Early 20th Century Poetry: Eliot and Others
The realism and naturalism of Howells, Twain, James, Crane, and others set the stage for the period of literature known as "Modernism." So did the writings of Darwin and Freud. And the carnage of World War I confirmed and strengthened the ideas that some artists, writers, and musicians were already exploring.
Various writers disagree about the origins, the dates, and even the artists of the Modernist period; they also disagree on how to define it. Some date it as beginning as early as 1865; others as late as 1914. Most of the disagreements arise from questions of how to define Modernism, since it covers such a broad range of literary, musical, philosophical, scientific, and artistic movements. And its roots can be traced back as far as the 1600s. But almost critics agree that Modernism came into full flower during the first thirty years of the century, especially in England and the United States.
Modernism was not just an American literary movement: it encompassed England and Europe as well. Even before World War I, there had been a growing disillusionment and distrust for social traditions and institutions. In England, this was in some ways a reaction against the oppressive Victorianism of the 1800s. In the United States, it was a response to the erosion of the optimism of the 1800s and the increasingly brutal ramifications of laissez-faire capitalism.
The most obvious symptoms of this disillusionment occurred in religion: there was no longer a single, unifying religious doctrine which was accepted by all in the culture. Many had begun to question even the existence of God. Darwin's Origin of the Species is most commonly blamed for this by those who lament the passing of organized religion's influence, but Darwin alone was not responsible for the pace of scientific achievement and development and its effect on the culture's belief system: scientific discoveries since the 1600s had weakened the influence of religion, and Darwin's writings (among others) altered the cultural view of the role of human beings on the planet. Freud published his Interpretation of Dreams in 1901; Freud's work (and that of others working in related fields) alerted us to the fact that much of what we "know"--i.e., what we think is real--is imagined or illusory: even our memories can't be completely trusted. Artists and writers began exploring in more depth the ideas that "reality" is based on perspective and emotional need. Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905; by now, scientific development had explained many "miraculous" events and was pushing people to question the basis of their faith. It was demanding that they see the human mind and heart, not as divinely inspired, but as products of their biological and social environment.
Thus, God died.
Well, I don't mean that literally, of course. But logically, the death of a complacent acceptance of any "right" system of religious belief was a natural result. If people are products of their environment and conditioning, they will create a God who meets the needs of that environment and conditioning. Therefore, there is no way to tell which perception of God is the "right" one and which religion is "correct"; in fact, since the need for belief is a psychological one, God may have been an invention in the first place.
By the beginning of the 20th century, these ideas were no longer new. The existentialists of the late 1800s and early 1900s (Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sarte, and Camus among them) theorized that God is an invention of human beings to help them create meaning for life, since the idea of a life without meaning leads to despair. They argued that, since there is no God, life has no inherent meaning; Sarte wrote that the only meaning life has is the meaning which each individual consciously assigns to it.
In additon, if there is no God, there is no objective "Truth": truth becomes relative to each individual, based on one's own perspective. To give you an example: If I am painting a portrait of a person,and I am standing in front of that person, I will paint the front of him. But what if you are standing beside him? Then your portrait would show his profile. And what if you are standing behind him? Then your portrait would show the back of his head. Which of these would be "true"? All of them, of course.
If there was no God, Truth became subjective: one person's Truth (unless it could be empirically disproven) was just as correct as another's. One person's customs, habits, and values were no longer more "right" than another's. On a practical level, this called into question the validity of all social, political, economic, and ethical forms. They were no longer sacred; they were just arbitrary conventions, and it was allowable to alter or overthrow them.
On a deeper level, though, this idea of a Godless universe created both despair and freedom--despair because, if there is no God, then there is no inherent meaning to life. There is no purpose to one's life, and there is no reward or punishment at the end of it. There is no afterlife. There is just now. This can make the trials and sufferings of everyday life seem pointless, and the thought of one's isolation in the universe unbearable. The freedom that derives from this "pointlessness" is cold comfort: if there is no meaning to life, and no punishment or reward at the end, then anything is permissible and possible--and meaningless.
