WE have a new art, these days. Many persons, surely not to be accounted ignorant, think that it is the sweet old art of poetry with a morning freshness on its face to meet the new day and the new hour. That it has freshness of a kind is indisputable. Is it that of the child or of the ingénue? That of the student whose eyes are now lighted with the joy of discovery after long poring over the mysteries, or of the youth who finds the sun coming up in the east — often as that has happened — a revelation? That of the painted lady, or of the gentlewoman cherishing the gracious sincerities which keep life sweet?
The two phases of this new art, or, perhaps more correctly, this new movement in the old art of poetry, are imagism and vers libre. Technically they are not at all the same thing, but practically they spring from the same intellectual and æsthetic condition. They announce different doctrines, but it is easy to see that the imagist’s declaration that it is his first aim to use the accurate phrase and show the thing he sees as it is, and the renunciation by the writer of free verse of what he looks upon as the shackles of an established law and order in poetry,are both advocacies of the return to nature, that frequently recurring hope of artists and preachers alike, of philosophers and statesmen and moralists. What is the basis of faith in a creed of this sort? What constitutes a return to nature, and what indeed is nature? How far back must we go to find nature? Can we stop in the Middle Ages, or in decadent Rome, or in David’s Judæa, or with the men of the Stone Age, or with the monkeys that preceded the Stone Age, or with the nucleated cell that preceded the monkeys, or with the molten rocks that preceded the cell? Just why man in nineteen hundred, or in nineteen hundred and fifty, is not a part of the chain of nature as much as the cave-dweller, and why the elaborations of his speech and his social system are not as much a part of nature as the cave-dweller’s roar of rage or fear and his brandished club, I am not at all able to see.
That returning to nature is going back, however, and going back a long way, even to the naïveté of infancy, is very clearly the actual, if not the conscious, doctrine of the new movement in poetry. Poem after poem in this sort is full of the simple wonder of a child picking up pebbles on the beach and running to some other child with yellow hair, in happy wonder at finding the pebble and the hair of a like color. That big-eyed recognition of agreement between two sense-impressions is about as far toward correlation of their material as the imagists or the writers of free verse ever get.
Every new movement in art makes new assumptions about the art itself, has new understandings of its purpose, its reason for being, its fundamental character. The ostensible assumption of this movement is evidently not the assumption of its own naïveté. It is rather the assumption of a degree of advanced artistry which gives warrant for disregarding the sense for poetic form that man has developed through the ages. The movement toward imagism and free verse is theoretically a revolt against the prevailing literary form or forms; but the interesting thing is that the attempt to revert to more elementary forms has resulted at once in a reversion to the more elementary in substance. It is an astonishing thing. Among a highly sophisticated people, at the heart of a more eagerly progressive civilization than the world has ever known before, there develops in the highest, most complex, and most intellectual of the arts, the art of literature, a movement which encourages the inexperienced, the untutored, the unthinking to participate in that art. When, after centuries of hard self-tutelage, man has come to realize that he carries life forward with any certitude only by relating a multitude of experiences as fully as possible, then suddenly he stops, refuses to burden his mind with the business of so relating them any longer, is content merely to look at things, like a child, open-eyed and open-mouthed, to report the retinal image to the brain, to transfer it to innocent blank paper, and lastly to impose it on a credulous world for poetry.
Hypothetically the thing is impossible. In fact it is exactly what has happened. The books are in print in ample proof, and the magazines are adding evidence plentifully. There is a reason in all this somewhere, inexplicable as it may seem, but perhaps it is safest to do no more than hazard the guess. My guess is that the very variety in the phenomena that the human organism is called upon to survey is too much for the palpitant sensibilities of minor poets. They relax under the strain and find it easier and more in accordance with their physical, æsthetic, and mental limitations to take experiences one at a time. If we were all to do that, our human world would go back promptly to chaos — or to wondering babyhood clutching at the moon. Fortunately the world is not made up of minor poets trying to justify themselves by a philosophy and an art-theory adapted to the range of their vision and their capabilities.
