How Did Poetry Survive?: The Making of Modern American Verse

How Did Poetry Survive?: The Making of Modern American Verse

by John Timberman Newcomb

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This book traces the emergence of modern American poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century. With a particular focus on four "little magazines"--Poetry, The Masses, Others, and The Seven Arts--John Timberman Newcomb shows how each advanced ambitious agendas combining urban subjects, stylistic experimentation, and progressive social ideals. While


This book traces the emergence of modern American poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century. With a particular focus on four "little magazines"--Poetry, The Masses, Others, and The Seven Arts--John Timberman Newcomb shows how each advanced ambitious agendas combining urban subjects, stylistic experimentation, and progressive social ideals. While subsequent literary history has favored the poets whose work made them distinct--individuals singled out usually on the basis of a novel technique--Newcomb provides a denser, richer view of the history that hundreds of poets made.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An important study . . . of how poetry finds itself in the world and becomes an integral part of it. Highly recommended."—Choice

"A pathbreaking study. No other book treats the 'new verse' of the 1910s and early 1920s with such care and with such a sense of contextual detail. Our sense of what modern poetry can achieve—and how poetry helped shape a modernist sensibility—will be subtly but surely changed by what Newcomb offers here."—Edward Brunner, author of Cold War Poetry

"A bold and meticulously researched revision of the history of modern American poetry. Newcomb's brilliant close readings illuminate the social and political dimensions of modern poetry and poetics."—Suzanne W. Churchill, coeditor of Little Magazines & Modernism: New Approaches

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University of Illinois Press
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How Did Poetry Survive?

The Making of Modern American Verse


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03679-8

Chapter One

American Poetry on the Brink, 1905–12

The status of poetry in the United States hit bottom between 1900 and 1905. Commentaries during these years routinely assumed that the art was in precipitous decline, and many questioned its very survival. The genteel custodians of the nation's literary culture clung desperately to poetry as an anticommodity, something ostensibly above the frantic getting and spending of modern life. In this climate, any step toward organizing, professionalizing, or remunerating poets was likely to be disdained as degradation of a noble art. Thus in the early 1900s no one assumed sustained responsibility for the publicizing and reviewing of new books of verse, the identification of emerging poets and trends, or the preservation of periodical verses past their immediate moment of publication. No serial publications devoted themselves primarily to verse by living Americans. No ongoing national prizes remunerated poets. Following Edmund Clarence Stedman's monumental American Anthology of 1900, not a single anthology of serious literary verse by living Americans was published for twelve years. The writing of poetry was not taught in institutional contexts, as architecture and painting and music now were, because nearly everyone assumed that poets were not made but born. Aspiring poets of these years, knowing they could hope to see a volume of their work only by paying for it themselves, felt isolated and useless, actively discouraged from writing for anyone except their own closeted muses.

The first attempts to challenge this dismal state of affairs can be detected beginning around 1905. The people behind these early initiatives, however tentative or traditional they might look to us now, were revolutionaries of a sort, the first to contest the obsolete ideal of amateur authorship used by the genteel literary establishment to barricade poetry away from commercializing and professionalizing forces of turn-of-the-century American life. While the immediate impact of these initial steps was mild at best, the forms they took and the fates they met reveal much about what American poetry had desperately lacked and what it would need in order to revive. All addressed crippling absences of access—to print, to time and money, to readers and other poets, to a vital national tradition. Disputing the widespread view of modern poets as preposterous dilettantes and seeking to reimagine them as productive artists, they proposed new methods of preserving published poems, networks of personal interaction, and incentives of money and publicity.

