Hale’s Pond. By James Whaler. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $2.00. Good Morning, America. By Carl Sandburg, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. John Brown’s Body. By Stephen Vincent Benet. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, and Company. $2.50. The Angel of the Battlefield. By Anne Kelledy Gilbert. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $2.00. Ravings in Delirium. By Dr. Ary Flaks. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $2.00. An Autumn Love Cycle. By Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $1.50. Blood and Silver. By Lupton Allemong Wilkinson. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $2.00. Silver ‘Scutcheon. By Mabel Posegate. New York: Harold VM, Ltd. $2.00. Dolorous Carnival. By John Rollin Stuart. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $2.00. The Kingdom of Towers. By Allan Dowling. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $1.50. Many Devices. By Roselle Mercier Montgomery. New York: D. Appelton and Company. $2.00. The Buck in the Snow. By Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. West-Running Brook. By Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.50. The Black Rock, and Other Poems. By John Gould Fletcher. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. Sonnets (1889-1927). By Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50. This Man’s Army. By John Allan Wyeth. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd. $2.00. Son of Earth. By William Ellery Leonard. New York: Viking Press. $3.00. Selected Poems. By Carl Spitteler. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Aphrodite. By Wallace Gould. New York: The Macaulay Company. $2.50. Narcissus and Two Other Poems. By Louis How. New York: Harbor Press. $12.50. This Unchanging Mask. By Francis Claiborne Mason. New Haven: Yale University Press. $1.25. Midsummer Night. By John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. The Golden Room. By Wilfred Gibson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00. Winter Words, in Various Moods and Meters. By Thomas Hardy. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00.
Before me is a shelf of books more or less representative of the poetry of 1928. Not by any means is every volume of the year included in this batch, but I should say that one might fairly judge the poetic virtues here to be a little higher than the average poetic virtues of the twelvemonth—which is not to say a great deal.
The accumulative effect is not exciting. Poetry, to be significant, must be exciting, quickening, refreshing— whereas the bulk here is drab, slow, with that undefinable stink of air that has been breathed many times over. Frankly, it is depressing. The only impetus that one gets to write about most of it is the very definite impetus that comes with disgust and ennui.
On the other hand, a few volumes—from Sandburg, Millay, Stephen Vincent Benet, Frost, and James Whaler —stand out in such sharp relief that they only the more dwarf the others into the shadows of impotence. John Allan Wyeth and Wallace Gould, big with promise and strength, help to keep alive one’s faith in Pegasus’s potential ability to fly.
Some of the old veterans are here—Masefield, Hardy, John Gould Fletcher, and William Ellery Leonard—but they fail to say anything surprizing. However, Robinson’s collected “Sonnets” have a special value of their own, though they hardly belong to this year, except in the sense that they belong to time everlasting.
Scattered through the other volumes is some honest, beautiful, earth-speaking work, but a violet in a weed patch is only a violet in a weed patch and makes the weeds no better, pity be.
A popular opinion of poetry pictures it as a delicate orchid living as a parasite on rarefied air. The public seems generally to have lost its contact with poetry as an inspiration, a thing of beauty, or an integral part of the structure of life. They look upon it as an intellectual abstraction, more or less, a vehicle by which sensitive writers ward off too great intimacy with their readers. As a consequence, poetry, as a rule, sells very badly, and most young poets have to pay out of their own pockets to have their first book published.
I do not say that the whole outside world remains indifferent to all poetry. That would be a corking falsehood; but, as a rule, poetry, is read by people who have some artistic or intellectual proclivities and have acquired a taste for it.
Art to a normal person is not a substitute for living. To a repressed, fear-ridden creature art may be an outlet for down-trodden desires, where the unreal becomes reality through imagination or the cerebral mechanism.
Properly, art is a perpetuation of those flitting emotions, those elusive glimpses of beauty, the rare heights of life which we cannot hold in themselves but which the artist can register to the extent that his capacity for feeling and his capacity for interpretation will permit.
I should say that if a man could live to the height of every moment, in the way that Walter Pater dreamed of—”burning with that hard, gem-like flame”—and comprehend and sift his sensations, so as to separate gold from dirt, seed from chaff, getting from his organs and his faculties all the joy and excitement they can possibly hold—I should say that this man would have no need of art.
But this is almost an impossible ideal. Remy de Gourmont discovered early in his youth that one human sensation-centre is not capable of creating for itself, from all the thrills and wonders the physical world can briefly give, even a half-complete history of emotions. It must call upon something else—upon art—to gain the real perspective. But art is far from being the ultimate. The ultimate is a man who can experience all the world can give him to experience in every sphere of sensation, draining to the bottom every cup of mental and physical well-being; and art is only the helpmate, the crystalizer. It is a part of the cerebral austerity that keeps us from getting so lost in a confusion of thrills that not one thrill emerges in its essential features. It is this cerebration, this conscious interpretation, that prevents us from becoming jaded. In the same way, one might say that virginity is valuable only as it intensifies the sensations at the moment when this virginity is lost.
As for poetry, the proof of its greatness is that it is as exciting, or more exciting than life itself. Poetry that can heighten the thrill of life in the same way that a great adventure can, is of the stuff of immortality.
But take the average poetry of 1928 and compare it in intensity and excitement to the best things in the life of a fairly normal person. How little of it is as real and as thrilling as, let us say, swimming in a fast stream under midsummer moonlight, driving at sixty miles an hour down the Danbury turnpike in the briskness of a bright spring morning, walking in autumn woods, skating over the ice on a long, meandering river, talking with good conversationalists over a bottle of old chianti, or loving a beautiful woman!
Art, to be lasting and important, must be as vital as these things—to be immortal, it must be more vital, in that it shall have their vitality and its own clarity. It must deal with elementals—with man’s love of the sea and mountains, his jealousies, his furies, his fears, his passions, and chiefly it must deal with sex as the pivot and vital starting-point of his central being. Its appeal cannot be limited. To man’s eternally repeated question “What makes great art?” we have conceived of only one undisputed answer: Universality. . . . Beyond Universality we can reply only with the truth of our individual reactions, as speaking for ourselves alone.
Of all the poetry, of the year none impressed and delighted me so profoundly as James Whaler’s “Hale’s Pond.” I first came across Whaler sometime last spring. I only remember that Louis How (whose “Narcissus” is reviewed here) sent me a copy and wrote that here was “some real American poetry at last.” The volume knocked about on my desk for two or three days before I looked into it. Then I had that same surging warmth come over me and engulf my senses in pure joy, that I had had a year or so previously when I first discovered James Rorty’s “Children of the Sun.” In neither case has my enthusiasm waned.
I know nothing about Whaler. I have never seen a review of his work. I have only two short letters from him —letters written by a shy and modest man who lives somewhere in Kentucky and is proud of Maine as his birthplace. He is obscure and unrecognized. As far as I can tell, the distinction of having “discovered” him belongs to Louis How alone.
I am at a loss as to where to “place” him. He belongs to no school (God be thanked!); he has no definite genre; he associates himself with no tradition as we think of tradition; he moves along disconnected from the characteristics of American poetry as we conceive of those characteristics. His technique is so undefinable that sometimes he seems to have none (that is, none you can put your finger on as such and such); and yet it is just this technique, with all its looseness, its grace, its earthy honesty, that is the most puzzling thing about him. It has that quality of delirious, rich unexpectedness that Keats had; that quality of awful exactness that E. E. Cummings has; that quality of bitter-sweet cynicism that belonged to Emily Dickinson; that quality of rough fulness and warmth which we associate with Walt Whitman.
And yet he is unlike all of these; he suggests but never resembles them. He stands appallingly alone, appallingly sincere. There is no bunk about Whaler. It is good to find a man with no bunk about him. He has no axe, literary, moral, or philosophical, to grind. If he seems to suggest now and again that civilization, with its neurotic men and women, its monotonous components, its syphilis-crippled victims, is only a glorified junk-heap, it is because he is driven by the idea of ferreting out the enduring, natural values, and it makes him rage to find them buried under the rubbish of convention and respectability. Nature, he thinks—anything from black mud to a snow-capped mountain—is man’s only unfailing reserve-source. And Whaler is as close to nature as anyone since Henry Thor-eau. And he writes about nature as Thoreau wrote about it, not as a pretty postcard view, a glimpse from a train window, or a refined rest-cure, but as the thing that can best cultivate and define our identity with ourselves as human beings—as primitive human beings, after all, seeking, as we all must, a criterion of natural values, untouched by the backwash of “progress,” graduating from unforced, inevitable relationships.
Whaler is valuable because he has discovered his own values for himself. How many, of us can do that? For him, who has lived under the sun and stars, clarity of vision is not impossible. Because of this clarity his poetry is as refreshing as anything I know in this century—like grass in spring, soft, savoury, and yet with all the precision of the blades of grass. He has no theories, save one— that beauty is the only, religion, that poetry is man’s highest expression of that religion.
Out of a whirl of fools competitive
He took his bag of hoarded seeds of days
And each seed planted where its flower was phrase,
Figure, or deed of Beauty; and so set free
The demon of his soul, and earned his right to be.
The richness and sinewy vigour in his use of words are astonishing. Take this description of the pond:
Shadowed in midnight green,
Wedging her belly down a wide ravine,
Pinned by birch-silver to a bed of umber,
Her splay-claws lax, vibrating with her slumber,
No moon to bathe her eyes
And wake her, warn her that a storm would rise—
Hale’s Pond I felt before me in an hour
By thick black scents of fish and fern and flower.
Not all this book is good; some of it is very bad. Whaler is still young and will learn to leave such stuff as “Monsieur Pipereau” for some one else, and concentrate his talents upon things like “Runaway,” “Hale’s Pond,” and “The Lady of Katahdin,” which are inimitable. The rest we forget; it does not seem to belong to him, to the essential Whaler.
A great many people to whom I have read Whaler’s stuff have been outraged by his vulgarity. They said he was unpleasant and disgusting in his frankness. As for me, I love this vulgarity. It is the vulgarity of Shakespeare. Take the part about the whores in Philadelphia, his despised “city of brotherless bricklayers”—what glorious invective is there! Often he is gory on purpose, as in the fist-fight—which, by the way, is one of the real fist-fights in literature. But somehow (perhaps because it is so well done), we accept his vulgarity, his contemptuous spitting, applaud it, just as we applaud Olympian anger.
The trouble with most American poetry is that it is not nearly vulgar enough. In the best ages—the age of Chaucer, the age of Elizabeth—poetry was excessively vulgar. In two very fine pieces of work—Sandburg’s “Good Morning, America,” and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body”—I find this noble, brawny vulgarity again. It is a tonic. Why is it that most of our poets cannot say what they mean without using forced symbol and evasion? In this connection I am thinking of love-poems particularly; most of them are watery, and without character, because these professing lovers simply can’t be honest. They talk about dreams, visions; they wallow in purple comparisons; they are cautiously sad and demurely gay. This is what they call passion.
But I’ll be damned if passion is a pretty dream. Passion is a matter of the flesh, full of blood, full of breath, magnificent and merciless, swift and beautiful and harsh. It is “vulgar,” too, if you will. But flesh is honest. Flesh cannot hide itself; only lying words can hide it. To want to escape is stupid. It is the best that life can give.
Yet, here on my table, is a pile of books in which people professing to have endured the rage and bitterness of tumultuous seas can, as artists, show us only, a storm in a dishpan—”The Angel of the Battlefield,” by Anne Kelledy Gilbert (a lot of bunk about cuckoos and impossible trees, gushing forth in many words); “Ravings in Delirium,” by Dr. Ary Flaks (saved occasionally by a puckish humour, but pretty bad); “An Autumn Love Cycle,” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (sticky magazine verse between hot-chocolate covers); “Blood and Silver,” by Lupton Alle-mong Wilkinson (containing a certain emotional depth but suffocated by pale, anemic words); “Silver ‘Scutcheon,” by Mabel Posegate (which makes me sad to think that Mr. Vinal at his Paris press should have wasted such fine typography and splendid binding on this penny, poetry); “Dolorous Carnival,” by John Rollin Stuart (oh, please, Mr. Stuart!—I mean, after all!). “The Kingdom of Towers,” by Allan Dowling, has considerably more vitality, a real emotional sincerity, a certain healthy roughness, but lacks the awful fierceness that makes the good lyric poet. “Many Devices,” by Roselle Mercier Montgomery, has a quiet charm of a kind, but is really worth reading only in the section of negro poems. And these are only fairly good, at that.
How inspiriting, after these, to come back to Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body.” This young American poet who is not yet thirty has written a gorgeous, naming epic of the Civil War—a young, sad, energetic world full of strong men and weak men and women you could love; full of hope, despair, terror, excitement, humanity, beauty, and hell. The fibres of this long poem — this almost too long poem—are strong, born out of earth, one with dust and mud and dreams. Benet is not afraid of being outspoken, offensive, honest, vulgar. He is not afraid to speak of what he sees, as he sees it; and this young man has clear eyes. All the surge and fog-chaos of fighting men are here; the pitiful human mass, striving, dreaming, quiet after battle, is here, tender and sad and wailing like night winds over the Virginia hills—and over all, the figure of Lincoln and the pleading, inspiriting wraith of the dead John Brown.
This is a poem that has grown from somewhere deep down in earth, instinct with life and brawn. It is not a halfway house, a near-adequate effort, or a thing of which one could say (in Benet’s own words) that it has:
All things except success, all honesty Except the ultimate honesty of the earth, All talents but the genius of the sun.
This is a poem that is a part of the essential American structure. Its words are meaty, big-chested, breathing deeply of the air. It is poetry that is more full of life than any prose can be, because it is life, undiluted, pathetic, immense. Benet knows the uses of roughness, cursing cruelty, bitterness, moaning sadness, loving kindness. Of course it is not a perfect poem; it is far too facile in spots, and sometimes it is overwritten; but all that makes small difference in the powerful whole; one cannot cavil at the sea for running into little lagoons and becoming brackish. Something will be rotten in these States if “John Brown’s Body” is not seriously considered by those shadowy gentlemen who award the Pulitzer Prize.
Another person who ought to figure with the Pulitzer judges is Carl Sandburg. I could never see why his “Lincoln” didn’t bring them to recognize him; today it seems to me that his poetry, and his services towards the liberation of American poetry in general, deserve the prize that has often been awarded less wisely. As for his new book, “Good Morning, America,” there is not much one can say in the limited space of this review; his characteristics remain unchanged after his six-year silence; “his tenderly hard-boiled voice” is somewhat blunter and rougher than ever. In spite of his enormous vitality, his sweet coarseness, one wearies of too much of him. He has said a good deal of this before; somehow it lacks the awful passion of his first work; but when all is said, he still stands unique and apart, as one of the most sincere of American poets, a man of starlight, sunlight, “clean dirt,” and prairies.
Edna St. Vincent Millay brings me back again to the thought of the Pulitzer Prize, for she is a powerful candidate. I was never quite resigned last year to the fact that “Tristram” took the honours that seemed to me to belong to “The King’s Henchman”; I registered my surprise in The Nation, but nobody seemed to get excited one way or the other; yet I still feel strongly about it—if that makes any, difference. “The Buck in the Snow” is not as important as “The King’s Henchman” as a whole; but it is very important, nevertheless. Some of the poems here seem a little affected, a little over-stylistic, a little wordy. But dismissing these, I am struck again and again by the distinct Shakespearean richness and raciness of language that has steadily grown in Miss Millay’s English. It is the quality of language that takes the breath, dizzies the head—crisp, sweet, excruciating, like spring in the foothills of the Cascades.
The Robert Frost of “West-Running Brook” is an older, more personal Frost, still with his casual quiet charm, simple and earthy, but with a longer reach and a more cosmic vision than before. A great deal more of the man himself is here, with the poems about his childhood, and the peaceful, resigned retrospect of his past in general.
One can say little about the collection of Robinson’s “Sonnets.” All the eighty-nine are mostly things that we know fairly well by this time. Few men have been able to handle character and situation so gracefully in this restricted form; Robinson has given the sonnet new life; or rather, he has made an old (and noble) vessel hold water again.
John Gould Fletcher’s “Black Rock,” is good proof that this very fine and very virile American has not “dated” so much as the other Imagist poets with whom he once associated himself. Fletcher has strength, resistance, sincerity; he has declared war upon our automatic century of canned food, Fords and sandwich machines, and pleads heartily for the simple existence under the young, fresh light of day; but I am afraid that in his righteous rage he ignores much that is good in us. But his poetry has colour, intensity, verve, in spite of its occasional sea-froth. He is a man whose books one keeps in a permanent library. The typography of this volume, by the way, is abominable.
John Allan Wyeth’s “This Man’s Army” is a corking, exciting piece of work for which I am full of commendation. This man can write; he uses lively, racy, rocky words. He has captured the tremendous smallness of the things; he has captured reality; he has painted the faces of men in war. I am sick of war-poems and war-novels, but this is something different—different in a way that I cannot explain, perhaps because it is so essentially and pathetically human. It is not exactly great, but it is very, real, instinct with the gorgeous immodesty of life.
William Ellery Leonard’s “Son of Earth” is a selection of this poet’s work with a few additional pieces hitherto unpublished. With the exception of his monumental “Two Lives,” Leonard’s art has never greatly appealed to me. It has always seemed to me too full of unnecessary sound and fury, neurosis, and self-consciousness. Yet the man has humour, power, vision, and a fine sincerity. It is my own fault if I find him lacking—but de gustibus . . .
The “Selected Poems” of that great Swiss, Carl Spit-teler, are welcome in a country where his name is still so little known. Yet, within these limited selections, not much of the man emerges, though his tremendous freshness is here—the freshness of mountain-streams, mountain-flowers, snow against the blue sky over his beloved Alps. Spit-teler is probably the only epic poet of modern times—Ro-main Rolland called him the greatest since Milton—and he has succeeded in giving to the old legends of the gods— to Venus, Zeus, Prometheus—a new life and blood, through the consuming passion for things that coursed through him. When I spoke at length of Spitteler in these pages a year or so ago, I said that I looked forward impatiently to a complete translation of his work into English; some day it will come—but meanwhile we must be grateful to Ethel Colburn Mayne and James F. Muirhead for their short but admirable rendering, both of his prose (in “Laughing Truths”) and his poetry in the volume I have here.
Wallace Gould in “Aphrodite” is another who remembers the great gods. His poetry has drive, splendour, and pictorial beauty. He has the strength of youth, the enthusiasm, tempered by a satiric challenge of vision. His poetry is free, pliable, never shut into dead forms; it is sinuous, emotional, bracing. Gould is a man who has published only after long years of writing. Oh, God, that this reticence were more common I He is worth watching, this Gould.
Louis How, in his “Narcissus and Two Other Poems,” is also concerned with the figures of the gods. He has the exquisite, airy youthfulness that Spitteler has (How has grown constantly younger through his six books of verse, for the first still seems the gravest); he has rapidity and clarity; his economy and simplicity of language, in these days of froth and foam, are not a little refreshing. That description of the little peak at the beginning of “Narcissus” seems unique, as gay and childlike and direct as a May morning. His fresh vigour, his delightful joyousness, his pert carelessness, have the gallant sting of a little breeze that has played over a bright sea all day in the sunshine.
In “This Unchanging Mask” by Francis Claiborne Mason, I find precision of words, clear-cut features, and a splendid alertness to the woof and texture of things. I should say that Mr. Mason has learned a lot from Keats. His poetry is sensuous and fast. A young man who can produce so sound a first book ought to have a future.
Three books by English poets remain. John Masefield’s “Midsummer Night,” is a collection of a number of tales in verse centering about King Arthur. I find nothing extraordinary; Masefield seems to have done his best work and is now only repeating himself, though still in “good voice.” This midsummer night is under a mild sky. . . . “The Golden Room” by the “sailor poet,” Wilfred Gibson, has some good material, but the critical sense for revision has played over it too little; it is, so much of it, meaningless and trite. Frankly, I am rather bored, though I should not quarrel with anybody who tried to prove that Mr. Gibson has obvious gifts. . . . Thomas Hardy’s posthumous volume, “Winter Words,” is not a thing one can speak about at length; Hardy’s fame as a poet is secure, and this last work will not affect it one way or the other. It is mostly in a quiet mood, containing nothing especially ambitious. .
That is all.
In conclusion, poetry as an art will always manage to take care of itself; it needs no help. If a time ever comes, as some howlers say it will, when poetry no longer has anything but an esoteric meaning for the world, then poetry will go the natural way of worn-out interests. But of course such a thing seems impossible, because poetry is too close to the heart of man ever to vanish; man at his best is poetry; the only thing that will die is verse, along with theories, methods, and art movements, while all that is essential will remain. There is no cause to worry. Man is not a waster all the time. He keeps what he needs.
The one sure way to suffocate poetry is to build up a rubber superstructure of bunk and technique-blab and “art” about it. Call it precious and you have done your utmost to kill it. The idea that it is only, for “the few and fit” is sheer rot; this kind of poetry is stale cheese; Dumas said that the final and best criticism of a work of art was the reaction of his cook. Brave old Dumas! Yes, bring on the cook. Poetry is no fit thing for Verse Clubs and Sonnet Societies where they wrap it up in corsets and make it walk in bloomers and silk stockings; poetry is a naked girl with her hair down, laughing and throwing apple-blossoms at people, healthy and gay. She hates steam-heat. She hates dancing-masters and fairies. You can’t hold poetry down and dignify her; she is one of the harlots of the sun. You can’t loop her up with a barrel-stave and a few boards; poetry is a mountain stream. You can’t dress her up and bring her into a drawing-room to be analyzed; when you get her there you have only her clothes, while she has slipped out to run off with the wind or someone she loves, un-
der the stars, naked and sweet and wild.
Poetry creates her own language—the language of moist soil, woods, mountain rock. Maine sea-breakers—and she will listen to no other. It is only a man who has in his voice the reverberations of earth and air and sea, sunlight and starlight, that can speak her tongue. Walt Whitman, knowing this, feeling this, set down his passionate dictum:
For only at last, after many years, after chastity, friendship, procreation, prudence and nakedness,
After treading ground and breasting river and lake,
After a loosened throat, after absorbing eras, temperaments, races; after knowledge, freedom, crimes,
After complete faith, after clarifyings, elevations, and removing obstacles,
After these and more, it is just possible there comes to a man, a woman, the divine power to speak words.