On the Origins of American Modernist Poetry

Article excerpt


A still chic theory of literary history - concocted, with assists from Nietzsche and Freud, by Harold Bloom - asserts that young writers forge their original identities by entering, in their poems, into implicit adversarial dialogue with canonical poets long dead. Wallace Stevens, for example, is said to be in Oedipal struggle with Keats or Whitman. This is the sort of historical model that Bloom and others derive, perhaps ultimately, and unwittingly, from the survey courses they once took as undergraduate sophomores with titles like "Major Poets of England and America," where the emphasis is on the movement of literary history from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Milton to Pope, to Wordsworth and Keats, T S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens - all isolated giants speaking only to one another, who stand above the literary terrain and literary politics of their own time, and in particular above the literary-political terrain of the crisis period of their young manhood.

Against Bloom, I'll sketch a different historical understanding of the modernist writers who would become powerfully original poets - and who, in so doing, shaped a literary culture that reached deep into the twentieth century. I will argue that, when young - and as yet unaccomplished - these writers did not think of themselves (absurdly) as in life and death struggle with Shakespeare or Milton, but in struggle with a contemporary poetry scene which didn't speak to their impulses - an oppressive scene of poets who define by practice and critical pronouncement what it means to write "poetry," who control the vehicles of publication which exclude those who do not, and will not, conform to the conventions of the moment. The emergent young writers I have in mind at the turn of the twentieth century are Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Looking back at the early days of his development, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Eliot said that there was not a "single living poet, in either England or America, then at the height of his powers, whose work was capable of pointing the way to a young poet conscious of the desire for a new idiom."

Eliot's alienating scene of American poetry - he would look to France for help - was composed of names known now only to the generation of American literary historians which preceded Harold Bloom. It was a scene ruled by writers who understood the capital truth that writing and power were cozy bedfellows. Here are the forgotten names of a group known disparagingly by literary historians as the Genteel Circle: R. H. Stoddard, Bayard Taylor, G. H. Boker, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, E. C. Stedman, Richard Watson Gilder (Boston, Philadelphia, but mainly - as always - New York); at Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton, their academic champions: G. E. Woodberry, Barrett Wendell, Henry Van Dyke. What Willard Thorp said about these poetry bosses more than fifty years ago still cuts to the heart of this matter of literary politics: "As the years went by, connections which the group formed with magazines and publishing houses multiplied until their names were spoken and seen everywhere, and they formed a kind of literary interlocking directorate." In other words, they were the policemen of Parnassus who not only defined but also enforced their idea of the poetic from the 1880s through the first decade or so of the twentieth century by editing the period's dominant magazines of culture, at a time when there existed no avant-garde magazines for those who wrote against the aesthetic grain. In those pre-little-magazine years, Frost and Pound routinely tried mainstream venues - and they were routinely rejected.

America's looming literary directorate unleashed a culturesaturating wave of literature and criticism: appreciations, recollections, self-serving histories of English and American poetry, numerous volumes of their own verse, some novels, one major translation (Taylor's of Goethe), travel books of considerable popularity, social reflections and criticism (sometimes under the mask of literary reflections and criticism), decisive taste-making anthologies of American literature, coffee-table books of photos, illustrations, and light essays on great writers "at home," including one such volume which featured one of the directorate's very own, E. …