Twentieth Century American Poetry and Other Arts

The interaction of various arts with one another is often difficult to discuss without appearing to make reductive claims of influence or of mutual support. An additional issue concerns terminology, whether a term such as "color" when applied to one art can be usefully applied to another when a comparison or contrast is being discussed. Even if similar terms might cover the signs, codes, and patternings of different arts, claims of similarity may ignore differences that it is crucial to keep to the fore. The different arts move in conjunction with the cultural, economic, political, and other major influences of their time, some possibly taking different directions than others for reasons connected to fashion, major creative figures, or technological shifts. Nevertheless, fruitful relationships can be charted between the arts, sometimes supported explicitly by the statements and careers of particular artists, sometimes by direct quotation within a piece of writing or work of art. In the case of American poetry, its history in the twentieth century is arguably intimately tied at various periods to other arts, particularly the avant-garde visual arts. Some poets, in their attempts to move away from various kinds of conventions, saw in other arts some similar aims that might provide fruitful parallels.

Ezra Pound noted in his manifestos in London between 1912 and 1914 that poetry was behind the novel, painting, and music, in finding a contemporary form for the new century. There were some exceptions to Pound's claim, but they indicated what modern poetry could gain from looking at developments in other arts. As far as the novel was concerned, the directness of prose had already had an impact upon the poetry of Stephen Crane, while the psychological explorations of novelists such as Henry James and Edith Wharton showed poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost some ways in which to enrich narrative poetry with psychological depth, to move landscape beyond the merely decorative, and to use the power of understatement.

At the time that Pound wrote, the visual arts were beginning to have an impact upon American poetry in New York. Around the photography and patronage of Alfred Stieglitz developed a group of photographers determined to take photography out into the streets and away from the set pieces and foggy negatives of late Victorian work. The photographers also took pictures that emphasized the qualities that made up the composition of a photograph - light, shape, texture, and pattern. Such work, and that of the painters, invited poetry to similarly foreground its own expressive materials - language and space - an invitation taken up most radically in the work of Gertrude Stein, whose Paris apartment was famous for its collection of modern painting.

Stieglitz's journals Camera Work and 291 were forerunners of a number of journals that appeared around the years of the First World War and which emphasized the mix of the arts, with reproductions of paintings, photographs, and drawings alongside essays, stories, and poems. Sometimes photographs of machines were included in the mix, as in The Soil, which included in its pages photographs of steam engines, suggesting that such engineering feats, like the poems and prose it published, were all modern products of American skill and imagination. Alfred Kreymborg (1883-1966), little remembered for his poetry now, was an important bridge between the arts in New York. He knew many visual artists, started a journal promoting modern music, and was the contact for Ezra Pound to send over a sheaf of imagist poems from London for publication. Kreymborg's impressionistic autobiography, Troubadour (1925), is a valuable record of the iconoclastic atmosphere and creative ferment of the time. An even more varied mix of genres appeared in the pages of The Dial in the 1920s. Along with its modernist poetry and prose it published reproductions of modern art, and reviews of boxing matches and vaudeville shows. Articles in The Dial praised the quality of the writing in advertisements, pointing out that their directness and economy displayed virtues lacking in much conventional literature. Advertisements were better models for modernist writers, the argument ran, than the products of most contemporary American authors.

When Pound complained that poetry was behind the other arts in modernizing itself, that it was still too often seen as a "pastime" through which an amateur might pleasantly express his or her feelings, he was fighting a battle Henry James had had to wage for the novel at the end of the previous century. Pound cited the novels ofJames as an example for modern poets, along with the painting of Kandinsky, and the music of Claude Debussy. He published a study of the sculpture of his friend Henri Gaudier-Brzeska after Brzeska was killed in the trenches of France in 1915. Pound praised the sculptor's hard-edged surfaces and multiple planes, and many commentators have noticed the parallels to the multiple planes of The Cantos.

This influential pictorial dimension in Pound's work was reinforced by his study of classical Chinese poetic forms, Chinese ideograms, for Pound, representing a language more directly visual than the abstract signs of Western language. Radical painters and poets came together in London for the short-lived but energetic vorticist publication Blast (1914-15), which Pound, again at the center of things, saw as a way to give the image energy and movement. Pound was also interested in music, wrote music criticism, and explored research into early musical instruments.

One of the experimental forms to come out of the modernist visual arts that had a major impact upon the long poem was collage. Collage often formed its patterns from "found objects" juxtaposed by the artist to suggest multi-directional relationships. The collage form found sophisticated expression in the poetry of Marianne Moore, whose poetry incorporated quotations from classical writers, business documents, textbooks, and many other sources. Collage was also one of the influences behind William Carlos Williams's Paterson (1946-58). The five books of Williams's long poem contain poetry interspersed with prose material that Williams took from newspapers, letters, histories, economic tracts, and the creative prose of other writers. Charles Olson also used a collage-like structure for his Maximus poem in the 1950s, and there are many other examples.

The art of display is a more tangential branch of the visual arts, but a number of recent studies have argued for the role of museum display as a source for modernist poems and the organization of modernist texts. Moore, again, is a central example. Her notebooks and letters reveal the hours she spent in New York's Museum of Natural History carefully studying the dioramas in which animals and birds are displayed in reproductions of their natural surroundings. The typography and layout of a poem upon the page is the subject of a number of recent studies that argue that the visual dimension of the presentation is an important part of the language of the poem.

Although both Pound and Kreymborg recognized that innovations in music provided possible models, if only in radical spirit, for the direction of modern verse, Langston Hughes, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, integrated musical form much more fully into his poetry. Hughes incorporated forms from the legacy of black music. His adaptation of the blues form, for example, supplied an innovative lyric form, diction, and rhythm, an emotional tone, and a narrative - the temporary relief of suffering through self-expression and communal experience. Sometimes such a poem was itself about hearing the blues performed, as in the well-known "The Weary Blues." In this poem both musician and listener derive a degree of comfort from the performance. Hughes similarly adapted jazz rhythms in his poetry, and sometimes he published a musical score alongside the words of the poem.

In contrast to poems that had a visual dimension on the page, these were poems to hear, and to see performed. Hughes's late long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), seeks the variety, the author wrote in a prefatory note, of be-bop jazz. Hughes himself was in high demand as a performer of his own work, as a few years later was Allen Ginsberg, another poet who sometimes published music along with his poems. In both cases the music contributed not only to the breaking of conventional rhythms, but also to the change in consciousness that the poems sought to achieve, music being recruited for its power to affect mood in a way more direct than through language alone. More recently, Amiri Baraka has written on jazz and performed his poetry with jazz musicians, and Yusef Komunyakaa has published two books on the relationship of jazz to poetry. In the case of the black writers, jazz is one part of a heritage that their poetry seeks to articulate, but jazz techniques also feature in the work of some white poets, who value its characteristics of spontaneity, improvisation, and innovation, as well as its status as an original American form. On the other hand, when ragtime appears in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, it is to suggest decadence, superficial values, and another instance in the poem of the merely mechanical.

Among poets who wrote opera librettos with varying degrees of public success were William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden. Louis Zukofsky included a Handel musical score in the 240-page masque that forms one section of his book-length poem "A", and in his work as a whole Zukofsky was very interested in musical analogues to poetic forms. T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets is also constructed around verbal and structural parallels to musical leitmotifs. Allen Ginsberg usually accompanied his readings with music from various instruments, and in 1968 Anne Sexton formed a rock group, Anne Sexton and Her Kind, to accompany her poetry readings.

Cinema is treated as merely mechanical in Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, as part of the culture's taste for mass-produced and shoddily manufactured artifacts. William Carlos Williams refers to film similarly in his 1920s work, but by the 1940s he was an admirer of Russian pioneer director Sergei Eisenstein, and by the 1950s was interested in cinema's ability to break temporal sequence into a series of momentary images. For Hart Crane, the films of Charlie Chaplin combined technology and creativity in a way that he celebrated in "Chaplinesque." This short poem was a forerunner to The Bridge, his celebration of similar qualities in the architecture of Brooklyn Bridge a few years later. H.D. wrote poems and film criticism for the British avant-garde film journal Close-Up, and appeared in the early Paul Robeson film Borderline (1930) as Helga Doorn. Borderline is an experimental film, and is an instance of H.D.'s connections with the Harlem Renaissance.

Mainstream Hollywood cinema comes in for scorn in Gwendolyn Brooks's more recent poem "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals," which praises black women not driven to copy the look of white movie stars. Black Mountain College poet Ed Dorn borrows another cinema stereotype, from the Western, for his long poem Gunslinger (1968-72). The rise of performance poetry has resulted in some performances being an important part of a film, one of the most controversial examples being Marion Rigg's Tongues Untied (1994), featuring performances from the gay black poets Assotto Saint (1957- ) and Essex Hemphill (1957-95).

While some of the modernists denigrated the reproducible and massmarket qualities of cinema, live performance arts were treated with more respect. The iconoclasm of vaudeville humor was welcomed by reviewers in The Dial, who delighted in the Marx Brothers' performances on Broadway. The innovative choreography and dancing of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was praised in The Dial and elsewhere, and even formed the subject of some poems, its anti-lyrical patterning offering a parallel to the jagged lines and shifting rhythms of modernist verse. A number of the New York modernist poets, including Stevens, Williams, and Kreymborg, wrote plays that eschewed conventional characterization, narrative, and themes. There were poets associated with the Provincetown Players, home of the early experimental dramas of Eugene O'Neill. Williams went on to write a number of plays, and in the 1950s had an off-Broadway hit with his Many Loves. Most famously, T. S. Eliot, following Four Quartets, devoted much of his energies to writing verse dramas for the London stage, seeking to bring, initially to historical, and then to contemporary scenes the force of Elizabethan drama, with its combination of foregrounded rhetoric, ritualistic staging, and characters acting within a larger cosmos that bears down upon and shapes their lives. The success of Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman (1964) brought national attention to his poetry. Baraka's move to Harlem shortly after the play was produced, and his work in the Black Arts movement, where he continued to produce drama as well as poetry, marked his rejection of the kind of white-world seduction represented by the flirtatious but deadly apple-carrying blonde in his play. Robert Lowell also wrote plays in the mid-1960s, and his Benito Cereno, based on Herman Melville's short story about slavery, had a successful run in New York. This interest in drama is manifested in some contemporary performance poetry, where in recent years Latino poets have joined African American poets in being particularly drawn to the genre because of its affinities with their vernacular traditions.

The return of the personal lyric to a degree of popularity with some post-Second World War poets made playwriting an attractive alternative for some to what they saw as the problematic genre of the long poem. Drama also offered an opportunity to reach a larger audience than that typically reached by poetry. That there was an audience for drama that accepted heightened language in a semi-realistic setting was demonstrated by the renewed success of the plays of Eugene O'Neill, and the associated style of Tennessee Williams.

The fruitful relationship between painting and American poetry that was firmly established with imagism and the little magazines of the 1910s and 1920s continued through the century. When the European surrealists came to the United States to escape the Nazis and the war, a number of American poets responded to their interest in dreams, myths, and transformations, which the surrealists saw as a way to express the self more directly and imaginatively. The "greenhouse" poetry of Theodore Roethke was one response, and the poetry of Galway Kinnell a little later was another, as was the poetry of such Deep Image poets as James Wright. Williams was interested enough to translate some of the poems of surrealist critic Nicholas Calas in the 1940s, although other poets, such as Wallace Stevens, remained undecided about the movement's usefulness. Photography has also remained an interest of some poets, either supplying subject matter or contributing to the visual context of particular poems or books. To cite two examples: the poems in Thom Gunn's Positives (1966) are accompanied on facing pages by photographs by his brother Ander Gunn; Chicano poet Rudolfo Gonzales uses photographs and reproductions of Mexican and Mexican American art to accompany the poems in his I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin: An Epic Poem (1967).

An indigenous American movement that developed in the late 1940s and 1950s from some of the tenets of surrealism, abstract expressionism, influenced the "New York" poets Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. A particular interest was the way that abstract expressionist painting drew attention to its own materials - the largeness of the canvas, and the dripping paint that made up its patterns. Also of interest to these poets, some of whom worked at Artnews and published art criticism, was the way that the paintings emphasized the moment-by-moment passing of time through the linear streams of paint that recorded the application of color; they also responded to the open-endedness of such painting, there being no definitive starting and finishing places for the seeking eye. But what is probably the most admired poem written by these poets, Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) does not explicitly take abstract expressionism as its starting point, but sixteenth-century Italian mannerist painter Parmigianino's painting of that name. The poem articulates a number of the critical issues surrounding the relationship between poetry and painting, and more broadly between any two related arts. The degree to which such a poem depends upon knowledge of the painting and its background is just one of its questions. The poem is finally concerned with such issues as the coherence of individual identity, the arbitrariness of the measures of time, and the nature - personal, artistic, historical - of the differences and connections between painting and poem, painter and poet.

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