A recurring theme in discussion of American literature generally, and including American poetry, has been to ask what common characteristics might mark a text as belonging to a literary tradition or history that could be called "American." This question has particular resonance within a culture that has been a colony, and a literary history in which the power of the former colonizer continued as a major force for many years after independence. Eighteenth-century American poets followed the maxims of neoclassical poetry for some decades after its decline in English poetry, while Romantic poetry also exercised a continuing hold on American poetry, into the twentieth century in some cases. The attraction of the Romantic tradition was its lyrical uplift - which appealed to a strain of American idealism - and its concern with nature to a continent offering untamed scenery wilder and grander than anything in the Lake District. This problem of literary colonialism was compounded by American writers being faced with using the language of the culture that they sought independence from, which has led to sometimes strident claims by various poets that "American" is a different language than "English." As far as many nineteenth-century English writers and critics were concerned, American literature, if such a thing existed, was merely a provincial offshoot of English literature.
The modernist American poets of the 1910s and 1920s mark one of the periodic declarations of independence from English tradition in American literary history, but this time the rebels had the examples of Whitman and Emily Dickinson to draw upon, and the undeniable importance of what had become the world's most powerful industrial economy. Whitman's verse had broken the rules of conventional poetics, was celebratory, inclusive (for its time), and looked to the future. Dickinson's verse offered, in addition to its formal experiments, the complexities of New England religious rhetoric and doubt, heightened passion beneath a surface attempting emotional control, and the appeal of the self-made poet. But alongside the claims for independence being made by some American modernists, Americans Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and H.D., based in London, were writing poetry founded upon their reading of European writers and the classical tradition. They made little mention of the United States, and if they did it was rarely positive. The difference between the two kinds of American modernist echoed a long debate from the nineteenth century about where and when an American tradition began. For some nineteenth-century commentators, Shakespeare could be claimed as part of an American literary heritage, since the two countries were not at that time separate.
The poets, critics, and novelists who rejected the international modernism represented by the work of Pound, Eliot, and H.D., writers mainly based in New York, offered definitions of an American tradition that were sometimes carefully argued and sometimes aggressively mystical. The critics included Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, and Paul Rosenfeld. Conversely Eliot's influential essays argued for a broader view of tradition, as did Pound's, although Pound emphasized the importance of "the new" more than did the conservative Eliot. Pound had found it necessary to reject American literature almost entirely as he formed his earliest style, but in "A Pact" (1913) he acknowledged a poetic and national kinship with Whitman, and the later Cantos have a good deal to say about American history and politics. Pound's only prolonged stay in the United States after the 1910s was a forced one, when he was confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington DC after being arrested for treason following Italy's fall in the Second World War. H.D. and Eliot remained in Europe. Eliot became a British citizen, and has found his place in the canon of British literature, at least in the syllabuses of many English departments, although the work of Pound, H.D., and even Henry James - who also became a British citizen - remains classified as "American" when such distinctions are made.
What these cases of writers who lived abroad foreground is the problem of literary nationality, one that goes beyond the papers of citizenship that a particular writer holds, and involves the tradition in which the writer feels that he or she is writing - or the tradition in which the judgment of history categorizes the particular writer. For some critics Eliot's "Americanness" is demonstrated by his work's innovation, its search for physical and spiritual roots, and a moral earnestness associated with sexual disgust. Spiritual autobiography, one category in which Eliot's work could be placed, was an established genre in seventeenth-century New England. Eliot's concern with tradition, some would say, is a response to a cultural inheritance that emphasizes its differences from the past, a culture notorious for having little sense of history, even of its own.
Such issues of nationality and tradition are complicated by the case of W. H. Auden, who came to the United States in 1939 and became a citizen a few years later, but whose urbane poetry arguably remained largely unchanged by the move. Attempts to characterize "the American Auden" mainly come down to historical accounts of his sojourn in the United States, and he seems to have been motivated to cross the Atlantic by a wish to create some distance between himself and the pressures of a political generation - or at any rate to enjoy the freedom of being an outsider. Denise Levertov, from a subsequent generation, consciously changed her poetry from that in her first book, published in her native London, becoming interested particularly in the Black Mountain College poets. From the 1960s she became increasingly disaffected with mainstream American politics and values, and used her position as outsider to protest the direction of her adopted country (she became a citizen in 1955) as well as that of Britain. A poet represented in almost all anthologies of twentieth-century American poetry, and relatively little known in Britain, at the end of her life Levertov was working within a literary and Christian tradition as European as Auden's, but alongside a strong interest in Native American poetry that for her represented the particular American tradition and America with which she wished to be associated. The poetry of Thom Gunn (b. 1929) similarly defies national category. Rejecting, like Levertov, the English neo-Romantic movement, but also the modernist revolution of Eliot and Pound, Gunn has lived since the mid-1950s on the west coast of the United States writing poems in both metered and free-verse forms.
Poets whose subject matter is regional would appear to be easiest to categorize as "American," but in the case of the major regionalist of twentieth-century American poetry, Robert Frost, his poetry is more usefully seen alongside the Georgian poets writing in London in the years just before the First World War. Hart Crane's definitively American subject of Brooklyn Bridge and American history in "The Bridge" is the center of a poem that comes in many ways out of the English visionary tradition as much as anything American. Robert Lowell's early affinities with the Southern Fugitives and New Critical norms root his verse in an Anglo-American movement, one he never quite forsook.
Much of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry was written abroad, although one could argue that its rootlessness and sense of the contingency of "home" is itself an American quality with some affinities to the cause of Eliot and Pound's consuming interest in tradition and history. Wallace Stevens's retention of many formal qualities of lyric verse, and his interest in a modernist examination of Romantic issues, can allow a critic like Harold Bloom to relate his poetry to Wordsworth as much as to Emerson. The issue of "which tradition" was actively debated among the Harlem Renaissance poets, with Claude McKay and Countee Cullen seeing themselves as poets first, writing in a tradition with roots in English verse, who happened to be black men writing on racial subjects (a split that had developed as far back as nineteenth-century anthologies of Negro poetry). Marianne Moore's innovative poetry of quiet Christianity appealed to formalist Auden, and Eliot in his London editorial office - although neither knew quite what to make of Williams.
Such diversity and diverse origins would appear to bear out W. H. Auden's comment, writing in mid-century on "American Poetry," that "the first thing that strikes a reader about the best American poets is how utterly unlike each other they are." But in this essay, reprinted in his collection The Dyer's Hand, Auden nevertheless attempts to discover some common characteristics, offering via a concluding quotation from de Tocqueville that American poetry is quintessentially "modern" in its concern with "the destinies of mankind, man himself taken aloof from his country and his age." Two influential studies from the 1960s sought to discuss possible continuities within four centuries of American poetry. In the first of them, Roy Harvey Pearce's The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), Pearce echoed the view that American poetry was concerned with "the dignity of man," but found its major continuities to be a refusal to accept the status quo, and at the same time "the reconciliation of the impulse to freedom with the impulse to community." Hyatt Waggoner's American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968) claimed to eschew the "thesis" method of Pearce, but argued for the centrality of Emerson to throwing "more light on the question of what's American about American poetry than any other approach could have." Other critics have also argued this position for Emerson. Other frameworks that have been suggested are discrete periods, for example Bernard Duffey's Age of Bryant, Age of Whitman, and Age of Pound, in his Poetry in America (1978), and Mutlu Konuk Blasing's four distinct lines stemming from Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson, in American Poetry: The Rhetoric of its Forms (1987).
Pearce gives little attention to African American poetry in his study, and Waggoner gives none, and this points up the issue that attempts at defining "Americanness" run the risk of being reductive as well as of assuming closed systems, the borders of which are too readily defined by the author's thesis. From one perspective, much American poetry since the 1960s can be seen as an argument demanding to be included in what it is to be "American," whether the demand is from poets whose perspective is largely political, racial, ethnic, or gender-based. The polarities against which American poetry defined itself in the last decades of the century are no longer England - or even Europe - and a new continent. They are instead any one, or a mix, of an array of cultures - both internal and those that are the result of broader, especially Latin American and Asian, immigration - that define themselves against a mainstream culture, and make a claim to be part of the nation. For such poets the definition of the nation should include the multiplicity of such voices, and respect for the multiple continuities that are part of their heritage.
Discussions of continuity are further complicated by a number of other issues. One concerns the shift from modernism to post-modernism, usually dated around 1950, and the degree to which there is any major change in the poetry beyond that of emphasis. Attempts to define the qualities of postmodernism are met with claims by others that these are merely different terms for the principles of modernism. Another complication comes from variations of the "anxiety of influence" argument most associated with critic Harold Bloom. One version of this argument, offered by James Breslin in his From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry 1945-1965, argues that there is in effect a missing generation in American poetry following the modernist writers. The argument runs that, because the major modernist figures Pound, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore, H.D., and Hughes continued to produce major work into the 1950s, American poets of the 1930s and 1940s were faced with either returning to the tired traditions that had preceded modernism or accepting the modernist revolution and competing with the established masters of that mode. The consequence is a series of false starts and truncated careers in poets such as Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Olson, with Robert Lowell saving himself from a similar fate with the breakthrough of Life Studies in 1959, which includes tributes to Crane and Schwartz as part of its record of loss. Whatever degree of assent one wants to give to such a view, it provides a context for such issues as Crane's determination to answer The Waste Land, and Olson's ambivalent attitude to Pound and Williams. Olson thought Pound's Cantos too ego-centered, and Williams's Paterson too sentimental. Yet Olson's Maximus poems are indebted on almost every page to the two earlier long poems.
An important set of voices to emerge that do not come from recent generations of immigration are those of Native American poets, voices previously written out of histories of American poetry as effectively as the Native Americans themselves were driven from their own lands. In writing down and printing their poetry, and in writing in English, Native American poets are already separating themselves from the past oral, communal, and performance traditions associated with parallel forms in Native American history. This act of adopting an alien form of expression is itself the subject of some poems, and more generally the relationship of the present to a lost or threatened past is a frequent theme. That sense of loss can be through a silenced or diminished voice (the poetry of Joy Harjo and Wendy Rose), a divided self (Louise Erdrich) or through changes in the landscape that threaten to obliterate the mythical associations and presences associated with place (Ray Young Bear). The act of writing is often associated with an act of recovery, or a way to keep alive stories connected with individual or communal identity. The emergence of voices such as those mentioned above, and of such poets as Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon Ortiz, offer further challenges to the traditional attempts to define an American canon. They broaden our concepts about what is "American" in important ways, and challenge the received history of that term. They also challenge readers and academies to find a way to incorporate their work into anthologies and course syllabuses, to move beyond merely reading such work as exotic, or allowing interest in it to be at the whim of passing fashion.
Was this article helpful?