Some exhibit of what passes for poetry in vers libre is almost necessary. In any school of art, of course, it is always possible to pick out contemporary examples which are not representative and which may therefore falsely seem to condemn it. The lines which follow were quoted in an editorial in a daily paper under the caption, ‘This is Poetry.’ They are not my choice, but that of the editorial writer who declared them ‘worthy of a place in any anthology of English literature.’ They are given here, therefore, as having so much approach to a critical approval.
I will go up into the lofty places
Apart from all man’s work, and there commune
With God and mine own soul. I will search out
By lonely thought some meaning or accord
Or radiant sanction that may justify
The ways of life. The void and troubled world
Will I renounce, to gain in solitude
What the world gave not — sense of life’s design.
As I have sufficient reasons of my own for believing, the writer of this, highly skilled in verse of a better sort, would probably not have written it in free verse, if he had thought it real poetry. With him it was doubtless a mere chip of the workshop, not quite to be thrown away, and yet not to be made beautiful as poetry is beautiful. Why it is not itself poetry is a matter for but a word. From beginning to end it is bald commonplace, an obvious platitudinous thing, without glamour and without glow. It is idea without feeling, the skeleton of thought unclothed. That any one should think it poetry is part of the explanation of the currency of vers libre. There are others than the writers of free verse who are persuaded of its charm. It has a constituency.
In a poem entitled ‘The Poet,’ John Gould Fletcher, prominent among the writers of the new school, has given us what may pass for a partial picture of what a poet of this sort is.
Smiling, looked out of the window
‘ The wind is shifting and stirring the tree-tops,
Light is oozing out of them into the white gaps of the sky,
The roofs faintly glimmer
With the subtle, cold silver of the stars.’
This is not all of the poem, but with relation to the matter at issue here it contains the rest. The poet stands at the window of life and looks out. He sees the wind in the tree-tops and the silver of the rain in the air, but that is all. He is simply a bit of impressionable wax on which the stylus of life may leave its mark. As he stands at the window, he is barely concerned about the wind or the rain, and he does not care at all whether anybody has an umbrella. His smile is as ‘childlike and bland’ as that of Harte’s ‘Heathen Chinee,’ and its guilelessness is much more genuine.
The questions which arise at once in reading this, are two. Is this the portrait of a real poet, or is it not? Why is this the mood of poetry, or if not, why not? In the first place, poetry is an intensely personal thing, but it is not personal in this way. The real poet does not look upon the sun and the rain as things existing largely for the purpose of providing him with sensations. That would be to centre the world in himself. The little poet does that just as any other little man does, but the real poet does not. Poetry is the treatment of that portion of life, or, perhaps, that portion of our human outlook upon life, which lies between the cold detachment of philosophy and the warm self-interest of religion. The poet wants to know what the world is. In that wish he is eternally curious with the philosopher, but, as it is a need as well as a wish, he is also eternally alive in his emotions with the religious man. His curiosity takes him away from himself into the world, and the human vitality of his interest in the world makes him quick to catch its glow and color. He is not willing simply to see things and live in the procession of his own retinal changes. He receives impressions, but he goes beyond that in reducing those impressions to some sort of order, in finding a character in them, in giving that character a touch of some quality drawn from his own nature. This is beautiful, he says, and this is rich and wonderful, and this again is terrible. He so expresses a judgment, but it is not a judgment of the intellect alone. It is a judgment of the personal feelings, but it is a judgment of those feelings as they look upon the thing judged in its large human relationships, not simply in its relations to the judging mind itself. Such judgment demands coördination of a variety of experiences. It will not rest in receptivity. It is a process of interpretation, and in the great poetry of the world such judgment goes forward as a part of the continually changing values and understanding of values that make up the web of life.
Response to impressions and representation of those impressions in their original isolation are the marks of the new poetry. Response to impressions, correlation of those impressions into a connected body of phenomena, and final interpretation of them as a whole are, have been, and always will be the marks of the enduring in all literature, whether poetry or prose. Failure to carry his work forward to interpretation is for any writer ultimate failure. Falling short of that, as the imagists do fall short of it, is dropping back from art into journalism.
It is a peculiarity of the new poetry that its failure in interpretation is so complete that one poem is hardly distinguishable from another; and, even when they are by different writers, one is not at all rememberable as distinct from another after twenty-four hours. They run together into a descriptive blur, the lights of the city softening and spreading, the cool green depths of the woods turning to indistinct shadow, the velvety richness of the mosses at the roots of the trees becoming simply color and then grayness and then nothing. Under the influence of the same experiences, one imagist’s view of the world would be the same as another’s. They are all of them no more than the medium for the transmission of those experiences, the air through which light passes to the eye, sometimes clear air, sometimes misty air, sometimes smoky air, but always air, whether a breath of miasm over a fen or a wind blowing across the hills, — always air.
A sympathetic critic, recently discussing the work of Mr. Fletcher, says that he ‘sees nature very much as the painter or the musician,’ and in the preceding sentence this critic has just declared that for the musician or the painter ‘the emotion of color or the emotion of sound’ is sufficient. That is a prime defect in the whole conception upon which imagism is based. Literature, if it is to fulfill its function, must go beyond music and painting in the matter of interpretation. It must exhibit the life of the mind as establishing a value in the things presented. It must reveal the creative intelligence as dominant over the sensuous organism. The weakness of imagism is that the sensuous organism becomes so quickly both the objective and the subjective factor in it — objective as the thing whose experiences are worth while, and subjective as that which shuts up its experiences within itself for the appraisal that shall be its pleasure.
The other day I finished reading a comparatively recent English novel, The Man of Iron, by Richard Dehan. It occurred to me as I put the book down that the writer had drawn into the net of words that make its nearly seven hundred pages, more of those things that touch the senses — sights, sounds, colors, odors —than would suffice several imagists for the production of a number of volumes of poetry each.
And what is true of this novel is true in a degree of the modern novel in general. The difference between the novelist and the imagist is in the use that each makes of his material. The imagist presents his sensuous world in detached bits, a flower here, a glimpse of crannied wall there, a flash of sunlight on the water somewhere else. He does not apply his mind to these bits at all. They simply exist, and he reports their existence, fully perhaps, but baldly, as might the dullest prosaist. The novelist, on the other hand, takes these various aspects of his material world and makes them parts of an organic whole, something that his mind shapes, the creation of an intelligence taking hold of the issues of life and refusing to be subjected by them or borne under.
One interesting if unfortunate consequence of the development of imagism and free verse has been the irruption into print of a considerable body of writers who would probably be technically helpless before the difficulties to be encountered in writing real and singing poetry. This is a field too large for survey here, but there is illustration at hand in the work of Amy Lowell, one of the foremost American representatives of the school, loudly acclaimed in many quarters and not to be looked upon as a barbarian breaking into the sacred city through the failing vigilance of the guards at the gates. Her technical mastery of her art is worth considering, since she may safely be assumed to be more competent than most of her kind. The following lines are taken from a recent volume of hers, Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds, and they are abundantly instructive with regard to the technical limitations which may be the negative promptings accounting in part for imagism and vers libre. These lines, it is to be said, arc attempts in a regular form of rhymed verse.
The context of this line does not matter. Neither do the rules of rhetoric matter, as rules. At any time and at any stage of literary development the line is a bad line, almost atrociously bad, bad with the badness of a sophomore versifier who has just ceased being a freshman. The words are awkward in their arrangement, they are bald, prosy, and trivial in themselves, and they have been changed from their natural order to bring them into artificial agreement with an exigency of the verse as verse. A writer who has achieved even a moderate control of the singing word knows better than to force consciousness of the raw mechanism of his art upon his reader in the fashion of such gaucherie as this.
Clotilde wrought at an exquisite
Wreath of flowers
For her Book of Hours.
These lines have a touch of romantic beauty, but the rhyming necessity of pronouncing ‘exquisite’ with the sound of long i and a heavy accent on the last syllable turns it all into ugliness at once. Torturing words into barbarous pronunciations to make them rhyme is torturing the reader too, and such a monstrous verbal perversion is enough to spoil the page on which it stands.
Would bring recollection, and no solace
Could balm his hurt till unconsciousness
Stifled him and his great distress.
This is wooden metre and worse than wooden rhyme. It makes me feel as if I were looking at something akin to my first page of Chaucer and trying to accept some scholar’s assurance that Chaucer is musical. The language of free verse — even if this were free verse — is not a new language with new quantities and new sounds. So far as I know, it is the English language of everyday use, and in that language ‘solace’ has no accent on the second syllable and ‘unconsciousness’ no accent on the last.
His perfect jacinths. One large opal —
This is pure freakishness. Addressed to children, such verbal distortions might be amusing rather than offensive. For the ears of adults, they are merely so many tortures. If they were infrequent, they might be felt to be excusable, but hardly a page is free from them. The bad taste of one is not out of the mouth before we must swallow another dose of literary rudeness that seems almost illiteracy. It is impossible to read far without realizing that technical insufficiency is not an accident of the verse, but a part of its very spirit. The consciousness of the writer here, as in the movement in general, is centred, not in the reader, not in the thing of which she writes, but in herself. If she were more mindful of the reader, she would not give him so many distresses, would not wish to carry him so joltingly over so rough a road, would not be so regardless of his natural instinct for beauty. If she had a clearer and more devoted interest in the thing itself, the subject of her verse, she would be more anxious to have it brought before her reader unobscured by such a host of metrical entanglements and verbal infelicities.
That egotistic self-consciousness is a primary motive in the new movement appears sufficiently in the demand on the part of Mr. Ezra Pound, the self-appointed high priest of the coterie, that poets be endowed so that they may escape the need of writing to please the public. The art impulse exhibits itself in two forms, as expression and as communication. The musician, sitting alone before his instrument and evoking its harmonies for his own ears, is finding his pleasure in expression, and with that his pleasure stops. It is a quite legitimate pleasure for him, but literature is essentially an art of communication. Words were invented for hearers, and writing for readers. They are quite futile spent in soliloquy or in anything that approaches soliloquy. The great writers have been deeply conscious of their fellows. They have never wished to shut themselves off in a little world where they could say their tinkling say, regardless of those who heard. They have always wanted to be a voice and an influence. Nothing but sterility can come from isolation in a world of art from which the great demands of life and the need of understanding it and interpreting it have been more or less excluded.
At the same time that imagism and vers libre as developed into an art cult are freakish and barren in themselves, it is no doubt true that they are indicative of some new romantic impulses which will be ultimately fruitful in the way of a fuller and more vital poetry. It is interesting to remember that the romantic movement of the eighteenth century had as one of its early influences the poems of Ossian. They were the vers libre of their day, although without that designation they were hailed as something not so much new as old, something antique, whether genuine or fraudulent, not at all as the latest and most progressive innovation. This is how the first paragraph of the ‘ CarricThura’ looks, taken out of the Ossian and printed after the fashion of our latest presumption.
Golden-haired son of the sky?
The west has spread its gates;
The bed of thy repose is there.
The waves come to behold thy beauty.
They lift their trembling heads.
They see thee lovely in thy sleep;
They shrink away with fear.
Rest in thy shadowy cave, O sun!
Let thy return be in joy.
It must be admitted that this would not quite pass for the free verse of our day, because it has a different subject-matter; but technically, in its form, it is its perfect match, an imitation of our newest manner nearly two centuries ago. It did not then become the vogue of English poetry, although it found an echo later in some of Byron’s work. Its bombast and turgidity forbade that, but it did give an impulse toward the breaking of the shackles of the classicism then decaying. Some like consequence we can expect from this movement of our day, although we are not now tied to outworn forms that we should throw away. It will not endure in itself. It is little more than a child’s flutter of excitement over the world that it is beginning to discover; but it is the sign in its way of a fresh kind of interest in the variety of our modern life. As they go on and develop into vital forces in the interpretation of our human actualities, imagism and vers libre will cease to have anything more than historical importance. Even so, they will have stimulated a productive activity and will in that degree be a part of the fuller poetry which triumphs over them. That fuller poetry will believe in art for life’s sake, and so it will not be petty with self-consciousness. The mark of that serpent is over the new poetry in all its ways, and there is no surer mark of ultimate inadequacy and decay.