Edgar Jepson



Recent United States Poetry


Literatur: Jepson
Literatur: The English Review


[419] THERE is in the United States to-day a new school of poetry – United States poetry; and its seat is fittingly Chicago, the typical city. It is claimed for its poets that they are "securely rooted in their native soil"; that their poetry is "so much concerned with United States life and so much a part of it that it may be said to be becoming genuinely national"; that it is "creating a new diction, a new idiom, and it is going to be a much more fluid thing than English critics have any idea of"; that it has "unique features"; and that "unless one realises the new, autochthonic note" in United States poetry to-day – in the most distinctive United States poetry, that is – one realises nothing of the subtle impulses and forces that are at work to create a new poetic environment for the coming generation.

Steel rails, declares a leader of the school, journalism, moving pictures, popular tales and songs, local festivals, world's fairs, clamorous cities, will force United States poets "from their long eastward gazing, their obstinate residence in the Atlantic States, their more obstinate preoccupation with the arts and literature of feudal Europe. They will go West, leaving Europe, even new Europe, behind. And in that day our art, our literature, will cease to be provincial, will resume the continental habit which began with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. At last they will have to follow the people, obey the people's need of them."

These are indeed great claims.

Fortunately, the school has its accredited masters, stamped authentic by the award of prizes for poems by the school itself. They are its chief representatives; their poetry is the fine flower of its growth – Messrs. Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost.

I will not dwell on Mr. Vachel Lindsay's prize poem, [420] "The Chinese Nightingale: A Song in Chinese Tapestries," because, to me, it is not sufficiently of the school, not genuine United States. I feel that its inspiration, unconscious doubtless, was the "Ingoldsby Legends," that much of its music was drawn from them, with now and again an echo from Poe – verse like this:

Do you remember ages after,
At last the world we were born to own?
You were the heir of the yellow throne –
The world was the field of the Chinese man,
And we were the pride of the sons of Han.
We copied deep books, and we carved in jade,
And wove white silks in the mulberry shade. . .

          "I remember, I remember,
          That Spring came on for ever,
          That Spring came on for ever,"
          Said the Chinese nightingale.

Harmless enough verse; but for me neither new, nor autochthonic, nor poetry.

To my mind, "The Firemen's Ball: A Poem to be Chanted," is far more of the school, autochthonic. It begins with a canto in which "the music of the ball imitates the burning of a great building, to be read or sung in a heavy buzzing bass, as of fire-engines pumping":

"Give the engines room –
Give the engines room!"
Louder, faster,
The little band-master
Whips up the fluting,
Hurries up the tooting.
He thinks that he stands,
The reins in his hands,
In the fire-chief's place,
In the night-alarm chase.
The cymbals whang,
The kettle-drums bang;
"Clear the street,
Clear the street – boom, boom!"

Later it goes "shriller and higher":

"Buzz, buzz,"
Says the crowd.
"See, see!"
Calls the crowd.
"Look OUT!"
Yelps the crowd,
And the high walls fall.
Listen to the music
Of the firemen's ball;
Listen to the music
Of the firemen's ball.

[421] Later it goes "slow and soft in the manner of languorous, insinuating music":

" 'Tis the night of love,"
Call the silver joy-bells
"Night of love,"
Call the silver joy-bells.
        Honey and wine –
        Honey and wine:
Sing low now, violins,
Sing, sing low;
Blow gently, wood-wind,
Mellow and slow.
Like midnight poppies,
The sweethearts bloom;
Their eyes flash power,
Their lips are dumb;
Faster and faster
Their pulses come,
Though softer now
The drum-beats fall:
"Honey and wine,
Honey and wine."
'Tis the firemen's ball –
'Tis the firemen's ball.

Another much-acclaimed poem by this writer is "General William Booth Enters into Heaven (to be sung to the tune of 'The Blood of the Lamb' with indicated instruments)."

This is to be sung with bass drums:

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
The saints smiled gravely, and they said, "He's come."
   Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank.
Lurching bravos from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alley-ways and drug-fiends pale –
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail!
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of death –
   Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

In yet another vein, "The Booker Washington Trilogy," Mr. Lindsay writes in a poem called "A Negro Sermon – Simon Legree":

He beat kind Uncle Tom to death,
Who prayed for Legree with his parting breath,
Then Uncle Tom to Eva flew,
To the high sanctoriums bright and new.
And Simon Legree stared up beneath,
And cracked his heels, and ground his teeth:
        And went down to the devil.

I have quoted these seventy-six lines of Mr. Vachel Lindsay because he is, I gather, the chief master of the [422] school; and the bulk of his work is indeed concerned with United States life, genuinely national. Possibly he is creating the new diction, the new idiom, the greater fluidity the school desires. But for me, alas! it is not poetry. The bulk of it is just verse, and jingling verse at that.

Art is in the handling. It may be that Mr. Lindsay has the true poetic visions of "The Firemen's Ball," or of General Booth's entering heaven, or of Legree; he has failed in the expression and presentation of them. Consider such lines as "Hurries up the tooting," "In the night-alarm chase," "Their eyes flash power,"

And kettle-drums rattle
And hide the shame
With a swish and a swirk
In dead Love's name.

"Lurching bravos from the ditches dank," "Then Uncle Tom to Eva flew." Such lines raise no question of art as opposed to virtuosity, of rough intensity as opposed to polished feebleness; they are just rank bad workmanship – the bad workmanship of a man who has shirked. If Mr. Lindsay says, "I write for the great-hearted People of the Great Pure Republic; and it's quite good enough for them," I have nothing to say. He may be right. He ought to know. But if he tells me that this slipshod stuff is poetry, I say that it is not. He has shirked the work of hammering out his vision.

It may be that I am doing him an injustice, that it is a sheer failure of poetic power. But he can do much better; "The Scissors-Grinder" is on a very much higher level of vision and of workmanship. But it is not distinctly United States. He would do better to cut out the autochthonic. It is not for a poet to do stunts, but to express himself, his vision of the world, each part of it as it comes to him, as finely as he can.

With regard to "The Booker Washington Trilogy," I have a feeling that it is rather an impertinence. Why should a white man set out to become the poetic mouthpiece of the United States blacks, in a manner "bright-coloured, full-throated, relaxed, and tropical" – Mr. Lindsay's own description of his manner in this trilogy – or any other manner? These blacks have already made the only distinctively United States contributions to the arts – rag[423]time and buck-dancing. Surely it would be well to leave them to make their own distinctively United States contribution to poetry.

I have dwelt on Mr. Vachel Lindsay at this length because he would seem to be the acclaimed leader of the school, and because beside Mr. Edgar Lee Masters he is a veritable king of song.

The poem of Mr. Edgar Lee Masters which received the prize in 1916 is entitled, "All Life in a Life." It is a modernised version, or rather epitome, of the First Gospel. It goes like this:

                  He had a rich man or two
Who took up with him against the powerful frown
That looked him down.
For you'll always find a rich man or two
To take up with anything –
There are those who want to get into society, or bring
Their riches to a social recognition;
Or ill-formed souls who lack the real patrician
Spirit for life.
But as for him, he didn't care, he passed
Where the richness of living was rife;
And like wise Goethe talking to the last
With cabmen rather than with lords,
He sat about the markets and the fountains,
He walked about the country and the mountains,
Took trips upon the lakes and waded fords,
Barefooted; laughing as a young animal
Disports itself amid the festival
Of warm winds, sunshine, summer's carnival –
With labourers, carpenters, seamen,
And some loose women.
And certain notable sinners
Gave him dinners.

These lines rhyme indeed and now and again; they faintly recall to my mind Byron's "Don Juan"; but I am quite unable to conceive what they have to do with poetry. To me they are just bad, bald, prosy prose. They are marred by such cumbrous artificialities: "His hair was black as a sheep's wool that is black"; his parents "threatened him with bolts and bars"; he passed "where richness of living was rife."

Time makes amends usually for scandal's breath,
Which touched him to his earthly ruination.

What could be more painfully unsimple? His verse is wholly barren of rhythm, rhythmical construction, intensity, spontaneity, or beauty. I can find in it no poetic quality of any kind.

[424] Consider, again, these lines from "Arabel":

Arabel's sister says that Arabel's straight,
But she isn't, my boy – she's just like Arabel's sister.
She knew you had the madness for Arabel. –
That's why we laughed and stood apart as we talked.
And I'll tell you now I didn't go home that night;
I shook you at the corner and went back.

What has this bald staff to do with poetry? "She knew you had the madness for Arabel." What a clumsiness!

The chief prize was last November awarded to a poetic drama, "Grotesques," by Mr. Lloyd Head. Opening it at random I read:

GIRL (to herself, motionless) Who am I that come
          Caressing tenderly the sign of bird?
          A girl, in white, alone, beside the pattern brook
          I wander without fear, of fear not having heard.

I do not see what this has to do with the school, or indeed with poetry; and I prefer to deal with the poem to which the other prize was awarded, "Snow," by Mr. Robert Frost.

It tells at an amazingly tedious length how Brother Meserve, the head of a small sect and, I fancy – it is not at all clear – a farmer, rouses two neighbours on a stormy midnight on his way home through the snow, to rest and refresh himself and his horses, and talks to those neighbours and they to one another. This appears to me to be the best of it. Meserve speaks:

That leaf there in your open brook!   It moved
Just then, I thought.   It's stood erect like that,
There on the table, ever since I came,
Trying to turn itself backward or forward –
I've had my eye on it to make out which:
If forward, then it's with a friend's impatience –
You see, I know – to get you on to things
It wants to see how you will take; if backward,
It's for regret for something you have passed
And failed to see the good of.   Never mind,
Things must expect to come in front of us
A many times – I don't say just how many,
That varies with the things – before we see them.
One of the lies would make it out that nothing
Ever presents itself before us twice.
Where would we be at last if that were so?
Our very life depends on everything's
Recurring till we answer from within.

Here are a fancy – never mind the pathetic fallacy – and an idea. Admitting that they are of the stuff of poetry, [425] what of their presentation? To me, frankly, it is no more than a maundering dribble. Again I find it the work of a man who has shirked the labour of hammering out his idea into its right form.

These eighteen lines are the very best of the four hundred lines of which the poem consists. It ends thus:

If you mean he was inconsiderate
To rout us out to think for him at midnight
And then take our advice no more than nothing,
Why, I agree with you. But let's forgive him.
We've had a share in one night in his life,
What'll you bet he ever calls again?

This has exactly as much to do with poetry as it has with rat-catching. It is wretched prose. It is in no degree rooted in the soil, autochthonic. People dribble these toneless inanities all the world over in every tongue. Observe, too, the execrable "literary" falsity of the line: "We've had a share in one night of his life."

Always I find the music of these effusions so cheap, or so poor; and this poor music is common to the great bulk of all the recent United States poetry I have read. I sometimes think that this amazing lack of a sense of the beauty of words comes from the manner in which the language of the United States is spoken – that monotonous drone, generally nasal, or that monotonous nasal whine. I am assured that in some parts of the United States you may still hear musical speech; but I cannot believe that the speech of any of these three masters is musically modulated, or, indeed, modulated at all. How, then, should they begin even to write poetry?

I would cheerfully give the twelve hundred lines of these three prize poems for this single stanza of Mr. Ezra Pound:

Dawn enters with little feet,
Like a gilded Pavlova,
And I am near my desire.
Nor has life in it aught better
Than this hour of clear coolness,
The hour of waking together.

That stays in my mind. Of those twelve hundred lines none stay, except the imbecility: "Lurching bravos from the ditches dank," and a most unpleasant denizen it is.

To me the principles of the school are wrong. To the [426] human spirit steel rails, moving pictures, world's fairs, and journalism are irrelevant. They serve none of its uses. They are mere trade appurtenances; and with trade it has nothing to do. Should there ever come a poet who finds them relevant, a part of his vision of the world, well and good. If he is a poet the presentation of his vision may be full of steel rails, yet it will be poetry. To invite a poet to go West and lug steel rails into his vision because steel rails are of the Middle West is to ensure a full supply of these tedious artificialities to which the school has awarded prizes.

For me, at any rate, these fakements are not securely rooted in their native soil. Wholly of the surface, they are rooted in nothing. They create no new diction, no new idiom. They create nothing. There is no new, autochthonic note in them. They are as rancid as "Ben Hur." And to plaster one generation with weariness is, to my mind, no way to create a new poetic environment for the next. Worst of all, they are so easy to do; and I hold with Plato, χαλεπἀ τἀ καλἀ.

And what is this call to the poet to follow the people and obey the people's need? What has the fat-headed ruck of the United States, or any other country, to do with poetry? It has no need of it whatever.

But the queer and delightful thing is that in the scores of yards of pleasant verse and wamblings and yawpings which have been recently published in the Great Pure Republic I have found a poet, a real poet, who possesses in the highest degree the qualities the new school demands. Western-born of Eastern stock, Mr. T. S. Eliot is United States of the United States; and his poetry is securely rooted in its native soil; it has a new poetic diction; it is as autochthonic as Theocritus. It is new in form, as all genuine poetry is new in form; it is musical with a new music, and that without any straining after newness. The form and music are a natural, integral part of the poet's amazingly fine presentation of his vision of the world.

Could anything be more United States, more of the soul of that modern land, than "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"? It is the very wailing testament of that soul with its cruel clarity of sophisticated vision, its thin, sophisticated emotions, its sophisticated appreciation [427] of a beauty, and its sophisticated yearning for a beauty it cannot dare to make its own and so, at last, live.

This is in very truth the lover of the real, up-to-date United States:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –

        *       *       *       *       *      

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room
      So how should I presume.

And then the end:

I have heard mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves,
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea,
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown,
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Never has the shrinking of the modern spirit from life been expressed so exquisitely and with such truth.

Consider, again, that lovely poem, "La Figlia che Piange":

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair –
Lean on a garden urn –
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair –
Clasp, your flowers to you with a pained surprise –
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
[428] I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.

How delicate and beautiful in the emotion! How exquisite and beautiful the music! This is the very fine flower of the finest spirit of the United States. It would be the last absurdity for such a poet to go West and write for that plopp-eyed bungaroo, the Great-Hearted Young Westerner on the make. It seems incredible that this lovely poem should have been published in Poetry in the year in which the school awarded the prize to that lumbering fakement, "All Life in a Life."





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The English Review.
1918, Mai, S. 419-428.

URL: https://archive.org/details/englishreview051918londuoft

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The English Review   online
URL: https://modjourn.org/journal/english-review/
URL: https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=englishreview
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006946451





Kürzungen; neuer Titel; mit einer Anmerkung von Ezra Pound.




Literatur: Jepson

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.

Cole, Lori: Surveying the Avant-Garde. Questions on Modernism, Art, and the Americas in Transatlantic Magazines. University Park, Pennsylvania 2018.

Ernst, Jutta: Amerikanische Modernismen. Schreibweisen, Konzepte und zeitgenössische Periodika als Vermittlungsinstanzen. Würzburg 2018.
Vgl. S. 350-357.

Kappeler, Erin: Editing America. Nationalism and the New Poetry. In: Modernism/Modernity 21 (2014), S. 899-918.

Køhlert, Frederik B. (Hrsg.): Chicago. A Literary History. Cambridge 2021.

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

Pinkerton, Jan / Hudson, Randolph H. (Hrsg.): Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. New York 2004.



Literatur: The English Review

Attridge, John: "We Will Listen to None but Specialists': Ford, the Rise of Specialization, and the English Review. In: Ford Madox Ford: Literary Networks and Cultural Transformations. Hrsg. von Andrzej Gasiorek u. Daniel Moore. Amsterdam u.a. 2008 (= International Ford Madox Ford Studies, 7), S. 29-41.

Hammond, Meghan M.: English Review, American Specter: the Critical Attitude crosses the Atlantic. In: Ford Madox Ford and America. Hrsg. von Sara Haslam u. Seamus O'Malley. Amsterdam u.a. 2012 (= International Ford Madox Ford Studies, 11), S. 55-68.

Harding, Jason (Hrsg.): Ford Madox Ford, Modernist Magazines and Editing. Amsterdam u.a. 2010 (= International Ford Madox Ford Studies, 9)

Morrisson, Mark S.: The Public Face of Modernism. Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920. Madison, Wis. u.a. 2001.
Kap 1: The Myth of the Whole and Ford's English Review: Edwardian Monthlies, the Mercure de France, and Early British Modernism (S. 17-53).

Rogers, Stephen: Ford Madox Ford's English Review and the Launching of Modernism. In: Letteratura e Letterature 8 (2014), S. 59-70.

Vogeler, Martha S.: Austin Harrison and the English review. Columbia 2008.

Wulfman, Cliff: Ford Madox Ford and The English Review (1908-37). In: The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Hrsg. von Peter Brooker u.a. Bd. 2: North America 1894-1960. Oxford 2012, S. 226-239.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer