Walter Whitman, carpenter, journalist, temperance man, and opera buff, announced himself as the first modern American poet when he hurled "barbaric yawps" over the roofs of his unsuspecting countrymen. He intended to make the sounds of primal life in a poetic form that contained it but scantily. No word better describes what Whitman meant than appetite--he wanted more of everything that was life inside his poems. His nineteenth-century critics, easily shocked, derided his poetry as tasteless and without form. He sounded like what crude America was trying not to be. By the middle of the twentieth century, James Dickey would write that we were "dying of subtlety," by which he meant being civilized (85). Between them, T. S. Eliot is reputed to have argued, in 1932, that the true poet "must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts." If that seems to call for an intimately personal poetry, Eliot would be more readily remembered for saying that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (10). American poetry early on posed itself the choice of styles as personal as the country-still mostly frontier--or as manicured as the graveled paths of estate gardens, where they adored talk of tradition.
To speak of a primary context for and characteristic of American poetry, we might say that, following the immigration of various peoples into a wilderness abundant with potential, pursuing a great and hitherto unacted idea--the democratic invention of a country--there follows a long period in which people yearn for the wholeness of cultures they have left behind. These cultures appear, in retrospect, virtuous, cohesive, and religious in authority. The ordinary labor of culture, whether pursuing mere survival or glorious imperialisms, selects and legislates parts of that culture as the visions of the people and their character. Other parts atrophy, rend, and vanish, only to reappear at some point as if summoned by another appetite. The natural action of life is change. An inevitable dialectic results between those whose imaginations turn to the past and those drawn to the future.
This dialectic begins to be observable in American poetry prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet, providing we exclude oral poetries of native Indians and imported slaves, it is clear there is no American poetic identity before the Civil War. Ralph Waldo Emerson negotiates aloud for it in essays such as "The Poet," his evocation of it sometimes as palpable as the clouds of pigeons into which a man could shoot with no fear of missing. Emerson, of course, wrote poetry, but it was not especially American. Perhaps no American poet's work has been in print longer or is more recognized as American than Edgar Allan Poe's, but Poe was, as Emerson said in recognizing the heritage of English poetry, our tradition-loving "jingle man" (Meyers 265). Herman Melville, the great improviser of prose, wrote mostly old-fashioned verse, however it seems now to echo contemporary subjects. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and many who are now unknown wrote poems that were little different and certainly no better. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, American poets remained essentially English imitators.
How could it be otherwise? Americans were still displaced Englishmen, educated to look to the mother country for enlightenment and models of excellence. In all things cultural, London seemed the avant-garde. Architecture for colonial Americans up and down the Atlantic coast is graced by English gardens carved from a wild landscape. Similarly, colonial verse promotes American accomplishment as it memorializes Anglican parentage. That is the action of the pastoral and the elegy, dominant modes of nineteenth-century English poetry. …