Arthur Davison Ficke



Modern Tendencies in Poetry


Literatur: Ficke
Literatur: The North American Review


English poetry of today is notoriously the scene of an opposition which to some observers seems the rebellion of new life against sterile and petrified forms, while to others it appears as the menace of anarchy against order and beauty. Almost as clearly marked as in the economic world, the conservative and the radical forces are at work. The making of poetry is the aim of both, but they march under two irreconcilable banners. One of these is the very modern attempt to find some new and more flexible form in which can be expressed accurately the honest and unsentimental poetry of the modern mind; the other is the effort to invest the raw vigor of our modernity with that glamor of formal beauty which marks the classic tradition of the older poets. Between these two camps a merry war is waging; and it is an open question whether the impatience of the Revolutionists to ward the Traditionalists, or the distaste of the Traditionalists for the Revolutionists, is the greater.

In any examination of the Revolutionary poetry, it is best to put aside this little quarrel, and to approach the new poems as one would a theatre – willing to be entertained, but not determined to be. Some readers will take up the modern work with minds haunted by the ghosts of poets who died before the new poets were born; and these will find it difficult to regard the birth of poetry as coincident with the origin of any modern cult. In fact, many lovers of the old tradition appear to have great trouble in keeping good-tempered in the face of some of the claims made by the advanced poets. It would be well if these apoplectic critics would remind themselves that an open mind is acceptable to God and profitable to man. As they confront the novel and sometimes startling attempts of radical enthusiasts, they [439] might advantageously recall history and be a little humble. The revolts of each rising generation have always seemed to each passing generation like perverse breaches of immutable laws; yet time has often made it clear that it was only against the very mutable and sometimes stupid misinterpretation of laws that the rebellion of the younger wills was directed. Thus the pathetic comedy goes on from generation to generation; and the old past fights bitterly against the rising tide of the young future. May heaven spare us the humiliation of acting so dull a part in so grotesque a drama! May we be ready to welcome all in the new poetry that is beautiful even though it come dressed in an unfamiliar beauty!

On the other hand it would be a pity to abandon completely the attitude of the sceptic mind – of the mind from Missouri. It is not wholly a sign of senility to demand evidence that the new is good before we discard the old. Change is, indeed, the condition of growth, in art as in life. But not all motion in the arts is progress, nor are all movements to be regarded as Crusades toward the Holy Sepulchre. In the arts, as in life, there are many blind alleys, many meaningless expeditions; and no one wants to be tricked into adherence to one of these. Faith in the necessity of progress need not drive the enthusiast to such a pitch of desperation that he joins every Coxey's Army that marches shouting through the streets.

Whatever we may think of the new poetry, we must perceive in it four sharply marked elements. These are the demand for complete metrical freedom; the insistence on hard actuality of images; the adoption of an attitude of humor, irony, or grotesqueness in even the most serious poems; and an absolute frankness and shamelessness as to the content of the poet's work.

Of these elements it is the metrical freedom that stands out most obviously. The extremists of the new school look with distrust on the established verse-forms. They feel that the constraint of any regular metrical system is an intolerable prison to the spirit of the poet. Following the example of recent French poets, they demand that the integrity of the poet's meaning be poured into song whose cadences are born solely of the moment's emotion and are not responsible for conformity to any recurrent order of rhyme or rhythm. Such a theory produces verse whose lines are of irregular length, [440] whose dominant movement may change at any moment, and from which rhyme is usually absent. At its worst this verse is an abomination; at its best it is a very subtle medium for the expression of certain kinds of feeling.

As all educated Revolutionists admit, though the name vers libre is new, the thing itself is not. In fact, it is a very ancient thing, which has been used admirably by the most classic of all the English poets, Milton. In the Choruses of Samson Agonistes he employs such free verse as no modern Revolutionary poet is likely to surpass. Hence if we protest against free verse, we set ourselves counter not only to the modernists of today but also to the classicists of yesterday. As Milton saw, regular rhythms do not fill every need. Not all themes fit themselves into conventionalized sound-patterns. Sometimes, as in Samson Agonistes, an effect of peculiar dryness and hardness is wanted which regular verse would be unable to supply. Also there are cases in which life strikes the emotion of the poet in broken flashes – in swift chaotic fragmentary perceptions; and to record these, free verse is an unsurpassed medium. For all these reasons there is no sense whatever in the popular objections that have been raised to the free verse of the modern poet.