The devastation and brutality of World War I only heightened these feelings. People who had believed their governments' propaganda that they were fighting "the war to end all wars" came to see that their leaders were cynically pursuing profit at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives. The imagery of soldiers waist-deep in mud and lice in the trenches, choking to death on their own blood after poison gas attacks, dying by the hundreds of thousands on the Somme, made it easy for many to accept the death of God. What else could explain such suffering?
The Moderns, then, reject the traditions (literary, religious, and social) of the 1800s, and elect to create new forms and methods. They reject the idea that they are creating a new "tradition," since that word implies permanence, and the only thing permanent about life in the 20th century is constant change. Thus, in England, D. H. Lawrence portrays relationships between men and women, not in their social context, but in their sexual and unconscious motivations. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf use stream of consciousness to reveal the internal and subjective nature of contemporary lives. W. B. Yeats and, especially, T. S. Eliot directly address the issues of isolation and fragmentation they perceive to be the governing characteristics of life in the 20th century.
In the United States, Wallace Stevens and Williams Carlos Williams create vivid, isolated images of life, exploring the ideas of perspective and the immediacy of experience. Ernest Hemingway creates characters who are trying desperately to maintain dignity and integrity in the midst of chaos. William Faulkner shows us the Old and New South, where tradition is both smothering and disintegrating, and reality and fiction merge indistinguishably.
The most important literary work of the early 20th century was T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. In it, Eliot presents the images and techniques which came to dominate the Modernist style and which influenced nearly every important writer of the century. The author gives the reader a series of fragmented but interrelated images, and leaves it up to the reader to make the connections between them and determine their significance. We hear snatches of conversation, but the people speaking, even when they are in the same place, never seem to hear or respond to each other. The imagery evokes deserts and wastelands, especially in the cities. London is presented as a region of Hell. Numerous allusions to mythic and literary traditions evoke emotional and intellectual associations which the reader must decipher; those allusions also draw a contrast between the spiritually rich past and the emotionally and spiritually arid present--although Eliot questions even the richness and depth of the past, implying that we all live by illusion, and that maybe the only difference between the past and the present was its ability to cherish its illusions.
In the United States, the post-World War I experience was different than that of Europe. While Europe fell into economic depression, the 1920s in the United States were a boom economic period: the "Jazz Age," the "Roaring 20s." We tend to think of that time as fun: one endless round of parties, flappers, and crazy dances. But all of that was a reaction to the uncertainty and change of the time. The politicians who had promised "the war to end all wars" turned out to have been greedy, profiteering liars. Postwar politics seemed futile, corrupt, and cynical. People doubted the institutions they'd once accepted--including the churches--and the values and behaviors that had been based on them: family structures, sexual mores, economic goals. The conflict was heightened by increasing racial violence, labor union agitation, and the Socialist movement. There was open defiance of Prohibition laws; organized crime grew and gang warfare broke out in many cities.
Then, in 1929, the stock market crash marked the beginning of the Depression in the United States. The rise of Fascism, the worldwide Depression, violent labor disputes: all confirmed the disillusionment of Modernism.
During the 1920s, many American writers chose to live in Europe, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. They were known as the "expatriate" writers; many of them lived or spent significant time in Paris, while others lived in England. This was an unbelievably fruitful and prolific time: many of the major American and European artists, musicians, and writers knew and influenced each other, and they inspired each other to greater accomplishments. Gertrude Stein's home in Paris served as a salon for many of them: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, among others. They were reinventing the world in a terrible time, and they were bound together by their creativity and their despair.
In the United States, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens called for experimentation with specifically American settings, speech patterns, environments, and traditions. There were new developments in theatre, with plays by Edna St. Vincent Millay, e. e. cummings, Sherwood Anderson, and especially Eugene O'Neill, who experimented with masks and symbolic forms to express subjective experience.
Before we talk about "Modern" poetry, a distinction: not all early 20th century poetry is "Modern" poetry. By the early 20th century, a split had occurred between "literary" literature and "popular" literature. Because of free education, many people were literate, but not all were "educated"--and even if they were, they didn't want to think too hard all the time. "Popular" literature came to mean escapist literature: stories and poems that made you laugh or reinforced what you wanted to believe: there was a God, there was order and fairness in the world, events made sense and life had purpose, the good guys won and the bad guys lost and were punished. "Literary" literature, on the other hand, was fiction and poetry that showed the world as chaotic, fragmentary, meaningless, often cruel, often unfair, often without a happy ending. "Modern" poetry is "literary." And that causes some problems of difinition: not everyone agrees on what or who is "Modern" and what or who is not. Robert Frost is a case in point: some critics place him firmly in the Modernist camp, saying that he is exploring the same themes as other Modern poets. Others argue that his use of regular rhyme and meter, and his implication that there is order in nature, disqualify him.
"Modern" poetry has its roots in Romantic poetry. The English Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley) changed the direction of poetry. Until then art has been about mimesis: re-creating the material world as closely and accurately as possible. The Romantics, though, were more interested in the artist's reaction to nature. They were more interested in "poesis": the making of something, rather than the imitation of something else.
This led to the idea that poetry could be self-sufficient, since it is about subjective emotion rather than about the external world; a poem is required to be beautiful, an art object in itself, rather than didactic. The emphasis is on the artist as a creator, rather than an imitator.
Modern poetry was also influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who laid out a specific set of rules for poetry:
- A poem should be written for beauty, rather than to express a truth. A poem should not be didactic: beauty belongs to the arts; truth, to science.
- Long poetry is not good. Poems must be short in order to achieve unity of expression.
- Images must be compressed, complex, and above all intense.
Walter Pater also valued intensity in poetry: "to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame." A poem should contain a moment of epiphany, or stunning realization. No generalizations are valid, because no two situations are alike. One can only express moments of experience.
Stephane Mallarme also influenced the Modern poets, when he argued passionately that poetry must evoke rather than express directly.
The English Romantics began with the assumption of dualism: there is a separation between heaven and earth, the mind and the body, the subjective and objective. The Romantics viewed poetry as a way to unify, to reach God. In American Romantic literature, similar assumptions apply. But as the optimism of the Romantics bergan to wane, as industrialism grew more prevalent, God began to seem ever more distant. By the 20th century, God was nowhere to be found.
The death of God, and the resulting nihilism, is the starting point for many 20th century poets. Eliot's The Wasteland can be read as a lament for a world where things make sense. Nihilism can be escaped only by stepping, as Wallace Stevens said, "barefoot into reality": into the immediacy of the material world, with no attempt to interpret it. A wheelbarrow is just a wheelbarrow, a plum is just a plum. A poem is "not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself."
That said, you will certainly notice differences of style and substance when you read different Modern poets. The characteristics I have been describing are generalizations about a group. But as Pater pointed out, no generalizations are valid. Eliot, Stevens, and Williams, critics agree, are Modern poets. But Robinson, Frost, Hughes? That's subjective: judge for yourself.
Edward Arlington Robinson
Edward Arlington Robinson was borhn in 1869 in Head Tide, Maine, and grew up in Gardiner, Maine (the Tilbury Town in which many of his poems are set). His father was a wealthy timber merchant, and his mother was a descendant of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet.
Robinson had an ordinary, happy childhood. He was an unremarkable student, but loved poetry. When he was eleven, he joined a group of local poets, and for two years after high school, he studied Horace and Milton. He said that, by the time he was 20, he felt "doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry." He enrolled at Harvard and published a few poems in the Harvard Advocate, but left school after the death of his father. His family lost much of its wealth in the Panic of 1893, the worst economic crisis the country had yet experienced. Robinson determined to make his living writing, and wrote short stories and poetry, but his work was rejected time after time by editors and publishers. Finally, he published two volumes of his poetry at his own expense. They didn't sell, but the response from other poets and a few critics encouraged him to continue.
His first volume of poetry, The Torrent and the Night Before, was reviewd in the February 1897 issue of Bookman, which said in opart, ",,,the world is not beautiful to him, but a prison house..." Robinson's reply, published in the March issue, said a lot about his view of the world: "The world is not a 'prison house,' but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell 'God' with the wrong blocks."
After the death of his mother, Robinson moved to New York, where he supported himself with a string of jobs which brought him only a subsistence living. Worse, they used up ther time and energy he needed for writing. In 1905, he finally got a break: President Theodore Roosevelt read his second collection of poems, Children of the Night and wrote an enthusiastic review of it for a magazine called Outlook. He also appointed Robinson to the job as a clerk in the New York Custom House. This was a godsend: Robinson needed to spend only a few hours a day at his office, and then he could devote all of his energies to writing. His poetry began to attract more attention, make more money, and win awards. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, for Collected Poems (1921), The Man Who Died Twice (1924), and Tristram (1927).
By the time Robinson died in 1935, he was one of the leading poets in the United States, and one of the first to make his living by writing poetry.
In his review of Children of the Night, Roosevelt said of "Richard Cory" that it "illustrates a very ancient but very profound philosophy of life with a curiously local touch." Although his later Arthurian poems departed from this "local touch," some of his best poems ("Richard Cory," "Luke Havergal," and "Miniver Cheevy," for example) are set in the fictional Tilbury Town. Robinson combined traditional poetic forms, especially the sonnet, with a casual, vernacular tone to create misleadingly simple poems. He rejected romanticism and sentimentality, and drew more on the traditions of naturalism and realism for his portratits of the characters in the town. His poetry was too bleak and ironic for those who preferred a message of hope, but the modernists found his work too conservative. Archibald MacLeish said of Robinson's work, "We don't despair--not quite--and neither does Robinson. But we don't hope either, as we used to, and Robinson, with no bitterness, has put hope by as well. His is the after voice, the evening voice..."
Robinson might not have entirely agreed; as he said once, "There's a good deal to live for, but a man has to go through hell really to find it out."
T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot was the defining voice of his generation. He was the most important poet of the early 20th century (some say he was the most important poet of the entire century), and The Wasteland was the most important Modernist work.
Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888, the youngest of seven children. His grandfather was William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister who helped to found Washington University; his mother was a teacher; his father formed a successful brick company. His parents were active insociety, supporting various artistic and civic causes; they spent their summers at Gloucester, Massachusetts. His mother was an amateur poet, and she influenced him to begin writing poetry as a child.
In 1906, Eliot entered Harvard. He published several poems in the Harvard Advocate, and graduated in 1910 with both a B.A. and M.A. in Literature.
In 1910, Eliot weent to Paris to do graduate studies. He settled on the Left Bank, but made few friends there. He didn't much like Paris; he thought it was dirty and dingy. In 1912, he returned to Harvard and studied philosophy for theee years, working toward a Ph.D. He wrote a dissertation, but never received his degree,m because he was living in England by then, and never returnedf to defend his dissertation.
In 1914, he moved to England to live. He met Ezra Pound in London; Pound would be one of the most important influences on his work.
In 1915, hye met Vivien Haigh-Wood, the daughter of a poet. They married impulsively, but were completely imcompatible, and it was not a happy marriage. She became increasingly unbalanced, and in 1938 she was institutionalized.
Many of the problems in their marriage were made worse by finan cial instability. To make money, Eliot taught school, wrote reviews, and lectured. In 1917, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was published, and it established Eliot as a poet, but didn't do much to relieve his financial stress. The same year, he took a job in the Foreign Investments section of Lloyd's Bank.
In 1919, "Gerontion" was published. By now, Pound was a stauch supporter of his work, although some critics didn't care for his style or his pessimism.
