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Celebrating American Poetry

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

"Poetry had been soft, both in its sound and in its sentiment," the critic Mark Van Doren wrote. "Now it became hard, with edges and structure, and with a bold, protruding skeleton of idea. The poet was no longer content to lull his listener; he would shock him, wake him up, jolt him into attention...." An explosion of poetic activity erupted in the United States at the turn of the century as poets broke away from European traditions and sought to establish a uniquely American aesthetic. New voices transformed the landscape of American poetry. Free verse, Imagism, Symbolism, Surrealism, the Harlem Renaissance, and the emerging influence of women authors are only a few of the movements and counter-movements that flourished between 1900 and 1945.

How can the poetic legacy of the twentieth century be summed up? The Library of America has culled through poems and authors to produce American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. The anthology's first two volumes, which covers poets from the beginning of the century through World War II, will appear in April. The books, a thousand pages each, include more than one thousand works by nearly two hundred poets. Eventually, another two volumes will be developed.

"The vitality of this period is amazing," says Geoffrey O'Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America. "Contemporaries described it as a renaissance or a revolution, and many saw it as the aesthetic declaration of independence of American poets no longer in thrall to English models or Victorian values."

With a multiplicity of traditions and poetic movements developing, the first half of the century does not fit neatly into any category. Many "isms" sprang up, only to wither. Some were direct European imports, such as Symbolism, Futurism, Cubism, and Dadaism, which other American writers rejected as "nonnative" inspiration.

With this richness of poetic activity, how does one single out a group of poets to represent the entire century?

"Ultimately, what we are looking for is work that remains vital. This anthology is not a museum of dead poetry," says O'Brien. "It is a compilation of work that retains a spark of something truly alive. Our intent is not to include only certified masterpieces. We've put in some odd, idiosyncratic poems imbued with social context, which gives them power."

In sifting through the reams of possible candidates for inclusion, the advisory board quickly came to a consensus about certain works; others proved more controversial. Authors long considered influential, such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, were uncontested, and each was allotted considerable space in the anthology. Discussion centered on works by noncanonical authors and poems that had not been reprinted since their first appearance in small magazines.

"Much poetry has slipped out of common familiarity and knowledge," says Cheryl Hurley, president of the Library of America. "We want to celebrate American poetry in a visible and serious way. We are doing so by publishing works that will never again be accessible if we don't publish them."

To celebrate the anthology's release, which coincides with National Poetry Month, the Library of America is involved in poetry activities around the country. Symposia with the Academy of American Poets are scheduled in Missouri, Louisiana, and New York, and poets Robert Haas and Robert Pinsky will appear at the Library of Congress.

By offering a rich array, the new American Poetry solves the dilemma of selection. The anthology gives ample space to major writers such as Eliot, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Edgar Lee Masters, Marianne Moore, Pound, Theodore Roethke, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. It also contains works by writers who did not necessarily call themselves poets: songwriters like Ma Rainey and Irving Berlin, painters like Marsden Hartley.

"Our goal is to present a selection that has both breadth and depth," says Hurley. "We're giving the full sweep of the twentieth century in all its liveliness and variety." Some of the works are by poets who are not often anthologized, such as neoclassicists and objectivists. The neoclassical aesthetic of Yvor Winters comes through in the imagery and sound of his poem "The Fable":

But the crossed rock braces the hills and makes
A steady quiet of the steady music,
Massive with peace.

And listen, now:
The foam receding down the sand silvers
Between the grains, thin, pure as virgin words,
Lending a sheen to Nothing, whispering.

Works by the artist Marsden Hartley appear as well. He offers his painterly vision in "Fishmonger" :

I have taken scales from off
The cheeks of the moon.
I have made fins from bluejays' wings,
I have made eyes from damsons in the shadow.
I have taken flushes from the peachlips in the sun.
From all of these I have made a fish of heaven for you,
Set it swimming on a young October sky.

Another of the less predictable choices is Louis Zukofsky, who was the founder of the Objectivist Press. He was better known for publishing works by William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting. In "When the crickets," Zukofsky writes a lullaby of liquid and sibilant sounds:

When the crickets
sound like fifty water-taps
forsaken at once

the inclemency
of the inhuman noises
is the earth's

with its roadways
over cabins in the forests

the sheets smell
of sweet milk

all the waters
of the world

we are going
to sleep to sleep

Many long poems are printed in their entirety, such as Hart Crane's The Bridge. "This anthology is revisionary of taste," says Marjorie Perloff, an adviser. "The Bridge, for example, is controversial because of how long it is--most anthologies simply include a few sentences. But the reader needs to see how it works as a whole: its language, sound, and evocative qualities. That is a major advantage of this anthology--it covers everybody, and gives the big poets enough space to really see their accomplishment."

The volumes are intended for the general reader. Poems appear without commentary or annotation, and the only scholarly apparatus consists of biographical notes at the back. The anthology is organized according to the authors' date of birth, and runs chronologically from Henry Adams in 1838 to May Swenson in 1913. A glance at the table of contents shows the extraordinary diversity of authors: between the years 1884 and 1888, Sara Teasdale, Ezra Pound, Elinor Wylie, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Ma Rainey, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, and Irving Berlin were born. In 1908 alone, Constance Carrier, Alton Delmore, Josephine Jacobsen, George Oppen, Theodore Roethke, and Richard Wright were born.

The inclusion of lyrics from songwriters such as Ma Rainey and Irving Berlin spurred debate at the Library of America about whether or not song lyrics qualify as poetry. Some felt that the lyrics could not be separated from their accompanying music; others argued that lines of song do not differ in a fundamental manner from lines of poetry: They both possess a sensitivity to rhythm and diction, an elevation of sentiment, and often meter and rhyme.

The discussion verged on a central concern in compiling an anthology: What is great poetry? Indeed, what is poetry? Emily Dickinson wrote that a great poem "takes the top of your head off." The English scholar A. E. Housman wrote that when he was shaving, he would think over a great poem and the stubble on his face would bristle.

"A great poem is serious in intent, though not necessarily lacking humor," says Carolyn Kizer, another of the advisers on the anthology project. "It has a sense of form and metrics, and contains an elevation of speech beyond the ordinary. Even funny poetry can be sublime, like Ogden Nash, for example. He had a wonderful ear and knew form and metrics backwards and forwards."

John Hollander, who edited the Library of America's earlier nineteenth-century poetry anthologies, offers another definition: "A great poem is topical, occasional, or not, but it must transcend that occasion. It has the power of generality, and the power to make myth in itself. In the presence of great poetry, we feel pleasure not unmixed with astonishment and terror."

The anthology tries to achieve it all. Poems in the collection speak of moments of anguish, rapture, and the sudden, intense realization when the soul takes flight. The sublime haunts the lines of T. S. Eliot in "Marina,"

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the
What images return
O my daughter.

Robert Penn Warren's "Heart of Autumn" arcs toward an exuberant instant as the speaker watches a flock of geese in vee formation.

Path of logic, path of folly, all
The same--and I stand, my face lifted now skyward,
Hearing the high beat, my arms outstretched in the tingling
Process of transformation, and soon tough legs,

With folded feet, trail in the sounding vacuum of passage,
And my heart is impacted with a fierce impulse
To unwordable utterance--
Toward sunset, at a great height.

Other poems in the anthology remain more firmly grounded in the material, yet their propulsive movement, humor, and vivid metaphor sing of the American experience. Robert Francis writes of the art of pitching, Bessie Smith's lyrics speak of "the empty bed blues," and May Swenson describes the explosive action of a bronco-busting cowboy.

"In this anthology, there is no single definition of poetry at work," says O'Brien. "It represents a generation of poets that suddenly felt called upon and capable of reinventing poetry from the ground up." The publication of American Poetry comes during a boom. Attendance at poetry readings and poetry slams has risen, book sales are up, more and more college students are enrolling in creative writing programs, and poetry workshops are thriving.

"There is a hunger for authentic literary content," says Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America. "People are looking for something real amidst a culture characterized by the retailing of chatter."

By uniting authors of wide-ranging styles with their contemporaries, the anthology offers a context. "These volumes will make it clear that styles associated with recent decades have deep roots," says O'Brien. "The Beats, such as Allen Ginsberg, have an ancestor in John Reed and his poem 'America in 1918.' Experimental and protest poetry both have rich histories that stretch back to the turn of the century."

"At the beginning of the century, there was a sense of cohesion and tremendous energy," Marjorie Perloff comments. "People believed that by being a poet you could make a difference. Much of the poetry from this time lasts because it creates new and interesting problems for the next generations." Muriel Rukeyser sounds this note of invitation in "The Speed of Darkness," when she asks, who will speak these days?

My night awake
staring at the broad rough jewel
the copper roof across the way
thinking of the poet
yet unborn in this dark
who will be the throat of these hours.
No. Of those hours.
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?

About the Author

Rachel Galvin is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.

Funding Information

NEH has provided $250,000 in funding for the publication of the two volumes of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. For details about poetry events scheduled to celebrate the anthology's publication, please call 212-308-3360 or visit the Library of America online a

The Carnegie Corporation has contributed $1 million to NEH for a special program to provide eight hundred small public libraries with volumes of the Library of America and opportunities for educational programming. The program will be administered by NEH in cooperation with the American Library Association and the Library of America. Information on how to apply will be available this summer.