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BY CORNELIA A. P. COMER
Browning solved theirs, but, after all,
poetry is poetry. And even when it is THOSE poets whose fate it is to be not poetry to those who read, if it has young along with the youth of the been poetry to those who wrote, it is not twentieth century face a problem worthless, for it has fulfilled toward at unique in its difficulty. Alone among least one human creature its true functhe singing-men of our race, it is theirs tion of freeing the spirit. The genuine to extract the poetry from a man-made thing in poetry, under any guise, is and essentially unpoetic world — the forever justified, forever triumphant. world of mechanistic science, of great Open-mindedness toward the new poeindustrial centres, of the uncrystallized try, then, befits us. We cannot afford human mass. Theirs, too, to write of to patronize or ignore any possible man as though he were the creature of source of poetry, because poetry, like an environment without mystery and art, has become too much an exotic in without God.
modern life. It is to-day completely In performing this task, as difficult detached from our affairs. The new as it is novel, there must inevitably be poets specifically recognize this condimuch discarding of old forms and fash- tion and offer, rather pitifully, differions, much testing of new methods. So ent remedies, so much less deep-seated many young writers have found in vers than the disease that one can hardly libre the appropriate vehicle for their expect their success. inspiration that the increasing body of However superficial and forgotten cadenced, more or less rhythmic writ- our knowledge of the beginnings of ing, which escapes the status of prose English letters, we are aware that our without arriving at that of formal case was not always thus. Poetry was verse, is often called the New Poetry. basal in the life of our remote forefaThis restriction of the “newness' to cer- thers. For them it was, literally, the tain forms, is, of course, a perfunctory language of the soul. When the spirit and inadequate classification. If there spoke, it spoke in numbers for the is a new poetry, — and one must ac- numbers came. Poetry was the wild, knowledge that it is coming on rap- hardy, deathless thing, growing in the idly even if not yet quite arrived, - its depths of the Dark Ages as gorse grows
real basis is a new spirit. Taken by on the moor. It fed on war and war's and large, poetry grows out of and alarms. Prose was the fragile plant, implies an attitude toward life. It is the garden flower. Not until King Ala metaphysic of the relation of man to fred made peace of a kind in England his environment.
and strengthened the land against inYou may not like the way the new vasion, did the story of English prose poet is solving his problems as com- begin. pared with the way that Tennyson and The repetition of these familiar facts
may be pardoned because of their bear- know what we were. We know not ing upon our attitude toward current what we shall be. It remains to be seen verse. Since poetry was once an inte whether the Creator has use for the facgral part of men's lives, and since free tory-made world of man's devising. If verse derives from the stressful Saxon he has, doubtless we shall learn how to poetry, with its assonance, its allitera- make it both tolerable and poetic. One tion, its lines of varying length to fit thing is certain: in the transvaluation the singer's feeling, its general emotion- of values that industrialism is bringing al plasticity, one takes up these little about, industrialism itself will not enexperimental volumes with a stir of dure unless it somehow provides for the hope. Will one find, this time, some man of good will his chance for poetry. thing of the essential spirit of an elder Beside this issue the minimum wage day as well as its unfettered rhythm? becomes a minor matter. Will the latter show itself again a vital Belgium has produced a poet who thing, flexible to the writer's thought, a grips the question of the future expli
a power in his hand
or will it be mere- citly, fervently, firmly. The octopusly a toy with which he makes a conven- cities of these latter days obsessed Vertional protest against convention? In haeren's imagination and he has faith all the earthly choir there are no singers that they are a development, not a reso feeble and futile as those who ape trogression, and that our path lies the forms of revolt because it is the through them to some great future yet fashion in their set!
to be attained by the mass rather than by the individual. No poet in England or America has yet worked out so defin
ite, even if so unconvincing, a philosoThere is a new life, and it demands a phy as this. Most of them are in a more new poetry. Man has become a city- tentative stage of thought, hesitating dwelling animal. From the fields he has to make assertions of any kind, perhaps emigrated to the factories. To a great denying that assertions are part of a extent he has left behind his sanity, his poet's function. You may take or leave soul, his God.