And then, in 1922, The Wasteland was published. This poem, controversial as it was, put him at the forefront of the Modernist movement.
In 1923, he became a literary editor at the publisher Faber and Faber, where he remained for many years. The job was a godsend: it gave him financial security and the time to write his own poetry.
In 1927, Eliot--the foremost voice of Modernist meaninglessness and fragmentation--shocked his admirers and detractors alike when he became a British citizen and announced his confirmation in the Anglican Church. In 1930, he published Ash Wednesday; in 1935, Murder in the Catherdral; in 1943, the poem that made him a cultural hereo, Four Quartets. In 1948, he won the Nobelk Prize for Literature.
In 1957, his first wife having died 10 years earlier, he married Valerie Fletcher. He died in London in 1965.
The Wasteland, when it was published in 1922, had the effect, as William Carlos Williams later said, "of an atom bomb." Loosely patterned on the medieval Grail legend, its theme is the quest for salvation in the modern world, whihc is a physical, emotional, and spirirtual wasteland. The poem emphasizes the decay of Western culture, and its style reflects its themes: fragmented and disjointed phrases, literary allusions, lack of transitional connections, and changing meters all help intensify the feeling of disorientation and isolation. Eliot's style had a lot in common with the new art form of film, in which a string of cisual images is presented, and the audience is expected to make the connections bewteen them.
The poem was strongly influenced by Pound, who helped to edit it. When Pound read the manuscript, he said it was "a masterpiece; one of the most important 19 pages in English." It was published with Eliot's notes in 1922, and thenotes are considered an integral part of the poem, whose allusions range from Christianity to Buddhism, from ancient to modern literature.
In his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot argued that the poet's main concerns are the importance of tradition and the perennial need for reshaping it, and the use of language as a means of clarifying states of feeling anfd achieving auditory effects. These ideas are clearly implemented in The WastleandZZ. Tradition, said Eliot, "gives the artist an "ideal order" as he relates his own productions to those of the past. This serves both to liberate and discipline his talent.
In The Wasteland, Eliot juxtaposes unexpected images, erudite speech with common speech, mythological and literary allusions with banal subjects and conversation, burial with planting, life with death, decay with growth. There are three simultaneous voices: "the voice of the poet talking to huimself or nobody, the voice of the poet addressing an audience, and the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse." To further complicate the matter, charaxcters' dialoguer is presented with no explanation other than context. Thus, there is no way of establishing any authority or fixed center. There is no moral center.
In "The Burial of t6he Dead, " Eliot contrasts vegeatble and animal, individual and social, winter and spring, death and rebirth. He moves against traditional concepts. Spring, for example, usually a symbol of rebirth and hope, is labelled "the cruelest" season. Death, for the speaker, is preferable to liofe. All the memories are of times and ways of life lost. The characters live in the past or are in some other way disconnected from the present. The are displaced: Marie remembers sledding as a child at the Archduke's palace; the Archduke's assassination marked the beginning of World War I and the passing away of the power of the royalty and their way of life. She is an exile both geographically and temporally.
The narrator speaks ofg "broken images": all, including the conversation, is fragments. There are no connections bretween the people or their environment. There is no Goid, no center to the universe, no roots.
There is also a lack of vision, a conmtrast between reality and what we see. But since there is no established authority--no God--to say which vision is real, the characters are isolated from reality, as well. It is impossible to distinguish between deception and the turth; thuis there is no real communication, no community, no love. The city, like the lives and souls of those in it, is sterile, dead, and brown.
London, the "Unreal City," is full of ghosts. We are in Hell.
Wallace StevensWallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1879. His mother was a former schoolteacher; his father was a lawyer. He attended Hravard to prepare for law school, but also wrote poetry, publishing some of his work in the Harvard Advocate. He completed his degree in 1900 and moved to New York City, where he worked as a journalist for the New York Tribune. He loved New York and briefly considered trying to make a living writing plays. But his father insisted that he enroll in law school, and he finally agreed, ewnrolling in New York Law School in 1901. He graduated in 1903 and was admitted to the bar in 1904. He met Elsie Moll that summer and fell in love. They married in 1909, after he was financially secure.
After the deaths of his father (in 1911) and mother (in 1912), he began writing poetry again. His first professionally published poems appeared in Trend magazine in 1914. He also met a number of other writers, artists, and poets, including Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams, who inspired him to write more poetry and plays.
When the company he worked for went bankrupt, Stevens reluctantly left New York City in 1916 to take a job in Hartford, Connecticut with the Hartford Accident and Indfemnity Company. He published his first volume of poems, Harmonium, in 1923. Although some critics were enthusiastic about the book, Stevens made almost no money from it: his firsat royalty check was for $6.70. He devoted himself to his job at the iunsurance company, becaoming an expert recognized within the inductry, and returned to poetry only in 1930. He published several more volumes of poetry and gave a few lectures on poetry, collected in an anthology called
Stevens was a very private man. Few of those with whom he worked realized that he wrote poetry, and he almost never gave public readings. Many of his closest work associates were surprised when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1954.
He died at his home in Hartford on August 2, 1955.
Stevens's poetry is based on the vanishing of God, which leaves man alone in a barren landscape. This may seem terrifying and terrible, but there is a freesom in it as well, in the sense that now, one is not weighted with traditions and mythology that don't match the conditions of the time. One can create one's own fresh fictions: "After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption."
Stevens believed that harmonious order could only be achieved through the power of the poetic imagination, an idea expressed in many of the poems, especially "Sunday Morning," in Harmonium. Some critics compared its originality and innovation to WEalt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In a review in Poetry, Harriet Monroe said, "If one sheer beauty of sound, phrase, rhythm, packed with prismatically colored ideas by a mind at once wise and whimsical, one should open one's eyes and ears, sharpen one's wits, widen one's sympathies to include rare and exquisite aspects of life, and then run for this volume of iridescent poems." Williams said that, in Harmonium, he was rejecting the "stale intelligence" of the past and aiming "to make a new intelligence prevail." One of his most common themes is the abandonment of traditions and traditional values and the attempt to create order out of confusion. His poems often address the relationship (or lack of relationship) between the real and the unreal, the inner and outer life, imagination and reality. He proposed a "supreme fiction": " it provides "a freshening of life," the vreation of "a supreme fiction recognized as fiction, in which men could propose to themselves a fulfillment." He believed that "ideas of order" correspond with an innate order in nature and the universe, an that it is the poet's responsibility--and joy--to discover this correspondence. Imagination is not the creator, in the physical sense, but he is the creator of the way we see things. Now that religion no longer satisfies us, he said, poetry must replace it.
Yet he rejected the abstraction of Romanticism: we must never leave the earth behind. He developed analogies with painting and music to achieve sensuous effects and appeal; allusions to music, singers, and musical instruments are numerous in his work. He was influenced by Matisse's effects of color and precision of line, and by the manipulations of perspective and analytical precision of the Cubists. Stevens declared that "freedom regardless of form" was nbecessary to the poet. He wrote in blank verse or in simple stanzas of 2 oe 3 unrhymed lines. Yet his form was not random: he used physical space to juxtapose images and ideas, to suggest flux and change.
Stevens begins with a moment of consciousness. Eliot pushes that moment toward ehtical, philosophiocal, theological end. Stevens, by contrast, pushe4s it toward aesthetic ends, in which consciousness, vision, and creastion are all participating to make the reader experience that moment: "the plain sense of things." Poetry "enables us to perceive the normal in tye abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos." It helps people to survive the conditions of modern life.
William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersy, on September 17, 1883. His parents were recent immigrants from England and Puerto Rico. He was raised in a culturally diverse environment; French and Spanish were spoken in his hoime as often as English. His father was an advertising executive. He went to school in Rutherfors, and later in Switzerland and Paris. He attended Horace Mann High School in New York City. His mother had studied painting for three years, and she passed to her son her interest in art. He was determined to become a writer, but also knew he couldn't make a living at it. So he enrolled in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902.
In Phliadelphia, he met the artist Charles Demuth, the poet Hilda Doolittle (who published under the name "h.d."), and Ezra Pound. After graduating from medical school, he studied pediatrics for a year in Germany, then returned home to open a general practice in Rutherford. He married Florence Herman in 1912, and they had two sons.
For the next 40 years, Williams practiced medicine and wrote poetry. He visited New York frequently and met Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. He published poems in several important poetry magazines of the time, including Poetry and Others. He was deliberately trying tocreate a distinctly American brand of poetry. Williams despised The Wasteland, and wrote, in response to it, a collection of poems and shor prose pieces called Spring and All. He felt that the source of poetry should be the writer's "own locality"; to this end, he published Paterson, a long poem which explores the history and current realities of a modern industrial city, in 5 volumes from 1946-1958. He won the Pulitzer Prize fro Poetry in 1963; the same year, he died at his home in Rutherford, on March 4, 1963.
Williams was influenced, through Ezra Pound, by Imagism, a school of thought which held that since poetry could not divine the Truth, its purpose was soloely to help people see the world in a new way by providing short, sharp, sensuous images of single things. Imagism, however, "ran quickly out," as Williams said. He felt that poetry could and should accomplish more. He became committed to "objectivism": "The poem being an object (like a symphony or cubist painting) it must be the purpose of the poet to make of his words a new form: to invent, that is, an object conmsonant with his day." Like the other modern poets, Williams rejected old traditions and traditional values, including traditional poetic forms. He tried to invent new rhythms and forms, developing what he called "an American idiom," attempting to find meaning and beauty in the physical and social conditions of the United States. He pared his images down to their most spare, chiselled form, and grounded his poetry in the material world. His famous rule is "No ideas but in things."
He despised Eliot and Pound for their elitism and their rejection of the United States as a serious cultural force; he called The Wasteland "the great catastrophe." But like Pound and Eliot, he thought that "Nothing is good save the new," and rejected traditional literary forms, preferring free verse and three-line stanzas. "The American idiom is the language we use in the United States, the langige whihc goverened Walt Whitman in his choice of words. Measure in verse is inescapable. To the fixed foot of the ancient line, including the Elizabethan, we must have a reply: it is the variable foot, whihc we are beginning to discover after Whitman's advent." Williams called for a confrontation with immediate reality, even its negative aspects, and denounced the use of metaphor and elaborate symbolism. Universality, he said, was found only in concrete particulars. Poetry's aim, he argued, is "to repair, to rescue, to complete," to get to the essence of reality "and make a new world of it."
Many American poets of the generation after the Modernists, such as Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, rejected Eliot and Pound and embraced Williams, as they did Whitman, for his emphasis on the local and concrete. They saw him as more "democratic" than Pound and Eliot, as one who found beauty in even the most vulgar people and objects.
Langston Hughes, an African-American writer, became the leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance, also called the Black Literary Renaissance, was a primarily literary movement centered in Harlem during the 1920s, and included writers such as Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston. It was a time when jazz, art, and literature all coalesced to create a fertile ground for creativity, and dozens of African-American writers found that their work could now be published and their voices would be heard.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He lived mostly with his grandmother while growing up, in Lawrence, Kansas. The family was poor, but he was encouraged to read by his mother and grandmother: 'I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books--where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas." He published his first poems in 1919, when he was 17; his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was published in Crisis, the magazine of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and was highly praised; he was 19. He went to New York City in 1921 to enroll at Columbia Unoversity, but left after a year. We woked his way on ships around the world, worked as a busboy in Paris and Washington, D.C., and published poems in New York magazines. In 1926, he enrolled in Pennsylvania University and published his first book, The Weary Blues, in which he used black vernacular and tried to fuse American language and the rhythm of jazz and blues. In an essay published that year, Hughes declared, "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." His second book was published in 1927: Fine Clothes to the Jew. He graduated in 1929, visted Haiti and Cuba, spent time in Russia, and mostly lived by writing. During the 1920s, he wrote mostly poetry, but later wrote plays, fiction, children's stories, song lyrics, opera, newspaper sketches, translations of foreign writers, anthologies, and autobigraphy--over 60 books in all. Hughes was the first African-American to support himself by his writing. Arna Bontemps said of him, "He has been a minstrel and a troubadour in the classic sense."
His most popular stories were the "Simple" stories, sketches whose narrator was the innocent and downtrodden "Simple," whose naive voice was the vehicle for satirical and critical commentary on society and government. They were very funny and moving, and as they read them, people would be laughing even as they nodded in agreement.
From the beginning his talent was apparent, and no one disputed it. But there were those critics who argued that he should protray his subjects in a more flattering light. Hughes responded, "I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or had heard of Bach."
Hughes died in New York City on May 22, 1967.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco on March 26, 1874. His parents' marriage was deeply troubled, and his mother took him to live in Lawrence, Massachussetts when he was a child. His mother read poetry aloiud to her children, and Frost began publishing poetry in his high school newspaper. He enrolled in Dartmouth College, but left after a year and returned to Lawrence. He taught school, worked in a textile mill, and wrote for the local newspaper, writing poetry at night. He married his high school sweetheart, Elinor White, in 1895. At his high school graduation, there had been two valedictiorians. Frost was one; Elinor White had been the other. They had 6 children, two of whom died in infancy.
He and Elinor bought a small farm and Frost worked the farm and taught school for a living. He was an odd farmer: his neighbors noted that he wrote poetry late into the night, and often milked the cows at midnight. When he was 37, Frost decided,k with Elinor's encouragement, to make one last try at becoming a professional poet. He sold the farm, quit his teaching job, and took his family to England in 1912. There he met Ezra Pound, among others, and they recogniozed his talent. His first collection of poetry, A Boy's Will, was published in 1913. North of Boston was published the following year, but when war broke out in Europe in 1914, Frost moved his family back to the United States. There, his poetry was also being published, and in 1923, Frost won the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, for New Hampshire. By this time, Frost was the most well-known poet in the United States.
For the next two decades, he gave readings and lectures, taught poetry at many colleges and universitiesand was awarded more than 40 honorary degrees. His most famous moment came at President Kennedy's inauguration in 1960, when he recited from memory "The Gift Outright." He died on January 29, 1963.
In her 1915 review of Frost's A Boy's Will and North of Boston, Amy Lowell wrote of Frost's "great and beautiful simplcity of phrase, the freedom he felt to alter "classical metres...in a way to set the teeth of all the poets of the older schools on edge," and his "photographic" realism.
Frost didn't want to produce simple portarits, however. He said, "There are two types of realist--the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one; and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean...To me, the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form."
He rejected the revolutionary style and ideas of Eliot, Pound, and the other Modernists; instead, he chose "the old-fashioned way to be new." He used plain speech and traditional forms of lyric and narrative poetry, although he didn't hesitate to alter the meter when necessary. He is often thought of as a "nature poet," but he's not writing about nature, per se. He sees nature as a repository of symbol and analogy, using it to portray the bleakness and isolation of the spirit in a dark, chaotic, indifferent world. Some critics refuse to take his work seriously, saying that it is too "simple," meaning that it is too accessible. But Frost didn't want to perplex people. A poem, he said, "makes you remember what you didn't know you knew"; it allows "a momentary stay against confusion." Once, an interviewer asked him if poetry was an escape from life, and he replied, "No, it's a way of taking life by the throat."
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.
4. Richard Ellman. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
5. J. Hillis Miller. Poets of Reality. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1965.
6. Roy Harvey Pearce. The Act of the Mind: Essays on the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.