Introduction

A century is a considerable period of time in the development of any literary genre. This is especially true in the case of American poetry, which began the twentieth century as an enervated literary exercise and ended it as a vital form of cultural expression. American poets of the twentieth century pushed the limits of poetic composition, asking fundamental questions about what poetry is and how it should be written. Is poetry the product of an interaction between the real world and the artistic imagination? Or is it a self-contained artistic object with little relevance to the world outside its borders? Is the poem an intimate speech act linking poet and reader in a private encounter? Or can poetry contribute to new forms of social and political awareness?

This book will address such questions in an attempt to provide a better understanding of the poems, poets, and poetic movements of the last hundred years. The primary focus of the book is on the close reading of individual poems. These readings should provide keys to the understanding of each poet's work; at the same time, they should serve as examples of poetic explication and interpretation that can help the reader to articulate his or her own responses to poetry in general. The discussion of selected poems in each chapter will be supplemented by a presentation of the cultural, sociological, and intellectual contexts of twentieth-century American poetry.

As the twentieth century began, poetry was greatly overshadowed by the novel. During the period from the end of the Civil War until World War I, the United States experienced explosive population growth and a powerfully expanding economy. As a result, the nation was focused on pragmatic matters that absorbed its immediate attention: American society had little energy to devote to the cultivation ofpoetry, which was often relegated to the status of a "genteel" pastime with little relevance to modern-day life. The so-called "Age of Realism" (1870-1910) was a high point in the development of the American novel; American poetry, on the other hand, lingered in the twilight of the late nineteenth century, unable to enter the modern world or break with the conventional formulas and sentimental diction of earlier decades.

It was not until the second decade of the century that poets began to come to terms with the important social and economic changes of the modern era, such as the introduction of new technologies into all areas of industry and commerce and the increasingly urban character of American life. The first generation of American poets to respond to this modern world included Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore. It was with this generation -all of whom published their first books between 1908 and 1923 - that the artistic achievement of American poetic writing was clearly established.

Among these poets, Pound was perhaps the most strident voice for a poetry that would serve as a central expression of the new "modernist" aesthetic. In a 1912 essay, Pound declared "the imminence of an American Risorgimento," a renaissance in American intellectual and artistic life that would lift the country out of its "Dark Ages" and propel it into contemporary civilization. Such a renaissance was indeed to take place, largely as a result of the discovery of European culture by American poets. Those responding to American provinciality and cultural isolationism by leaving America for sojourns in Paris or London included Gertrude Stein, Pound, Eliot, Frost, Cummings, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Langston Hughes. While Stein, Pound, Eliot, and H. D. became permanent expatriates, the others returned to the United States, bringing with them an enlarged sense of European culture. American poets found a more receptive audience for their works in Europe than in the United States: the first books of Pound, Frost, and Moore were all published abroad, where the public was more prepared for writing that did not conform to conventional nineteenth-century norms.

The experience of World War I, which brought many Americans into contact with Europe for the first time, further bridged the gap between American and European culture, and it prepared the ground for an international modernism in which Americans would play a crucial part. The war was traumatic not only for the soldiers in the trenches but also for artists and writers whose sensitivity to the effects of warfare made them, as Pound put it, the "antennae of the race." In T. S. Eliot's epoch-marking poem The Waste Land, he evoked a postwar world in which traditional systems ofbe-lief and established social structures had been radically altered. The changed understanding of human society and human nature brought about by the war contributed to the large-scale literary and artistic movement known as "modernism." As James Longenbach suggests, the war "presented a generation ofjudiciously limited lyric poets with an epic subject."1 The realities of war caused a total rethinking of the purpose of poetry in the twentieth century. During the years 1920-26 alone, American poets produced an extraordinary body of work, including Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly"

and Cantos I-XVI, Eliot's The Waste Land, Stevens' Harmonium, Williams' Spring and All, Moore's Observations and Poems, Hughes' The Weary Blues, H. D.'s Collected Poems, Cummings' Tulips and Chimneys, and Hart Crane's White Buildings.

World War II represented another watershed in the development of American poetry, marking a definitive historical and generational break with modernism. The postwar poets of the 1950s and 1960s took a number of different guises: there were the academic formalists following the tenets of the New Criticism; there were the "confessionals" with their more intensely personal approach to the poem; and there were the Beats and other countercultural movements which sought to liberate poetry from what they saw as the rigidity of academic verse. Against the political, social, and cultural conservatism of the postwar era, the poetry of the New American Poets took on a subversive aura in the 1950s, serving as a forerunner to the larger social movements of the 1960s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, American poetry entered its third generational phase. During this period, the number of published poets continued to grow, bolstered by a burgeoning network of journals, presses, and academic creative-writing programs. Despite worries about the "death of poetry," movements such as the avant-garde "Language Poetry" and the "New Formalism" helped revitalize American poetry. In the final decades of the century, two other tendencies emerged in American poetry. The first of these was the turn toward oral and performance poetries; the second was the increasing use of computer-assisted technologies for generating poetic texts. The new performance poetry, or "Spoken Word," as it is sometimes called, began as a localized movement in the 1980s and gained tremendous popularity in the 1990s, with readings and "poetry slams" held at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York's lower east side. The use of computers and the internet in what has variously been called "cyber-poetry," "e-poetry," "digital poetry," or "new media poetry" was in the early stages of its development at century's end, and it is still too soon to say what its long-term significance will be.

The first fact to be remembered in any assessment of American poetry is that it has had a relatively short history. Though poetry has been written in North America for over 350 years - since Anne Bradstreet first penned her verses about life in Puritan New England - it was not until the almost simultaneous appearance of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the mid-nineteenth century that American poetry began to rival European national poetries in originality and literary significance. Until Whitman and Dickinson, American poets were generally paler imitations of their English counterparts, and few of them thought of seeking an original language or form in which to express themselves.

The term "American poetry" is itself something of an oxymoron, juxtaposing the idea of "America" as a new-found land of pure potential and the concept of "poetry," a literary genre defined over hundreds of years of European civilization. One of the central projects for American poets - from the seventeenth-century Puritans to the twentieth-century modernists - was to determine their relation to English and other European poetic traditions. In his 1825 "Lectures on Poetry," William Cullen Bryant argued against the attempt to formulate a new poetic language for American poetry: "If a new language were to arise among us in our present condition of society, I fear that it would derive too many of its words from the roots used to signify canals, railroads, and steamboats." Even as late as 1891, Walt Whitman declared in his provocatively titled essay "American National Literature: Is There Such a Thing - Or Can There Ever Be?" that "the United States do not so far utter poetry, first-rate literature, or any of the so-call'd arts, to any lofty admiration or advantage."

Writing in an inherited language but on a new continent, American poets have always been forced to make difficult decisions about language, form, and subject matter. The poet in England, France, Germany, or Italy has a lineage established throughout the centuries by the corpus of "great works" that constitutes the "canon" of a national literature. In England, for example, a twentieth-century poet could look back through the work of Victorians like Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold to the poetry of Romantics like William Wordsworth and John Keats, and from there back to the even more firmly established canon of John Milton, William Shakespeare, and Geoffrey Chaucer. American poets lack such an easily identifiable canon: with the exception of Whitman and Dickinson, there were few poets before the twentieth century who could serve as important models for modern and contemporary writers.

What, then, is the significance of tradition for American poets? On the one hand, American poetry is formulated as a rejection of the tradition of self-consciously literary writing associated with English poetry. Whitman exemplified this anti-traditional stance, calling for a "national, idiomatic" poetry free from the "genteel laws" of Anglo-European verse. On the other hand, tradition can function as a chosen lineage for an American poet in which he or she can discover sources of inspiration and the presence of kindred spirits. We often speak of a Whitmanic tradition (open, democratic, celebratory), a Poundian tradition (modernist, experimental) or a Dickinsonian tradition (woman-centered, personal, formal), using these terms as a shorthand for an entire stance toward the writing of poetry.

American poetry has a complex heritage, deriving from both literary and popular sources. If the roots of American poetry can be found in Puritan meditative writing, eighteenth-century verse satire, and the Romantic lyric, they can equally well be discovered in slave songs, captivity narratives, and Protestant hymns. Lacking a ready-made literary tradition, American poets have gone far and wide in search of their influences and inspirations. Whitman sought material for his poetry in popular oratory, journalism, and street slang. The modernists found sources in Egyptian mythology, the Hindu Upanishads, and Chinese ideograms. More recently, eclectic sources have become the norm rather than the exception, as poets have found inspiration for their work in various forms of music (jazz, blues, rap), in the visual arts (Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art), and in alternative philosophical and spiritual traditions (Zen Buddhism, Native American mythology).

Poetry in America has rarely been granted the cultural importance it enjoys in countries such as England, France, and Germany. For this reason, as Roy Harvey Pearce observed, the American poet has always felt a compulsion "to justify his existence as poet."2 Poetry, at least as it is traditionally conceived, deals with the imagination, the emotions, and the appreciation of beauty rather than with a realistic treatment of everyday life. Americans have tended to view the novel, rather than poetry, as the literary genre best suited to the experience ofa newer, more pragmatically minded nation. The familiar model of the young writer setting out to write the "Great American Novel" (never the "Great American Poem") is emblematic of this fact. In American literary life, novelists are the celebrated "stars" of the profession while poets are too often relegated to the cultural sidelines.

In many cases, Americans have failed even to recognize the genius of their own best poets. Whitman, later embraced as "America's Bard" and the "Good Gray Poet," was throughout most of his life villified by critics, shunned by his fellow writers, and excluded from contemporary anthologies. Dickinson - profoundly misunderstood even by those closest to her -published only a handful of poems during her lifetime and did not receive a complete edition of her work until nearly seventy years after her death. William Carlos Williams, now recognized as one of the leaders of the modernist movement and one of the central poets of the first half of the twentieth century, was underappreciated and rarely taught until the 1960s. Even Wallace Stevens, now probably more secure in his literary status than any other American poet of this century, was generally regarded during his lifetime as a quirky literary eccentric rather than a major poet. In fact, apart from T. S. Eliot, it is difficult to think of an American poet of the past two centuries whose reputation has not at some point fallen undeservedly low.

With the passage of time, it becomes easier to make definitive judgments about the relative importance of different poets. We can now say with some assurance that Whitman and Dickinson are the two centrally important American poets of the nineteenth century. That is, while it is still possible that a currently underrated poet will rise in our critical estimation, there is general consensus on the part of most poets, critics, and readers about the unique literary value of Dickinson's and Whitman's poems. In the first half of the twentieth century, such critical consensus becomes somewhat more difficult, though there is still a relatively small group of poets who dominate critical discussions of American poetic modernism. There may be admirers of Stevens and Frost who think less highly of the work of Pound and Eliot, and vice versa, but by and large the study of modernist American poetry has focused on a "canon" of five or six central poets.

As we approach the present day, however, there is far less consensus about who the major poets are. It is still difficult at this juncture to refer to a "canon" of postwar American poetry, although poets like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery would certainly come close to qualifying. Not only are there more poets writing and publishing than ever before, but there is also a far more diverse mix of poetic subcultures dividing the available attention ofreaders. No other country has produced a comparable range of poetry by writers with a greater diversity of backgrounds. Each region ofthe country celebrates its own school ofpoets, as does each ethnic and racial group. Poetry anthologies are now devoted to African American poetry, Latino poetry, Asian American poetry, and Native American poetry. Poets of other ethnic identities - including Italian American, Jewish American, and Arab American - are celebrated for their alternative visions of American life, and poetic groupings are made on the basis of such factors as sexual preference and life and work experience (Vietnam veterans, prisoners, children of Holocaust survivors) as well as stylistic and formal considerations (formalist poetry, experimental poetry, mainstream lyric poetry, spoken-word poetry, visual poetry). Although no introductory guide of this length can do justice to both the range and the artistic achievement ofAmerican poetry in the twentieth century, my goal in this book has been to include a broad enough spectrum of poets to demonstrate the diversity of American poetic writing, while still providing a useful guide to the achievements of individual poets.

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