John Gould Fletcher was a modernist poet from the American South. Because of his experimentation with different subjects and poetic techniques, and because of his affiliation with different poetic movements, his work has been described as religious, mystical, symbolist, impressionist, imagist, and southern fugitive/ agrarian. While these classifications may be applied to particular poems or stages of his work, his poetry as a whole suggests a larger goal. Fletcher's understanding of the artist's duty is clear in the following statement from his book on the painter Paul Gauguin: "to affirm the dignity of life, the value of humanity, despite the morbid prejudices of Puritanism, the timid conventionality of the mob, despite even his own knowledge of the insoluble riddle of suffering, decay and death" (180-181). This visionary focus informs all of Fletcher's work.
Fletcher was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He attended Harvard from 1903 to 1907 and traveled through the American Southwest and Italy before moving to London in 1909. While abroad, he self-published his first five collections of poetry, met many of the imagist poets, including Ezra pound and Amy lowell, and contributed work to the imagist poetry anthologies. In the late 1920s, while lecturing in the United States, he encountered the southern Fugitive/Agrarian poets John Crowe ransom, Donald DAVIDSON, and Allen tate. His poetry appeared in the Fugitive magazine, and he contributed his essay "Education, Past and Present" to the Agrarian anthology, I'll Take My Stand (1930). He returned to Arkansas in 1933. Fletcher published 24 books of poetry and prose during his lifetime, and his Selected Poems received the 1938 Pulitzer Prize.
Fletcher's poetry underwent many formal shifts during his career. His symbolist-inspired first books contain traditional forms, such as heroic couplets and sonnets, while his imagist poems are usually in free verse and emphasize direct treatment of the poetic subject and concise description (see prosody and free verse). His religious and philosophical poetry employs elegies and the religious epic, while his final collections combine free verse and traditional forms to address southern Agrarian concerns. In fact elements of southern modernism run throughout his work, although they are most prevalent in his later poems. Consider how he juxtaposes an image of death with images of the natural world in the title poem of South Star (1941): "Over the hill where so many men found the dignity to die," winter "Turns over its burning heap of leaves and brown, dried grasses again." Fletcher uses images of nature to mirror "something of the despair and sadness of the Old South and its lost cause" (Stephen 134).
Fletcher's poetry is grounded in his sense of history and the possibilities for the future. While his poetic explorations take many forms, they are always in service to his visionary goals.
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