume of verse.

Or the next step may be a running commentary for films, the sound track. Here too is a practically unused medium. The cinema audience is only a little less limited (theoretically) than the radio public, and a communal form of poetry may well grow along the lines indicated by the texts written by poets for the Spanish documentary films and, most notably in America, by Pare Lorentz for “The River.”

Or the next step may be the running commentary which still uses the printed page. Archibald MacLeish did this in “The Land of the Free.” Here was a picture book of people and their backgrounds—farmers, migrants, Negroes, children, deserted dust-ridden shacks, green hills of promise—in which poetry was combined to form a new unit of understanding. The pictures appeared on the right-hand pages; on the left-hand page MacLeish supplied a poetic gloss—a silent “sound track”—all the more striking because of the demands of the context. These were “illuminated” letters in the strictest sense. Still tentatively employed, it prefigured the reunion of an old partnership—of words and pictures. Such unions may result in fresh styles and methods of expression, for, as MacLeish maintains, “There is a play between words heard in the ear and images seen by the eye which is valuable in itself and capable of creating a third experience between the two.”

The possibilities of new devices, new mediums, and new meanings are endless. They are limited only by the poet’s sense of limitation, not by the machines, issues, and accumulating difficulties of the times. The prejudiced reader of recent American poetry may object to much that he reads— or refuses to read—because it is involved, or because it does not declare itself as immediately as a melody that’s sweetly played in tune, or because it makes too many demands upon his willingness to be a collaborative listener. Critics may object to much of contemporary verse because they are unable to chart its wayward course. Poets of varying loyalty may be puzzled by its contradictions. But only those who never consider the art seriously, if they consider it at all, can maintain that there is a dearth—or, as they are fond of saying, a death—of poetry.


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