Outreaching into the Ether: 1905–12

The crisis in the years before 1912 was greatly exacerbated by a perceived vacuum of national tradition. For many Americans, the existing genteel canon, built around the six greatly revered "Fireside poets," had become an inhibiting, oppressive force. The only viable alternative to this canon was Walt Whitman, who in the twenty years after his death in 1892 was transformed from a disreputable cult figure into an icon whose importance was acknowledged in nearly every arena of American literary culture. He dominated sizable chunks of scholarly and critical works of the 1900s, including Paul Elmer More's 1906 series of Shelburne Essays, Leon H. Vincent's American Literary Masters (1906), and John Macy's The Spirit of American Literature (1910). Among the many dozens of magazine pieces on the poet published between 1900 and 1912, several near-duplications of title and approach suggest that periodicals were actively competing for their share of the Whitman market. Even the two bellwethers of the genteel "quality magazines," The Atlantic and The Century, were run by devotees of Whitman after 1900. The Century, whose longtime editor Richard Watson Gilder had befriended the Good Gray Poet during his later years, began around 1905 to give Whitman the same reverential treatment that the Fireside poets had enjoyed in its pages three decades earlier. In November 1905 and again in September and October 1907, The Century offered extensive excerpts, more than forty closely printed pages in all, from Horace Traubel's hagiographic account of the poet's later years, "With Walt Whitman in Camden." This campaign survived Gilder's death in 1909, continuing with a portrait of the poet in March 1910 and then, in February 1911, "Some Portraits and Autographs of Walt Whitman," which, by emphasizing the "hitherto unpublished" nature of its images and manuscripts, portrayed Whitman's handwriting as treasured markings and his countenance as a source of nearly idolatrous power. The Atlantic under Bliss Perry's editorship (1899–1909) was an equally strong supporter, averaging at least one piece a year on Whitman. Perry would himself publish a monograph on the poet, Whitman: His Life and Work, in 1906.

Whitman meant multiple things to his growing ranks of admirers. Some, like the anthologist shaping an exclusive canon of nine dead eminences in The Chief American Poets (1905), sought to tame him within existing genteel paradigms of poetic value. But for many others, Whitman's work and persona represented a radical break with the late-genteel climate of inhibition and prohibition, pointing instead toward an American poetry open to the defining conditions of modern life. In 1907 in Putnam's (another quality magazine grown enthusiastic about Whitman), the critic Gerald Stanley Lee published "An Order for the Next Poet," a long two-part article setting out a "ground plan" for the twentieth-century poet that derived primarily from his admiration for Whitman. This article, which could have been an outtake from the quirky volume Lee had published the year before, The Voice of the Machines: An Introduction to the Twentieth Century, argued that in "this modern world," old ideas of poetry were dying, and "the feat of being a Tennyson without looking ridiculous is getting more complicated every year," although Lee predicted eventual rapprochement between poetry and machines in a future in which "the distinction between the fine arts and the useful arts ... should become extinct." While most poets had "been content to regild the old gilding," Whitman had striven toward "[t]he only way a man can be a poet nowadays," which was "to do exactly what the machines are doing and do it better—to grip the hidden properties of matter." Whitman epitomized the poet of modernity who "takes his cue from ... silent machines" and hidden forces such as electricity, not to remove spirit and mystery from modern lives but to make them accessible to us once again: "The most modern poetry, like the most modern machinery, outreaches into the ether—into the symbolic, the invisible, the irresistible."

Lee's argument that Whitman embodied an American poetry responsive to the motive forces of modern life was amplified by Horace Traubel, the most faithful and fervent of the poet's disciples. Publishing excerpts from his monumental day-by-day chronicle of Whitman's later life in The Century, American Magazine, Appleton's, The Forum, and elsewhere, Traubel sowed the poet's voice and influence throughout the nation's literary culture in the decade before 1912. His 1911 essay "Sermon to Poets" in The Writer turned toward contemporary American verse, diagnosing its crisis as a failure to adapt to an unstable modern world. He indicted "books of idiotic rhymes and lying adjectives" produced by "verbal acrobats" from whom "the people have turned away"—but only because poets had "first turned away from the people." Unlike many commentators of that moment, who assumed an unbridgeable opposition between poetry and modern life, Traubel saw the crisis as an opportunity to explore new forms and new subject matter. Instead of "all repeating each other" and "all repeating thousands who died before you lived," American poets needed to give voice to the conditions of modern life, to science, the machine, and "especially labor, the giant greatest force of all." Though Traubel's sermon verged on hectoring, it did establish an important link between Whitman's experimental approach to form and an emerging poetics of modernity by arguing that "the message of the age can't be conveyed through alien forms" and "must create its own forms" integrally related to poetry's new social functions: "It will get its warp and woof from what it is intended to do."

By the mid-1910s, Whitman's canonicity had become so thoroughly consensual that in the controversies between the genteel rear guard and avant-garde little magazines such as Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, both sides would claim his allegiance. Participants across the entire spectrum of the New Poetry movement would find him an enormously generative model of formal innovation, social nonconformism, and openness to urban-industrial modernity. He did indeed provide, as Lee predicted in 1906, a "ground plan" for the poetry of the American machine age.


Excerpted from How Did Poetry Survive? by JOHN TIMBERMAN NEWCOMB Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Timberman Newcomb is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity.

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