Tradition and the Rise of the Universities

The economic troubles of the 1930s gave birth to a number of politically radical magazines whose pages were open to poetry, but which preferred poetry in line with their own political views. "Relevance" became an issue for some editors and critics, and high modernism was viewed with suspicion by some for what were regarded as its insular concerns with questions of form, and its elitist sense of audience. Of prominent poets, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens particularly encountered criticism for writing poetry cut off from current events, although from the perspective of more than 50 years later critics can link their work convincingly to cultural and political events of the decade. When it didn't refer to a political position, "relevance" often meant writing about a recognizable contemporary world outside of the poem, as well as writing in a more inviting - usually traditional - way.

Two ways in which poetry returned to more traditional concerns that had been marginalized by modernism but that were not necessarily rooted in the contemporary world, and even marked a retreat from it, were in a revival of the poetry of meditation, and an associated claim for the moral duties of poets and poetry. Following The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot's poetry moved, with Ash-Wednesday and later Four Quartets, towards a more meditative vein, and following Eliot's conversion to the Anglican Church in 1927 his poetry became more explicitly concerned with linking moral and spiritual issues, and finding redemption through intellectual, spiritual, and physical discipline. Eliot's London journal The Criterion had an important influence on US as well as British poetry, and his editorial position at publishers Faber & Faber also governed which US poets received that important international distribution. Faber & Faber published the verse of Marianne Moore, for example, the volume carrying an introduction by Eliot.

The second contrast to high modernist concerns also owed a great deal in one of its aspects to the work of Eliot. The 1930s saw the rise of a group of poets centered in the South, including Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren, who argued for a return to the virtues of a more rural way of life, and a poetry that in its content and craft reflected that order and its disciplined moral focus. The claims for rural virtues were in part a response to the perceived failure of cities, industry, and the complex economic developments that had produced the Depression. These poets were professional educators, associated with English departments, and their views -shaped by Eliot and the work of English critics I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, and William Empson, and later articulated by American Cleanth Brooks along with Warren - became the foundation of the New Criticism that had important influence in English departments well into the second half of the decade. The association of these figures with the academies led to their being on important prize-awarding committees and thus to their being able to confer further prestige on the poetry endorsed by New Criticism - such as the early poems of Robert Lowell.

The more radical modernist writers still kept on writing, although publishing opportunities were fewer and their work often appeared in limited editions. Frost, Stevens, Langston Hughes, and Moore had commercial publishers; H.D.'s work was privately printed, but Pound and Williams had to wait until the end of the 1930s for James Laughlin to found New Directions before they found a regular US publisher. At the beginning of the decade objectivism reformulated some of the principles of imagism, and the movement found a publishing outlet when George Oppen started the Objectivist Press. The movement advocated precision and a careful attention to the function of language that produced a line of American poetry, including the work of Louis Zukofsky, Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Charles Olson, whose achievement is still debated by some literary critics.

Poetry in England in the 1930s became even more politically charged because of events on the Continent. For W. H. Auden, the foremost English poet of the 1930s, the political litmus test finally became too confining. Auden came to the United States at the end of the decade, and became an American citizen in 1946. His poetry remained formal and moral in character, and his US residence arguably did not change his work in significant ways, but he became an ever-present voice on the New York literary scene through his reviews and introductions as well as his verse, and in the 1950s introduced a whole new generation of American poets, including John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich, to the public through his association with the annual volumes of the Yale Younger Poets series. Auden's was only one example of the continuing internationalism of American poetry.

New Criticism itself, for all its local agrarian and racial issues connected to the southern United States, was an international movement. T. S. Eliot took up British citizenship, and in a later generation English poets Thom Gunn and Denise Levertov came to the United States, while American Sylvia Plath lived and wrote in England. Such cases raise complex issues of literary nationality. These issues would be further complicated by the rise of multicultural voices in the US as a result of post-war waves of immigration in the last decades of the century, and by the parallel rise of the poetry of ethnicity.

The political disruption in Europe in the 1930s brought European artists to New York for much the same reasons as in 1914, although it was a measure of the international scope of American culture in the 25 years up to 1939 that these visitors had less of a visible impact than the earlier wave. Most prominent of the artistic refugees on the east coast were the surrealists (many prominent French and German film directors went to Hollywood, with mixed fortunes). The surrealist emphasis upon the vocabulary of the subconscious and the unmediated expression of the subconscious in artistic expression received a welcome among avant-garde journals, and appeared to give a renewed boost to the modernist claims that the conventions of form - now dominant again with the rise of New Criticism - were an anachronism. But its foremost legacy was its contribution to abstract expressionism, the first international art movement with American origins, and a movement which itself had an influence upon some important poets in the 1950s. A case can also be made that surrealism contributed to the climate that produced the Confessional poets of the 1950s, and it was certainly an influence upon the Deep Image poets of the 1960s, represented by the work of James Wright and Galway Kinnell. As for the Second World War itself, although it produced no poetry to equal the impact of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, or James Jones's From Here to Eternity, in contrast to the First World War many current and future American poets served in the armed forces and the war figured in some of their verse, or had an impact upon their attitude towards later armed conflict, particularly the Vietnam War.

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