René Laidlaw



On Gutter Verse

From an Unsympathic Country Gentleman to his Town Cousin,
who writes for Magazines


Literatur: Laidlaw
Literatur: The Century Magazine


My dear Gerald:

You are right. I am a narrow kind of person. No doubt it comes from living out of doors a great deal, not among thousands of people whom one does n't know and is glad not to know, as city people must live. I am old-fashioned; perhaps that is why I still take poetry seriously.

All the same, there is something not a little amusing in the recent discovery so many of you young poets have made that the streets of an American city have their beauty, after all, and that if this beauty is not always classical, the street is at least brightly colored with the strangeness and antithesis, lend themselves to literary uses, as where one of you sings, "The Subway: 96th Street to 137th Street," not without cataloguing all the unpleasent types, male and female, who brush against you in the stage-coach of the under-world.

But it is not the strident note, Gerald, that amuses me, and certainly not any sense of the comic displayed by your band of urban laureates. It is your complacent manner of seeming to tell outsiders like me, "I have discoveed all this – no one before me!" Granted that Manhattan is, as a friend of yours has cried out in a magazine, "a mysterious and lovely true city of romance," was it any one of you who found it out? Has the "bad eminence" of the town as poetic material been left so long to be discovered?

It would be unkind of a country cousin who spends his winter evenings in his library to presuppose a knowledge of Villon on any city man's part, yet Villon put Paris at its muddiest into rimes. Of course I realize that very few modern magazinists (which is the newest neologism, I believe) read anything in French literature earlier than Zola; but does n't Zola himself praise city streets as "enough for any poet"? Some of you don't read French; Very well, then; there is Browning, there is James Thomson, there are Kipling and Henley, Davidson and Arthur Symons, and the rest; they have turned out not a little gutter verse, and good verse at that. In America, Aldrich wrote gloomily and Whitman triumphantly of Ellis Island and "mast-hemm'd Manhattan," river and sunset, and "scallop-edg'd" waves of flood-tide. In prose, Whitman describes the town as "endless humanity in all its phases" that are, in combination, "comforting, even heroic, beyond statement." Do you know Stedman's "Pan in Wall Street"? Do you know Gilder's verse? For Gilder brought ideality to every theme he touched.

Whitman is, you say, the only modern Titan. I don't agree with you in all your enthusiasm, but I won't contradict you. Whitman, the democrat, the optimist, saw the artistic possibilities of the great city no more clearly than did a pessimist like Lafcadio Hearn, appalled though Hearn was by the "cascading thunder" of your streets, to which he came out of the lazy West Indies; the harshness of your rushing civilization, the oppressive sense of world-force and mind-power, as he called it at all. "The houses eleven stories high", he wrote (he would make them higher now), "that seem to be trying to climb into the moon, the tremendous streets and roads" – all these things crushed him to earth. To Gorky, coming to New York out of Russia, the city sky-line suggested "a pair of great jaws with molars and bicuspids." And you poets who, since all these writers, have glorified Manhattan, dwell for the most part upon the cruelty of its strength; upon its wastefulness of human life, human hopes, human character. Despite all that, you would have us love it, this monster, as [635] Indian fanatics loved their fearsome Juggarnaut. You have the air of saying, with the Goncourts, "Nothing is less poetic than Nature and natural things." You translate Boileau's "Etudier la cour et connaissez la ville," "Know the town by heart and study the back yard." Always you subscribe to Baudelaire's sentiment, "Je t'aime, O capitale infâme!" Baudelaire being your archpriest of

Hospitals, brothels, prisons, and like hells.

"Strong" though some of you realistic poets seem to timid nostrils, you are not really strong. You are imitators of one another, and of greater, naughtier predecessors. It is impossible to take you seriously, Gerald. Little though there is of it to place in evidence, great poetry may no doubt be inspired by dun towns, as by green fields. Either the one or the other is, according as you envisage and depict it, commonplace or exotic. Larger sincerity is what you city poets should strive for to-day; John Masefield, in England, – for all he is a bar-room Byron, – has it, however ugly his theme and coarse his language. As for his American competitors, let them understand themselves before they try to interpret the Babel of all their fellow-citizens. Let them learn, too, to write verse that is not noisier than the hurdygurdy in the back street and the motor-siren in the avenue. You have no good cause for self-congratulation on having escaped criticism, either self-applied or from without. Absurd to a degree is the prejudice which your public entertains in favor of anything in poetry or painting, that drags in Brooklyn Bridge, the Third Avenue Elevated, or a boxing exhibition under the Frawley Act. It is a phase of our culture, healthy enough as a phase. "How clever he is!" we say of the young poet, "to have heard iambic pentameters in the racket of a Times Square New Year's Eve, or to have vibrated with a rhythmic beauty in the McAdoo Tube!"

But is n't contemporaneous admiration of these artistic acrobatics a little like an earlier generation's weakness for a wine-closet that looked like a bookcase, and for folding-beds closely resembling grand pianos in repose?

Forgive me, Gerald, if only as a doddering old mossback. I 'm better than some people, anyway: I do read your verses!





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Century Magazine.
Bd. 84, 1912, Nr. 4, August, S. 634-635.

Gezeichnet: René Laidlaw.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Century Magazine   online







Literatur: Laidlaw

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Essig, Rolf-Bernhard: Der offene Brief. Geschichte und Funktion einer publizistischen Form von Isokrates bis Günter Grass. Würzburg 2000 (= Epistemata; Reihe Literaturwissenschaft, 267).

Hamburger, Michael: 1912. In: Ders., Reason and Energy. Studies in German Literature. London 1957, S. 213-236.

Jauß, Hans R.: Kunst als Anti-Natur: Zur ästhetischen Wende nach 1789. In: Ders., Studien zum Epochenwandel der ästhetischen Moderne. Frankfurt a.M. 1989 (= suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft, 864), S. 119-156.

Jauß, Hans R.: Ursprünge der Naturfeindschaft in der Ästhetik der Moderne. In: Romantik: Aufbruch zur Moderne. Hrsg. von Karl Maurer u.a. München 1991 (= Romanistisches Kolloquium, 5), S. 357-382.

Katsaros, Laure: New York - Paris. Whitman, Baudelaire, & the Hybrid City. Ann Arbor 2012.

Matthews-Schlinzig, Marie I. u.a. (Hrsg.): Handbuch Brief. Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart. 2 Bde. Berlin u. Boston 2020.

Newcomb, John T.: How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse. Urbana, Ill. u.a. 2012.



Literatur: The Century Magazine

Bacot, Jean-Pierre: The Iillustrated London News et ses déclinaisons internationales: un siècle d'influence. In: L'Europe des revues II (1860-1930). Réseaux et circulations des modèles. Hrsg. von Évanghélia Stead u. Hélène Védrine. Paris 2018, S. 35-47.

Bond, J. Arthur: 'Applying the Standards of Intrinsic Excellence': Nationalism and Arnoldian Cultural Valuation in the Century Magazine. In: American Periodicals. A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography. 9 (1999), S. 55-73.

Kane, Louise: The Century and the Quality Magazines. In: The Routledge Companion to the British and North American Literary magazine. Hrsg. von Tim Lanzendörfer. London u. New York 2022, S. 285-294.

Noonan, Mark J.: Reading The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. American Literature and Culture, 1870-1893. Kent, OH 2010.



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