what they have to give. They offer, as It was of the very nature of the old life offers, a cup whose flavor for you poetry that it was concerned with mean- depends largely upon your own sense ings, with relations, with the soul. We of taste. hardly called it poetry unless, for us, it Where the work of the younger set' threw light on the path. It is of the diverges from the old traditions and very nature of the new poetry that it adopts free verse, it exhibits two disevades these issues in the shape we tinct strains. One shows the French knew them once. The new philosophy influence, while the other derives, has not yet taken shape. Here and through Whitman, from the close-tothere we see it forming, but more often life singing of our Saxon fathers. On the new poets are satisfied to depict, French soil it is free verse that is the without comment or deduction, what- exotic, in spite of the brilliant modern ever they choose for subject, be it a mastery of the method that the French garden rose, a July day, or a human life. have shown. The native French forms, The greater part of the new poetry imported into England with the Nordeifies observation and deprecates mans and receiving their final naturalthought.
ization at Chaucer's hands, were exact Well — what else can it do? We and measured, depending upon rhyme and fixed length of line. If we had not Words could hardly give a more corusthese remote but still potent facts of cating picture of the electric contact ancestry to help us explain current between two whose antagonism is phenomena, we might well wonder founded on essential attraction than why some of the new poetry is so bold does 'Fireworks' in a recent Atlantic. and unconstrained, so palpably close The Precinct, Rochester, is so perfect a to the breathing world, while some of presentation that it carries almost as it is so remote and delicate that its many implications and connotations very freedom seems a kind of grace- as any cathedral close could do to the ful artifice.
seeing eye - which is saying much. Chief producers of the latter type, Here is a little verse by ‘H.D.' from we note the interesting group of ima- An Imagist Anthology, which is typical gists, who frankly acknowledge the in- of the minor imagist somewhere near fluence of the post-symbolist French his best. It would be hard to recall poets. Their not very exhaustive ac- more vividly an August afternoon. count of themselves in the preface to
O wind Some Imagist Poets) is that they mean
rend open the heat, to present an image definite in its par
cut apart the heat, ticulars, adhering to terms of common
rend it sideways. speech so far as choice of the 'exact
Fruit cannot drop word' permits; to create new rhythms
through this thick air; and to produce “clear, concentrated'
that presses up and blunts poetry. Mr. John Gould Fletcher adds
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes. to these articles of faith a belief that poetry should be as free as to cadence
Cut the heat, and the groupings of cadences as mu
plough through it, sic is in regard to time, these grada
turning it on either side tions of tempo being used for emotional
of your path. ends and welded into a unity, taking To be a good imagist obviously dethe poem as an artistic whole. Miss mands mastery of the nuance. You do Lowell's summing-up is that poetry not really represent an object unless should exist because it is a created you depict, or so imply that you seem beauty.
to depict, the connotations of that obSuccess is always legitimate. The ject as it seems to our deepest percepimagist poets have assailed their es- tions. In other words, things do have a pecial problem valiantly, and often with meaning. There is a sense of tears in as prosperous an issue as the limita- them, or a sense of laughter, and no tions they have set permit. They are image can be perfect that takes no acalmost always adroit and often ex- count of an object's soul. One is not quisite, though some of them at times, clamoring for morals plastered over failing to achieve the clear image that the universe precisely, especially as we their ideal demands, become vague and all like to make our own morals; but futile. Miss Lowell is the most prolific surely if the things that we see have and impressive member of the group, no meaning, then also they have no and her work is adorably full of color. beauty. The demand of the mind for She is especially fortunate in conveying meaning is as insistent as the demand by the weight and shine and shape and of the eye for beauty, and the two lilt of words themselves, the inner es- attributes are practically inseparable sence of the image she would offer.
scious and volitional, presides, while
Mr. Frost's tragic characters, actual as The imagists are the only group of they are, yet seem as little to attain the oncoming poets who have the ad- human dignity as do the lichens on vantage of a body of doctrine and an his birch trees. They are insignificant, official designation. They need these patient growths, unconsidered excresbenefits to compensate for their lack of cences on that Great Futility, the unifundamental conceptions, of philosophy verse. Considering them, one has a in short, for the poetry-lover refuses flash of insight, perceiving that man is to be wholly satisfied without this. His not man unless God is God — and no interest in objects and in lovely words poetic art can make this otherwise. is great, but, frankly, they satisfy only The author of A Spoon River Anthola small part of his appetite for poetry. ogy in presenting his marvelous hu
Two poets of very unusual ability man exhibit uses a device which perwho adhere strictly to the presentation
the presentation mits the reader to escape the agony of of their subject without comment and witnessing helpless suffering which is without philosophy are Robert Frost experienced so often in North of Boston. and Edgar Lee Masters. They are the Spoon River folk, a whole community best examples of the new spirit in so of Southern Illinois, rich man, poor far as that spirit dictates "Hands off man, beggar man, thief, speak to us the Soul of Man!' Both have seen that, from the peace of their graves. The if the poet is to present his subject fever is forever past, the agony a bywith such complete detachment, then gone matter. There remains dry wisthe only possible subject for him to pre- dom, a deep perception of the crucial sent, in order to be read much or long, thing in each life's little day. This is is that one in which we are always vi- recounted with an almost miraculous tally interested — namely, the life of concision and definiteness. A whole our individual fellow man. Mr. Frost personality goes into half a page. The adds to his interest in New England vulgarities, the grossness, the pettiness lives an equally compelling interest in of average lives are unblushingly reNew England landscapes. He presents corded, but so are the great moments, both with a clarity, an austerity, a the high decisions, and the things upon detachnient almost terrible. Reading which they hinge. It is just in this perNorth of Boston one suddenly asks one's ception of the creative part played in self if Mrs. Wharton knows that she personality by the apparently neglitoo is a poet? For if these are poems gible incident that Mr. Masters is and one willingly admits that they are strongest. The book displays immense poems of a high order -- then Ethan
then Ethan insight into the hearts of men. Certain Frome is also a poem of identically the of the poems add to this imagination, same school, but an even greater poem tenderness, and beauty of an unusual than these rather wonderful produc- order. Consider this account of Anne tions of Mr. Frost. For it has precisely Rutledge. It will be remembered, she the same clarity, austerity, detach- was the young girl who was betrothed ment, the same exalted and just phrase- to Lincoln in early life. The biographology. It, too, is a hopeless tragedy ies attribute his fundamental melanpresented absolutely without comment, choly to the shock of her death, which yet one hears in the background the unbalanced him temporarily, and it is whirring of Clotho's wheel. Destiny, certain that he entered political life as cruel and sardonic if you will, but con- an anodyne for her loss.
Out of me unworthy and unknown
who believes that in order to restore The vibrations of deathless music;
poetry to a world bereft of it, there With malice toward none, with charity for
must be a closer personal relation beall.' Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward tween the poet and his hearers. He millions,
should be again the wandering minstrel And the beneficent face of a nation
- a belief which Mr. Lindsay put to Shining with justice and truth.
the happy test of experience. There are I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
other young poets, like Mr. Fletcher of Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln; the Imagists, who say that Mr. LindWedded to him, not through union
say's rousing, rattling verse 'intended But through separation.
to be read aloud' is literary rag-time. Bloom forever, O Republic, From the dust of my bosom!
So they go, to each man his sufficing
belief and to each the joy of working it Surely this is a great poem of its kind. out with an adequate talent - for they It indicates the high-water mark of are all clever and competent, these new achievement in strictly reportorial po- poets. etry and points out with some sureness Fluid and free, again, is the work of the direction such poetry must take for James Oppenheim and Lincoln Colits best growth. Here is human life in cord. Both follow Whitman very closeits simplicity and here are tenderness ly, almost slavishly, in the matter of and that glorifying touch of imagina- form-or formlessness - and both tive vision which alone can make any feel themselves unconstrained and sure picture of human life imperishable. in the possession of a philosophy fitted
for the on-coming age. One may re
spect these convictions and believe conIV
viction basal to any poetry destined to If the evolution of twentieth-century further development, without wholly poetry were to proceed strictly accord- accepting the immediate creed of either ing to a priori considerations, we might poet. Oppenheim finds all perfections, expect its present phase to end here glories, laws, and sanctions in the indiwith this admirable objective work. vidual will; Colcord, whose Vision of For such work, once done as well as War is the most serious and worthy possible, has no conceivable future, piece of work the great European consince it can have no further develop flict has yet brought to print, presents ment. But apparently logic has as lit- the final goal of the New Age as the life tle to do with poetry as with life. Me of the mass in a perfect brotherhood chanistic science and industrialism to of love, labor, and service, only to be the contrary, it is still fluid and still achieved after long eras more selfish free. So we have other developments and more material than any we have There are a dozen other poets singing yet known. All great convulsions disbravely and gracefully, each according cipline us for this end. Hunger and war to his own belief. Of these Louis Un- are our schoolmasters. But the world termeyer is probably the most widely has yet to pass through the Dark Ages known and Margaret Widdemer the of Democracy while practice is catchlatest comer. These and others are stilling up with theory. However, the writing with much charm and sensi- Great Dream once dreamed, is deathtiveness the 'old' poetry, although less. Mr. Colcord explicitly defies metouched by the 'new'spirit. Then there chanistic science and industrialism are still others, like Mr. Vachel Lindsay those modern foes of the spirit - to VOL. 117 - N0.4