Poets of the Day

DESPITE the fact that our age, so material, so scientific, is said to be inhospitable to poets, the craft still flourishes. The magazine in which this is printed receives in the course of a year about fifteen thousand envelopes of verse — not, be it said, all by poets. But this great industry in which as many men as women are engaged indicates an aspiration and a cult from which real poetry does spring.
HUMAN experience is the natural field of poetry —a fact, sometimes forgotten in the not infrequent contemporary efforts to make the machine or American civilization the subject of poetic treatment. They have their place in poetry when they enter by way of human experience and feeling, but the attempt to deal with them directly often leads to strange distortions. Two poems in which these forces find natural and able expression are Lost Buffalo, by Leonard Bacon (Harper, $2.00), and The Black Christ, by Countee Cullen (Harper, $2.00).
Leonard Bacon’s protagonists would have discouraged other writers at the start: an Indian — ‘no great shakes of a brave’ — and a white prostitute, whose adventures would form a mere burlesque if we did not know that such careers were exemplified in fact as our frontier
development first reduced the Indian from warrior to ward, and then, sometimes, by fantastic applications of white justice, presented him with immense wealth. Mr. Bacon has made Byron his model — and could not have chosen a better. The influence of Byron in contemporary verse is welcome. His coherence, humor, ruggedness, and power of narrative are an excellent exchange for the incoherence, affectation, and anæmia with which minor verse of the day is too frequently afflicted.
Mr. Bacon’s comic strain obviously hails from Byron; but his serious strain is more distinctly his own. As Frozen Deer and Lurana Price become ever more strangely involved in the toils of developing American society, Mr. Bacon treats them with enlarging seriousness, until at last he makes of them tragic emblems of all the human creatures who are caught helplessly in vast, ruthless struggles for domination of which they never see the drift. Mr. Bacon’s power and dignity rise with his theme, and the final impression is one which the reader can hardly fail to respect.
About any attempt of a talented Negro to write of lynching must hang a profound pathos. But Countee Cullen’s The Black Christ is more than sincere and touching; it is an able poetic achievement. He is quite as gifted as many of his white compeers who have won considerable recognition. The partly symbolic story that he tells is impressively and skillfully arranged; the verse moves with an ease of rhythm that we should perhaps expect of a Negro, and with a use of images and figures at all times appropriate and effective. It is curious to notice that in the field of allusion which he employs, and in all characteristics of style, he might be altogether a white poet; there is little or no trace of the Negro.
Only at one point does the poem seem deficient, and that is the long disquisition on personified Spring which Jim makes after the act that leads to the catastrophe. This disquisition is really apart from the realities of the situation; but it would have taken a very high order of talents indeed to treat the episode realistically.
Something of what Leonard Bacon did coherently, sensibly, and effectively in Lost Buffalo, Hart Crane endeavors to do in The Bridge (Liveright, $2.50), which, in so far as unity can be discovered in it, seems to be another attempt to render an impression of America, culminating, of course, in the mechanical age. Hart Crane has been highly praised, but The Bridge seems to me incoherent, not a little bombastic and absurd, and altogether ineffectual. The contrast could not be sharper between what is concrete, mastered, and clear, and what is yeasty, tortured, and obtuse.
Humbert Wolfe is highly esteemed by good judges, and his latest volume, The Uncelestial City (Knopf, $3.00), deals ambitiously with personal and social experience. One would be glad to report well of a poem that endeavors to contribute to the life of the spirit, but the conception Mr. Wolfe has chosen — a man retracing the course of his earthly life as a preparation for the Celestial City —is neither new nor capable in itself of inspiring high poetic achievement. Mr, Wolfe has told his story — to the woeful enfeeblement of the general narrative— in a large number of dispersed short poems, many of them extremely slight, not a few quite ordinary, and a considerable number only related to the central theme by contiguity. They appear in the book, and so presumably are meant to have a part in it; but they might as well appear in a different book for all the connection they reveal with the life of the characters.
On the stylistic side the book is marred by banalities and clichés, sometimes even by worse. To take a crowning example, consider the lines: —
Is Helen less Helen because no Homer tied a strand of her hair about the whole world’s throat?
Moreover, the continued use of weak and imperfect rhymes grows progressively ineffectual in a serious poem of considerable length.
On the tragic and reflective side, the curse is again banality. Excellent moral sentiments are frequently reduced to utter commonplace. Perhaps the best aspect of the book is the satiric. Scattered through it are many apt ironic pictures and amusing stanzas. When one of the characters says to his charwoman,—
leave murder to our betters; they ’re the sort
whose natural environment is dirt.
The lower orders simply are not fit
even to think, much less to talk, of it,’
we have a specimen of the poem at its best.
Two very slight volumes of recent appearance are New Found Land, by Archibald MacLeish (Houghton Mifflin, $5.00, and Fifty Poems, by Lord Dunsany (Putnam, $1.50). It is not enough, in calling a volume of verse slight, that it should be physically slender. Keats’s Odes would make a small book, but measured by the value and substance of what it contained, few books could be bulkier. Mr. MacLeish has bestowed exquisite workmanship on the few poems in the present volume,but in substance they are fugitive, and they are marked by pronounced mannerisms of style. After the first truly beautiful and imaginative poem, which may be read many times with undiminished pleasure, one is apt to feel a sense of progressive dilution through the rest of the volume.
Lord Dunsany’s Poems are obviously not the work by which his literary reputation will stand. They have
a damning gracefulness which betrays the cultivated amateur, and even at their best they are apt to exemplify the less favorable connotations that have gathered about the word ‘whimsical.’ Here and there Lord Dunsany slips into unintended humor, and the book is worth preserving for one or two of these lapses.
When the wind is in the Desert and the sand is in the soup is certainly funnier than it is meant to be, while ‘The Forsaken Windmill,’ a tragic meditation on the fact that England’s corn is now ground abroad, ends with a somewhat unexpected tribute to the foreigner’s dentistry as well as his grain mills: —
And so in storms and calms,
High on the open heath,
The windmill’s mighty arms
Decay like English teeth.
One feels that had D. B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee allowed contemporaries to enter the sanctuary of their volume, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (Coward-McCann, $2.50), they might have glanced with approving eye over Fifty Poems, and indeed over Messrs. MacLeish, Crane, and Wolfe, too. Time is not to tell of the treasures contained in The Stuffed Owl. With its ample contents, its clever introductory notes, and its eight cartoons by Max Beerbohm, it is capable of providing social as well as solitary entertainment. If one quotation may be permitted, let it come from ‘The Female Friend,’ by the Reverend Cornelius Whur, who flourished in the bright mid-morning of Victoria’s reign: —
In this imperfect, gloomy scene
Of complicated ill,
How rarely is a day serene,
The throbbing bosom still!
Will not a beauteous landscape bright,
Or music’s soothing sound,
Console the heart, afford delight,
And throw sweet peace around?
They may, but never comfort lend
Like an accomplish’d female friend!