"Make it new," the poet and sometime evangelist of the literary avant garde Ezra Pound insisted, as the 20th century was under way. "Literature is news that stays news" was another of his formulations meant to exhort poets to find their own path, to break ground, to put a literary tradition in its proper perspective. Eras do not neatly begin and end on time; the fact of a new century, as told by a calendar, does not necessarily change how people think and feel. Even so, in January 1900 Americans must have felt excitement at the thought of a new kind of life ahead of them (calendars do lend meaning, after all). For Pound, as well as for other artists and intellectuals, it was easy to imagine that their new century was to be one of great promise. The object of Pound's imperatives was poetry, but, whether he meant it or not, he was also putting a broader national impulse into words.
In the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville had remarked upon American individualism, noting how central it was to the growth of the new nation he was visiting. That element in the American character comes to the fore in the poetry of the United States during what came to be thought of as "modern" times. Richard Gray describes 20th-century American poetry as one "of radical experiment, the personal address and frequently eccentric innovation" (15). Of course, in the last century there were poets whom readers would not consider to have been experimental—Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, for instance—yet even they "seem to speak to us from out of the depths of their solitude; even the distanced, hieratic tone of a John Crowe Ransom or the elaborate patternings of a Marianne Moore cannot disguise the fact that they too are engaged in a lonely confrontation with the real," Gray continues (15). American poetry of the last century embodied the sense of the particular, of the here and now, of what are markedly American—as opposed to British—concerns and language. "For the first time," Louis Untermeyer announced in his 1919 anthology The New Era in American Poetry, "a great part of American letters is actually American. We have had, of course, music, art and literature in this country before. But it has not been, as a rule, a native growth; it has merely been transplanted and produced here" (3). When considered as a body of work, the new American poetry was idiosyncratic, not afraid of innovation. Moreover, especially as the century progressed and more voices other than those of principally white Anglo-Saxon males became audible, American poetry evolved and reflected America's diversity. "I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman sang in the 19th century, many years ahead of his time.
In 1913 Pound turned to Whitman, saying in his poem "A Pact," "It was you that broke the new wood, / Now it is time for carving." A number of decades later, Charles Olson echoed Pound in "The Kingfishers" (1949) when he maintained, "What does not change / is the will to change." There is such a thing as a "pecu liarly American desire to start over," Ed Folsom asserts; this impulse made "twentieth-century [American] poets reticent about constructing a tradition as a backdrop for their work" (16). Rather, these poets had to invent a new kind of wheel in a process that has continued up to the present. Decades after Olson composed "The Kingfishers," Adrienne Rich wrote of what she called "The Dream of a Common Language" (Origins and History of Consciousness ). As Jay Parini points out (quoting Rich), the "dream is deeply feminist, involving 'women's struggle to name the world.'" (x) In "Transcendental Etude" (1978), Rich spoke of the "beginning" of "a whole new poetry." To be sure, ultimately the struggle was not only taken up by women. From the start, Parini continues, poetry in the United States "has been this dream of a common language" (x).
What makes "common" that language Rich and Parini celebrate? Is it that women as well as men have access to it? More elementally, is it a language that molds the foundation for a uniquely American identity? By the end of the 20th century, a common American language had indeed come into being in poetry as well as in the larger American culture, spoken by a panoply of voices and in a seemingly endless variety of poetic forms, which, collectively, make up a uniquely American sensibility. When the century began there was only an inkling of such a language. In 1919 Untermeyer wrote, "[T]here is still an undeniable beauty in the ancient myths, but to most of the living poets it is a frayed and moth-eaten beauty. Their eyes do not fail to catch the glamor of the old tales, but they turn with creative desire to more recent and less shopworn loveliness" (10).
No period in the life of any nation brought forth as many points of view and poetic oddnesses as did the American 20th century. Whatever would lie ahead, it can be said that during this era—an era of both great turmoil and achievement—American poetry collectively stood as a distinctive testament to human aspiration, to human struggle and salutary accomplishment, and to a condition that is especially American in terms of outlook. The American trait of prizing the individual and adventure, the new and the diverse, was a potential fully realized in what came to be known as the "American Century." As Parini has observed, 20th-century American poetry had a love affair with the image, not least of all because of the influence of the imagist and, later, the objectivist poets. Commenting on that, he says, "even when there is an overarching narrative," imagery tends to be central and the poetry exhibits "an overriding concern with concreteness" (xx). The breadth and multiplicity of 20th-century American poetry are evident in its use of images, in the very fact of their proliferation. The American language starts with and is embodied by things.
In the United States to be open to the new is to embrace the particulars of experience. A poem typical of this sensibility is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" (1913), with its "snapshot suddenness," as Jed Rasula has put it (98). William Carlos Williams intoned, "no ideas but in things." His poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" (1923), Roger Mitchell has argued, shows that Williams not only "trusted the unadorned image to reveal beauty and truth" but also, more fundamentally, to reveal "unadorned reality itself" (30). Perhaps Williams, among all modernist poets, was the most "radical" in his drive to start over; he was "willing to turn his back on all existing ideas of culture and tradition" (31). Still while someone like Williams was first and foremost an originator, he and others, such as Pound, Olson, and Rich, adhered to a basic understanding of what it meant to be American. This understanding, which transcended any particularity of image, prosodic form, or even voice, came to be fully articulated during Williams's lifetime. Together, these and many other poets forged an American identity at the heart of which lies the fresh and the various.
Beyond the insular world of poetry, the United States in the early 20th century found itself in the throes of invention. Twentieth-century America is normally thought of as a time and place of modernity, and, in fact, the literary movement of modernism began with American formulations and endured, increasingly attenuated, as the century evolved. It is interesting to note, however, looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, how much of the material and intellectual world normally associated with modern living was already in place by 1900. At the start of the 20th century, the ratio in the United States between agricultural workers and factory workers was shifting dramatically. At the same time there was a flood of immigrants. Cities, the incubators of high culture, were growing quickly. Skyscrapers, which actualized the metaphor of reaching upward to the heavens or, alternately, to the stars, were already being constructed. Over distances, people could communicate by telephone. In 1900 the U.S. per capita income (about $570) was the highest in the world; there were nearly a thousand colleges and universities and more than 2,000 American daily newspapers, which constituted half of all the newspapers being published anywhere. In that year work began on New York City's rapid transit subway system, the photostatic copying machine was invented, the "Brownie" camera was being marketed, and the paper clip was patented. Change was rampant and startling. In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic wireless message. In 1906 a Stanley Steamer automobile attained a speed of 127 miles per hour. In 1911 the first transcontinental airplane flight took place. An older—and surer—world was quickly fading away; the world of surprise had arrived. Henry Adams wrote in 1900 that his "historical neck [was being] broken by the irruption of forces totally new" (382, cf. Gray 30). Life was becoming more complicated. Adams felt that the "child born in 1900 would . . . be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple" (457, cf. Gray 30).
While discoveries in science, especially in physics and biology, in the later years of the 20th century revealed vast landscapes of possibility that inevitably would become the substance of poetry, these discoveries were also presaged in the century's early years. The idea that the universe is comprised of 12 dimensions, for example, as is held by string theory, represents a departure from classical physics, a science that still holds great sway over everyday language—poems, in contrast, work to reshape language and meaning one by one. This rift in the laws of nature as they were propounded by Sir Isaac Newton, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, appeared with Albert Einstein's theories of relativity (1905, 1916), then Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (1927). Tangibility, objectivity, and subjectivity were to be understood in new ways; predictability came to be conditional. This transformation lay at the heart of, for instance, William Bronk's conclusion to his poem "How Indeterminacy Determines Us" (1962): "Sight / is inward and sees itself, hearing, touch, / are inward. What do we know of an outer world?" The point of view evoked here is a great leap away from Robert Browning's "God's in His Heaven—/ All's right with the world" ("Pippa Passes" ).
While communication technologies, such as television and the Internet, have transformed society in many ways, their effects—the dramatically social and psychological changes they have provoked—are not fundamentally different from those created by the telephone and the wireless radio early in the century. Yet landing on the Moon and sending exploratory spaceships to the ends of the solar system have ultimately challenged definitions of what it means to be a human being; life beyond Earth can currently be contemplated. Still this way of thinking was ushered in by the first airplane flights. Transformation continues within a world predicated on transformation. The virtual reality created by computing, which causes a rethinking of individual identity and boundaries of the self—leading to the rise of cyberpoetry—calls into question those same limits that were challenged by the transformative nature of viewing motion picture shows in the early part of the 20th century. What is important to see in these developments is that the last century discovered how to understand a radically new world, one not anticipated beforehand and not resembling anything that had come before, and the century produced unique methods of expressing this new awareness.
It was not so much that American poetry evolved in the 20th century in conjunction with a modern society. Rather, it was a task of that poetry to examine and express the meaning of this new way of the world. In terms of the arts (with the possible exception of painting), the 19th century seemed not to possess the sense of what was soon to arrive. Even the poetry of Whitman and other key protomodern literary figures of the prior century—including Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville—did not comprehend the aesthetic and cerebral concerns that were to arise. The 20th-century American poet was writing a poetry in a fully realized American language—no longer European in its cast—about a United States that by
1900 was becoming a world power. By the time Pound had told poets, "Make it new," the 20th century was already unfolding its unique character that was, in great measure, due to intellectual realizations then revolutionary, which would fundamentally alter the conception of the world. In 1900 the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos was discovered, as was radon, the gamma ray, and quantum energy, and the third law of thermodynamics was postulated. In this same year Sigmund Freud published his influential opus The Interpretation of Dreams—without which the work of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath (as readers see her in lines like "At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you," from her 1962 poem "Daddy") or any confessional poet could not have been written.
This was also the year that Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie was published and that Giacomo Puccini's opera Tosca was first performed. And in 1901 Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up from Slavery became a bestseller, and Pablo Picasso began painting works that are now famously categorized as belonging to his blue period. In 1902 Joseph Conrad published his novel Heart of Darkness, while the opera tenor Enrico Caruso made his first gramophone recordings. In 1903 Wassily Kandinsky inaugurated abstract painting with the showing of his Blue Rider. In arts and letters breakthroughs were occurring year after year. The year 1913 was especially noteworthy: Willa Cather published her novel O Pioneers!, D. H. Lawrence published his novel Sons and Lovers, and Frost published his first collection of verse, A Boy's Will. And in that same year Cecil B. DeMille produced the feature-length Hollywood film, The Squaw Man; a Parisian opera audience rioted in reaction to a performance of Igor Stravinsky's far-reaching musical work The Rite of Spring; and Manhattan hosted the New York Armory Show, a transforming event for a poet like Williams, who was amazed at the modern art he was able to view there, including Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase. Without these and other artistic innovations, would Williams have otherwise postulated, as he did subsequently, that a poem was a "machine made of words," and would the "machine aesthetic" have gained ground in American poetry?
Well before America was to enter World War I—a global conflict that left society profoundly disillusioned about a human being's capacity for destruction and degradation (as is reflected in Robert Graves's monumental book Goodbye to All That )— American society was being transformed materially, intellectually, and aesthetically. Invention of the self and of the world in which the self resided are concepts that have always been central to American culture, beliefs epitomized by the American Revolution. Invention in American poetry was a key to how society was to evolve in the 20th century. Something essential changed in poetry as the new century was progressing. This development was to be spurred by cataclysmic events—the world wars and other military conflicts, the sociopolitical upheavals of the 1930s, and of the 1950s and 1960s, the landing of Americans on the Moon—and yet at bottom the stunning diversity and originality of so much of 20th-century American poetry is the result of the will to carve out a territory all of one's own. The American poet in the 20th century required that style and substance bespeak an individuality—as if the poet made up the rules not only of writing but of life. Hence the work of the 20th century exhibited a dazzling array of metrics and prose poetry and as many explorations of the individual psyche and of world events that mark off this century as qualitatively different from all of its predecessors. If the European Middle Ages can be said to have been a time when poets adhered to tradition and emulated what had come before, the 20th-century United States can be called its direct opposite. In this way Whitman was prescient. He looked ahead to a time when originality would be so widespread as to be taken for granted, and he sought an American tongue and a free verse poetic line. Racial and ethnic diversity are part of the equation that gave rise to this collection of poetries; America is the great social experiment. Nevertheless, it is the drive to stand alone that lies at heart of what has caused the ingenuity and range of this vast body of verse.
There were many schools and trends over the years between 1900 and 2000—imagism, the New York school, Language poetry, to name but three. Remarkably, not only were there these various coalescences of energy, attention, and vision among
American poets, but there were also a great many poets who did not fit easily or at all within these groupings. The 20th-century poet went her or his own way and by so doing reshaped the literary canon and the idea of what is beautiful or compelling. This process occurred daily as poetry burgeoned onto the page and into the cafés, galleries, theaters, and other venues that have served as the bases for other social and aesthetic groupings. The example of Allen Ginsberg in 1955 breaking ground with his reading of his long poem Howl at San Francisco's Six Gallery, which signaled the emergence of the San Francisco Renaissance, is one of many instances of this poetic dynamic that is not peculiarly American in its substance but is distinctly American in its spirit. American poetry in the 20th century was a protracted revolution in letters and, more broadly, in society. The poetry has been overwritten by the movies, television, and the Internet. Although the news of this revolt is no longer printed much in newspapers or broadcast electronically, the revolution itself survives—indeed, it flourishes— because of the soul's need for meaningful language that arises out of the human labor to shape language.
A great many poets took Pounds urgings to heart, and others followed his dicta even when they were not conscious of the fact that they had been formalized and enunciated by Pound. This happened despite his repugnant political and social ideas, because, poetically, he spoke for his time. As its poetries attest, American arts and culture broke free decisively from Europe in the 20th century and came into its own. There was the need and urge to institutionalize in poetry a distinctly American idiom, to write, as Williams titled one of his books, In the American Grain (1925). That was in the early part of the century. By the late century American language in poetry had reached its fullness and explored the human condition as well as the condition of language itself with an unparalleled depth and variety. This volume records important and representative articulations of 20th-century American experience and speech.
I have striven to make this book comprehensive; yet, in its treatment of recent poets and poems, and despite the fact that the volume contains commentary on a disproportionate number of them, it still leaves out certain figures, as is inevitable in a project of this size. Time has helped to determine which poets from, for instance, the period of high modernism should be included in a literary companion such as this is. When it came to deciding who from the 1970s or, say, the 1990s—postmodern poets—should be included, the decision-making process was far more difficult, however. To err on the side of caution, this book tends toward inclusion (although, inevitably, a deserving poet may be left out, the result of imperfect human endeavor or the constraints of space). All the major poetic movements of the 20th century are discussed herein, certainly all the major poets, as well as many of the most pivotal and influential poems of the century. Some poets get more attention than they have received thus far. To cite one of several possible examples of this editorial discretion, the late modernist, African-American poet Melvin Tolson is discussed at length, and his epic poem Harlem Gallery is examined, alongside the obviously necessary entries on such African-American poets as Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, as well as their respective poems ("The Bean Eaters" and "We Real Cool," A Montage of a Dream Deferred and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," respectively). Similarly while Rich is discussed at length (as are her poems "Diving into the Wreck" and "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law"), there is also an entry on lesser-known feminist poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis (and another on her serial poem Drafts). Going further, this volume includes an extensive entry entitled "Female Voice, Female Language"—one of nearly 500 entries, among which are such topics as "ars poeticas," "long and serial poetry," "prosody and free verse," and "war and antiwar poetry." The book concludes with a glossary of terms, such as, for example, iambic pentameter, to aid the novice reader, and a bibliography for those who would desire further commentary.
The United States is uniquely heterogeneous; so is its poetry. This country has often hosted a social vanguard, and this fact also has been reflected in its poetry (and in its other arts). The country dominated the world economically and militarily in the last century— this, too, has been reflected in the poetry of the era, often as praise and, at times, vituperation. This uniquely social, economic, political, intellectual, and aesthetic experiment in the 20th century took root in a dynamic nation, one that is arguably unprecedented. Its poetry justifies such a claim.
—Burt Kimmelman Newark, New Jersey
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