Amy Lowell

Tendencies in Modern American Poetry







[V] IT is impossible for any one writing to-day not to be affected by the war. It has overwhelmed us like a tidal wave. It is the equinoctial storm which bounds a period. So I make no apology for beginning a book of poetical essays with a reference to the war. In fact, the war and the subject of this volume are not so far apart as might at first appear.

The so-called "new movement" in American poetry is evidence of the rise of a native school. The welding together of the whole country which the war has brought about, the mobilizing of our whole population into a single, strenuous endeavour, has produced a more poignant sense of nationality than has recently been the case in this country of enormous spaces and heterogeneous population. Hyphens are submerged in the solid overprinting of the word "America." We are no more colonies of this or that other land, but ourselves, different from all other peoples whatsoever.

It is this realization of ourselves that has drawn us into an understanding sympathy with our allies hardly to be conceived of before. And let us make no mistake; such a result cannot be reached through a devotion to the teachings of materialism. The real truth is that at a time when most people were bewailing the growth of [VI] materialism, already, beneath the surface, the seething of a new idealism was in process.

Long before the shadow of battle flung itself over the world, the travail of this idealism began. Slowly, painfully, it took on a shape, hidden away in the dreams and desires of unknown men.

Literature is rooted to life, and although a work of art is great only because of its æsthetic importance, still its very æstheticism is conditioned by its sincerity and by the strength of its roots. Posterity cares nothing for the views which urged a man to write; to it, the poetry, its beauty as a work of art, is the only thing which matters. But that beauty could not exist without the soil from which it draws its sustenance, and it is a fact that those works of art which are superficial or meretricious do certainly perish remarkably soon. This is why time alone can determine a man's fate. Tinsel can be made to look extraordinarily like gold; it is only wear which rubs off the plating.

To a certain extent, the change which marks American poetry has been going on in the literature of other countries also. But not quite in the same way. Each country approaches an evolutionary step from its own racial angle, and they move alternately, first one leads and then another, but all together, if we look back a century or so, move the world forward into a new path. At the moment of writing, it is America who has taken the last, most advanced step.

It is not my intention, here, to combat the opinions of the conservatives. Conservatives are always with us, they have been opposing change ever since the days of the cave-men. But, fortunately for mankind, they [VII] agitate in vain. Already the more open minded see that the change going on in the arts is not a mere frivolous interest in experiment. Already the reasons for difference begin to stand out clearly. We who watch realize something of the grandeur of conception toward which this evolution is working.

The modem poets are less concerned with dogma and more with truth. They see in the universe a huge symbol, and so absolute has this symbol become to them that they have no need to dwell constantly upon its symbolic meaning. For this reason, the symbol has taken on a new intensity, and is given much prominence. What appear to be pure nature poems are of course so, but in a different way from most nature poems of the older writers; for nature is not now something separate from man, man and nature are recognized as a part of a whole, man being a part of nature, and all falling into a place in a vast plan, the key to which is natural science.

In some modern American poets this attitude is more conscious than in others, but all have been affected by it; it has modified poetry, as it is more slowly modifying the whole of our social fabric.

What sets the poets of to-day apart from those of the Victorian era is an entire difference of outlook. Ideas believed to be fundamental have disappeared and given place to others. And as poetry is the expression of the heart of man, so it reflects this change to its smallest particle.

It has been my endeavour in these essays to follow this evolution, in the movement as a whole, and also in the work of the particular poets who compose it. I have tried [VIII] to show what has led each of these men to adopt the habit of mind which now characterizes him, why he has been forced out of one order into another; how his ideas have gradually taken form in his mind, and in what way he expresses this form in his work. I have pointed out his ancestry, physical as well as mental, and have noted where atavism has held him back, where pushed him forward.

I wish I had space to consider all the men and women whose work has aided to make this movement vigorous and important. But that must be left to future literary historians. Still, it is with regret that I pass by the work of Mr. Louis Untermeyer and Mr. James Oppenheim, of Mr. Ezra Pound and Mr. Vachel Lindsay, of Mr. William Rose Benét and Mrs. Eunice Tietjens, and others as well, but the main tendencies of which they are a part have been considered under other names. It is true that at a first glance Mr. Lindsay does not seem to fall very readily into any of these groups, but I think a closer attention will find him to be rather popularizing the second stage of the movement than heading a completely new tendency of his own.

As to those poets who still cling to an older order, of course, in such a volume as this, their work can find no place however excellent it may be in itself.

How shall one write a book of literary criticism? What weight shall one lay on biography; what on æsthetics? I quite agree with that brilliant disciple of Signor Benedetto Croce, Mr. J. E. Spingarn, that the criticism of art should be first, foremost, and all the time, æsthetic. As I have already said, its æsthetic value is, in the final summing up, the only value of a work of art, as such. But life, [IX] too, has a right to its criticism, and to the lover of poetry the life which conditioned the poems also has its charm. Therefore I have considered these poets as men and artists.

It is my good fortune to know all these poets, but I have tried not to let friendship interfere with opinion. Still it is possible that personal intercourse may have led to a closer understanding of aims and motives than I realize. That it has enabled me to round out the brief biographies submitted to me by the poets themselves, I am well aware. The facts of a man's life tell very little, unless one also knows the man; and a couple of pages of dates and occupations alone would certainly not have enabled me to write as I have done, had not the memory of many conversations come to my aid.

My thanks, therefore, are chiefly due to the poets themselves, who have helped me with all the information they had to give and with outlines of the events of their lives. The photographs here reproduced I owe to their kindness. I am also indebted to the courtesy of various publishers for permission to reprint the poems which appear in the text. To The Macmillian Company for extracts from Mr. Robinson's volumes, "Captain Craig," "The Man Against the Sky," and "Merlin," and from Mr. Masters' volumes, "The Spoon River Anthology," "Songs and Satires," and "The Great Valley"; to Messrs. Henry Holt and Company for poems reprinted from Mr. Frost's books, "A Boy's Will," "North of Boston," and "Mountain Interval," and from Mr. Sandburg's volume, "Chicago Poems"; to Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin and Company for the quotations from "H. D."'s "Sea [X] Garden," and Mr. Fletcher's "Irradiations – Sand and Spray" and "Goblins and Pagodas"; to Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons for the poems, "The Children of the Night," "John Evereldown," "Richard Cory," and "Cliff Klingenhagen," from Mr. Robinson's "The Children of the Night," and "The Master," "Doctor of Billiards," and "How Annandale Went Out," from the same author's "The Town Down the River"; to The New Republic Company for Mr. Fletcher's "Clipper-Ships;" and to The Four Seas Company for the same author's Japanese poems. I should also add that certain parts of these essays have appeared in "The New Republic," "The Poetry Journal," and "The Poetry Review," and that the nucleus of the volume was a course of lectures delivered at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in January, 1917.

It is impossible for the judgment of any one critic to be final. In fact, no contemporary criticism can make any such pretence. Hitherto, American students have felt this so strongly that practically no serious consideration of contemporary work has been attempted. Other countries, however, are not so modest. France, particularly, delights in analyzing the art of the time. The French realize that a contemporary can often reveal facets in an author's work which may be hidden from posterity, that certain nuances can only be apprehended by a person living under the same conditions. This must be my excuse for attempting a study of living authors. Also, that they are poets. For, recently, in England and America, a movement has started which has taken form in various little booklets, monographs of this and that novelist for [XI] the most part. Poetry has not been touched upon; and this is strange, for poetry, far more than fiction, reveals the soul of humanity. Poets are always the advance guard of literature; the advance guard of life. It is for this reason that their recognition comes so slowly.
                            AMY LOWELL.
    July 1, 1917.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Amy Lowell: Tendencies in Modern American Poetry.
New York: The Macmillan Company 1917, S. V-XI.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).






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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer