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On the Slopes of Parnassus

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

Collected Poems (Revised and Illustrated Edition). By Vachel Lindsay. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

Scarlet and Mellow. By Alfred Kreymborg. New York: Boni & Liveright. $2.00.

January Garden. By Melville Cane. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

Caravan. By Witter Bynner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $1.50.

Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1925 and Yearbook of American Poetry. By William Stanley Braithwaite (editor). Boston: B. J. Brimmer. $3.00.

The Northeast Corner. By Frederick McCreary, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. $1.25.

The Trial of Jesus. By John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Co. $1.75.

Wellesley Verse, 1875–1925. By Martha Hale Shackford (editor). New York: Oxford University Press, American Branch. $2.00.

Anchor Poems. By Robert Sparks Walker. New York: Fleming H. Revell. $1.00.

Millsaps College Verse. First Series, 1923–1925. Edited by Milton Christian White. Millsaps College.

The reviewer of verse will, if he is wise, bring to his task humility and trepidation. It may not be that all criticism is essentially the disguising of personal likes and dislikes in the forms of literary criticism; but certain it is that there is little disputing about poetical taste. I do not like the poems of Mr. Edgar Guest; my neighbor cannot read the poems of John Milton; and if the contemporary world sides with my neighbor, and the saving remnant sides with me, it is yet only the ipse dixit of the remnant that exalts “Paradise Lost.” If it be the business of poetry to bring verbal beauty into the spirit of the readers, who shall choose among readers? And if this query seems absurd to the cultivated minority, let us press further home: there are those who cannot find poetry in Tennyson and those who cannot find poetry in Edgar Lee Masters. By what argument shall wre justify Tennyson to the moderns, or “Spoon River” to the elder statesmen of Parnassus? And then there are fashions in verse as in clothes: Hobbs hints blue,—straight he turtle eats:
Nobbs prints blue,—claret crowns his cup:
Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats,—
Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
What porridge had John Keats?
How much shall we allow for passing literary styles? It might be well for each reviewer to print, as William Ancher once did in an excellent book on lyric poetry, a statement of his bias and his creed, when it would be possible for his readers, not only to read his appraisals of poetry, but also to estimate the rods by which he measured the poetic heights of those whom he discusses. At any rate, this reviewer will state it as his belief that it is the business of the poet, whatever may be his “school,” to set the object before us, be it thing or situation or idea, in fresh, new, and strange light, so that it will seem as though we had never beheld it in its complete significance before. Let the methods be what they may; if the poet does not see the object of his song as though no one else in the world had ever seen it quite his way, he has not been truly poetical; and in so far as bad style, or worn phrases, or forms of verse maladroitly handled, interfere with our reception of his vision, he has failed as a poet, and may not plead the privilege of custom or of authority in justification of what he has done.

The books of verse listed at the head of this article fall into certain convenient groups for discussion. The book of verse from Millsaps College must be dismissed at once, not because it is the work of college students, but because it is work done by artists falsely trained; trained, namely, in the belief that if they will master the forms of verse and “accurate versification,” they are on the highroad to Helicon. The result is false because it falsifies the whole poetic problem. The book of verse from Wellesley College is an anthology of poems by Wellesley graduates over a period of fifty years. Necessarily it is more mature and more varied, although most of it is in orthodox forms. It is, however, curiously feminine in an odd sense of the word: here is a world bright, clean, pretty, determined to carry high the banner of the ideal, determined not to be commonplace, and yet without depth, without passion, without nakedness, without bigness. Its most poignant tragedy is that beauty passes, but of the heights and depths of human passion it knows little; of tragic struggle and defeat, it knows less; and of the male world of Masefield, nothing at all.

Mr. Walker’s flat didactic verses, called “Anchor Poems,” do not improve upon the Biblical texts on which they are written. Mr. Cane’s “January Garden,” however, must give us pause. Mr. Cane belongs to the radical group, both in form and substance. I read that in his volume “the external world is observed in fresh imagery, though with a direct simplicity unspoiled either by sophistication of language or by borrowings from the stock machinery of the craft.” No part of this statement is quite true, and the notion that this book is written “with a direct simplicity unspoiled . . . by sophistication” is hilariously absurd. Here is a poem called “August Noon:” Cloud-bales hang,
Trees drowse
On heavy hills.
Cicadas tingle electric,
Flies make roving loops of sound,
Time lies bound in chains on the baking hay-pile,
Motion has fled the planet,
Carrying the breezes with her.

This is not observation, but interpretation; the imagery is fresh, but it is extremely sophisticated; and the poem is in the stock manner of the intellectualistic school. The result fails to be poetry because the manner obscures the matter. This is better:

  In the Harbor

“Like white butterflies
That skim meadows
And sip clover,
A fleet of fluttering sails
Wing the bay,
Sniffing salt.”

Here we see through the imagery to the object, and herein the intellectualistic school, when it is successful, is highly so. Mr. Cane’s verses too seldom fuse image and object until they become one thing, but he is interesting and alert even in his worst moments.

Mr. McCreary’s “The Northeast Corner” is more surely the stuff of poetry than is “January Garden.” It is true that there are more reminiscences in “The Northeast Corner,” a book of verses about New England in free form —reminiscences of Whitman and Sandburg and Masters, or at least parallels to their styles; and it is true also that the subject-matter necessarily recalls some of Amy Lowell’s more successful creations. I think, too, that Mr. McCreary suffers from prolixity. And yet when all these deductions are made, there remains a body of fine poetic insight, finely patterned and finely said. Let me quote from about the middle of his achievement. When he writes of “the reluctant stutter of a dead leaf
Over some shining April pavement,”
and asks whether death will come to him thus or quickly like a “sudden wind of the lightning
With fire on its lips and the dark,”
I experience delight as a reader in the flash of insight I receive from his vision of dead leaves and lighting, and I take pleasure in the way these figures illumine the queer ways that men die. When he writes that “April is a man,
Coming at dusk out of the fat loins of the hills,
Coming darkly with a heavy step,
Pushing a plough and splitting the earth open,
Splitting it open, revealing the night,”
I feel that nobody has seen the cosmic meaning of April in quite this human fashion before.

This leaves four artists of established reputation. Mr. Masefield’s “The Trial of Jesus” is an interesting, if unsuccessful attempt to dramatize the events surrounding the crucifixion. Aside from the prologue, which seems superfluous and is, mirabile dictu, bad verse, the play is really gripping for two acts; but the third act, which (I assume because of the difficulties in staging the crucifixion) takes place in Pilate’s house, is not dramatic in the reading. Masefield is particularly successful with Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Cai-aphas, who are humanized and living figures, but Pilate’s wife, who takes up a good deal of space, has no personality, and his Christ is a lay figure. Mr. Masefield does not make up his mind whether to take Jesus as a man or as a divinity, and as a result there is no central figure to bind the drama together.

Mr. Kreymborg’s “Scarlet and Mellow” is supposed to represent the work of Simeon Scarlet, a poetic radical, and Montague Mellow, a poetic conservative, but in practice Mr. Kreymborg is always Mr. Kreymborg, odd, impish, obscure, beautiful, and profound. As a poet his practice may be compared to the view of the world taken by a small boy standing upside down and describing the world thus reversed with a kind of insane and lucid logic. Such poetry requires of its readers the ability to take a sympathetic view of the performance, and, if necessary, to walk on their hands. Seen from right side up, such a poem as “A Woman Waltzing Round a Stick” is misleading, or rather has no meaning; but seen from its proper angle, it is a profound and rather ghastly tragedy. Mr. Kreymborg, I hasten to add, can do without any of the rhetorical trappings which cumber the movement of Mr. Rutledge’s elderly muse; and he is by no means merely a “stunt” poet; but the reader approaching him for the first time should be warned that when Kreymborg begins abruptly: “I envy a man
who has lost his legs,
the rest of whose life
is devoted to puppetry,”
he is not advocating a surgical operation, but rather a fairy kind of mysticism which chooses this abrupt and whimsical speech. For myself, I like it because the poet sees fringes of significance to commonplace events that enrich life with meaning; but the method has its obvious defects, which repel many, and it also sometimes ruins Mr. Kreymborg’s verse. But anybody at all sensitive to human nuances must be moved by “Parallels,” a long poem describing the love-situation of a man and a woman from the woman’s standpoint; and like Blake’s, Mr. Kreymborg’s verses about birds and flowers are simple with the direct simplicity of childhood and profound with the weight of a deep and reverent mysticism.

The mention of Blake leads us to Vachel Lindsay, who illustrates his own verse, and discusses it too, rather garrulously, and (in his latest preface) with annoying egotism. His manner in his later work has passed into mannerism, and I confess that I do not anticipate that his new poems will increase his reputation. As for Mr. Lindsay’s drawings, they represent his visions, and as such, have been “seen.” But as Rodin said of Blake’s drawings, they should have been “seen” two or three times, for even at their best, Lindsay’s illustrations are uncertain in line and composition and therefore uncertain in meaning. Such, it seems to me, is also Lindsay’s besetting sin as poet. No contemporary verse-maker is more at the mercy of what Mr. Robert Frost calls “luck” than Vachel Lindsay. When he gets his tune right as in “The Chinese Nightingale” or “The Kally-ope Yell” or “Factory Windows Are Always Broken” or “The Ghost of the Buffaloes,” nobody can rival him; but when he gets it wrong, or rather when the Rotary Club orator steps in and takes possession of his excitable pen, he becomes prolix, maudlin, and unendurable. I sympathize with him in his demand that he shall be recognized as something more than the man who wrote “The Congo,” but the desire of his audiences to hear that poem, and the nightingale one, and certain others, is not merely the result of ignorance, it is the expression of an instinct for Tightness in poetry which Mr. Lindsay, with all of his belief in the popular mind, does not comprehend. Something should be said of him as a children’s poet: his wild and humorous whimsies give delight as nothing else quite does. But he writes too much and he writes in too headlong a manner, and although he is the most characteristic American poet still, I confess that there seems to be a steady falling off in the quality of his production.

Such is not the case with Mr. Witter Bynner. Not prolixity, but spareness, is his “note.” But what artistry! What superb control! What inevitable phrasing! It was said of one of Emerson’s verses that after it had been written, it seemed as if it had been carved on marble for a thousand years. There is no marble in the following verses, but there is the inevitability of all human things, and the poignancy of mere living:

“Certainly, between you two
Friendship had been deep and true.

On happy walks, he used to shed
His coat and shirt and bare his head.

That was when he walked with you.
You loved the sun. He loved it too.

And rich in many ways, you said,
‘Use my money, when I’m dead.’

Ebenezer, little you knew
How little good your death would do.”

There is more musical verse in “Caravan” than this, there is grander verse, but there is none more superbly shaped, and none that is a profounder lesson in craftsmanship. Mr. Bynner is of all these writers the surest artist.

What then of the state of American poetry as a whole? The annual issue of the Braithwaite “Anthology,” punctual as taxes, helps us supply the answer. A volume which includes the “Miranda’s Supper” of Elinor Wylie, the work of Countee Cullen, Eli Siegel’s much-debated “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill” and certain others, is sufficient evidence that the future of poetry is still immense. I am unable to agree with the editor that the work of Milton S. Rose is “the most impressive” among the newer poets, especially in view of the “Scarabaeus” of Elizabeth Shaw Montgomery which is also included in this volume, but certain it is that a kind of confident vitality appears in the work of the last year to a greater extent that in many of the annual Braithwaite gatherings. Certain themes, it is true, reappear ad nauseam. The putative emotions of the late ‘teens are written to death, especially by the very young bards, to whom a love affair is more important than the universe. There is lacking in the year’s work gravity and greatness. But American poetry, if this volume be representative, is more and more concerned for American realities and less and less for the pseudo-literary theme. A remarkable group of poems in the vernacniar (omitting, however, John V. A. Weaver) indicates the close union between the muses and the soil. Workmanship is richer than of old, and there appear fewer freak poems. All in all, it would appear that the renaissance of wonder is not yet passed its meridian.


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