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What Price Parnassus

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

The House of Vanity. By Frank Ankenbrand, Jr., and Isaac Benjamin. Philadelphia: The Liebman Press. $2.00. The Pilgrim Ship. By Katharine Lee Bates. New York: The Womans Press. $2.00. Returning to Emotion. By Maxwell Bodenheitn. New York; Boni and Liveright. $2.00. The King of Spain and Other Poems. By Maxwell Bodenheim. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.00. Pledges, Hills and Horizons. By Carl John Bostelmann. New York: Henry Harrison. $1.50. Poems. By Clinch Calking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00. Penny Show. By Mary Carolyn Davies. New York: Henry Harrison. $2.00. The Joy Ride and Other Poems. By Warren Gilbert. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.00. The Grub Street Book of Verse. Edited by Henry Harrison. New York: Henry Harrison. $2.00. The Lyric South. Edited by Addison Hibbard. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $2.25. Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing. By Samuel Hoffenstein. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.00. The Night Express. By Arthur Crew Inman. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.00. â– Saints in Sussex: Poems and Plays. By Sheila Kaye-Smith. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. $2.50. Selected Poems of Amy Lowell. Edited by

John Livingston Lowes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Company. $3.00. Behind the Mask. By Rosa Zagnoni Marinoni. New York: Henry Harrison. $1.50. Songs of Infancy and Other Poems. By Mary Britton Miller. New York: The Macmillan Company, $1.75. Untamed. By Benjamin Musser. New York: Henry Harrison. $1.50. With the Little People Among Fairies and Flozvcrs. By Douglas Nelson (Mrs. Charles S. Nelson). New York: Harold Vinal. $2.00. Jealous of Dead Leaves. By Shaemas O’Sheel. New York: Boni and Liveright, $2.00. Sunset Gun. By Dorothy Parker. New York: Boni and, Liveright. $2.00. The Golden Snare. By Sydney King Russell. New York: Harold Vinal. $1.50. The Temptation of Anthony and Other Poems. By Isidor Schneider. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.00. Festival in Tuscany and Other Poems. By William Force Stead. London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson. Queens and Crickets. By Mildred Whitney Stillman. New York: Duffield & Company. $1.75. Lilliput. By Roberta T. Swartz. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $1.50. Steep Ascent. By Jean Starr Untcrmcyer, New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.25. Burning Bush. By Louis Untcrmcyer. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $2.00. The Sacred Acre. By Rachel Mack Wilson. New York: Harold Vinal. $1.50.

The publication of poetry is supposed to rest on a different basis from the publication of prose. Because it is seldom commercially profitable, the larger houses are not, we are told, hospitable to verse, and the poet turns perforce to small publishers who will bring out his volume at the author’s expense. Or he may publish in little magazines of verse, few of which pay their way and most of which lead a hand-to-mouth existence. To encourage him, however, most of the states and a good many communities have their poetry societies—institutions which we accept as natural and right, though we should be surprized at associations for writing fiction and amazed at a society for the encouragement of biographers. Only one other kind of publication has the peculiar status of poetry, but even in the field of scholarship universities no longer require that doctoral dissertations be printed. Now it is argued that if people will not buy verse, it ought to be published anyway. Is the deduction sound? A good case could be made to prove that poetry, societies, little magazines, and subsidized volumes have done more harm than good. For example, they have encouraged minor work and blurred critical standards. They have led young versifiers to believe in their divine right to have an audience for whatever they write. They have encouraged poetry, it is true, but have they improved it?

In contrast there is fiction. Here, of course, the test of commercial appeal is not a test of literary merit, and every one recalls cases of manuscripts, originally rejected because they would not “sell,” which brought eventual fame and money to author and publisher. And yet commercial standards apply a kind of pragmatic criticism to prose, which works a rough justice. Long established houses, moreover, publish many books at a loss because the author shows promise or because the books are good books. Indeed, it may be questioned whether any business exhibits a higher sense of civic duty than do reputable publishers. If I they err, it is rather on the side of leniency.

Once the question of profit is removed from poetry, however, no standard, not even this pragmatic one, remains, with the result that every year beholds the appearance of scores of volumes of undistinguished and undistinguishable verse. Mere illiteracy does not usually get printed, though there are examples to the contrary, but provided the spelling be correct, provided the lines scan and the rhymes fall where they ought, any poet can at small cost usher his volume into an unexpectant world. Failing that, there are the annual anthologies, the little magazines, and the programs of the poetry societies. Yet if the question concerned prose of equal vacuity and mere formal competence, no one would think of printing it.

This curious situation arises from the fallacy that to criticize the poet is to blight him. Lyrical poetry, it is romantically assumed, is not subject to appraisal; the poet sings as the bird sings; and we must listen to him if we are lovers of the muse. Though we have heard his adolescent love poems a thousand times, though his rhymed meditation on his own desirable demise differs no whit from the last poem on the same theme from another poet, we have lost the right to complain lest we invade the sacred personality of the bard. The absence of critical common sense is marked in contemporary verse.

Subjoined to these remarks are the titles of 28 books of verse totaling 2869 pages. One who set out to purchase them all would spend something over $50. Of these, six or eight are clearly worthless. Ten or eleven deserve casual mention. A dozen may be worth discussing in detail. Ten years hence not five of them will be remembered. Yet these are but part of the annual production. Is it not natural to question whether the time, effort, and expenditure used in producing these three thousand pages were justified and to ask whether there is not something wrong with the economy of American poetry?

It may be retorted that current fiction is equally evanescent. But the admission is damaging to verse. Moreover, fiction makes no special plea. Fiction fulfills a need or it would not be sold. We are not asked to join societies and to subscribe for magazines to encourage suckling novelists. They stand or fall in the open market on their own merit. But poetry that is equally impermanent, poetry that has less human and emotional appeal than a good story, poetry, must somehow be protected against the laws of supply and demand. Why? The answer is a vague, emotional appeal for “art,” under whose cloudy banner march the minor poets of the day.

Now it is no disgrace to be a minor poet. They have contributed much to the beauties of English verse and they will continue to contribute. But of thousands of lines of minor verse the world selects only ten or twenty to remember and the rest sink into the dark backward and abysm of time. What saves a lyric for remembrance is some profundity of thought, some exquisite polish of phrase, some unexpected and haunting beauty of line and cadence. As Robert Frost says, there is a good deal of luck in the business, but granting this, one observes that it takes a major artist to polish a minor poem into perfection, and the real difficulty is that, though it is no crime to be a minor poet, it is no credit to be a minor thinker, and at least half the volumes listed for this review are by minor poets who are minor artists and minor thinkers as well.

Moreover the minor poet today, finds himself in an awkward predicament. Recovering about 1910 from its preoccupation with polish of form, American poetry went in for largeness of utterance and for local color in the earlier work of Sandburg, Frost, Masters, and the rest. Emotion returned. We went native with Vachel Lindsay’s negroes, and hurled bombs with Carl Sandburg’s dynamiter. But alongside of the crude and powerful rhythms of “The Spoon River Anthology” there was still room for lyrical perfection and small prettinesses. In the last five years, however, the current has turned in the direction of intellectualistic verse written with exquisite exactness of phrase and line; and in such poets as Archibald MacLeish, Virginia Moore, and Samuel Hoffenstein we have poetry of the intelligence, poetry weighty with thought, poetry which returns to the refinements of seventeenth century versifiers for its method and its music. These poets are thinkers who demand that verse shall convey ideas. Beside their powerful intelligences the minor poets are mere cockle shells even when they write well; and, lacking any such mental novelties as are displayed by the newer bards, the minor people are compelled to repeat old tunes, empty of substance and uninteresting as thought.

Of the lesser volumes listed here “Saints in Sussex” by Sheila Kaye Smith is a collection of modern versions of mediaeval mystery, plays. “Lilliput” by Roberta T. Swartz finds a pale success in a few poems about minor phenomena of animal life. “The Pilgrim Ship” by Katharine Lee Bates, old-fashioned and rhetorical, is a poetic comment on the life of Christ. Arthur Crew Inman’s “The Night Express” is a courageous, if unsuccessful, attempt to translate railroad travel into poetry. “Queens and Crickets” by Mildred Whitney Stillman is a pleasant compound of sonnets and lyrics (mainly about nature), but the volume is not memorable.

With “The Golden Snare” by Sydney King Russell we are on firmer ground. Mr. Russell writes a sonnet as though it were a pleasure, not a puzzle, and there is a firmness of texture in his verse that makes one return to it after the first reading. “Festival in Tuscany” by William Force Stead belongs in the mellow tradition of descriptive verse. “Songs of Infancy” by Mary Britton Miller is something of a poser. Miss Miller writes of childhood as it is and not as it ought to be, employing the short, simple lines of William Blake’s earlier work. But her verse is so spare of ornament and so bleak in design that, for page after page, one receives no authentic thrill. Unexpectedly, however, one reads something as sagacious as this: “Allow the hurried flight Of birds to cross and range The confines of thy heart, Full of thyself thou art, Profound and strange.”

Turning to volumes more modernistic in form, one comes first upon a group of poets who mingle humor with lyricism and who, like vaudeville performers, occasionally “kid the show.” “Behind the Mask” by Rosa Zagnoni unites tenderness with cynicism, but the union is often self-conscious, and the verse cries out to be translated from free form into rhyme. The play of her intelligence is interesting, as is that of Mary Carolyn Davies in “Penny Show,” a better book in many ways. Miss Davies can on occasion write as movingly as this:

“I wear a red coat

And a cap of red And walk the highroad Past the field of dead;

Past the field whose white stones

Show where bones lie That were once fair girls

Ruddy, as I;

That were once tall youths

Some bygone year, Quite as full of passion

As you, my dear.”

This is good enough to be better; a finer ear would get rid of the awkward “whose white stones” and avoid the inevitable comparison with “A Shropshire Lad.” Miss Davies is unfortunately determined never to be profound, and her volume pays the penalty in avoiding emotional conviction.

Dorothy Parker established her “note” in “Enough Rope.” There is nothing in “Sunset Gun” to call for revaluation. The verses a propos of E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein are the most amusing things in the book. Though there are profounder poems, a fatal facility leads Miss Parker to such cheap stuff as this:

“The pure and worthy Mrs. Stowe Is one we all are proud to know As mother, wife, and authoress,— Thank God, I am content with less!”

Miss Parker’s farthing candle is, however, eclipsed by the brilliance of “Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing.” In Mr. Hoffenstein the age seems to have discovered its satirist. He has been generally accepted as a wit and a humorist, and there is in him a genial idiocy, a kind of rapid and whirling insanity, exemplified in that infectious burlesque of eighteenth century optimism beginning “Oh, how various is the scene,” which justifies his popularity. But there is another and deeper Hoffenstein beneath the jester, a poet shy and sensitive, who looks upon the tragic confusions of our day and fails to find them good, and who sings in the “Interlude for a Solitary Flute” of

“Sorrow that cries Like a wind on water.”

It would be criminal to silence this delicate and discriminating poet beneath the enormous vogue of his more facile and less discriminating fun.

Of the experimentalists what is to be said? Mr. Maxwell Bodenheim, who as a poet seems to me to have mistaken his vocation, presents “Returning to Emotion” and “The King of Spain and Other Poems.” Mr. Bodenheim goes in for intellectual insolence. In these two volumes only “The King of Spain” seems to me the genuine stuff of poetry—a narrative that points to what this writer ought to be producing in place of the tortuous epigrams and intellectual anfractuosities which he prefers. For example, how is one to take this sort of writing:

“Her smile was like a breeze all trapped Within a curving jail of light, Yet stirring just enough to hug Its past identity—clear, slight?”

Mr. Bodenheim thinks this is quite profound. It may be, but he has failed to communicate its subtleties. I do not know why the breeze is trapped in a “jail of light,” or why the jail is “curving.” Why does the slight stirring of the breeze lead to a hug? Or is it the smile that stirs? And what is the rhythmical purpose of such a line as

“Its past identity—clear, slight?”

The mind boggles at page after page like it.

Mr. Isidor Schneider’s “The Temptation of Anthony and Other Poems” is more compelling. The title poem is a novel in verse, or rather in the long anapaest rhythms made popular by Robinson Jeffers. It relates the biography of the village atheist who, rejected of men, unites with the town prostitute, eventually excoriates his fellow citizens in a book, and gets himself lynched. The town later commemorates him with a statue. A febrile brilliance, a crowding together of images uncouth, strange, ugly, and beautiful, an energetic and restless curiosity inform the volume. But the whole problem of poetry arises with such a passage as this:

“We saw the sea quieted with islands like floating gouts of oil; and ashen daylight sifted from the sun smoldering.

“We had wanted a wild sea, waves to rock the pierposts, coldnailed spray to scratch our cheeks.

“But the sea blinked an enormous, dirty window.”

This is powerful and vivid. It is intended to have the beauty of ugliness. But the question whether this deliberate and sought-for ugliness is authentic or merely artificial is largely a question of taste.

The same problem rises with Mr. Warren Gilbert’s amusing and impudent “The Joy Ride and Other Poems.” Mr. Gilbert shares the conscious disillusion of the age, and, climbing happily aboard the modernist bandwagon, toots happily on the saxophone. He views the world with sardonic amusement. He does not doubt in one poem that God is a bull. He advises young women:

“Sell as dear as you can. Would he purchase cheap, Quietly retire.

Doubt not women will keep— Hold till the market is higher.”

“Even if you are right,” he remarks, “it makes no difference.” His volume lacks the zip and joyous energy of “Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing,” and it is full of experimentation with form. It is good but not great.

The same intellectual brilliance, differently expressed, appears in the next group of volumes to be discussed, even in “Jealous of Dead Leaves” by Shaemas O’Sheel, in whom the melancholy and mysticism we associate with the Celts find their later embodiment. There is a deal of nonsense talked about the Celtic twilight, but the fine sensitivity of this artist, his keen understanding of form and nuance are instruments by which in these “selected” verses he creates his own world. There is a troubling sorrow in the volume; only rarely does the simplicity become mawkishness; and it is gratifying, amid so much cleverness, to find a poet to whom emotional utterance is still the business of poetry. The themes are not new. Mr. O’Sheel sings of

“The bright dream burning deep at heart,”

but the music is new and beautiful.

The admirable “Poems” of Clinch Calkins are made of sterner stuff, and their austere music is not likely to appeal to the multitude. If Mr. O’Sheel represents the better parts of the romantic tradition, Miss Calkins has the sagacity and dry strength of the classics as here:

“The gods teach well the one thing we must know: That we are human, and that they are gods. Burnt out our eyes with tears they cause to flow In teaching this, bruised is our flesh with rods.”

There is a varied music in her volume, but I think the note of brooding wisdom and of resignation is central, nor should the elimination of superfluous ornament deafen a sensitive reader to the cunning of her quick, intelligent art.

More intense and personal is “Steep Ascent” by Jean Starr Untermeyer, a volume which finds its substance in the impact of sorrow and loss upon a modern woman. There is too much rhetoric in “Steep Ascent,” and there are occasional lapses into such false taste as

“Each snarling lash of the stormy sea Curled like a hungry tongue. One desperate splash—and no use to me The noose that swung!”

which is the mere hysteria of passion. Mrs. Untermeyer is furthermore curious after each new effect in verse, and these do not always come off. But her volume is saved by, half a dozen poems of throbbing vitality, and the general impression is one of strength and sincerity.

More diversified is “Burning Bush” by Louis Untermeyer, a distinct advance over his previous volumes. Mr. Untermeyer has been cursed by his own talents as a metrist and a rhymester. He has too often been satisfied with mere virtuosity. “Burning Bush” resists this temptation to a greater degree than hitherto, the command of effects being subordinated to philosophy, humor, and emotion. The general tone is that of a stark, fighting mood:

“Rise and leave your father;

Never dare look back. Come and break your heart to gather Rue upon the rock.” Mr. Untermeyer i should describe as an intelligent modern romanticist.

Three anthologies remain. “The Grub Street Book of Verse” is a sound lesson in the hollowness of the minor tradition. The “Selected Poems of Amy Lowell,” containing about all of that writer one needs to read, illustrates the fading of her reputation; her poetical experiments were too self-conscious to possess permanent value, and one turns to her largely from curiosity and for examples of poetical novelties. At the same time she turned the current of verse in the direction of rapidity and brilliance of utterance, qualities everywhere found except in the south. Despite honorable exceptions the writers represented in “The Lyric South” are content with easy solutions of poetic problems, and though their craftsmanship is commendable, though there is a gratifying decline in sentimentality, no southerner in the book is numbered among the major poets of the day.

What strikes this reviewer is the extraordinary likeness between present ideals in verse-making and those of the eighteenth century. The approach in both cases is intellectual. The satirist has come into his own. Poetry is written for a specially trained audience which knows the rules of the games and enjoys expert playing. The same tendency to reduce anything to verse exhibits itself now as then. A deist or agnostic philosophy, a preoccupation with the mundane spirit, a polished refinement of phrase in amatory verse, a tendency to follow popular forms—these are qualities in common. The most popular poet of the hour—Hoffenstein—is like Pope a satirist. Individual expression like that of Clinch Calkins is rare. The convention of conformity has only been replaced by the convention of unconformity. And the same question confronts us as confronted the eighteenth century — is Parnassus to be bought at this price?


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