It is only with those who proclaim free verse to be the sole possible poetic medium that one has a right to quarrel. There are such poets; and in their attempt to create a cult of free verse they make themselves very ridiculous. Because the carpenter finds the hatchet useful for certain kinds of work is hardly a reason for throwing the saw out of the window. Milton knew very much better. Though he used free verse when he chose, he employed the regular metres and the sonnet in a manner that has not been surpassed. Great artist that he was, he adapted his medium to his purpose. He knew what all poets will be wise to recognize today: that certain effects in poetry are wholly impossible without the use of regular rhythms and rhyme.

The reason for this fact is derived from the very nature of the art. It is based on the absolute necessity of carrying the lulled spirit of the reader on waves of recurrent sound into a state of suspended consciousness – a kind of visionary trance in which the mind, deaf for a moment to the distractions of the world around it, will see singly and solely the dream which the poet puts before it. The emotion-heightening, hypnotic power of regular rhythms and recurrent [441] rhymes is in many instances the whole basis of that peculiar somnambulistic effect which is the special magic of poetry. Emotion is the secret of it all; and some emotions answer to the call of rhyme and rhythm as to almost nothing else. Rhythm seizes the thread of one's thought as might a current, and intertwines with it, and draws it down into remote subterranean caverns of the spirit unvisited by the every-day consciousness.

The sole debatable question that arises is: How regular must the rhythm be to produce the desired trance-like effect? When the degree of trance desired is not very intense, as in poems that keep close to the surface-details of observed reality, the beat of the verse may safely be reduced to a minimum. But when one wishes to lift the reader into regions of passionate ecstasy and to arouse the profoundest and most primal emotions, one will have to resort to a more powerful stimulus and carry the reader farther away from every-day reality on the flow of these hypnotic waves of sound. For ironic comments on the human comedy around us, for pictures of the common stage on which we do our little struttings, free verse is admirable; but it will seldom serve to transport us to the heights of religious experience, or to the depths of the black night of the soul, or to the sun swept levels of beauty-drunken happiness.

It is, in fact, difficult to escape the feeling that free verse, valuable though it is, is still in some obscure way incomplete verse – a rudimentary and not a final art-form. Many poets will agree that one resorts to free verse chiefly when what one has to say is not completely crystallized, or when one's emotion is not at its most intense pitch, or when one wishes to note down a series of impressions that have not yet fully combined into one concentrated pattern. For one case in which free verse has been used as Milton used it, – out of deliberate and conscious choice, – there are a thousand cases in which it has been employed solely because the writer had not carried the inner processes of composition far enough to poetize his material completely. When the mind is a blaze of sudden revelation, and the poet's theme glows into thorough transparency of white heat, he will usually find that what he has to say flows rapidly and perfectly into the smooth mould of regular verse-forms; but when the intensity of his impulse is a little lower, and all kinds of comments, reflections, minor observations, and clever plays of word and thought are [442] mixed with his truly poetical material, then he can give much more complete and appropriate expression to his idea in the less intense rhythms of free verse.

The new poets have made no mistake in using free verse. Their only error has been in committing themselves to it with too blind an exclusiveness.

Beyond the matter of rhythm lies another feature of the new poetry – that very interesting theory of writing called Imagism. The Imagists attempt to present to the reader a clear, exact, sharp picture of objects and episodes; after this, they allow the reader himself to evoke from this presentation those comments, reflections, emotions, and overtones which form so large a part of ordinary poetry. The Imagist would not say "mournful waves" or "bleak coast"; he would refuse to comment thus: he would prefer "lead-gray waves" and "splintered coast." He would attempt to find the precise word "which brings the effect of the object to the reader as the writer saw it," and would present his scene with that impersonal interest in the scene itself which is the peculiar characteristic of modern painting. He would avoid all flamboyant words, all set phrases, and keep his speech hard, spare, clean-cut, economical. He would express even the most general ideas, even the most abstract conceptions, by means of the concrete manner and the definite embodiment of beauty.

This theory has great fascination. The practice of the theory by the professed Imagists has, however, been disappointing up to the present time. The poems which follow are from among those which the Imagists themselves praise. Here is one of the most admired of Imagist productions, Oread, by <Mr.>. Richard Aldington:

Whirl up, sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

There is, indeed, a certain vividness of tumult expressed in this likening of the wind-tossed sea to a wind-tossed pine forest. But it seems attenuated, over-stressed; and such a minutely treated theme for a poem, after all! Surely a morbid fear of elaboration has impelled the writer to resort to [443] such a mere adumbration of her thought. It suggests an unwholesome veneration for even the most fragmentary of her perceptions. Compare it with any of the short poems of that supreme lyricist, William Blake, and observe how thin it seems.

Here is another Imagist poem by Mr. Ezra Pound, called April; it is almost meaningless because of this same parsimony:

Three spirits came to me
And drew me apart
To where the olive boughs
Lay stripped upon the ground:

Pale carnage beneath bright mist.

The principle of hard conciseness has here been carried too far. It is the method of Japanese poetry reduced to madness. But here is an incomparably better and perhaps a more characteristic specimen of Imagism, by Miss Amy Lowell; it is called White and Green:

Hey!   My daffodil-crowned,
Slim and without sandals!
As the sudden spurt of flame upon darkness
So my eyeballs are startled with you,
Supple-limbed youth among the fruit-trees,
Light runner through tasseled orchards.
You are an almond flower unsheathed
Leaping and flickering between the budded branches.

Thus the Imagist attempts to give you a clear, sharp word-picture of the thing seen, without making any attempt to tell you what emotions this thing evokes in him or should evoke in you. He hopes, by presenting just the right details, to make you do your own feeling, and to convey to you the implications of the scene described with a sharpness all the greater because of his withholding of his own comments. Of course, the Imagist is not unique in this aim. There is a perfect example of Imagism in Burns's line:

The white moon is setting behind the white wave,

and in Keats's:

The sedge is withered by the lake
And no birds sing.

In the words of these poets, however, the Imagistic passages stand in intelligible relation to greater wholes; they are [444] merely the bits out of which the artist composes his wide mosaic. The real Imagists, on the other hand, too often for get the whole for the part; they too often are content to put down vivid little trifles as if they were completed pictures. Many Imagist poems are merely such fragmentary bits of color, such momentary sketches, as a great artist puts down in his note-book for later use in a larger composition.

There is a third element very strikingly present in the new poetry: this is its revolt against sweetness and prettiness. It appears sometimes as brutality, sometimes as irony, sometimes as grotesqueness. As one might stamp, swearing furiously, out of some over-scented boudoir, – so many of the Revolutionary poets give expression to their contempt for the softness and sugariness of the older poetry. This is not an altogether new phenomenon; it has occurred before in all the arts as a sign of vigor and fresh life. It offends the godly, but it wakes them up. It is one of the healthiest signs in our modern work. Sometimes it takes a less violent form, as it did in the work of a poet who was in other respects a Revolutionist, – Rupert Brooke, – and becomes an insistence on the ugly, the humiliating, the repulsive aspects of life. Tired of high-flown idealizations and hot-house bouquets, Brooke shows us Helen of Troy in old age,

. . . . . . a scold
Haggard with virtue. . . . .
Oft she weeps gummy-eyed and impotent;
Her dry shanks twitch at Paris' mumbled name.

This kind of thing has its tonic value; it is the other half of the story, the dark of the moon. And though it would be a pity if the vigor of the new movement spent itself wholly in grotesques of this variety, they show a healthy scepticism, a healthy contempt for the humiliating position of the human animal; and their place is just as legitimate as is that of the gargoyles grinning down from cathedral buttresses.

Nevertheless, some critics have abused Mr. Edgar Lee Masters for the gloom and savagery of his Spoon River portraits; and the other day a certain reviewer took a book to task because it was not "heartening," and because the dramatis personae of the lyrics were all "wise and bitter and weary and generally disillusioned and disillusionizing." As if it were necessary for a poet to write with a pie-smile on [445] his face! One writes of life as one sees it; and the new writers, impatient with the shallow optimism of

God's in his heaven,
All's right with the world,

are trying to set down their sense of the confusions and degradations and bafflements of life, as well as of its peaks in Darien. Mr. Masters or Mr. Carl Sandburg or Mr. Edwin Arlington Robinson would produce a fine absurdity, indeed, if they attempted to write with that confident optimism which is perfectly natural to Mr. Vachel Lindsay, and which is the true and proper way for Mr. Lindsay to write. But Mr. Lindsay's vork would have little value if its cheerfulness were its only or its finest quality.

This leads one to the last characteristic of the new poetry: its intellectual frankness. Until one stops to think about it, one does not realize how extensive the change in this matter has been. Fifty years ago the tradition of English poetry was simply overgrown with a thicket of Victorian pruderies and reticences. The hypocritical sentimentality of Tennyson's Arthurian ideal lay upon Mid-Victorian England like a blight; and few writers except Swinburne, who cared not a fig for devil, man, or Queen Victoria, dared make beauty out of the soul's or the body's nakedness. Now all this is past. Today it is possible for the sincere artist in verse to write of absolutely anything. He is no longer limited to that small segment of life which might have been considered proper for the sight of the Mid-Victorian young lady. He has once more the virile freedom of the Elizabethans, and may without fear or shame depict whatsoever aspect of life seems to his eyes significant or curious or beautiful.

In future years it will doubtless not be possible for the dispassionate critic to take the new poetry quite as seriously as, today, it takes itself. Such an observer may grow a little bewildered and even amused as he surveys our Schools and Movements – the Imagists and Vorticists and Spectricists and Patagonians and a Choric School, and Heaven only knows how many others. He will perhaps wonder wherein the revolutionary element of all these Revolutions lay, for he will see clearly that all the elements of our new poetry are in fact very old elements. But if he stops there, he will be a very bad critic indeed.

Something has really happened to us. The effort toward [446] freedom from dead conventions, displayed in the new poetry, has a significance greater than any actual accomplishment that the movement has so far produced. There is a genuine spiritual liberation behind even the most fantastic of the new poems, and an honest effort to explore, to invent, to widen the boundaries of the art. Though the technical results have been so far negligible, the moral results have been large. Today men are writing more honestly, more spontaneously, more vigorously, than at any time during the last quarter century; they are writing joyfully and shamelessly; they recognize no authority that cannot justify itself, no dogmas that are not lighted by living faith. They are trying to express real feelings and to devise patterns of verse appropriate to this expression.

A few years ago, men with no deep power over either thought or form were busily filling the magazines with sweet characterless rubbish. Since the death of the great Victorian poets, they had used the whole Tennysonian machinery in a facile, spiritless, over-ornamented way, without any of that underlying greatness of spirit which made this rather absurd machinery forgivable in the hands of Tennyson. People had come to think that regular rhythms, rhymes, and a good deal of talk about "azure argosies" and "hillsides vernal" and "argent panoplies" and "light supernal" constituted the badge of the modern poet; and that fine poetry had really died with Queen Victoria.

Then came the Revolution. It came as a part of that general revolution which has been working upheaval in all the arts. Our day has seen every artist, be he musician, painter, sculptor, or poet, forced to take stock of his soul's goods and to look around him with fresh eyes. We have seen in music the growth of a new order of composition – an order in which the formal patterns of Mozart and Beethoven seem shattered into strange discontinuous tones, imperfect satisfactions of the waiting ear, discords as haunting as they are unexpected. In the field of painting, men whom we can no longer dismiss with a nod as charlatans, – men like Cézanne and Matisse, – have been abandoning the hard-won classic perfection of Titian and Raphael, and have been insisting that the painter must return to the freshness and integrity of his own emotional perception of nature, in all its starkness and crudity.

Even so in poetry, this revolution has worked in salutary ways. It shattered the illusion that all the poets were dead, [447] and that the pseudo-Tennysonian poetry of the magazines remained as their sole relique on earth. The Revolutionists demanded true feeling and appropriate expression instead of empty rhetoric. They assaulted the great. They tried preposterous experiments. They made the world feel that there was, after all, dynamite and a volcano at the heart of poetry. For this, let us give them profound thanks.

But after we have given them this, their intensity of effort need not make us feel that the stars of our youth have gone out. These insurgencies have not touched the glory of Milton or Shelley or Shakespeare. The old beauty remains beautiful, though it does not flatter us with the sense that we have discovered its secret for the first time today; and the principles of aesthetic creation endure precisely as they were in the days of King David the Psalmist. In the arts, liberty is not all, nor all-important. There is no virtue in just the free and untrammeled expression of our personalities, in free verse or any other verse; the root of the matter is to discover and use that medium, that pattern and rhythm, into which our personal emotion can be poured and there take on the lineaments of an impersonal and intelligible beauty. It is of very little consequence if you or I cry out our hearts; it is of great consequence if we can turn our hearts' cry into the measures of a perfect song. In any art, nothing ultimately matters but the aesthetic element; and the aesthetic element is not necessarily inherent in even the most sincere and spontaneous outpouring of feeling. Liberty from formal restraint is therefore worthless unless it leads to some further and finer discovery of formal law. The chief danger of the new poetry is that it often seems in its practice to forget this positively platitudinous axiom. Form! – it is everything. Not in the stupid academic sense of precedented models, but in the sense of that fine harmony between the artist's meaning and his manner which is the parallel of those rare human moments when there is achieved a real concordance of body and soul.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The North American Review.
Bd. 204, 1916, Nr. 730, September, S. 438-447.

Gezeichnet: Arthur Davison Ficke.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The North American Review   online







Literatur: Ficke

Begnal, Michael S.: "Bullets for Hands": Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and the Spectra Poems of World War I. In: Twentieth-Century Literature 64.2 (2018), S. 223–246.

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Ficke, Arthur Davison: The Present State of Poetry. In: The North American Review. Bd. 194, 1911, Nr. 670, Sepember, S. 429-441.

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Literatur: The North American Review

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer