Marguerite Wilkinson
New Voices. An Introduction to Contemporary Poetry



The Reader's Approach to Contemporary Poetry




[1] LONG ago, in Jerusalem, was a pool called Bethesda. In our Bibles we find a quaint folk story of the life-giving power of this pool. From time to time an angel "troubled the waters," and then the sick and the infirm who went down first into the pool were healed of their infirmities.

Poetry is like the Pool of Bethesda. Until they have been plunged into eddies of rhythmical and imaginative beauty, many human intellects are, to a certain extent, sick and infirm. And sometimes the waters of the pool seem to be still, so that we are not aware of the divine life laboring in the spirit of the race to create waves and ripples of sound and sense by which we may be refreshed and strengthened. Then, after such periods of rest, comes the inspiration of the genius or of the group of strong singers, and the waters are "troubled." Those who go first into this life-giving movement are regenerated and rejuvenated by sharing the greatest joy of their own generation and its dynamic life. But others, fearing that they will be accused of bad taste if they take an interest in work that may not "live," stand aside, awaiting the decisive judgment of critics and scholars. For such men and women, afraid of their own taste, the waters are never troubled; and, as a result of their procrastination, their intellectual hauteur, they miss the invigorating gladness of hearing the greatest singers of their own period.

Ten years ago, in this country, the waters were still. Many educated persons supposed that poetry had died an unnatural death with the passing of Tennyson. In spite of the fact that [2] our intellectual leaders allowed themselves to feel a restrained enthusiasm for the work of William Vaughn Moody, Bliss Carman, and a few others, most of us were not greatly interested in contemporary poetry. Indigent and neglected persons, who lived on top of the top story, still wrote it. A few old fashioned people of blessed memory kept scrap-books, although they were a little bit ashamed of the laudable habit. But no influential organizations and specialized magazines were working for the advancement of poetry as an art. Publishers said that poetry could not be sold. We were told that the age of poetry was gone never to return and that, so far as this country was concerned, poetry would always be a dead art.

But these were the words of false prophets, as time has proved. John Maselield, England's greatest living poet of the people, visiting this country early in 1918, sai that poetry as an art seemed to be very much alive among lis. "America is making ready for the coming of a great poet," he said. "In England, in the days before Chaucer, many people were reading and writing verse. Then he came. The same intense interest in poetry was shown again just before the coming of Shakespeare. And now, in this country, you are all writing poems or enjoying them. You are making ready for a master. A great poetic revival is in progress."

Unprejudiced persons who have watched the trend of literary events for the past ten years and who share the æsthetic and intellectual impulses of our times, can hardly fail to agree with Mr. Masefield. To-day men and women from all classes, men and women of many temperaments, are reading poetry and talking about it. In many cases they have even lost that furtive and fortunate self-consciousness which used to save the tyro from the indiscretion of sharing his own perfervid effusions with his friends. Poets have persuaded the public that they are competent to talk about their own craft and to read their own poems. Publishers welcome new poets. Many poets have been discovered and have made substantial reputations in the past decade. Of these the most notable are John Masefield and Rupert [3] Brooke in England, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters and Sara Teasdale in the United States. Rabindranath Tagore, well known in India for his poetry in the Bengali language, was not known at all as a poet of the EngUsh tongue until the first of his Enghsh poems to appear in print were published in Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, soon after the founding of that famous little magazine.

We all know that nothing grows where nothing has been planted. This is only another way of saying that great changes in the thought and emotion of a great people are not fortuitous. There have been three good and sufficient reasons for the strong and steady growth of popular interest in poetry in the past ten years.

In the first place we American people are coming into our own æsthetic self-hood and consciousness. For several generations we were occupied with the conquest of the continent and the development of our material resources. This made necessary an extraordinary progress in the use of the practical intellect, but gave us httle leisure for the enjoyment of beauty. For a long time after the colonial period our people were drilled for efficiency in practical life. We worshipped utility and morals. Most of us supposed that the arts were "handmaids" to ethics or philosophy or reform. But in the past decade we have outgrown the "handmaid " theory of art. We have come to beheve that Art is a real princess, to be loved for the sake of her beauty and served for the sake of life and mankind. We have rejoiced, as never before, in music. We have begun to dream dreams of "the city beautiful" and of a distinctive national architecture. We have re-discovered the dance. We have re-discovered folklore and fairyland. We have begun to express ourselves, our peculiar national consciousness, our times, our life, in patterns of beauty.

Another reason for the growth of interest in poetry is to be found in the fact that a number of unselfish men and women have been working for poetry as for a cause. Critics, editors and professors, convinced of the importance of poetry as the word of [4] the people and the echo of the gods, have given themselves up to the work of winning attention and sympathy for poets.

The first of these altruistic pioneers was Jessie B. Rittenhouse, who began working for poetry in Boston in 1900. When her "Younger American Poets" was published in 1904, Elsa Barker, a poet friend, wrote and congratulated her on being "all alone in a great green field." And from that time to this Miss Rittenhouse has been working with unabated enthusiasm as an interpreter of the contemporary poet. She has written numerous tolerant and discriminating reviews, given many lectures before women's clubs and in universities, and has made excellent anthologies. "The Little Book of Modern American Verse" is a small and choice anthology from which no friend of contemporary poetry is willing to be separated for very long at a time. Miss Rittenhouse is generally considered conservative in taste, but it should be stated that she has been among the first to welcome the greatest of modern innovators, the most important poets who are bringing into American poetry a new spirit and new forms. Many young poets have cause to be grateful for her recognition.

Another faithful worker for the cause of poetry is Edward J. Wheeler, for many years editor of Current Opinion, a rnagazine that has done much to introduce the work of new poets to the public. And in 1909 Mr. Wheeler and Miss Rittenhouse, aided and abetted by a number of poets in and near New York, founded The Poetry Society of America, the leading organization of poets and patrons of poetry in this country. To this society, which has grown very rapidly, nearly all poets of established reputation belong, and many young singers from all the states in the Union. The meetings are held once a month, during the winter season, in the beautiful old National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, New York. At these meetings poems submitted by members are read and polemically discussed. The society is known from coast to coast and the monthly bulletins furnish news of poets and poetry to all parts of the country. Smaller societies organized in universities and as departments of women's clubs are now [5] affiliated with the parent organization and are working together for the advancement of poetry as an art.

Still another pioneer who has helped to lead people out of the wilderness and into the old wonderland is William Stanley Braithwaite of The Boston Transcript, known from coast to coast as a compiler of anthologies. Every year Mr. Braithwaite selects from the magazines the poems which he considers "poems of distinction" and classifies them, including in his annual anthology those he likes best. The first anthology was pubUshed in 1913, as the natural result of the making of an annual summary of poetic achievement for The Boston Transcript. But Mr. Braithwaite had been working in the good cause of poetry long before that.

None of the workers for poetry in this country, however, has done more than Harriet Monroe, poet, critic, editor. She has done a thing unprecedented. She has given poets a place of their own where theories of craftsmanship may be discussed and where poems created in the new spirit and the new form of new times may be presented to an ever-increasing public. Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, was the first of our "poetry magazines" and it was founded in 1912, To insure its continuance and to make it independent of advertisers. Miss Monroe collected an endowment fund which enabled her to carry the magazine safely and creditably through the first few years of its life. "Creditably" is not a strong enough adverb. It would be rather better to say "triumphantly." For Miss Monroe has achieved a genuine success and reigns in Chicago as "the autocrat of all the poetries." She "discovered" Sir Rabindranath Tagore. She made Vachel Lindsay famous. She was chief sponsor for Carl Sandburg. She contributed largely to the success of Edgar Lee Masters, who was "discovered" by William Marion Reedy, one of our ablest critics. As an editor, Miss Monroe has shown a rarely catholic taste. She has accepted and pubHshed free verse rhapsodies, polyphonic prose, classical sonnets and substantial blank verse. And few indeed are the poets of distinction in any school, in England or in this country, [6] who have not been contributors to Poetry, A Magazine of Verse. For this reason the little room in Cass Street, Chicago, where the magazine is edited, has already possessed itself of an atmosphere of romance.

Naturally enough Miss Monroe's experiment was imitated. Other "poetry magazines" were founded. Few, unfortunately, survive. Of these only one is widely known. That is Contemporary Verse, published in Philadelphia and ably edited by Charles Wharton Stork. Mr. Stork is a conservative and less hospitable to poetic experiment than Miss Monroe. Therefore the poetry which appears in his magazine has won the praise of good conservative critics like William Dean Howells. A very large amount of good poetry is published in Contemporary Verse and the magazine deserves attention and interest.

More recent arrivals in the field are The Lyric and Youth. The Lyric is the organ of The Lyric Society, an organization that works for the advancement of poetry and tries to make American poets better known to the American public. Samuel Roth is Editor of The Lyric. Youth has been founded and is edited by a group of young poets at Harvard University, assisted by corresponding editors in other parts of the world. Youth aims to be international in scope and interest.

These editors and authors, faithful workers for the advancement of poetry, could have done little or nothing to interest readers, however, if poetry written by contemporary poets had been poor. By clever advertising a market man may secure purchasers for a stock of green peaches. But no amount of advertising will lure purchasers again when they have been disappointed. And this brings us to a consideration of the third reason for the revival of interest in poetry, and it is by far the most important reason, – the fact that American poets are giving us more good poetry to-day than has ever been produced by American poets in any other period of our history. True, we have no Poe, no Whitman, no Lanier, no Emerson. We have no single colossal genius that we all recognize. But we have many strong, fine talents. And in this book I shall hope to [7] enable the reader to approach their work with confidence, understanding and sympathy. I should like to beheve that this book will enable readers to find in poetry a new solace, recreation and inspiration, just the things which they might expect to find in music, or in a beautiful friendship.

Unfortunately the approach to poetry is not always made easy for the reader. Every day in the year more false things than true are said about it. Poets are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented by creditable persons who are quite unconscious of their own polite mendacity. Superstitions flourish like weeds in a field or wild vines in a jungle. A dense clutter of nonsense, spurious scholarship, pedantry and fatuity must be cut away in the beautiful grove so that men and women may see the big trees. And because this thicket chokes the way many people who might otherwise come to know the full sweetness and power of poetry are held back from the enjoyment of it.

The most common of these superstitions is the belief that poetry "just comes" to any one at any time, to society queen or labor leader, and that anyone to whom it "just comes" can write it. We may know that children can learn to make music only by long hours of practice. We may realize that the painter must know how to use paint and brush and canvas before he can achieve a masterpiece. But it is commonly supposed that very little emotional or intellectual labor is involved in the making of a poem and that no discipline is required for the maker. Poetry is sometimes thought to be a painless twilight sleep out of which beauty is accidentally born.

But perhaps in all the universe there are no accidents. Perhaps the chain of cause and effect is linked together in little things and in great things always. And perhaps that which seems to be accidental is really the result or fruition of causes that were the result of other causes. However that may be, biographies of great poets tell us of their labor and of their much practicing. The best poets of to-day labor as did their peers in days gone by. Robert Frost, to be sure, writes rapidly and seldom revises his successful poems. But for years he wrote [8] poems that served only as practice work and were never offered to the world. Witter Bynner worked for seven or eight years on "The New World" before he gave it to the pubhc, and it was revised seventeen or eighteen times. Vachel Lindsay writes his social or choral poetry very slowly and is grateful for the criticism of his friends. He has rewritten some of his poems as many as forty or fifty times. The poet is truly what Lord Dunsany calls liim, "an artificer in ideas" and "the chief of workers."

Moreover he is an artificer in rhythms and rhymes and in the quahties and associations of words, a student of sound as combined with sense. The idea, the mood, which is the raw material of a poem, may "just come" to any person at any time. A poem may be born of a bit of color, a scent, a vague whim or impression. But this raw material of poetry belongs to all men and women and, if it were the sum total of poetry, all poets would be as great as Shakespeare. But in order that this raw material may be made, or in order that it may grow into poems – perfect and unalterable works of beauty – the artist-poet must cleanse it of all that is irrelevant and superfluous, must give it its own luster and completeness. In such measure as he is a true artist the poems will be strong, compelling, and even apparently artless, to many generations of readers. The poet pays the price of the reader's satisfaction. And the paying of that price is his privilege and joy. That is why only a few of us, those who give themselves up to their great task with devotion, can learn to make great poems. And I once heard Edwin Markham say that poems which "just come" to the ordinary person out of the circumambient ether should usually be returned whence they came!

But nearly all of us, all, surely, who are capable of warm, quick sympathy and who love beauty, can learn to understand and feel poetry. Sympathy is the one personal quality without which no one can go far in the love and understanding of the arts, and with which anyone can go very far indeed. The inflexible soul will never be touched by the beauty of any masterpiece. Without the capacity for sharing other people's moods, their love, [9] joy, irony, rancor, sorrow and enthusiasm, their acrid dislikes and their reasons for laughter, their pleasure in color, texture, form, scent and movement, none of us can get much from poetry. For without this capacity none of us can get much out of life. And poetry is simply the sharing of life in patterns of rhythmical words. But no person capable of sympathy and the love of beauty need be frightened away from poetry by the abracadabra of critics. For poetry is not, after all, an intricate puzzle game for sophisticated intellects. It is, like music, like sculpture, a natural, joyous, life-sharing art, concerned with feelings that we all share and appealing to sympathies engendered and fostered by the imagination.

Poetry is everybody's wonderland. It is for the business man, tired or rested, and for his wife. It is for rich employers (for the fortification of their souls!) and for poor employees (for the comfort of their hearts!). It is only required of us that we desire to perceive and enjoy and understand what is beautiful.

But many persons erroneously suppose that they have found beauty when they have taken pleasure in what is merely pretty, and this is unfortunate, for it makes it necessary to differentiate between what is pretty and what is beautiful. Yet one might spend a whole day or many days at this labor, giving concrete illustrations, and still fail to show the lover of prettiness why he is not a lover of beauty. But the lover of beauty would know without explanation. Therefore it is necessary to say here only this – that to the lover of prettiness love is a little frosted cake, joy a luscious bonbon, sorrow a dose of bitter medicine. Prettiness is ephemeral. But beauty is powerful and memorable. Prettiness is external to us and has no more effect upon our lives than a pebble thrown into a stream has upon the swirl of waters. But beauty changes us. The current of our lives runs swifter and clearer for it, perhaps, or deeper, or with a richer music. Prettiness is pleasant and negligible, a light coquette. But beauty is strong, profound, austere, a great maternal force. And those who desire what is pretty will seek out the lightest of literature. But those who desire beauty will find poetry.

[10] If he really wishes to seek beauty in poetry, the greatest difficulty for the new reader of contemporary verse will be found in the fact that it is not "just like" the poetry to which he has been accustomed. Many persons like the poetry of Tennyson and Longfellow, or of Swinburne and Keats, chiefly because they have been accustomed to it. A particular kind of poetry means poetry to them. They have taken it habitually and for granted as they have taken coffee for breakfast. And the best contemporary poetry is no more like the poetry of Tennyson and Longfellow than the fragrance of nectar is like the fragrance of the matutinal coffee. The strange flavor of it is alarming at the first taste, and timorous persons, afraid of the new beauty, run away without taking enough of a taste to know what it really is like.

To reassure such persons it is only necessary to say that what was good and beautiful in the work of Tennyson is as good and beautiful to-day as it ever was, but that it is not necessary, or desirable, for all poetry to be like Tennyson's in spirit and manner. They may have coffee for breakfast – and nectar also! And no modern poet worthy of the name would have it otherwise. For the best poetry of our times has grown out of the life of our times, which life, in turn, grew out of the life that preceded it. And the love of the elder singers is the best preparation for the love of the younger choir, although the new choristers do not sing the same songs in just the same way. If contemporary poets were content to go on imitating their great predecessors, they would be frustrating all the natural processes of growth in life and art. They would be untrue to all great traditions, (to which ultra-conservatives would hold them too inflexibly). They would be making a plant of dead wax to mimic a living tree, instead of giving us a living, branching, blossoming reality, the inevitable result of life and growth. The poets of to-day are true to the memory of their great predecessors, not when they imitate them in thought and feeling and manner, halting beside the past that is gone and making graven images of it; but when, living fully in their own times, as well as in the [11] past and in the future, they make their craftsmanship conform to the hiving spirit which is the significance of their work, carrying on the noble traditions of our thought and speech, and producing works remarkable for a new dignity, originality and power. If they lived to-day, the old masters would be the first to applaud such work.

The reader, then, must expect a new kind of beauty in the technique and in the spirit of contemporary verse. In spite of all that ultra-conservatives may say and in spite of all that ultra-radicals may seem to demonstrate, there is a new poetry. It is not the poetry of those whose imaginations itch because they are bitten with a desire to describe trivial, petty, disagreeable experiences, moods and ideas in lines of uneven length, without rhyme, rhythm or design. Nor is it the poetry of those unimportant imitators of preceding periods whose lyrics are dull-colored, too mellifluous, and sticky with sentimentality. It is, rather, the poetry of the great main body of the poets, of the English Georgians, John Masefield, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Walter de la Mare, Gordon Bottomley, Ralph Hodgson, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. It is the poetry of Irishmen like James Stephens, Padraic Colum and William Butler Yeats. It is the poetry of Americans like Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Arthur Davison Ficke, Witter Bynner, Sara Teasdale, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Grace Hazard Conkling.

In reading the work of these poets, who have held the interest of the laity and won both the praise and the censure of critics – sometimes equally valuable – the thoughtful person will notice that a few ideals of craftsmanship seem to belong to all of them, differentiating their work from the work of the minor Victorians and their followers. For the reader's convenience it may be well to set down here, briefly, these ideals of poetry and of craftsmanship, which will be discussed at greater length in the pages that are to follow.

Because poetry is an art, the contemporary poet believes that a poem must have a design or pattern worked out in thought and words. It must not be a mere haphazard collection of [12] thoughts and words. But the design may be worked out in any one of many ways and the designer must feel free to choose his own way.

He believes, also, that rhythms must bear direct and constant relation to the meanings and emotions with which they are combined. They must not be used arbitrarily, for mere correctness is not the ideal. They must be used flexibly and fluently, as the perfectly fitting accompaniment of the sense of the poem.

He believes that poetry differs from prose partly in being more concise. All ornament, therefore, must be structural, not super-added and superficial. Irrelevant words, phrases, sentences, must be cut out relentlessly no matter how good they may seem in and of themselves. And there must be no longwinded explanatory moralizing. Images and symbols that suggest meanings are to be preferred, as a rule, to crude statement. Everything said in a poem must contribute to its poignancy and power.

The diction of the best contemporary poetry is the diction of the best contemporary speech although narrative and dramatic poetry must be true, of course, to the characters presented. All literary affectations, high-flown verbiage and conventional formulæ are to be avoided.

The contemporary poet demands absolute freedom in his choice of themes. He knows that his choice will be determined by the quality of his own personality. Anything which fires his spirit and engages his enthusiasm seems to him to be a fit subject for a poem. Anything which bores him seems to be a poor subject for him, no matter how many others have found it inspiring. He will write about a guttering candle, or about the Pleiades, at his pleasure.

All good modern poetry is written to be read aloud. No one has ever read a good poem until he has read it aloud, with his own voice, for the pleasure of his own ears!

Most of the poetry discussed and reprinted in this book has been published since the year nineteen-hundred. In cases where [13] poems appeared before that time and have been used as examples, it has been because they seemed to me to be strictly in accord with the spirit of the poetry of to-day and representative in an especially valuable way of qualities difficult to describe. Many good poets there are who are not represented. I am sorry that I could not mention all. But perhaps some readers of this book will go on voyages of discovery and find these others with the added pleasure of surprise.

For the rest – all critics disagree. I can say only that I have tried to treat all kinds of beauty with respect and to tell the truth as I understand it, without fear or favor, for the sake of poetry, for the sake of my readers.

Let the reader who would learn to understand and enjoy contemporary poetry say something like this to himself: "Life has its limitations. I must be what I am, one person with one person's experience. But if I will, I can have, through poetry, a share in the lives and adventures of others. I can travel on roads that my feet have never touched, visit in houses that I have never entered, share hopes and dreams and conquests that have never been mine. Poetry can be. for me, the fishing trip that I was never able to take, the great city that I have not seen, the great personalities that I have not met and fathomed, the banquets to which I have not been invited, the prizes that I did not win, the achievement that was a little beyond my reach. It can even be the love that I have not known. Through poetry I shall share the life of my own times, of all times, I shall know the soul of all men and my own soul." If he approaches poetry in this way, simply, naturally, expectantly, the technique of contemporary poets – their way of weaving beauty with words – will trouble him very little. Sooner or later he will wander through the anthologies into Wonderland.

But he must beware of the mild sheep in wolves' clothing who bleat at the moon that there is no contemporary poetry worth reading, who cry out against anything new in life or art, whose faith is in what is static, not in what is dynamic. They would [14] have To-day slumber beside Yesterday and then lead To-morrow to repose beside them both. Once they were many. Now they are very, very few. But Walter de la Mare has described the fate of such reactionary persons in a quaint little fable which I quote.

      JIM JAY

Do diddle di do,
   Poor Jim Jay
Got stuck fast
   In Yesterday.
Squinting he was
   On cross-legs bent,
Never heeding
   The wind was spent.
Round veered the weathercock,
   The sun drew in –
And stuck was Jim
   Like a rusty pin . . .
We pulled and we pulled
   From seven till twelve,
Jim, too frightened
   To help himself.
But all in vain.
   The clock struck one,
And there was Jim
   A little bit gone.
At half-past five
   You scarce could see
A glimpse of his flapping
And when came noon,
   And we climbed sky-high,
Jim was a speck
   Slip-slipping by.
Come to-morrow,
   The neighbors say,
He'll be past crying for;
   Poor Jim Jay.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Marguerite Wilkinson: New Voices.
An Introduction to Contemporary Poetry.
New York: The Macmillan Company 1919, S. 1-14.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).






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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer